Interview with Lankum: “borders can be very useless and arbitrary”.
Lankum, the Dublin, Ireland four-member band, who in years past went under the name “Lynched”, have released their second album, “Between the Earth and Sky”, to wide acclaim both in Ireland and internationally. Their music crosses lines of origin and merges “traditional music” with contemporary sensibilities while bringing a hypnotic, sometimes-droning effect into the mix. The Guardian described the album as “brilliant, raw, detonating”. Lankum is Cormac Mac Diarmada, Radie Peat, Ian Lynch and Darragh Lynch. Their songwriting is often augmented by Cian Lawless. Visit the band’s site at www.lankumdublin.com Following is my late-January 2018 email interview with three members (Cormac, Ian, Darragh) of Lankum.
BN: Where do your songs come from?
Ian: Our songs come from anywhere and everywhere; from the pens of learned schoolmasters to the mouths of blind Travellers living on the fringes of society, from all over Ireland, England and Scotland, to even further afield. The one thing that they do have in common is that they all found their way into the living stream of traditional song from which they made their way down to us. We have come across them in a wide variety of different ways; hearing them performed by traditional singers around the country, in printed song and ballad sheet collections in archives, from field recordings made over the course of the 20th century etc. We spend a good deal of time attending singing events and sessions around the country and are constantly on the lookout for new songs both to add to our own repertoires and to arrange and perform as a band. As well as this traditional material we are constantly writing our own songs.
Daragh: Various places – archive recordings, traditional singing sessions, pubs, records and albums… our brains in one or two instances!
Cormac: Mainly from England Ireland Scotland and America. There’s been a cultural back and forth happening between those countries for a long time.
BN: How did you develop the fascinating drone effects in your music?
Ian: The heavy use of drone in our music is something that has developed over time. It’s probably a reflection of our interest in other genres of music; Brian Eno, ambient electronic music, Krautrock bands like Neu! And Can, heavier drone based music like SunnO))) etc. Our fascination with drone –based sounds has not been helped by the fact that our sound man John Murphy is an absolute drone-fiend. In our case we create these effects with different acoustic instruments – the drones on the Uilleann pipes, open tuned fiddles and violas, a harmonium, various concertinas, and my favourite, a big growling Russian accordion (or ‘Bayan’) that we bought half broken in a charity shop for €20. I don’t think a new working one would sound half as good for what we want. We also sometimes work with Ruth Clinton (of Landless fame), a church-organist, when the venue permits and this gives an extra ginormous layer to the music. On our latest album ‘Between the Earth and the Sky’ we boosted the drone effects in a few different ways, sometimes layering nine or 10 separate tracks of pure drone, some of which have been played in empty churches, recorded, and then mixed back into the recording. Personally I think it adds to the hypnotic, meditative and contemplative effects of the music. It is this transcendental element, which draws me towards music as diverse as the harsh repetitive blast beats of Norwegian Black Metal band Darkthrone, and the soothing sounds of Portland’s Gouper. I think it also makes a good antidote against the numbing and alienating effects of today’s society of instant gratification and endless distraction!
Daragh: We’re all very into various types of ambient and experimental music outside of our love of traditional folk, as is Spud (John Murphy) who mixed the album and does our live sound. So it’s a combination of us using the drones on the instruments we have – uilleann pipes, bayan, harmonium, concertina, fiddle & viola – and blending them together. For the album Spud duplicated a lot of the drones and put them back through analogue compressors and panned them, and in a couple of cases played them through a church to record some natural reverb and blended it back in. The idea is to make it somewhat expansive or immersive, a bit more of an experience when you listen to it, especially on headphones.
Cormac: I suppose the drones were a natural minimal development in conjunction with the harmony. It anchors the harmony to a certain extent and gives an added richness to the songs. There’s a lot of scope for sustained notes within our instrumentation so it was a case of experimenting a bit. There’s something extremely meditative about drones and sustained notes too, you start to notice discrepancies and texture within the note itself. It slows everything down a bit. Less is more and all that. Having heavy, drone-based arrangements made anything busier stand out all the more too. We had John Spud Murphy of Guerilla Sounds (who’s also our live engineer) working with us on this album who took the drones and multiplied them X10 into a far more epic, deeper sound. Getting into old-time music and experimenting with different open tunings was an eye-opener for me.
BN: Can you speak a bit about the social-political views which inform your original songs? I am thinking especially of Cold Old Fire, Déanta in Éireann and The Granite Gaze, all intriguing songs.
Ian: I suppose all three of these songs would be in keeping with the age old practice of utilizing song as a means of addressing the state of society at a given time, a practice that has great precedence in this country. The song ‘Déanta in Éireann’ was purposely written in the style of a particular type of 19th century ballad. There is a great wealth of song and poetry from this era and quite a bit would be of a radical nature, for example the songs of the poet Hugh McWilliams ‘the Cottagers Complaint’ and ‘the Irish Shore’. ‘Cold Old Fire’ and ‘the Granite Gaze’ on the other hand maybe have a bit more of a contemporary sound. All of them address concerns that we would have about Irish society as it currently stands. I am loathe to describe myself in terms of my political beliefs, but I think it is safe to say that we come from a point of view that seeks to stand up for the downtrodden and dispossessed in society. I think that the people of Ireland have been treated too badly for too long – by our own leaders as much as anybody else – and I think that we deserve better. Things are never going to get better if we don’t struggle for it however – as the saying goes if you always do what you always did you will always get what you always got! I think there are certain blinkers in this country that go back to our situation as a nation oppressed by another, in that we somehow do not always see our enemies for who they really are because of a misguided sense of nationalism. Our reliance on and acceptance of our leaders as well as the Catholic Church over the last 100 years have led us down a very dark road and we now find ourselves in a state of economic disarray, in the midst of a housing crisis, crippled by a post-colonial helplessness on one hand and extreme hang ups and Catholic guilt on the other.
Daragh: We’d all be pretty socially and politically conscious, as would a lot of the social circles we’d be involved in, so it’s kind of inevitable that we end up writing about the things that we’re passionate about. ‘Cold Old Fire’ was written with Cian Lawless at a time when the economic recession was hitting Ireland hard and a lot of our friends and family were leaving the country for work. It was very frustrating to realize that this was happening while the very people responsible were actually gaining financially from the situation. Scumbags. ‘Déanta in Éireann’ is Ian’s baby, but as far as I know it all came out in one go when he sat down to write a modern take on the traditional emigration ballad style of song. Apparently he didn’t plan on it becoming so vehemently political towards the end but that’s just how it came out. ‘The Granite Gaze’ was one of the first times we all properly collaborated on an original song, and it came shortly after the Tuam Babies scandal broke, where the remains of hundreds of infants and children were found in a septic tank under one of our many “Mother and Baby Homes”, where single mothers were sent for their “shame” to be separated from their children and forced to work. Pretty harrowing and disgusting stuff. So the song is basically a lament for how emotionally and spiritually mutilated we have been as a nation under the control of the Catholic Church.
BN: What can you say about the impact of song “migration” across seas and oceans, and how that has informed the present form and content of some of the songs you record and perform?
Ian: I find this to be a fascinating subject. Sometimes the songs have passed back and forth so many times that it becomes impossible to tell where it came from first or maybe if a set of songs from different geographical areas are merely reflections of a widespread theme. People sometimes ask us about the inclusion of English songs in our repertoire, but if you look at the history of English language singing in Ireland you will see that this is nothing new and that there have been songs travelling back and forwards for hundreds of years. It is clear that singers in the past did not care for where a song had originated – the main thing for them was that the song spoke to them in some way and that they liked it enough to learn and then sing themselves. The first Child ballads for example would have arrived in Ireland with the Scottish planters in the 17th century it and it didn’t take long for the songs to spread beyond this community in the North of Ireland and all the way down into the south and the west. You even had some of the songs being translated into the Irish language in Gaeltacht areas (Seosamh Ó hÉanaí / Joe Heaney’s ‘Tiarna Randall’ for example). For me the song ‘Rose Connolly’ or ‘Willow Garden’ is the most fascinating example as this is a song that had died out in the Irish tradition but survived in the US in the Appalachian region. The collector Edward Bunting had come across the song in 1811 in Coleraine, in the North of Ireland in the north of Ireland, but as he was mainly interested in collecting melodies at the time he neglected to note down any more than a few lines of the words. Apparently the collector Cecil Sharpe ignored its existence as it diminished his case that the majority of the songs in this region were British in origin. Anyway, we are Lucky that it survived in the oral tradition long enough for it to be recorded by many American artists.
Daragh: I think our take on folk music is probably quite internationalist in the sense that we are very aware of how much cross-pollination has happened between Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, America and further afield. You can find versions and variations of most songs in all of these places, which means that we’re not too precious about only singing “traditional Irish” songs or anything like that. For us it’s more of an indication of how borders can quite often be very useless and arbitrary things.
BN: Do you enjoy The Rubber Bandits videos and/or the novels of Kevin Barry such as City of Bohane? I am just asking about your impressions of other contemporary Irish artists and social commentators.
Ian: I love ‘City of Bohane’ by Kevin Barry and thought it had a great original style. I really love his use of language in the book. I have not read his latest book ‘Beatle Bone’ but I have heard great things (from his friend Blindboy Boatclub funnily enough). As for the Rubber Bandits I have been familiar with them since they first released their recordings of prank phone calls and always thought them to be clever and hilarious. In the last few years however I have become quite aware of the work of Blindboy. I think his is a very intelligent, sensitive and important voice in Irish society. I have been listening to his podcast now over the last few weeks and am constantly delighted and surprised by the subjects that he brings up and talks about i.e. mental health, gender, racism, privilege etc. I think it’s a sure sign of the times when a man with a plastic bag over his head is talking more sense than most of the politicians and leaders of the country. In a way I think that Kevin Barry and the Rubber Bandits are merely the tip of the iceberg for what’s going on in Ireland culturally speaking. Although we might fall short in cuisine, fashion etc., I think the Island has always punched well above its weight in the spheres of literature, poetry, music etc. The point has been made many times that the Brits forced us to speak English, before people like James Joyce, Samuel Becket and Flann O’Brien flung it back in their faces, and there are plenty of people around now who are upholding this fine tradition. There are great poets like Stephen James Smith, Lewis Kenny and Emmett Kirwin. Film makers like John Connors and Pat O’Connor. I am currently reading Colin Barrett’s ‘Young Skins’ (recommended to me by Ingrid Lyons, another up and coming contemporary writer), which is great. On the song writing front it’s hard to beat Lisa O’Neill and Damien Dempsey, but there are plenty of younger songwriters like Junior Brother (Ronan Kealy) and Killian Flanagan on their way up.
Daragh: I personally have a huge amount of respect for The Rubber Bandits, and have been listening to Blindboy’s podcasts quite a bit. I really do enjoy when artists of any style can take their craft to that level of collective consciousness raising and social and political awareness. The chap definitely deserves an award. I also read City of Bohane and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think Kevin Barry was actually interviewed in ‘rabble’, a Dublin based underground newspaper that I’ve sometimes been involved with. There really is a lot of amazing stuff going on around the country at the moment if you look a bit under the surface, whether it’s artists or musicians or whatever. There’s also been a massive rise in the popularity of poetry and spoken word over the last few years which is pretty inspiring. Lots of beautiful heated rants late at night in squatted warehouses and stuff. It’s a good time to be in Ireland… culturally at least!
Cormac: I’ve been meaning to read City of Bohane for a long time. It comes highly recommended by a few people I know, so I’m looking forward to tackling it. I’ve been a fan of the Rubberbandits since their prank phone call days and have been listening to Blindboy’s podcasts as they come out. They’re fiercely articulate, intelligent and have far more astute commentary of socio-political issues than many mainstream outlets. They do all this while being very, very funny.
BN: I understand that Lankum continues to perform in pubs and small clubs in Ireland, as well as on large festival stages. Can you talk about why you choose to do so, and why the small venue experience remains important to your work?
Ian: To be honest we still play anywhere that will have us. For me it’s very hard to recreate the feeling of playing in a small cosy room when you’re playing on a big stage it’s a completely different thing. The kind of music that we are concerned with belongs in the kitchen and in the corner of the pub – that’s where it stems from, that’s where its at its most effective and that’s where the magic happens, so it can be a bit of a challenge trying to do the same thing on a big stage. That said I do enjoy the challenge of trying to bring down a fancy venue rung or two. We played in the Paris Philharmonie (probably the fanciest venue we’ve ever played in) last year and I had a bet with my mother the night before that she wouldn’t shout and heckle us when we were on stage. She started to slag us off in the middle of the gig and the whole place descended into laughter and boisterousness. I really felt like we had achieved something big!
Daragh: A lot of this depends on where we’re booked and whether there’s a big enough audience for us, but we do also play at traditional sessions pretty frequently, as well as attending singing sessions around Dublin and that. As far as our own gigs go though, sometimes it’s a much more exciting and enjoyable time to play in a small sweaty standing venue where the audience are heckling you and all that. We’re much better able to handle that then a load of people sitting silently staring at you!
Cormac: I think it’s easier to get a bit of a buzz going in smaller venues; you can see the crowd and bounce off them a bit. Small venues feel more communal, which is the scene and tradition we grew up in I suppose. It’s also deadly to meet people and check out spaces that are only a couple of hours’ drive away.
BN: Do you have any plans to tour or visit the USA any time soon? (I believe 2014 was your last tour, as Lynched. New Mexico would be a grand place to visit, and there is the annual Globalquerque fest here each September, as well as many other venues such as The Outpost in Albuquerque. We would love to see you here!)
Ian: We actually played a gig in Albuquerque when we were there in 2014 and had a great time. We were in the states for six weeks altogether and really enjoyed it. It is something that we are looking at organizing for maybe 2019 so who knows, we could see you there!?!
Daragh: We’re looking into it. Sometimes we get the impression that we might be a bit too weird for the traditional Irish crowd and a bit too traditional Irish for the weird crowd. The American punks always seem to like us though. Any tips or advice would be very welcome!
Bill Nevins: Thanks a million, Lankum!