The Guardian hailed them as the best folk act out of Ireland in years. Here’s the story behind research-loving Dublin trad-folk miscreants Lankum.
IN MID OCTOBER 2015, a little-known four piece appeared on the BBC’s iconic alternative music show Later With Jools Holland. Performing harmonised folk tracks like ‘Father Had A Knife’, the Dublin act could already trace their roots back more than 14 years. They’d finally got their break.
That band are now known as Lankum (more on that later), and the rise of the melodic four-piece was already well underway back home in Ireland. The big shot across the water came as a surprise, however. A demo CD that Lankum had sent to “anywhere we could think of” stood out from a pile BBC head of music Mark Cooper was hunting through, and next thing – at two weeks notice – Ian Lynch and his band were performing to a prime time BBC2 audience.
The roots of Lankum, though, reach back through well over a decade of live performance. Lynch has been around Dublin trad circles since the 90s, and much of what Lankum do now is drawn from his involvement in the kind of music-loving exchanges that still happen between trad-sphere friends and around pub sessions.
Things also went much further for Lynch. “There are lots of recordings passed around, and we often record at sessions, too. I’ve found if you ask and explain why you’re recording, people are great about it. I’ve never had anyone say no. It’s normal for friends to exchange tapes on the trad scene, too. I’ve also worked in the archives at Merrion Square, The Piper’s Club, and UCD over the years, and spent a lot of that time working while listening my way through the archives.
“We draw from a mix of ideas,” he continues, “and that contains a lot of crunchy pub and field recordings, which are very far from polished. Some are rough as hell. Then there’s techno, krautrock, punk and even black metal in there. It’s not crossover music, the presence is quite subtle, but the different elements do make up our musical palette.”
Lankum also produce original tracks (and the traditional ones are often heavily adapted), but much of their work is drawn from Irish, Scottish, English and even German folk traditions, and routed in that quiet exchange of shaky cassette tape recording.
“The songs we write definitely sound like they’re out of the 18th or 19th Century,” Lynch explains. “We listen to so much of this stuff that it happens very naturally, we’re very immersed in that tradition, so it’s not really that conscious.”
Of course, trad stylings are not widely seen as a natural fit for the larger stage, but then again harmonies are far from common in Irish trad, and being signed to iconic indie label Rough Trade is normally the sign of an intensely fashionable indie act.
“Rough Trade have been branching out a bit recently, and the main criteria is whether the boss, Jeff Travis, likes something,” Lynch explains.
“It’s been a bit of a change; our first album was recorded on equipment normally used to archive trad music, so not exactly cutting edge. Obviously the [new record] ‘Between the Earth and the Sky’ wasn’t.
“But its been really good with Rough Trade. We’ve asked for a few things, like not having the barcode on the vinyl art work. They had to make the record a double vinyl release as we like to write 12-minute songs, and that kind of gets in the way of having a normal single vinyl release. But they’ve been really great about that kind of thing, they don’t try and influence what we do.”
The fast rise has changed the band’s allure, too. “We’ve found as we’ve moved on to a stage, different people have been interested in us,” Lynch tells us. “It’s not really a conscious change, it kind of happened naturally, but we get a different kind of audience.”
Much of the rise of Lankum, strangely, came under a different name, ‘Lynched’. It goes against virtually every rule of music PR to change the name of an established act, and generally happens only due to copyright issues.
Lankum made the change after that Jools Holland appearance, but as their audience expanded, the Dubliners felt the renaming – to a name referencing the traveller folk ballad ‘False Lankum’ – was a necessary decision.
“We had a few promoters who were not happy, as it inevitably meant people didn’t recognise who we were on posters and stuff” Lynch tells us, “but we felt we had to take responsibility.
As we started doing bigger gigs abroad, the first thing people see is the name. Irish people wouldn’t really think of the association, but in parts of the world like America, ‘Lynched’ (a reference to Ian’s surname) is a bit too close to the persecution of black people.
“It was a difficult decision, as we were established under the old name, and we did see a dip in audiences for a little while afterwards, but we really needed to clearly distance ourselves from that association.”
That particular concern faded fast, and Lankum have gone on to win over fans with every tour, every release and every new melody. But for all their success on bigger stages, the band still regularly drop back into the folk scene, both for the love, and the inspiration.
Lynch tells us that the band spent over an hour playing a trad session near The Spirit Store before their own gig in Dundalk recently, and in typical style, it sounds like he enjoyed the experience more than the gig itself.
“I’ve always felt that’s something that’s missing for guitar bands, that once they’re big, they never seem to go back to that small room, that intimate setting,” he concludes. “This will always be part of our lives.”
Lankum play Vicar Street, Dublin on December 9, with support from Lisa O’Neill. Third album ‘Between the Earth and the Sky’ is out now.