Dublin is one of those cities that just hits you. From the minute you arrive, you know you are in the capital: the iconic sights, sounds and smells; the creamy pints; the many bridges crossing the Liffey; the thick accents. When you arrive in Dublin, you just know you couldn’t be anywhere else. Just as distinctive is some of the music emanating from its inhabitants and, at the moment, perhaps none more so than Lankum (formerly Lynched).
We took a welcome trip to Dublin to meet Ian Lynch and Radie Peat from the band to talk about their journey from Dublin’s punk scene to recording two folk albums, receiving three Radio 2 Folk Award nominations, a performance at the Royal Albert Hall and an appearance on Jools Holland.
Lynched began back in the early noughties when brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch formed an “experimental-psychedelic-folk-punk-duo” and started playing around the Dublin scene, writing and singing their own punky protest music. Over the years they developed an interest in traditional music and song through listening to the likes of Planxty and The Bothy Band, and recognised a similarity between the two genres. Ian took up the uilleann pipes, Daragh started playing his guitar in DADGAD tuning and learned to accompany tunes, and they began frequenting some of Dublin’s many sessions.
It was here that they came face to face with a community they felt at home in. “That was around 2007 and 2008,” Ian tells us. “It was around the time of the recession, so no-one had jobs to get up for; there seemed to be sessions happening all the time. It was kinda wild.”
Meanwhile concertina player Radie Peat was in the midst of a degree, after which she spent a while living in Italy, but when she came back to Dublin she started going to the sessions too as she wanted to get back into playing tunes (she had come from a more traditional background, playing whistle and concertina from a young age). She knew fiddler Cormac MacDiarmada from secondary school, and he was also part of that scene. The pair met Ian and Daragh and the rest, as they say, is history.
At that time there was a healthy mix of tunes and songs in the Dublin sessions (something not always common in Irish sessions which can often be very tune-driven) and harmony singing was very much part of the norm. The four began to play and sing together and, from there, things developed fairly quickly. Ian and Daragh had kept Lynched going while they were frequenting the sessions, and had planned to record an album. Ian was working at the Irish Traditional Music Archive in the city, and they arranged to record the album in the studio there with engineer, Danny Diamond. They decided to invite Cormac and Radie to play and sing on a few songs with them, and it worked out so well that they carried on from there as a four-piece. The resulting album, Cold Old Fire, was released in 2014. “We haven’t looked back,” says Ian.
I remember the album arriving on my desk in Donegal. It was so different from most of the other things sent that it stopped me in my tracks – literally. From the opening, droney, chord progression of Henry My Son, through familiar songs like Daffodil Mulligan, Salonica, What Put The Blood and The Tri-Coloured House, to some less familiar songs including some of their own, this was a band that couldn’t fail to attract your attention. It wasn’t polished or perfect, in fact in parts it was quite rough, but it was absolutely unique. And I loved it.
“That whole session scene was a lot to do with where the sound of the band came from,” Ian explains. Also, most of the things we listen to are old field recordings, and they are often kinda rough round the edges. We wouldn’t listen to many modern bands; we are definitely more influenced by older recordings, and an older style of both singing and playing.”
Radie continues. “Our approach was different because we weren’t looking to make a tunes album - the focus was the songs. Because we were coming from a scene where you might sing harmonies, and in general the songs were unaccompanied, it made the arrangements more interesting. It is more pared back – we were never intending to show off our skills on our instruments – we wanted to show off the songs.”
In certain parts of the traditional singing scene, accompaniment of any sort is frowned upon, and being part of this scene made the band more aware of what they were doing in terms of arrangements – what to add and what to leave out. “It’s a bit of a cliché but it is very much less is more. Sometimes you don’t need anything at all, sometimes just a bit of a drone to bring things out a little bit,” Ian says. Their distinct style and treatment of the songs obviously resonated, and before long they had quite a following, not just in Dublin but everywhere – everyone loved Lynched.
“It was weird,” says Ian. “We applied for an Arts Council grant to make the first album, and we said we wanted to press 500 CDs. At that time we thought that most of them would end up stuck under our beds. Then we decided to put in our own money as well and get 1000 done.” The gamble paid off. At this stage the band has already repressed Cold Old Fire six times, and it is still selling well.
The band launched the album in Dublin, but in a fairly low-key way. They posted a few CDs out and the positive feedback began to come in. “Mike Harding was the first person in England to say he liked it,” says Radie. “Then it started getting passed around and we began thinking of doing some gigs over there. But it felt like a long time after we launched the CD until that happened.”
Having a high profile person such as Mike Harding singing their praises clearly did them no harm. Their next big break was to come from another respected musician – this time from outside the folk scene - Jools Holland.
Ian tells us how that came about. “At that stage we were thinking, ‘where do we go from here’. We were in the States and there is a weird buzz over there. We didn’t go down that well in the Irish American venues – they wanted a certain kind of sound and they wanted people to look a certain way. It was quite conservative and we didn’t get a great reaction, so we thought that England might be more our scene – people are into singing there, and love harmony singing. So we decided to try to get a tour sorted. We got onto Alan Bearman, who promoted us over there, and before the tour we sent promo CDs to everyone, and somehow the CD ended up with the producer from the Jools Holland show – Mark Cooper. We got an email one day to say that the Jools Holland show was on in about two weeks, and that they hoped we could make it.”
Ian had never seen the show before and resolved not to watch it beforehand so he wouldn’t get nervous. Radie was the most excited of the band. For her, being on Jools Holland was “a weird pipe-dream”. “It was a very nerve-wracking thing,” she says. “I haven’t done a sky-dive but I imagine it would feel the same way. It was the first television thing we ever did – talk about a baptism of fire.”
The gig with Jools turned a lot of things around for the band. They did their tour of England and the gigs all started selling out. (Radie: “It would have been a pretty different tour if we hadn’t got that gig!”) Then, the year after, they played at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards at the Royal Albert Hall. (Ian: “That was a bit insane.”)
The song they chose to sing at that gig was Sergeant William Bailey, a satirical anti-war song with the butt of the joke being the British recruiting sergeant trying to recruit in Dublin’s northside - an interesting choice to sing in an institution such as the Royal Albert Hall, in the heart of England’s capital. Did they do it for badness? “We were wondering what song to do and there was only one song we could do really! I was happy we got to do it,” says Ian. “Yes, it was a real moment of pride,” agrees Radie.
Lankum has a history of not compromising when it comes to their choice of material. On Culture Night in Dublin in 2014, they were asked to do a set for RTE, but the producer told them exactly what songs they were to play. The band members wanted to choose for themselves, and to perhaps include songs that were more representative of who they are and what they do. They were told that there was no way they would be singing Cold Old Fire, one of their own hard-hitting songs about the harsh realities of life in recession-hit Dublin. So the band declined to take part.
“We are four very stubborn people,” says Radie, “and I think it helps that we are all a bit older. Maybe if we were offered those gigs when we were 20 we would be more inclined to say yes.” Ian continues: “I think it is important not to misrepresent yourself. If you start that way, it is a slippery slope. Once you start cow-towing to the demands of these kinds of people, before you know it you will be dancing around in a leprechaun suit.”
After rebranding themselves as Lankum due to the unavoidable implications the name Lynched had in regards to acts of racist violence, the band released their second album, Between The Earth And Sky, at the end of October, this time on Rough Trade Records. I wondered if the nature of being on a label, one that is not necessarily known for its folk music, would have an effect on the autonomy the band has over its content and sound. Would the label pressure the band into doing things in a certain way?
“Rough Trade is probably one of the only labels around that wouldn’t do that,” Ian told us, “and they were very clear about that from the get-go. They are not going to tell us what to do, or make us change. They might make a suggestion now and again, but any decision, artistic or creative-wise, is down to us – and they’ve definitely lived up to that so far. One other label was courting us for a bit, and the first thing they came up with was, ‘would you be interested in writing a song for the Irish team for the World Cup.’ We obviously weren’t - bye-bye!”
The songs on the new album are Lankum’s usual mix of traditional and original, and as on their first album, draw heavily from the rich Traveller tradition and the wealth of songs from the Dublin area. Protest song features strongly, including Peat Bog Soldiers, made famous by Pete Seeger, The Dubliners and, of course, Swan Arcade, and Déanta In Éireann, a song written by Ian and put to a traditional air. It is what he calls a “modern day emigration song” and it doesn’t pull any punches. “It’s pretty harsh alright,” he says. “I was a bit dubious about how it would go down in Ireland and further afield, but people can relate to it. I just wanted to have a more honest look at emigration and how we, as Irish people, see ourselves. I’ve been singing it at singing sessions around the country and I’m kinda surprised by the amount of older people who have come up and said that it was a great song. One woman came up to me in the Góilín one night and said: ‘I know there is some harsh language in the song, but you have to use harsh language to describe harsh situations sometimes’.”
The Traveller influence continues from the last album. Radie explains why the band members are so drawn to songs from that particular tradition. “It is interesting how that thread of the tradition has evolved and been preserved; it is quite separate from the settled singing tradition. I find a lot of the versions of songs that come from the Traveller tradition are just better - melodically and lyrically.”
Ian continues. “The songs have been better preserved for longer, for obvious reasons – they are outside the mainstream society, the lack of access to national media, radio, TV, electricity, maybe illiteracy, all this led to Travellers having this really rich oral culture. Singing and storytelling are part of that. There have been some amazing recordings and collections that we now have access to – people like Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie were in London in the early 70s and they have hours and hours of recordings of people from the travelling community. The release of the CD, From Puck To Appleby, on Musical Traditions – that’s only two CDs worth of the material. There are about 120 hours or something from that collection in the archive. I used to listen to it while I was working away in the ITMA. The richness of the material that is there is amazing.”
The first Traveller singing Ian heard was on a CD called Songs Of The Irish Travellers, based on the recordings of Tom Munnelly in the 70s. Then he had heard Planxty talking about the Traveller, John Reilly, and listened back to his recordings. So the interest has been there right from the start, not just from Ian but from the whole band. When listening to Radie sing, it seems she has picked up some of the style as well.
“I always sang loud,” she says. “When I started singing in public, you had to be able to ‘shush the pub’. I figured out that if you sang too quietly, everyone talked over you and it was embarrassing. But if you sang really loud they shut up. So I always did that. If you can ‘shush the pub’ then you know you are on form. All the singers I like can do that, and I’m picky enough about female singers. The ones that get to me are the ones that are a bit ‘no-frills’. Mary Delaney is fantastic. And Rosie Stewart, Nelly Weldon, Lal Waterson and Roisin Chambers. They all have a really strong, no-frills style of singing; much more direct.”
Obviously the use of harmony is also very much part of the Lankum sound. They have been influenced by English song groups like The Watersons and Swan Arcade, but also by Irish bands like The Dubliners, with some other, different influences thrown into the mix. “I came to harmony singing through listening to The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl singing Fairytale Of New York,” says Ian. “It was the different notes they sing on the line ‘Galway Bay’. That’s harmony, I thought – cool. Then I started listening out for it. Weezer are a skate-punk band, and they have really great harmonies. They were as much an influence on me as anything else.”
Another big influence for the band is the wealth of singers and songwriters from around the Dublin area, and the legacy left behind by previous generations of singers. “Frank Harte would be a big influence, but he was a bit before our time,” Ian explains. “When I started hearing about Frank it was a year or two after he died, so we kinda missed the boat in that regard. But there are people like Barry Gleeson and Luke Cheevers - big repositories for Dublin songs with really great repertoires. There’s Nelly Weldon, the widow of Liam Weldon who was a great singer and songwriter. And Fergus Russell, Jerry O’Reilly – all the Góilín singers. We got Sergeant William Bailey from Luke Cheevers – he wrote the second verse, the original only had three. Also we would look up old ballad sheet collections and find the odd song here and there. The ITMA is great for that; it’s a great resource.” Ian also has access to the Folklore Collection at UCD where he is currently working.
“We are always picking up songs and singing them out ourselves at sessions,” says Radie. “Obviously not every one of them makes it into the band repertoire, but the ones that we are all into, and that we think would work, make it - then we work out the arrangements.” How they manage things obviously works well. When you see Lankum on stage, they make it look very easy. They always look like they are having a ball, but Radie says they are constantly practising and working at it. “You want to have it all under control so that you can have a ball,” she says.
“It’s kind of a 9-5 thing,” Ian says. “Between practising and getting new songs together and then the everyday stuff like answering emails, and all that stuff you need to do, it takes a lot of time. But it is going good. We are delighted. We have come a lot further than we ever thought we would, so whatever happens is all a bonus.”
The band is certainly very busy. They have just completed another tour in the UK and have lots of Irish gigs lined up in November and December. They would like to try going back to the States, but realise that it is a matter of figuring out where would suit them best – possibly not any of the big Irish festivals. “The way I see that scene over there is that they are fantasising about a vision of Ireland that probably never existed and definitely doesn’t now,” says Ian. “We’d only shatter their dreams and I don’t want to be responsible for that.”
“Our previous tour of America was a very different kind of tour,” Radie agrees. “We don’t really brush with that scene in general, but the places which respected our music the most were the punk venues we played.” Much has been said about the similarities between folk protest songs and punk songs – in both cases singers often sing out directly, often angrily, about what they feel, rather than being all ‘nice’ about it. Ian also finds that the sense of community within each genre is similar. “That’s kinda what drew me to sessions around Dublin in the first place – the fact that people were playing music for the love of playing music. They weren’t sitting up on the big stage; there were no big rock stars, no showing off (for the most part anyway). This was just what people organised themselves, because they wanted to play music together. That’s why I started going to gigs and organising gigs in the punk scene as well, when I was a teenager. For me, that was the bridge between the two. And obviously the whole protest music and song thing. I started listening to The Dubliners and Christy Moore and that was what they did – exactly the same as what punk bands were doing. I did see a lot of similarities between the two.”
And in the same way as listening to the likes of The Dubliners and Christy Moore drew Ian into finding out more about traditional music, so Lankum is now introducing the music to a new audience. We saw them at a gig at Cork Folk Festival, where the crowd was not necessarily the usual festival going crowd (in fact, I doubt if many of them even realised it was a folk festival gig). Because of their refreshing attitude, and the lack of need to define themselves as one thing or another, Lankum can transcend boundaries that many others can’t.
“For me, gigs like that Cork gig are the best kind,” he says. “You are leading people into the tradition. To them, what we are doing might be a bit more accessible. But hopefully they will go away and read the notes on the CD and find out about Luke Cheevers and Mary Delaney, and maybe they will go and find a recording of them online and start to get into it for themselves. If it wasn’t for bands like Planxty, I might not have got into this kind of thing. It’s important to have those kinds of bands.”
Lankum is most definitely one of those bands! Together, they bring a well-informed, fresh and very welcome voice to Irish folk music, and to the world of traditional song. Don’t miss them.
by Fiona Heywood
Published in Issue 121 of The Living Tradition, Dec 2017
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