In supercharging the drone qualities of traditional Irish folk music by combining them with elements of hardcore, metal and doom, Lankum have had the breakout year of their career with the success of their incredible album False Lankum. There are, however, 19 more years to their story, which they told to Fergal Kinney on his trip to meet them in their hometown of Dublin
When it all came crashing down, Ian Lynch remembers feeling that he had nothing left to lose in the first place.
“When the financial crash happened,” says Ian, “it didn’t particularly affect me because I’d never had money in my life.” For the Lankum vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, the lean years were business as usual. “My main experience was great, you know,” he continues, “because nobody had any jobs. Everybody was out playing music all the time.” A rare pause. “I have to say, it was a positive time for me, you know?”
In the early 2010s, during the tight years of austerity which followed the financial crisis in Ireland, the four members of Lankum – brothers Ian and Darragh Lynch, Cormac Mac Diarmada and Radie Peat – sidestepped from the crowded pub back rooms of Dublin’s traditional folk scene into a recording career which has this year seen the four-piece break through with False Lankum, one of 2023’s most rightly acclaimed releases. More than this, alongside artists like Lisa O’Neill, John Francis Flynn, Ye Vagabonds, ØXN (which also includes Radie Peat) and Eoghan O Ceannabhain, Lankum are part of what is being tagged a new and dark wave of Irish experimental sounds. Just don’t call it a revival.
Where did we go wrong
A bright autumn afternoon, and in a quiet 19th century pub in the Phibsborough area of north Dublin, Cormagh, Darragh and Radie sit over tap waters and gargantuan crusted beef pies. If there’s a touch of world-weariness to be detected about the three musicians initially, it comes from being at the back end of the busiest year of their lives, cemented by their nomination for the Mercury Music Prize. That prize is an event recalled in tones more fraught and, now, relieved than the valedictory affair it might be in the calendars of some of their contemporaries. “It was obviously a very weird one,” says Radie Peat still with some disbelief, “I had to keep reminding myself that this is meant to be fun, not stressful. That you have to enjoy this.” More on which later.
Ian, meanwhile, speaks to me via Zoom from the US. Staying at the generosity of the legendary Pogues tin-whistle player Spider Stacey (a noted Lankum devotee who branded them “the best band in the world” to the New York Times this year), the elder Lynch is on sabbatical in New Orleans, where he rises at 6AM and works on music and his traditional song podcast Fire Draw Near before taking in music across the city in the evening.
Growing up in the Ireland of the 1980s and 90s, the four members of Lankum all came to music at remarkably young ages, though almost none had expected a life in traditional music. “I had no idea of what traditional music was until my later teenage years,” explains Ian, who focused his teenage attentions almost exclusively on metal and punk. “I started listening to the Dubliners and Planxty and things like that.” Leaving school aged 19, Ian spent a year living in London squats, playing approximations of Planxty melodies on the tin whistle and busking for cash on the streets. It was on returning to Ireland that he learnt his younger brother Darragh had begun learning the guitar.
“We started writing these really puerile half-joke, anti-authoritarian punk songs,” remembers Darragh, “and one that was in the style of David Bowie, about destroying the government in a cosmic way.” This collection became 2004’s Where Did We Go Wrong?, released under the name Lynched by the very independent Psalm O’The Vine imprint. Unexpectedly, it became the kind of low-key international success that guaranteed enough bookings to call a tour.
“We did a few gigs around Europe,” remembers Darragh, with no small amount of lingering bewilderment, “crusty punk festivals, and then a tour of Mexico and America for three months.” A pause. “I was 23, and it was fucking mad.” Ian, though, began going deeper into traditional music. “That meant,” explains Darragh, “we got on the sessions.”
Dublin’s infrastructure of traditional music sessions would become, Ian affirms, “one of the most inspiring and influential things for Lankum, there would be no Lankum if it was not for the sessions.”
“There’s a lot of different places, usually pubs, and various sessions on different days of the week,” explains Radie. “Pubs will pay you to keep a session going in the corner. You ended up knowing what night has sessions, and if you wanted you could play every night of the week.”
These informal gatherings can be anything from three to ten musicians. Some songs, yes, but mostly jigs and reels. “Not everyone will be there every week,” says Radie, who had sung ‘Go Dig My Grave’ which opens False Lankum for years at the sessions. “You get to meet people. I remember seeing Cormac there, and that’s how I met the Lynches.”
For Cormac, who had been playing sessions since he was 19, the improv schooling had a hallucinatory effect, melting time as well as social boundaries. “Your brain gets wrapped into this trance and this lovely swirl of things,” says Cormac, “time goes really slowly, or three hours will have gone like that. It’s nuance and style. There’s a push and a pull and it locks a lot.”
Though now a huge attraction for tourists in Dublin, the sessions’ genesis reflects the often complex cultural exchange between Ireland and post-war Irish immigrants in the UK. “They actually started out in London of all places, amongst Irish musicians,” explains Ian. “In Ireland, you would hire solo musicians, or these things would happen in people’s homes. The concept of a group of people playing tunes together in a pub only goes back to the ’50s.” Not only was singing songs frowned upon in Dublin pubs, it could get you chucked out. This changed when pubs like O’Donoghue’s – celebrated now as a breeding ground for artists like Joe Heaney and members of The Dubliners – became amongst the first places amenable to people playing music and singing songs. “Pubs since then realised there’s a lot of money to be made, as that’s what tourists wanted.” For Lankum, the Cobblestone in Smithfield became the crucial pub.
This informal network became more important to musicians and pubs alike following the financial crash in 2008. Ireland had spent the 1980s in a state of almost perpetual recession. In the 1990s and early 2000s, low-tax policies aimed at attracting financial institutions and global investment fuelled what was dubbed the Celtic Tiger boom. It didn’t last. When the crash came, unemployment soared.
“In 2008 and 2009 people were losing their jobs,” explains Cormac, “loads of our friends were going to Canada, Spain and Germany. There was not a huge amount of hope in Dublin. But also at the same time, we were all going out most nights a week and getting shitfaced and playing tunes.” At this point, it was still relatively possible to live in Dublin on unemployment benefits.
“During the Celtic Tiger years the dole would go up in every budget,” remembers Ian, who had been unemployed for a decade before the financial crisis arrived. “I remember thinking I can’t believe we get to live like this. It was very easy to live on. You got rent allowance. After the crash, that carried on for a good few years.” In 2023, the standard rate Jobseeker’s Allowance is €220 per week; in 2008, when the crash happened, it was €197.80 (weekly payments were reduced from 2010 onwards during the austerity years).
“That’s the circumstances that brought about us in the band,” explains Radie, “a lot of time, not enough money, on the dole. Trying to find something to do with your time and playing a lot of music. Grim, but not that grim. Grim, but having quite a good time.” Certainly, they remember it being preferable to having to get up and go to a job.
It was at the sessions that the four musicians, encountering one another regularly, began to realise they shared a sensibility. Mainly, all four had a keen interest in harmony singing. “At this stage,” says Ian, “what we were doing was largely based around traditional songs and doing arrangements of traditional songs.” Traditional songs like ‘The Tri-Coloured House’, ‘Salonika’ and ‘Daffodil Mulligan’ were beginning to form the basis of a planned album project.
Ian and Darragh asked Cormac and Radie to play on a couple of tracks. “I just remember it clicking so well that we were like, shall we just ask them to play on the whole album?” remembers Ian. “Before we knew it we were a four-piece band. It came together so well and so quickly.”
The resulting album, Lynched’s Cold Old Fire, was released in 2014. Its title track became a signature song for the band – still part of their set – and endures as a snapshot of a particular moment in Irish history, its visionary lyric imagining the Dublin city as a giant drone and the Button Factory (the main Dublin dole office) dishing out ashes to those who have fallen between the city’s cracks.
“I remember when Cian Lawless, who is our manager now, he was writing that song,” says Ian. “At one stage Lynched was me, Cian and Daragh. We had a lot of different formations. Cian came up with the nucleus of that song. We wrote another verse and tidied it up for the album. To me, when I hear that song, it instantly brings me back to that moment in time.” Local filmmaker Luke McManus’s stately requiem of a video underscores much of the song’s power.Though embryonic, the album is a distillation of all the mean ideas that would become Lankum. “All the elements that people are talking about on False Lankum were there in a very vestigial stage on Cold Old Fire, tracks like ‘The Tri-Coloured House’ particularly. We had those ambient drone-y sections, we didn’t understand how we could take over other parts of the frequency spectrum with our question.”
Being in a band such as Lankum with their commitment to unusual instrumentation (uilleann pipes, concertina, tin whistle, fiddle, banjo, bayan, harmonium) posed instant challenges for performance.
“It was such a nightmare trying to do sound,” says Ian. “We were playing venues where people were used to a straightforward band, people who were used to that trying to mix our sound and it was really, really bad. People wouldn’t even have seen the instruments before, looking at pipes like where does the sound come out of this thing?”
A chance meeting would change all of that. “The first time we met John ‘Spud’ Murphy was 2016,” says Cormac. “There were friends of ours who put together this online TV show called Parlour TV.”
The Parlour, which was a 12-part online TV series from 2016 covering independent musicians and artists from Ireland and beyond, broadcast from upstairs at Whelan’s sitting-room style live music venue in Dublin’s Portobello district. As well as documenting early performances by Lankum and the Limerick rap trio Rusangano Family, Parlour TV also recorded a session with Sleaford Mods, which Lankum today remember as hugely impressive. “It’s being disenfranchised,” says Radie of the similarity between that band and hers. (The next time the two acts would be on the same show, it would be their debut on Later… with Jools Holland).
“Spud remixed it and the sound he was able to get out of our instruments in particular,” says Ian, “just a really heavy bass and it blew us away. Oh shit, we need to work with this.”
“What’s weird for him is that he has absolutely no interest whatsoever in folk music or Irish music, at all,” says Radie. “He has a lot more time for it now, having hung out with us for so long, but his tastes have rubbed off on us a lot, like Swans or King Gizzard.”
Ian remembers the producer – who Cormac credits as a lone pioneer in applying methods from hardcore and heavy music to folk – sitting the band down early and plotting that they would need to put their collective heads together and figure out how to achieve a bigger, fuller sound from instruments that tended to crowd out the middle frequency of the spectrum. “Maybe without talking about it we’ve all been on a similar train where we just really want to get the biggest and most crushing sounds out of traditional instruments,” says Ian, “taking them as far as they can in that way.”
Making the biggest and most crushing sounds out of traditional instruments has sometimes led to the category error that the Lankum project is somehow a fusing of two disparate ideas: Irish traditional folk song and drone music with its origins in experimental music. “Rather than it being a fusion project,” affirms Radie, “it’s about drawing out elements that already exist.” This is something Radie refers to as “the droniness of folk.”
“Go back a good few hundred years and I think the drone has always been there,” says Ian. “You can see the replication of the drone and the pipes being used in fiddle playing, where people use double stops so it drones on one string whilst playing melody on the other. You can hear it on concertina playing, people replicate the sound of the drone. It’s a really big part of traditional music. It’s definitely there and I think it’s taking that element and expanding upon it, making it bigger and developing it in a way. It’s something that’s a genre of music – minimalist stuff, ambient music and drone – that’s really fascinating. I find it hard to listen to any genre of music that doesn’t have that in some way. It’s really everywhere; that book Monolithic Undertow by Harry Sword is really great but it doesn’t mention Irish music.”
“All the stuff that gets listed as influences,” says Radie, “they all sit in your subconscious and in your palette of what you like the sound of.” For Lankum, that could be Swans, Richard Dawson, Brian Eno, Scott Walker, Sarah Davachi, Sunn O))), Gavin Bryars 0r Portishead. “You just want it to sound good, and that’s your toolbox of what good means.”
Shortly after meeting John ‘Spud’ Murphy, the band definitively broke with their former Lynched name. Where the name had a pun on the brothers’ surname and a reference to a very specific bit of Irish slang, Radie remembers realising that those connotations could only be understood “in a really specific radical left-wing punk audience who knew exactly what side of the fence you’re on.” As the band began to tour internationally and appear on Later…, it became obvious something had to give. “It’s such a powerful word,” reflects Cormac today, “we’ve taken so much from the American tradition, song-wise, it wouldn’t have been right. And you just wouldn’t want the wrong people arguing your case.”
Across 2017’s Between The Earth and The Sky, their first album produced by Murphy, and 2019’s The Livelong Day, Lankum pioneered a sound that was praised for its darkly psychedelic rendering of traditional song. The latter album in particular was characterised by unrelenting – even outright punishing – drone oblivion, and remains the Lankum record which most closely locates the sonic horror from within the traditional. “We were really proud of it,” says Radie, “but it actually sounded, to me, too bleak.” For the band, that album – which won the RTÉ Choice Music Prize for Irish Album of the Year – contained no small amount of uncanny premonition. “We were maybe hinting at some bleak rumblings,” suggests Radie, “and everything became so actually bleak after that. I couldn’t listen to it.”
In March 2020, when the scale of the global pandemic became apparent, the band were stuck on a now suddenly cancelled US tour. Frantic phone calls and searches revealed that they were facing the lockdown spring marooned in the States. At the last minute, the funding from that RTÉ Prize victory finally landed in their bank accounts, providing just enough capital to return home. Ireland had some of the longest and most stringent Covid restrictions in Europe.
“It changed absolutely everything,” says Radie. “By the time we went to our next gig, three years later, we had recorded and almost released False Lankum. Loads of our life circumstances had changed. 20 seconds before we went on stage I was like, how did we ever do this?” The band formed a working bubble – cutting off contact with their families and friends – to rehearse and record what would become False Lankum. “We talked about making a more positive record,” says Cormac. “We spoke to Spud and said we are trying to go even darker than The Livelong Day but at the same time have a lot of contrast, go harder in both directions.”
Speaking to the band today, they are recovering from an intense year that saw False Lankum provide a breakthrough from relatively cult outsider folk success to releasing one of the landmark albums of 2023. This was minted by the album’s unexpected – to Lankum’s members, at least – nomination for the Mercury Music Prize.
“It was a glimpse into a world where we’re not part of that world,” says Darragh.
“And we’re kind of happy about it,” Radie agrees. “We felt very out of place there and maybe that’s a good thing,” she laughs. “If you feel like you’re in the right place at the Mercury then I don’t know. It’s very… showbiz.”
Still with some disbelief, Darragh recalls looking over a large paper display of table placings at the lavish ceremony. “It was who was at each table: Sony, UMG, Universal, Live Nation,” he grins. “Fucking hell, that’s a list of people who are all going to Hell.”
Given the prize’s historic track record of representing genres like folk or jazz at almost homoeopathic levels of enthusiasm compared to the prize’s default setting of big budget guitar indie, Lankum’s turn as the ‘token folk album’ put the group in an unusual position. “It’s maybe the most commercial success we’re ever going to have,” says Radie, “and that’s fine.” Instead, it was shows at the Barbican, London, or their performance at the conclusion of the Midlands experimental institution Supersonic which they hold closer. At the latter, the band remember a weekend of running around trying to catch the sets of an almost comical number of acts.
Lankum’s commercial breakthrough has taken place at a moment of resurgent interest from audiences in folk music and culture across the UK and Ireland – a disparate, and often unhelpfully conflated, revival evident across music, visual art and cinema as well as zines, social media, podcasts and in publishing.
“The folk revival is a phrase or world that rankles people,” says Ian, whose Fire Draw Near podcast now exists as a generous and accessible archive of Irish traditional song history. “It’s not a revival because it’s been going on the whole time, it’s been a continuous thing. In Ireland, there was no break in that; I can trace back the person who taught me to play the pipes and I can trace it back to his pipe teacher and his pipe teacher and go back to the 1800s. You know? With the Irish traditional instruments there was no break in the continuity. There was no part where the last singer died and twenty years later people got back into singing. It’s been a constant thing.” Nonetheless, Ian does concede that audience demand has shifted in the last decade. “At the same time,” he argues, “there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional song and music particularly by young people in urban settings. It’s not just a rural thing. Young people in their teens and twenties living in Dublin or Belfast or Cork. That’s been a very well documented thing and I don’t think you can deny that’s going on.”
“What is different now, I suppose,” says Radie, “is that people are making recorded folk and traditional albums. Maybe that’s where the word revival is appropriate because that hasn’t happened since the ’70s in Ireland and England. Maybe that’s why in the mainstream people start to notice it. But it’s not being revived, it has always been there, though there may be a renewed interest from people who don’t play it.” Radie also emphasises that the Irish identity of the band can sometimes crowd out the American or English or Appalachian origins of songs and influences. “Sometimes the origins do get overlooked but the Irishness seems to be the loudest thing. It’s a mash up of different folk traditions and influences. It’s actually like a big stew of stuff.”
Where Dublin during the austerity years was just about able to nurture musicians and artists, in the inflation 2020s the city’s soaring rental model can now barely sustain middle-class professionals like doctors or teachers. “I’m 42,” says Ian, “and I live in my parents’ attic in Dublin, and for me it’s like oh, life is comfortable. And then I think, hang on. I’m 42 and I live in my parents’ house.”
And despite success, the housing crisis is affecting how Lankum might be able to operate in and around Dublin for the foreseeable future. “Whoever you speak to all over the world, this is happening,” furthers Ian, “Airbnb, tech workers who are willing to pay the big prices, it’s happening everywhere.” No wonder, then, that so many – not just in Ireland but in big cities across the UK and other parts of Europe – are engaging with traditional music and folk song, finding new resonances and answers in old practices; and are staring into the bleak resonance of Lankum’s ancient drone.
Exclusive to Loud And Quiet subscribers, this month’s limited edition flexi disc is ‘Lullaby’ from the band’s debut album Cold Old Fire
“This piece was conceived while attempting to imagine the type of music somebody would be comforted by while going through a very difficult period, the likes of which we all experience at some point or another. Periods pockmarked with startling revelations relating to the nature of our situation, that is, as a hive of fast-multiplying creatures, or the cells of some bizarre slime-mould-like organism, spreading like molasses over the surface of a tiny planet in the depths of unfathomable nothingness. The alarming insights that are gifted upon us in these moments can be terrifying and harrowing, made all the more dizzying by the fact that they are all but ignored by those around us, as our entire being opens up to the vast ocean of abuse we impose on ourselves and each other every moment of our sleeping lives. From something as simple as police receiving commissions for arresting more poverty-stricken people on the streets, to systemic abuse of children in a supposedly spiritual organisation, to world governments declaring war because they are backed by oil companies and corporations that prosper by designing machines to kill innocent people more efficiently, it can be quite an overbearing and lonely experience. We dedicate this song to Robert O’Donnell, a man who felt these things all too clearly, yet still managed to turn them into the funniest joke you ever heard.”