Lankum: “We constantly practise not paying attention to what the music business is saying”
The Dublin drone-folk collective open up about their extraordinary new album False Lankum
The Dublin drone-folk collective open up about their extraordinary new album False Lankum
The song ‘Go Dig My Grave’ has gone by many names over the centuries: ‘London City’, ‘Brisk Young Sailor’, ‘The Maid’s Complaint’, ‘The Butcher Boy’ and ‘Died For Love’, just to name a few. Originally thought to be popular with London street singers in the 17th century, the song is actually a jumble of floating verses, sets of standard refrains and stanzas, a lot of which show up in other traditional songs that have somehow coalesced over the years around a longstanding tragic narrative: girl meets boy, boy gets girl pregnant, boy leaves girl for another, girl takes her life in shame. The way the protagonist meets her fate can change drastically depending on which rendition you’re listening to, but the ending is almost always the same. A snippet of the suicide note left by the body, it goes something like this:
Oh make my grave large, wide and deep
Put a marble stone at my head and feet
And in the middle, a turtle dove
So the world may know I died of love
“It’s certainly a dramatic song that doesn’t pull any punches” says Lankum’s Radie Peat as we discuss the band’s reworking of the classic ballad. The Irish group’s version of the song takes its cues from a variation recorded by Appalachian folk singers Jean Richie and Doc Watson back in 1963, which like many American versions plays down the narrative steps that lead up to the suicide and instead zooms in on the emotional anguish that form the climax.
“She delivers the lyrics in such a heart-rending yet quite disarming way, which gives the song an almost horror-like vibe,” Peat continues when I ask her what was it about Richie’s version that inspired the band to include an interpretation of it on their new album False Lankum, out now via Rough Trade. “Our approach is to take folk song and dismantle it; then reassemble it in a way that clarifies the emotional resonance at the heart of the song. While this version had this really wonderful contrast between the fairly light music and a really horrific story, I guess we wanted our version to leave you in no doubt about the tragedy that sits at the heart of the song.”
Lankum’s version of ‘Go Dig My Grave’ is wholly different to the gaudy tone taken by most other artists who tackle the lament. Beginning with Peat’s haunting solo vocals, their arrangement descends into a brutally raw melody, with stabs of mandolin, pipe and fiddle, the draw in and fade out like lanterns lighting the way down a dark, foreboding staircase. It’s a remarkably sombre and gut-punching piece of music, especially for an opening single, but it’s also a song that typifies the sonic adventurism that Lankum have made their own; warping and mutating simple melodies into heavy, drone-like slabs of sound that push on the very boundaries of what could stylistically be called folk music. It’s also a single that perfectly illustrates the journey that Lankum have been on.
Formed in Dublin in the early 2000s around brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch alongside Peat and Cormac MacDiarmada, the band began life as a pure live act, performing in the pubs and clubs of their hometown and offering up a mix of traditional folk staples alongside their own modern, distinctly punk-inspired compositions. As time has gone on, though, the group’s magpie-like tendencies have only increased, with elements of krautrock, psychedelia and drone music all finding their way into their sound.
“The idea of blending traditional and modern influences has always been an undercurrent to our music, since right at the very beginning,” explains Ian Lynch, recalling the band’s early days on Dublin’s live music scene. “I guess it just comes from the music we grew up with, we always had our versions of Christy Moore and Pogues songs – it was just something we felt that we had to do.”
“I think it also comes from a desire to upend what was already there as well,” adds in his brother Daragh after a thoughtful pause. “At school, the only experiences with Irish culture and music was always really naff; it all felt a bit too connected to this conservative, almost right-wing culture. It was only once we started to experience this kind of traditional music in different environments did we start to get a new perspective on it, and I think one of the ambitions for us as a band is to present all this music in a very different kind of way.”
Lankum have come a long way from the more traditional sounds and textures that typified their early records. While albums two and three further perfected the four-piece harmonies and luscious melodies that remain at the core of the band’s output, the release of The Livelong Day in 2019 saw them breaking out of the folk niche completely by reincorporating some of the more psychedelic and experimental influences that the group played with in their early days, bringing the kind of success and accolades that most band’s only dream of having.
Earning almost wall-to-wall critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, The Livelong Day won the 2019’s RTE Choice Music Prize (the Irish equivalent of the Album of the Year Grammy) and saw Lankum netting a coveted top 10 spot on NPR’s Best Albums of the Year. Yet when I ask the band about all this success initially their response is to glance knowingly at each other and chuckle quietly like a group of anglers recalling the one that got away.
“Luckily, the pandemic happened almost immediately after we put the record out, so it all feels like a million years ago,” says Peat with a sigh of resignation. “So it’s never really cast any kind of shadow at all really.”
“If anything, the break actually did us a lot of good,” adds MacDiarmada, nodding enthusiastically. “In the past, we didn’t usually get a significant chunk of time to really think about our next step. Usually, we’re having to do everything in bursts because we’re touring or leaping from A to B and there’s never the time to give any conscious thought to what you could or might be doing. This time though, there’s been this break and a real chance to let the record breathe a bit.”
Ian smiles in agreement. “It also helps that we’re really good at not giving a shit about stuff like good reviews and bad reviews. We constantly practise not paying attention to what the music business is saying.”
Whatever the cause, False Lankum feels like another evolution altogether. Although the album’s tracklist continues in the now-established vein of mixing new material with reworkings of traditional songs, and the band roughly stick to the textures and instrumentation set down on The Livelong Day, Lankum find a new sense of grand narrative on the new LP, imbuing the material with an almost cinematic sense of scale. However, when I try to poke into the idea that False Lankum is the group’s attempt at making a concept record, it quickly becomes clear that any through-line is actually more of a bug than a feature.
“To be honest, we don’t really think about what point we want to make or what tapestry we’re weaving with our music; that’s always been something for other people to think about,” says Peat when I ask if the band started with a thought-out plan for this record. “In fact, it’s very healthy that we don’t have a conscious process, I don’t think you should be setting out rules for yourself in any creative endeavour; there has to be this idea of free play so that you’re not judging yourself from the start. Hopefully down the road it all makes sense, but that can never be the intention you start off with. Otherwise you’re limiting what you can do.”
MacDiarmada agrees. “The main difference with False Lankum is that there are these themes, but it only became clear that there was an ebb and flow in this record well after we’d finished recording and had started arranging. We only realised all these threads well after the fact.”
What’s not in doubt is that False Lankum is an incredibly well-crafted record from a band who are only just exploring the peak of their powers. Compared to its predecessor, the 12 songs give off an impression of a band becoming braver in their mission to dig out the emotional centre of their music. Leaning more into texture and tone than ever before, this is a record that often feels like a pilgrimage, travelling through bleak horror-movie darkness and climbing into beautiful, Eno-esque moments of pure light.
“It’s true that we never really plan anything out beforehand but it did become quite apparent quite early on that certain themes were emerging,” explains Cormac. “There wasn’t really any plan to bring together a collection of songs that would all hold together around some deeper meaning or anything like that, but sonically we’ve tried to create an album that takes you on a bit of a journey.”
Lankum aren’t spilling what that journey is or where it goes to, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the band have their sights set on some faraway places. The evidence is all there, the movement between light and dark. The choice to include songs like ‘Go Dig My Grave’ that crawl up and inhabit powerful emotions of grief, loss and mourning for the dead. It just seems logical to assume that, even if it’s only on some kind of subconscious level, the band are nudging people in a spiritual direction. However, as soon as I put this to the them, the group are their typical mysterious selves, politely refusing to be drawn in.
“I guess that’s for other people to work out,” shrugs Ian, as an enigmatic grin spreads across his face. “Let’s just say that it’s a real mishmash of all of our internal manias.”