Chasing the Irish Folk Tradition with Lankum Photo: Ellius Grace

Chasing the Irish Folk Tradition with Lankum

October 24, 2020

Written by:

Bulat Khalilov

Edited by:

Nikita Rasskazov

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Lankum is an Irish collective which records and performs traditional music with a grim and experimental twist. Some put Lankum nearby Stephen O'malley’s projects and My Bloody Valentine, though you won’t find canonic shoegaze or drone in their music. The mark of punk and experimental background is not in the instrumentals or effects, but rather in the structure and visceral feeling. The band gained its status among Irish folk scene as well as in indie-outlets, whether it is Tiny Desk Concerts or festivals like Roadburn or Supersonic.

Finding Lankum had a big impact on myself. When we started Ored Recordings, we were metal heads, fans of noise, electronics and we resented traditional music because everything we knew about it sounded like cheap pop or ‘world music’. Since then it changed a lot and with projects like JRPJEJ we try to experiment, but maintain the core of the tradition without breaking it. And when I listen to Lankum, I hear something similar there, but on a higher level.

Ian Lynch and Cormac Dermody of Lankum told me about inherent bonds between folklore and DIY-underground and the ever-changing nature of traditional music. Ian also made a mixtape of Irish folk music, to be listened here.
You have to be able to put yourself inside the song. If you want to sing ritualistic songs and give them meaning there is no reason why you could not learn to do rituals again and be a part of it.
Photo: Ellius Grace
Photo: Ellius Grace
Let’s talk about how you became musicians in the first place and came to traditional music.

Cormac: I’ve been playing fiddle since I was six. My parents got me into it and encouraged — my mom found a teacher who came home and later after regular school I went to another one myself — so I had music classes until I was fifteen.

Ian: When I was growing up I was more into metal and punk and noisier stuff. And around seventeen I became interested in, not exactly traditional music, but known bands like The Pogues and Planxty — you know, bands which played traditional music with a more popular and visible side of things. And in my twenties, I became more and more interested in more traditional stuff like singing and learning uilleann pipes— indigenous bagpipes of Ireland. So eventually I would have met Cormac and Radie in Dublin because we would play music all around town.

We got along really well because I used to be in a punk band with Cormac’s big brother back in 1996 so I knew members of his family already. So, we became friends and started playing together so Lankum started.

So, for you there were no borders between punk and traditional music. Was it something that happened originally when you shifted from one field to another?

Ian: When I was growing up in Ireland, lots of people in the punk scene that I knew were interested in traditional songs. Because a lot of those songs have a very anti-imperialist message. And because of that it was similar to what people sing about in punk. So, there would have been a lot of parallels and similarities in the message from two different scenes and genres. It was quite a normal thing, you know, it might be a party, people are playing punk records and then they put on The Dubliners or Andy Irvine.

In my area, in North Caucasus, people usually consider this music as a heritage and as something to be proud of, but not for the music itself, but because it can be marketed as national music. Does this situation resemble the one in your country?

Ian: I think there are a number of different levels that traditional music exists on. On one level, there is the kind of cheap side when it’s made only for tourists and maybe there is not so much thought and originality gone into it. And then, on another level, there are people who are really good musicians and they just play the music in pubs and at home for themselves. And they are really brilliant musicians and singers. And then there are also lots of groups who make their own music as well. So, there are some people who maybe see it as something belonging to the past or to the museum. But I think there are even more people who actually keep it alive by playing it all the time.

And now in Ireland there are a lot of bands who are really making their own kind of sound — people who we will be friends with, who are coming up with new ways of playing and exploring the tradition.

What do you see as new about your way?

Ian: It seems that every generation finds its own way to work with traditional music, so okay, there was The Dubliners’ approach in the 60’s and in the 70’s there were Planxty and Sweeney's Men and The Bothy Band. In the 80’s and 90’s there were a lot of people doing it with synthesizers in a kind of way I’m not interested in. And now people come at the tradition with a very fresh perspective and not afraid to bring other sounds into the music.

With Lankum we try to give it a darker and heavier sound because of the other music we are into, like metal, drone, doom, trying to bring their elements. But there are other artists around who also don’t feel like they have to play music in a certain way just because somebody did it in the 1960’s or 70’s. In the past people could think that since you play traditional music in a group, you have to sound like Planxty The Bothy Band. But that sound is only the result of the innovation that people made in the 70’s. So, I think people need to make their own innovations for the time they are living in.

Cormac: I think for us it is about the desire to explore a bit, finding things which we love and coming into sessions with them and singing a lot. We are immersed in it so we bring various subtle elements, like four-part harmony together, for example.
Photo: Brian Teeling
Photo: Brian Teeling
How to make traditional music sound new but keep it traditional, meaning where are the borders between traditional and ‘experimental’?

Cormac: It is constantly changing, for example, the bouzoukis were decried when they first came in. But it’s not like that when you are not dancing to it, that it’s not traditional.

Ian: I think in the 1800's in Ireland, when accordion and concertina first came, people thought these instruments are terrible and don’t belong to the tradition, because the tradition was fiddles and pipes. But then, after fifty years, they became a part of the tradition; in the 1950’s people thought ‘oh, we can’t have banjos’ and then in the 70’s it was ‘oh, we can’t have bouzoukis. Every time when new things come into the tradition they give fresh energy.

For us, the love for the traditional music comes first. With other elements we try to be more careful and approach it in a subtler way, without forcing different sounds altogether. Maybe there are people out there thinking of starting a band to be more traditional with jazz which doesn’t work for me. You have to have respect and patience for the material.

So, what about those like Dropkick Murphys which just take punk and traditional Irish music and put it together? Are there any music rules for you?

Ian: I think we just follow our hearts. All the times when we are working on a new song we just play it over and over together, until it sounds correct to us. We figure out what to do just by listening to each other, working on a song for a few months, slightly changing it.

Cormac: And the change like changing a harmony line can be very incremental, but these small things can make such a difference. And with shifting from performing to recordings it changes a lot as well.

Ian: I don’t think we have any rules as a band. We never sat down and came up with some kind of doctrine. The more time we spend playing together, the easier it becomes.

Becoming popular and having awards and tours came as a surprise for you?

Ian: It was a really big surprise. When we started, we played in pubs and parties. We never really played in big venues, the biggest one was in the backroom of a pub which could fit up a couple hundred people. And then we are getting offers to play gigs, being on radio. I think it’s really cool that in Ireland, a post-colonial country, people are ready to take some pride in the traditional music and culture which they were ashamed of for a long time. And it is changing with new generations.

Do you see some changes in the music industry that made traditional music to become a part of contemporary music?

Ian: To be honest, I don’t know very much about music business because I grew up involved very much in the DIY and punk scene, with people organizing their own gigs in pubs and squats. And because of this environment music business staff is still very alien to me.

Cormac: Traditional music in such strands, in the pubs and the houses and that’s where it grew and still exists primarily. I mean, there are lots of Irish festivals all over the world but I don’t know how it is reflected on the music.
Photo: Brian Teeling
Photo: Brian Teeling
Talking of post-colonialism, why are most of your songs in English and not in Irish?

Ian: Not all of us are fluent Irish speakers. Cormac isn’t a really good Irish speaker and neither Radie. I’m the only one having a little bit of Irish. I suppose in Dublin where we lived, the song tradition is more English-oriented. Some of us do sing Irish language songs, but we never really did it with a band.

In Russian Caucasus, we have our own languages which are not related to Russia and people think that if we lose our language we lose all the culture and music. But you, as I see, have another situation when there are many Irish music traditions that are in English language. So, what makes this music Irish?

Ian: In Dublin people have been speaking English for 600 years. And in this part of the country we would have our own way of speaking English called Hiberno-English, when two languages interfused and became a new dialect. For ages songs were going back and forth between Ireland, England and Scotland, making them their own style and genres which never existed anywhere else. So, the song might be in English, but the rhyming scheme and the form of the song is similar to older Irish poetry, where they have words rhyming in the middle of the sentences and use assonances, becoming its own peculiar thing. It’s not entirely Gaelic Irish and it’s not entirely English. That’s closer to my culture because I grew up in Dublin, in the east of Ireland, so to me if I started to sing songs from the West of Ireland, which are more in Irish language, it wouldn’t be really true to my culture.

In Caucasus, in order to find traditional music, you need to be an ethnographer, to know the right people, to meet them. How is it different in Ireland, is it easier to discover it there because you can hear it everywhere or is it a misconception?

Daragh: No, I think it is really everywhere; before the coronavirus you would walk around Dublin and every night of the week you would hear music. Of course, sometimes it is harder to find really good stuff, but traditional music is in a really healthy position here.

In our culture there are a lot of songs which are related to rituals — healing, going to war, working in the field. And they passed away with traditional ways of life. Now, when we sing these healing songs, people say we are not true, because we are not healing anybody. How do you think traditional music can exist without its traditional context?

Ian: Sometimes I read about old songs that were alive in Ireland and were connected to a special kind of whistle that people did when they were plowing the field with horses. And different songs that were connected to things like that but they all died and no one really knows them anymore. You just sometimes read descriptions from the 1700's or 1800’s.

Personally, I think songs need to have some connection to your life to really sing and feel them. You have to be able to put yourself inside the song. If you want to sing ritualistic songs and give them meaning there is no reason why you could not learn to do rituals again and be a part of it. That sounds like a different type of tradition than the one we have in Ireland. Because I think those kinds of songs that we had in the past have died. So, in your case, maybe if the rituals are gone, you can sing the songs to keep them alive.

Cormac, do you have something to say?

Cormac: A lot of songs that tend to survive are those which are still going to have a resonance — just lots of simple love songs or songs that are passed down like those my mom would have sung. In my head I still have funny engraved images of her singing that.
Photo: Rich Gilligan
Photo: Rich Gilligan
Presenting those songs which lost context at small gigs can be the new context and become a new tradition, because it was always constantly changing and refreshing.

Ian: Yeah, I think it has to change all the time if it is going to stay alive. Otherwise, if someone is too strict about how it has to remain like in the old way, people lose interest, because they have to be able to make their own thing or else it is just boring for me.

With you and bands like Tarawangsawelas and Stick in the Wheel, coming from various currents of underground, what is it about DIY culture that is really related to tradition?

Ian: I think there is a lot in common; like I mentioned, lots of people from the punk scene are into libertarian and anti-imperialist ideas that were already in traditional songs. DIY stuff, metal, hardcore are all about people creating music for the love of it. Putting on gigs that don’t cost a lot of money, being non-profit, creating scenes and communities — I see very similar things in traditional music. People are playing in the corner of a pub because they love it and are not concerned about making lots of money or performing on the big stage or worry about security guards.

What other bands can you describe as sounding close to Lankum?

Ian & Cormac: We don’t know actually, but there are artists which influenced us, though not sound alike. For example, what Kranky records put out, Tim Hecker, Grouper, Sarah Davachi, Lawrence English, Sunn O))), Ginnungagap, Monarch. Drone music where they use acoustic instruments like Pauline Oliveros with accordion.

Do you feel that you have some mission about your culture and traditional music, that you do something important to your people or you just enjoy it?

Ian: We are really influenced and excited about traditional music so we want to show to other people that here in Ireland there is this rich indigenous tradition with lots of different aspects to it. And people would realize how good it is.

In the past, Irish music was misrepresented in a way that it was all really happy, upbeat and frivolous. But there is another aspect to it — very dark and much grittier, which usually people don’t realize — so we really enjoy finding morbid dolls buried and bringing them back to show to people.

Every folk tradition — whether folk narrative tales, mythology or music — represents all aspects of life, with all the dark stuff as well as the light. And it is not really true if you represent Irish music as something light and happy forming false perception. So, we have a bit of a personal mission to try to redress the balance.

Cormac:Because there is a lot of good stuff in that misery!

*additional edits: Dragoș Rusu
*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Bulat Khalilov

Co-founder of Ored Recordings, a label dedicated to the field recordings of traditional music across Caucasian region.

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