Lankum‘s new record, False Lankum, is one of the best of 2023 so far. Their third album proper, it finds the experimental Dublin group dragging folk into the future, with tape loops, pedals and droning noise elevating their sea-bound songs. Here, in this extended version of the Q&A that appears in the current issue of Uncut, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Ian Lynch discusses the record, the ‘traditional’, Martello towers and the songs’ “maritime connection”.
But first, you can hear their new song, “Newcastle“.
UNCUT: It’s been a while since The Livelong Day. How did your writing and recording process change in this time?
IAN LYNCH: The Livelong Day came out in October 2019 so we only did a few short tours before lockdown. We used the time quite well, delved into some personal projects and then after a year we were ready to start on an album. We had the use of a property n Dublin, a 220-year-old tower that I was minding for the owner. It was the perfect place to work on an album. We’d spend time there, then go to the studio for a week and lay down some stuff, then take a break, return to the tower for a week or two, before doing another week in the studio. We kind of did that over the course of six or seven months in 2021 as we gradually assembled the album. That was very different to how we worked before. Normally, we would have got some material, worked it up to a certain level and then gone into the studio for three weeks and lost our minds down the rabbit hole. This was done in short stints, and meant we came back to the studio we’d almost forgotten what we had already done. It took a lot longer but it’s a lot easier on the brain.
How does a typical Lankum song develop?
We had very rough ideas of arrangements but 75% happened in studio where we experimented with sounds we’d never tried before. That was a very exciting part of the process. I learnt how to use tape loops and we did that a lot. We’d take the hair off the bow of the fiddle and use that on the wires of the piano, we used a detuned hammer dulcimer, tried different tunings on banjo and guitar, used pedals, delay and reverb and put different found sounds in the mix.
How do you get the balance between tradition and experimentation?
Getting it right is very subjective, all you can rely on is your own musical instincts and what sounds good to your ears. What we are doing isn’t traditional or folk. There are elements of that, but there are many different elements and finding the balance is a very subconscious thing. We have immersed ourselves fully in the tradition. We have spent a good many years learning and performing traditional songs and playing them in traditional settings. But we have a lot more going on in our brains than just traditional music and if we didn’t let that come into our music, we wouldn’t be true to ourselves.
How do you choose the material you cover?
We are always coming across new traditional songs or we might have one we’ve been singing for years. There are lots we bring to the table that don’t work out. Maybe not everybody is into them, or we have tried to arrange them and it just doesn’t click for whatever reason. There are certain songs we have tried to record every time we do an album and haven’t managed to get right. We are quite strict on ourselves. It has to get through our filter. Certain songs don’t translate and it can be heart-breaking because it might be a song you are really invested in but you have to put it by the wayside. We are constantly refining and distilling. We will record a certain number of tracks and then have to work out how they fit into the narrative of the album.
What’s the narrative on this one?
The sea is a very strong theme. That was completely accidental but when we put the songs together we saw that every song seemed to have a maritime connection. It fit into how we were working because the tower we were staying in was right beside the sea and I was sea-swimming every day. Darragh and I grew up by the sea and our uncle is a sailor. All that came together. On a musical level, there’s a real ebb and flow to the songs, that lightness and darkness. We wanted to create a dialogue between the two elements and that was an expansion on the last album, with the dark elements being a lot darker and more apocalyptic and the lighter elements are sweeter and more beautiful.
Not all of the traditional are that old – “Clear Away In The Morning” and “On A Monday Morning” are both quite recent I noticed?
The Gordon Bok and the Cyril Tawney songs. We came across them in a traditional context, you’d hear somebody sing it and think ‘oh that’s deadly’. I think Darragh brought those two and I’m not sure he realised how recently they were composed. That speaks to the kind of ever-changing nature of the tradition, that it’s not something that is stagnant and pure. There is always more material being added to it over time.
People have this idea of the tradition as something that’s unchanging with a certain number of songs but these songs didn’t come out of thin air, they were all written by somebody at some stage and had to find their place in the stream of the tradition. It’s important to recognise that is still happening today. Maybe the function of the songs has changed, society is different, but the human need to tell stories and sing as a social way of engaging has remained unchanged over the years. That speaks to my own interest as a folklorist, that these process are eternal and endemic to human nature.