Talking backstage with Irish folk quartet Lankum before an industry showcase in Lower Manhattan, there's a problem: The PA is blaring "Washer," the slowly creeping centerpiece track off post-rock progenitors Slint's classic 1991 album Spiderland, at a volume that threatens to overtake the entire conversation. Requests to management for it to be turned down aren't immediately heeded — so true to the group's DIY spirit, they take matters into their own hands, climbing on chairs to manually disconnect the room's speakers, cutting the sound altogether.
Practicality aside, there'd probably be no more appropriate way to have a conversation about Lankum's new album The Livelong Day, out Oct. 25 on Rough Trade, than with foreboding post-rock swelling unignorably in the background. It's the group's third album of folk revivalism, a combination of new anthems, traditional ballads rearranged and reinterpreted, and stomping instrumental tunes. But while none of the group's albums have been mistakable for lightweight, for this eight-track, 56-minute LP, things are heavier and more apocalyptic-sounding than ever.
"We definitely wanted to make it as expansive and immersive and just massive as possible," explains Daragh Lynch (guitar/vocals) citing the group's producer John "Spud" Murphy as instrumental in accomplishing their sonic goals. "We were always interested in trying to get the heaviest sound possible out of the fiddle and the harmonium and the pipes," adds his brother Ian Lynch (pipes/vocals). "But figuring out how to do that was something we just couldn’t do. But this time around…"
This time around, the group certainly meets its ambitions. The Livelong Day is one of the year's slowest-unfolding albums — requiring a patience that can be in somewhat short supply among listeners in the Spotify era — but one that builds to peaks of gorgeous enthrallment well worth the investment. With droning uillleann pipes and harmonium, moaning fiddle and accordion, and absolutely gorgeous four-way harmonies — like on the original ballad "The Young People," whose haunting, Bob Gallagher-directed video Billboard is premiering here — the group builds acoustic soundscapes as hypnotic and overpowering as anything in post-rock, doom metal or even ambient electronic music, all genres they claim the influence of.
"I think Lankum are a are combination of talents and can appeal to anyone that loves music," explains Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis to Billboard over email, having signed the group in 2017. "The thing about the [folk] tradition is that it only stays alive when it is constantly being reinvented. Lankum are doing that by adding elements to the music not usually found there."
It might be something confusing for American listeners who still associate Irish folk with the rollicking entertainment of the '90s Riverdance phenomenon, a moment of unlikely international cultural crossover that made the traditional music quintessentially uncool, both at home and abroad. "That had a massive impact on how people viewed Irishness," says Radie Peat (harmonium/accordion/vocals). "Do not underestimate the impact of Riverdance."
Peat says that while the Lynch brothers came to play traditional folk a little later in life — starting out in bands playing punk and metal — she and Cormac Mac Diarmada (fiddle/vocals) have played it since they were kids, when it was something they hardly broadcast to the world. "I remember being a teenager and like, almost keeping it secret," Peat recalls. "You’d let it slip, like, 'Oh no, I need to go home and play my concertina.' People would think you’re pretty weird and really uncool."
Nonetheless, in 2019, Lankum's brand of revitalized Irish folk is part of a larger local underground movement that could now actually be considered cool. "In Dublin at the moment especially there’s a bit of a scene, and quite a few people doing really interesting things from a folk background," Ian Lynch says of the casual collective that also includes Lisa O'Neill, Ye Vagabonds, Junior Brother, Cormac Begley and others. "They’re friends of ours, you know? They’re all doing very interesting things — taking elements of traditional music and folk music and combining them with other things, and coming up with something that’s really kind of new and exciting and their own sound, as well."
The group attributes the rise of this scene to fallout from a brutal recession that hit Ireland in 2008, bringing things back to the bleak economic state of the 1980s — which, perhaps uncoincidentally, also resulted in a moment of international success for Irish folk-influenced groups like The Pogues and The Waterboys. "No one had money, and certainly for us, we were all on the dole and had no money — and a lot of time," Peat explains of the downturn's impact a decade earlier. "It’s great for music. It’s also great for art and just weird projects and certain kinda DIY spaces."
The moment has not only led to a revival in folk's sonic and musical trappings, but also its social timeliness, with Lankum and other artists recovering the protest roots inherent in the genre. Covers of traditional folk songs on The Livelong Day reveal new themes, as classic drinking song "Wild Rover" is recast as a 10-minute alcoholic's lament, and the Karen Dalton-repopularized "Katie Cruel" delivered as a reflection of society brutally turning on and casting out women. "The Young People" could almost be mistaken for a rousing generational anthem, but it's actually a testament to youth's fleeting impermanence, beginning with the story of a young man's hanging — also suggested in the song's feet-focused music video — suggestive of the current suicide epidemic in Ireland, whose rates have risen to merciless recent highs.
"These are songs that speak of social justice and societal inequalities, mixed up with a bit of myth and a stark look at nature," Travis says. "Always relevant, never more so than now, when we need to be able to interpret reality with a sense of history and truth."
For their and others' efforts to make the traditional music newly relevant, Lankum's home scene has been informally dubbed as "woke folk." The phrase is undeniably catchy, but it makes the group groan.
"I can see what they’re getting at — 'coz we do play folk, and pretty much most of the people that you would’ve mentioned [under that term] have a strong social awareness as well, they all kinda have very strong opinions, whether they put them in the music or not," Peat allows." But yeah, the term 'woke folk,' I hope that never catches on."