Lankum: Sixteen Years of Trad Exploration, Delivered with an Angry Punch.

The Guardian hailed them as the best folk act out of Ireland in years. Here’s the story behind research-loving Dublin trad-folk miscreants Lankum

IN MID OCTOBER 2015, a little-known four piece appeared on the BBC’s iconic alternative music show Later With Jools Holland. Performing harmonised folk tracks like ‘Father Had A Knife’, the Dublin act could already trace their roots back more than 14 years. They’d finally got their break.

That band are now known as Lankum (more on that later), and the rise of the melodic four-piece was already well underway back home in Ireland. The big shot across the water came as a surprise, however. A demo CD that Lankum had sent to “anywhere we could think of” stood out from a pile BBC Head of Music Mark Cooper was hunting through, and next thing – at two weeks notice – Ian Lynch and his band were performing to a prime-time BBC2 audience.

The roots of Lankum, though, reach back through well over a decade of live performance. Lynch has been around Dublin trad circles since the 90s, and much of what Lankum do now is drawn from his involvement in the the kind of music-loving exchanges that still happen between trad-sphere friends and around pub sessions.

Things also went much further for Lynch. “There are lots of recordings passed around, and we often record at sessions, too. I’ve found if you ask and explain why you’re recording, people are great about it. I’ve never had anyone say no. It’s normal for friends to exchange tapes on the trad scene, too. I’ve also worked in the archives at Merrion Square, The Piper’s Club, and UCD over the years, and spent a lot of that time working while listening my way through the archives.”

“We draw from a mix of ideas,” he continues, “and that contains a lot of crunchy pub and field recordings, which are very far from polished. Some are rough as hell. Then there’s techno, krautrock, punk and even black metal in there. It’s not crossover music, the presence is quite subtle, but the different elements do make up our musical palette.”

Lankum also produce original tracks (and the traditional ones are often heavily adapted), but much of their work is drawn from Irish, Scottish, English and even German folk traditions, and routed in that quiet exchange of shaky cassette tape recording.

“The songs we write definitely sound like they’re out of the 18th or 19th Century,” Lynch explains. “We listen to so much of this stuff that it happens very naturally, we’re very immersed in that tradition, so it’s not really that conscious”

The Gaiety Panto: “It’s a challenge, but it’s really, really rewarding”

Love/Hate and Fair City star Johnny Ward talks his return to the Gaiety Theatre for pantomime season

HAVING STARTED OUT way back in 1873, the Gaiety Panto is a Dublin Christmas institution, a classically playful comedy returning night after night with plenty of stories… ahem… behind them.

This year, the age-old performance on offer is a stage adaptation of Rapunzel, featuring the return of Ireland’s most famous pantomime dame for the 28th time, as well as Ciara Lyons in the hair-y title role, and former Love/ Hate man Johnny Ward fitting right in as Johnny B. Goode.

For all the throwaway, sporadic feel of panto, though, the Gaiety offering is a serious undertaking, at least internally. For the cast, Christmas starts the morning after Halloween, with rehearsals underway in earnest.

“There are three days off scheduled for the entire run,” Ward tells us, as he returns to the Gaiety following his earlier appearances in Cinderella (2012) and Peter Pan (2014). “It’s hectic, but I remember it as a child and it means a lot, it’s a real Christmas tradition. You have to be aware of that when you’re performing in it. I met my girlfriend through my part in the panto in 2012, so it has great memories for me more recently, too.”

Ward is better known for his role as Pauley in Love/ Hate, with his character dying by falling from a balcony. He also stars in Fair City as Ciaran Holloway, so despite his earlier experiences, the panto is far from his usual style.

“Panto is frowned upon by some, especially those actors who only do film and theatre,” he admits. “But I think it’s important to do. There are some great people here. Joe Conlan [the dame] has been doing this forever and doesn’t do anything else as an actor. He specialises because he’s just really good at what he does. Panto isn’t like film and TV, and it’s his forte. He’s a real gentleman, but absolutely nuts with it.”

There are technical challenges that come with the role, however, in particular as it continues night after night. “There’s a part of the script that I read and just thought ‘that’s impossible’, looking at the stage set up, but I had the same experience last time, and it came off, so I’m sure we’ll do it,” Ward explains.

Myths, Wine, Hiking and Dramatic Industrial Wastelands: Why the Czech Republic’s East Beats Prague’s Tourist Crowds

Brno centre | © James Hendicott

THERE’S A LONG-standing joke in the Czech Republic’s second city Brno. “We know wine,” they say. “We keep the best wine for ourselves. The mediocre stuff we sell to tourists, and the really bad stuff we send to Prague.”

It’s fair to say the Czech Republic’s two main cities have quite a rivalry. A few years ago, Brno’s mayor spent a small fortune on building a modern-version of Prague’s spectacular clock in the city’s main square. It’s a phallic, towering, slowly-twisting statue that almost nobody can use to tell the time, and once a day it omits a strange glass marble, because… nobody seems to be quite sure. It’s odd, largely because the city doesn’t need to compete.

If Bohemian Prague is home to the dark history and literary pretensions, laid back Brno has a fast-growing collection of its own unique lures. A once impenetrable walled city, it’s main attractions are in a compact hub, a spot that’s become pleasantly alternative in the way it presents itself.

Trams chug through the pretty, classical streets. Local bars consist of shacks selling hefty glasses from Moravian vineyards, served in the open air around bubbling fountains. Cocktail bars like the magical ‘Bar That Does Not Exist’ (Ktery Neexistuje in the local lingo) have a menu of thousands of fiery, fruity concoctions made from a mind-boggling selection of boozy bottles.

In fact, the general off-the-wall vibe to Brno is probably its main allure. An architect, for example, once got irritated by negotiations over compensation for his construction of the soaring Church of St James, and so adorned a window ledge with a fornicating, nude-bummed symbol who still rests there today.

Then there’s the Brno dragon, adorning a tunnel in the city hall, said once to have plagued the city (his modern incarnation looks suspiciously like an alligator). St James’ church relatively recently discovered ossuary is a creepy, claustrophobic series of underground tunnels home to wall-to-wall heaps of skulls and bones, while bunker 10-Z – a former secret Soviet underground bunker close the city’s heart – might have jokingly plastered pictures of atom bombs on its walls today, but the other relics remind us of its deadly serious practical applications.

While Brno tends to align itself culturally with Vienna (another snub to capital Prague, we suspect), Ostrava, near the Polish border, is a totally different a more rugged beast.

Wonderfully Weird: the Charming 60s-Pop World of No Monster Club

From (kind of) faking his own death to releasing a single album with enough tracks to fill an entire radio show, No Monster Club’s Bobby Aherne recalls a career that’s hard to define.

BOBBY AHERNE doesn’t particularly like convention. As a core member of the wonderful Popical Island collective, a loosely formed Dublin record label that thrives on collaboration, his main outlet No Monster Club has been flirting with the fringes of the Irish music scene for some time, performing lyrically sharp bubblegum pop.

His themes are broad, their coherence, perhaps, coming from the fact that No Monster Club is emphatically not about the conventional pop subjects. Bursting with colour, Aherne’s tracks explore Africa, wish retirement on an artist he’s sick of hearing, riff on the buzz of charity shops, and happily harmonize on drinking and smoking in parks. In his latest project, he’s releasing a short EP every month for all of 2017.

“I didn’t want to do a whole album again, as it’s such a big project,” Aherne tells us, and as a man who once released a record with over forty tracks on it, an album might be bigger for him than most. “I just wanted to do songs this year without having to be coherent. There have been songs as a band, as a three-piece, and just solo stuff, as well as longer, more thematic pieces. With this project, I have the freedom to do that.”

The result is – in the best possible way – weird. On the latest two-track, Aherne explores the festival of Samhain, but throws an Ace of Base cover as a b-side (“it’s okay, because it’s one of the tracks that isn’t written by the Nazi one in the band”). Earlier releases – each presented with a kind of abstract, newspaper print EP cover – include a cover of Lally Stott’s 70s hit ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ and a jaunty summer ode to doing things yourself and Factor 50 sunscreen.

Things have been more fantastically odd in the past, though, like the time Aherne released a jokey press release for a track claiming that he’d died. Having taken it seriously, an American publication ultimately released a brief expose ‘revealing’ that the musician – who’d never been less than active on social media in the meantime – was still going strong.

“There was some grief,” he recalls. “Some blog ran a piece on the track, saying that sadly I’m dead now. The PR ‘story’ was that the track was put together from shoeboxes under the bed. The comments section had some mad stuff in it after people realised. There was one guy who said he couldn’t believe this guy, and that I deserved to be dead, and someone who is dead should get to take my place. Then a Chicago place did an expose that I’m not actually dead. I did find it funny.”

Julie Feeney: a Comeback Adventure in Balian Beats

The award-winning Galway opera-pop singer and composer joins an unusual Gamelan orchestra collaboration in Dun Laoghaire.

Combining a plethora of talents, Julie Feeney exploded onto the Irish music scene in 2005 with ‘13 Songs’, a delicately perfect Choice Music Prize winning album on which she personally plays no less than eleven instruments.

Renowned for her theatrical and intimate live performances, she’s gone on to tour the world, write operas, play a ten-night stint at the National Concert Hall, become influential in fashion circles, and even qualify as a primary school teacher.

It’s been a quiet few years for Feeney, however, and the way she’s chosen to return might surprise. Having contributed to an album alongside them in 2015, Feeney is now performing live as a much-valued guest of the Irish Gamelan Orchestra.

Gamelan is the traditional formal, orchestral style of Java and Bali, in Indonesia, and it’s visually spectacular. It consists of drum and xylophone-style instruments, some of which are made out of metal, and some wood, alongside vocals and key changes far outside of western orchestral norms.

Feeney was originally brought into the Irish Gamelan Orchestra as part of their collaborative approach to music. The collective invited star musicians with a classical edge – like the Galway-born pop-opera fanatic, and Belfast’s piano-meets-poetry artist Duke Special – to contribute alongside spoken word acts like author Joseph O’Connor (Ghost Light) and ex-Riverdance man Colin Dunne.

While the project is very much an aside for Feeney, it clearly evokes a passion. “The orchestra is almost overwhelming, physically,” she explains. “The set up, with the guests, probably sounds a bit like a variety performance, but it really isn’t. They asked different composers to contribute pieces, and I originally composed a short 20-minute piece with Michael Murphy to play at a college launch. I’m very lucky, I don’t really get asked to do things that don’t sound great to me, and this was really exciting from the start.”

Famine Tales: Declan O’Rourke Returns with Meticulously Researched Stories of Old Ireland

Sat somewhere in the realm where storytelling and music meet, Dubliner Declan O’Rourke has spent more than a decade researching his latest offering. It may just be his magnum opus.

Declan O’Rourke is not your typical modern-day musician. Having powered onto the Irish music scene in 2004 with debut ‘Since Kyabram’, he became a radioplay mainstay with hit single ‘Galileo (Someone Like You)’.

After touring with Bob Dylan and Snow Patrol, though, O’Rourke was not to be lured by the temptation to repeat the same trick. Instead, he’s stood a million miles from pop tropes, writing on the workhouses his grandfather worked in, or ruminating on arranged marriages. At times, he’s had the RTE Concert Orchestra on board. At others, his music has been beautifully toned-down and delicate.

This latest release, ‘Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine’, is the result of sixteen years of research into the untold stories of the 1840s, a passion product that’s been a rumbling constant in the background of O’Rourke’s entire career so far.

“It just took that long to research,” O’Rourke tells the Gazette of the chunk of his life dedicated to this album. “It needed that. Regular songs come and go, but when you’re dealing with something where the material is based on information that you have to find, there are mountains and mountains to wade through.”

“What I was looking for was personal stories. There’s a lot of legislative information and political background about the famine, but the personal accounts are few and far between. Most of Ireland’s poor were illiterate at the time. Then there was the phenomenon of not talking about it afterwards. Stories that were passed down just kind of died out.”

So O’Rourke dug in, searching out tales from every corner. “If you keep going through books, you eventually find voices and stories,” he explains. “Then it’s about finding the best ones to get an overview of things, and paint different sides of what happened. Part of it was also about making sure I didn’t miss out any really important bits. I’m not an avid reader, so it was laborious. The crafting of the songs themselves wasn’t so hard, but because of the academic nature, you’re second guessing yourself to make sure you’ve got it right.”

50 RO’CK: The Middle-Aged Return of Ross O’Carroll Kelly

Rory Nolan as Ross O’Carroll Kelly

After twenty years of poking fun at south Dublin’s posh rugby culture, Rory Nolan reprises Foxrock’s main man at the Gaiety. This time he’s in his 50s.

Ross O’Carroll Kelly, Paul Howard’s satirical Irish Times mainstay, recently reached twenty years of printed tales. Howard’s rich, pretentious, egotistical and utterly hilarious rugby-loving character has had quite a ride. In the various tomes released over the years, he’s rescued friends from an African country he can’t pronounce, managed the Andorran rugby team, interfered in north-Dublin gang wars, and come up with more excuses for where he might have been last night than we could possibly recall.

The latest full-length offering, entitled ‘Operation Trumpsformation,’ was released last month In it the main man is knee deep in it again, while his dad is running a political campaign to build a wall around Cork, offending all comers, and wearing a suspiciously Trumpian hairpiece.

While the books are very much a present-day parallel universe, the theatre version of Ross runs to a different timescale: ‘Postcards From The Ledge’ leaves behind the present, and heads for the year 2029. The main man is running an estate agent, his daughter about to marry a man he loathes, and our hero still just a few good matches away from the Ireland squad, naturally. Rory Nolan plays Ross, as he has in the previous three different O’Carroll Kelly stage sagas, and this time he’ll be going it alone.

“I can’t wait for people to see it,” Nolan tells us. “‘Postcards From The Ledge’ has Ross on the cusp of fifty years old. He’s the managing director of Hook, Lyon and Sinker, and life has been good to him, Ireland is attuned in a way that it’s a good place to be if you’re Ross O’Carroll Kelly. We meet him on a day when he’s valuing a house in South Dublin, which turns out to be where he grew up, in Sallynoggin. Obviously, he’d rather it was in a different country. It’s conjuring up all kinds of memories for him.”

“At the same time, his daughter Honour is getting married to a guy he really doesn’t approve of. Maybe he’s everything that Ross isn’t. He’s on the road to total meltdown, and it just makes for great comedy. People love to see his up and downs, but I think they want him to get there in the end, too. I’m always surprised how audiences are always gunning for him. They really want  to see Ross win.”

Ross, of course, isn’t the brightest spark, and that’s part of the challenge for Nolan. “It is quite hard to act as stupid as Ross is,” he admits. “But Paul’s writing, I’ve really never come across anything quite like it. Playing Ross intertwines the comedy and the character. You have to follow the timing of what Ross is doing. It’s quite unaware. If you tried to acknowledge what was going on, it would fall flat on its face. There’s always something at stake for these characters, though, so it’s not just humor for the sake of humor.”

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Too Much Love in the Internet Age

American indie icon Alec Ounsworth talks fame, and how you get past it.

THERE WERE A FEW months in 2005 when Philadelphia indie band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were very much ‘the next big thing’. The brainchild of frontman Alec Ounsworth (who also writes all the music released under the moniker), the band’s pre-album demos made them one of the most vaunted of early internet hype bands. The eponymous debut album sold so well it needed a second pressing in weeks, with the presence of David Bowie at early shows only adding to the buzz.

If you were feeling particularly harsh, you could argue things never got any better for Ounsworth. The self-titled debut is certainly a recognisable and memorable entity for any mid-00s indie fan, but follow up ‘Some Loud Thunder’ (2007) never reached the same highs, and the notoriety of the sound Ounsworth invented in his bedroom has only declined since. Ounsworth, though, is happy just doing his thing.

“It was a little disconcerting,” he says of those early highs. “I felt like I had no control over what was going on. I had built a bit of a cult following around Brooklyn and New York at the time, but suddenly I went from playing shows to hundreds, to playing for thousands.”

“The second album was a bit of a reaction to overexposure. A lot of people had a lot of expectations of me, and I felt like it had nothing to do with me. I felt like I burnt out pretty quickly, and the first track, in particular, was a reaction to that. While I wasn’t trying to alienate anyone, the first album wore me down. I wasn’t really bothered if anyone liked the second one. I did it for me.”

The opening track on that second album Ounsworth’s referring to isn’t exactly subtle in its fame-rejecting credentials. ‘All this talking, you’d think I’d have something to say,’ he croons, adding ‘breaking glass, and pretending to start something big’.

“I don’t measure things by the past anymore,” he explains. “I’m more comfortable with who I am now, and with the level of venues, and fame, that I’m at. I won’t resist attention outright, but I feel like it has to be natural and honest, and it didn’t feel like that the first time around.”