Over the course of their 12 years Lau have taken their folk roots and pushed the genre to and beyond its limits.
The trio returned this month with their fifth album, Midnight and Closedown.
With a title taken from Seamus Heaney’s poem The Shipping Forecast, fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke has described it as their ‘Brexit’ album. And he has listed its themes: ‘Isolation. Fear. Giddiness. Cutting ties with allies, friends and partners. The vehemence of opinion. The shoutiness. The rise of the right. The allure of brashness in politics. The allure of romanticisation in the politics of Scotland: complicated, ever-shifting parameters of nationalism, nerves and optimism in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum.
‘The sense that our collective future is hazy.’
To produce the album, they hooked up with Bristol-based John Parish, perhaps best known for his extensive work with PJ Harvey.
‘There’s various records John has produced over the years that we have an affinity with the sound of,’ says Aidan, ‘particularly for me the last This Is The Kit album. I think it just has such a great live feel and a kind of earthiness to the sound. You can kind of hear the sound of the performer in the moment on the record, which is quite a rare thing to hear on a record – to actually hear the immediate response between the musicians, so you can tell it was played live. That’s something we’ve always wanted on our records, and it's something we were hoping John would capture, and he’s done a great job.’
The band returned to their regular studio, Castlesound, just outside Edinburgh, to work on the album with John.
‘It’s all about the performance – the spontaneity between us in the studio – it’s more like a gig setting than a recording studio.
‘We’ve always played live in the studio – we’ve always set up in the exactly same locations in the same studio for every album we’ve done.
‘We love it there and we’ve worked with various producers – we’ve toyed with the idea of going to Bristol or New York to make the record with those producers, but we always end up bringing them here.
‘It’s a room we’re very comfortable in, and it’s a big enough room that there’s a decent amount of separation, so we’re not in isolation, but there’s a little bit of spill between the instruments which we think adds to the character of it.
‘If you want to catch a performance as a whole, it’s the only way to do it – to be able to smell each other, to be close enough to each other to feel it, that tangible connection. Even when there’s a piece of glass between you I think it takes away from it. To be in the same physical space really makes all the difference.
‘John was amazing. You go through his back catalogue and it’s incredible, things like Sparklehorse and obviously PJ Harvey, and then all of the world music things he’s worked on. He’s got a real love of music – he’s someone who’s always learning and adding to his palette. It was a joy having him up here.’
How did the three piece, completed by Kris Drever (guitar, vocals) and Martin Green (accordion, piano, electronics) go about putting this album together?
‘It was hard to avoid the bleak political situation when we started putting together ideas for this album. You can’t help but absorb all of those feelings. Whether the direct results are lyrics that relate to that, or whether it’s just an overall feeling on the record, it’s kind of unavoidable. So we entered this record with this overwhelming feeling that we’re in change – something’s going to change, hopefully they’re positive, and I think you can hear that.
‘It’s one of the darkest albums we’ve made, and I think we’re happy with that – it does reflect musically how we’re feeling even if the lyrics don’t directly relate to that.’
And they toyed with making a full-blown concept album: ‘We did originally speak about that and writing directly to those feelings, but I think they’ve seeped into the album rather than it being specifically about a subject.
‘The idea between us was to make an album that reflected our feelings on that, then it’s an organic process from that where the material evolves, and amalgamates in a jigsaw puzzle until we get something that resembles a Lau album.’
The three members have come to a very democratic arrangement when writing. They share online folders to put music in for the others to then tinker with.
‘As soon as we put something in the shared folder, when we send ideas to each other, we relinquish any personal attachment to them and it’s a donation to the Lau cause. It’s quite relaxing and comfortable – whether it’s four bars that have come from Kris, or Martin or me, then ) no longer feel that is mine, and it’s led to some of the truest collaborative efforts in the past few years. We’ve really settled into that way of working, and it’s frankly become… mature,’ he laughs.
That sounds like it requires a great deal of trust in your bandmates?
‘It’s really quite amazing how things do evolve over a decade or more of working intensely with each other. We’ve all changed as humans, I guess, there’s families and kids, and you’ve grown up together.’
With Aidan in Edinburgh and Martin ‘only half an hour away,’ Kris is the outlier – he moved out to Shetland five years ago. However, Lau temporarily relocated there to work on the new album.
‘I think we wrote more than half of this record in the Shetlands. I think we would have made a different album if we’d made it in the city. Everything infiltrates the mindset when you’re in a village hall in the middle of nowhere in Shetland with the wind battering the windows – it added to the bleakness of the record!
‘But it is so beautiful up there. The days seem so much longer and the air feels different – it’s all fed into the record.
‘The album is bleak but with little chinks of light that come through, in the end I think it’s quite optimistic.’
Over the course of their career the band has been heaped with awards – including an unequalled three Group of The Year titles at the Radio 2 Folk Awards.
But Aidan says they haven’t actively pursued them, and he sees the awards as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.
‘The awards have been helpful in that it allows us to present the music to more people and play to more people. It’s not so much about the accolades, even though you appreciate it. It’s helped us on our mission to present this music to as many people as possible, and we’re really proud of the music we make and we put a lot of time and effort into it. It’s more of a helping hand than a congratulations.
‘We’re just trying to make our music and present it to as many people as possible.’
On this tour, they’re playing the new record in full, alongside a set of older material.
‘It’s the first time we’ve done that. There have always been tracks in the past that have existed on albums, that we knew were only for the album. But on this album we wanted to make it all presentable as a concert.’
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Saturday, February 23