Brilliant musicians, thrilling performers, free-thinking visionaries and all-round good chaps as well…small wonder Lau are regarded as the epicentre of the new folk boom . And they’ve got shelves groaning with awards, a forest’s worth of ecstatic reviews and breathless plaudits from excited audiences in various outposts of the world ringing in their ears to prove it…
Indeed, the republic of Lau-land has acquired almost empirical status as a journey which started with three blokes sitting down to play a few tunes on fiddle, guitar and squeeze-box at a kitchen table in Edinburgh one day in 2004. Lau quickly burst out of the undergrowth into groundbreaking terrain. Since then Lau has not merely become one of the great success stories of the last decade – and a barometer of the fast-changing and increasingly all-embracing face of British folk music – it is now a by-word for an exceptionally creative community, inspiring a boldly varied and richly colourful array of offshoot bands and projects wielding daring ideas with a myriad of musical styles and unlikely collaborators. Lau’s burgeoning CV now encompasses EPs with the exceptional singer songwriter Karine Polwart and electronica innovator Adem; concerts with everyone from Cream rock legend Jack Bruce to Northern Sinfonia; and an open-minded approach to recording that ranges from their own complex but eminently accessible tune-making to the startling re-working of Dear Prudence included on an all-star re-make of The Beatles’ classic White Album (and the De-Luxe edition of Arc Light).
“We’ve never wanted to repeat ourselves,” says Aidan O’Rourke, master fiddler from Oban, whose extra-curricular exploits include two majestic solo albums, founding membership of the big band Blazin’ Fiddles, trailblazing excursions into jazz, world, Gaelic and classical music and fiddling to the fore of another magnificent supergroup, Kan. “We’re folk musicians but firstly we’re musicians with a love of different styles and we don’t think we’re cheating on anybody by drawing on that. We all love and play a wide range of music but what we have in common is a deep love of hardcore traditional music.”
Martin Green – fearless, techno curious accordion innovator, general livewire and token East Anglian – also has a long and admirable track record that includes working with the likes of Eliza Carthy, Joan Baez, Linda Thompson, a string of commissioned compositions and the production of a show for England’s Opera North featuring Becky Unthank.His explosive handiwork affords scant respect for any of the artificially imposed boundaries that habitually strangle innovation.
“Paul McCartney said he never spent more than three hours on a song. With Lau we never spend less than three weeks. Everything we do now is a real collaborative effort and we love rehearsing…it’s one of the joys of this band.”
The third and, by some distance, tallest member of Lau is Kris Drever, the dark-haired , winsome voiced, rock-loving guitarist/singer/songwriter from Orkney. Drever, who says he thought he’d died and gone to heaven when he got to play Sunshine Of Your Love on stage with Jack Bruce at Celtic Connections in 2012, achieved something of a cult success recording and touring with Roddy Woomble and John McCusker and won many admirers – not to mention a clutch of award nominations – for his gently affecting solo albums Black Water and Mark The Hard Earth.
With all three involved in so many different projects – and constant demand for their services on other people’s records – you wonder that they can maintain focus on Lau. Yet, as one, they describe Lau as “the motherband”…and one that carries such a unique spirit borne of the intuitive understanding and mutual respect between them that they are intensely proud of their achievements so far. And eager to pursue lots more…
“We’ve been proud of our music from day one,” say the band “Before we started Lau the three of us were all busy doing other things and we said then that unless we could do something dynamic we’d keep it to ourselves. Now the gigs feel amazing. We’re on fire right now and we’re ready for the next level and putting on a show that’s spectacular and dynamic.”
Dynamic is certainly the word. From almost the first moment they ventured out into public (after a year solid rehearsing) audiences reacted joyously to their thrilling ensemble playing and the freshness of ideas and arrangements that constantly leap and dip in unexpected contours, with sharp mood swings and subtle nods to rock, jazz improvisation and other areas beyond the beyond.
Debut album Lightweights and Gentlemen, released in 2007 – mixing original tunes with inspired arrangements of songs like the traditional Unquiet Grave and Ewan MacColl’s Freeborn Man -instantly rocketed them into the fore of the burgeoning new folk scene, triggering an onslaught of awards that includes an unprecedented three consecutive wins as Best Group at the BBC Folk Awards. Such was their reputation as a blistering stage act that they followed Lightweights and Gentlemen with the Lau Live album and then, in 2009, came the equally well-received Arc Light, with a grander setting that even produced a heavily played single, Winter Moon.
Cue more awards, triumphant tours, a proud catalogue of stomping headline festival appearances, splinter bands and a string of intriguing collaborations that we now find flavouring the new sound of Lau, as revealed on fourth album, Race The Loser. One of those collaborators, ambient electro pioneer Adem – who worked with Lau on the Ghosts EP with its themes of social migration and refugees – has certainly encouraged them to explore the potential of technology, resulting in Martin Green now juggling his accordion wizardry with an element of knob-twiddling.
“We learned an awful lot from Adem,” says Green. “Folk music can be quite conservative at times, but he worked in such a different way it opened a lot of things up and gave us permission to do anything. That has stayed with us. We have a great love for electronic music and some of it works with Lau and some of it doesn’t, you just have to keep your ears open and keep it tasteful. ”
At the other extreme, another major influence has been contemporary composer Brian Irvine, who roped Lau into Strange Attractors, commissioned by the Sage in Gateshead as an orchestral piece, pitching Lau with the Northern Sinfonia. This, too, had a big effect on them, allowing them license to explore a sonic approach and experiment with a more spatial sound.
“These collaborations felt like they were giving us a new palate to work with,” says Martin. “Karine Polwart, Jack Bruce, Brian Irvine, Adem…they’ve all helped us and inspired a lot of pieces and we all feel really confident as a result.”
Having worked closely with Calum Malcolm on the previous albums, they’ve adopted a different tack on Race The Loser, enlisting the production services of Nashville’s Tucker Martine, noted for his work with Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, R.E.M and Laura Veirs. “We loved the sound he got on the Abigail Washburn album, it’s so creative.” says Aidan O’Rourke. “
And the loyal Lau family – increasingly aligned to the group through the online Lau-land community – needn’t worry about the band they know and love turning into a techno orgy driven by beats and computers….
“Noooo,” says Aidan. “It’s just that we have these additional tools and writing compositions that include laptop, effects and loops has become part of the process. We write with those things in mind and they can be as important as instruments. It all adds to the sparkle and widens what we do as a trio. But we’re not going to become an electronic band. We’re a folk trio and always will be…”
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