This weekend one of the most talked about contemporary folk bands, Lau, are in the north for a couple of gigs in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, Derry, Thur 6th June, 8pm; in the Black Box (Fri 7th June, 8.30pm) in conjunction with An Droichead; and at Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick, on Sunday 9th June, 8pm.
Coming from places as far apart as Orkney (Kris Drever) and Cambridge (Martin Green) with Aidan O’Rourke growing up in the west Highlands, it certainly wasn’t geography that brought the trio together but ask any music fan or the judges of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, who have named Lau Best Group for four of the past six years.
Each member of the band is known for their dazzling virtuosity but chatting to Martin Green this week, he told me they all grew up with different types of folk and traditional music.
“I grew up playing music with my family as did Kris and Aidan so we were musicians long before we started to think about what job we were going to do as adults,” he said.
“As with any band we all have slightly different tastes and ideas. Aidan’s traditional style is very strong, and even with his interest in other forms ot music, that music is irrepressible in his playing and a big part of what keeps Lau rooted in trad Scottish music.
“Kris has a seemingly inherent understanding of the craft of music making, listening to the whole and refining what we make. I enjoy finding new sounds, new pieces of technology, and finding ways to make them fit in what we do, and generally try and break stuff.”
Martin says it was sessions which brought the trio together.
He met Aidan at a party in his house once, and first met Kris in a session in Edinburgh, so that was luck and fate and a shared desire to find an outlet for the tunes they were writing led to them forming a band together.
I have always found it fascinating the journeys musicians take, from their first scrapings to technical and emotional virtuosity.
Did Martin take a typical musical path where you learn the simplest tunes when you’re in short trousers; move on to become really proficient, play and practice and learn more and more and then decide you want to try something different (add a bit of classical, cajun, Mongolian throat singing) and finally get fed up and go back to the tunes you learnt when you were a kid but with the wealth of experience accrued along the way.
People can jump off the bus at various stages but the more adventurous, like Lau, stay on board until they reach some unknown exotic destination.
“I don’t really know, I can only speak of my own experience.” he replies.
“I still love to play tunes in sessions, but I can’t imagine forming a truly trad band. I think you find the place where you feel like you make the most sense, I think (personally, I don’t speak for the boys here) that in terms of performance and career (as opposed to social music making), my draw is towards invention. There are so many great box players, and the music I first played, dance music, is not a scene I am really involved in at present. So I think I’ll keep exploring for now.”
And while the composing and playing is what a musician will necessarily be focussed on, does Lau ever think of an audience when they is composing pieces?
“We do try to take into account that this is supposed to be a spectator sport and that sometimes affects things like duration tracks and stuff,” says Martin.
“We certainly think a lot about each tour and which tunes we will play in the set to make the best coherent whole of an evening of music for people.”
The great new Lau album, Race the Loser, has taken a further step away from traditional folk in the direction of experimentalism and folktronica.
Does Martin believe there can exist an oxymoron called “avant-garde traditional music” – think Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh, The Gloaming, Iarla Ó LIonáird”
“I dunno,” he says frankly. “Names are both meaningless and completely vital, otherwise we have no way to talk about music. So yeah, if people start calling it that, then there is.
“What is certainly true, is that this music that is traditional in flavour and experimental in attitude is being made at the moment, whatever it is called. And to Lau’s collective ear, what is happening in Ireland just now is getting more and more exciting.”
Having said that, is it easy to reproduce the album sound when you’re playing live?
“Easier than we thought,” is the happy reply.
“We are blessed with a real wizard of an engineer, Tim Matthew, who really understands what we are up to. TIm is a very interesting musician himself, a fiddle player from Mull who also makes avant-garde electronic music – can’t be too many of them about!
“Tim and Tucker (Martine, the album’s producer) are friends, and share a sonic sense so in many ways Race The Loser sounds more like the gigs we were playing up to it than any recording before. There aren’t very many overdubs on that record so assuming we all move our fingers in the right order and TIm works his magic, I think we get pretty close.”
That sense of adventure has led Lau -it’s an Orcadian word meaning “natural light” by the way – to some interesting collaborations, I’m thinking especially about those with Karine Polwert and Brian Irvine?
What does the band get from these collaborations?
“Well, Karine is a truly great songsmith, a real understander of the art of poetry and music, where and how to tell a story and when to leave spaces for people to draw their own conclusions. So in this regard there is much to be learnt for me there and that recording taught me a lot.
“Brian is the very best kind of chaotic force, a tremendous visible energy comes off him when he is a room controlling music. His composition is of course also amazing, but for me, it was watching him fire people up into a frenzy that was the most inspiring.”
When you have the attention of someone as knowledgeable and creative as Martin Green, it is a great opportunity to ask things that have been in your head for a while, things you hadn’t understood. So I threw this googly at him.
“When I listen to a Scottish tune, I know it’s a Scottish tune and not an Irish tune. When I listen to an Irish tune, I know it’s an Irish tune and not a Scottish tune. Not having studied music, how do I know this? What’s the difference?
“Wow! You know people have written PhD’s on this stuff?” he replied, but answered anyway.
“Well as briefly as possible, the answer lies in rhythm and phrasing. It is exactly the same as a spoken accent, so if we met you would know straight away, I’m from England, and Aidan is from Scotland, and if you happen to know the accents of Scotland well, you would know Kris is from Orkney. The closer you are to the source, the more attuned you are to the nuances of tone, inflection, vocabulary, so if you were from Shetland, you would certainly know Kris was from Orkney. If you were from Orkney, you would maybe even know which town. Of course this model is true all over the world. The music is exactly the same. The fiddle is the same instrument in Ireland and Scotland, just as the human voice is. Some of these differences, are broad, vocabulary choices if you like, whole styles of tune that exist in only one of these places (e.g. 2/4 marches in Scotland, polkas in Ireland). Some of the differences are much more subtle, the sense of pace, of swing in the reels and jigs for example.”
So my thanks to Martin for that answer and a final question about Lau. Having been together for nearly 10 years now, can they clearly see the road ahead”
“To be honest it’s got a bit bigger than we thought it was going to already, so no, it’s really exciting for us at the moment, I can’t tell you where it’s headed, but all the signs are that it’s a good place.”