Graeme Thomson

Aidan O’Rourke sets down his porridge and looks up. “I hope this doesn’t sound arsey, but I think we’re quite aware that we don’t sound like any other band – and with each album, we don’t want to sound like the old selves either. It’s brand new territory every time.” Kris Drever nods. “That is the main mission statement of any Lau album: let’s not make the same record we’ve already made.”

Squashed onto a tartan sofa backstage at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, Scotland’s premier future-facing folkies are lined up for interrogation. On the flanks are Drever, Lau’s singer, guitarist and chief lyricist, and Oban-born fiddler O’Rourke. Squeezed in the middle is token Englishman Martin Green, the band’s wry, somewhat rumpled accordionista and gadget wrangler. Despite impressive individual CVs and numerous unique attributes, together the trio add up to more than the sum of their parts. “Lau is the mother band,” says Green. “We always end up here.” And each time they reconvene, they evolve.

Since their formation in 2005, Lau have won Best Band at the BBC Folk Awards four times, and over the course of five albums have offered a ceaselessly innovative reimagining of the possibilities of folk music. A few hours after this interview, they will play one of the finest shows I have seen them perform, airing the entirety of their new album, Midnight And Closedown.

For now, the job is to explain a record which has its roots in upheaval, both personal and political. Taking its title from a line in Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore Sonnets, Midnight And Closedown attempts to make sense of the world around both us and them. The songs posit big questions, albeit obliquely, about Scotland as a nation state, Britain as an island, about communities in remote places, people living in bubbles. When Drever sings, “There are two sides to this story, both of them are lies,” it feels like a keening lament for our times.

“Some of the songs are about family, but a good number of them have some socio-political references, to do with being based on an island,” says Drever, who grew up on Orkney but now lives on Shetland. “Sense of place is a ubiquitous theme in Scottish music. Not that I’ve ever sneered at that, but there have been times when I’ve thought, Oh no, not again with the sense of place! But on reflection in recent times, it has become apparent to me that almost everything I’ve ever done is about that. I can’t escape it. It might be a Scottish thing, I don’t know.”

The songs are meditations on roots, displacement, change, loss, identity. Some of Drever’s lyrics spring from what was clearly a very difficult period, though it’s not something he’s keen to elaborate upon. His favourite song on the record is Itshardtoseemtobeokwhenyourenot, with its lines about “waking up in tears, pinned by the fear...” “The subject matter of that song is very important, and it will always remind me of what was going on around that time,” he says. I push gently for him to explain. He stands firm. “I can’t expand on that. I won’t.”

Green steps in. “Musically and lyrically, it does seem quite a dark record, but we’re full of hope as individuals, despite so many reasons not to be. It seems like a much more personal reflection on aspects of isolation, geographical and emotional. To me some of it seems quite specific, because I’m obviously very familiar with the songwriter, but part of great songwriting is that other people that don’t know Kris will find things that stand out in their own minds.”

Andrew Wasylyk on his album The Paralian

“We did discuss making a Brexit album, but that proved harder, especially lyrically,” says O’Rourke. “I think I still entered into this record with that in mind, in the way I approached it musically.”

As a band, they were of one opinion regarding Britain leaving the EU. “Take a wild guess!” laughs Drever. “How it will affect us touring in Europe is way down the list of things we discussed. It’s more about the wee Syrian refugee boy getting beaten up at his school because some a***hole kid has got a***hole parents.”

They are a plainly political band. At the show tonight, a banner proclaiming WE LOVE THE NHS hangs as a backdrop, and the rainbow flag of LGBTQ+ solidarity flies on stage. “There used to be a lot more rainbow at the gig,” says Green. “It’s got darker and darker, but it’s not necessarily a negative thing.”

Musically, the album sees Lau continuing to push boundaries. Drever insists that “folk is still the lingua franca of the band,” but the trio are as comfortable collaborating with electronic artists as trad luminaries or string quartets, infusing their bedrock sound with samples, electronic pulses, ambient creaks and squeaks. When recording, they consciously choose to work with personalities from outside the folk world. “Three isn’t a big number, there’s nowhere to hide, so when we turn into a four for a record, it’s very much affected by the person who isn’t part of the trio,” says Drever.

Their last record, The Bell That Never Rang, was produced by Joan Wasser, the New York artist who performs as Joan As Police Woman, while Midnight And Closedown was overseen by John Parish, PJ Harvey’s trusted wingman. Both share a taste for the experimental, even if their personalities could hardly be more contrasting. “John is really, really calm,” says Green, “While Joan was running around the control room in a gold tracksuit, going, ‘This is the best f***ing music I ever heard in my life, man!’ John has made some quite extreme music, but in a very calm way. He didn’t swear once. It was like Joan had done all his swearing for him.”

Only when Parish quietly announced, "That works for me," did the band know they were on the right track. All three musicians are virtuosos in their field – “We’ve played all the notes,” laughs O’Rourke – but these days they tend to favour this more measured approach, relishing the simple power of a two-note melody, of building layers of mood and texture. “It’s maybe more music and less athletics,” says Drever drily.

Andrew Wasylyk on his album The Paralian

When they formed, the trio were based in Edinburgh. With Drever now in Shetland and Green beyond the city boundaries in Pathhead, only O’Rourke still lives in the capital. Their dispersal has changed the way they work. There is more solo songwriting nowadays, while instrumental ideas are developed democratically, shared and explored online via Dropbox. When they do physically meet, says O’Rourke, they focus intensely, “going around every possible musical permutation”.

Though they have retained a studio complex in Leith and still feel a close collective affinity to the city, their relationship with Edinburgh has changed. When Lau emerged some 15 years ago, the capital was a melting pot of post-devolution energy and creativity. “I moved to Scotland just before Lau formed, and I was overwhelmed by the social and musical scene,” says Green. “It felt like an Edinburgh-based ideology of progressive traditional music was what excited the three of us: Martyn Bennett, jazzers, the first couple of Shooglenifty records… That fascinating, inventive, confident thinking was what drew us all here.”

Drever felt it too. “Through my childhood and teens, being Scottish was shite and disappointing,” he says. “This forgotten corner of the world where everything was a bit crap. All of a sudden, positivity started feeding in. The idea that, actually, there are a lot of great things about this place.”

The city’s traditional music scene is, they all acknowledge, different now. “It goes in waves,” says Green. “I’m sure Edinburgh is about to have another exploratory surge. The three of us are looking to the 18-year-olds, thinking, Right, which one of you is going to blow our minds? It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be brilliant.”

In the meantime, Lau are finding bold new ways to create. The mother band simply keeps on moving.

Midnight And Closedown (Reveal) is out on February 8