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Monday, 8 October 2012

Show me the way to Lau-Land?

Sometimes you can tell from looking at someone's work - or hearing it - that you would like them if you met them. That's what happened when I saw the promotional work Kings Place had done for Lau's upcoming week there: the pictures of the band on the front of and inside its autumn brochure were so curious, so idiosyncratic and so memorable that when I looked at them I knew they'd been shot by someone who takes enormous pleasure in their own work.

Because that kind of enthusiasm is infectious.

So it was great when Nick White, the photographer in question, agreed to a phone interview in the spirit that he was as keen to find out why the pics had turned out the way they had as I was. "It'll be like therapy," he said.

Among my enthusiasms for the pics is that that they're brilliant marketing: Lau's album launch for Race the Loser at Kings Place sold out weeks ago and it's not for a couple of weeks yet. Moreover it's uplifting to see something practical done so well that it transcends the everyday and becomes art, like applying the abstract ideas of physics to the making of a beautiful bridge. Or listening to Lau.

Everyone who's serious about what they do wants to work with other people who care about their craft - there is a nod of recognition, a respect for another's trade that comes with experience. You might not know how the other person does what they do, but you learn to appreciate high quality work when you see it.

Marketing, PR and the other behind-the-scenes stuff of the music industry are what often makes the difference between commercial success and failure and the carelessness with which the folk scene often deals with these matters is a constant source of frustration to me, media creature that I am. I often feel like a distantly related adult watching a teenage girl who doesn't understand that she's beautiful and as a consequence has low self-esteem, throwing her life away. I like this music and I want everyone else to like it too - it's just that most people will never hear it because, metaphorically, it won't brush its hair and leave the house.

However, Nick White's Lau pictures are the most striking piece of folk music marketing I've seen since this.

So how did the idea of Lau-Land emerge?

"I'd done some work for Kings Place before - for a jazz player called Django Bates (above) and the Brodsky Quartet (below)," he said.

"When they asked me to photograph Lau I have to admit that I knew nothing about them, so I listened to the band's music quite a lot to come up with some ideas. Then I spoke to them. The whole idea was that Lau-Land is a special place that they go off to explore - like Victorian explorers. Darwin and the Beagle were going through my head.

"I went to the Red Sea a while ago, to a place called Paradise Island which had a sign with big lettering. I took a picture.

"I really liked the fact that it was taken from the other side, so it was clear that I was actually in Paradise. I sent this picture to the band and I think they took the initiative and had a big sign made saying 'Lau-Land'. I'd like to take the credit for that, but I'm not entirely sure it was my idea. I'd be really interested to hear how they remember it...

"Anyway, originally the idea was to use the sign the other way around, so that they were in Lau-Land. But that was a bit weird and hard to explain, and it got dispensed with early on." Have a squint at the top of that cliff.

"For the picture for the front of the brochure (above) I said 'Let's get lots of stuff in there', things that they might have brought back from Lau-Land. The accordian hands were Martin's idea: he had a toy accordian and said 'I could just have them as my hands'. But there was only one accordian, so I had to shoot him twice and then stick the prints together later. In fact I shot all three of the guys separately and put together a montage in the studio. That picture is actually five different shots - including some extra cliff on the right.

"And we have these little, mysterious things - things from Lau-Land. So there's the arctic fox and the pheasant - and no, it wasn't a live arctic fox. They were both stuffed. Originally I'd wanted to graft the head of the fox on to the pheasant and vice versa. But it would have been too much work and, anyway, I always put more detail into these pictures than people actually notice..."

I asked him some more about the arctic fox. There was a pause.

"You know what? I think I must have been thinking about Philip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy when I came up with that. One of the characters - Mrs Coulter - she has an arctic fox or a snow leopard as her daemon, doesn't she? There you go... I said this would be like therapy. But you can attach any symbolism you like to any of this. It didn't mean anything specific - like Paul McCartney not wearing any shoes in that Abbey Road Beatles' cover and a myth springing up that it was supposed to be symbolic that he'd died."

White said that most of the snaps had been taken on the windswept Scottish coast back in spring and that the weather had turned nasty.

"There was a lot of walking around with equipment and then the weather suddenly changed and became grim and miserable with driving rain. It was too far to carry all the bits and pieces and too wintry to put the sign up. They didn't enjoy it much - you can tell from the expressions on their faces.

"The band had different attitudes towards the photos. Martin was up for it. Kris just wanted to get it done. And Aidan wanted the whole thing to look more like an indy band shot."

What does an indy band shot look like?

"It's three blokes of a certain age standing around, trying to look interesting. The photographer has to do the rest. Oh - and they're usually dressed in black."

Here's an out-take that didn't make it into the brochure.

"It's not really what I do best," explained White. "There's a whole school of indy band photography that was done most successfully by Anton Corbin, a photographer who worked for NME in the late 80s and early 90s. He was responsible for U2's image round about the time of The Joshua Tree. He also did a lot of shots of Joy Division. But it's not my thing."

So what is your thing?

"My favourite shot is actually one that the band isn't in. It's the map.

"I asked the band to come with some made-up place names, so all the 'places' on that map mean something to at least one of them." I was beginning to see what he meant about "more detail than most people ever notice".

"And that box is something that I really like because I struggled with it and it took a long time.

"The box came from a car boot sale, the plant picture was cut out of The Observer's Book of Cacti and the idea was to make the three of them - there are tiny little images of them there - look like explorers in a flying machine. Their basket was made out of an air mail envelope and the top part came out of an old boiler at my studio - the shell-like metal object. I was thinking about Jules Verne, I think."

I pointed out that there is also a dirigible in the Northern Lights books, belonging to the American, Lee Scoresby. White was delighted.

He said that early on he'd also had an idea of somehow making the three members of Lau look like standing stones because he'd been thinking about The Wicker Man, but that this had been stomped on, on account of it being a "folk cliche" of which the band would have none.

And he mentioned an enthusiasm for Kit Williams's visually stunning 1970s book Masquerade, in which the reader had to piece together a series of pictorial clues with the aim of discovering where a piece of buried treasure shaped like a rabbit lay, somewhere in England. I had a copy of the book as a child and well remember the day I heard that the treasure had been dug up in a park somewhere.

In this spirit he left me with this: "There's a passport stamp on the left-hand side of that box with a date on it. Can you work out what the significance of the date is?" It's November 24, 1859.


* You could explore Lau-Land at Kings Place from Wednesday October 17 until Saturday October 20th, where there will be a series of Lau-related events, including the album launch, which is already sold out.

* Nick White would like to do more work with bands. Here's his website.

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