"When I first listened to the music of Spiro, I thought it was really different. The sounds that hit you first are sounds that you are familiar with; they sound folky, but once you start listening to the music and how it's composed you hear elements of systems music - people like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, dance music. All sorts of musical influences are woven into this very contemporary music. I think this is soulful music, passionate music and I love it." - Peter Gabriel
"We're like a string quartet, but the most driving and exciting string quartet that you could imagine." Jane Harbour, the violinist of Spiro, is trying to put a neat handle on the essence of this instrumental four-piece. It's not an easy task. Despite the group's folk-friendly tools (violin, acoustic guitar, mandolin and accordion), they're something of a slippery beast when it comes to being contained by mere words. Guitarist Jon Hunt has a go. "We've got more to do with minimalist classical and dance music than we have with folk. Even though we use folk tunes, they're raw materials that the rest of the sound is built around."
One thing is certain - Spiro are their own people, commendably operating in their own sphere and at their own pace. This contemporary acoustic ensemble first came together through Bristol's folk sessions scene in 1993, trading under the name of The Famous Five. Now, a full 16 years later, they've only just got around to releasing their third album. Their first for Real World Records, Lightbox is an extraordinarily stirring record. Recorded over four days at Real World Studios in Box and largely produced by Simon Emmerson (the chief architect behind the Afro Celt Sound System and The Imagined Village projects), it showcases a highly imaginative and highly disciplined group with a sound that's unified but never uniform. All four members, all four instruments, pull in the same direction, creating music that's intricate yet so full of momentum. These are hurrying, scurrying soundscapes that sweep majestically with cinematic presence, echoing - at various points - the work of Steve Reich, Michael Nyman and the Penguin Café Orchestra. But, kindred spirits aside, this is the music of Spiro - undeniably English, undeniably theirs.
Despite a slew of work for theatre, film and television, Spiro remain something of an enigma, a well-kept secret that's only now starting to spread. Even in their hometown of Bristol, they're decidedly inconspicuous, thanks to their gentle, organic and snail-slow blooming. "There was never a grand plan," explains Jon. "It's just evolved. Some kind of magic thing happened between us that wasn't necessarily expected. It was quite serendipitous. We're all quite different as musicians and we each brought in particular passions and visions. It's all been about the interaction of those visions."
Their individual backgrounds are wide-reaching. Jane studied classical violin in Japan under the legendary Shinichi Suzuki and grew up "listening to a lot of vaguely modern classical stuff like Bartok and Stravinsky and Britten so I've got a lot of time for dissonance and strange harmonies and counter rhythms". She's also a sucker for dance music, "repetitive tunes that are really free and ecstatic". Accordionist Jason Sparkes began his own classical training during his pre-school years before taking up folk at the start of his teens, inspired by his morris-dancing father. Alex Vann was the drummer in a punk band before taking up the electric guitar and then graduating to his weapon of choice - the mandolin. Jon Hunt has also done his time in punk bands, someone who took an unusual route from pop to folk to punk to post-punk/new wave but emerged with "this preserved love and fascination for traditional English music".
Bands often claim to be unique, but Spiro really do defy easy categorisation. They are an acoustic instrumental quartet, playing violin, mandolin, accordion and guitar (which is occasionally replaced by cello), and though just over a third of the songs on their second Real World Records album Kaleidophonica make use of traditional themes, they are most certainly not a folk band. The traditional melodies are enmeshed (a favourite Spiro word) into a complex, constantly changing, often stirring, rhythmic style that makes use of the repeated phrases and patterns of systems music. The aim, says mandolin-player Alex Vann, is to create music that's "accessible and uncompromising at the same time". There is no improvisation and no solo work, and none is needed. All the intricate arrangements have been meticulously worked out in advance, and the albums are recorded as if they were playing live, with no over-dubs or multi-tracking. According to violinist Jane Harbour, it's an approach that means there are never any ego problems in the band "because it's one solo machine, what we do. We are like watch-makers who have made an intricate machine. You just wind it up and let it go".
"High-octane, mesmerizing music." - Pete Lawrence, former Artistic Director, The Big Chill
"Spiro are at the forefront of the new wave of inspirational English acoustic music - unique arrangements that transport you into gorgeous landscapes. Essentially English, beautifully brilliant with timeless melodies." - Karen Tweed
"Spiro's music defies categorization brilliantly played and arranged, lyrical yet groovy, traditional yet contemporary, raucous yet tender." - Max Richter, composer
"Unsettling, exhilarating and highly impressive Fascinating and, I suspect, unique." - fRoots
visit www.spiromusic.com for more from Spiro