Spiro

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 they do 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”.

"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

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”.

“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.”

Further reading

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The Gloaming at the National Concert Hall: ‘An experiment in controlled happenstance’

A closer look at the phenomenon that is The Gloaming's annual sold-out residency at the NCH, Dublin.

Stephen Hague on bringing Big Blue Ball to the finishing line

The New Order producer faced the mammoth task of sifting through years of recording sessions.