“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. This is soulful music, passionate music and I love it.” Peter Gabriel
“Spiro’s music defies categorization … brilliantly played and arranged, lyrical yet groovy, traditional yet contemporary, raucous yet tender.” Max Richter, composer
“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. A contemporary acoustic ensemble who first came together through Bristol’s folk sessions scene, their first album for Real World Records, Lightbox is an extraordinarily stirring record. Recorded over four days at Real World Studios in Box, live and without overdubs, 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 is 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 and 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. “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.”
Their individual backgrounds are wide-reaching. Jane studied classical violin in Japan under the legendary Shinichi Suzuki. Accordionist Jason Sparkes began his own classical training during his pre-school years before taking up folk at the start of his teens. 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”.
This fascination means that Jon is the one who brings the strongest folk element to Spiro – “He’s Mr Tunes!” beams Jane. “I do love northern English tunes,” he concedes. “They’re my obsession, so strange and dark and wonderful.” Indeed, the tunes utilised on Lightbox are irresistible, in particular their fast-fingered take on The White Hart and the gorgeous, meandering traditional melody that threads its way through their song Pop.
But it’s what the group does with these tunes that sets them apart, using them as a launch pad to propel themselves to realms way beyond the folk music constituency. “I would be happy writing music that didn’t have any tunes at all,” admits Jane, “just riffs and grooves. But Jon’s always pulling towards putting a tune in. That’s what makes us so strong. There are people in the band who want to put in a perfect pop arrangement and others who just like to play weird stuff for a very long time!”
That the group still boast their original line-up speaks volumes for this sense of collectivism and solidarity. These are virtues that are writ large in their music, a commendable all-for-one sensibility. Listen to just a few bars of any track from the new record and that tight ensemble sound is both overwhelming and invigorating. “All of us are thoroughly energetic people,” Jane explains. “We all operate at the tips of our energy and nerves. That really helps the chemistry. And we all play each other’s parts so there are no ‘ownership’ issues. There are no egos – it’s never ‘OK, I’m just playing my part’.” Jon nods. “There’s no showmanship. There are no solos. There’s no ornamentation to attract attention to one particular instrument. In fact, there’s that feeling that each member of the band isn’t just playing that instrument. That they’re playing the whole thing.”
This is what Spiro refer to as “the mesh”, the locked-in ensemble sound that’s a relentless, wonderfully overpowering assault on the eardrums. Although there are plenty of moments of quieter contemplation on Lightbox, this unstoppable ensemble sound is in heavy evidence throughout the new record. It provides the fury on Captain Say Catastrophe, the momentum of Darkling Plains, the euphoria of Shaft. Think of it as an acoustic wall of sound.
Reviews for ‘Lightbox’:
‘Intense and minimal, they roll out complex arrangements with such ease that you feel your heart lift a few inches above its normal resting place.’ ****Songlines
‘It takes a while to realise that this is staggeringly complex stuff…. breathtakingly moving, and their ear for understanding how to build something towards a dazzling climax means that even if you don’t experience them on disc, you should most definately catch them live.’ The Word
‘The way the instruments interweave is positively thrilling and very big on emotional impact.. Where Spiro stand out from other practitioners of this type of music is that it’s all live, without any tapes of loops or effects – both on stage and in recordings the slight shifts and changes build up as the pieces progress, like the moving parts of a precision watch being constantly experimented on and realigned. But it’s in no way mechanical: this is one of the most human variants of minimalism I’ve encountered. As Mr Warhol put it: “Oh, this is fabulous.” **** The Guardian
‘The emphasis is entirely on ensemble playing, in which traditional soloing is replaced by a constantly shifting focus on different instruments within the whole. The chugging, insistently repeating rhythms and strands of clearly folk-derived melody are interweaved in tightly arranged patterns to beguiling and often complex effect… the more impressive when you consider that the disc was recorded live in the studio, with no overdubs.’ ****The Independent On Sunday
‘Each of Lightbox’s 17 tracks takes a comparitively simple melodic idea and imposes a superbly crafted machinery that exploits the full range of each instrument as well as the harmonic and rhythmic potential of the tune. The dazzling skilful playing means there is almost no limitation to this process and, time and time again, smart surprises add new depths to the music to keep you listening intently and, above all, smiling.’ ****The Scotsman
‘The hallucinatory effect of trance, albeit trance with incredible vitality. Not many English folk records find their way onto Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, but then there are few English folk records of the sublime individuality of Lightbox’ ****Financial Times