Spiro inhabit a land where the gravitas of classical music meets the rousing communion of folk, simultaneously embracing both the short, sharp essence of the four-minute pop song and the intoxicating repetition of techno dance. Imagine compelling cinematic instrumentals that flow elegantly and effortlessly, subliminally invading your heart while commanding your hips to sway or your toes to tap, and all the time concealing the complexity of their construction.
Now translate this not only onto record, but into the live arena, and you find the experimental acoustic quartet from Bristol airing their most accomplished album to date, Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow, on a tour of UK venues and festivals.
Violinist Jane Harbour, guitarist Jon Hunt, piano accordion player Jason Sparkes and mandolin player and cellist Alex Vann - are a clever bunch, but they don’t expect their audiences to notice. If their music can touch something basic in people, and they can have fun making it, then their mission is accomplished.
The four-piece first got together 22 years ago, meeting on the Bristol folk session scene around the same time as Massive Attack and Portishead were emerging into the mainstream. They built up something of a cult following, while treading a unique path.
“We all enjoy a challenge, and Spiro is certainly that,” says Jane, for whom the band is all-consuming. “It is like family now… you know that you are talking the same language. That’s what it’s like with very good friends; you know they are going to understand what you say completely. It’s a very special thing.”
The band’s horizons widened significantly in 2009 when they were signed to the Real World label, champions of genre-busting global sounds. They have since toured extensively, all through Europe and as far afield as India, Dubai and the USA.
“Because it is quite unusual music, we have had a real job getting it out there. If you don’t readily fit into a genre, people don’t know where to put you; it takes a while to break through. We are playing something that is hopefully fairly new and a little bit niche and people do pick up on that,” says Jane.
“Essentially we do what we want to do, what we find moves us. That’s why we are instrumental. We feel we are connecting on a fundamental level that goes beyond words. It is very much to do with emotions. It’s about building a world in which to immerse yourself, and we feel we have particularly done that on this new album.
“We struggled along until we were signed by Real World. They have been absolutely wonderful; supportive, while also letting us fly in the direction we wanted.”
That direction is steered by Jane, the driving force of the band, whose brain spins with riffs and rhythms 24 hours a day.
“I have to pour myself into it; I cannot have other things going on at the same time,” she says. “My head is my main drawing board - a bit like a computer. It is with me as soon as I open my eyes in the morning. Sometimes I will dream a piece too. All the parts are going round and round, realigning themselves and if it’s good I have to try to record it immediately.”
A classically trained violinist, she studied in Japan under the legendary Shinichi Suzuki. Raised in a musical household, her life was “saturated with music” from an early age; Jane’s mother played and taught violin, exposing her daughter to very broad-ranging tastes, including traditional folk.
As Jane grew up she listened to the work of modern classical composers like Bartok, developing a liking for dissonance, strange harmonies and counter rhythms, but she also became a sucker for dance music, “repetitive tunes that are really free and ecstatic”.
“I listened to anything I could get my hands on that was different in any way. I always wanted the complexity you get in classical music and the drive and groove of pop and dance music,” she says.
While accepting her pivotal role in the band, Jane is swift to acknowledge the vital contribution of Jon, Jason and Alex, who explore other musical projects while maintaining commitment to Spiro.
“I tend to construct the arrangements, but they are juggled about when we are practising. It is such an organic process. I am the main driver and contributor, but it is definitely something we all create together. We write a lot on our instruments as well,” adds Jane.
“There is always an unspoken story in everything we do, though. We have all got similar ideas about what that thing means and where it is going. When we form the arrangements in the practice room, we have an idea about what the story is.”
Inspiration comes from emotion and imagination, rather than narrative - although the new album’s title is taken from a Keats poem.
“There is always a heart to a track and once you have got that heart - whether it is a tune or a riff or some kind of feel - it is like it becomes a living, breathing thing that tells you where it wants to go. I have a clear idea of the kind of piece it is going to be from the beginning; but I am not always sure and there are surprises along the way,” she says.
Jane loves her violin, but sometimes relying solely on her fingers becomes too restrictive and she will work on a sequencer, freeing the musical patterns formed in her head from the restraints of an instrument.
“What is appealing about electronica is that you are not bound by physicality, so you can write really complex music. Anything is possible, at any speed, and any number of parts. Then we translate that to our fingers.
“Jason is a genius on accordion - he will often be playing three parts at once.”
Jane is also fascinated by the idea of making something emotionally beautiful from a system that is essentially mathematical or visual.
“I find repetition, pattern and symmetry very moving, but sometimes it can sound awful,” she admits. “That’s when we we say ‘Oh, no, definitely not’.”
The band’s current tour repertoire features most of the 14 tracks from the new album, plus a good helping of favourites from their four earlier LPs. Lightbox, Kaleiodophonica and The Vapourer were all released by Real World, who also re-issued the band’s independent debut, Pole Star, last year.
“It’s a very strong set,” observes Jane. “It is all about live for us. It is great recording albums, but the whole point is live. You get something very special happening in a room when you chuck music out into it - something we don’t understand. It is about communication between all the people in that room. You get this energy building that you are generating together and everyone feels it. You start it off as the first person to throw the ball, and suddenly there are balls flying all over the place. That is why we do it… we want to make pieces that generate that communication.”
It clearly works on a universal level. Jane reveals that Spiro played a gig at Bristol Zoo once and all the animals started going mad.
“We weren’t the loudest band on the bill, but they had to turn us down,” she says. “When we are in the practise room getting everything together, leaving bits in or chucking stuff out, that is really how it affects what we play. If it makes us jump up and down in our cages then it’s in.”
See the band in action at The Drouthy Cobbler, Elgin, on Thursday 30th April and at The Fleming Hall, Aberlour, on Friday 1st May. Tickets cost £10 and can be purchased via www.spiritofspeyside.com.