The people who make up the instrumental music group Spiro got together in 1993, in Bristol, UK. They released an album called Lost in Fishponds under the name The Famous Five in 1994. As Spiro, they’ve released 3 albums, the latest being Kaleidophonica. They don’t want their music to be put in a box, but here’s how the group’s guitarist Jon Hunt defines it: “Weʼve got as much to do with minimalist classical and dance music as we have with folk. Even though we use folk tunes, theyʼre raw materials that the rest of the sound is built around.” We’re seated with the group at the Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, where they’ve come to play at Jodhpur Riff. The interview takes place over endless cups of hot sweet milky Rajasthani tea, infused with lots of cardamom, which Jon, at least, seems to relish. Two remarkable facts about the group are that their line-up has remained unchanged over the years (Jane Harbour on the violin or viola, Alex Vann on the mandolin, Jason Sparkes on the accordion and Jon Hunt on the acoustic guitar or cello) and that their albums are recorded as if they are playing live, with no over-dubs or multi-tracking.
You have described yourselves as “watch-makers who have made an intricate machine”. Tell us a little about how that machine is built. For instance, you build some of your music around folk tunes. But how do you decide which folk tunes to use? What is your ‘process’ when it comes to composing music for Spiro?
Jon: I’m the one who puts the tunes in. But really the tunes aren’t integral and the tunes are one element that gets thrown into a pot. In fact there aren’t always traditional tunes there. Quite a lot of the pieces don’t have any traditional tunes.
Jane: The tunes give a kind of backbone to it, a kind of linear structure if you’ve got a long melody. But sometimes we write our own tunes. But really we love riffs and kind of putting riffs with riffs and building it that way.
But when you do go with folk tunes, how do you pick them?
Jon: I just love traditional English tunes. I’m the one who really like the tunes. I research them and find the tunes and put them in the pot. And things go around. Or sometimes they reject them. Sometimes things just go in, and then they go out again.
Your compositions don’t have solos. You have said you prefer to ‘share out’ the riff among yourselves. Was there a conscious decision to avoid solos? Why?
Alex: I think there was. We all felt the urge to make the band fully composed, so all the notes are written. And there’s a conscious decision to not be show-boating talent, to not be what we can individually do on our instruments. It’s about what we can do together. So a single part might be very, very simple or make no sense on its own and it’s only with the other parts… The whole is much greater than the part.
Jane: The thing is the whole doesn’t work if it has one part that sticks out.
Jon: That’s why it’s like a watch. If there’s one part missing from the watch it doesn’t work.
Jane: If there’s one part louder than the rest then it breaks up the unity of it, the unity of the art. Like if there’s a front person then other pieces become a backing to a front person. Whereas if you get jostling parts and weird, freaky effects, like… you get one note there, and one here and you don’t quite know what you’re hearing, it works. What makes it work is that each person is the same volume and playing equally strong parts.
Alex: There’s an equality of instruments. Even with the melody lines, even if they’re traditional, they’re not right on top, they’re in with the other parts.
Jane: And the parts are like characters or people. It becomes not about us as musicians but about the musical parts and the story, with each of them being like characters. So at some point we may double up on a riff or triple up on a riff or bring a riff in and out and you’ll feel two riffs meeting at the end that were never together at the beginning, or ones that were breaking up, or dying.
A lot of your pieces have a recurring pattern and then they take these sudden surprising turns. How do you build a unity which enables you to take these sharp turns in synchrony?
Jane: It takes a lot of honing and practices, trying out different orders till an arrangement, or order that tells the most human story to us happens. Where we juxtapose the various parts that has an emotional effect on us. Oh yes. You heard that rhythm in the beginning and now it’s back in that particular point with that other riff and it makes total sense. So, just by experimenting with it.
Your group members all seem to have different influences in music, ranging from folk and classical to some punk as well. Has balancing these out ever proved to be a challenge? Has there ever been an instance where you’ve had to work around competing influences?
Alex: I think the influences are a part of us and a part of our past. I played in a punk band and so did Jon. And it’s not like we’re thinking: ‘Oh we want to make sure we have this punky bit.’ It’s just a part of your musical history. And I think some of that punk energy is there in this band. The influences are there but we don’t consciously try and bring them in.
Jane: And we don’t want to make fusion— where you get this kind of music plus that kind of music, and they’re kind of identifiable parts. We want to make a music that’s… whatever comes out. And whatever comes out is a melting pot of who we are musically and what our musical experiences have been. Hopefully it’s not identifiable, like a punk-folk mix. It’s all mushed up in our brains and it comes out as something that is a new take on it.
Has there been an instance where these influences have clashed or not meshed together and you’ve had to compromise?
Jon: We have what we call the pot of ideas and if someone comes up with a jerky punky riff and someone else has come up with something more classical and the two don’t work then they don’t end up together.
Alex: Those things will quickly die if they’re not feeling good or wholesome. So it never gets to a crisis.
Jane: I like how we look to put together things that a little edgy. So we look for things that go together in a difficult way, but a beautifully difficult way. So if things go together too well it’s out. It’s got to be uncomfortable and strange but beautiful.
Jon: Because life is uncomfortable. Art should mirror life. That speaks to people. Because life is never easy, then music shouldn’t be either.
You had mentioned in an interview that you’re also influenced by modern dance music as well as folk. Do you feel there could be a common ground between these two?
Jane: It’s kind of like the popular music of now whereas folk was the popular music of then. They’re both dance musics. Folk music is dance music but just on acoustic instruments— that’s repetitive and cyclical, just going round and round the tune.
Alex: And also some of the rhythms that occur in traditional tunes, the rhythmic patterns, are quite dancey in a way. Specially some of the Northern English tunes that we use.
You’ve been compared to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Steve Reich and other minimalist musicians. Do you agree? Do you feel that your work falls within the ambit of this larger genre?
Alex: Penguin Cafe was an influence on a lot of our work. And we absolutely think we relate to what Steve Reich does. I don’t think it falls under any larger genre…
Jane: We want to start our own genre. We thought about calling it Kaleidophonica.
You recorded Kaleidophonica live in the studio without overdubs. Why did you decide to do it this way? Have you used the same process for recording your other albums?
Jon: We’ve only recorded like that.
Jane: Because it reflects what we do live and because we ‘write’ music for live. That’s what the whole band is about. To create that live… to create all these amazing effects as four instruments, get the most out of these four instruments. It makes us write in interesting ways, the fact that it has to be live.
Alex: If you put restrictions on art you can reach greater heights of creativity. We’re going to do it on these four instruments and we’re going to do it live. If we’ve got a bit that needs something else, then we’ll probably just scrap it and try something else.
Jon: There is a technical reason as well. A lot of the interplay that makes that magical effect actually happens in the air at the time the instruments are physically sounding. The resonance actually happens between them in the air. And if you recorded them separately you wouldn’t get that magic. Another thing is that it’s a performance of ‘the band’. It’s not just about individual performance.
Alex: You’re speeding up and sliding down together, putting crescendos together, you’re working live as it’s being recorded.
You’ve also said some of you play “more than one part at the same time” at times. You’ve said: “We try to play two lines on one instrument.” How do you tailor your compositions to your line-up?
Jane: Not always. If you want things to happen musically and there aren’t enough instruments then that’s what we’ll do. We think: ‘Oh! It’ll be great to have that riff as well, but everyone’s busy, so who can play it?’ So we’ll weave it into an existing part. It’s usually Jase (Jason Sparkes), the accordion player.
Jon: He’s got two sides to the accordion so he plays two parts. But Alex also plays 2 parts.
Jane: We all do. But Jase gets the brunt of it.
Jon: I get the easiest parts because I’m the bass.
You’ve done some work in other media— theatre, TV etc. How is it different from your work with the band?
Alex: I’ve done some theatre and music is compromised there as it has to support action. So that’s why I love just being in the band. It means you can do complex, demanding music.
(Image: Spiro on the ramparts of the Mehrangarh Fort. By Shantenu Tilwankar/ Jodhpur Riff/ Oijo)