Interview: The Joy Formidable

It’s been a stunning year for north Wales act The Joy Formidable. Debut full-length The Big Roar – launched back in January – led to the band charting in both the UK and the US, while a combination of the NME Radar Tour and exceptional performances at festivals like Reading, Leeds and Glastonbury has enhanced their reputation as an outstanding live act. Singer Ritzy Bryan has also become a bit of a girl-rock icon, with NME ranking her above Jay Z as one of the coolest people of the year.

The three-piece still have their feet firmly on the ground, though, at least when they’re not performing. Ritzy, Rhydian and Matt – fresh from scraping by working day jobs between tours – suddenly find themselves one of 2011’s hottest musical properties. It’s been a rocky ride…

From an outsider’s point of view, it seemed like ‘The Big Roar’ was a very long time coming. What were you up to?

Rhydian Dafydd (bass): We often get asked that, and I guess from outside the band it does seem like a long time. I think it’s because we’ve done things in a bit of a non-traditional way. There’ve been plenty of releases which we don’t see as an album, but in some people’s eyes they’re an album, as the first release was eight tracks. After that there were six or seven little releases. We didn’t have much support, so it’s been DIY, and these have been little releases that we’ve been able to give to people. It’s seemed like a lot, but the album is the first time it’s been in a lot of countries, and it’s been nice to get it all out there to everybody in the way that we’ve always conceived it. Perhaps it’s been jarring for some people, and seemed like a while, but it’s been filled with a lot of stuff.

On the one hand it’s seemed slow, if you look at when you started, but on the other hand you’ve seemed to appear as quite a big name fairly quickly. Has it felt like that to you?

Ritzy Bryan (vocals, guitar): It’s felt really natural. It’s been difficult in places, it’s been very honest, very truthful. There’s nothing I would change about it; we’ve got no regrets. What’s come out of it is we’ve got a huge amount of creative control over what we do, and we’ve found a group of people that we love working with. That’s taken time and fortune. We didn’t want things to be overnight and to have a really short shelf-life, so I actually feel everything’s been just as I want it. It’s been a struggle at the same time, being self-sufficient, and the pure logistics of paying for recordings, rehearsals, trying to eat and live. There’s been no fast track.

Rhydian: I wouldn’t say there has been anything immediate. It’s been more honest and gradual.

Ritzy: It’s been quite romantic at the same time.

Rhydian: I must have been asleep!

You produced your own artwork as well, didn’t you?

Rhydian: We’ve been involved in every aspect from the start, even the videos. The album’s self-produced.

Ritzy: We’re just kind of control freaks. But we’ve worked with some really great people who’ve embraced that, so we’ve got a good melting pot of ideas. We’ve been at the heart of all of it, which is exactly what we wanted.

Rhydian: It’s like being in a gang, really, with everything that’s going on.

Ritzy: Except that we don’t get to shoot people in other bands. Maybe we should.

Matt Thomas (drums): The worst thing we’d do is write a really nasty letter. ‘Excuse me, you really annoyed me with what you said the other day. Watch yourself, or I’ll write another letter. In capital letters, so you know I’m really angry’.

You seem to be a band that loves touring. I’ve seen you quoted as saying you’d rather be on tour than at home. After all these shows, is that still true?

Ritzy: God yeah. I’m a bit itchy, unsettled. For me it’s just somehow simpler. We like the variation and we enjoy each other’s company. Being at home’s okay for a bit but then you always get… erm… itchy again.

Rhydian: Variation’s what it’s all about. We genuinely love performing, that’s the prize, doing the music. It’s not a job. Touring is a privilege.

I find some of your lyrics quite cryptic. Do you intend to mess with the mind a little bit?

Ritzy: Yeah, there’s a certain amount of ambiguity and it works on a few levels. That’s kind of what I wanted to achieve with it. I never wanted to be very indulgent. We wear our hearts on our sleeves in a lot of ways, but the way that we like to present it is a lot of mixed emotions.

Rhydian: As well as that, though, it’s a style of writing that has an immediacy to it that perhaps you don’t hear so much these days. The lyrics aren’t just about telling a story, they’re also about painting a picture along with the music, and what the lyrics evoke. You know, like surrealist writing. It’s very daunting to write. We like the idea of people investing in us, yet not being clear as day what the band is about. You have to find that out, you know? It’s sometimes a bit too easy these days. The album format is a classic example of that. People are probably instantly turned off or turned on by the album because we start with an eight minute song.

Ritzy: We’re trying to appeal to ourselves.

It’s a little bit of a hot topic in Ireland: can bands perform in Irish and get away with it, in terms of selling records? You have a Welsh language song. Is it a statement?

Ritzy: It’s the same ethic as everything. If it feels right, and it’s something that we want to have a mess around with, we’ll do it. Welsh is Rhydian’s first language, and it’s been a huge part of my childhood, as my second language. The song that we’ve released in Welsh is a Welsh version of a song we already had, but we have written songs in Welsh. I think there are no rules, whatever feels natural, and nothing too gimmicky. At the moment writing in English feels more natural to us, but we do have something we’ve written in Welsh, so I think if all a sudden it feels right to do that, we’ll do it. But there shouldn’t be anything forced.

Matt: Jónsi did alright singing in his own made-up language, didn’t he, and Welsh exists, so…

Rhydian: It’s part of us. It’s a different flavour, and something nice to sing. We’re actually fascinated by languages in general, so it would be silly not to do something with a language that you speak fluently.

Did you feel like you had to get out of your rural corner of Wales and base yourself somewhere else to succeed? I mean you chose to move to London, but I guess it could have been Cardiff or Liverpool

Rhydian: We didn’t feel that we had to, it just happened that our previous drummer before Matty lived in London. I think it’s a difficult place to grow up musically. I think it’s getting better, but there was a distinct lack of promoters working together. There are some great people, but it was a tricky place, and I just hope that it just keeps on improving. It’s a strange place to grow up. Our identity, musically, doesn’t have many references around where we are, so it would be nice to feel like you had a bit of support.

Ritzy: I just felt it was time to go somewhere else. Simple as that. A change of scene, there was a little bit of a need to get out of there. Now, when we return, it seems to be a place that’s very fruitful for us. It’s isolated, we don’t like people that much [laughs], so it’s good to go back to.

Rhydian: We actually spend very little time in London, it’s just a base.

You’ve had a lot of support from NME over the last year or so. You went on the Radar Tour, and then they said Ritzy’s cooler than Jay Z…

Ritzy: Yeah, those fucking lists. I bet a few people take them seriously, too, who are on them.

Rhydian: There is a climate of lists, isn’t there. Top 100 this and that. It got ridiculous, didn’t it! The top 100 comedies from 45-50…

Matt: The top 100 badger sightings in West Norwood.

Ritzy: I might actually watch that!

Proper hangover TV.

Ritzy: Like Where’s Wally.

There’s a tradition with certain sections of the music press, that they love someone and then they hate them. Are you worried about the flip side of that?

Ritzy: No. I think the support we’ve had, and from our fan base in general isn’t particularly fickle. It feels like there’s an investment, an understanding. We’ve achieved what we’ve achieved because we believe in what we’re doing and we’ve had our blinkers down. We certainly haven’t been NME’s darlings. It has started to feel like they’re picking up bands on the merit of their music. Anna Calvi and Grouplove have also been on the Radar Tour recently. It seems more like that then the latest best tight trousers and haircuts. All media and magazines go through different periods of writing, angles. There’s some good writing in it. There are some magazines that you think are more highbrow and they haven’t got a clue what’s going on.

Rhydian: We’re not really all that interested in our own hype. We don’t want to go through all that and then find that in six months’ time we’re hated. We grew a fan base completely by ourselves.

Do you feel your fairly high-profile status gives any added pressure?

Ritzy: No, the only pressure for me is to enjoy it, to be the band that we know we are. Beyond that, really, who gives a fuck what anyone else says. Everyone else’s opinion is constantly changing, so the most important thing is to be really solid. You can’t please everybody.

You’re very calm in interview, and very frantic on stage.

Ritzy: We’re knackered!

So if I’d walked in two hours ago…?

Ritzy: We’d have been all over you. We’d have rugby tackled you.

Rhydian: It just means a lot to us. On stage, it’s not a job, but you can’t help being overcome by it.

What are you like on tour generally? Do you go nuts?

Rhydian: We don’t go out and try to be the most rock and roll band ever or anything like that. What’s great about it is meeting new people, doing something that you love, at the end of the day everything else is secondary. If you happen to do drugs, if you happen to drink… whatever. It’s not about that, it’s about the actual music. Everything else is on the periphery.

Matt: That, and it’s quite difficult to throw a 50” plasma out of a 20” window.

Ritzy: We’ve thought about it, you see! It’s always pretty laughable, the reality next to the perception of you. Most rock and roll bands are generally tucked up in bed watching episodes of CSI or Emmerdale.

Have you got any tour stories you don’t mind your mothers reading?

Ritzy: Well, Rhydian killed a guy once. No one’s found out yet so it’s okay.

Rhydian: But that was only on an Xbox. We just try not to take it for granted. We have a giggle.

Ritzy: There’s the odd prank on each other, that kind of thing. Nothing all that hardcore, though.

Apart from the obvious – you have a long tour coming up – what else are you looking forward to in the future?

Ritzy: Getting back to writing. We have a modest studio in the corner of our bedroom, and we’ve started the second album. It makes it sound better playing in the bedroom.

Rhydian: The ability to get something down when you feel like it, that definitely has a really important role.

Ritzy: We have a little release coming up. We had such a lot of songs that we didn’t put on the album. We put quite a lot of them on the box set, but we’ve still got some other stuff, some collaborations, so we’re going to share some of them.

Rhydian: We have a lot of songs for the second record written, too. We don’t stop and start again, we’re always writing. We’ve got a laptop, we can get an idea down at any moment of time. That’s how a lot of the ideas for the first album came about, lyrics on dictaphones, that kind of stuff.

What’s your most important measure of success now? Chart positions? The number of people who come to your shows?

Rhydian: Absolutely the number of people who come to the shows. I suppose if the culture of listening and buying music changes again I might say something different. Time’s a big thing, too. There are so many bands that weren’t really recognised while they were going, but turned out to be such a big influence on other people. The Pixies, for example, maybe weren’t as commercially successful when they were still going.

Ritzy: I think the number of people who have tattoos of The Joy Formidable. That’s the only thing that I care about.

Will you let people in free if they have a tattoo? And So I Watch You From Afar do that…

Ritzy: That would be a bit of a fuck up, wouldn’t it, if everybody got tattoos! We could end up paying to play an arena gig one day. Yeah. We need to always be moving forward as a band, as an entity. Not stagnating, meaning something, knowing that our soul hasn’t changed. The power of good song writing, keeping the dynamic of the band… I mean, I’m sure it changes subtly, but the spirit, creating good music. That’s the eternal hope.

The Joy Formidable play Whelan’s, Dublin on October 16 and the Limelight, Belfast on October 18.

As published in AU Magazine, October 2011 (link).

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