The Joy Formidable interviewed
In idle moments it’s a notion we’ve been pondering for some time: were Siouxsie and the Banshees one of the great British singles acts? It’s not so ridiculous. Consider the evidence: from 1980’s ‘Happy House’ right through to ‘Kiss Them For Me’ eleven years later, they released 21 (count ‘em!) almost timeless examples of the format, even giving ‘The Passenger’ the benefit of the doubt. It’s a remarkable run by any measure. Exotic, dramatic, sometimes pretentious (who, in 2011, would dare build a hit record around the fall of Pompeii?) and yet utterly aware of the rules of the single without ever compromising on developing their sound or trading on old glories.
When we think of Siouxsie and co., we think of The Joy Formidable. Not for any particular reasons of sound or image (although the oxygen-defying efforts of drummer Matt Thomas suggest we may have another Budgie on our hands) but more in their sense of promise and artistic aspiration. While you imagine bassist (and the man behind the band's artwork) Rhydian Dafydd is the steadying force behind the scenes, all you need to know about TJF is captured in singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan's steely-eyed determination. This is an act hewn from the Welsh mountainsides. It's going to take more than a bit of rain to blow them off course.
We spoke with Bryan before their performance at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in front of an uncharacteristically reserved Glasgow crowd. They play every song as if for the first, and last, time and thus, deserve nothing less than your full attention.
I looked back and it’s almost two years to the day since we last spoke.
We were talking about this earlier. The guys were saying I wouldn’t remember. I’m terrible with faces. Where was it again?
That was a weird gig. I think that was the night we had all our merchandise stolen.
That’s not good. I should really apologise … Those two years have appeared quite relentless, but it sometimes looked as if the breakthourgh that seemed obvious to us at The Music Fix would never quite come for you.
I don’t judge things on how big the shows are or on the charts. That’s not how I gauge things and they're quite irrelevant to the band ethic. The most important thing over the past few years is ‘Have we put out good material?’, ‘Have we played shows we enjoyed and got out there and played in different places and countries?’ It’s been a very organic growth and I wouldn’t change any of it because it’s all felt very real and natural. We’ve been at the helm, driving all of it and with no regrets. I’m not interested in doing one album and then getting caught up in a load of bullshit. I want us to have staying power.
You say it was organic but some of the supports you picked up and shows you played suggest there was a degree of savviness about how you wanted to progress.
The creative and artistic side is what I care about. The business and behind-the-scenes side I find quite boring but at the same you can’t entirely surrender that control or compromise on the quality of what you put out. The risk is that you push too fast or surf on a wave of hype - none of that is relevant if you can’t evolve as artists.
When did bigger labels start sniffing round?
We did some shows in the States with Passion Pit and a couple of shows of our own in New York. They were sold out and had a good vibe and a few labels came to see us there. One of them was Canvasback who are part of Atlantic and we had a healthy sort of courtship over a period of a few months.
We’ve always liked working with people who share the vision so we were delighted to meet people who got what we were about. I don’t see much difference between indies and majors - it’s about the people.
Tell me a little about what you wanted The Big Roar to say about you as a band.
When we put out [2008 mini-CD] Balloon ... it was a very spontaneous release. In some ways it was accidental. It came out on the back of an EP we did in Japan so it was very sudden and chronological, so we wanted our first full length to be more considered and wide-ranging. We were quite ambitious with the sonics and the flow and feel of the album while also maintaining all the nuances and moments that came from originally producing some of the songs in your little bedroom in South London.
The band is represented on the sleeve artwork and your characters seem both intrigued and yet wary of what they’re being confronted with. That sense of duality, of reflection and opposites is often refered to in your lyrics and song titles. How conscious is that?
I think it’s mostly quite unconscious but it’s something we have toyed with. We have some extreme moments as a band and in many ways the album is quite personal and comes from a period that’s been turbulent. But we never wanted the album to feel too dark. We’re optimists at heart.
And Rhydian did the artwork so there’s no better person to visually connect the lyrical content.
Do you remember when music first came into your life?
I just remember it always being there. My parents weren’t necessarily massively musical but there was music in the house constantly. There are early memories of being shaken around to ‘Come On Eileen’ or ‘Thunder Road’ before I could walk! (laughs). Music dominated the house: going to gigs, bootlegging, walls and walls dedicated to the record collection.
So at what point did you realise that this was something you could do too?
I’ve always written songs and played guitar. I grew up in a quiet area of Wales, quite isolated, no neighbours. I was an only child so a lot of my youth involved playing in the hills and my other escape was the guitar.
The crossover to playing in a band took longer. Although I was always confident in what I was writing there was maybe a sense that I didn’t always need to share it. When Rhydian and I started writing together he drew out more of the ‘Fuckin’ hell, you should play this to people!’ notion that no-one had coaxed out of me before.
I imagine the rest of your year is pretty planned out?
Yeah, touring! There’s nowhere we’d rather be to be honest. We’ve just had a month in London and we’re really happy to be back on the road. No disrespect to old London town but it’s certainly a simpler life touring. We like being together which obviously makes for a happy time.
This is actually quite a concise tour compared to what we normally do but we have a view to come back later in the year and we’ve got Europe and then North America for what will be our longest tour to date there. We’ve done the east and west coasts before but there’s a big chunk in the middle … The distances are incredible but it’s beautiful and it’s a great opportunity to see places and be inspired. That’s when I like to write and read and catch up with music.
So do you have an idea where your music is going next?
We’re itchy! We’re already writing for whatever comes next - not just albums, we’re going to enjoy putting out things in between.
That’s encouraging. Bands used to put out albums and EPs and singles that didn’t appear on the follow up. Things are so regimented now: a band puts out an album and that’s it for two years. And they don’t road-test new tracks or give any sense that this is something they actually enjoy doing.
I don’t see the creative process being as boxed in as that, so why not try and share those moments as and when they come? If you have confidence in your capacity to keep being creative, why not?
Do you have a favourite Scottish band or act?
I’ll tell you the Scottish band I saw most growing up: my parents used to take me to every single Runrig tour. I think I was more fascinated by the waistcoats than the music.
We’ll listen out for the influence to come seeping through.
The Twilight Sad maybe? We haven’t had the joy of touring with them. Our schedules never seem to work out.
(Rhydian and Matt enter the room.)
What about favourite Scottish film?
Oh … help me out. What about Polanski’s Macbeth. Where was that filmed?
Northumberland. It's the Scottish play so I suppose that counts. Do you have a tour DVD?
Withnail and I. But if we’re watching it in the van and it goes over a bump the player jumps and you have to go back to the start ‘cos you can’t fast-forward. Where was that filmed?
Matt: Lake District, Penrith.
Rhydian: Where was it we spoke to you last time? Stirling? Carlisle?
Rhydian: That’s where all our merch got stolen. Remember?
Matt: All I remember is that we ended the night with one more guitar than when we started.
The Big Roar is out now on Atlantic.