The Joy Formidable interview
If The Joy Formidable had ever worried that their prolonged absence had done anything other than cement the passion of their home fanbase, their return to British stages demolished all doubts. Early evening. Sunday August 26th, 2012. Reading Festival. NME Stage. A handful of bands do disappointing business, paltry crowds lured outside by the first sun of the weekend. But as the Welsh trio’s slot approaches, a purposeful influx sees the tent start to fill. An extended, ringing squall of feedback and percussion and…bang! ‘The Greatest Light Light is the Greatest Shade’, with its stark three note electro loop, is greeted with a sea of arms and a volley of cheers. It’s A Moment.
Ritzy Bryan knows it – she switches in an instant from studied concentration to the biggest grin you will ever see in your life. She punches the air. How about that? A crowd won in mere seconds. For the next 45 minutes, they pay us back with the most delicious pummelling. Matt (metal – heavy – to the pedal), Rydian (bone-rattling bass) and Ritzy (flinty vocals, crazed shredding, thousand yard stare) have become an unspeakably sharp live proposition. That much is clear. They exit triumphant.
But let’s come back to that time away. After delivering sterling major label debut The Big Roar at the start of 2011, they proceeded to play the backside off it. A year of touring that followed the previous year’s non-stop touring. No wonder they’ve become known as ‘a live band’. They’ve earned that clichéd title, have no doubt. But, road-weary, they took stock and, at the start of 2012, headed off to the US where they camped out in the snowy wilds and let solitude and nature play their part in the creation of album number two. Of course, being the road monsters they are, they developed itchy feet and spent much of 2012 touring the States in various guises. They played festivals, they headlined their own shows and, perhaps most notably, they warmed up stadiums, at the request of Mr Grohl, for Foo Fighters.
And now they’re back. There’s a new album to pore over (Wolf’s Law, released January 21st) but 2012 ended with yet another starry support slot - the minor matter of warming up enormodomes full of Muse fans. Sounds like almost too much fun. “It was, yeah. It was a good tour to do," says Bryan. "I think we always enjoy the challenge of playing to a new audience. People are either gonna be on board or they’re not gonna be on board. You can’t control it but it’s great to play to that many people, definitely.”
It’s such a leap, having to project to the best part of twenty thousand people the night after you play to a few hundred. The first time I saw you play live about four years ago, supporting Howling Bells at Manchester’s ‘cosy’ Club Academy, I maintain, still, that you went down better than the headliners. “Oh bloody hell! Wow. I remember that, yeah.” You definitely upstaged them. You started playing and a room full of chatter suddenly went silent. “Ah, yeah. Well, look…I mean nothing beats playing to your fan base, an audience that’s excited to see you. And I think that’s what’s been great about the tour we did with Muse. We did our own shows in Bangor and London – really intimate and great to see our own audience again, so many friendly faces. But then at the same time, we’re never gonna change the approach to our live show. We’re very proud of the music we’ve made and we love playing together. In many ways we almost enjoy provoking some sort of a reaction in an audience who hasn’t seen us before.”
At Reading back in August you punched the air when the crowd recognised the first song. Was that just relief? “Absolutely! Yeah, it was great to be back. We spent a huge chunk of the year in the States and catching the tail end of the festival season over there most recently. Reading and Leeds are the only UK festivals we played in 2012. They’re always good to play – they’ve been good to us and supported us since we were a baby band, almost. We’ve played pretty much every stage!”
Enough of The Joy Formidable’s live rep. That one’s in the bag and double-knotted. Onto more pressing matters. There’s a couple of tried and tested methodologies for album number two – do it all on the road, rock ‘n’ roll troubadour style, or lock yourself away from the world and tease it out in isolation. “Well, we spent 12 months touring the first album and so we had opportunities to write while we were doing that. I mean, that normally results in a lot of chaos. It’s exciting – you end up with a lot of threads. We took a month off in January to reflect on what we'd written while on tour.”
And that’s when you sat down to reflect on what you had?
“Yes. Out of that process we almost couldn’t get all of our ideas down quick enough. It was very fruitful, very quick. We were in a great location – very isolated, we were in the middle of nowhere in Northern Maine. The combination of the surroundings, with no distractions, and being really hungry to be back in the studio. We had this wealth of material that we simply hadn’t managed to record properly.”
In terms of style, on one level it’s dynamics, repetition, interplay again and yet on another there’s an emerging identity in terms of songcraft.
“Yeah, but the approach to the writing was definitely different this time. We approached every song with voice and just one accompaniment – that was the beginning of every track on Wolf’s Law, with the accompaniment being either piano or guitar. So in that sense, it felt quite honest, in a way. It’s all about the lyrics, the voice and the melody. With all of that being very direct and clear, from that approach some of the tracks have stayed like that. There’s a track called ‘Silent Treatment’ that’s like that. But then we built some into fully orchestrated, almost bombastic…kinda what felt right for each song, really. So maybe that’s been the biggest change in terms of approach – so now the vocals and the lyrics have their space in the music. Previously everything was more about layers, it was meshed and about building a picture.”
It sounds…difficult. It must require huge reserves of discipline. “Definitely. The dynamic between Rhydian and I, when we first met, we’d always both written independently. So when we came together and started writing together for this band, that was the first time I’d ever collaborated in that way. And from the beginning, really, we knew that there was something unique to it, a certain intuition and both of us being able to turn our hands to different moments in the songwriting. But, no, there’s not really a formula with the songwriting with this band. This album is the first time both of us have scored for an orchestra and for a choir, as well. So, different elements inter-weave…we’ve never really dissected it. It’s always been really easy for both of us to bring different moments of every song to a track.”
There’s a unique, almost unfathomable quality to your music. Yes, you deal in indie pop shapes to a degree and yet you avoid all of the staples and clichés. By the time you reach album number six, should we expect a double concept album or an album with no guitars? Can you see the frontiers of your ambition? “Oh, well, we’ve always felt that anything is possible. Everything is possible. There’s a lot of breadth of this new record. We’ve never felt restricted by genre or to be just a guitar band. Every new song we write, especially with this album, unlocks a new door. The kind of artists we’ve grown up listening to are always brave and fearless.”
The audience seems willing to go with you on that journey. You seem to mean a great deal to a lot of people. Do you ever sit down and scratch your head and think what are they getting out of this? “We’re fortunate. We know we’re fortunate. Our audience is there because they want to be there and they’ve shown us such loyalty. They’re not there because they’ve been told to be there because we’re the latest hyped artist. We’ve always considered them and that comes from a very sincere place. In some ways our audience has driven us.” It’s a strange balance. “Isn’t it? Ultimately we’re in control of what we do, creatively. It’s important we retain our integrity, do what feels right to the three of us. But in terms of how we present ourselves, the way we release our music, the way we reach out…there’s something very sincere from us, something very appreciative. We [us and the fans] have a great relationship. I hope it stays that way.”
For more information about The Joy Formidable, visit their official website