The Joy Formidable: 'We've always felt like outcasts'

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I'm just about to fly to America to spend a few days touring with The Joy Formidable. The Mold three-piece released their second album Wolf's Law in January and have been touring ever since.

Wolf's Law is boldly out of step with the supposed zeitgeist. Whereas the UK music scene seems to scuttle around trying to work out which decade to try and resuscitate and fob off as something new, The Joy Formidable are only interested in what they can bring of themselves to now.

I'm vibrating with excitement at the prospect of seeing them play sold out halls in New York, Washington and Baltimore. Thousands of Stateside music-lovers celebrating a music forged in the hills where I grew up. And Wolverhampton.

I'll be there as a fan and a friend, but also because I'll be laying the foundations for a book I want to write about the band.

To that end, I've been transcribing all of the interviews I've done. The transcription below comes from our most recent interview, recorded on the first date of the current tour back in January in Liverpool, with singer and guitarist Ritzy Bryan and bass player Rhydian Dafydd.

If I was brave enough to stand on the roof of this venue, we'd be able to see Moel Famau and north Wales quite easily, which is ironic because I'd imagine that this album is shaped an awful lot less by home than your debut, The Big Roar. Wolf's Law is so much more widescreen. Does home still have an influence on this album?

Ritzy: That's an interesting question. Absolutely. There's so many things on this record: a lot of breadth, a lot of the personal, so - yeah - definitely we're very, very much informed by where we grew up and our imaginations and all the imagery of a childhood in north Wales. There's so many lyrical moments that capture that sense of wilderness of growing up in the Clwydians.

It's a tricky one because it's always felt like we've recorded a little bit irrespective of where we come from. It's a fine line trying to figure out how much of that actually seeps into the writing - and it obviously does because it informs who you are and your personality, and who you've become artistically, to some extent as well. But we've travelled such a lot in the last 18 months and I think we've experienced a lot.

We've been through a lot as a band, so there's so many different flavours on the record in terms of things that have moved us or the stories that we've felt needed to be told on this record. I think - ultimately - it's all underpinned by who we are as individuals. The soul and the backbone of north Wales runs through that.

Rhydian: I think oddly enough, where we recorded - which was just outside Portland, Maine - it did remind us of home. It was cold, fresh, very green, colourful. We were out in the sticks a little bit, in this log cabin, in the middle of nowhere - it was perfect.

I think - because of the way we grew up, we've always been creatures of nature. There was some kind of parallel thing going on there.

As well as North Wales, you have also lived in some of the biggest cities in the world - London/New York/Los Angeles/Manchester...

Rhydian: They've all certainly had their effect. It was great to have that polarity - recording and writing in all these cities that we've been to, but also retreating to the countryside. Like Ritzy was saying, I think there's flavours of where we've been on the album but I've always felt that we're in a bubble a little bit as well.

Ritzy: We were reminiscing the other day about a song like Tendons. It's such a delicate, elegant song. A beautiful, melodic song in so many ways - and yet the bulk of that track was written in a really strange, grey hotel room: a Holiday Inn in Albany, in the middle of a dark autumn day.

It was a real miserable Bukowski-like hotel room - with one bulb without a shade. And yet you wouldn't feel any of that seeping in - necessarily - to that track in terms of the environment of where it was written. I think that's an interesting moment to dissect , that you can still write that kind of a track in somewhere that's such a contrast visually and atmospherically.

How did something like Tendons evolve? Because the way your wrote for this album was different from the way you wrote for The Big Roar.

Rhydian: We had loads of snippets and what was nice was to finally have some peace and quiet to realise all of these ideas. We're always writing. We don't like to put things in boxes because it feels like work. It should be your lifestyle. You should live and breathe it all the time.

I remember - for Tendons, for instance - I was jamming this bassline vocal idea over a year ago. I think we were playing somewhere in France. It had almost this barbershop flavour to it. 'Dum-da, da-du-um da, da dum-da, da du-um da' and that seems to be theme running throughout the album... this fascination with vocal chords and experimenting with the voice. There's so many things you can do with it, you know?

The bassline on that song is your voice, isn't it?

Rhydian: Yes, it's essentially working like a bass guitar would.

Ritzy: So you had that as a root to it and then - in that hotel room - that's when we got the acoustic guitars out and started to feel like we'd already written some of it lyrically. Through sitting together and playing the relative sections that we'd written - by that point I'd written the middle eight as a separate entity - we were sitting together and bringing all of those moments together.

I seem to remember that in Albany, the writing was really quick and fluid, you know: done-done-done. All of a sudden, the melodic lines were all starting to reveal themselves. Other times it's a bit more of a fight. There's a good push and pull... I want my verse, and Rhydian wants his verse, and then all of a sudden they merge into a brand new version.

Rhydian: It definitely feels to me that with this record we've found a fluidity. And it was working really well. Because the Big Roar, it was very meshed - a lot of layers... and this fighting that Ritzy's talking about, there was a lot more of that then. I think - because we stripped everything down and were writing together around a piano or a guitar - we were interweaving our ideas there and then. Rather than having all of these bits and sections and trying to work out how to put them together later. It worked great, we just couldn't stop writing. It was really fruitful.

It's a great mark of the way that you write that we don't notice those joins. When you listen to Beatles' songs you can generally tell which bits McCartney did and which bits Lennon did...

Rhydian: I write the good bits, I know that...

Well, I didn't want to say...

Ritzy: Oh, don't you start ganging up on me, both of you... that's absolutely so untrue Rhydian. You know that I'm the talent and that I carry you...

Rhydian: I know, I know, you do.

When you've completed something like Tendons, that has that emotional resonance - do you get a real sense of achievement? In essence, is that what the core of the band of the band is about.

Ritzy: Yeah.

Rhydian: Absolutely. I think to stand behind something and actually see it in its completion and be moved yourself - there's nothing narcissistic about that. I think it does have to move you, it does have to say something... it does to us, anyway. When you finally realised it, and it's focused, and it's speaking to you... then, yeah, it is a great feeling. I can't deny it.

I'm very, very proud of the song Tendons. It's very close to our hearts. In terms of its subject matter it talks about mine and Ritzy's relationship and how difficult it has been, essentially, because me and Ritzy aren't together any more... we felt this push and pull for a long, long time but at the core of it is this absolutely amazing friendship.

It's a very sad song in a way. We almost foresaw the downfall of our relationship as a romantic couple. But it's also a celebration of how we've always been there for each and this ultra strong friendship that will never die.

I wasn't sure whether to talk about the relationship. One of the great qualities of the album is its integrity and you can't live through something like that without reflecting it honestly in the songs that you write otherwise it would be fraud, wouldn't it?

Ritzy: No, you're absolutely right. There's certain tracks we've written, and it's not about being narcissistic, it's not about being so wrapped up in yourself, when you write a track and it triggers something, such a raw emotional response. We have a very in-joke that a song isn't good enough unless we've cried at some point in the making of it. And that's true of so many of our tracks.

Rhydian: Not always crying because they're sad, you know. Just crying with laughter looking at Matt trying to play a million drums at once.

That emotional honesty is something that people have picked up on as being almost a major difference with Wolf's Law. There's great emotional qualities to The Big Roar as well. I noticed the symbolism on that record: there's a lot about instruments, abacuses and compasses, and all that kind of thing. A lot of that symbolism is lacking on Wolf's Law. Is that something that you've noticed with the lyrics?

Ritzy: Yes. Very much noticed it. The lyrical focus of this band has never changed. It's the same on The Big Roar as it is here. The lyrical side has always been so important. A lot of the tracks are conceived more as poems. They definitely anchor a lot of the tracks. And I think you look back, and whether or not your noticed the lyrical side of that album on the first listen.

There's was a lot that was meshed, it was a busier painting, a busier picture with The Big Roar. I think there was maybe a slight regret that people weren't realising that there was a big lyrical anchor to this band. Especially as that seemed to be the root of so many of the tracks and we definitely had something to say.

You say that people haven't noticed it and, yet, I think it's definitely one of the reasons that I've come back to that album so many times. One of the great qualities of The Joy Formidable is that there is a great emotional honesty there, and I think that when we listen to it we can put our emotional lives into those songs, is that why you create an environment where you can work together and not have to think about the rest of the world?

Rhydian: I think we always feel like we're in a bubble. We've always felt - and happily so - almost like outcasts. In our minds we lock ourselves away and always try and be truthful. I don't care what the outcome is, or the repercussions are, I think it's important to be your self.

We enjoy records where you really feel, whatever they're saying - it doesn't always have to be a super high emotional stuff - that there's a truth there and that they're speaking from very deep down. I don't think we could do this if we weren't doing that. It just wouldn't turn us on, you know?

It's got to turn you on because you're touring it and you're playing it every night. And if it speaks to you then it stirs you up inside when you play it. If we were getting up on stage and singing a bunch of words for the sake of it, I don't know, it wouldn't feel right. It doesn't have to be, you know, stories that are so truthful. It's that gut feeling, that it has to mean something to you.

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