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28th February 2013

Interview: The Joy Formidable

Nature, solitude and being Dave Grohl’s favourite new band: Ritzy Bryan talks Wolf’s Law with The Mancunion

“We’ve definitely followed a non-traditional path.” Ritzy Bryan is recalling The Joy Formidable’s early days. “Although, honestly, I’ve got no idea what a traditional path is these days.” She’s speaking to The Mancunion from Antwerp, in the thick of a European tour that’s taken in headline dates as well as support slots to Bloc Party; tonight’s the latter. “We really had to look to ourselves back then. We were touring to fund recording, then putting EPs out as and when we had the songs; I’m glad we did it in such an honest way. It certainly helped us build a fanbase.”

The Welsh trio’s sophomore release, Wolf’s Law, landed last month and represents a fast turnaround by their own standards, arriving two years after debut The Big Roar, which itself was twice as long in the gestation. Ritzy’s cautious when I ask her how she feels it’s been received; “I don’t think we need validation from other people – it’d go against the ethic of the band. We’d never release something we weren’t proud of. The important thing is the reaction from the fans, which has been fantastic. It’s been a lot of fun getting our heads round playing it live, too.”

Since their inception in 2007, the band seem to have been on tour pretty much permanently, which leaves you wondering how they managed to write and record Wolf’s Law with so much of their time swallowed up by their extensive live schedule. “We did a lot of work on the road,” explains Ritzy. “We never really stop writing. We did an awful lot of demoing in hotel rooms, just experimenting with different ideas we were coming up with. When we finally had some time off, we wanted a contrast to that for the recording – that was what drove the decision to set up the studio in Portland, Maine.”

Sure enough, the trio travelled across the pond to decamp to the wilderness. “We just really needed the solitude, the isolation, to be able to take all these different concepts and diverse little experiments and make them into something focused enough to come together as a cohesive record.”

The Joy Formidable certainly don’t have a track record of shying away from being musically ambitious; The Big Roar was characterised by huge guitars and epic soundscapes. Things have become even more grandiose on Wolf’s Law, with the introduction of a string section; was it deliberate, I ask, to try and forge a sonic departure on the new album?

“Not at all. I certainly don’t believe you should ever to try to force anything when you’re writing; you’ve got to experiment, and try and dabble in a bit of everything that appeals to you. You should be pursuing whatever’s exciting you musically. A lot of bands seem to have a pretty rigid structure that they stick to when making records, but  that’d never work for us; you’ve got to be adventurous, you can’t be scared of things going wrong. There’s a lot to be said for trial and error.”

The band’s lack of conventional structure extends to the collaboration between Ritzy and bassist Rhydian Dafydd, who between them comprise the songwriting core of the outfit. “Some songs are more me and others are more him, but we never overthink things; we’re both happy writing together and alone. By the time we finish a lot of our songs, it’s difficult to pin down where my influence ends and Rhydian’s begins, which makes for a very vibrant process, I think.”

Thematically, there’s been a lot of talk about the influence of nature on Wolf’s Law, which, on reflection, Ritzy attributes to the environment the band grew up in. “There’s definitely a lot of metaphor and imagery on the lyrical side of the record that’s inspired by nature,” she says. “I think that comes from myself and Rhydian growing up in North Wales; the surroundings there were very evocative. Nature really informs the imagination.”

Not that the album’s themes only extend to that one concept: “I think we address technology on there as well, and the balancing act of wanting to advance but being careful not to become too disconnected from the real world. There’s a real breadth of themes on the record, which I think is a symptom of the way it was written; when you’re travelling, you’re constantly having your mind stimulated by so many different things. I do think our own personalities anchor the songs on the album, though; there’s personal stuff on there too, about what inspires us and what frustrates us.”

Recognition in rock music doesn’t really come much bigger than the seal of approval from one of the genre’s genuine legends, as The Joy Formidable discovered when Dave Grohl pronounced ‘Whirring’ to be the ‘song of the year’ on Twitter. It marked the beginning of a relationship which saw the band open for Foo Fighters on a slew of U.S. dates, including shows at Madison Square Garden. “It was just an incredible experience all round. They were so good to us. I’d like to think we’d treat up and coming bands that way once we’re a bit more established.”

Taking into account this current jaunt with Bloc Party and the support slots with Muse late last year, there’s clearly a trend developing – perhaps these huge bands know that The Joy Formidable’s epic guitar sound makes them ideal touring partners? “Maybe,” Ritzy ponders. “I do think it’s very flattering to be appreciated by such a diverse range of bands; it proves that we’re multi-dimensional, that we’re not easy to pigeonhole, which is great. It’s a fantastic challenge to have, but, to be honest, nothing beats playing to your own fans, and knowing you’re in front of a crowd that have invested in you, that want you to have a career.”

There’s an obvious divide between the band’s identity in the studio and onstage – check out their party piece, a ten-minute extended version of ‘Whirring’, for proof – and it’s something they’re clearly comfortable with. “You know, I fucking hate going to gigs and hearing a record played exactly as the studio version sounds. We definitely embrace the difference between the two; we never worried about how we were going to make the new songs work live when we were recording. We want to let them breathe.”

Characteristically, exhaustive touring is set to dominate 2013 for The Joy Formidable, but they’ve already got one eye on the next record. “There’s quite a bit of stuff left over from the Maine sessions, actually,” says Ritzy. “And we’ve got an EP in Welsh that we’ve been meaning to get finished for ages now. We’ll keep writing on the road, definitely. We certainly aren’t planning on slowing down any time soon.”

The Joy Formidable play The Ritz on February 28. Wolf’s Law is out now on Atlantic Records

Joe Goggins

Joe Goggins

Music Editor.

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