Interview: The Joy Formidable (Part 1)

By on Tuesday, 12th April 2011 at 12:00 pm

When the Joy Formidable stopped by DC in late March on their campaign to promote ‘The Big Roar’ in North America, I had to opportunity to have a chat with Ritzy Bryan, Rhydian Dafydd and Matt Thomas before the show. In the first half of our interview, they tell me what it was like growing up in North Wales, how South by Southwest went for them and the intervening influence of Tylenol in their lives (yes, really). Read on…

Their answers to our Quickfire Questions can be read here.

Many thanks to Jonny and Joel for setting this up for us.

(So first the discussion is about drink…)
Matt: We’re sticking to this! [points to bottle of Maker’s Mark] And sweet relish… [fingers American relish condiment on table]
Ritzy: Yes, a new Welsh concoction.
Rhydian: [looks dubious] Oh man. Whiskey with relish? Yeah?
Matt: [in jokey voice] I’ll have a whiskey…with relish! [all laugh]
Rhydian: …on the rocks!
Ritzy: [raises bottle of mustard] …with mustard!

Do you have relish – like non-American relish – back in Wales?
Ritzy: Yeah, but it’s more like fine, chopped up tomato with onion. That’s what we call relish.
Matt: Finely chopped leeks with daffodils…
Ritzy: [at Matt accusingly] We don’t eat our daffodils!

So welcome back to Washington, it’s wonderful to have you back here, and this time playing the larger main stage at the Black Cat. I saw you guys for the first time in November playing Backstage, and I remember that being a very exciting night because generally, DC crowds do not mosh. And people we seriously moshing! What do you recall of that night?
Rhydian: We do recall! Yeah, Ritzy used to live in DC so it feels quite special playing here. And we have some friends here, haven’t we? [looks at Ritzy]
Ritzy: It was the first time we’d played here. And I suppose, obviously there is that dreaded thing called nostalgia for me, coming back here and playing our first show here.
Rhydian: And it was the first time Grouplove joined us [on tour], wasn’t it? So I definitely remember it. [to me] And you’re right, the crowd was great. Regardless of how many people are there and whatever the mood is, we genuinely enjoy being onstage. So if someone is a bit reserved, then, we don’t mind, we can give them a little shit and heckle them a bit, but we like to bring people out a little bit.
Ritzy: They made us feel very welcome, and I was sick as well. That was the first day I was really ill.

Oh yeah, really? Was that the food poisoning?
Ritzy: No, I had like a really, really bad cold. I managed to do about four shows with it and then at the end, we ended up cancelling shows. We had one more show before our day off and then we had to cancel it…
Matt: …and that was when my addiction to Tylenol began.
Ritzy: And then we were all sick! [points to Matt] He jokes about it…and actually, that was the very first time we had extra strength Tylenol. Jonny (their tour manager) went out for me before we went on and he came back and said the guy at the pharmacy said, “this is really good shit”…
Rhydian: You make it sound like it’s a really poignant moment. [laughs]
Ritzy: No, listen. The point I’m making is that about two songs in, it felt like someone had given me the biggest, fucking doobie in my life. It was like, “what is this shit?” It was like I was swimming, everything was blurred. I thought I was going to have a laughing fit. Like…fucking hell man, what’s in this stuff?
Rhydian: Before you went onstage, you were like, “it’s cleared it up! Great!” And then you started to look funny…
Ritzy: [laughs] That’s my biggest memory…like, “someone’s shaking the room! Really badly!”
Matt: [in spacey voice] “Wow, there’s four rooms in here!” [all laugh] “Whoa!”
Ritzy: It was probably because it was mixed with a bit of the ol’ Maker’s Mark and the sweet relish. Should have read the instructions.
Rhydian: Not such a good cocktail…
Matt: Not as good as vitamin C and vodka.
Ritzy: [to Matt] But then you developed quite an addiction to it (Tylenol)…
Matt: I did.
Rhydian: He genuinely has got an addiction to Tylenol. He’s not addicted to anything else.
Matt: I haven’t looked at it since…I left it in New York, do you remember? And then we went on the last bit of the tour…
Rhydian: You’ve been talking about it ever since, even on the UK tour…”yeah, I wonder if I’ll get any Tylenol when we’re in the States…”
Matt: [insistent] I’m going to take some Tylenol home.
Ritzy: Matt doesn’t smoke, you don’t do drugs…except Tylenol. We found your weakness!
Rhydian: Your vice!
And you can get it from any drugstore here you want!
Rhydian: Yeah, he opens his jacket and he’s got fuckin’ Tylenol stashes…
Matt: I’ve got every brand and flavour. Lemon flavour…even got watermelon flavour! [thinks for a moment] I don’t think that exists…
Ritzy: They do do watermelon in medicine in the States. Yeah.
Rhydian: Do they?
They’ve got every flavour you’d want…
Matt: Wow, now I’ll be twice as wasted…
Ritzy: They’ve got cherry…

But I think you’re all in the pink of health, I trust, today?
Ritzy: Yeah. Feeling fresh!
Rhydian: This is sort of like joins our UK and European tour, isn’t it?
Ritzy: If you look at it on paper, we should all be dead. We started on the 29th of January and…
Matt: …and had a couple of days off…
Oh wow.
Ritzy: But it’s all good.
Matt: Did the UK, Europe, then flew straight to Atlanta.
Rhydian: It’s really nice to be here, because actually the drives are really nice. Okay, they’re long, but you get to see the country. And the weather’s been quite nice compared to the UK and Europe, and I dunno, think we generally we like touring over here.
Well, we like to hear that!
Rhydian: And the beaches and places like that. It invigorates the spirit, it does! [smiles]

So tell me what it’s like to be from North Wales. I’ve never been to Wales before…and how do you think it shaped you as musicians, as a band? What is the music scene like?
Rhydian: First of all, where we are, right at the top of North Wales, almost near the border, it’s pretty different from the rest of Wales. We’re sometimes lumped in what’s across the border, such as Liverpool and Manchester, and maybe there’s a bit of struggle with identity. There haven’t been a hell of a lot of artists coming from or at least had recognition from where we are in North Wales.
Ritzy: The last band, honestly, I think, was the Alarm, wasn’t it?
Rhydian: Yeah, there hasn’t been that many reference points. So, you know, you could say that it’s a bit of a struggle but it also really makes you to find out what you are about, as it was. Kinda strange growing up there. Beautiful place, great backdrop, beautiful landscapes and so forth. I suppose a bit of a love/hate relationship with it because of almost a schizophrenic nature of your identity. I am a native Welsh speaker first and foremost, and it was strange because, as I tell people, I got as much shit for speaking Welsh as I did for speaking English, you know? It’s a weird kind of melting pot going on there. Now I look back on it fondly, because it lends itself to creativity and finding yourself your own identity. We never had a thing trying to be a Welsh band. You know, great artists have no country. It feels like that to us, anyway. We’ve always locked ourselves away in our own bubble, that’s how we’ve always recorded. We’ve lived in loads of different places, but we never felt part of a scene…
Ritzy: Well I suppose maybe that’s the reason we turned to music, originally. I think I turned to music initially for me, because of where we lived, and it was quite isolated, and I was an only child, definitely it was something I could escape into. It was like definitely something that could pass the time. I don’t know about my bandmates, but…
Rhydian: That’s the beautiful but lonely element to where we grew up. Yeah, absolutely. Like a extreme dichotomy.

So what kind of music were you listening to, growing up?
Rhydian: So many, really. Ritzy’s parents had this absolutely huge record collection. [to Ritzy] Didn’t they? [Ritzy nods] You had a very good start, in that sense.
Ritzy: Yeah. Well, I always say it could have gone both ways. They were so obsessed with collecting records and bootlegging! You were either going to share their passion and embrace it with them or think, “fuck this! It’s the bane of my life!” A lot of stuff…my very first concert was Elvis Costello and the Attractions. I was only about 8 years old. I think I fell asleep before the encore. But I remember, you know, being transfixed and going, “wow! Why is he putting on all those angry faces! And he’s really going for it!” Just really cool being pulled into his world. Definitely not understanding the message at that age, but definitely feeling the power and conviction. And then Springsteen after that. He’s still, to me, the ultimate performer. Love or hate him, what he brings in his live performance is undeniably unique and special. A lot of energy and passion. And how much joy he brings to people who watch him, because he seems to be loving every moment. He can’t be loving every moment! Surely, there’s one night when he goes onstage and thinks, “I can’t really be arsed to go on tonight. I’m not doing a 2 and a half hour set, I’m going to bed!” Surely there’s one night?
Rhydian: Yeah, but people say that to us, don’t they? But…genuinely, at this point, it’s an honour and a privilege to get up there and play your own songs up there. You shouldn’t take it lightly. Far too many bands are in a fucking band just for the sake of it. So, yeah, it’s commitment. That kind of influence has been really important.
Ritzy: And Matt, he has lots and lots of eclectic things. He’s into loads of different stuff.
Matt: Yeah, loads of crazy stuff!
Rhydian: Tends to be the way with drummers as well, isn’t it?
Matt: Yeah, the rhythmic element!
Rhydian: Spans a lot of stuff. Jazz…

[to Matt] So what’s in your collection that people would be surprised you have?
Ritzy: Oh no, this should go off the record!
Matt: Basically, it’s a lot of songs I wrote about Tylenol, with really odd signatures. Like 15/16 and stuff like that. [starts singing] “Tylenol…” [bangs table] “It’s been real fun…”
Rhydian: The scary part is, that could actually happen. Anyone who knows Matt know that could happen! [Matt laughs] I grew up listening to Hendrix and that ‘60s stuff, and then it was a gateway to listen to all sorts of things, not necessarily a genre. It comes down to good music and bad music, really.

Last week you played at South by Southwest in Austin. I was very thankful that NPR decided to tape and stream your set at the Parish for everyone to see. How did South by Southwest go for you guys?

Rhydian: We were just saying before, it went really great. Again, a gig is a gig, we went there not worrying about, you know, some kind of industry bullshit. We had a bunch of shows out there to start our (American) tour, our album is out here now. A show is a show, and you’re committed. It was chaotic, and we actually reveled in that. You get thrown on…and it was good fun in that respect.
Ritzy: We’re quite chill with shows like that. No pressure, like we haven’t got anything to prove. We’re really happy with the way we are and what we’re doing, and we don’t want to change anything. So for us…
Rhydian: It was just like a gig in Austin…we’d never played there before.
Was there a particular place you enjoyed playing, or an audience that resonated with you?
Rhydian: They were all great.
Ritzy: There were eight shows…and then the ninth show was fun, we did an evening show…
Rhydian: Buffalo Billiards? Yeah, that was a good one. That was nice.
Ritzy: And the evening atmosphere was slightly different in some respects…
Matt: And then the record shop?
Ritzy: The bicycle shop was a good one!
There was a show in a bicycle shop?
Rhydian: Yeah! We thought it was going to be a fucking motorcycle shop. No, it was like playing in Halford’s or something. It was weird. But it strangely worked. It was fun.
So I guess you get all the tree huggers I guess, then? [all laugh]
Matt: They were hugging trees after the gig. Let me tell you… “I need some calm!”
Ritzy: It’s actually very hard to choose. They were all…we went there with no expectations and we hoped people would come see us. And we had crowds for every, every single show! It was very big and very welcoming. So that connection felt great to us,
Rhydian: Play every show like it’s your last! That’s the way to do it…like you’re going to get knocked over by a bus the minute you walk offstage.
Matt: I’d rather be knocked over by something cooler…
Ritzy: Like a steamroller.
A Segway?
Rhydian: No, a Tylenol truck.
Matt: “It was the Tylenol that killed him!”

Keep an eye out on TGTF for the second part of this interview coming soon.

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