Interview: The Joy Formidable (Part 2)

By on Thursday, 14th April 2011 at 2:00 pm

In the second part of my in-person interview with the Joy Formidable in Washington on the 25th of March, we talk about their debut album ‘The Big Roar’, Rhydian’s album artwork and the little hole in the wall club they used to go to when they were younger.

Missed part 1 of the interview? Never fear, you can read it here.

Again, cheers to Jonny and Joel for setting this up for us at TGTF.

Let’s talk about the album, as it’s just come out over here (15 March in America). How did you approach the writing and recording of this album vs. the EP (‘A Balloon Called Moaning’) released last year. How do you guys work, is it a continuous process?
Rhydian: It’s all been pretty similar. We have a studio in what is essentially our bedroom, it’s a tiny wing in the corner where we can get our ideas down whenever we please, and that’s really important to us.
Ritzy: It’s very simple set-up.
Matt: I wouldn’t say it’s a studio…
Ritzy: I was about to say…we’ve got to find a new word for it. Because if we said “in our studio” to someone, they would probably piss their pants laughing. They would say, “are you serious? The computer with leads coming out of it? This is the shittest studio I’ve ever seen!”
Matt: “You have to rotate it slightly to the left to get volume to come out of the right speaker!”
Ritzy: “And someone has to lie on top of one of the speakers to make the other one to come on.”
Rhydian: All you really need these days is a laptop, and you can do that anywhere, can’t you? So it’s very location based. The fact that it’s always been in our room, and A) we can get ideas down whenever we please, and 2) it’s almost like a claustrophobic kind of space, so it ends being kind of an obsession and it hasn’t always been easy. But we don’t want to change that, we haven’t changed that for the entire breadth of all our recordings, we’ve just had…you know, we wanted this time around, we wanted live drums on it for Matty because he’s been a great addition to the dynamic (between Ritzy and me) and when we needed it to be powerful in the mixing, we wanted to replicate that, and that’s why we got Rich Costey in and our live engineer to help out as well. But essentially, our framework has been the same.
Ritzy: Yeah, the approach hasn’t changed. With Matt, it’s been great to capture what he’s brought to us rhythmically and dynamically…
Matt: “…his Tylenol influenced beats…”
Rhydian: And that’s why we did the some of the same songs. I know with some people it was a tiny bit of a sore point early on, but when ‘A Balloon Called Moaning’ came along, we shared that quite early on, and it was almost like a tour CD, you know? We always had ‘The Big Roar’ in our minds and these tracks work together and to see them fully realized with Matty playing drums playing on it was important to us.
Ritzy: Absolutely.

So you mentioned Rich Costey…his name comes up a lot in UK recordings. How did you get involved with him?
Rhydian: It was a suggestion from our label. You know, we’ve done everything on our own up until now, so we don’t care what your name is, how big you are, you’ve got to work with the band. We had a real honest courtship thing. It’s all about trust. So many people fuck it up, especially when you’ve been doing it yourself for so long.
Ritzy: He’s obviously very talented, and we liked the work he did for Muse and Interpol. But as Rhydian said, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be a great fit for what you want your sonic vision is for your own tracks. We went over there, we spent some time, did a few tracks and he did some bits and pieces with us, and it went really well. He was really intuitive and we were thinking the same things…and you know, we had a very limited time for him as well to mix in, and so the relationship was good. We could hand it over and trust that we could “get there”.
At the end of the day, the music is your baby, and you want to make sure it’s well cared for.
Ritzy: Certainly. Yeah, we tracked it ourselves, we’re so close to it as a body of work. It’s not like it’s been overthought, it’s not like we kept going back to it. We tracked it very quick. But we know every little nuance, every moment in the record, and the mixing part is such an integral. Alongside that, we wanted to keep every nuance and that charm, we definitely did not want it suddenly become so polished or sort of have things left out that we held so dear because it captured a moment for us. So it had to be…
Rhydian: The fact that we didn’t have much time was hard, because it’s all about the subtleties as well. If something’s slightly out of volume, you go, “no, that’s not giving the vibe we had in mind.” It’s all about what’s realising up here [points to his head] and when you haven’t got much time, even when you trust someone, they inevitably get it wrong, there’s nothing like you being able to do it yourself. But we got there, we got there, didn’t we?
Ritzy: He’s a very talented guy. Absolutely. The difference between the demos that we had, you know, they’re exactly the same in the feel and the vibe, and the power he brought to them is undeniable. So definitely, we need to mention Neak Menter, our live engineer, it’s the first time we worked with him on a record as well. He knows our live sound, so he’d definitely been an important collaborator with us on this album.

Speaking of the album…so Rhydian, I hear you draw these.
Rhydian: Yeah.
Ritzy: [smiles] He sure does.
From where did this artistic expression come about? Have you always drawn?
Rhydian: Yeah, I’ve always done all kinds of stuff, not just line drawings. But yeah, it’s a pleasure to do it with the band because it seems to tie in with the story (of our band) and a real extension to the songs, being able to somehow the meaning across that isn’t just…you know, we’re involved in everything, so including the videos, all the visuals. And even though it’s me drawing, we jam ideas. Well, when I say “jam”, it’s more like, “this is the visualisation I am getting from the meaning of this song” and “what about this? and that?” That’s something else we wouldn’t want to change, because I think it adds something to the songs. We certainly didn’t want to have this commissioned work that looks, stylistically, current and cool and fresh but actually says fuck all about your music. I’d prefer have it be utterly fucking awful and have a bit of charm about it and (have it) actually say something. Same with the videos and been able to do them under $200 budgets. For us, they piss on other things that have been done on a milion pound budgets that don’t say anything and have no charm. Yeah, maybe they look slick, but I’m fucking yawning after the first 10 seconds. Yeah, so it’s nice to do it.

I think it lends something very special when you know a band member has actually done the artwork, instead of as you said, someone random, like a photographer providing a picture, and as a fan, you think, “what is this, in relation to the music at all?”
Rhydian: That can work as well. We’re not trying to fly these flags like, “it has to be us, we’re the only ones capable of doing anything interesting”, of course not. When it feels right…
Ritzy: I think it came quite naturally, because we put so much detail into the record, we wanted to follow through on everything. The artwork, the box set…
Rhydian: And also, it’s nice to challenge people. For instance, sometimes the lyrics aren’t direct, you don’t get them straightaway at first glance, so (as a fan) you have to invest. I think there’s an element where you have to challenge people. Same goes for the album (‘The Big Roar’), you know the format. We really wanted to celebrate that and not just give people fucking 2 to 3 minutes of single formulas all the time. I can see that from the reviews, some people are saying, “this is dragging on!” Well, it’s because you have to invest in it! The first song(‘The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie’) is 8 minutes long. If you did that in the ’70s people would be, “whatever”. You do it now, people think, “holy shit!” Some people think it’s the fucking greatest track on the entire album, and some people think it’s fucking boring. It’s that element of needing to challenge people, that’s what I’m saying . And with the album, and the artwork, it’s nice to be able to give a slant to the lyrics because they’re not always there in your face, at face value. They both tie together to create some medium.

The album format…since you brought it up…what is your opinion of the digital age? People downloading individual mp3s, for example. Did you want to make the album such that it could be consumed as a whole album, continuously from start to finish?
Ritzy: Oh yeah.
Rhydian: I think you would miss things if you had just as (the tracks individually, not as an album) that way.
Ritzy: I think the way it flows, yeah, the moments between songs. It was definitely conceived in a way that it’s meant to be listened to. For us, we definitely wanted to celebrate the entire collection. And I suppose the flow and structure, it’s definitely very considered. The songs aren’t put down in any old order.
Rhydian: And it’s almost not to do with being on CD or vinyl, it’s more to do with it being a body of work that you invest in more than 3 minutes. I suppose what I’m saying that it’s not a retro thing, it comes back to the thing about challenging and investing comes back into play, where you actually have to have a little bit of patience.
I almost feel like I tend to like songs that go beyond the regular radio 3 minutes, because nowadays you are forced, in a way, to get the whole album to get those tracks. If they ever showed up on the radio, they end up being radio edits, and the best bits are cut out.

My favourite track on the album is ‘The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade’. I was wondering if you’d be so kind and willing to share what the song means to you?

Rhydian: [looks at Ritzy] This is yours.
Ritzy: Oh man…it’s always difficult. I’ll give you an overview, because I’m not a big fan of dissecting lyrics. It was written in North Wales, and it’s definitely celebrates the area we are from, the view, how picturesque it is. Over the last couple of years I’ve definitely had a big, big struggle with my life in North Wales and the slight need to escape from it as well. I suppose it suggests trying to find something that’s better that you maybe can see in the distance that’s coming closer, but for the time being, you’re slightly stuck where you are. There’s that hope for something that could be magnified…
Rhydian: It’s like that beauty in the loneliness almost, isn’t it?
Ritzy: Very much so.
Rhydian: It’s personal circumstances, without delving too much into that, yeah. It encapsulates to us what this album is about. It’s eternally optimistic while recognising the turmoil as well, whereas I think maybe ‘A Balloon Called Moaning’ was always about a struggle for optimism. I think ‘The Big Roar’ recognises the turbulence. That’s maybe, without the risk of sounding completely fucking nuts, it’s healing a little bit, because it’s been a couple difficult years (for us).
Ritzy: I suppose the most important thing is that every line in that song has a lot of meaning. When it was written, it certainly was very emotively penned track at the time. And that’s where my shyness in dissecting it comes in. Definitely emotional to me.

DC doesn’t always get all the bands coming through here, so I was very excited to see you were playing here for this tour.
Rhydian: Actually, it seems like that DC is actually full of discerning listeners. But that doesn’t always, I suppose, make for “let’s go see a show!” You have to be really into it to go (to gigs).
It’s definitely getting better, with venues being able to draw better bands and more eclectic bands, and people are more willing to go out to the smaller clubs. And One reason I wanted to be a blogger was I wanted bands to know that there’s definitely a community here that want to see good bands. When you were in Wales, where did you see bands?
Ritzy: Oh man. There was this one club…
Rhydian: Not many!
Ritzy: It was down the road…not a big deal in the states, but it was within driving distance and you couldn’t take a bus, so you had to plan it. [to Rhydian] It was a bit of a plan, wasn’t it? It was called Buckley Tivoli. We caught it just at the back end of Britpop. The guy who owned it had been in the industry for a long time, it’s changed hands since then. But this guy had a lot of contacts and could drag a lot of nationally known bands off their big tours and say, “hey, you want to come play this shit hole in North Wales?” And a lot of them did!
Rhydian: It was the only place you could see touring bands.
Ritzy: It fit about 350. And it wasn’t strict on the IDs, so if you were underage…I think the first night we went, it was very important to get to know everyone there. Introducing yourself, flashing your ID with your thumb on the birth year. Just play the game a little bit. Yeah, we used to go there every week. Every week, there’s always be a really, really good band.
Rhydian: That was it.
Ritzy: That was our world. It meant everything to us. We’d buy our tickets in a fucking tie shop in this village, because that’s where you would buy your tickets from.

Wow, I’m starting to feel really thankful to be where I am.
Ritzy: It was a big fucking deal. Yeah, like I said, it meant everything to us.
Rhydian: And then it got turned into this party club. Bands like Oasis and Nirvana had played there. All the great bands played there.
Ritzy: We didn’t see any of those, because they played there just before we went there. We’d have been very little then! We saw Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, and lots of really good bands that passed through.
Rhydian: And maybe because it wasn’t this abundance on our doorstep, I suppose, maybe that’s where this slightly otherworldly and optimistic…although maybe not always optimistic, but hopeful element comes from. I dunno. When something’s on your lap all the time, you don’t have to work for it so hard for it, you appreciate it.
Ritzy: That was for the first time we first became aware of each other, I suppose, because I used to see him [Rhydian] at this club. [points to Rhydian] I knew you were a dreadful drunk! You know it’s true…
Matt: Were? He still is!
Ritzy: I used to watch him… [to Rhydian] You used to run home from the club!
Rhydian: Oh yeah…
Ritzy: Like that… [does funny arm and leg gestures, presumbly imitating Rhydian’s drunk gait] All the way back down the hill. I used to get a lift from my parents if I could blag a lift. And we’d see you running. [laughs]
Matt: He’d be trying to figure out which leg was shorter than the other…
Rhydian: It was definitely an interesting place to grow up in, where we were.
Matt: There are pictures. You better hope they don’t get out!
Ritzy: Hide that one!
Matt: Exactly. I’m nervous! Even I don’t want them getting out…
Rhydian: Hey, I’ve got pictures of you guys, don’t worry about that!
This is the problem when you know your band mates back in childhood…!
Ritzy: I know. I dread to think about it!

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