We speak to the most exciting British rock band of the decade about cabins, kick drums and fisherman’s friends.
In a modern musical landscape ridden with soulless dance-pop and generic land-fill indie (I’m looking at YOU Mumford and Sons!), the Joy Formidable stand out like a red flag in a sea of beige. Almost metallic in their intensity and home to one of the most distinctive voices in modern rock music (imagine a female fronted Smashing Pumpkins and you’re half way there), it’s easy to see why they have been making waves at home and across the pond (where their music has been sampled by The Lonely Island and they have been asked by the band themselves to open for The Foo Fighters) and their recently released second album ‘Wolfs Law’ should (if there was any justice in the world) see them becoming household names in 2013. Catching up with THAT VOICE (the indelible and undeniably gorgeous Ritzy Bryan) though on a cold Tuesday afternoon in January, you could be forgiven for thinking they were just starting out on their road to rock supremacy, such is the humble grace with which they hold themselves.
Ritzy Bryan: Hi how are you?
Subba-Cultcha: Not too bad thanks, cold as shit but yeah who isn’t today?
RB: Indeed, so where are you calling from?
SC: Just outside of Birmingham and it’s grim. How’s Liverpool? You’re playing there tonight right? It’s not like fucking Narnia up there too is it?
RB: (laughs) Yeah we’re just getting setup for soundcheck. The snow’s actually thawed quite a bit over night, it was pretty snowy last night when we were travelling up and we weren’t sure if we were going to feel the full brunt of it today but it’s actually warmed up a bit in Liverpool it would seem.
SC: See I’ve always found Liverpool to be a pretty warm play to play a gig in general (no pun intended).
RB: It is yeah, and they’re great with their heckling. Which we like. I love a good heckle.
SC: I’d have thought your music was a little too loud to warrant any hecklers. What’s your go-to comeback for a good heckle?
RB: It depends on how witty it is. I like a good witty heckle and a good witty heckle deserves a good witty response. I actually had a bad throat when we were back here at the end of the Autumn last year and it was well known that I was suffering through a really bad flu so the crowd were chucking fisherman’s friends on stage. Which was just genius, and actually very considerate (laughs). They care. They brought me medicine.
SC: You’re fans are obviously a cut above! Anyway enough of illness and fisherman’s friends. The album. It’s just great. I mean I just finished reviewing it and gave it a 9 out of 10 so that should tell you all you need to know about my thoughts on it. Probably my album of the year thus far which I guess is a bit of a backhanded compliment considering we’re less than a month into the year.
RB: (laughs) I’ll take it anyway thank you.
SC: I think if you compare it to the big roar album it’s a little bit more… singy… if that’s a word. I mean there’s still ball busting riffs and mad drums but the melodies seem more pronounced, especially when you take something like ‘The Silent Treatment’ which, honestly wouldn’t really have fit on the early record at-all, it’s almost like an Elliot Smith song. Did you set out to make a more melodic record?
RB: Definitely yeah it’s a lot more vocal certainly, and lyrically there’s a much stronger approach on this album. The lyrics have always been important to this band but it anchors everything a bit more here because of the approach to the songwriting. We basically wrote all the songs, initially on just one instrument (usually the piano or the guitar) with just the vocals and lyrics and I like how everything is sort of built on those bare bones, which is where the lyrical theme of the record lies, and that theme gives the record a kind of cohesion that’s really strong.
SC: But then again in the same breath there’s like Bats, which is like the heaviest thing you’ve done, it even has a double kick in it, something you never really hear outside of thrash metal. And ‘Maw Maw’ song for some reason reminds of of Led Zepplin’s ‘Immigrant Song’
RB: Well yeah you know, Matt Thomas has been at the old double kick drum for a while now. I think he’s a bit of a metaller at heart.
SC: So when you sit down to write do you tend to do it lyrics first or melody first?
RB: It changes from song to song. ‘Wolf’s Law’ for example was written more like a poem to begin with and then the music was born from that. But there’s no formula to our songwriting, there’s tracks on the album where the very first seed was a guitar riff or beat or vocal effect but even though they all had different starting points we still went through the process of stripping them back and keeping those early embers in mind as the songs grew and progressed. Some have even kept that stripped back approach when you look at ‘Silent Treatment’ and ‘Turnaround’ and even ‘Wolfs Law’, but then others have gone off in all kinds of different directions and we couldn’t be happier with that.
SC: Did you write any of this album while you were on the road touring the last one or did you write it all (as you say in the press notes) hunkered away in a little cabin in Maine? The whole idea sounds a bit like that first Bon Iver album.
RB: Well it’s half bollocks (laughs) because a lot of it was actually written on the road, but yeah all of it was tracked in a cabin in Portland Maine,hat much is true. Apart from the orchestra which we tracked in London. Everything else though, all the other instrumentation and vocals was done in Portland and a huge bulk of the writing that was done over a period of 4 weeks we spent in Portland, squirrelled away because it was the only free time we had away from touring in 2011 and 2012. But no matter where we are there’s always some writing going on, some ‘dabbling’ even if we’re touring. On touring the first record for instance we’d been constantly writing over the course of about 18 months and it’s a different type of writing because there’s so much inspiration on the road, it brings a lot of variety into your observations and imagination but sometimes it’s difficult to get a handle of where everything’s going and we felt like we needed the time to reflect and consolidate and look at all the material we’d accumulated and that’s when we stopped and decided to ship off to Portland.
SC: I’ve always thought that songwriting’s almost like a muscle that becomes sort of flabby and fat when you don’t use it for a while so I can see why you have that tendency to keep writing and keep pushing yourself.
RB: (laughs) I definitely think there’s some truth in that, but at the same time I’m totally at peace with not writing for long periods. I think it’s an amazing thing that should never be forced and that’s what’s part of the lifestyle of this band. We dip or don’t dip as much as we do or don’t need to put it’s constantly part of the lifestyle of the band and I think anything other than that would feel quite unusual. The thing with bands is that they tour and then they go in the studio and that’s the first time they think about their next body of work and that doesn’t feel natural to me at-all just trying to turn it on or force it. I think with songwriting it’s important to sort of live in the moment and if they come quickly then great but if they don’t, not to overanalyse it too much or it might ruin it to a degree.
SC: What’s Portland actually like, did it remind you of home in Wales at-all?
RB: Well it’s very sleepy, I mean we were about an hour outside of the main city. A lot of people have been confusing it with Portland, Oregon and it couldn’t be further from there really.
SC: It’s not that far from New York is it?
RB: I think it’s about a 7 or 8 hour drive.
SC: Yeah but in American terms that’s nothing is it? Just a stones throw.
RB: Yeah like popping to the corner shop (laughs). But no we loved it and yeah it did remind us a lot of our roots back in North Wales where it was very rural, peaceful and beautiful. A great place to go and lose yourself completely, lose track of time and be consumed by the album with no distractions. There was no phone signal and no fucking wi-fi and when you contrast that with our days on the road it’s as far removed as possible. But that’s what we wanted.
SC: You grew up in Mold didn’t you? I actually grew up just outside of Mold in Nannerch.
RB: Really? Bloody hell small world. We actually have a fellow Nannerchians of yours on the bus at the moment. Mr Adam Walton who’s from those parts and he’s just popped in to say hello to us today. He’s having a can of sprite at the front of the bus as we speak.
SC: Fucking hell drinking sprite on a bus. Living the dream eh?
RB: (laughs) Well we know what you Nannerch lads are like.
SC: Oh hell yeah. Makes Vegas look like Grimsby. Anyway back to music. How did you first get in contact with Andy Wallace? He seems on paper like pretty much the ideal guy for you lot because his CV is so divisive between pop and rock and metal and… everything.
RB: Well like you we’ve always been massive fans of his work and obviously it’s always tricky to figure out if that’s creatively going to align with where you want to go. But we heard through the grapevine he was a fan of the band and we sent the early demos for the album to him and got a conversation going. with him. From the start it just felt natural. It’s actually one of the finest collaborative moments of our career so far. It was intuitive, fun, exciting, I think he brought so many things to the production that we’d never have dreamed of. More than anything though it’s great to have another set of ears that you can trust and he was a complete pleasure to work with.
SC: As a musician who’s always worked on my own, when recording anyway. I’m kind of interested to know exactly where the distinction between ‘producer’ and ‘engineer’ lies exactly. Specifically for you?
RB: I think that’s the beautiful thing about making music, there are no rules really. I think the main thing is that you find a relationship withs somebody you feel comfortable with and you haven’y got this bullshit ego line being drawn, it’s about what the song deserves and there were ideas floating around all over the place. There are obviously boundaries between producer and band in some circumstances but in this instance there really was none, it was all very fluid and the vibe was so collaborative. Needless to say he did far more than just twiddling nobs and sliding faders. We loved those 3 weeks we spent in New York with him.
SC: I think one of the best thing about the album is that there’s lots of little odd touches on the record that kind of make it as interesting as it is. Like on ‘Cholla’ (if I said it right) there’s the ‘wyah wyah’ sounds and there’s like some bass on ‘Tendons’ that sounds like bizarre mouth noises too.
RB: You pronounced the single right so good on you.
SC: Really? At first I assumed you were singing about someone called ‘Julia’
RB: You’re not the first person to say that actually (laughs). But yeah there was a lot of experimentation going on but that all happened when we were tracking in the cabin really. We’ve always been interested in the ‘voice’ of an instrument and all the different tones and textures you can get out of a voice, be it choral or synthetic. It’s just a way of making it more fun. One of the ‘sonic signatures’ of the album, which I thin you’ve picked up on, is the use of the voice in an unconventional way, exploring all the different flavours of a vocal line. ‘Maw Maw’ has a lot of that.
SC: ‘Texture’ is definitely the word I’d use most when describing the record yeah. Especially the title track, which is almost like a post-rock song in a Mogwai or Sigur Ros vein.
RB: Yeah and obviously it’s very piano driven at the same time but in general there’s a lot of breadth. It’s very unconscious to us but then when you look back on the body of work you’ve made it’s a great thing to have that variety. I look back to albums that I’ve loved when I was growing up and all my iconic, classic albums have that intricacy where you hear different things on every listen. So that’s what we’re trying to tap into I guess, at least unconsciously, and we always allow the song to lead, we try to make sure there’s no formula and the song goes wherever it needs to go. At the end of the day it’s all about pushing the envelope as much as possible.
SC: And you’re doing a fine job. Speaking of the intricacies of the album my abiding thought whilst listening to it for the first time was “how the hell are you going to pull this off live with just the three of you?”. You don’t have some wizard hidden under the stage did you?
RB: (laughs) Well you’re just going to have to come and see us and find out, have a cheeky peek. Anyway I’ve got to go but thanks for the chat.
SC: I will most certainly do that. Thanks Ritzy, good luck with tonight and with the album. Take care.
RB: Bye love, you too.
Wolf’s Law is OUT NOW on Atlantic Records