Published on July 3rd, 2010 | by Lisa McInerney3
Interview With The Joy Formidable
The demented drummer. The deep-thinking bassist. The “little pistol” of a frontwoman. The Joy Formidable might seem like a rock band made up of the usual suspects, but when culch.ie muscled in for a chat with Ritzy and Rhydian on their recent Irish tour, we were soon put right. Also about pop tarts, Australians, and why you shouldn’t meet your heroes. They put us right on quite a lot of things, now that we think about it. Quite possibly it’s been overdue. Anyway, enjoy!
Hello, The Joy Formidable! How did you lot come about, then? Didn’t you two (Ritzy and Rhydian, above right) go to school together?
Ritzy: We did, but there were a lot of missed opportunities! We spent a lot of our school years more talking about the possibilities of writing music together …
Rhydian: Well, you were a year younger, weren’t you? We knew each other, but it’s not like we were super close. We were both guitarists, both singer-songwriters.
Ritzy: We kept saying, “Should we play together? Do some stuff …” But it didn’t transpire until many years later. We took the long way round, I suppose!
Rhydian: I had a band in Manchester, and I was looking for a guitarist. I gave Ritzy a call, and she said, “Yeah, I’ll give it a go!” The band’s obviously disbanded now…
Sidecar Kisses, wasn’t it?
Rhydian: Tricky Nixon! Even before that! But things went a little strange for us in Manchester, so we moved back to Wales, and that’s when we started writing stuff for this band. And that’s when the whole dynamic between us started properly. That was two, two and a half years ago…
Two years?! But there’s all that buzz, the EP, the hot gigs, your own club night … and you’re saying it’s only been two years?
Ritzy: It’s been very full on. The writing process was probably the most serene period. We’d had such a shitty time and we needed to just concentrate on the music again, just start … well, enjoying it again. I think a lot of the fun had been carved out, and the love of it. We got into this because we both loved music, both loved writing. We needed the time to get to grips with the whole thing again. But as soon as we moved to London, it got very full-on.
And then there was A Balloon Called Moaning…
Rhydian: … which is quite a chronological snapshot of where we were at the time. We’d been writing for nine months or so before that.
Ritzy: We were quite prolific. We wrote A Lot.
Rhydian: We were writing up to the release of the EP.
Ritzy: Yeah, there was no dicking about! There wasn’t a middle man, so we were able to be quite spontaneous.
Rhydian: There was no big strategy. Obviously, people want to have stuff to play, so whenever it felt right, we’d go with a release.
That sounds refreshingly rock n’ roll…
Rhydian: Yeah, there’s a kind of truth to the process. You like the music, you go see the show. No hyper build-ups.
Rhydian: We keep each other buoyant. Matt is like a demented little animal. He’s constantly up.
A demented drummer? Are you sure?
Rhydian: Oh yeah. And he’d happily agree with that.
Ritzy: We have never, ever seen Matt unhappy. Maybe if his drum kit burned to the ground.
Rhydian: It’s a very easy dynamic. Obviously me and Ritzy have known each other a long time, so there’s a mutual respect. We’re both very passionate, don’t get me wrong, and we get into loads of arguments, but it’s for all the right reasons, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. And ever since Matt joined, the dynamic’s been … well, so easy! And we’ve been gigging non-stop, and you really have to be good with one another to do that.
And you’re heading into another long stint – touring in Australia. Have you been before? Have you built a fan base there? Or do you consider it an introductory tour?
Rhydian: We’ve not been, and it’s a great introduction – we’re touring with The Temper Trap and Passion Pit!
Ritzy: Again! We’re looking forward to seeing these guys again. With both those bands, it started off as an appreciation of each other’s music, and that’s still there, but we’ve become close as well. We’re looking forward to seeing The Temper Trap play on their home turf as well. Maybe they’ll make us [does shocking Aussie accent] a big barbie.
Rhydian: Hmph. We’re not going to see proper Australian weather. It’s winter over there.
I suppose the laziest and easiest way to describe you to the uninitiated (and we’re definitely guilty of that here at culch.ie) is to say, “Think Howling Bells. Think Pretty Girls Make Graves”. Feisty frontwoman and the lads … is that kind of description or comparison useful? Something to be exploited?
Rhydian: I think we’re quite different, in that sense. You’ll get certain comparisons, won’t you? “A female in a three piece guitar band?! They must be like Yeah Yeah Yeahs!” We don’t concern ourselves with it too much. I mean, Ritzy’s certainly feisty, don’t get me wrong. But so am I. She’s not the dictator. I mean, we started this together.
Ritzy: This kind of thing is mostly bullshit, isn’t it? I don’t like talking about the gender thing. I’m sorry. To me, it’s just about being good songwriters. And a lot of the time, when people focus on the female musician, they’re not talking about what a great songwriter she is. It’s all about styling, whether she’s hot. And our songs aren’t gender-specific. They’re not about your fucking boyfriend or your fucking love life…
Rhydian: Or how rock and roll you are. The true spirit of rebellion is not to talk about how fucking rock and roll you are!
Ah, but have you heard how Shirley Manson of Garbage described you? “That little pistol of a girl is one to watch”?
[Lots of giggles from both]
Ritzy: Well, that’s a huge compliment coming from Shirley Manson. I mean, talking about women in music? She’s holding her own. And she’s got great songs. And a great voice.
Rhydian: What annoys me at the moment is the commercialisation of the feisty female. It’s being able to hold your own, knowing your mind; that’s where the real strength comes in. Going back to people like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde, people who weren’t just selling the whole “rock and roll chick thing”. Now it’s so vacuous. It’s time again for someone with something to say. I don’t want to generalise, but there’s a lot of women-fronted acts that are doing women a disservice. It’s the way music is these days, though. It’s all done for the attention. It’s basically … well, it’s like being a slag, isn’t it?! Just become more and more available, and sluttish, and “Oh, no, I’m taking control! I have decided to be like this!” Well, ok, but you want to see something behind it!
Ritzy: Yeah, but that’s more pop, isn’t it?
Rhydian: It fucks everything up though.
Ritzy: Yeah, but that isn’t a very truthful feminine form anyway. It’s controlled by a “higher power”.
Rhydian: You have to remember that people like Janis Joplin and The Pretenders were pop.
Ritzy: But they’re iconic now. There was plenty of that other bullshit going round at the same time. Things haven’t changed that much.
Rhydian: So, who’s a great voice for women now in music? [Incredulously] Lady Gaga?
Ritzy: I’m not saying that. There’s the girl from Fight Like Apes. She’s pretty fucking cool.
On the pop side of things, I’m really liking Marina and The Diamonds. She seems nice and mouthy, like her gob runs away on her…
Rhydian: Yeah, but that’s what I think things get sold on. That’s exactly what I mean. But it’s quite hard, isn’t it? I mean, as soon as you find something that people like, do you push that angle? Anyway, we’re getting too bogged down.
It’s getting a bit intense…
Rhydian: And we didn’t want to talk about gender! And I’ve been going on for about a quarter of an hour!
Back to the obvious stuff, so. Who were your influences growing up?
Rhydian: What got me into playing guitar was Hendrix. That got me into all the sixties stuff; that was the doorway. But now it’s anything, really, from classical, to dance, to guitar bands. We’re listening to a lot of Foals at the moment.
Ritzy: The National, too. And I’ve yet to get the latest LCD Soundsystem album.
So, Popinjay’s the “new” single – the big, introductory single – and yet it’s like your sixth release or something!
Ritzy: Well, there was A Balloon Called Moaning, but even while we were writing that, there was always going to be a full-length album too. We’re pretty much finished that now. Not that there isn’t a crossover to Balloon, because there are a few tracks on both, but a lot of it is new material, and Popinjay is one of those songs.
Rhydian: If we’d have released another song from Balloon, that would have made four. It was time for a change.
Ritzy: There were a lot of “fake” ones released too. Like Greyhounds In The Slips, that was a collaboration, but it was like, “we recorded it, so let’s get it out there”. So when people say that we’re on our 6th single, it’s like … Ehhh, not really! But we don’t want to argue too much!
Rhydian: Either way, it was time to find a new track.
Ritzy: Yeah, and we are moving towards an album release. We’re still not sure timing-wise, but we’re definitely ready to share it! We are very happy with it.
The video for Popinjay is fairly spectacular, isn’t it? And you have a lot of input into your videos … Jesus, where do you find the time?!
Ritzy: Every single one’s been close to a nervous breakdown-instigator. You have to start doing your videos two months before the single is released. At that time, there’s a flurry of ideas, but the actual thought of executing them always makes me feel sick.
Rhydian: We have to be creative with budgets as well. There’s a lack of resources and all that!
Ritzy: The lack of resources makes you think outside of the box. But it’s definitely not good, stress-wise. You have nothing to fall back on. It has to work or you’re fucked, basically.
Rhydian: I think it’s important that the band’s vision comes across in every aspect. It wouldn’t feel right to give up control completely. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to get someone else’s input, but to not have any say at all?
Ritzy: It’s not as if someone could come along with a great idea and we’d tell them to fuck off because it’s not our idea, but when you can get that complete, natural extension to your music, with videos and artwork, you can create a little world around you.
From my own point of view, my favourite The Joy Formidable song is “While The Flies”. Indulge me – what’s it about?
Rhydian: It’s about the stoning of Du’a Khalil Aswad. I saw the footage and it was really disturbing. While the Flies was a reference to people fucking videoing her getting stoned, these parasites watching this 17-year-old girl [trails off] We both wrote lyrics on that, which is, in essence, the way we work. You could argue that this could become quite scatty, but then I think that’s what The Joy Formidable is all about. Look at Bowie. Sometimes he’d just steal words from newspapers, yet ultimately, his song would say something, and I think that playfulness is something we really thrive on. It’s not like, “Right! Today we’re going to talk about politics!”
Ritzy: You’ve never got all the answers. You can never surmise something like that in a 3, 4, 8 minute song.
Rhydian: Yeah. But the feel of While The Flies comes from that sad place.
You’re veterans of the road now, pros even on your first headline tour. Do you still get nervous before gigs?
Rhydian: Good nerves. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to deliver. As soon as you stop putting that pressure on yourself, it becomes too much like a job. But this is what it’s all about, the connection between you and your fans. And they love you; they sing the songs back to you!
Ritzy: You shouldn’t focus too much on analysis of set, or production, where every night is the same. That’s not the way we play. Because of that, you can be thrown a few curve balls! There’s always going to be something different that keeps you on your toes. I can imagine it turning into a job for some acts; you’re playing massive places, you’ve got the set worked out every night, and that’s it. And I’m seeing that more and more now; I’m not seeing as many Dylans or Springsteens, where every night is a different set. Even in terms of established artists, there seems to be a security in having it like that.
Rhydian: A great entertainer would make it feel spontaneous, but I guarantee you, even Springsteen’s sets are thought out to some degree.
Ritzy: I disagree.
Rhydian: It’s not like he’s just turning up going, “Rrright, let’s go!”
Ritzy: Exactly, coz he’s so slick …
Rhydian: But that’s exactly what I mean!
Ritzy: But what I’m saying is that there’s not enough of that. [Mysteriously] There’s not enough slickness. I mean, I could go around and bitch about bands who are playing Brixton Academy … There’s a thing these days where things Have To Be Worked Out Properly, every night, because bands realise there’s a lot of money in it. And I don’t ever want to be like that.
Rhydian: People can smell when you’re going through the motions. And they still might enjoy it, but to be a great live artist you have to give it a bit more than just playing the songs exactly how they are on CD. And that’s something that we always try to do. Then being on the road can be a quite creative thing.
Met any of your heroes yet?
Rhydian: Because we put so much pressure on ourselves, we’re never fazed by any of that. Besides, one of your icons could come along, and they could be complete cunts, anyway.
Er … yeah.
Rhydian: You have to appreciate them for what they are.
Ritzy: Hmm. Well, I’d like to meet Richard Thompson.
Rhydian: I’m not saying that every icon is a complete cunt!
They do say never meet your heroes.
Ritzy: We haven’t made a beeline for anyone. I could never do the whole “Oh My Gawd!” thing. I suppose my almighty dream is Richard Thompson coming up to me and going, “I really love what you’re doing!” That would work for me!