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On Saturday evening just past, Kelowna’s newest musical festival, the indie-centric, Keloha, played host to Welsh alternative rock band, The Joy Formidable.
The Joy Formidable are:
Ritzy Bryan – lead vocals, guitar.
Rhydian Dafydd – bass guitar, backing vocals.
Matt Thomas – drums, percussion.
The band formed in 2007, and I have been a fan of the band for a number of years. I am not alone. Critics in respected publications like NME, the Guardian and the Times have raved about the band. Fellow notable musicians such as Dave Grohl and Steve Nieve have also commented on the quality of The Joy Formidable. It’s easy to see, or hear, why. The band’s debut, and so far only, full length album The Big Roar was a great record comprised of excellent tracks such as Austere, Whirring and Cradle and ambitious tracks such as the Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie. So, for the inaugural year of the new Kelowna music festival, The Joy Formidable were a tremendous coup. The Joy Formidable are a band also noted for their explosive live performances and boy did they ever put on a show in Kelowna.
Now, I assure you this isn’t hyperbole, but when The Joy Formidable played in Kelowna they put on the best live show I have ever seen. They raced through a pulse quickening set comprised of hits from The Big Roar. Their pace was fast, their solos epic and the energy high. Ritzy’s live vocals and guitar work sounded better than the record, Rhydian’s crowd taunting antics set the tone as did the thumping pulse of his bass guitar and Matt Thomas’s stellar drum work kept the beat up to a quick pace. Each song was packed with an enormous amount of energy. Before leaving the stage the band set about using their pent up passion to dismantle their surroundings. Rhydian head-butted Matt’s drum set, knocked his microphone out of its stand and promptly head-butted the stand to the floor, cutting his head in the process. He also punched a drum over. Ritzy kicked another drum to the floor and set about ripping the strings from her electric guitar, all the while Matt played to a sharp pace that had the crowd moving in rhythm.
In short, it was everything a live performance should be. It was an experience. It felt as though you had been consumed by something, something indefinable, almost magical, and that the band had taken you on a journey with their performance. After it was over, I was elated and mesmerized and everyone who witnessed it seemed to be the same way. There was no prospect of an encore, but we didn’t mind. The Joy Formidable packed more energy and passion into their set than some bands do into entire tours. It easy to see why the band has played at so many important festivals such as Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds as they put on a performance worth considerably more than the admission fee.
Before they played at Keloha, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ritzy Bryan and Rhydian Dafydd of The Joy Formidable. Matt Thomas joined us at the very end of the interview. Valaura Vedan of WelcometoKelowna.com was on hand to help me out and snap photographs.
Here are the best bits from our meeting:
Vincent Jones: Is this your first visit to Kelowna?
Rhydian Dafydd: It is, yes.
Ritzy Bryan: We were trying to figure where the closest we’d been to here and it was Kamloops.
RD: We’ve done a couple of festivals in Edmonton and Calgary before, but yeah this is our first time here. It’s such a beautiful place.
RB: It’s like idyllic here isn’t it? You guys have got it good here, man.
VJ: If you’re ever thinking about another [western Canadian] tour you should come through Kelowna…
RB: I think it will have to be a tour spot.
RD: It’s in the itinerary. [Laughs]
VJ: I remember seeing on your Facebook page a little while ago that you have a new album in the works, when can we expect it out?
RD: It’s all done and dusted.
RB: I was going to say it’s finished. We’re going to be sharing something, we’ll be a little bit coy about the release date of the actual album, but we’re going to be sharing something this month.
VJ: Are we going to be hearing anything from the new album tonight?
RD: It’s a funny period actually, but we’re in LA right now rehearsing our second album material, so it’s kind of in that really strange period. It’s going to be very, very soon, but not quite yet, unfortunately. But we haven’t played Kelowna before, so there’s still plenty of tracks…
VJ: So out of all the other bands that are on the bill at Keloha, who were you most excited to share the bill with or see perform?
RD: I’m looking forward to seeing Cold War Kids. I’m always excited to see them play live. We’ve done a couple of festivals with them before as well, and they’re a good live band.
VJ: So you’ve never played in Kelowna before, of course, but what is the most memorable place you have played at? What was the most memorable experience for you guys?
RD: Well, it’s been a hell of a lot of gigs with this band. It’s been relentless touring but we enjoy being on the road, so I mean there’s so many… There’s Glastonbury, that’s always kind of a poignant one for us. There’s Reading and Leeds [festivals] which we’ll be doing again this year. There’s so many American festivals as well…
RB: We recently did a very, very intimate show in Manchester, actually. It was quite sentimental for me, because we played in the Victoria Baths. It’s such a beautiful spot. The acoustics, in a strange way, really lend themselves to music.
VJ: Didn’t you guys first get together in Manchester, in terms of music? You went there to start writing music?
RD: Yeah, we kind of met, didn’t we?
RB: Yeah… we were reunited in Manchester. Obviously we both grew up in North Wales together. I mean there’s a lot of connections to Manchester. My family are Mancunian. I’d just lost my grandfather and we found out that’s where [the Victoria Baths – in reference to the question above] they used to go dancing, my grandma and my grandfather, and it was really beautiful, quite haunting, you could tell there was a lot of nostalgia, a lot of memories, and people who had passed through the building… venues like that are extra special when they come round.
RD: Yeah it’s nice to play gigs in odd places sometimes. We did some shows around that time that were in some slightly untraditional venues, and it keeps people on their toes because the way things are going now, it’s boxes everywhere. I think if you can inject a little bit of creativity on where you’re actually staging a performance then that just adds to the whole experience.
VJ: When you’re listening to music, who do you guys listen to? Is there a certain artist or band you listen to individually or collectively that really inspires you?
RB: I think the main theme of the Joy Formidable jukebox is just how eclectic it is. When we were first starting off we did a few tours where we shared a van with a few other bands, because we like the camaraderie of being on the road if you find other bands that you respect and you like being with… Each of us would have our time with the CD player or the mp3 player, and we noticed that every time we put ours on [laughs], people were really confused. Matt is a huge Zappa fan, but in the same instance he’ll listen to the sounds of the rainforest for 13 minutes.
RD: Experimental jazz, all kinds of stuff… [in reference to Matt’s musical taste.]
RB: Stuff that sounds like it should only be played in an elevator. From that to really heavy stuff, I mean you’re into [turns to RD] Slayer…
RD: [in response to RB] all sorts! I mean I think, like you say, eclectic is the main thing. We’d listen to something heavy as much as we’d listen to something like Bjork, or Patti Smith, [who is a] great lyricist, Dylan, Van Morrison to dance orientated stuff as well. I think there’s just good and bad music, y’know?
VJ: So do you ever listen to the Joy Formidable, maybe not on the tour bus, but what about when you’re in the car or at home?
RD: Ooohh [Laughs] I think we do our fair share of listening throughout all the shows. Obviously we get in our own bubbles when we’re doing the albums and we’re recording material, so you do obviously have to listen.
VJ: You just get so used to hearing it that you sort of turn it off when it comes on?
RB: Yeah, I’d be a little bit scared of any band who regularly puts their own songs on. I think there’s something quite narcissistic in that, but at the same time I think it’s important, through your career, to listen back to stuff that you’re doing and listen to it retrospectively and we like to bootleg ourselves a lot. We’ve got a kind of real community of bootleggers who like to record shows and they’re good to listen back to. I think we’re our harshest critics. In terms of being able to evolve properly as a band, I think you almost sometimes have to look backwards to move forward.
VJ: So with that in mind, with the new album, do you think there’s going to be a big sound change for fans, or is it a natural evolution?
RD: I definitely feel like there has been a progression, but we’ve always known exactly what we have wanted to do and part of that is develop. I think the voice is the same, the intent is the same, but there’s certainly some different instrumentation, there’s a wider palate maybe on the album, but at the core of it all, I think, is the basic need for just good songwriting and actually saying something, and I think with that you can do anything. From an outside perspective, I think some people will be surprised. It certainly doesn’t sound like the first record.
VJ: That’s good though. Evolution is good. There’s nothing worse than when you feel like it’s just a rehash of the last album…
RD: Yeah, absolutely. We don’t want to find a formula that we’re happy with and then sit back.
RB: Yeah, you don’t want to churn out the same old shit. I mean I think that’s what keeps you ticking artistically, is that you challenge yourself creatively and we’ve definitely done that. It’s not like we’re going to expand the sonic palate just because that’s what’s expected of us for a second album. I think that’s sometimes the pit that some bands fall into, they over think where they have to go to for the second album. For us it was just about a lot of doing and then you find what is new and exciting about your palate already.
RD: Yeah, [adding on to RB’s comment] and be natural with it.
VJ: Out of all of the Joy Formidable songs, which is your favourite?
RB: It changes… nightly. It changes every time we play them live; they have new incarnations. We’re often reconstructing and deconstructing the set and I think the root of it all is that they have to come originally from a place where there was actually a meaning. There was a true message, a story, behind the background of the songs and as long as that’s in place, as long as there’s the emotional anchor, then they can constantly mean something else. Sometimes later on, they become more fun than at the time they we’re actually conceived.
RD: It’s like choosing which one is your favourite kid… [laughter] You’ve got your really melancholic sad songs, you’ve got songs of utter joy and it’s difficult, it just depends on what your mindset was at the time.
VJ: I guess with the Big Roar as well, it is a journey. There are some songs from one place and then another place, so it’s difficult to pinpoint?
RD: Yeah, I think there’s some songs [where] maybe you feel very proud of how you accomplished it, because there’s some quite bombastic tracks on the Big Roar like, for instance, the Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a favourite, I think that I love them all, but I am very proud that we accomplished songs like that. Especially in a climate like this because there’s not that many eight minute songs that turn out into the masses these days.
VJ: I guess that’s true. Again, going back to not just pumping out a formula, going off your own creativity, and putting something out there…
RD: Well it’s important to try I think, that’s the key thing and change the way people listen to things and what is expected, but the way to do that, I think, we always feel, is by ultimately believing in what you’re doing and not doing it in any kind of contrived way.
VJ: Would you say as a band, musically, that you have an artist, or a sound that has influenced you greatly? What's your biggest influence, who's your biggest influence, as a band?
RD: I think it's not necessarily a band. It's a combination of artists that have always had a unique voice. Within that you've had people like Bjork, Radiohead, Patti Smith. You've got so many people. We were talking about this before [turns to RB]. People who pave the way rather than follow the pack, and I think that we always look to people like that. Those are artists that turn us on but obviously, even then, there's still a huge scope. I mean, I grew up, for instance, listening to a hell of a lot of Hendrix and obviously he's such an identifiable character, Hendrix, in a manner of ways. But I wouldn't say that I've tried to copy his style or song writing. I think, if anything, it gave me inspiration to follow my own path and ultimately forget about everybody else. If we ever give any advice to any young bands or anything like that, I think it's important to do that. Don't try and fit in, just do whatever's important and natural to you.
VJ: Well, I'm glad you say that because that was one of my next questions. Do you have any further advice for people trying to break their way in?
RD: Yeah! Ultimately, you really have to stick to your guns. That doesn't mean that you never ever listen to people that you have a relationship with or trust. The funny thing about music is that there really isn't a wrong way or right way. If anything, I think that we've had a bit of an untraditional path, you know? And I think what's helped pave our path, is just utter determination. If you feel like you're doing something that doesn't necessarily fit in right now, how does that follow through? And I think that's utter tenacity that does that.
VJ: Were there any times when you thought: "it's not going to work. Let's shelve the idea. Let's go do something else. Let's go get day-jobs?”
RD: No, because there isn't such a thing as it "not working for us". I think we've achieved what we wanted to do creatively, and everything else tends to fall into place, you know?
RB: I think it depends on what you rate as success as well, because to us, success is when you write an album that you're proud of, or you do a visual, or an art piece, or you can collaborate with somebody who you really admire. You know, that to us, are all the little moments that add up towards feeling like "this is successful, this is worthwhile". It isn't about getting signed or the amount of records that you sell, or how people accept you. It's a personal journey and in order for you to actually realize those moments, you have to fucking love it and be consumed by it.
RD: We've never ever been setback by anything. Yeah, sure there's things sometimes that you wish that...
RB: Well, we have.
RD: What I'm saying is that there's things of course, like in any walk of life, that you come against. Maybe some brick walls with the way that the industry is set out, but I mean, that surely applies to everything, doesn't it?
VJ: So with that in mind, when you put a record out, and you're proud of it, how much of the reaction from the press or the fans plays into your feeling toward that record?
RD: I'd say... None at all. I think, if anything, if people don't get it, it just fuels you even more. Because, you know, there hasn't been any columns erected for critics, has there? Time is what dictates how important a band you are and there's been plenty of artists that are utterly overlooked in their lifetime that have become influential on millions of bands after they die or whatever, so...
RB: In that sense, [to RD] and I'm not saying you're being flippant, but the fan reaction is important only from the sense that there's got to be contentment or pleasure... I can't quite find the adjective. You know, it's a good feeling when people have listened to your record and felt a connection and for that moment, they feel something, another emotion, or it helps them through a difficult period. We get a LOT of messages, or like a young girl and it makes her want to pick up a guitar, or fucking feel that she can do something different in this industry. So, like I said, the fan reaction is never going to pave what we actually do, 'cause we're always at the helm. We have to have no regrets, we're not going to be persuaded to go one way or another, other than the journey that we choose.
RD: It's encouraging when you've been honest and it connects with people.
RB: Very encouraging.
VJ: I'm glad I asked that question! If you could collaborate with anyone out there, let's say someone alive and active at the minute, who would you like to collaborate with?
RD: Wow. Well, we've done a couple which we are very proud of. We did something with Steve Nieve, you know you mention his name to a lot of people and they're not quite sure who he is, but people should know. He's a superb piano player. He plays with Elvis Costello amongst so many other people. In terms of people still to come, I don't know. It's got to feel right, I suppose.
RB: Yeah. It'd have to feel like a proper pairing, and not just labels talking and pushing things together for an angle. But, you know, I'd love to spend a day with Bjork.
VJ: I'd like to see the outcome of that!
RB: Yeah… I mean, I really admire her individualism and her vocals. And again, she's a woman who's produced a lot of her own tracks and written her own songs.
RB: I'd like to see Ritzy doing a duet with someone like Patti Smith or Chrissy Hynde. On the flipside to that, something really ultra-modern like Dada Life or something like that. You know, some really interesting, modern, dance crossover stuff that's happening now, you know?
VJ: Cool. Interesting answer, I wasn't anticipating that… [Laughter]
VJ: Who would you say, and I think I know the answer as I'm asking this question, but who would you say is the most popular band member with the fans? Who does everyone want to see when The Joy Formidable goes on stage?
RD: That's definitely Ritzy.
RB: [Laughs] I don't know, I think Matt Thomas comes a close second.
RB: Only because people think it's Russell Brand.
RD: Which is understandable…
VJ: Fair enough! What's the coolest thing you've ever been asked to autograph?
RD: Oh, that's a good question, actually.
RB: We get a lot of bellies
RB: Well, bellies and tits… [Laughter] It's fine. We get teddy bears.
RB: I wasn't in on the eyeball signing. I must've missed that one. I hope you used a Sharpie rather than a biro [a ballpoint pen.]
RD: There's some creative people out there, let's put it like that.
VJ: How did the eyeball work? Can that be divulged or is that confidential information?
RD: Put it this way, I couldn't finish my entire name.
RD: I had to put my initials down.
VJ: Alright, well, I think that's all I wanted to ask you.
VJ: Thank you for your time, I really appreciate it. I know you've not been in town long.
RB: Not at all! It's nice to meet you. I didn't think we'd meet a Mancunian in Kelowna!
VJ: I know, who'd have thought?