The Joy Formidable: “Success for us is not about playing stadiums"

The Joy Formidable's Ritzy Bryan on Wolf's Law, highland rescues, and why major label status hasn't blinkered the Welsh trio

Feature by Stu Lewis | 05 Feb 2013

Formidable (en.) for•mi•da•ble.  Adjective: Inspiring fear or respect through being impressively large, powerful, intense, or capable: “a formidable opponent.”

Formidable (fr.) form-i-da-ble. Adjective: Inspiring delight, pleasure or admiration; extremely good; marvellous.

This multilingual meaning of a single word, never mind its different pronunciations, has given many a DJ a headache when they’ve spotted the name ‘Joy Formidable’ on their playlist. Chances are, after a double take they’ve gone for the manly, crunchy English version rather than the stylish French application – unless they’re aligned with the other half of the Auld Alliance of course. But, seeing as either meaning could apply in this instance, it’s a forgivable crime for even the most skilled linguist. This Welsh band's harmonious pop rock racket has reeled in all who have encountered it; for a three piece, these guys – singer/bassist Ritzy Bryan, guitarist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matt Thomas – make an intimidating amount of noise.

Handily lumped in with other shoegaze revivalists upon their 2007 arrival on the live circuit, by the time debut album proper The Big Roar finally appeared in 2010 it became quickly apparent that there was much more to The Joy Formidable than reverb and waves of distortion. Ritzy’s soothing vocals (Austere; The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade) were constantly chased round the album by ferocious blasts of unrelenting noise. Huge, chugging guitar riffs and Matt's drums – surely the sound of ten men rather than one – gave Whirring the biggest-sounding rock coda this side of a Black Sabbath wig-out. “That album definitely captured a time in our lives,” muses Ritzy from a taxi racing round New York. “It’s not like it was written a long time ago and we’ve been touring it up until very recently. It’s always going to evoke a lot of nostalgia for us, but we’re really excited for the new record and the new tour.”

And so to Wolf’s Law. Released in recent weeks to no little acclaim, and described in these very pages as ‘stuffed to the brim with scuzzy-pop excesses’ its paws take it along a similar path, greedily scavenging much more along the way. The record’s widescreen sonic ambition is so palpable you can almost touch it. Everything sounds like the band have had a massive power-up along the way; chests are swelled, heads are high and it feels as though the band know the tiny venues they played pre-Big Roar haven’t a hope in hell of holding them any longer. “The approach to the songwriting has maybe given it a different flavour,” says Ritzy. “I think every song was conceived just with a voice and one accompaniment; that brings a lyrical boldness, and the production was as much a part of the process as an acoustic guitar or piano was on the first record. In terms of the intent or the ambition I don’t think that’s changed at all, maybe it’s just more obvious on this record.”

In fact, it sounds like it’s drifting close to another big rock three piece, formed in a rural area before an obsession with aliens, conspiracies and Hollywood hotties led to an increasingly distant relationship with what we earthlings know as ‘the plot.’ Yes, Teignmouth’s finest and former Joy Formidable touring buddies: Muse. It doesn’t sound as if Ritzy is terribly fussed about getting her own giant UFO to step out of onto a stadium stage and is quick to dismiss any talk of the band pushing towards enormo-shows of their own: “Success for us is not about playing in an arena or stadium,” she insists. “The biggest success is that you remain at the helm creatively and that you don’t lose sight of the band that you are, that you have no regrets and that you have a career that excites and inspires you. That’s what success is to us.”

And Maw Maw Song – already a standout from a read of an otherwise sensible-looking tracklisting – could be an early bonkers moment, with the band singing the ‘Maw-maw. Maw-maw-maw-maw-maw’ riff as hell is unleashed around them. Far simpler are lead-off single Cholla and the likes of The Hurdle, which not only offer restraint, but also the knack for a hummable hook that’s helped them carve a niche as Britain’s loudest pop band.

One certainly hopes there are seismologists on standby on the Great Western Road on 26 February when the band make a welcome return to Glasgow. Òran Mór – better known as an arty host to more sedate evenings – had better get its foundations checked before these guys rock up for their soundcheck. So how has our fair – and faintly chilly – country treated Ritzy’s band to date? “Well I don’t think we’ve ever had anything thrown at us,” she laughs. “We played Òran Mór when touring that last album and have great memories of the night and the Glasgow audience. It’s a shame that we’re not doing more Scottish dates on this round.”

More shows are promised, but if the Joy Formidable opt to play further north, there’s a cautionary tale to tell. “One of the first tours that we did, driving ourselves, we got really fucking lost! We thought we’d take a detour to Loch Ness, revolting tourists that we are, but we were so lost that a school bus driver who had dropped off his children for the night took pity on us and drove us back to the motorway!”

Getting lost around Glasgow is unlikely to elicit the same response from the city’s finest passenger carriers, but the backing of Atlantic Records probably at least means they’ve got someone to get lost on their behalf.
And the name? Well we’re assured that it’s the English pronunciation and therefore meaning. But you’re right whichever way you say it. With touring, festivals (“we can’t announce anything yet!”), a Welsh language EP, more touring and some dancefloor-oriented collaborations (“we can’t announce anything yet!”) all coming up, only a fool would stand in their way.

Playing Òran Mór, Glasgow on 26 Feb. Wolf's Law is out now on Atlantic.