The Joy Formidable are currently on the Emerge NME Radar Tour with Chapel Club. Purchase your tickets here.
Day One. Leeds Festival, 2010. Not long after midday, The Joy Formidable launch into live favourite ‘Whirring’ on the NME/Radio 1 Stage. Then, singer Ritzy Bryan – a pair of dinner-plate eyes poking from beneath a bright blonde bob – attempts to smash her guitar against the stage. Smashity-smash she goes. She’s bashing and a-bashing. But does it break? Er, no.
The band play on. She smashes it against the stage, then bashes it. Still it won’t disintegrate. The band play on. She knobbles it once more. The band play on. This process continues for many minutes. Finally, she holds it up to the crowd – strings rent, paintwork bent, but still very much intact. They don’t make ’em like they used to, eh… It’s a point that Ritzy seems reluctant to concede today. “Well,” she moans, “All I’ll say is, you try playing it now…”
“Smashing the guitar was done 50 years ago,” interjects bassist Rhydian Dafydd. “All we’re trying to say is: let it happen, whatever it is, onstage.”
“There was something playful about it,”continues Ritzy, “but I think that our music allows for that physicality. Whenever we play ‘Whirring’, my guitar always takes a beating.”
The reason they did it, see, was because the band had recently come into some dough and had enough money to replace it. Y’see, after a lengthy spell in the indie trenches, The Joy Formidable have become hot property. A forthcoming album produced by renowned Glasvegas/Interpol/Franz Ferdinand/Muse wall-of-shimmering-glistening-marble-ised-dark-sound auteur Rich Costey. A US management deal with the guy who signed The Strokes and Kings Of Leon, legendary A&R Steve Ralbovsky. The top slot on the imminent NME Radar Tour.
At last, they’re cleared for take-off, even if it has taken them a fair amount of time to taxi to the runway. It’s a full two years, since the Sonic Youth-meets-Kate Bush dream pop of ‘Austere’ first sailed across our airwaves, leaving ripples of excited indie parlour-chatter in its wake. Partly, this is because they are notorious perfectionists. Partly, it is because they have chosen to maintain a fierce independence.
“We’re always about doing things our own way,” Ritzy dictates. “The right way…”
A band that have always taken the harder path, they’re proof that latter-day DIY is in no need of an SOS. Despite not having a proper release in the UK, such was the clamour for their ‘A Balloon Called Moaning’ mini-album that it still managed to sell 10,000 copies here. Not only that – off their own backs the trio recently sold out Camden’s 1,100-capacity Electric Ballroom.
Their fans – including, weirdly, one Adrian Chiles – are devoted enough to make videos for them – most famously the banned ‘Austere’ promo that YouTube pulled for depicting various human faces quite clearly in the throes of orgasm.
Rather than spike sharply following some early buzz and risk rapid burnout, they’ve played their cards right and close to their chests – maintaining a fierce control over their output, avoiding easy solutions, touring relentlessly to the point where they’ve built up the sort of fanbase that carries careers rather than floats new sensations. Their publicist tells us that they don’t ‘do’ tabloids, (“Well, we like to pick and choose our press.”).
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They also make their own videos – in fact, yesterday they arrived back from making one near Swansea, where they lugged a whole camera set-up down a cliff. Neither have they courted the usual publicity circuit. “We didn’t come here with the intention of breaking east London,” Ritzy says. “We just followed our drummer!” And it’s there that the pair have remained, sharing a boxy studio-cum-livespace on Brixton Hill.
The original drummer – Justin Stahley – soon departed, replaced by Matt Thomas. He’d answered an ad, then, after they sent him some of their music, spent six hours a day for a fortnight practising for the audition. Throughout a full hour of chat, Matt’s overwhelming contribution is to keep up a running soundtrack of comedic interjections. (“It wasn’t the Lycra you were staring at…”, “Put the double-pedal to the metal, that’s what I’m saying…”, “A couple of plums alright!” Et cetera).
He is another new iteration of that eternal stock character: The Goofy Drummer. After we’re done, the band return to shooting photos, but Matt just can’t resist pulling a series of clowny faces as they pose in front of a frosty black background. His pointy teeth and lank hair give him the air of a brunette Andy Burrows, and he’s just as likeable.
In fact, they’re all polite and amiable, but there’s a steel at their core that comes through in flashes in Ritzy’s bright blue eyes, and in their endless repetition of words like ‘principles’ and ‘perfectionists’. “What I look for in signing a band is that 100 per cent absolute dedication to being the best they can possibly be,” Ralbovsy has said in interview, and you sense he found it here. They’re like The Cribs in cute vintage dresses (basically like The Cribs these days, then – ‘Housewife’ Video Editor).
Perhaps another part of the reason they’ve been prepared to wait it out so patiently and painstakingly, is that they’ve been waiting for their moment since their schooldays. Before they were The Joy Formidable, they were Sidecar Kisses. Before that, Rhydian was in indie nearly-men Tricky Nixon.
Before that? They were roughly aware of each other during their childhoods in Mold, Flintshire, North Wales. Rhydian was the year above Ritzy at school. But even in a town of only 10,000, they seldom spent facetime. Ritzy was in some teenage bands. Rhydian once replaced Coldplay’s Jonny Buckland in one early act.
As their lives unspooled, Rhydian fled to uni in Manchester, and Ritzy fled to an au pairing job in Washington for ‘familial reasons’. Meanwhile, line-up changes had meant that Rhydian was looking for a new guitarist for Sidecar Kisses, when he put in a call to Ritzy.
She fled back. In fact, there’s still footage on YouTube of the pair performing ‘9669’ – a track which later ended up on ‘A Balloon…’ – in the Sidecar Kisses guise. And, somewhere indeterminate within all of this timeline, the pair started dating.
Ritzy: “The music always came first. Our relationship is so simple in so many ways. We don’t argue about being a couple. We only argue about music.”
They write freely together, but neither do they seem to be chasing ‘the album’. In fact, ‘A Balloon…’ was written for the benefit of a Japanese record-shop owner approached them, who’d asked them to release something in his country. Ritzy: “We just wanted to refresh our set a bit by getting some more stuff out there.”
So they presented him with an eight-track sorta-EP, semi-album. And, when Passion Pit’s Ayad Al Adhamy released it on his own Black Bell label in the States, they went on a US tour in April. That was where they met the Man Who Signed The Strokes And The Kings Of Leon, Ralbovsky, who has made them his number one priority on both sides of the Atlantic.
Cynics might ask why, after being the little indie band that could, they’ve chosen to sign with one of the biggest record-floggers in the world. “It just felt right,” Ritzy asserts, “Of all the people we spoke to, he just seemed like the one who was the most interested in music.”
So, extrapolating the trend, does this mean you’re due to be headlining V Festival 2014? “No,” Rhydian allows himself a little laugh, then rounds on the seriousness of the question. “That sounds terrible.” The steel glimmers through. They started out hustlin’. They’ve ended up ballin’. As they stand on the brink of champers-swilling coke-snaffling bigness, The Joy Formidable are ready to prove that they (and their DIY ethics) are as indestructible as their instruments.