Q&A with The Joy Formidable: "It's important to always push people to feel something"
The Joy Formidable (due this Saturday, March 17, at the Bluebird Theater with A Place to Bury Strangers) is one of the most aptly named bands of the last several years. Its dream pop atmospheres and sheer exuberance as a live band have wowed audiences wherever the band plays. Part of its charm, too, has been the earnest, and completely unpretentious, personalities of the people on stage. You can tell the musicians are pushing themselves with each performance both emotionally and as artists.
The Joy Formidable's 2011 album The Big Roar and the subsequent tour garnered the outfit a wider audience. The sweeping pace of the album and frontwoman Ritzy Bryan's girlish vocals contrasted with her fiery, scintillating guitar work left an indelible impression on anyone who got to see the trio in action. We recently spoke with the engaging Bryan about her early forays into music, the band's anti-Christmas song and the supposedly cryptic nature of her lyrics.
Westword: When you started playing guitar, did you start off with electric?
Ritzy Bryan: My very first instrument was the flute. But I don't think I had the lung capacity for wind instruments because every time I played the flute I felt like I was gonna pass out. Then I picked up a classical guitar, and did that for six or seven years, up to my teens when I decided to plug in.
When you started playing electric, did you mostly play clean, or did you hear some sounds you liked that you wanted to emulate?
Yeah, you know. I always liked experimenting with sounds. With any instrument, it's exciting to explore the full capacity of any instrument. Certainly pedals and effects are really a kind of instant way to create diversity in that instrument. A lot of my pocket money went to pedals when I was growing up. They've improved a little bit since then. I had a really bad Zoom pedal when I was about thirteen. No offense to Zoom.
No, they're good starter pedals like a Zoom 505. What do you like to use now?
I try and keep it in check now for live. Obviously when you're recording, you can go wild with your guitar. I think it's all about finding the balance live. You don't want to be glued to your pedal board. I'm very much a believer in doing pedal changes. I can't imagine somebody behind the scenes doing it before you. I think it's a huge part of the rhythm and the movement of the set is those dynamic shifts from that guitar world. I've got a pretty indulgent pedal board right now and it does look like it's going to grow fairly soon. Always within reason, so that you can find the balance of actually being able to perform and lose yourself properly.
It sounds like you use more than one delay in your chain. Would you say that's accurate?
There's certainly a lot of variety on the record with a lot of delays and echoes and a lot of ambient sounds. A lot of those ambient sounds that sound like synths are actually coming from the guitar. There's no keys on the The Big Roar or A Balloon Called Moaning either so yeah. It's within what we can actually live but at the same time to be able to experiment and push your instruments as much as possible and as untraditionally as possible as well. That's what excites me.
When people talk about guitar bands...especially in the U.K. at the moment, there's a total occupation with guitar music being dead. It's actually quite a tedious discussion because it's like, why compartmentalize anything. You can be in a guitar band and there's still massive ways of still being original and experimental in that genre. Not everyone just plays power chords.
You have to constantly have to try different things with the resources that you have and what you feel confident with. And not just for the sake of it as well. A lot of people get bogged down. It all becomes more than aesthetic, it's about the soul and the songs -- they're always at the core. Everything outside of that is just dreadful, really. As long as the song's there, there's nothing worse than getting bogged down in experimenting if there's no heart to it.
There's a song called "Llaw = Wall" on The Big Roar, and it sounds like a synth but clearly it's not. Is that an example of what you're talking about?
Yes, very much so. There's a lot of layers, a lot of texture, and they come from vocals and vocals being used as more often as layers and textures and as instruments. We had fun making the album and certainly it's been a big part of the follow-up album as well--pushing that even further.
You have a song with an amusing title: "My Beerdrunk Soul Is Sadder Than a Hundred Dead Christmas Trees." Is that actually one of your songs?
It is. It's a track that we shared it at the end of the year the year before last. There are a lot of tracks that we've written that haven't been on the EP or the first album but we've enjoyed sharing them out. That was, in a sense, our anti-Christmas. I always found there were so many mixed feelings that go around Christmas. The title was inspired by a Bukowski book, I think it was Factotum. He mentioned some cynical outlook on Christmas as well.
Did you have any direct creative input on the video for "Whirring"?
Not to take anything away from Christopher Mills, who directed the video and did a beautiful job, but it was one of the first time [we'd done a video with someone else]. Up until that point, we'd done a lot of our own videos. I think it was showing when two imaginations meet. It was great meeting him and he does have a very overactive imagination and he's incredibly talented at what he does. He got the band and certainly with that track and the dark mixed with the playful and he made a great video.
We've always been very involved. We're certainly not the sort of band that gives the song and switches off. That goes with everything from the artwork and the way we do everything else outside of the music. We're very fortunate to be able to have maintained our creative control in every aspect of our band. We've always been at the helm of all creative decisions.
I'm bewildered sometimes by the fact that that isn't the case with some bands. Because I can't imagine it. I'm kind of like, "Well what is the point of having this wonderful, creative existence if you're really a puppet to somebody else." It feels strange to have to make the distinction but yeah, it's really important, I would say, that we are complete control freaks in that sense.
Various reviews have referred to your lyrics as cryptic. Do you feel that they're cryptic?
I'm sort of happy for them to be. I would say that as long as that in being cryptic that they don't lose being heartfelt. You can only write what you write. Not that the lyrical side is ever forced. It always comes from a really sincere, personal place. It's never just because the phonetics are pleasing or it feels like the right thing to say.
With any sort of emotions bands are a little bit ambiguous and at the same time people can take different meanings from different [expressions] of emotion. There's always sincerity behind them so I'm quite happy for them to be cryptic at the same time.
Sometimes what is seen as cryptic may be someone not trying to tell you what to think about their own work.
Oh yeah, absolutely. That's something that we hold very dear. Again, it's always about not trying too hard but it's really important to challenge the way that people think about music and think about your songs and think about the sentiment of what you're saying. It's important to always push people to feel something. There's nothing worse than people just going through the motions.
The album cover for The Big Roar is really interesting because it is reminiscent of War of the World and Daleks. Who designed it? It was Rhydian [Dafydd Davies]. He's done all our artwork and that connection between the visuals, the songs and the lyrics all meshed to form a larger meaning.
The album, in some respects, is a facing of our demons. It's quite a turbulent body of work. The symbolism on the album catches some of that. All the artwork from all the singles, the EP, they've always been done by Rhdyian and they're almost a sister to the actual songs and to the lyrics.
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