Interview: The Joy Formidable talks “Hitch”, creative control, and triumph in band drama

L to R: Rhydian Dafydd, Ritzy Bryan, Matthew James Thomas of The Joy Formidable. (Photo: James Minchin)
L to R: Rhydian Dafydd, Ritzy Bryan, Matthew James Thomas of The Joy Formidable. (Photo: James Minchin)

Ritzy Bryan, Rhydian Dafydd, and Matt Thomas of The Joy Formidable cut themselves off from the world after years of touring to make their new album, Hitch, which will be released in Canada this month via Cadence Music. The album is a return that sounds and feels like a record of pure triumph.

Vocalist and guitarist Bryan and bassist Dafydd broke up while touring in support of their 2013 album, Wolf’s Law,  after a relationship that lasted six years, three records, and many tours. Many were bound to think all the changes the band has experienced over the past couple of years could have taken their toll on them as a band, but in our new interview, Ritzy tells us about why it didn’t. She also shared a little peek into how they set up a studio in her childhood home, how they’ve retain full creative control of their music, and more!

Your live performance has quite the energy to it, what was it like bringing that into the studio for the album?

I suppose it was a smaller space, we definitely didn’t move around as much, (laughs) but there’s a very live aesthetic to this record. So I suppose it kind of brought the same intensity. We definitely weren’t hurling ourselves around (laughs) in the space we had, otherwise our equipment probably wouldn’t have lasted the test of time.

When you put the album on in your headphones and close your eyes, it really is like being at one of your shows. How did you go about making that happen?

I’m not entirely sure. We don’t like to go into the recording process with too many ideas or expectations. I think the only one that we did go into this record [with], in terms of the writing and the production side of things, is that we wanted it to feel very alive and we definitely wanted to capture the space that we had, because we built this little studio back home in north Wales. The real sense of it just being the three of us, we didn’t have an engineer, we produced it ourselves, and I think that’s the only thing we knew we wanted with the record.

We wanted to feel the space and have this set up and leave the tape running sort of vibe, so that we wouldn’t ever miss any moments, any ideas, or any jams. All the hours of banter that are on that tape as well. (laughs) It wasn’t overthought, but we definitely went into the recording process knowing that was the way we wanted to produce and set up, so we didn’t miss any moments, mistakes and all, really capture the moment.

Was there anything you focused on specifically when you guys were trying to do that, creating that live sound?

We weren’t very fidgety with the way we set up, we made sure we didn’t fuck about too much. We spent one day making sure we were happy with the drum sound, but we didn’t spend the whole 12 months constantly moving the mic’s around. It was very simple, we had the kit mic’d up the way we wanted it, a mic in the kitchen, because the studio room was a part of the house. So we had a mic in the kitchen that probably recorded more of the kettle than anything else (laughs) and we had a mic at the top of the stairs. It felt like the right configuration to feel the depth of the space that we had, to give it that kind of 3D.

I suppose we were very clear with the sound that we wanted to begin with and then we didn’t really change it very much and I suppose that’s the album we wanted to produce. That consistency of sound and studio, so the variable and diversity comes from the songs. You feel like it’s from one session, one moment.

Are you happy with how that translated onto the album?

Very much. We’re very proud of this record and we love the way that Alan (Moulder) mixed it as well. We want to constantly evolve, whether or not [it’s] the next record at the moment, I think it’s important for us to constantly evolve. Definitely for Hitch, making that record, that’s what we wanted and we love the record that we’ve made.

I thought it was pretty cool, you talked about how you built your own space for this album, the recording of it. Can you tell me a bit more about the space and the mic in the kitchen?

Yeah, it’s quite a modest space. One big live room, everything set up and separated, but it does also double up as the house that I grew up in. It’s my childhood home, so it’s an old kind of chauvinistic romance. Lots of Welsh slate on the floors, it’s got quite a bright sound in quite a few places, so we were really happy with the way that we set it up and we loved the drum sound that we got from there. I think more than anything, I just having this space, [it] gave us the freedom to make this record in a way that we haven’t had before in the same way.

Our past two records have always been written in tandem with being on the road. In hotel rooms, backstage, and on the bus you know? That brings a different life to a record, feeling like everything is made up of lots of different patterns and fabric, made up over a period of time. This is the first album we’ve made where we’ve been stationary together and I think that came from quite honestly, needing some time off from the road, because we’ve been on the road for practically six years without very much break. I think we all needed to rejuvenate a bit, feel hungry again for making a record. I think [it was] the process of it just being the three of us engineering it and really getting into the detail of making this record and studio exactly the way we wanted to.

I think that was a great thing for us to do in those 12 months and very different from any record we’ve made before, which I think is important. You want to be constantly changing and evolving, I don’t want to be making the same record over and over again and I think it’s helped us on a lot of levels. Individually and as a band, it’s musically moved us to another place.

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You talked a bit about how you guys got to co-release it on your own label imprint, C’mon Let’s Drift, that’s pretty cool. What was it like having that kind of creative control over it?

I suppose we’ve always been creatively at the helm, so it’s not that different. In the sense that even when we’ve released under other labels, I think we’ve been very headstrong about the creative side of things, like the way we wanted it produced. The album, the track listing, the artwork, the visuals, the vibe of it. We’ve always overseen and controlled that and I suppose sometimes that leads to it being being a bit of a harder relationship.

What I’m trying to get at is [that] the philosophy hasn’t changed, but [it’s] the ease [of] just getting things done quickly and spontaneously, which is the way we like to do things creatively. Go with what feels right, rather than having these big kind of fucking discussions about things. We managed to cut out all of that, (laughs) which is a big plus, but I suppose the philosophy hasn’t changed from our other records, [it’s] just the ease of freedom has been there. It’s something that we’d love to build on. This is the first release on that record, and we were doing this Welsh singles release as well that had a quite collaborative nature and releases from other bands from Wales. So I think we’re hopeful that maybe C’mon Let’s Drift can be an extension of that and we’d definitely like to use the label as some way of releasing stuff [from] bands that we like. Not just local bands, but bands that we admire, [who] maybe need a little bit more structure in releasing things.

It’s always nice to have that kind of change too. Like you were saying, you don’t want to be doing the same thing over and over again.

Never. (laughs)

You said that it was quite different than the way that you went about the previous albums, how would you compare it sonically and thematically to Wolf’s Law?

Well I suppose looking back at Wolf’s Law, during that period we were just enjoying experiment[ing] with more of a compositional, kind of orchestral sound and we had a friend who was an amazing violinist. I suppose Rhyd(ian) and I were enjoying getting into [it], so there were a lot more layers on Wolf’s Law, because it came from what we were musically experimenting at the time. We wanted to have more of an orchestral texture to that record. We wrote that record really quickly, that’s what felt right in that moment. I think we wrote and recorded Wolf’s Law in just over a month. [It was] a very different approach.

That’s the beauty of each album. It’s like a little moment frozen in time for whatever it is that’s either musically wedding your appetite, or whatever you’re going through, depending on how autobiographical each album ends up becoming. I suppose with this record, we knew we wanted to shed some of the layers that we had on previous records and really explore what we are live. Very strict, very performance based. I suppose that was the feeling going into it and how we wanted to swap things up.

Do you think taking an album you worked hard to make try and sound live, will create a need to add anything to the live performance when you take it to the stage?

We haven’t really noticed that, I suppose because there’s a natural feeling on this record. It’s very performance based, so we haven’t really felt that. I was talking to somebody before about our past records… I think whatever the record we make, we don’t like to just regurgitate it live anyways. We don’t want them to be completely the same. We like to do lots of twists and turns when we’re playing live, we don’t like to just come out and play it exactly as it is.

So even Hitch has it’s own life when we take it out on the road, but I suppose it’s been more immediate almost, being able to play with some of the songs on this record. Mostly because the last two records did have a lot of layers and especially from my perspective, a lot of guitar layers. So it would really challenge, with just being a three piece, how you would capture all of these guitar sounds when there’s only one of me. (laughs) But I’m not dissing that as an approach either. I think it’s always good to keep you on your toes and think about how you want to do things live, but I definitely have not had that same headache (laughs) on this record. Trying to find the best way of blending lots of guitar moments into one, which does have it challenges sometimes.

I’m sure it can be refreshing to not have to do that.

(laughs) Yeah, it’s quite nice and I like the way it’s worked in the set, because there [are] certain songs that have the aesthetic of the last record, then this record brings a nice shift as well to the set. We’ve really been enjoying it, I feel like we’ve got a lot of diversity in the set that we can switch up every night.

Hitch is a pretty interesting album name. What’s the story behind that?

It came after the album, after we decided on the track listing. It wasn’t… Wolf’s Law was almost the conceptual point of the second record. It lead a lot of the writing on the record, where as Hitch came at the very end and I suppose we felt there was a real sense of movement and life, a really driving feel on the record, which is kind of crazy because it’s the most stationary record we’ve ever made. (laughs) So it’s a real sense of pushing and the freedom that comes with something like hitchhiking, or choosing your journey, but also letting the road take you wherever you want to go as well.

It’s also a bit of a joke between the three of us, because during the making of this record, we had a lot of change. It’s the first record that we’ve made where Rhydian and I haven’t really been a couple. We broke up on the last album cycle and we had a change of management, all that bullshit, a change of label.

There was a lot going on during the making of this record that made us feel really excited, like there was a new chapter, and kind of defiant to the new chapter. But also I think a lot of people thought these changes may take their toll on us as a band, whereas the truth obviously [is that] we’re hauled away in north Wales, feeling the best that we’ve ever felt. So we’re teasing as well, that everybody would expect that there could’ve been a hitch when really there wasn’t (laughs) at all.


L to R: Rhydian Dafydd, Ritzy Bryan, Matthew James Thomas of The Joy Formidable. (Photo: James Minchin)

It sounds like it kind of influenced you guys in a good way.

Very much, and I think that’s why we’ve all been quite quick to dismiss the fact that it’s a break up album, because it’s not. In a lot of ways it’s celebrating change and being able to move forward, even after a break up. Not just move forward in your friendship, but move forward individually and move forward as a band. So if anything, it’s celebrating real friendship and tenacity. It talks a lot about finding new love as well, because that’s the weird thing, it’s not grieving the break up, it’s actually looking to the future. It’s talking about dating again and all the things that can feel weird after six years of being in a relationship.

It’s quite sweet that we’ve been able to write that album together, I think that shows the strength of our friendship and our band and our musical partnership, that has always been there between Rhyd and I. It preceded the relationship.

Almost triumphant too, that you can do that together.

Yeah, and I think we felt that when we were making this record. There was something triumphant about it, that we hadn’t allowed it to fuck us. (laughs)

The intro to “The Last Thing On My Mind”, the third song on the album, is almost like you’re actually sitting in the room with you guys during a rehearsal or personal show. How did the idea for that come about? Was there any reason for choosing it to intro that song specifically?

I think it was just a matter of having so much of that shit talking (laughs) on tape. There’s hours of that stuff. When we were listening to tapes and looking back on stuff, it was such a part of the recording that we could’ve shared a lot more, but it felt right to share one moment where you get this snap shot. Like you said, it feels like you’re in the session with us, or in a rehearsal with us, but there’s a lot of it. The tape was running the entire time, and we do talk a quite a bit. Almost as much as we play. (laughs) Especially our drummer, bloody hell. He’s a pretty surreal guy, often going on a tangent or making up crazy puns. There’s a lot of moments on tape. 

There’s a pretty clear theme of trying to find your place on the album and from what you’ve said yourself, searching for a sense of belonging. Now that it’s complete and out in the world, would you say you found what you were looking for?

Yeah. A lot of that sense of belonging, that feeling probably came from where we recorded it. There were these moments of just the three of us in this room, really excited about the material we were making, really just jelling off [of] each other [and] musically losing ourselves. Where we made the record in north Wales, it felt quite weird going home, I think more for me than Rhydian. It definitely felt quite weird going home because we’ve been away for such a long time. We’ve not been home for almost six years and you see how things have changed and moved on. A lot of your friendships, it just doesn’t feel the same after six years away. Also, we recorded the album in my childhood home.

My parents divorced… the last time I was living there was in the centre of my mum and dad’s divorce, so it threw up a lot of old memories. Being a child, but also them divorcing, then coming back from such a long time away. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there was a lot of memories and nostalgia, reflection as to past, present and now, when we were making this record.

That’s where that filters through on the record, but I’ve never really had a problem with belonging, up until actually being back in that studio. It kind of made me question… I think life on the road is a lot easier. I think I’m just very conditioned with being on the road and constantly moving and not having to worry about seeing how things are when they slow down. (laughs)

I’m like that too, I haven’t gotten to travel a lot, but there’s this weird feeling you get looking out the window when you’re going down the road that anything can happen. It’s really refreshing and gets you out of the norm.

You’re so right. There’s a lot of chaos when you’re travelling, and stimulation. Every day is different, and the people that you meet, everything is moving constantly. It’s not that you don’t have the moments of reflection, [but] you definitely have a lot less of them. You’re normally just caught up in enjoying or feeling the moment. Whether or not that’s good or bad, it’s a lot more spontaneous, which makes you be a bit less comfortable when things slow down. I definitely felt that during the making of this record. It was a real double-edged to the making of this record. We’re really excited to be in this space we’ve made, then at the same time, in those slower moments when we weren’t in session or recording, I just find it quite strange.

Because of all of that, with your parents divorce, and the objective and content of the album, it’s seemingly your most vulnerable work yet. What has it been like having something so dear to you out there?

It’s always quite strange. Obviously I love making records, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t always like to share them, because they do feel personal. But then I see how they connect with people, the way that people message us about songs and the connection they have and the way it’s made them feel, the way it’s helped them grieve. We get a lot of messages like that and it’s in those moments that I feel better about sharing them.

So yeah, I do feel quite conflicted about sharing records as well. Because once their in the public domain, I mean that’s the beauty of music, it’s so subjective. But sometimes it can take away a little bit of the magic of this moment, but that goes away quite quickly. It normally takes a little while, then you can look back on the record with the same fun that you had when you were making it. It is a quite strange thing sharing records.

The way you said that, it’s almost like a relationship too. Like when you break up, I feel like there’s that period where you’re scared and you’re alone, then you look back on it and you can remember the happy things, rather than just focusing on how scared you are to be alone again.

(laughs) Yeah, I don’t think that’s a bad metaphor really for it. Absolutely, (laughs) you’re excited about being alone as well and excited to share it, but at the same time it’s that double-edge that people have lots of connections, but it’s difficult sometimes when people misread your work, or misunderstand it, or try and misrepresent it. That’s the down side to having an opinion about music, sometimes it can be misinterpreted in a way that’s so far moved from the real truth of how you wrote it.

This interview can also be found on Aesthetic Magazine’s website.

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