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Interview: Rhydian Dafydd (The Joy Formidable)

8 September 2021

After a short break following the recording and touring for 2018’s AAARTH, The Joy Formidable reconvened at singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan’s house in Utah to begin work on a follow up. Bassist Rhydian Dafydd considered it a short vacation from his home in the U.K. but, with the writing starting in February 2020, found himself a temporary U.S. resident for nearly 19 months due to travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. While the lockdown wasn’t great for anybody, the downtime allowed the band to focus on writing and recording new music that proved to be the shot of energy they needed. Into the Blue, released in August, features some of the best songs in the band’s decade-long recording career and the early singles (“Into the Blue” and “Back to Nothing”) were a great indication of what was to come.

With an album done and travel restrictions lightened, Dafydd was able to return to the U.K. which is where he called me from on the eve of the album release.

You’re in England now?

RHYDIAN: Not long been here, maybe 10 days and in Utah for about a year-and-a-half during this lockdown. Went there to do some writing for this record, the February before last, and it was only meant to be a few weeks and then a year-and-a-half-later …

Had you been to Utah before?

RHYDIAN: Oh yeah, that’s Ritzy’s base. I’ve been over quite a few times. It’s a great place to write, actually. You get some headspace away from the chaos of touring.

At least you were locked down some place that you were comfortable.

RHYDIAN: That’s it, yeah. There’s some beautiful walks there. I know with all the pandemic, it’s come with it’s challenges and struggles but it was actually a good time in some aspects. Being so busy with touring, and we love touring, you haven’t had much a chance to sit with yourself and reflect and almost get in touch with yourself emotionally. It was a chance to do that.

The grind for bands is real – you write a record, you record a record, you go out and tour to support the record, you take a few months off and you start the cycle back up. Throughout your career, have you ever felt like you turned in an album not when it was to the point that you were totally happy with it but to meet a deadline so as to not slow down the cycle?

RHYDIAN: As far as we’re concerned, the record takes what it’s going to take. Having said that, we’re always writing anyway so there’s never any shortage. We’ve never been in that situation where it’ll take 5 years to write the record. We still believe in the album as a format but it depends on what position you’re in. If it happens that it takes 5 years to do, what can you do to support yourself in the meantime. Unfortunately, there is that aspect of being a functional musician in this day and age, at the level we’re at at the moment, so, as long as you’ve got those things worked out, then that’s okay. We certainly don’t like to be pressured and I don’t feel like we’ve done that with any label. We’ve been on lots of different labels and luckily they’ve kind of gone along with us in how long things take. I also think, sometimes, it’s interesting as well to put that pressure on yourself – “here you go, write a record in a week.”

The thing that has struck me from the get-go with The Joy Formidable is that you each play a very important role in the band – there are some bands built around the lead singer or the guitarist – but you are all very good musicians and each bring something to each song.

RHYDIAN: That interweaving is something that we also enjoy about other artists. It’s quite crucial live as well. We enjoy the live discipline and the recording discipline – we see them as different and it’s okay for something to come alive in a different way live. I think when you’re comfortable with each other and you have that chemistry live and, like you say, a certain competency, but it depends on what kind of music you do, doesn’t it? It’s okay to do three chords, it just depends on the act. But when you’ve got that understanding and confidence to play with each other, instead of just going through the motions, it’s exciting.

Are you involved with picking singles or is that something you leave to management or the label? When I was growing up, there seemed to be two paths – you either come out of the gate swinging and put your very best song out to grab people’s attention or you put out a song that maybe isn’t your strongest song, almost a throwaway, so that when the album does come out and you get to the second single, it explodes.

RHYDIAN: We are involved but that’s a good question. It’s something that has come up and there’s often been to-ing and fro-ing, it’s something we do feel uncomfortable with. Songs are songs and they say something about where you’re at the time. The whole element of what you think it going to work best, it doesn’t really fall into our sphere that much. It’s not something that we’re that bothered about. I feel like that’s changed so much. There’s a fashion element to it, isn’t there? What you’ve traditionally had as an impactful melodic song, I feel like there’s been a reaction against that over the past 7 years. It’s almost like you’re wanting to get away from that sometimes. I think you can sometimes go down a really big black hole with that kind of stuff so we tend to lose ourselves in writing the record. It does vary, from album to album, if we really want to create a journey from the releases but it hasn’t been like that every single time. Sometimes it’s like, “Here’s the record” and we don’t really care which order the singles go out.

I’m dating myself but I remember when Def Leppard released Hysteria in 1987. It was obvious, from the very first listen, that “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was going to be a monster hit but that was the third single they released and the first two singles were okay but clearly not the strongest songs to release.

RHYDIAN: It’s interesting, there’s strategies around how a radio campaign will work. It’s dependent on what the tastes are at the time. I really don’t want to get involved in that type of stuff, I want to be authentic to what excites us. “There seems to be a lot of songs on the radio right now with a lot of space and reverb going on, let’s write a song like that.” That’s not particularly something we’re interested in doing.

For those who are just discovering The Joy Formidable, do you know how that’s happening? Is radio supportive? Are you winding up on influential Spotify playlists?

RHYDIAN: How are they hearing or how would I prefer them to hear? In terms of preference, I think live, really, is the best way but we’ve been so busy doing a music club over the last two or three years. There’s online shows included in that so I think that’s a place where you’ll get some idea what’s going on live. Of course, it can’t be quite the same thing as seeing us in person but there’s a lot of movement forward with that kind of stuff. So, that would be the preference. How do people discover us? There’s a real range. It’s funny that that Twilight film is, what, 10 years old now? It’s still got quite a bit of a following and we still have people discovering us for the first time through that. What’s really nice is a lot of word of mouth, as well. A lot of communities of gig goers and that’s really heartwarming to hear. There isn’t this monopoly of how people hear things now so it isn’t just radio, there’s so many interesting things going on with podcasts and all kinds of things, so that’s really nice as well. Some really good quality stuff, not what you would have thought of as traditional gatekeepers, the traditional models.

The song “Sevier” is incredible. The guitar playing almost sounds like sirens. It’s probably one of my favorite songs of 2021.

RHYDIAN: Yeah, I can hear that. It’s a really fun track, I remember writing the riff quite a while ago, actually. A couple of years ago. That happens a lot with this band. That’s what I was saying earlier about constantly writing. Same with “Farrago,” that was a riff Ritzy wrote maybe 5 years ago. We keep on revisiting old ideas that didn’t quite come together at the time, didn’t quite make sense. I kind of feel like this record explores the pounding, quite rhythmical insistent energetic pace. I think “Sevier” encapsulates that, it’s got a little bit of a tribal feel to it and I think we were revved up with this record. As much as I say that we enjoyed the space and the time to really get in touch with ourselves, it was a re-energizing time as well. As you can see, the record is quite an energetic record.

“Gotta Feed My Dog” is the other song that really stuck out on the first listen. Metal bands like to cover alternative songs – there’s a heavy cover of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” by Bad Wolves that, while true to the original, brings a new element. Given enough space and time, I could hear a band down the road do a metal cover of this song. But, I also hear a band like The Cure in the music. It’s such an interesting song, it sounds like a couple of different styles that shouldn’t go together but you’ve made it work.

RHYDIAN: I do know what you mean. The verses almost sound a little bit like a darker Cure tinkering around the haunted houses in the movies, those are the kind of images that come up for me. And, obviously, the chorus is kind of heavy. I can see that. In fact, a few people have mentioned that. I think it’s going to be one of those songs that we’ll enjoy playing live, when it just kind of sways and you just want to bob your head up and down.

Describing The Joy Formidable’s sound is difficult. It’s rock music but there is stuff like The Cure, My Bloody Valentine, that kind of British stuff but there’s also some straight ahead rock stuff. That positions you in a good place where you can open for bands like the Foo Fighters but also fit in on festival dates with The Cure When you’re buying groceries and somebody says, “You look like a musician. What does your band sound like?”, what do you tell them?

RHYDIAN: That’s always a tough one and I know musicians and artists often feel uncomfortable with questions like that because it’s somewhat limiting. It somehow takes away that potential as well because you’re always growing. We’ve done acoustic tours and we’ve done atmospheric stuff. It isn’t just the albums for us and that’s what’s great about the music club is that it enables us to put a lot more material out there, it isn’t just rock stuff. So, yeah, it is quite a tough question to answer.

When you were growing up, were you listening to diverse stuff? Is that what you brought to The Joy Formidable’s sound, a diverse palate of influences and bands you enjoyed?

RHYDIAN: I kind of started off with some heavier stuff. Jimi Hendrix is what got me into music, guitars really, and then it went into songwriting and deeper, more interesting kinds of music. I think me and Ritzy have slightly different tastes but we can appreciate each other’s tastes. There isn’t really any one genre but maybe she came from more of the Dylans, the Springsteens, the Van Morrisons, great lyricists and songwriters. Leonard Cohen and so forth. I came from more the actual music itself, more of a visceral, certainly heavy stuff, anything from Sepultura and Pantera to ’60s stuff like Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. That was just the beginning of my interest for all kinds of music. I kind of feel like there’s an equal appreciation for the UK sound as well as the American sound. It wasn’t always sticking with the bands from the UK because that’s where we’re from. For me, it’s about what’s exciting, what’s a great song.

With a number of albums under your belt, do you typically start off a tour with stuff people know and throw in one or two new ones and as the tour goes on, add new songs or is the upcoming tour going to be 6 or 7 new songs and then stuff from the rest of the catalog?

RHYDIAN: It does change, we do like to keep ourselves, as well as people, on their toes. Sometimes you might be slightly restrictive, so you’re not really on it with every single new song at the start of a tour but then as it goes on, that develops. I like to come from a place of we know everything, we feel confident with everything, and we can drop in whatever we want. That’s the place I like to be. Like Springsteen, “We’re doing that tonight” and we can swap songs in and out and keep things fresh. It’s not just about being like a jukebox, “Here you go.”

There are some bands that center around a lead singer and the members are constantly rotating so there’s only a certain number songs they can learn for the tour. They can’t be spontaneous.

RHYDIAN: Yeah, I do love that thing as well of reeling people in, especially in the live side, and you sense it, you respond to each other. It’s not like there’s an us and a them. How you can drop in a song that really nobody knows that well but everyone’s like, “Okay, wow, what was that?” Maybe it’s a B-side from 10 years ago. It’s feeding off the energy and the conversational aspect almost of doing a show. It’s very much being in the moment, being present instead of just going through the motions. Sometimes we’ll make a song decision during the set as well.

When you go on vacation, you leave behind work and the daily grind. And then coming back to work is always difficult. With the last 18 months being off the road due to lockdown, you’ve had this peaceful time to relax and reflect, do you think it’s going to be tough to get back on the road, get back to your job?

RHYDIAN: That’s a good question. There’s definitely some things I’m looking forward to with getting back on the road, we love playing live and connecting with people in person. Nothing beats a live show. But, having said that, we’ve also enjoyed some aspects of this and touring, at times, has almost been exhausting. It depends on how it’s done. I think it’s made us mindful of how we tour in the most effective way so that we don’t get burned out. I think, at times, there’s been a little bit of burning out. The next tour is only the start, it’s about three and half weeks. If you’re in the States and driving yourself around, and you’re doing a gig every night, it can take it’s toll. It can affect the show depending on what kind of band you are. You have to consider some of the practicalities because you want to make it a good show and that you’re actually present. As long as you’re not killing yourself, we also enjoy the challenge.

I saw you for first time in March 2011 and you were headlining a small venue. Months later, I saw you play in front of thousands on a Lollapalooza stage. Do you get something different out of each situation?

RHYDIAN: I think it depends on if you connect. When you’ve done so many shows, you’ve had some where you feel like there isn’t any listening going on, there’s no connection, so all you can do is enjoy it. And we do that any way. But, it makes it more special – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a big venue or small – you can still feel that. Certain artists are good at doing that, even a big venue can feel intimate. It’s really about the connection. Maybe that’s a little bit easier in smaller venues, so I certainly do enjoy when people are there really to see us as opposed to a festival where certain people haven’t even heard of you. But, that’s fine too.

You’ve mentioned the music club a few times. Can you tell me more about what that is?

RHYDIAN: We started off maybe 2 or 3 years ago. It started off as sharing of the songs but it grew, especially with the pandemic, as a place to do online shows. There’s all kinds of content there. We’ve put a podcast up there over the last couple of weeks. There’s a backstage area. It’s been a great way to connect while we haven’t been able to tour. It’s also made us think about a model as a way to sustain ourselves, or possibly other artists, going forward. I was just talking to someone about this, how the live side is one of the few places where you can sustain yourselves these days. With that being taken away due to the pandemic, a lot of artists have been hit. There’s a recognition of a nail in the coffin, there’s something that needs to be sorted here. So, we’ve been growing the music club lots of ways, seeing what insights we can take from it to empower other artists and we’re still working on that. The fans have been great in supporting us. It’s really helped, just from a practical point of view, but it’s also been a great place to extend what’s already there with the band. All kinds of material and connected in real time and doing bizarre encores and extending on the surreal humor. It’s been a great hub. Artists are split between loads of places and I think it would be great if there could be an artist’s direct hub. I think we need to get back to that instead of people being torn. We all know about being online, unless you’re a massive fan, people get bored. They don’t want to click here, click here, click here.

[Check out The Joy Formidable Music Club, a subscription-based experience with access to exclusive music, online shows and livestreams with money going directly to The Joy Formidable.]

 

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