Just over a month into the new year, last week saw the release of A Balloon called Moaning from the U.K.’s The Joy Formidable, an album which is already certain to receive inclusion in many year-end best-of lists – and it’s not even officially available in the United States.
While early adapters have called out influences ranging from Pixies, Sonic Youth, The Breeders as well as shadows of shoegaze and various 90’s girl-rock groups, all you really need to know is that this trio has bestowed upon us large-scale, whip-smart tunes that quite often proffer kinetic pop hooks doused in a chaotic candy coating. And if you chance to see them live – look out – the only shoegazing you’ll do is when you duck your head from flying objects as the group explodes onstage like a string of fireworks at a pyromaniac’s Tupperware party.
Even as the limited-edition, hand-made box set version of A Balloon called Moaning sold out on pre-sale, the group chose to make the whole album available for free download via their Myspace page in addition to having a formal cd release rather than capitalize, quite literally, on the obvious demand for their music. All of which is to say that here in the States, you needn’t wait for the eventuality of a monstrous record label to lock its jaws around this group in order to enjoy their music today, and, as you’ll read below, it’s clear TJF’s vision reaches beyond the realm of musical architecture.
As they kicked off a nearly show-a-day run of tour dates on the heels of their album release/in-store celebration last week, we were fortunate enough to capture insights from The Joy Formidable’s very own formidable guitarist and front woman, Ritzy Bryan, via e-mail interview.
MZ: Congratulations on all your success to date. You must be having an incredible week with the official release of A Balloon called Moaning and the remainder of your hectic 20-odd-date tour through March…
RB: Thank you, it’s been a chaotic but fantastic few weeks. The tour’s been going well and we celebrated the release last night with an in-store show at the Pure Groove store in London; we had too much fun and showcased some more tracks from the album.
MZ: In the post-major label music industry, many artists literally can’t give their music away, for better or worse. You’re in the enviable position of having enough momentum to see the limited-edition version of A Balloon called Moaning sell out on pre-order, indicating an obvious demand for your work. Yet, on the veritable eve of its release, NME was allowed to make the album available free online, without any requirement for entering an e-mail address, etc. whatsoever — and the album remains available for free download via your MySpace.
How did you arrive at the decision to give away your music in that manner? Even with blog and torrent downloads, you could have very easily made the album available via CD or paid download only, especially with your current tour.
RB: We wanted to be innovative with the format and distribution of the album; that was the basis for making the boxed set version to begin with. When that sold out & we reprinted we still wanted the physical format to be exciting and special, so the CD version is available from our Myspace page and it’s a great package. As for the free download, listener habits have changed and we’re happy to embrace that and open up the tracks. People invest in different ways.
MZ: Given everything going for you at the moment, it seems natural that TJF would be an early favorite to be tapped for some of the big European festivals this summer. Anything you can tell us at this time?
RB: We’re still confirming some festivals and we’re hopeful we’ll play as much as possible in the coming months, in the U.K. and abroad. I know we’re heading to Italy in April, which will be exciting, we have a lot of fun on the road and I’ve never been to Italy. Rhydian (Dafydd, TJF bassist/vocalist) has relatives there, so hopefully we can catch up with them.
MZ: On A Balloon called Moaning, TJF is rather contained and concise in contrast to live settings, where you’re much more fiery and expansive. Was there a deliberate decision to dial back the recordings to make the music more accessible — or do the live performances reflect a more recent evolutionary stage of the band refining its voice? To that end, will upcoming material develop this more open and noisy sound?
RB: It’s important to us that we stir our audiences in a live and recorded setting, sometimes in different ways but I find the two fundamentally alike. We’re naturally energetic and passionate performers, and the tracks on the album capture that spirit. Similarly, there’s a dreamy feel to the album that we replicate live, so I see the two as dynamic, interwoven sides that will naturally change over time.
MZ: Following up on the last question, how much of your relocation to frenetic London from the serenity of North Wales has informed your interpretation of what TJF is to you? Are you finding that you’re still defining your identity or is your sonic path rather determined at this point?
RB: The early roots of TJF began in North Wales, so it was those surroundings and background that fuelled our vision and voice. The move to London was purely logistical at the time (to live nearer to our old drummer), but it undoubtedly broadened our imagination like any new place or experience. We’re very clear on our identity, but what makes us excited as artists is being able to re-define ourselves if we want and create a few forks in our sonic path.
MZ: How difficult has it been adjusting your productivity in London? There must be a lot of distractions…
RB: We’ve been consistently productive in both locations, we’re not easily distracted.
MZ: You’ve issued handmade, limited-edition albums, have had freedom with your album art in Japan, have a club night of your own, run a remix label…very clearly music is only one component of TJF, which seems to be more of an art force than merely a band. What’s next along those lines? What would the dream situation be in terms of passion projects and/or of expanding into other fields?
RB: Music is always the priority but we do love dabbling with different things. We’re creative people and we like to be stimulated. We do our own videos and we have some Joy Formidable visuals we’d like to capture one day, maybe even a short film, but all in time. I want to write a timeless collection of albums first.
MZ: You have the simultaneous benefit and detriment of sharing a personal, creative and professional relationship with Rhydian. What role, if any, does gender play in your creative process? You write together and yet you’re very clearly the front woman – the defining voice of the group to the public. How do you temper your personal roles with the sentiments you’re conveying on stage?
RB: It is a difficult relationship to maintain but we’ve known each other for so long and we’ve developed such a mutual artistic respect and equal partnership that gender doesn’t really come into play in a creative sense. A band’s dynamic whether the members are in a relationship together or not, is an impossible creature to describe. However we manage, it works, not always in a traditional sense but we support and understand each other.
MZ: You and Rhydian experienced separate careers as singer-songwriters prior to TJF, yet your music now doesn’t radiate that “me/you” self-awareness that tends to define the genre. Have you made a specific effort to avoid that tone with TJF, or has being in a collaborative band environment directed your songwriting to be more universal?
RB: I think my writing habits have always been rooted in what they are now. I can’t speak for Rhydian, but my perception is that the collaboration blossomed a dual voice very naturally and markedly.
MZ: You lived in Washington, D.C. for a period — anything you miss about being in the States? How did you find the U.S. music scene (clubs, promoters, radio, band attitudes, etc.) compared to that of the U.K.?
RB: I do long to go back, I met some great people and one of my best friends still lives there. I went there partly to escape and music kept me buoyant. I loved the live scene, but there’s always a tendency to idealize things in the past, so it’s hard for me to compare it truthfully.
MZ: And when will we see an official album release and/or live appearances in the States?
RB: We are releasing a U.S. single, details on their way and we’d love to follow on from that with other releases and a tour.
MZ: What was your collective reaction to the guitar-hurling incident during your Channel M performance of “Whirring,” in which your thrown guitar defied the laws of physics and landed standing upright against your amp? Did you find out after the fact when watching playback or were you aware when you finished playing? (The video in question can be viewed at YouTube, wherein at approximately 3:42 Ritzy’s airborne guitar chooses to bend Newton’s First Law.)
RB: A lot of people asked if I’d been practicing that effect, but I can happily admit it was a fluke. I was aware of it during filming, but I was more distracted by the fact that I’d narrowly missed a cameraman just inches from my amplifier.
MZ: A fan created a home-made video for “Austere” which was banned from YouTube for being too racy (probably NSFW, it can be viewed in full on the band’s official site: www.joyformidable.com – it’s in the vein of Brightblack Morning Light’s SFW “Everybody Daylight” video here). Any other unusual gestures from fans to report as TJF continues to gather speed?
RB: Many fans have sent in their videos and we love receiving them. That’s the raciest to date though, we hope for others.
And there you have it. Our great thanks to Ritzy for sacrificing vital sleep in order to answer our inquiries. We look forward to hearing more from The Joy Formidable through 2009 and on.