Who Are…The Joy Formidable

Kevin O'Donnell

By Kevin O'Donnell

on 03.15.11 in Who Is...?s

File under: '90s alt-rock revival, British shoegaze

From: England, North Wales, and U.K.

Personae: Ritzy Bryan (vocals, guitar), Rhydian Dafydd (vocals, bass), Matt Thomas (drums)

Nineties-era alt rock may be having a huge revival in 2011, with vets like Soundgarden working on a new album and grunge icons Pearl Jam plotting a 20th anniversary spectacular. But British upstart act Joy Formidable could give all those dinosaurs a run for their Marshall stacks.

On their breakthrough new album The Big Roar, this trio — fronted by pixie-cute, peroxide-blonde bombshell Ritzy Bryan — deliver 12 tracks worthy of the album's title, from the walloping, anthemic “Magnifying Glass” to the seven-minute feedback freakout “Whirring.” They're one hell of a powerhouse act to catch live, too, and have opened for legends like Paul McCartney while offering their own dense, fuzzed-out take on songs by electro-poppers Passion Pit.

It's been a long road to get where they are now. After meeting bandmate (and boyfriend) Rhydian Dafydd as a high schooler, Bryan split for the U.S. to nanny for a family in Washington, D.C. In 2007, she linked up again with Dafydd, who coaxed her to move back home to join him in another band Sidecar Kisses, but they both soon quit to form their own outfit. “We wanted a completely fresh start: no egos, no bullshit,” says Bryan. “We wanted to find the lust of making music, to enjoy and experiment and be free and get off on it. And that's what led us to Joy Formidable.”

Now, the band is ready to break big in the U.S, with a headlining tour that kicks off March 22 in Atlanta. eMusic's Kevin O'Donnell caught up with Bryan to talk about growing up in an isolated area of North Wales, coming to America to work as an au pair, and the dynamics of playing in a band with her boyfriend.

On growing up in an isolated area of Wales:

I grew up in a really isolated area of North Wales, and was an only child. It was sometimes a bit frustrating because there wasn't a lot of music in my area. That's getting better, but we're still very much in the minority of bands that come from Wales, which I think has helped us really find our own voice. You exist in your own sort of bubble, as opposed to coming from London or Manchester, where you can get influenced by a certain scene.

On getting introduced to Bob Dylan from her parents:

Dylan was a huge influence on me growing up. My parents were both music obsessives and they had so many fucking Dylan bootlegs in the house, a huge library. It was almost like a sickness. I always think I could've hated music just as a way to completely rebel against my parents, but, you know, I loved them for this. I love them for giving me the passion for being open minded and discovering something new about music every single day.

On playing in a band with a boyfriend:

Music comes first and our relationship has always been quite secondary, because we originally met in school and knew that we each played guitar. But [dating each other] makes the music writing very intuitive. We're both incredibly headstrong and passionate about the band. Being in a relationship helps balance that. We're on the same team. There are some challenging arguments, but you want someone who challenges you. You don't want to get too comfortable, do you?

On escaping Wales to work as an au pair in Washington, D.C.:

It was years ago and I needed to escape the U.K. I don't want it to sound too romantic but I left with my guitar and a case and headed to D.C — you can find a family to work for on the Internet easily. It was a very isolating experience and I was underage at the time, but I would go out to see shows with my fake ID. When I mention it to people now, they find it incredulous, because I'm one of the least responsible, maternal people that you could possibly meet. There's a look of fear in people's eyes when they hear that infants were left in my care. But I like to think that I brought something into those kids' world for a short period of time.

On learning how to play guitar:

I was classically trained at the beginning, classical Spanish guitar, not really flamenco. I love classical music, but it definitely has more rules than rock 'n' roll. When I got into my teenage years, I was looking for more of a freer form and that's when I picked up an electric guitar and started making some noise. I'm obsessed with it and I love finding new guitar pedals and effects. I don't know how people can have obsessions with shoes and shit when you can experiment with all sorts of guitar sounds.

On opening for Paul McCartney at Cardiff, U.K.'s Millenium Stadium in 2010:

It was a very surreal weekend — our biggest show to date. It was very celebratory, very wonderful. His show was fucking amazing, and very inspiring. I'd never seen him perform before and he was on the money with every song. We met him afterward and the way he welcomed us was very personable. No bullshit. It's quite refreshing when you meet someone that iconic and they don't forget what it's like to be a decent human being. It was really touching.