Thirty-six calendar pages is a substantial amount of time by any account, but, as the old bromide goes, time flies when you’re having fun. And even if the members of Welsh Shoegaze group The Joy Formidable weren’t always having fun in the gap between their last album and their latest triumph — 2013’s Wolf’s Law and the recently released Hitch, respectively — time was flying nonetheless.
The trio — guitarist/vocalist Ritzy Bryan, bassist/vocalist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matthew James Thomas — built a studio from scratch in their North Wales hometown of Mold and also wrote dozens of songs in preparation for the recording of Hitch. But that’s just the tip of a Welsh iceberg.
“It was down to a couple things, really,” Dafydd says of the gap between releases. “It happened to be the record took that long — sometimes it’s quick; sometimes it’s not. The importance is standing behind what you’ve written, and with so many songs written, that took a minute. Unfortunately, we had a lot of boring things to figure out, (including) finding a new label and new management, and that took a few months. We were doing other projects as well; we were writing stuff for short films, and there were a few single releases, and we also started the Welsh Singles Club (an interpretational of a monthly vinyl singles club). Every few months, we were doing a Welsh language song tied with another artist from Wales, and each (single) cover was made by a visual artist from Wales. We wanted to champion what’s going on in North Wales, because there isn’t a hell of a lot of channels for the talent.”
Given that The Joy Formidable has only been around for the past nine years, the gap between its last two albums represents a third of its history.
The seeds of Joy were sown when childhood friends Bryan and Dafydd partnered up professionally in the Manchester band Tricky Nixon, which morphed into Sidecar Kisses. When that band dissolved in 2007, the pair, at that point romantically linked as well, returned to Mold, found drummer Justin Stahley and The Joy Formidable was born. After a trio of singles, the band released its debut EP, A Balloon Called Moaning, to enthusiastic reviews.
With Stahley’s departure and Thomas’ arrival, The Joy Formidable signed to Atlantic Records subsidiary Canvasback Music and recorded its debut full length, 2011’s The Big Roar. The band gained widespread exposure when Andy Samberg’s The Lonely Island sampled the album’s “Whirring” for the tune “YOLO,” and “Endtapes” was used on the soundtrack of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. During the year-long tour for The Big Roar, Bryan and Dafydd wrote the album Wolf’s Law.
Much has transpired since Wolf’s Law: Bryan and Dafydd amicably ended their seven-year personal relationship to concentrate on the band, and the group toured relentlessly and dealt with the aforementioned label and management issues. With no time constraints, the band assembled its hometown studio and got to work.
“We felt like we needed to disappear for awhile and regroup,” Dafydd says. “We’d been on the road ever since we started, non-stop. We love touring, but it’s important to step away and reflect, so that’s what we did. We wrote a hell of a lot for this record — enough for three or four albums, really.”
The songs that the band wrote for Hitch were created in its studio space and not road-tested like previous material. But with the tour glow still fresh in the musicians’ minds, they knew they wanted to access that energy.
“In the past, me and Ritzy have written everything, including the drum parts, which Matt is replicating,” Dafydd says. “This time ’round, we wanted to jam these songs over and over until it’s something we’re actually shaping through performing them together. We wanted to capture everything — the space, the atmosphere, particularly in North Wales, and that you’re hearing what the players are doing, even the odd mistake now and again. That’s fine by us, as long as the soul is shining through.”
Part of the lengthy process in assembling Hitch involved finding an album’s-worth set of songs in the mass of material The Joy Formidable had created. With so many tracks to consider and no clock to watch, the band took its time.
“It was tricky, man, it took a long time,” Dafydd says with a laugh. “We stand behind the album as a format. It’s really precious to us, the peaks and troughs and the journey an album takes you on. And we wanted it to be perfect. When it’s just the three of you, it can drive you crazy, but we pushed through it. We just went back and forth until it felt right. We didn’t want to just put together a collection of fucking songs or singles — it’s got to have its own life and atmosphere.”
Hitch encompasses a lot of emotional territory, including Dafydd reconnecting with his partner from a dozen years ago, Bryan’s lingering wounds from her parents’ bitter late-in-life divorce and the joyful yet problematic return to the place where they all grew up. It all combines to create a powerful sonic and lyrical statement.
“It’s a really emotional record,” Dafydd says. “North Wales is a really beautiful place, but it can weigh very heavily on you. It can be isolating and lonely as well.”
Perhaps that isolation has inspired The Joy Formidable’s howl-in-the-wilderness sound, a raw blast typified by Bryan’s scorching guitar density, Dafydd’s pummeling bass lines and Thomas’ thunderstruck drumming. And while the Shoegaze tag has been firmly affixed to the trio, The Joy Formidable has never been about chasing trends or seeking broader inclusion.
“We never started off thinking about genres, to be honest,” Dafydd says. “I think it’s important to do what feels right to you. We’re certainly admirers of artists that grow, and you don’t quite know what you’re going to get with each album, but I also love artists whose sound has been pretty much the same from the start. I think it depends on being honest with yourself. We love the writing process and we feel like every album is a different chapter. The key thing is that it’s always your voice coming through. There’s always been a big underpinning in our songs with the lyrics, and maybe with this one you wouldn’t notice because of the wall of sound and so forth, but it’s always been there. There’s intensity, but you can show that intensity in loads of different ways. Doing it the same way every time can be a little boring and formulated.”
THE JOY FORMIDABLE plays the free Indie Vol. 2016 series Friday on Fountain Square with Drowners. More info: myfountainsquare.com.