Best gig ever: The Joy Formidable, Shoreditch 2011

It's hard not to fall in love with Ritzy Bryan when you watch her play; it's the kind of love that belts you across the face and slugs you in the gut, leaves you knee-weak and breathless watching this woman go off like a fucking Roman candle.

It is late 2011. I am about to speak to The Joy Formidable. I am in a warehouse on the outskirts of Shoreditch and a space-heater, a great roaring yellow thing with a mouth full of fire, is doing its best to warm the cavernous darkness. It is not doing very well.

FHM have sent me; or, rather, I have conviced FHM that taking half a day off to talk to a band and then watch them play a gig is worth their time and money. I am sitting on a wooden stool around a fake campfire set out on astroturf while another journalist, one that sounds like she knows what she’s doing, is talking to the band. She has a proper dictaphone and a vague knowledge of the music scene. I have my beat-up Sony Ericsson set to voice record. I am not sure why there is a campfire here. A stuffed fox peeks out at me from around a log. I catch myself trying to watch my hands on the fake campfire, which is nothing but LEDs and coloured tinfoil.

The proper journalist – I believe all journalists believe that other journalists know what they are doing and they alone are fecklessly sifting the ashes of news looking for something to sell to a magazine – finishes and the woman from Clarks calls me over. This is a gig put together by Clarks, a British shoe company, in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. Clarks make boring shoes for old people and sensible shoes that you go to school in. Their brand is in dire need of an overhaul. Shoreditch is the place to start.

I am brought over to the band. They smile, and I get out my felt-tip pens and my pad of unlined paper, and explain that this is not going to be a normal interview.

Ritzy and Matt, here, with the monster that the band drew as a team

Ritzy and Matt, here, with the monster that the band drew as a team

BREAK-NECK FORWARD VELOCITY

The Joy Formidable (“pronounced like it’s spelt,” they say, helpfully, whenever asked) released The Big Roar, in 2011. The Big Roar is an incredible album. It is loaded with tracks that sound like they’ll be eleven-minute self-serving wankfests – The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie; Wall = llaW; A Heavy Abacus; etc. But you are wrong to think that. (I. I was wrong to think that.) I didn’t listen to The Big Roar for the purposes of the interview alone – I was a fan beforehand, before the request for the interview and the gig came through. I forget how I came across it. I fell in love.

The Joy Formidable twist music into shapes that I can barely understand. I can see the edges of what they’ve done, the brilliance with which they’ve hacked up music and glued it together in beautiful, jagged ways. But I don’t have the language to talk about what they’re doing, not properly.

Their music has… momentum. Even the slow songs. Especially the fast songs. The Magnifying Glass is two minutes nineteen of break-neck forward velocity, and you can feel it bearing your arms up to the sky and pumping your thighs to push you faster. It is vitriolic and gorgeous and never needs reloading; it contains the lines “Look at your friends, having so much fun / They’re baking cakes and fucking swapping numbers.” In my head, I would concoct action scenes good enough to warrant The Magnifying Glass being their soundtrack.

“MOST OUTLETS”

“Most outlets would talk to you about your music,” I say, sitting down in a military greatcoat that was never fashionable, “but we’re not gonna do that. We want to talk to you about something else. Anything else. What are your passions? What do you give a shit about, aside from music?”

Blank stares, admittedly coupled with those unmoving smiles. The bassist, Rhydian Dafydd, is sipping from a bottle of Becks. I am vaguely jealous.

“I’ve got a massive record collection,” says Ritzy Bryan, vocals and guitar, and I have to say –
“Sure – but, that’s still kind of music-related.” Plus I a) know fuck all about music, especially the sort that you’d have to collect on vinyl and not just download, and b) only last week I interviewed KidUlthood star Adam Deacon about his record collection, and that was awful.

Here's Adam Deacon. I asked him to draw a monster; he drew a man with a "jazz cigarette," as I believe the kids call them

BONUS CONTENT: Here’s Adam Deacon. I asked him to draw a monster; he drew a man with a “jazz cigarette,” as I believe the kids call them

“Anything… anything else? Do you play games? Watch films?”
“Um…”

These are busy people. They live in a tour bus. They haven’t got time to slog through Assassin’s Creed 2. I feel embarrassed for asking. I scramble for something, anything:

“Eat? Do you eat food?”
“Oh, yeah, we love food.”
“Great! Do you cook?”
“I do,” says Rhydian. “Ritzy doesn’t.”

Fuck it, I think, that’s good enough. That’s a start.

“Okay,” I say, “The Joy Formidable’s Top Five Dinners. It’s gonna be great. While we talk, I’ve got this paper and felt-tip pens for you to draw something on for me. Have you guys played Exquisite Corpse? I’ll need you to do that for me.”

This interview style is grade-A bullshit, but it beat the hell out of watching me pretend I knew anything about the music industry. I get people to draw something for me while I talk to them; it keeps them entertained, lets them play with brightly-coloured pens – I have a stack of rainbow Sharpies in a pencil case – and kind of glosses over the fact that I couldn’t interview my way out of a wet paper bag.

I once had to interview Rizzle Kicks, a popular young beat combo, about their involvement with the Sony Playstation Vita handheld. It was a shocker of an interview topic, and my boss recommended that they do it whilst eating dry Weetabix; Rizzle Kicks were entirely against this idea. I had luckily brought a backup plan – we would hold an interview during a NERF gunfight. The resulting interview was pretty poor, much of the speech drowned out my the repeated cocking of our pump-action NERF Raiders, but it was a laugh. And no-one watched the damn thing anyway.

REPLACED ALL HER BLOOD WITH PUNCHES

No-one watched or read anything on FHM. That’s not strictly true; they’d look at the pictures, I suppose, and my job was to find pretty pictures and surround them with words that would have some sort of SEO relevance to the topic at hand. I received no formal training short of an afternoon in the office where I was told to write two stories and pretty much left to it.

I’d written a story about Ritzy Bryan a few months previous; FHM had a movement to write about women who were cool, not just women who happened to have nice breasts, and Ritzy looked cool as fuck on stage. She had bottle-white hair in a bob-cut, wore vintage-looking dresses, and bound strings of lights round her microphone stand. She was cool. The article barely got off the ground, being as it was – I imagine – article four of four that day, my powers of creative bullshit and word-padding running out of steam halfway through the 250-word minimum.

But to see her live on stage is astonishing. She explodes. She is the only thing in the room. It is like someone has replaced all her blood with punches; she throbs, spasms with barely-controlled energy.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Ritzy Bryan when you watch her play. And not the kind of love that would have you try to chat her up or buy her a drink; the kind of love that belts you across the face and slugs you in the gut, leaves you knee-weak and breathless watching this woman go off like a fucking Roman candle all across the room.

Ritzy, here, levitating slightly

Ritzy, here, levitating slightly

“A FUCKIN’ NICE BAGUETTE”

The interview is… fine. It ticks along. It’s me talking to some people about food they like, none of us experts. Rhydian is the cook, obviously, because he displays a working knowledge of risotto, and Ritzy is.. not. Ritzy generates caption quotes like no-one else I’ve met. I asked her what sort of meal she likes to share with her friends. “A really good bottle of wine and a fuckin’ nice baguette,” she responds, staring intently at her portion of the drawing and scratching away at it with a magenta sharpie, the ink bleeding through onto the following page.

I’ve not met a lot of celebrities before, despite being thrown in the deep end and flying out to San Diego to interview both Sasha Grey and Hulk Hogan in one day for my first ever face-to-face outing. (Sasha was nice. Hulk Hogan was exactly how you imagine Hulk Hogan to be: a man made entirely out of promotional materials, his very self an advert for his very self.) But The Joy Formidable seem… normal? Approachable. That’s the word.

Especially their drummer, Matt Thomas, who is – I believe – a big music nerd.

A HUNDRED TIMES

When Matt drums, it’s magic. He drums around the song and weaves through it, giving it more impetus than you thought it could take. He is the beat and the spaces in-between beats, conjuring this spinning dizzy pinwheel of a backing rhythm behind everything they do.

Look, I don’t know anything about drumming. I know I like how Matt plays drums; I like the tricks he plays, how unexpected everything sounds, how unworkmanlike and how scientifically, precisely the man is stacking rhythms on top of each other. I’m sorry that I lack the words.

He’s the reason, I think, that I love the album, why it’s not come out of my regular rotation since it was released nearly three years ago. It’s from his backbone that the rest of the album spreads out, the hooks that draw you back in over and over, that stop the music from drying out. Matt is hacking my brain. I have listened to I Don’t Want To See You Like This a hundred times, maybe more, and it still hotwires my spine like it did when I first heard it.

Matt goes for it on the drums

Matt, here, hacking my brain

SOUND AND FURY

My fifteen minutes runs out, and the band go backstage to prepare. “It’s ironic we’ve spent the last fifteen minutes talking about dinner, because it’s been two fuckin’ years since any of us have had a proper meal,” says Ritzy as she walks away.

(I would later sell the raw recording of the interview back to Clarks in exchange for a pair of shoes that didn’t fit very well or suit me but, on the whole, looked expensive, which is what matters.)

I’ve got two hours until the gig starts, so I sit down in some overpriced Italian restaurant I can ill-afford and order a portion of lasagne and a medium glass of wine that I really take my time over whilst reading a book. I smoke a bunch of cigarettes. I play the Can You Find A Working Cash Machine In Shoreditch Game, which is always very hard to win.

I meet my wife; we walk into the venue, and I get a Press badge, which always feels nice. They kick off, and they’re still approachable; Ritzy is charming, she swears less on stage, and the others chip in occasionally. They play us a song from their (then) upcoming album, but also every other song off The Big Roar. All of them.

And I’m loving it, of course, this is a fantastic experience, this is me and about a hundred and fifty other people in coats and hats and gloves with their breath steaming in the air, die-hard fans, wedged into the warehouse venue and crowding the stage to get closer to the band. But they bring it up; they accelerate. The politeness drops away. Ritzy enters her terrifying second form, not just an excellent guitarist and singer but this fucking white-hot avatar of the music, bound by it, borne up by it, and she’s electric and Rhydian is badass and Matt is in some frantic drumming trance and this, this is what they do, this is what they’re good at.

The final song rolls around and all hell breaks loose as they tear the fucking stage apart while they’re playing; Ritzy and Rhydian smashing their guitars against the floor, the speakers, kicking their microphone stages down, Matt tearing his drum-kit apart and throwing it to the floor with one hand whilst playing with the other. It is buzzing, transgressive, transformative. It is the best thing I have ever seen.

The aftermath, in staggeringly low res

The aftermath, in staggeringly low res

The dust settles – a fight breaks out in the toilets, there’s broken glass and thrown beer, didn’t seem like that sort of crowd but do enough cocaine and anyone starts looking like a target – and my wife asks if I want to try and blag my way backstage. I’ve got my press pass, after all. The worst they could say is no; the most could be that, for what would probably be the only time in my life, I could go backstage with a band I gave a shit about after a gig like that.

I’m terrified. I’m unnerved, blasted, by what they became on stage, the dizzying alchemy of noise and light that they span together in front of my eyes. I say that I won’t even try. Because… what will they be like, back there? Will they be polite, again, the stage-destruction all an act? Will they be riding high on this wave of success and still bristle with barely contained energy, drowning me out? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. This is perfect. This has been perfect. Seeing them without the sound and fury couldn’t make it any better.