One of the most pleasantly noisy bands at South by Southwest two weeks ago in Austin, Texas, the Joy Formidable somehow found a quiet downtown wine bar to relax in and share a classy bottle of white before its last of six gigs in the music conference.
“Six?! I thought it was five,” singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan said to drummer Matt Thomas, her voice rising along with her regal-sounding Welsh accent. “Where the hell did the fifth one go then?”
Bryan and her two male bandmates — whose fast-burning, bed-headed rock roar sonically parallels SXSW’s wild whir — actually scaled back this year compared with the nine sets they played at Austin’s mega-fest in 2011. That was the year the Joy Formidable arrived at SXSW with a modest buzz over its debut album and left as a must-see live act. ⊲
U.S. fans had plenty of chances to catch the Welsh trio after that. They spent a steady year and a half of touring, a rigorous ride that helped splinter the romantic relationship at the center of the band but only seemed to reinforce the musical foundation. Hence the title of the group’s new album, “Wolf’s Law,” named after the scientific theory that bones grow stronger in response to stress.
Primed to return to the road right after that last SXSW showcase — no hotel that night — the Joy Formidable makes its First Avenue debut as a headliner Wednesday, almost exactly two years since its sold-out, full-tilt local debut next door in 7th Street Entry.
“Minneapolis is one of those lovely cities where we like to get out and see the birds and trees, if we can,” said Thomas, and he wasn’t kidding. The band members are nature lovers who also expressed interest in Austin’s famous population of bats. Not so coincidentally, one of the tracks from their new album is titled “Bats,” one of the new highlights in their live set.
Offstage, Bryan is bubbly and thoughtful yet a wee bit crude with her jokes. Like when Thomas pointed out how tame the band’s road life can be by saying the most titillating part of his day was “having porridge on the bus this morning.”
“Yeah, but did you snort it again?” Ritzy cracked.
Onstage, Bryan is a burning ball of energy and the unequivocal focal point of the Joy Formidable. Her bleached-blond hair and manic approach to her Fender Jaguar guitar make her resemble a female Kurt Cobain. And like Nirvana, her trio is one of those little bands that sound way bigger than they look. They have a little unseen help in that department, though.
With the more ambitious sonic palette of the new album, the band is using more prerecorded loops onstage. Bassist Rhydian Dafydd, however, said those bits of augmentation are a better option than risking the trio’s obvious chemistry.
“The dynamic between the three of us is so good, it doesn’t feel right to have someone else come in,” Dafydd said. “As long as what we’re playing live is the featured sound in it all, having some loops and tracks is not that much of a big deal. We make big efforts to still have a lot of freedom in the show, too.”
The romantic connection in the band was between Dafydd and Bryan, childhood friends who had played in a couple of bands before starting the Joy Formidable in 2007. Seated opposite each other during the SXSW interview, the exes talked openly about not wanting to be ex-bandmates above all else.
“There’s a real solid friendship there, and there always was,” Dafydd said. “In a way, what happened has filtered everything down to what was most important in the first place, which was the music we create together.”
Said Bryan, “It’s funny: Some of the songs on the record feel like premonitions of the worst-case scenario, if our relationship ended. The anxiety of our relationship failing is on there.
“At the same time, it’s trying to celebrate our friendship, even more so now. The friendship and the songwriting partnership both involve a lot of deep respect, and that’s never faltered.”
“Let’s sit and talk and slow things down/Just be our old selves again finally,” Bryan sings in “The Ladder Is Ours,” the new album’s Belly-like opening track, and probably its most accessible. Save for “Silent Treatment,” a lush acoustic song, the rest of “Wolf’s Law” is loaded with heavier, more bombastic tracks — yes, even more roaring fare than the first album titled “The Big Roar” — including the Nirvana-esque throttler “Cholla” and the more atmospheric screecher “Tendons.”
Early enough in their 2013 tour cycle to still appear upbeat and sane, the Joy Formidable recounted how the heavy touring for the first album affected the songwriting this time around. They didn’t just write about the road, they actually wrote on the road.
“We had so many songs ready to go by the time we finally got back into the studio, including a lot of stuff that didn’t make the record,” Bryan said. “I always feel really inspired when we’re touring. It’s not a case of feeling forced to write something. Inspiration just comes to you there, and you sort of need that release, anyway.”
Despite all the strong new offerings, the big showpiece in the Joy Formidable’s live show remains “The Big Roar’s” aptly named breakthrough single “Whirring”— which the band stretches out and amps up onstage, in what really does come off as a release for the band. It’s one of those spine-buzzing concert thrills that make you wonder if the band is as fulfilled playing it night-to-night as audiences are hearing it.
“Yes, absolutely,” Dafydd confirmed. “We keep that one spontaneous, for ourselves as much as everyone else.”
Said Bryan, “We come off the stage a lot of times feeling bemused by what went down in that song. We discover new things a lot of times in the release of that adrenaline.”
It’s as good for them as it is for us, in other words.
THE JOY FORMIDABLE
With: Guards, Kitten.
When: 8 p.m. Wed.
Where: First Avenue.
Tickets: $18-$20. www.ticketfly.com.