Written for Warner Bros. Records / Meno Records, June 2016.
A moment of inspiration can change anything. When twin brothers Will and Matt Ritson started a new project in May 2013, their first jam session yielded the almost immediately fully-formed track Hangin. A little over two years later, its raucous mix of anthemic disco-punk, insistent percussion and pulsating bass became Formation’s third release in the duo’s still-evolving journey and premiered with Annie Mac on Radio 1.
Their first release, a (now sold out) white label 12”, was issued in the summer of 2014 with close friend Jonny Tams on production duties. “The idea was just to get something low-key out, so that if people were interested they could grab a copy,” is keyboardist Matt’s modest summary of Formation’s first excursion into the wider world. “It was cool just to see our own record in our favourite shops,” adds Will, citing support from Soho institutions such as Phonica, Sounds of the Universe and Sister Ray as particular examples.
MENO Records subsequently jumped on board to issue their second EP Young Ones. Its title track – a belting clarion call to the dancefloor – instigated a frenzy of glowing comparisons with a galaxy of like-minded spirits such as Liquid Liquid, ESG, LCD Soundsystem / DFA Records, The Rapture and Arthur Russell, while JD Twitch of Glaswegian discotheque heroes Optimo provided a remix.
They don’t take such comparisons too seriously – “Everyone is compared to Talking Heads because they’re so influential,” laughs Will – but they’re happy with the punk-funk moniker. As Will continues: “Punk and funk aren’t so different. A lot of punk can be really groovy, like today I was listening to a playlist which featured The Fall’s Printhead and the next song was Afro-Strut by The Night-Liters. All of the things that make a really good song are found in both of those genres.”
A conversation with the Ritsons is littered with references to artists which traverse both time and almost the entire musical spectrum: Sly and the Family Stone, John Maus, Fugazi, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Herbie Hancock, Theo Parrish, Beastie Boys, Pantera and Ornette Coleman are just some of the names that ebb into the frame.
Such all-encompassing interests are surely sourced from their family background. They grew up surrounded by their father’s gargantuan collection of Northern Soul vinyl as well as their mother’s love of Stevie Wonder and classical music. All through childhood, the twins were encouraged to pursue whatever sounds they gravitated towards with participation in youth orchestras and jazz collectives part of their journey. As they hit their teens their interests switched towards vitriolic rock (“We discovered what was marketed to us”) before playing in bands together ahead of Formation’s foundation, which was inspired by Will’s plan to carve pop songs from a wall of improvisation.
Their initial approach to songwriting derived from improvised jams with Will on drums and Matt on bass, and that’s a stance that continues to this day, time permitting. “We’ll then put the idea on a loop for thirty minutes and if it doesn’t get boring, we know it’s a good song,” explains Matt. From there, they flesh the main groove out until it becomes a fully-fledged song.
By contrast, the Ritsons both take on different roles in Formation’s live band, with Will on vocals and Matt on keys. The strength of their relationship with white label producer Johnny Tams continues with him on bass, while Sasha Lewis (keys) and Kai Akinde-Hummel (drums) complete the line-up.
Their first headline shows consisted of a whistle-stop European tour which hit Paris, Amsterdam, London and Manchester, and other highlights included The Great Escape, Field Day and the Midi Festival on the French Riviera.
It’s tempting to describe the Ritsons’ shared musicianship as a hoary cliché of unspoken brotherhood, but Will is quick to shoot that idea down. “There isn’t any sort of psychic connection, but we’re a really tight rhythm section. If you play music with someone long enough you learn to understand that relationship really well.”
Lyrically, the tracks work on two levels – you can lose yourself within the songs’ hypnotic surge, but the lyrics lend themselves to further investigation too. “I always try to have a sense of a social or political idea in there,” Will continues, adding the disclaimer, “but it doesn’t have to be too heavy.”
If their discography so far is anything to go by, expect the duo’s eclectic experiments to intelligently blur the boundaries between a respect for their roots and a desire to drive improv-pop into a new dimension.