Bar Italia just want to have fun - Features - Mixmag

Bar Italia just want to have fun

Initial question marks about Bar Italia grabbed attention across musical worlds, while their output since has held it. They emerge from a cloud of hype to speak to Patrick Hinton about following vibes, dance music, and their popular appeal

  • Words: Patrick Hinton | Photos: Steve Gullick
  • 29 January 2024

In the thick of a sweat-soaked room, two people are passionately tearing at each other’s clothes to a backdrop of loud music. Sounds like Berlin? It’s Bermondsey. And the source of music isn’t a thudding techno DJ, it’s the experimental rock-pop band Bar Italia. “It was a tiny room, I don't know how they were managing to do that,” ponders Jezmi Tarik Fehmi, one third of the group alongside Sam Fenton and Nina Cristante, who sit beside him as we talk in late 2023. They’re recalling a gig in South London the previous year, where one overexcited couple took it upon themselves to turn Bermondsey Social Club into Berghain. “I like that,” says Nina Cristante matter-of-factly.

Currently the trio actually are in Germany, hunched in the back room of a venue in Schorndorf. Or maybe Schönberg, not every member seems sure. Their confusion reflects a rampant tour schedule which has stretched from May to December and covered most of Western Europe and North America, including five-show stints in both New York and Los Angeles. “New York crowds were a bit wilder, bit more up for it. I think it's something to do with the fact everyone's got to drive home after in LA,” says Fehmi. “Someone else made the argument that they're on Xanax, and in New York they're on uppers,” remarks Fenton.

So far, this is sounding very sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But despite these conversational highlights, and the scuzzy guitars and overlapping vocals that characterise their music, Bar Italia aren’t an omen of indie sleaze revival. Their first few years were spent in semi-anonymity, releasing hypnagogic rock on Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland’s World Music, bringing a more straightforward sound to a label known for its blurred sonics and subversive output that enjoys the grey area between political and piss-taking. For those deep in Dean Blunt lore, the association raised questions whether Bar Italia were for real, or some kind of meta performance art of a guitar band.

Lingering doubts were answered last year when they signed to the venerated independent label Matador Records, and formally revealed themselves. The backstory was straightforward enough: London-born Fenton and Essex-hailing Fehmi were already playing music together in the band Double Virgo when they met Cristante, an Italian artist known mononymically as NINA, while living in neighbouring flats in Peckham. In late 2019 they tried out making music as a trio, and when lockdown hit not long after, the location-inspired link-up gained more focus. Two albums, an EP and several singles on World Music followed, along with steady gigging when the live music industry reopened, growing their fanbase, as well as intrigue about their off-record silence.

Eventually giving their first set of interviews in late 2023, in-between the release of their first and second albums on Matador, they haven’t so much burst into the spotlight as shielded their eyes from it like an irritant. Bluntly, they said they hadn’t spoken publicly because they had nothing interesting to say. Though being accessible hasn’t exactly meant opening up. An interviewer for 032c accused them of “reluctance and even outright dismissal of some of my questions”, while other profiles have derailed into apathy or light trolling. Choice quotes from Fehmi in their first-ever cover feature with Crack Magazine include “I don’t like any music” and “I don’t even like our music.”

But if he can’t see the appeal, many more can. Bar Italia were not only the buzziest band of recent years, they have an appeal that seems to transcend worlds. Guitar bands aren’t in the typical wheelhouse of our coverage at Mixmag, but like the comedown café in Soho from which they take their name (beloved as the “ultimate comfort stop for weary early-morning ravers”), we’ve clocked many club heads gravitating towards Bar Italia. Just last week the algorithm served us Detroit DJ 2Lanes flipping ‘Horsey Girl Rider’ from their first Matador album ‘Tracey Denim’ into a speed garage dub (an album which Pitchfork happened to pick its electronic music expert Philip Sherburne to review).

Raising this with the trio feels like I might be reaching a bit through my own predilections, but they confirm it’s something they’ve noticed. “We’re definitely not just a ‘guitar bands enthusiasts' guitar band’,” says Fehmi. “We were in more of a nightlife scene than a band scene when we started together making music,” adds Fenton, explaining that they’re friends with the founder of South East London club Ormside Projects, which they frequented every weekend when it launched, along with the nearby Venue MOT and Avalon Cafe. “When we all met, the only nights they were putting on were our mates' nights,” Fehmi says, though they’ve stopped going since the venues have grown into staples of London’s underground club culture. “God knows what happens there now,” Fehmi shrugs. “It's circumstantial,” notes Fenton of this connection to London’s club crowd. “But we don't feel like a band that came out of a load of bands.”

“I would say personally, I don't think there's been a huge amount of exciting guitar music recently,” continues Fehmi. “Not to say we are more exciting than anyone else… but I think people have gotten into us who maybe used to be into guitar music when they were younger, then got into dance music, and then”—“That is a common theme,” interjects Fenton. “This girl actually said exactly that yesterday in Vienna,” adds Cristante. “She wasn't super young and she was like 'I used to be super into indie music and then it became extremely uncool and I got away from it and hated it for a very long time', and we're the first band that she listens back to that is guitar-based, and somehow is bringing back some of her nostalgia for the stuff she was listening to before.”

That question of how their music has turned so many different heads has been murmured online and even directly posed to the group. The crunchy riffs, woozy melodies and enjoyable interplay of differing vocal registers are nothing new, following in the well-trodden footsteps of ‘80s and ‘90s alt-rock. Association with alt-favs like Dean Blunt and Vegyn (who’s produced and released music by Double Virgo) and their backgrounds in art (all three went to art school, recently showcasing their work at an exhibition) has likely helped them travel beyond band circles, as did emerging during a time of lockdown-engorged attention spans. Even so, the interest they’ve generated has been enormous. Their initial low-key presence had internet weirdos obsessing over their identity (which Fehmi describes as “fucking uncomfortable. Someone digging up pictures of me aged 13 is pretty jarring to say the least. I even have my ethnicity questioned online. Fucking nice one guys. You're really bringing some incel vibes”), while on the positive end, they’ve pretty much instantly cracked America — something that many bands spend whole careers toiling, and failing, to achieve. “I remember before we got signed or anything we got access to the Spotify data. Random American cities you wouldn't even have thought of have way more listeners than places in Europe,” says Fehmi.

American interest partly inspired their decision to sign to New York-based Matador Records, after months of many labels courting their signature. “Wining and dining,” Cristante recalls wistfully. “We knew we could hold it down in London and Europe, so it made kind of tactical sense to go with someone who was more US-focused, and then build that,” explains Fenton. Fehmi elaborates: “We met some incredible people, but if we went with a label that was based in the UK, we're only a couple of people removed from them. It felt too close,” he says. Having initially thrived in ambiguity, it makes sense they make moves based on not wanting to be boxed in. They sound grateful for their success and motivated to keep the momentum going. “If we keep improving then I’m happy,” says Fehmi. “Speaking personally, I've achieved all of the things I never thought I would achieve in life. I'm just concentrating on us getting better, being a better live band, making a better album. The thing I personally never want to do is just do something similar.”

When inquiring about their own tastes through a Mixmag lens, Fenton says they’re “not avid followers, just lazily” into dance music. Before Cristante abruptly claims the strongest ties. "I was a massive raver when I was 15," she announces. “It was when I was back in Italy. I was just going to… raves, in the countryside. Every weekend with my boyfriend. He used to make beats and stuff. I used to dance for hours and hours and hours at raves, for quite a few years. Then I wanted to regain some neurons.” Her languid delivery feels a bit like she’s making it up on the spot, but perhaps those memory neurons are still in recovery, as you might expect from a retired raver.

At other times they engage openly with the topic, like when I describe the dancey, almost Madchester energy conjured by the fast snares that open ‘worlds greatest emoter’. “I remember thinking after we'd made that track, and listening to it again, about that moment when guitar bands realise they’re very conscious of dance music,” replies Fehmi. “Primal Scream is a good example. They never necessarily made dance music after 'Screamadelica', but there was always an awareness of dance music in it. The way we make music and the way that the drums sound, as soon as you go up to a certain BPM, it will start to sound like dance music, because it's not some complicated speed jazz drums or whatever. They are repeated bars, so I think it ends up sounding like that purely by accident.” Fenton agrees: “Perhaps because it's so normalised by this point, there's no fetish or 'other' in using dance music tropes anymore, so it feels normal to us.” Cristane adds: “We're also inspired by the production of William Orbit and stuff like that, which is an example of a really interesting way of using guitars within a dance-y pop context.”

Partying is also traceable through their music, from the video for the punchy ‘my little tony’ to the lyrics of the more melancholic ‘que surprise’. “I think we make party music in a way that I understand party music, which isn't necessarily how everyone else does,” reflects Fehmi. ”A big way that we all started is just going to a friend's flat and listening to bands and drinking or whatever, having a bit of a party like that, as opposed to someone understanding party music as putting on a dance banger and everyone dancing around.”

“But every now and then we get this really strong urge to make a song that you could put on at a house party that would just tear off, that gets everyone to take their shirts off,” adds Fenton. “For sure,” agrees Cristante. “Wanting to dance to that music, rather than just listening to it. Yesterday there was so much of that, there was loads of dancing, which is great,” she continues, lighting up while discussing their gig the night before in Vienna, which inspired scenes akin to Bermondsey. “I get to see quite a lot because I'm not playing an instrument on stage, so I'm just scoping around, and there was this couple that were very handsy. The guy was holding the girl, and every single time there was some sexy lyric—“They just started snogging,” Fenton says finishing her sentence. “Snogging!” Cristante exclaims. “But like hard. Jumping simultaneously and kissing. I was like this is so teenage, I'm totally up for that.”

While every Bar Italia gig is beginning to sound hornier than a high school prom, they’ve had their lows as well. Touring, which has basically been their life for the past six months, is “simultaneously something that's tedious, and rewarding at the same time,” according to Fehmi. “It usually gets to like: Why the hell am I doing it? To the point of almost never wanting to do it again,” agrees Cristante. “And then sometimes it surprises you, and you're back to a normal level.” A recent review of their biggest London gig to date declared “A cool band alienate a bored crowd”, but as we speak, they still sound charged from playing to the packed out room of 250 last night in Austria. “It was so good,” enthuses Fenton. “One of my favourite gigs ever,” agrees Fehmi. “They loved it!” says Cristante.

Musicians having good days and bad days is nothing unusual, though being in a “good mood” sounds particularly important to Bar Italia. “We're definitely not a band that makes good music under torturous atmospheres. It's important that we’re having fun,” says Fehmi. “Trying to get each other excited and gas each other up,” adds Fenton. There’s a definite playfulness to their music, and how they name it. ‘Real house wibes (desperate house vibes)’ sounds like the kind of arbitrary track title you might find on a sprightly 12” of instrumental club cuts. Knowing about their background in art, I ask about their album ‘Tracey Denim’ and the presumed reference to artist Tracey Emin. “It’s just a lol,” begins Fenton, as they bicker about the details — it was in a car, in a tent, at Green Man, on the way back from End of the Road — before landing on the specifics: “I was really drunk and just couldn't say Tracey Emin,” explains Fehmi. “He kept going Tracey—” Cristante says before tailing off into incoherent slurring sounds. She then slips further into piss-taking mode. “I also think denim was really cool at the time? That’s why we had to roll it out so quickly,” she deadpans. “Denim was cool. Newsflash - denim's out!” Fehmi jokes. “Honestly it's the stupidest thing in the world but it cracked us up for ages. Then we ended up calling our first album on the label that, so you know, that's kind of the way we work.”

That’s not to say their music is devoid of sincerity. Their latest album ‘The Twits’ takes its name from Roald Doahl’s book about a vindictive, dysfunctional couple, and themes of toxic romance feel apparent in the lyrics to tracks like ‘twist’. “It's a major theme of all of our lives,” laughs Fehmi with a shrug. Generally they don’t think too deeply about these things. When I quote a phrase describing their music as “three-act mini-dramas”, Fenton replies: “That sounds like an elaborate way of describing three different singers.” He describes their music-making as “an unconscious method” where everything comes together in an unspoken process. Lyrically they may bounce off each other, but they don’t form any sort of conceptual plan. They don’t particularly mind how people read into their music thematically either, which makes sense, given they don’t often seem conscious of their intentions in the first place.

“When we came to the end of the album and we called it ‘The Twits’, people have since made me aware it does sound like it's all these toxic relationships and stuff. I had no idea during the process of making it that that was happening,” says Fehmi. “We just work in a way where we’re subconsciously doing things. Then looking back on it, it’s like oh ok I can see something there, but I don't think we ever really think about it during. It's like horoscopes, someone says something and you find ways to attach that to the meaning of your life, and obviously you rewrite your life as a fantasy.

“It's also OK to have your message be something that's accidental. You don't have to wear your heart on your sleeve, you can definitely find out about it a bit later,” he adds. “But also, the message can change,” continues Cristante. “Sometimes you're almost surprised at what you're saying, in a really good way. It can be even more interesting when it's come out of a style. Sometimes I write something and when I go to sing it, it makes a lot more sense if I change words around, and that changes the entire vibe. Just following that is interesting, rather than being like ‘that's not sincere’ or doesn't correspond to what I was previously trying to say.”

People trying to read too literally into their tracks has been more of an annoyance, like the Reddit sleuths deciding ‘my little tony’ is a Dean Blunt diss track (following his and Cristante’s break-up from a long-term relationship last year, made public when Blunt deleted her World Music releases from streaming platforms). Cristante denies there’s any hard feelings on her side, or from Bar Italia. “It was written way before. It's not about Dean. I am not that petty in all honesty. I think he's amazing even though… whatever, I don't care. There's nothing of Bar Italia that's a direct insult towards him,” she says. “I do hate that timeline that people see a track coming out and it's because it's after that... do they really think I'm like 'Sam, Jez, we need to make a diss track'? It's so disrespectful to our work, within an album that obviously was written previously.”

“There was like a nine month lead time on that. It just doesn't work like that. Also diss tracks are kind of lame, aren't they? Let's face it,” says Fehmi. “All our critiques in the lyrics are fairly abstract and composed of many sources of inspiration,” says Fenton. “And also we wouldn't really have gotten very far as a band without World Music so we're not exactly gonna go around throwing insults.”

This categorical quashing is a rare but understandable moment of veracity from Bar Italia, whose enigmatic introduction remains comfortable ground for the group now they're discussing their music. “I think we all get cringed out quite easily by stuff that's too far one way,” says Fehmi. “Either only playful or only sincere,” clarifies Cristante. “I guess trying to avoid those thresholds that's what you get.” Being on the same inexpressible wavelength is the underpinning of the group. “It’s brought out Bar Italia basically,” says Fenton. “The way that we as a three work together is just so specific. It has such a particular energy. It's hard to describe that in words but the combination is everything, really.” Ultimately, they’re just vibing. “For sure. Vibe over substance,” agrees Fenton.

In an ironically roundabout way, it feels like we’ve landed on a conclusion: Bar Italia make fun, catchy tunes that appeal to a cross-section of music fans and can rile up a concert like a club, they like to joke around and enjoy themselves, which in our discourse-saturated world, is something we can all aspire to. If Radiohead are the thinking man’s rock band, then maybe Bar Italia are a non-thinking man’s band, like Muse, except self-aware and with good songs. Combining an escapist energy with a party instinct, it's no wonder they’re connecting across the board.

As we say goodbye, they’re heading off to play yet another gig, while I’m about to watch Más Tiempo DJ in The Lab LDN — another act currently showing genre boundaries aren’t what they used to be, and overlapping fanbases from rap heads to ravers can connect over a party vibe. “Enjoy Skepta, ask him to play 'All Over The House',” Fenton quips, referring to a controversial cut from Skepta’s back catalogue with an X-rated video. Unfortunately Skepta’s on more of a house tip today, I tell him. “Ah yeah fair enough,” he says, sounding genuinely disappointed, then perks up: “He can do a tech-house remix of 'All Over The House'!” Without overthinking it, I agree that would be fun.

Bar Italia are touring the US, UK and Europe from March

Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Editor & Digital Director, follow him on Twitter

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