The members of Italian band, ar Italia, are tired of being seen as a mystery. Despite being hailed as London’s most thrilling new group and shrouded in intrigue, they are now ready to shed their enigmatic image. Jezmi Tarik Fehmi, along with Sam Fenton and Nina Cristante, formed the band in 2020 and is now over their early air of secrecy. Fehmi states, “I’d rather be considered dull than mysterious at this point. It was fine for a while, but now every mention of us includes the word ‘mysterious’.”
Until this spring, the band had not revealed any names, photos, or background information. However, they have gained a lot of attention for their dissonant yet catchy rock music, released by Dean Blunt’s World Music label. This has led to a level of hype that is uncommon for traditional guitar bands in today’s music industry. As they prepare to release their new album, The Twits, only a few months after their previous release, Tracey Denim, the trio has decided to end their media silence and share more about themselves. They consider themselves to be prolific, but not as quick as artists like Ed Sheeran who can create a song with just four chords and a loop.
According to Fehmi, the reason for the silence was simply because “we didn’t have anything to talk about”. However, since it has been almost four years since then, let’s go ahead and hear it. Sitting around a table at a cafe on Old Kent Road, Fenton and Fehmi, who are not at all boring or mysterious in person, but rather possess that charmingly teasing energy that you always hope a band has, reminisce about how they first met in 2018 at a not-so-great open mic night. They started collaborating and incorporating elements of industrial pioneers Coil and whatever pop music they were into at the time (Fenton mentions the Sugababes when pressed on it), before eventually moving in together. Meanwhile, Cristante, who had been working on her eerie, sample-based solo material with her then-partner Blunt for some time, was living upstairs.
In late 2019, the three members came together and focused on creating “catchy, good songs” while spending time together during the pandemic. Cristante explains that they were not aiming to make experimental or challenging music, but rather leaned towards a sleety and crepuscular style using guitars as their main instrument. However, Fenton clarifies that they do not specifically label their music as “guitar music”, but they did intentionally incorporate guitars into their sound.
Cristante, who relocated to the United Kingdom from her hometown of Rome in 2007, suggested the name Bar Italia, which still causes internal disagreement (eliciting a groan from Fehmi), referencing the famous Soho café popular among those who have just left the club scene. They make it clear that it is not a tribute to the melancholic, post-party song by Pulp with the same name. Fenton claims he had never even heard of the song and, even if he had, the band is not eager to honor the Britpop legends. Fehmi adds, “I don’t think any of us are particularly fond of Pulp. Jarvis once attended one of my gigs and was openly critical of it.”
No need to worry – these days, they are gaining a following among celebrities. According to reports, Italian basketball player Gigi Datome was in attendance at a recent show in Milan. Additionally, during a June appearance on comedian Tim Heidecker’s web series Office Hours Live – their only known public interview at the time – they were informed that actor Bob Odenkirk is a fan. Heidecker had mentioned the band during dinner with Odenkirk the night before and Odenkirk responded with praise, saying “I know those guys – they’re amazing!”
The endorsement may not be as surprising when considering Bar Italia’s success in another country, where they consistently sell out venues. After obtaining their Spotify statistics about a year ago, the band realized that their popularity in America was twice as much as anywhere else. When asked why they think this is, Fenton believes it is because American audiences tend to enjoy British bands. However, Fehmi gives him a doubtful look and reminds him that it is notoriously difficult for British bands to make it big in the US. As an example, he mentions the recent Busted documentary, in which the band struggled to book gigs despite having three number one hits.
Whatever the Yanks are digging, it’s working here, too: Bar Italia have never had much trouble finding an audience. They are open about the instant leg-up they got from releasing on the trailblazing and beloved Blunt’s World Music: “As soon as they put it up people started listening, because everyone checks what [they’re doing],” says Fenton. But Cristante is also keen to point out that World Music had never released anything not credited to Blunt himself “that had got so much interest”.
Soon after, Reddit was buzzing with enthusiastic discussions (and online sleuthing – their anonymous status undoubtedly fueling the online fanbase) and at their first post-lockdown performances in London and Manchester – marking Cristante’s initial venture into live shows – they were met with audiences who were already familiar with all of their lyrics. The band is now flattered (and entertained) to learn that some fans are getting tattoos in their honor. “We always make time for anyone who gets a tattoo of us,” says Fenton. “It’s a permanent mark for a band that may only be popular for a short time,” adds Fehmi. “You’ll have that tattoo forever.”
Bar Italia’s ability to inspire intense devotion is easily comprehensible. Throughout their four albums, two of which were released under the independent label Matador, the band has consistently showcased a perfect blend of effortless cool – in Bar Italia’s case, this is achieved through the gritty, moody, and nonchalant sound reminiscent of late 20th-century guitar music – and catchy melodies. Their unique selling point lies in the dynamic interplay between their three distinct voices: Fenton’s breathy, conversational singing style; Cristante’s delicate yet slightly off-key vocals; and Fehmi’s harsher, occasionally reminiscent of hardcore, growls. A review by Pitchfork of their album Tracey Denim criticized the vocals as not being the band’s “strong suit”, but this seems to miss the point entirely.
Deciphering why Bar Italia has become the band of 2023 is even more challenging. Creating music within the traditional rock framework that feels current and innovative is a daunting task, as acknowledged by the trio. Fehmi explains, “By picking up a guitar, you are inherently looking to the past. It’s a delicate balance of thinking about it and not thinking about it.” Fenton believes that striving for originality is a futile effort, stating, “We’ve seen many friends who write music that lacks depth because they are so fixated on avoiding similarities to past work and being completely unique. There’s a certain arrogance in that.” Fehmi concurs, adding, “If you want to be completely original, perhaps it’s best to stop making music altogether.”
Fenton expresses worry when I bring up the genre of 90s alternative rock again, asking if that’s all we sound like. In their opinion, there is much more to our music than that. While it is a prominent aspect, listening to Bar Italia is a way to remember a variety of genres such as goth, shoegaze, grunge, country, post-punk, punk, 00s indie, 60s folk-rock, nu-metal, and even Britpop. It’s a diverse blend of nostalgia that challenges the idea of simply paying tribute or imitating the past.
Is there a sense of self-aware irony present in creating music that acknowledges its connection to the past? Fenton and Fehmi do not seem to think so, but Cristante argues that the past can be approached with a hint of irony. Not necessarily humor or cynicism, but as a playful element. This requires a level of intuition and subconscious understanding. However, Bar Italia is not overly calculated or overthought.
Regardless of your interest in the post-postmodern approach, Bar Italia’s popularity is not reliant on any added intellectual context or mystery. However, they do choose to keep certain things private, as evidenced by their reluctance to share their ages. When questioned about their influences, Fenton dismissively suggests that they are influenced by a wide range of things, including the band Pulp.
The release date for The Twits is November 3rd.