The band, ar Italia, is tired of being an enigma. Despite being hailed as London’s most thrilling new group and cloaked in mystery, the trio is ready to shed their elusive image. Jezmi Tarik Fehmi, one of the founders of the band along with Sam Fenton and Nina Cristante in 2020, states, “Right now, I’d rather be considered boring than mysterious. It was okay for a while, but now everything written about us is always accompanied by the word ‘mysterious’.”
The band had previously chosen to remain anonymous, without revealing their names, photographs, or background information. Their music, released through Dean Blunt’s World Music label, gained a cult following and generated buzz typically reserved for traditional guitar bands. However, with the upcoming release of their new album The Twits, just months after Tracey Denim, the band is ending their media silence. They acknowledge their prolific output, but assure that they are not as quick as Ed Sheeran, who famously creates songs with just four chords and a loop.
According to Fehmi, the reason for the silence was simply that there was nothing to talk about. However, despite this, he finds it interesting to hear about a band’s origin story when it happened just last week. It has been almost four years since then, so let’s go ahead and hear it. Fenton and Fehmi, who are not at all boring or mysterious in person but instead have a playful energy that you hope a band would have, are now gathered around a table in a cafe on Old Kent Road. They recall how they first met in 2018 at an “unfortunate” open mic night. After collaborating, they ventured into combining industrial music from pioneers like Coil with elements of pop, such as the Sugababes. Eventually, they moved in together and their upstairs neighbor Cristante, who had been creating eerie, sample-based solo music with her then-partner Blunt for several years, also joined forces with them.
In late 2019, the three members joined together informally and during the pandemic, dedicated themselves to creating “catchy, good songs,” according to Cristante. They focused on sleety and crepuscular guitar music rather than experimental or challenging music. However, Fenton clarifies that they do not necessarily label their music as “guitar music,” but they did intentionally use guitars in their music.
Italian-born Cristante, who relocated to the UK in 2007, proposed the name Bar Italia, which still sparks division within the group (eliciting a groan from Fehmi), as a nod to the popular Soho cafe frequented by post-club goers. They clarify that it is not a reference to Pulp’s melancholic song of the same name. Fenton claims he was not familiar with the track, and even if they were, the band has no intention of paying homage to the Britpop icons. “None of us are big fans of Pulp,” states Fehmi. “Jarvis once attended one of my shows and openly expressed his dislike for it in the audience.”
Do not worry – currently, they are gaining popularity among celebrities. According to reports, Italian basketball player Gigi Datome was present at a recent concert in Milan. Additionally, during their appearance on the web series Office Hours Live with cult US comedian Tim Heidecker in June, they were informed that actor Bob Odenkirk was a fan. Heidecker had mentioned the band to Odenkirk during a dinner the night before and Odenkirk responded by saying “I know those guys – they are amazing!” This was their only public interview at the time of writing.
After understanding the success of Bar Italia in other countries, it is less surprising that they have received an endorsement. According to Fenton, they discovered their popularity on Spotify a year ago and realized that they have double the number of streams in America compared to other places. When asked why they believe this is the case, Fenton suggests that American audiences have a preference for British bands. However, Fehmi gives a skeptical look and mentions the well-known challenge for British bands to achieve success in America. He even references the struggles of the band Busted, who had three number one hits but still faced difficulties in booking gigs in the US.
Bar Italia is thriving thanks to their partnership with Blunt’s World Music. Their music has always been well-received and they credit their success in part to being associated with such a well-respected and pioneering label. Fenton acknowledges that their audience grew significantly after releasing on Blunt’s World Music, as people often check what the label is up to. Cristante emphasizes that their collaboration with Blunt’s World Music was unique, as the label had never released anything that garnered as much attention as their work.
Reddit was soon alive with adoring threads (and detective work – their anonymity clearly helped stoke online fandom) and at their initial post-lockdown gigs in London and Manchester – Cristante’s first foray into live performance – they were playing to crowds who already knew all the words. Now the band are flattered (and amused) to discover that listeners are getting inked in their honour. “Anyone who gets a tattoo of us, we give them the time of day,” says Fenton. “Oh, you’ve scarred yourself for life for a buzz band,” Fehmi joins in. “We’re going to be gone in a year. You’re going to have that tattoo for ever.”
It’s easy to see why Bar Italia has such a devoted following. Through their four albums (with the last two being released by indie label Matador for music connoisseurs), they have consistently showcased the perfect balance of being effortlessly cool – achieved through the gritty, moody, and nonchalant sound reminiscent of late 20th-century guitar music (my apologies!) – while still being catchy and accessible. Their unique selling point is the dynamic interplay between their three distinct voices: Fenton’s breathy and conversational style, Cristante’s sweet but slightly flat tones, and Fehmi’s rougher, sometimes vaguely hardcore screams. 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.
Deciphering why Bar Italia has become the standout band of 2023 is a difficult task. The trio is fully aware of the challenges of creating music within the traditional rock model that feels fresh and current. Guitarist Fehmi acknowledges that playing the guitar inherently connects to the past, but also believes it is important to simultaneously both think about and not think about this fact. Drummer Fenton believes that striving for novelty can be futile and can lead to uninteresting music. He also sees arrogance in trying too hard to be original. Fehmi echoes this sentiment, saying that if one wants to be original, they should stop making music altogether.
Fenton expresses concern when I bring up the genre again, asking if we only sound like 90s alternative rock. In our opinion, if that is all you hear, you are missing out on a lot. While it is a prominent aspect of our music, listening to Bar Italia is a larger experience of reminiscing. Our music encompasses elements of goth, shoegaze, grunge, country, post-punk, punk, 00s indie, 60s folk-rock, nu-metal, and even Britpop. It is a mix of nostalgic influences that goes beyond mere homage or imitation.
I am curious about whether there is any self-aware irony in creating music that acknowledges its connection to the past. Fenton and Fehmi do not seem to think so, but Cristante believes that the past can be approached with a sense of irony. Not necessarily for comedic effect, but as a playful element. This requires a level of intuition and subconscious understanding. However, Bar Italia is not excessively conceptual or overthought.
Whether or not you are interested in this post-postmodern approach, Bar Italia does not need any additional intellectual context to attract listeners. They do not rely on any mystique either. However, they choose to keep some things private, as evident when I inquire about their ages. Fehmi claims to be 45 (although he is clearly not), while Fenton says he will turn 50 in August (even though he won’t). Fehmi even asks to not disclose their ages. When I ask about their influences, Fenton brushes it off with a shrug and says they are influenced by a variety of things, including Pulp.
The release date for The Twits is November 3rd.