Bar Italia’s only goal is to stay one step ahead

Sam Fenton, Nina Cristante, and Jezmi Tarik Fehmi of Bar Italia


Steve Gullick

Bar Italia spent their first few years as a band quite literally defying identification. There were no names or photographs attached to the two albums they released on Dean Blunt’s World Music label. This only deepened the enigmatic qualities of a group putting out music indebted to the indie rock canon — The Cure, Slowdive, and Sonic Youth are clear influences — on a label more renowned for its experimental output. It was a confusing introduction that raised many questions, chiefly who is making these fuzzy lovelorn guitar jams with interlocking boy-girl vocals? And, in the classic Blunt sense, were they just taking the piss?

2023 has provided many of the answers those early adopters were looking for. Bar Italia are Londoners Jezmi Tarik Fehmi and Sam Fenton, plus Nina Cristante. The latter moved to the U.K. from Rome in the mid-2000s and juggles her time in the band with work as a nutritionist and personal trainer. They began putting their faces in press shots as well as giving the occasional interview, something that helped them shift the “mysterious” tag they felt had begun to become a cliche. Bar Italia have released two albums this year, Tracey Denim and The Twits, pushing them far closer to a permanent fixture than some kind of riddle.

This shift has been a quietly radical one for the trio, who now find themselves adapting to a dynamic that is increasingly impacted by outside voices. Speaking last month before a show in Zurich, part of a lengthy world tour that takes them across North America throughout December, Bar Italia are good company. They are quick to make jokes and have a clear sense of who they are as a band, even if wrestling control is a bigger task than it was twelve months ago.

“It tests your conviction,” Fenton says, admitting that he questions everything from the way the band’s music sounds to the shirt he wears on stage for a live show. “You have to really believe in everything you do on a micro and macro level,” he says. “At first it can feel like a crisis of identity. Especially when you have identified with being unsuccessful and being part of a scene. Then, when you come through it, it strengthens the things that you believe in.”

Bar Italia’s only goal is to stay one step ahead

Steve Gullick

Cristante backs him up, “Talking to people and seeing your images builds a narrative,” she says. “You start to inhabit that character which is good, because you can lean into the performance. You know the shape you have to take because it’s what you have said and put out into the world. But, at the same time, it can be limiting.”

One of the major narratives they’re keen to avoid is that Bar Italia are simply a “guitar band,” with whatever prejudices you bring to that particular term. For Fenton the problem is how broad the term is while Cristante wonders why one instrument takes precedence over the rest (“nobody ever says “piano music,” do they?”). Fehmi puts it best, disdain dripping from his words as he says, “When I think of a guitar band I think of people jamming. We don’t make music that way.”

The band’s first peek over the parapet came in May when they released Tracey Denim, their debut on esteemed indie label Matador. The album sounds bold and direct, a contrast to the lo-fi dirges that typified their earliest material. There is a clarity and melodic richness to songs like “Nurse!” and “punkt” that feels like a statement of intent from a group whose musical ambitions had previously been obfuscated by DIY recording techniques.

Fenton explains that Tracey Denim was “the first time we got into a studio of any kind,” hence the album having a feel of “‘Woah, look at those amps.’ It’s the sound of us being unleashed.” The album was made before the band signed with Matador and all three recall being visited during the recording sessions by A&Rs keen to hear the latest demos. It’s a process they wanted to avoid repeating, with even music industry figures feeling like aliens in their tight-knit world.

This is partly the reason for the rapid arrival of The Twits, the band’s second album of 2023. It expands on Tracey Denim’s slacker blueprint while offering something a little more raw and instantaneous. “We got let loose in the studio for Tracey Denim but we didn’t feel totally comfortable making that album,” Fenton says of recording sessions that took them to an isolated house in Majorca, Spain. “The Twits is us seeing the problem with that. We wanted to go into it with total isolation and freedom.”

Bar Italia’s only goal is to stay one step ahead

Steve Gullick

Fenton says the early Bar Italia material was recorded with “a feeling of rebellion,” something the band are keen to hold onto. “We were just trying to prove ourselves and that changes when you get signed. Then you get thrown into a lifestyle you have no control over. Being on the road is very repetitive. You’re up and down all the time because of the adrenaline from the shows. The reasons to make work and how you approach creativity changes, too.”

Fehmi echoes his bandmates concerns: ”Making music about being in a band is alienating and nobody likes it. It’s why by album three most bands are shit. They’re not in touch with the world anymore,” he says bluntly.

It’s the conundrum that Bar Italia now find themselves facing. How do you tour regularly and get into the studio as often as possible without falling into the trap of writing songs on the motorway about missing home?

Asked if they harbor plans to release two albums every year, they modestly suggest that nobody would want to hear from them on such a regular basis. “We all have big ambitions but at the same time we have already achieved so much more than we dreamed of,” Fehmi says.

Maintaining their image is something Bar Italia, with their art world connections and links to the experimental scene in London, have clearly spent time thinking about. “It’s hard,” Fenton says when considering the battle to not become simply yet another guitar band jamming their way into obscurity. “You get injected into a life you have no preconceptions about. Right now the ambition is just to stay cool for as long as possible.”