Far Out Meets: Italia 90 who talk punk, pandemics and politics
Originally when we discussed this interview I was going to meet Italia 90, the South London (post?) punk band originally from Brighton, at their local pub in New Cross. They would have just returned from their American showcase at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and would be on a short break before embarking on a plethora of European dates.
Fast forward to the middle of lockdown and a whole new world and see me sitting in my living room on the sofa, drinking a cup of tea and staring at myself on my laptop as I wait for the Les miserable, J Dangerous, and Bobby Portrait (¾ of Italia 90) to join our virtual pub. Things have definitely changed since I stood at London venue The Lexington only a few weeks ago on the first night of their ‘So Much for Communism’ UK tour.
Italia 90 are part of the infamous London music scene, home to some of the greatest contemporary English music circulating around a handful of pubs who strive to support up and coming bands (The Windmill, The Shacklewell Arms, Sebright Arms, The Lexington etc). But with so much going on and everyone (mostly journalists) wanting to be the next Fat White Family, there is a great risk of becoming diluted by the overwhelming amount of music there is.
What makes Italia 90 different? Some might argue it’s their eclectic looks (they have been described before as all looking like they come from a different decade), or their moody and ludic stage presence; but if you ask us it’s their honesty.
Their lyrics illustrate the complex world surrounding them and their songs have substance. Actual substance. ‘New Factory’ comments on the creation of a new kind of factory labour—the 9 to 5 worker—and the pressure to become a part of it. They don’t talk about the cult of ubiquitous cigarette packages or claim to be the voice of the underrepresented middle class. There is no pretence to their music or them as individuals.
Italia 90’s music resonates with us as it ponders the complex and dichotomous nature of contemporary life and reminds us again why we turn to artists during these uncertain times for clarity.
Their most recent EP, Italia 90 III, was released on Fierce Panda and Permanent Creeps in 2019 and their successful ‘So Much for Communism’ headlining tour across the UK took place in January and February. We caught up with J Dangerous, Bobby Portrait, and Les Miserable to discuss the tour, their inspiration, South By SouthWest, and the elephant in the room; COVID-19.
Stick on their new record and get to know Italia 90, you’re new favourite band.
FO: How do you all know each other and how did you form Italia 90?
J Dangerous: “We all met at school. We all grew up together. Some of us met in primary school some of us met in secondary school. Me and Georgie, AKA Ecciehomo, met when we were six years old and I think that’s the longest that any of us have known each other.”
Les Miserable:“Me and Bobby Portrait met when we were 11 and then I met J Dangerous.”
JD: “We’ve all been friends the majority of our lives.’
When did you start playing music together?
LM: “We first rehearsed and did some rough demos in 2014. But for the first two years we didn’t do much at all and we had a different guitarist. Ecciehomo joined in 2016 and that feels more like the start of it because we started taking it more seriously from that point. Together the four of us have been playing together for about four years.”
Were you always going to be a punk band or did you think of maybe starting a disco group originally?
LM: “I think it was originally a much more straightforward punk band. That was the idea and that’s what we did for the first couple of years I guess. Before we put anything out it moved past that I would say.”
Past that to…?
LM:“Just whatever we’re doing now, I don’t know how you would describe that.”
JD:“The original idea was probably not to write a song that was longer than a minute and a half. So it was very basic, partially due to a lack of confidence in our own playing.
LM: “We were quite into having rules when we started almost like ‘this is what we’re about and we’re never going to do anything different’ but then after a while, you’ve done that a few times and you think ‘we could do something else’ and it doesn’t mean that we’re compromising so we relaxed a bit.”
JD: “I still say we are a punk band.”
LM: “I would too, but we all have very different influences.”
You started out wanting to write minute and a half or two minute songs; then you wrote ‘Competition’ which is seven minutes long—what changed?
JD: “‘Competition’ was probably a turning point. Our set used to be, five one minute long songs and then competition and it was half the set.”
Bobby Portrait: “It’s definitely one of our more simple songs and I think now we feel obliged to try and fit too much in, even if we are writing a song which is only 3.5 minutes long. Whereas ‘Competition’ is just a jam song.”
LM: “It’s about four years old and we still play it in every set. We still play it because we all still like it and it brings something.”
JD: “It’s one of the songs we all agree on as well. All of us like it, and weirdly there’s not another song that we all think ‘that’s the best song’.”
LM: “The idea when we wrote it was not to write it, because every time we played it the parts could be extended and shortened. We originally thought lets just never decide what the structure is and play it differently every time. We abandoned our rigid rules quite fast. It naturally took on a structure, we never decided on one.”
Would you consider yourselves more post-punk, or punk?
BP: “I think we end up using post-punk when people ask because it is such a broad label. But it’s a bit of a cop-out. I feel stupid whenever I say we’re a post-punk band because it’s almost a meaningless phrase.”
JD: “In a very basic technical sense because of songs like ‘Competition’ we are more post-punk than just straight punk. But I agree with Bobby that it is becoming a meaningless term.’
LM: “What people think of when they think of punk now, it’s not really what punk was. A lot of modern punk bands guitars are more metal and there’s more thrash elements. Punk was never really like that, it was quite restrained. Playing in a production was quite held back. So I think now, as a new modern band, if you say to someone ‘oh we’re a punk band’ they start thinking of crossover thrash and screaming and I don’t want people to associate us with that.”
Most of your songs have political undercurrents. Did you always intend to write with a political tinge?
LM: “To be honest, there was never any intention to do anything else, personally anyway. I don’t think there was ever any question or idea from anyone that we wouldn’t do that.”
JD: “There was never any need to have a discussion that we were going to do it either.”
LM: “From a personal point of view, I just don’t see the point of doing anything different. I’m not a great wordsmith, I’m not going to write the next song that defines how people feel about relationships or whatever so I might as well be blunt about something that you can actually have an opinion about. That’s what I was naturally drawn to doing and I never saw the point in doing anything else and I never wanted to do anything else. But the more we’ve played and the more we’ve gotten to know other bands I don’t actually think there are many other bands that do that. A lot of other bands are quite vague and so I think we try to be quite direct and say this is the point we’re making, this is the argument.”
JD: “I don’t think you’ve ever written any lyrics that feel preachy.”
BP: “I would say about being a political band, that I would find it almost intolerable to be in a band with a lyricist who wrote lyrics about their life because you can’t really connect with that in the same way as if you share the same politics as someone. I wouldn’t want to be in a band if I didn’t feel like I was contributing towards the lyrics if it was someone else’s observations or songs about their experiences. I would find that quite tiresome.”
LM: “The more personal a song writer’s lyrics are… it leads to this idea of it being a ‘frontman’ and a band. Whereas if the lyrics are a political stance, it more like this is a stance presented to you by four people. I think we quite successfully didn’t come across as a frontman and a band, we’re deliberately not like that, and I think that’s helped by the lyrics not being about my life.”
You’re back from your UK tour, and you sold out the opening night at The Lexington, how was it?
JD:“None of us had ever been on a headline tour before and I think it went better than any of us were expecting. A big part of being in a band, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is turning up in places you’re not from and having a bit of a weird time. We expected a few of our non-London dates to be interesting but not well attended but they were pretty much all busy.”
LM: “The whole tour was really well attended, except one and that wasn’t even terrible and it was the smallest town on the tour. I was absolutely blown away by it, I thought we would be playing to half-empty rooms for half the tour but a lot of them were pretty much sold out. It made me realise that we do actually have ‘fans’. You can convince yourself that when you play gigs in London all your friends turn up or London gig people, but actually it was quite nice to know we have actual fans.”
BP:“It made me realise as well that you can be on the radar of a lot of people even if they have not necessarily gone out of their way to listen to you or they don’t know much about you. But they could have heard your name and they could come and see you because you’re playing in their town.”
You also recently got invited to South By Southwest which is seen as an American showcase by a lot of people, what was it like to get invited to play?
BP: “Yeah we had a great time. Best week of our lives I’d say.”
JD:“I think the reaction was two-pronged in that I was well chuffed, but then it was instantly horribly stressful for various reasons; then obviously it got cancelled because of Coronavirus anyway.”
LM: “I was absolutely beside myself that we got asked to go there, still am to be fair. Last year at The Great Escape Festival [manager] Carlos met someone from South By and he was talking about it. I was like “if we go to South By Southwest it’ll be one of those proper bucket list things, it’ll be amazing.” So the fact we got invited is still amazing and I’m still so happy we did.”
We are obviously in the middle of a pandemic, have you written any pandemic themed music?
BP: “We should probably be more proactive about that.”
LM:“I’ve written some lyrics actually and one of the things I’ve written was broadly inspired by something to do with the whole situation. I’m a bit of a contrarian like that. So many people are like “were going to have a lot of things to write about now” so I was kind of like I don’t want to immediately write a song about this situation since it’s the obvious thing to do. But then when everyone was stockpiling food and food banks were running out of food and stuff it led to an idea. So yeah, I have written a song inspired by what’s going on broadly. But we’ve talked about being more proactive about writing more songs which we intend to do at some point.”
When can we expect new music from you guys.
JD: “That’s a good question. We’ve recorded some stuff. We’ve got a few tracks recorded with Louis who recorded our last EP (Italia 90 III).”
LM: “He’s the guitarist in Folly Group and he recorded our 3rd EP and we’ve just recorded five new tracks with him which were kind of sitting on at the moment. We don’t really know what’s going to happen with them so we don’t have a time frame. We basically want to do an album and we’re hoping these five unreleased songs can lead to that. But this whole [pandemic] has kind of put the breaks on things. It won’t be for a while.”
JD:“I’m envious of those bands that can do things within their own houses because to an extent we can but it’s not going to reach an actual head until we get into the same room with each other.”
BP: “Hopefully soon we can practice together even if things aren’t back to normal.”
What’s the best way for people to support their favourite bands and the music scene during the pandemic?
LM: “The obvious answer is to go and buy merch…but…um…we haven’t got any at the moment. We didn’t stock up on merch in preparation for this. They can download our digital EP’s and pay what they want.”
BP: “They can listen to us a thousand times on Spotify and get all their friends to do the same and we’ll earn 75p over a couple of months.”
JD: “There’s not really anything anyone can do that’s going to make us any money so it’s kind of nicer for people to just message us, I get more of a kick out of that.”
LM: “Yeah say hello. I do really enjoy it when random people let us know their fans. It’s nice.”
Italia 90 are Les Miserable on vocals, J Dangerous on drums, Ecciehomo on guitar and Bobby Portrait on bass. You can listen to Italia 90 on Spotify, or buy their latest EP Italia 90 III on cassette. As for live dates? Check them out once the world re-emerges from hibernation and we can all embrace one another again as they’re sure to put on a vivacious show!