Words by:
Photography: The Buffacow
Styling: Malcolm Yaeng
Photography assistant: Chris Cheng
Hair and makeup: Harriot Babin
Styling assistant: Danny Byrne
Gaffer: Omar Radwan
Art direction: Michelle Helena Janssen

A uniquely modern scene, according to Nina Cristante: you invite someone to your art exhibition on Friday night. Wow, that sounds great, they say. You direct them to the details on Instagram. They pull out their phone in front of you and find the post: they’ve already ‘liked’ it. It’s a little awkward – you both see this, and they admit they have no recollection of it.

That social dance is a perfect example of why London’s most hyped new band Bar Italia have the digital footprints of sparrows in the snow; why they didn’t do interviews for the first few years of their career; and, until recently, why fans didn’t even know their names. “There’s a certain choreography where we all blindly subscribe and align ourselves with one thing or another,” says the band’s careful, but by no means cold, singer Cristante, who is recounting how this very interaction occurred to her earlier that day. “I think there is something gained in not talking, understanding who you are, and developing, so that when you get there you are creative  and coherent and you’ve got something to say.”

NINA wears: Full look: Artist’s own, SAM wears: Full look: Artist’s own, JEZMI wears: Full look: Artist’s own

Now, there is ostensibly enough to fill in the blanks on Bar Italia’s resumé, and they are ready to talk. We’re in a Greek restaurant having a languid late lunch, and joker of the group, Jezmi Tarik Fehmi – whose overthinking, exasperation and constant humour could have him cast as a fifth member of The Inbetweeners – looks up from his lamb and beer and says, “We’re just as boring as everyone else.” Cristante glances from Fehmi to third member Sam Fenton who is sat zombified next to him, staring into space with a flat cap on his head, chewing. He’s been quiet for most of the interview. “Sam hasn’t said a word,” Cristante observes as the firm guiding presence of the band, as Fehmi riffs, “He’s in a fucking lamb coma.” Seconds pass. Fenton blinks his glazed eyes. “I feel great,” he says vaguely.

Their story began when they were all living in one building in Peckham in 2019, the pair of men downstairs in one flat, making music as a band called Double Virgo (their astrological sun signs are both Virgo: fussy, conscientious and satirically funny), Cristante above in the upstairs flat (for what it’s worth, she’s an Aquarius: clever, assertive and unique). Between making music and visual art, Fenton was working as a location scout for adverts, Fehmi was a gardener, and Cristante was doing pilates training. “We’re multifaceted creatives,” Fehmi says, only semi-ironically. Not much thought went into the band name (their namesake being the late-night cafe in Soho made famous by Pulp, although they’ve since made clear that they really couldn’t care less about them) or the music, which is guitar-led and dissonant, with each of their voices starkly different: Cristante’s hypnotic off-pitch scrawl of a voice, Fenton’s more straightforward, conversational vocals, and Fehmi’s rougher tone. “We weren’t interested in making lo-fi music, that was just what we could make with what we had available,” says Cristante, with Fehmi adding, “We also thought it wasn’t lo-fi.”

NINA wears: Full look: Artist’s own, SAM wears: Full look: Artist’s own, JEZMI wears: Leather jacket and boots: John Lawrence Sullivan

Following two albums on Dean Blunt’s underground label World Music, their first album for Matador, Tracey Denim, signalled a new, upwards trajectory. It meant frequent BBC radio play and a spread of positive press, including a coveted Pitchfork review complete with respectable score. The lead single, and first release after announcing their signing, Nurse!, alchemised hype into credible results with its contagious indie-pop; to hear it is to double-take, as if it’s a 90s classic you’ve briefly forgotten. The only thing that changed by inking their Matador contract is, they admit, “more money”, which translates to cleaner production. But the 13 songs on their swift follow-up, The Twits, still embody their oily blend of noughties indie, shoegaze and Britpop. On the scuzzy, melodic opener My Little Tony, they sound like Ride covering Suede as Cristante repeats the alluringly confusing, “Keep playing with my receiving hand.” Elsewhere, in standout track Worlds Greatest Emoter, they’ve written a slacker-pop song with guitars ready-made for TV dramas about British teens acting up. But those tracks are deceptive: much of the rest of the album is eerie (Que Suprise), sad (Bibs) and filled with city-dwelling ennui. If you were looking for coherent themes, you’d find generalised disconnection and dissatisfaction with romantic relationships across every sparse and dingy verse.

In the continued spirit of elusivity, they’re not keen on sharing their ages, but they’re around 30, with Fenton the eldest at 33 (he looks boyish, perhaps in his mid-twenties in person). He’s the only London born-and-bred member. Of course, he loved growing up there, says Fehmi, flipping Fenton’s cap and saying, “Cap to London!” before launching into the wartime ditty Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner. Anglophile Cristante is from Italy but has lived in London all her adult life, and Fehmi is from an industrial town in Essex, down the road from the site of the video for Worlds Greatest Emoter that sees them running down coastal lanes in Victorian garb.

NINA wears: Full look: Artist’s own, SAM wears: Full look: Artist’s own, JEZMI wears: Full look: Artist’s own

When the pandemic started, they were in the ideal situation to work on a band project: in a spacious house with big rooms for London and the ability, thanks to an understanding housemate, to stay up all night making music. They’re no longer in the same house, though – they got kicked out after they didn’t invite neighbours to parties. Cristante was ready for the change, anyway. Her housemates didn’t believe in the concept of boundaries. “The floor is now just mattresses. They all sleep together, more than 16 people. It’s gone a bit commune…” Cristante says off-handedly, as if she’s running me through her shopping list. Nonetheless, it was miraculous that they found themselves in that sort of band bootcamp. “It’s the best slice of luck I’ve ever had in my life. Which is the only slice,” says Fehmi – who, perhaps relatedly, is sporting a bandage on a finger on his left hand, after a deep cut with a sharp butter knife led to seriously damaged nerve endings. They all laugh.

A more mischievous strain of mirth is reserved for their scepticism about other bands. “We’re obsessed with Wet Leg,” Fehmi says, apropos of very little and clapping his hands together. In a good way? “Why would it be in a bad way?” smiles Fenton. What bands do they like, then? Fehmi and Fenton say “not Wet Leg” and “Wet Leg” in unison and we’re evidently in the territory of a well-worn conversation topic.

NINA wears: Full look: Artist’s own

Fehmi realised recently that his love of music is almost non-existent, which to anyone who is perplexed by the popularity of Bar Italia’s nonchalant music, is a statement that risks providing an open goal for criticism. “I’m interested in the cultural phenomenon of bands but I don’t like any music,” he says, his tone more genuinely irked than provocative. “I’m fascinated by Black Midi, I’m fascinated by Black Country, New Road; anyone who makes it in that world.” By that world, he is gesturing to offbeat London buzz bands, much like themselves. “I cannot honestly say I like anyone’s music. I don’t even like our music.” Fenton jumps in to qualify what has sounded perhaps too negative: “He’s like a scientist for music.”

“I think there is something gained in not talking, understanding who you are, so that when you get there you are creative and coherent and you’ve got something to say” – Nina Cristante

Their shared apathy for relatively new British bands like those named explains their choice to sign with New York-based Matador, whose roster includes Julien Baker, Snail Mail and Perfume Genius, alongside historical signings like Interpol and Pavement. And they had the pick, they say, of all the labels (who thankfully wined and dined them while they were barely able to pay for rent, hot water, or food at home). “We didn’t want to be part of the London clique,” says Fehmi assuredly. “We know where we’re from and we know what we’re a part of here, but it was definitely more exciting to be part of something bigger. Not saying America is bigger – geographically speaking, of course – but it’s not part of the London-centric crowd that’s not interesting to us.” Cristante offers a more romantic reason for signing with the legendary label. “In my head it felt like a movie… also the way these [London] bands interact is…” Fehmi finishes her sentence: “… gross.”

SAM wears: Full look: Artist’s own, JEZMI wears: Full look: Artist’s own, NINA wears: Full look: Artist’s own

At the time of this meeting, the only proper interview with Bar Italia on the internet compared them to the hauntological artists that enamoured cultural theorist Mark Fisher. This is funny to them, as is my asking if they’ve read any of his work. “Everyone below the age of 40 in southeast London has read some Mark Fisher,” says Fehmi, who also says that the Rolling Stones’ recent studio album Hackney Diamonds has more influence on their music than Fisher (“that’s not even me being a troll,” he admits). The last ten years in music have shown us, he says, that no good can come of trying to be too smart in your projects. On that note, Fenton says that Mick Jagger isn’t shoving it in your face that he’s extremely well-read, but the Rolling Stones are still making intuitive music. “There’s a danger for me in ‘my intention right now is to make it clear that I think about these theories and I put them into my work’ and missing your interaction with something more otherworldly that might be going on in your music.”

Fehmi doesn’t want to get into the specifics of which artists of the past ten years have been intellectual virtue-signallers but he will make this statement about electronic music. “There was a genuine cultural phenomenon of people trying to theoretically rationalise their shit music. You’re left with people half-dancing, being obliterated with every noise under the sun all at once,” he says, loosened up after his second Greek beer. “A lot of that music is made with the intention of displaying their literary skills and ‘I’ve got every fucking Fitzcarraldo Edition and I make shit club music.’” They all laugh and shrug, and there’s a sense that they’ve opined enough. Cristante sighs, “We’re just bitching.” Fehmi agrees, “Literally: just bitching.”

“We didn’t want to be part of the London clique. We know where we’re from and what we’re a part of here, but it was more exciting to be part of something bigger” – Jezmi Tarik Fehmi

They’re by no means total cynics, though. There was once music they felt deeply about. Fehmi’s first love was The Cribs. Thin Lizzy fan Fenton fondly remembers when Guns N’ Roses were constantly played on MTV. “Slash tried it on with my mum,” this prompts him to recall. “He tried to get her to come to their studio and she had no idea who they were. She was like, ‘Who is this greaseball?’” For Cristante, early life was all about the Spice Girls, after her mum’s ex-boyfriend, who lived in London, came home with their CD. The other two start to tease, saying that of course Italy had the Spice Girls, and she responds that this was just before they broke through in her home country. “That was the butterfly effect. She leaked it to Italy,” jokes Fenton. “No,” laughs Cristante, “but I didn’t even have a CD player so I couldn’t even listen to them. I just liked the cover and was obsessed with London, so I went to school and told the kids that they were very  big in London.”

Jokes – casual, supine, particularly at the expense of one another – are the lifeforce of this band who are clearly good friends. When espressos and rice puddings are brought out, Fenton realises this won’t suffice. As Fehmi and Cristante talk, he slips outside to see his press officer, and returns with an injured croissant from the bottom of the PR’s bag. “It was under a book,” says Fenton. “Was it Mark Fisher?” I ask. Fehmi laughs and says, “A very well-read croissant.” Cristante adds, somberly, “Burdened by culture, you might say.”

NINA wears: Full look: Artist’s own, SAM wears: Full look: Artist’s own, JEZMI wears: Leather jacket and boots: John Lawrence Sullivan

I meet the band again the following Friday, at the launch of their art exhibition, the one I definitely didn’t see advertised on Instagram. They are dressed smartly and have a wall each for their artwork. Like their music, their very different personas combine into something unsettling and not thoughtlessly, but casually, done. Fenton’s drawings – he’s wide awake now, proud and eager to speak to attendees – are weird, detailed fairytale-esque scenes. Fehmi’s are hyper-real sketches of people, one of them Cristante. The biggest, boldest wall – the first you see when you walk into the room – is Cristante’s. Her work is most surprising: red, violent imagery suggesting vaginas being sewn up and her own gory takes on Goosebumps book covers (with the Italian translation across the top in nostalgic grunge typography).

This sort of event is what they get to do now – they get asked to do exhibitions, just because they’re in a band, says Fehmi. They should’ve been called “queue skippers” because that’s what they feel they’ve done with a career trajectory that’s quickly gone from the underground to being signed to one of independent music’s biggest and most iconic labels. For all their “bitching” the other afternoon, Fehmi repeatedly underlined their awareness of what a privileged position they’re in. That is, making money for quirky, uncommercial guitar music during an impossibly bleak economic downturn in the capital city, when eking a living as a jobbing musician is increasingly impossible.

NINA wears: Full look: Artist’s own, SAM wears: Full look: Artist’s own, JEZMI wears: Full look: Artist’s own

I find Cristante in a smaller adjoining room, standing in front of a large canvas that lives on the far wall on its own. It’s an image she knows well: a sketch they had made by the celebrated courtroom artist Priscilla Coleman. Instead of warring footballers’ wives or infamous murderers, it’s a portrait of the three of them displaying their characteristic detachment. They’d all wanted to use it as a press image but weren’t allowed. It was time to be a real band, do photoshoots, be perceived and say some things in public. “It  doesn’t look like us, I think, but it captures something,” she considers, then simply adds, “who knows” before turning to leave.

The Twits is out now via Matador