Rock’n’roll flotsam: Bar Italia at the Jericho Tavern

by Alexander Archer | May 19, 2023

On Sunday 14th May, a mixed crowd of students, locals, and (according to The Times) “various figureheads from Oxford’s music scene” gathered in the Jericho Tavern for a show by Bar Italia, a London-based band currently touring to promote their new album, Tracey Denim. I use the word ‘performance’ carefully, because certain aspects of the hour-long show felt closer to performance art than that of standard, get-the-crowd-moshing live rock music. The band, who have never done an interview, and maintain a social media presence to rival Frank Ocean’s in its opacity, played their whole set with a consummate air of anti-showmanship: they didn’t say a word between the songs, nor move a step from their set positions onstage, nor even really acknowledge the existence of the audience beyond occasional, somewhat withering glances. In fact, their stage presence lay somewhere between v-effect and ‘there’s a man in the wings forcing us to play at gunpoint, and I’m trying to blink out SOS to the lighting operators’. And yet – the show was mesmerising.

This would have come as no surprise for anyone in the audience with any prior familiarity with Bar Italia. The band are notoriously obscure when it comes to publicity (only a scant few grainy photographs of them exist online), elusive when it comes to biography, and entirely incomprehensible when it comes to merchandise (why the hell would you want a shirt which just said ‘Tracey Denim’ on it and nothing else? This is something they were legitimately hawking at the merch stand. Am I going to really impress the zero other Bar Italia fans in my college by wearing my ‘Tracey Denim’ shirt around?) – and that is to say nothing of the cryptic ambiguity of the music itself. Bar Italia’s style can best be described as a strange, stripped-back amalgam of lo-fi, hypnagogic, and slacker rock – their songs tend to range from 45 seconds to 2 minutes long, and play less like full compositions than hazy, half-coalesced ideas thereof, sifted from the heap of broken images left at the tomb of the 90s indie rock movement. Their lyrics wander abstractly through emotional registers of discontentment and claustrophobia, with all the clarity of a thick fog over the Thames. Although their newer singles have shown an increasing affinity for more conventional song structures (!sell-out alert!), there remains a hypnotic quality to their simplicity and muted evocation of genres past.

Live, then, the music complemented the band’s performance style well, making for an intriguing but obtuse hour. The three members of the band – Sam Fenton, Nina Cristante, and Jezmi Tarik Fehmi – shared vocal duties more or less equally, with the two men also playing lead guitar, backed up by a bassist and drummer. Although not all Bar Italia songs are created equal, at various points the vocals and guitar work blended together into genuinely blissful passages of music, to rival Built to Spill in prettiness and grace, but also compellingly troubling and glacial in their eerie mediation. That being said, blending also became a problem at some points in the show when the slightly monotonous similarity of a lot of the band’s songs was brought to the fore by the minimalism of their performance style – many of the songs seemed to featurelessly blend together, making for forgettable expanses of the concert. During moments like these, it became slightly less clear whether the audience was swaying with rapture or slight desperation.

In spite of these occasional hiccups, though, the show was an ultimate success, demonstrating that Bar Italia’s confrontational approach to musical performance works very well when the songs are robust enough to hold the weight of the band’s post-Brechtian aspirations. What was particularly impressive about the music, however, was its exploration of a particular subject matter, one almost never approached by artists.

Here we arrive at the significance of the name ‘Bar Italia’ itself: it can be linked to the closing track of Pulp’s 1995 album Different Class, which is also called Bar Italia (itself, and possibly the band too, named after an all-night bar in Soho). In a sense, Bar Italia is a fairly unique song. While there are a lot of rock’n’roll songs out there about being drunk or high, and a lot about hangovers and comedowns, there are not many at all about the space in between those tense, desolate hours of stasis and indecision which form the connective tissue – the gristle – of any sufficiently dissolute (or wretched) night out. These are the muted hours spent waiting for friends or dealers to answer texts, or for the last traces of a high to ebb away, or for what’s left of an afters to dissolve, fighting the urge to sleep or pass out, moving through anonymous flats and indeterminate, grey neighbourhoods, the penultimate, barren landscapes of a journey to the end of the night.  

Pulp’s Bar Italia is special in its attempt to capture this ambiguous subject matter and turn it into something musically palatable. Still, it does so by turning to pop. It has to knowingly surf along the irony of the disjunction between its punchy, poppy, Pulp-y style and its contrastingly numbing, elusive subject matter. I would suggest that what makes the band Bar Italia so interesting is that they also approach this subject matter, but do so in an inverted fashion, allowing it to shape the form of their songs rather than the direct content of said songs. The force that unifies all of Bar Italia’s disparate influences and fragmentary experimentations is this atmospheric throughline, a simultaneous harnessing of alienation and sleaze that makes their music feel like a genuine document of the nocturnal interstices of London. Whatever the (lyrical) subject matter of a specific song might be, its style is such that it enacts this immanent narrative of urban malaise anyway.

Bar Italia, then, is a slightly difficult sell, but by no means an impossible one. Everything about them – their music, their shows, their aesthetic – manages to be simultaneously obtuse and interesting, as they toe a constant, delicate line between oblique profundity and arrant pretension. Tracey Denim, their new album, is out tomorrow (May 19th) by Matador Records, so there’s no better time than now to give their music a try and see if it sticks the landing.

Words by Alexander Archer.

Photography by Dylan Wright and the Bar Italia website