Five years after Idles’ Joy As An Act of Resistance thrust grimy urban post-punk back into the mainstream for the first time in decades we should probably be growing weary of bands talk/shout/singing social commentary and political slogans over abrasive guitars and kosmische rhythm sections by now, but when it’s approached with the freshness, drive and clarity displayed by South London based four-piece Italia 90 on their debut LP Living Human Treasure, it’s hard not to be swept up once again in the thrill of it all.
Made up of vocalist Les Miserable, whose cerebral snarl brings both the punk and the politics to their sound, the screeching, soaring guitars of Unusual Prices and the rhythm section of drummer J Dangerous and bassist Bobby Portrait keeping everything in check, Living Human Treasure bursts through the seams of post-punk to take in influences from across the musical spectrum, with the furious howling guitars, throbbing bass and clattering drums of ‘Leisure Activities’ juxtaposed with the jaunty call and response of ‘New Factory’, laidback jazzy keys of ‘The MUMSNET Mambo’, the gothic threat of ‘Funny Bones’. and ‘Gologtha”s uneasy dischord and explosive saxophone breakdown.
“We consciously drew on elements from other genres, like new wave, goth rock, post-hardcore, jazz, jungle and ranchera that have inspired us but which we hadn’t incorporated into our music previously”, explains Bobby Portrait. “Les has such a distinctive vocal style that we realised we could take some tracks in a slightly different direction but know that they would still sound recognisably ours.”
With this rich soup of influences to draw on, we caught up with the band to find out more about the music that has inspired them throughout their lives.
1) What is your earliest music-related memory? What do you remember being played at home when you were a child?
Unusual Prices: My earliest memory of music is my brother bringing home a CD of Metallica’s S&M (a live show featuring the London Symphony Orchestra) and my mother forbid me to listen to it. “It’s ‘smack my bitch up’ music”, she said. So naturally I had to hear it. And immediately wanted to learn the guitar.
2) What was the first record that you ever bought? Where did you get it and do you have any recollection of the experience?
Les Miserable: The first album I remember owning was Tubthumping by Chumbawamba on cassette when I was about 7. I’d been charmed by the band’s description of different kinds of drinks and their dulcet Lancashire tones when I first heard it on my favourite TV show, Gladiators. The Brighton record fair was always a formative place for me as I used to go with my dad every year. The first vinyl I remember buying was there, a ‘Staring at the Rude Boys’ 7” by The Ruts.
3) When did you really start to develop a passion for listening to music? How did that come about and what were you into at the time?
Les Miserable: I started getting really fixated on certain albums and tracks when I was about six, mainly dictated by what we had in the car. Two tracks I used to play on repeat were ‘Storm the Embassy’ by Stray Cats and ‘What Do You Want From Me?’ by Monaco. The first album I listened to a lot at this age was Brain Drain by The Ramones. I was transfixed by the way they looked and found the lyrics bizarre. I remember copying it onto CDs and giving them to my mates on their birthdays. I now recognise it as the worst Ramones album but it was the start of my anoraky approach to music.
4) What was the first gig that you went to? Where was it and what was it like?
Unusual Prices: My first gig was, unbelievably, James Brown supporting Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was in Hyde Park. It was fucking lit.
(Unfortunately the only online footage of the show is some grainy video taken on a mobile phone, so here’s a clip of his Glastonbury set from the same year)
5) What are your memories of starting out making music? What was the first song that you learned to play?
J Dangerous: Unusual Prices and I were in a band from the ages of about 11 to 16. Our first gig was in a school hall and we opened with a cover of ‘Warning’ by Green Day. Our name was Frogzpawn.
6) What was your first band/musical project? What music was influencing you at that time? What are your memories of playing your first gig and are there any recordings out there?
J Dangerous: We have had a few projects between us, most notably Frogzpawn, of course. As Italia 90, our first gig was in 2015 at London’s Old Blue Last. There are definitely demo recordings of our songs from that time, recorded in Les’s Dad’s garage. The first song we ever wrote was about our disdain for John Lennon. Can’t remember what it was called – something like ‘Twat’?
7) What are your memories of starting Italia 90? What was your first release and what do you think now when you listen back to it?
Bobby Portrait: Our first release was a self-released, self-titled EP on cassette in 2017. We think it’s stood the test of time! We still play a handful of the tracks from it live, more than from later releases. It was recorded in just a day and quite rudimentarily – live, without much finessing afterwards, and it has a very rough sound that we weren’t necessarily aiming for, but which people seem to like – sometimes more than they like the newer stuff that we put a lot more time and effort into. Tough luck! We’re never recording in a studio that doesn’t have a set of tubular bells and an espresso machine ever again.
8) Which band/artist do you think has had the biggest influence on your music over the years? What is it about them that inspires you?
Bobby Portrait: We all have fairly different musical interests so it’s tricky to name anyone that applies for all of the band. If we’re going by the artist that gets referenced most when we’re in the rehearsal room, then it’s probably System of a Down. Though we’d be surprised if you could have picked that up from our music.
9) Who are some of your favourite current artists? What do you like about them?
Bobby Portrait: I recently saw a band called Last Living Cannibal, who were really interesting, with some gorgeous songs and quite odd melodies. They’re from Hastings too, so I’m choosing them out of Sussex loyalty.
Les Miserable: I am also listening to Piglet a lot at the moment. I’m also a massive fan of Katy J Pearson‘s lush melodies and sizeable pop chops and I think Holiday Ghosts are one of the great singles bands of the 21st century.
Unusual Prices: I’m obsessed with The Orielles! Their new album is 10/10 perfect. It’s got all this beautiful 60s studio ephemera and improvisations, and shoegeazey vocals. Highly recommend if you like Stereolab, Broadcast, Talk Talk.
10) You have a new album out, how has your approach to making music changed since you started out, and how has your sound developed over that time? Is there a particular song on the record that epitomises what you’re aiming to achieve or that is particularly special to you for any reason?
That’s like asking us to choose a favourite child, we’re obliged to say that all the tracks are equally special to us, even though we do get sick of them sometimes. Though like any parent, we do actually have a favourite. It’s ‘The MUMSNET Mambo’, baby!
Article by Paul Maps
Photograph by Jake Ollett