Jan 31, 2023
By Dom Gourlay
Photography by Jake Ollett
South London based four-piece Italia 90 have been making a name for themselves via a string of critically acclaimed singles and EPs, while also building a reputation as one of the most formidably intense live acts on the circuit right now.
Originally hailing from the South Coast of England, the four members – Les Miserable (singer), Unusual Prices (guitar), Bobby Portrait (bass) and J Dangerous (drums) – relocated to London prior to forming the band almost a decade ago. Having caught the eyes and ears of capital based independent label Brace Yourself Records, Italia 90 put out their long-awaited debut LP Living Human Treasure earlier this month which is already set to be heralded as one of 2023’s finest long players.
Having been long admirers of the band since 2018’s excellent “New Factory” single (which has been re-recorded for the album incidentally), Under the Radar sat down with the band to discuss the new album, forthcoming tour, Brexit and the current political climate in the UK.
Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): How long did it take to make the album? Some of your earliest compositions have been re-recorded for Living Human Treasure. Has the track listing changed over time since the process began?
Unusual Prices: Some of the tracks on there are pretty old. I think the oldest is probably “Competition”, which I think was one of the first songs that this current cohort of musicians worked on. We still play it live but it felt like we’re never that happy with the original recording so because it’s taken a long time to get here, we wanted this album to be an all-encompassing statement about where the band has been up until now. So, that’s probably the oldest one, which is approximately six years old. The majority of the album was written over lockdown basically. Then we recorded it last January but there were lots of delays with vinyl and stuff so it’s been a long time coming. I don’t know if the tracklisting changed that much, but we’re quite keen on sequencing – me and Les (Miserable) specifically. We were really keen on having a side A and side B and thinking about it in that way.
Les Miserable: We wrote it over a period of time and knew we needed a specific track to fill a specific space on the record. So, we actually thought about this a few times. Where’s this gonna go? What gap needs filling and what haven’t we done yet on the record? So, we were kind of slotting things in as we were writing them but it was always written as the album so I think it probably was always quite consistent in that way.
Which are the newest songs on there? Which were written and recorded most recently?
Unusual Prices: The first track “Cut” I think is the newest of the lot. I think that is a good example of what Les was just talking about because we didn’t really have a track that would open the album, and we needed something that sort of sets the mood or whatever. So, we wrote that specifically designed to be the album opener, and likewise with the other tracks on the album. There’s a lot of points where we weren’t sure, like we didn’t really have anything to open up Side B, so we ended up thinking about it in an almost periodic table way where you have a missing gap within the album. It’s quite fun to think about what vibe or mood you want to have when you are at a specific point of the album. Once we finished Side A it was a case of let’s move on and get on with Side B. It was quite fun writing it that way instead of just having a collection of songs already written and then just seeing which order they should go into on the album. The album was already conceptualized before we’d even written some of those songs.
One thing that’s always stood out about Italia 90 is your willingness to embrace different sounds and ideas. The live shows can be very confrontational at times, but musically there’s a lot more going on. So how do you feel about being labelled a post punk band, which seems quite lazy to me, when there’s so much else happening within your music? For example, I’d say you have more in common with acts like Crass, Whitehouse and Gilla Band than any traditional post-punk band.
Les Miserable: Yeah, we find that quite frustrating. Especially with something like the album that we really approached in a different way and thought about it in the terms like we were saying. Only to then have someone call it a post-punk album. That isn’t really how we thought about it, and we’ve tried not to do that but there is a tendency now for some people to just label that. And I think we realized no matter how conscious we are not to be that we’re still gonna get described as that by some people, which can be quite frustrating.
It must be incredibly frustrating because something like “Harmony” really doesn’t fit that post-punk narrative. The whole structure of that song – especially the outro – reminds me of something like “Bloody Revolutions” by Crass, where you have what sounds like three or four songs coming together in one. “Tales From Beyond” is another one that doesn’t fit any formula or sound like anything else. Is that something you were conscious of in trying to bring as many different sonic elements onto the record as possible?
Unusual Prices: Yeah, I think so. When we were doing the album, it felt like it was important to try and incorporate as many different textures as possible. It’s quite a long listen, which again doesn’t really fit the traditional post-punk script. Its around forty-five minutes in total, and there’s a few long tracks like “Competition” and “Harmony” on there. You have to think a lot about texture and variety and a good way of doing that is making reference points to different genres. So, there’s a track on there that’s like a mambo (“The MUMSNET Mambo”), which couldn’t be further away from punk in terms of its make-up. But then I think that also makes the more punk or heavier elements like “Tales From Beyond” or the end of “Harmony” feel a bit more special or a bit more unique on the album. Also, just having the amount of time we had to work in the studio made a difference. Most of our recordings up until now have just been done in a day. Whereas this time we had a full week, which doesn’t sound that long, but for us that felt like a lifetime to record. So, we were able to do things like use a piano or various synthesizers or a mellotron or have tubular bells on one of the tracks as well. We didn’t really have the opportunity to do that before on previous recordings, so I think that helped to give it a bit more variety and spice.
Do you see yourselves developing into more of a studio band now than a live one?
Les Miserable: I think we’ve always been seen as, and saw ourselves as a live band. Mainly because we weren’t putting stuff out that often. We didn’t have the time or the money to be a studio band. But personally, I think we really took to working in the studio on this record. We all got a lot out of it as it was something we hadn’t done before. I think now that we’ve got to a point in that we’ll do a little tour and then have a few months off gigging. Whereas we used to just play three gigs a week and it was quite constant. But now we can tour and have gaps in between. I think we are quite keen to work on stuff that is going to be written in the studio and we’re not necessarily thinking about playing it live. Whereas we have written songs in the past where we maybe thought about going in a certain direction but then also thought let’s hang on, because we can’t play it live, so let’s not do that. Now, that doesn’t even come into it. So, I think we are shifting into a bit of a hybrid between the two.
Unusual Prices: We have an album launch party at the 100 Club in London on 8th February and we’re going to have other musicians on stage, I think pretty much for the first time. We’ve occasionally done things with backing vocalists before, but we’ve been rehearsing the last couple weeks. We’re going to play the album in full and it’s going to have cellos, synthesizers and saxophone too. All this stuff we’ve never done live before. So, this is all brand-new territory for us in terms of having more than just the usual four people on stage. Which is really fun and exciting and also sounds great in rehearsals.
Aside from the new album, you now have quite an extensive back catalogue of songs. Which so much material to choose from, how do you go about putting together a setlist?
Les Miserable: We do talk about it a lot. It’s something we think about quite hard. I think we’re quite keen to have a mix of old and new material. We’ve road tested a few things that we really like and sound great, but then we’ve played them live and just thought they didn’t work. Regardless of if how good it might be or not, the energy just doesn’t sustain. So, it’s a completely different way of thinking to when we did the album when we were thinking about needing an opener for side two. That was all about getting the right thing in the right place. Whereas I think we approach live shows very differently and we’re very aware of keeping the energy up, not boring people and outstaying our welcome, basically.
Unusual Prices: We are also a bit selfish in that there are tracks we probably could or should play but we don’t because we’re fed up of them.
Do you get many fans asking why you didn’t play a particular song in the live set?
Les Miserable: Yeah, the albatross now is “Borderline”, which people want to hear and we don’t want to play.
Is there any reason behind that?
Unusual Prices: Usually if someone asks us to play it, I think we’re pretty amenable to that. If someone comes up before a gig and says, can you please play this? I think we’ll have a chat and be like, yeah, fuck it, why not?
Les Miserable: We’re not like Neil Young, but if it’s down to us, we just won’t play it. I mean, we’re not massively opposed to it. It’s just not in any of our favourite Italia 90 songs. I do like it. I think it does a job, but I also think we look at some of the other stuff we’ve done and some of the stuff that’s on the album and think it’s a lot more interesting than that song. I understand why that’s the popular one, but I don’t think it’s us at our most challenging or interesting necessarily.
You’ve been playing together as a band for the best part of a decade. Do you think having that kind of longevity is one of the reasons why you’ve been able to do things at your own pace? For example, using each part of your back catalogue as a benchmark or document of where you were at that moment in time then gradually build on that, rather than just rush the album out as soon as a bit of interest develops which is the case with a lot of artists once they get recognised or signed?
Les Miserable: Yeah, I think so. And I think our relative lack of success has probably helped with that as well. We don’t have many people making any demands of us. We’re basically left to our own devices, and every once in a while, we come up with something new and it gets released and we are lucky enough now to be having stuff put out by a label. But there’s no one hammering on the door asking where’s the new music and why doesn’t it sound like this? And I think that helps. I don’t think we’ve ever felt under pressure to do anything. So, we’ve never really done anything that we weren’t keen on, or at least at the time we did it.
Unusual Prices: We’ve never worked with anyone who would push us in certain direction either. I’ve never had a label that’s said can you do another track that sounds like this?
Les Miserable: I’m sure they’d like another track that sounds like “Borderline”!
You’re quite vocal about bands that identify as being socially or politically aware but when it all boils down don’t really have that much to say on “Leisure Activities”. Did you have anyone specifically in mind when you wrote that song?
Les Miserable: I mean, yeah. I won’t say who that song’s about but basically the ones that you think it probably is, it’s them, and it’s more than one. It’s not just about specifically targeting individual bands or people. There is a quite a deliberate word choice in there. But it’s more about a pretty common trend that I think we’re seeing. Some people have reacted to that and interpreted that song as saying that we don’t think they believe the political things they say, but that isn’t really the point. The point is that they don’t say anything at all. They’re basically credited as being radical or political. But actually, if you look at the substance of their lyrics, there isn’t any. We talk quite a lot about bands that basically just list things that people would recognize. I just find it frustrating when all you need to do to be hailed as some sort of radical band is just do a list and say things like pubs, cricket, etc, and I don’t really see what that is taking aim at.
You’re all originally from the south coast of England but didn’t form the band until you’d all moved to London. Do you think everything has gravitated towards London again from the regions since the pandemic, as before that it seemed like a lot was happening outside of the capital but now a lot of artists are relocating there again?
J Dangerous: I don’t think we see ourselves particularly as a London band. Our favourite gigs are definitely not in London. They’re probably not in England either.
Unusual Prices: I guess there’s always an element of that given London is the capital city. I don’t know how much of that’s changed under Covid. I think from my perspective, we like to play – as J was saying – as much as possible outside of London to be honest, because often the crowds are much better and also the fees are better and we get looked after, especially internationally. In the UK, because train travel is so expensive, it’s cheaper in a way to do gigs in places like Italy or France than it is to do a UK tour. A UK tour is probably the most expensive kind of tour you can do, even if you’re just going somewhere that’s relatively not that far. It’s still around £80 for the four of us to go to Brighton from London, just in terms of travel. Which could probably get the four of us to Italy for just about that much. So, I don’t know with regards to Covid. I’m not sure how much that’s impacted a lot.
Les Miserable: Also, we formed the band after we moved to London. So, I don’t think we ever really had that sense of this is what we need to do as a band because we formed in London anyway. I don’t know how much of a thing that still is really?
Unusual Prices: I’m definitely aware there’s a hype around bands from London that you don’t get about people from other parts of the country. It seems like you just need to play a handful of half decent gigs somewhere in London like the Windmill and you immediately see these bands have been like signed by a booking agent. They start cropping up on festival bills, which I’m sure for artists outside of London it’s a lot harder just because those people in the music industry that make those things happen are based in London.
J Dangerous: I mean, it’s quite funny sometimes speaking to people outside of the UK. I guess there’s a lot of cultural capital that comes along with being in the capital city. There’s often a sense of like, “Wow, you’re from London, what’s that like?” And we’ll say, well it’s just a place, you know, we get Nectar Points! But then I guess I would probably feel the same way if I found out someone was from New York. I’d be like, wow, what’s that like?
Les Miserable: I feel sometimes like it’s a bit of a production line in London, I think. There’s just so much, it’s oversaturated and there’s so many gigs and so many promoters who all think they’re changing the world and you’ll be at their show, which is just four broadly similar bands knowing that in a about a mile radius there’s about seven other gigs happening at the same time featuring other broadly similar bands. I think to some people that’s really stimulating, but I find it just puts me off. So, I like it when you go out of London and play somewhere different, it sometimes feels a little bit like the only show in town which I’m sure for people that live there can be quite frustrating but I quite like that.
Are there any other bands you see yourselves having a kinship or anything in common with? Two that immediately spring to mind are Girls In Synthesis and Gilla Band, who are both very independent, don’t conform to any scene or genre and are constantly pushing boundaries with every release and live show.
Unusual Prices: Yeah, for sure. Did we play with Girls In Synthesis once? Yeah, we played with them in Brighton. We are friends with a lot of bands just playing gigs together and getting on because we’ve got a similar interest in politics and things like that. There’s bands that we’ve played with quite a lot, for example Qlowski so we’re really good mates with them. Then the guy who produced our album is Louis (Milburn) from Folly Group so we intermingle with his band quite a lot. So, I guess in terms of kinship, the ones that we are just naturally friends with anyway are bands that we like as well just because we’re similar people and have a similar outlook in terms of what we think music should be and stuff. I was just trying to think if there are any bands we want to be friends with that we haven’t really met yet. Bands that we admire from afar. I don’t know if anyone else has got a suggestion?
Les Miserable: Gilla Band was always a big one when we started. So, it was obviously very good to see them kind coming back. I was at their gig with Qlowski. That was nice – and I’m not just saying this because half of Qlowski are sat in the other room and can probably hear me – but they’re a big one for us too. I don’t know if we really had that many things that we would consider direct influences when we started, but if there was a contemporary band that was an influence on us it would probably be Gilla Band.
J Dangerous: We were talking about Viagra Boys the other day as well being one of the more admirable current sort of bigger bands. I think they have a very good approach to enjoying their music and not being particularly or constantly serious.
Les Miserable: I think there’s an assumption from people sometimes that because we’re in a band that gets put into this scene or whatever, that we must listen to all the other current bands and take an interest in them and go to their gigs and know them personally. But I don’t think any of us really are like that at all. I know I’m not. Georgie’s (Unusual Prices) recently been going through and listening to these current hype bands quite methodically one by one and giving us their review. It’s usually fairly uninspired!
You’ve been together as a band now for a number of years. What advice would you give to a new band or musician that’s just starting out? What would you tell them to do? What would you tell them to avoid?
Unusual Prices: I think it’s good to just keep writing as much as possible and not lose that energy with songwriting. I’m saying this from a place that we maybe haven’t written as much as we’d like to in the last few years. I think there’s a sense of being too precious maybe of old songs, or feeling like you need to perfect something. Whenever I’m talking to people who are just starting to make music, I always tell them to just keep churning out songs, and you’ll throw away the shit ones and keep the good ones. That’s always just the best approach, I think. Because then if you just create a volume, within that volume at the end you’ll have a filter down list of good tunes, which might be in a minority. But it’s enough to sustain you and also just get into the habit of writing, which is the hardest thing. The rapidity of writing music is really important too rather than being too focused on writing the perfect song.
Les Miserable: Yeah, I think that’s right to an extent. It’s like having a muscle memory of writing songs and almost quantity over quality to start with. Then the second part of that is playing things live as well. I think songs tend to make more sense whether they’re good or bad in front of an audience. You never really know in a practice room.
J Dangerous: I think my main thing would be to say just don’t ever do something because you feel that’s what you should be doing. Even if you are – unlike us – someone that’s quite ambitious and has a target in mind of something you want to achieve, you’re not gonna do that if you are walking into something conscious of it. If it happens it happens. You can’t predict the things that are going to connect with people so all you can do is just do what you’re doing. You never know. And
Les Miserable: It’s surprised me how many people I’ve actually spoken to who do approach things in that way. Like, oh, we need to write something like this because it’ll be big or people will pick it up and it’ll get on the radio. But I just think you can’t force stuff like that. If that’s what you want, it’s either gonna happen or it won’t really.
In terms of Italia 90, was there a target or objective you wanted to achieve as a band from the outset when you first formed?
Les Miserable: I think the big one was getting an album out. Obviously, that’s about happened so… I don’t know if we necessarily think about it in those terms really. We just get on with it.
Unusual Prices: I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea maybe to think about long term goals because we’ll inevitably miss them! So let’s focus on whether we’re still having fun instead and if so, continue with that.
J Dangerous: Every time we make new music, that it’s music that interests us and we feel is a progression from what we’ve done before. That we’re getting better and more interesting as it goes on.
I think you can definitely hear the progression, particularly if you play the Italia 90 back catalogue in chronological order. Even listening to the original version of a song like “New Factory” for example alongside the re-recorded one on the album, there’s definitely a difference in the sound.
Unusual Prices: Yeah, I hope so. I agree with that about the second version as well. I think it’s much better.
The album Living Human Treasure is out now on Brace Yourself Records.
Italia 90 play the following UK shows in February.
04 Sat. Manchester, YES
08 Wed. London, 100 Club
11 Sat. Leeds, Hyde Park Book Club.
24 Fri. Cardiff, Clwb Ifor Bach
25 Sat. Nottingham, JT Soar.
EU/European dates below.