The Cover Story

Ithaca: “This is about divine feminine power”

Having channelled all-out fury into The Language Of Injury, homegrown heavy heroes Ithaca found themselves on a path of rediscovery during lockdown. Pouring their emotions and experiences into new album They Fear Us, we find a band coming to terms with their pasts and finally finding the motivation to heal…

Ithaca: “This is about divine feminine power”
Nick Ruskell
Bob Foster

Djamila Boden Azzouz doesn’t mince her words. She’s not a woman given to it anyway, but when asked to give ‘the sell’ on Ithaca’s new album, she doesn’t leave space for even a sliver of ambiguity.

“I think we're miles ahead of everyone else,” the singer declares. “Take that as you will. Arrogant? Maybe. True? Yes. Probably... I think no-one is doing this right now. I think musically, there is no comparison, especially in the UK, for bands doing what we're doing. There's such a richness and diversity in the influences, it would just be impossible for that to be replicated.”

She chews this over, then finds an extra 10 per cent to give.

“I just think we're better than everyone else.”

Then she bursts out laughing. “God, that sounds so arrogant!” In full agreement with his bandmate’s sentiments, Ithaca’s guitarist, Sam Chetan-Welsh is similarly opined.

“Some people might see [saying things like this] as arrogance,” he says. “But if you don't think it about yourself, no one else will.”

Ithaca, despite this opening throw, are not arrogant. Even if some of this big talk comes slightly tongue-in-cheek, standing on tiptoe for effect, what the pair are saying is arguably true. The album of which they speak, They Fear Us, released this Friday, is a work of heavy music rich in meaning and depth. With Sam cautiously using the descriptor “prog-hardcore” and offering Rolo Tomassi as a comparison, it’s emotionally intelligent and creatively verdant, perfectly digesting influences as wide as Deftones and Converge, to “Janet Jackson and Prince”.

It’s also simply excellent. If you’d made it, you’d talk like them, too.

For those with an ear on the band – Djamila and Sam, these days rounded out by guitarist Will Sweet, bassist Dom Moss and drummer James Lewis – since they first appeared in London’s hardcore scene a decade ago, ‘Ithaca doing good’ will be news as old as the invasion of the Falklands. Their debut album, 2019’s scalding The Language Of Injury, quickly found them sitting comfortably near the top of a list of recent-ish British metal bands that features acts as varied and brilliant as Employed To Serve, Svalbard, Conjurer, Pupil Slicer, Dawn Ray’d and a wealth of others. They were doing festivals. They went on a massive tour with indie-folksters Big Thief at the band’s invitation – a jaunt that saw them playing stages as big as Hammersmith Apollo, and on which unsuspecting punters were literally warned by signs in venues that those watching the opening band might do well to find themselves some earplugs.

And then, when COVID hit, so did a sense of inertia. “I was worried we’d shot our shot,” admits Djamila, “that we’d never get that back.” Slower than they might otherwise have done, the band wrote, and created, soon realising that they had a lot to put into a new record. Upheaval – which over the past few years, on top of lockdowns, included grief, mental health issues, internal conflict, and the collapse of their label under dark circumstances – also meant an opportunity to rethink and grow. “A rebirth,” Sam calls it, before adding, “About six rebirths.”

“The last album was [about] such like, painful things,” he says. “And this record is about harnessing power and strength and confidence.”

In intent, the two are very different. The Language Of Injury was a frenzied, bloody-knuckled wound of a record. Forged of an untethered, rudderless anger, though excellent, it offered all the warmth and comfort of a duvet woven from lengths of barbed wire. Djamila describes the contents as “a lot of self-loathing”. It was, she says, “a visceral reaction” to things going on in her life and those of her bandmates.

For Sam, the record was made not long after the death of his mother. When it came to recording his parts, he was “just about getting myself out of bed to be able to actually do the bloody album”.

“I was in a real, ultra-raw grief place,” he says today. “I was trying to use [recording] as a focus point. I was just cleaned out emotionally by that time. That album was an immediate emotional reaction to some deep pain that we were feeling. It felt like throwing up, basically.”

They Fear Us is about standing back up again. There is a pained violence within it, with one round coming barely a minute into opener In The Way, in which Djamila’s unsettling declaration toward a deserving enemy that she would, ‘Wash your blood down the sink 'cause we don’t keep souvenirs’ is intentionally clear and articulate. “A lot of the songs are themed around revenge,” she says. “If you could make the people who hurt you pay, would you?”

The band could quite easily have kept along this line of thinking and been done with it. But, Sam says, “nihilism is such cheap currency”. What, they thought, is point of taking such a deep bath in all this hurt, all this horror, without it teaching you how to fight back?

“It’s taking all of that anger and self-loathing and turning it outwards,” says Djamila. “It’s about realising, like, ‘it's not my fault.’”

“It’s about going down to the deepest place, but [then] rebuilding,” adds Sam. “And actually, although it's at times an extremely dark album, I think there is actually quite a lot of optimism, particularly as it crests towards the end.”

As with so many records. But then he attaches a rider to his thoughts that sum up what sets Ithaca and They Fear Us apart.

“I personally feel,” he says, “like that’s an act of radical defiance.”

Today, Sam is speaking from his home in London, while Djamila is currently at her flat in Berlin – her residence for a year now. Though paperwork for refugees from Ukraine has meant a slower than usual processing of a visa for her to return to the UK to perform, meaning the band had to bow out of their scheduled appearance at 2000trees a couple of weeks ago (a situation she says is correct, being a mere inconvenience to her, but a matter of life and death to others), the new distance between Ithaca and their singer isn’t actually that much of a stumbling block.

“We have to be more organised, but I can focus on the band more here than when I lived in London and couldn’t afford my rent. Plus, it costs less for me to get to London than it does for Dom to get a train from Manchester.”

When Sam talks about “radical defiance”, it throws much of They Fear Us into focus. Though not a band ever knowingly backward in coming forward, with Djamila a particularly vocal figure when it comes to abuse, racism, sexism and whatever else she sees as needing addressing, their refusal to submit also takes the form of questioning what should be expected of a band creatively. The layers of attention to detail that have gone into every element – lyrics, photos, themes, musical influences, videos – are discussed with a depth of people for whom every angle is a potentially artistic or meaningful one. Often, the words “and that’s not what people would normally expect from a heavy band” are never far away.

“Healing” is a word that comes up a few times. Sam will tell you that the pandemic offered a chance not only to take more time than maybe they might to write the record and follow ideas more thoroughly, but to also unpack a lot mentally. Following the hurt of losing his mother, part of the healing on They Fear Us comes from visiting India for her funeral, and making a recording of a priest leading a Ganga Aarti blessing ceremony next to the River Ganges.

“All of us had to confront a lot of personal demons around [the start of the pandemic],” he says. “There was a lot of inner reflection, and then a deep inner work that the pandemic kind of put into high gear. For me personally, it was being sat at home and forced to confront how I was talking to and about myself – genuinely the voices in my head. There was a lot that I was sitting on emotionally and in terms of my mental health that I just not dealt with, and that that in many ways is true for other members of the band.”

Another phrase that comes up more than once when diving into Ithaca 2022 is “divine feminine power”. Sam says it’s something that reflects “abusive male power structures” which are a shared part of everyone in the band’s stories, pointing to the collapse of their former label, Holy Roar, following allegations of sexual abuse by its owner, as one example. Again, they point out that it’s an idea not often brought up in metal, “even though it’s all about strength and power”. Even less often followed through on.

“It's very low-hanging fruit for a band, or for a musician, to [say], ‘I'm a feminist’. But the moment you actually say, ‘Well, no, this is about divine feminine power, and we're actively opposing abuse of male power,’ you get people thinking you're insane,” says Djamila. “It’s ‘The Woke Agenda’. Fucking hell. I think that's what people are afraid of – being seen in a certain way. And I feel like it's something that people will hint on. Or maybe do the bare minimum, but they will never be 100 per cent committed to it. We'll go all the way.

“I think it's quite difficult sometimes, because I think I'm perceived a certain way. And I'm, unfortunately, grossly aware of the fact that that means people see the band in a certain way as well, sometimes. Sometimes I have to sort of remember when I run my mouth online, that I'm an ambassador for the band as well. You know, shitposting and saying dumb shit. But the thing is, it's almost always a response to someone being stupid, or saying something stupid, or saying something offensive or saying something racist or sexist, you know? I don't go out of my way to be a dickhead for no reason.”

"The moment you say 'we're actively opposing abuse of male power,’ people think you're insane"

Hear Djamila on why people are too afraid to publicly show support

Ask Djamila who the 'They' is in They Fear Us, and she’ll reply that while there are individuals and situations at whom her ire is directed, an opponent who keeps you down is something that applies to many people in many situations. Find your own prick, and kick against them.

“If I want anyone to take anything away from the album, it's a feeling of empowerment. 'They' can be whoever it is that's made you feel a certain way. It's gonna be different for everyone, I guess. 'They' are the people that have made you feel less than [you're worth], people that have made you feel that you're not worthy for whatever reason, or people who have hurt you in the past."

While a song like In The Way deals clearly with revenge, elsewhere the focus is internal, unpicking the knots within. On Camera Eats First, self-image and worrying about how one is placed in the world, comes under the spotlight. It is, says the singer, a song with a root of self-loathing, but as is so often key, it also comes with a realisation, and a removal of an unnecessary burden.

“That song is very much about examining the way that you see yourself, and the way that you're made to feel about yourself versus how other people see you,” she says. “I have such a distorted sense of self-image, which I think a lot of people can relate to. It sounds really dramatic, but [you get] those moments where you think to yourself, ‘Fucking hell, I've got no idea what I look like. I don't know what I look like. I have no idea what I look like anymore.’ But why’s that even important? Why are we so obsessed with it?

“[I realise] how much time I've wasted, and how much it's taken from my life. Which is a lot, to be honest. The camera is a metaphor for being fucking devoured by that level of self-hatred, because of how you see yourself, or how other people see you, and the way that both things wildly differ.”

"I have such a distorted sense of self-image, which a lot of people can relate to"

Hear Djamila on how her personal experiences informed the track Camera Eats First

Listening to his bandmate, at one point Sam adds his admiration for the position that Djamila occupies in the group; for both standing up and shouting, and for the willingness to share what’s within.

“I would say it requires an enormous amount of bravery and vulnerability from someone like Djamila,” he says. “Very few people are willing to put that level of bravery and vulnerability into it.”

This is partly why Ithaca’s current visual element is as it is, with Djamila depicted as a powerful presence in a crown, a queen, with the male contingent around her, in an almost protective manner. It’s a visual that graces the album’s sleeve, the band’s photos and feeds into the videos.

“The whole photographic album cover isn't something that really gets done any more in metal, unless you're Manowar or something,” says the singer. “We wanted something that was like very regal and very powerful, but also really vibrant. Because, again, it's not something that you see with a lot of metal, really – bold, vibrant colours, and things that look really atmospheric.”

Taking influence from the concert film Stop Making Sense by ‘80s new-wave outfit Talking Heads, the spark came when that band’s frontman David Byrne explained that their look was a way of communicating “radical ideas” through what he saw as a brick wall.

“To me we're all there behind Djamila as, not like her bodyguards or something, but this defensive line standing behind her, so that there's no way of challenging her,” explains Sam on how Ithaca picked up the thread. “And also, we're communicating our own femininity, and we're communicating intimacy. We're holding hands, and we're touching each other, all these things that are the opposite of what heavy bands do, which is stand far apart from each other wearing Carhartt. Everyone’s close, there’s colour, pre-Raphaelite painting, references to queer art, intimacy, love, joy. Because those things are at the core of healing, really.”

Talking to Ithaca in 2022, you get the sense that had things not been slowed by COVID, not only would They Fear Us be different, but they would be different as well. Were this interview to have happened two years ago, without processing time and breathing space and the opportunity to have a rebirth, one imagines a conversation with two people in a much darker place than the ones we find today. The upswing on They Fear Us feels honest, genuine. And from there, there’s not necessarily peace, but hope.

“The temptation [if I could talk to my younger self] would be for me to say, ‘Don't do it!’” she says. “But seriously, I don't think there's anything I could say to myself. I think that album needed to happen as it happened, and I don't think I'd want to go back and change it. It's a very different record, but I feel like it's special for its own reasons. And without that record, we wouldn't have They Fear Us and what we have now.”

"Self-kindness is talking to and about yourself in a way you would talk to or about others"

Hear Sam on the emotional rebuilding this album has allowed him to undertake

“I don't think I believed that it would ever get better for me. I didn't think I would ever be able to recover from that loss, and never be able to rebuild my life and feel emotionally well or stand tall as myself,” says Sam. “Things this album is allowing me to do. The huge message that I have learned since recording that album is what is real self-kindness is. It's not just having a sleep and making yourself a cake, it’s genuinely talking to and about yourself in a way you would talk to or about others. And as soon as you have that revelation and start practicing it, it changes your life and it changes your emotional state. And it's only through going through the depths and talking about that self-loathing and the lack of self-kindness that I was able to come out the other side.

“Healing is possible. It’s possible for you to be able to stand authentically in yourself, just as we are, and be braver, be bolder.”

We can’t think of anything less arrogant and more admirable than that.

Ithaca's new album They Fear Us is released on July 29 via Hassle.

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