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Ithaca: ‘We said: “Stop supporting racist bands”. Our Facebook page was flooded with Nazis’ | Metal

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She may not be as violent in person as in lyrics such as “And wash your blood down the sink, cause we don’t keep souvenirs,” but Djamila Boden Azzouz, the singer with UK metalcore ragers Ithaca, is nevertheless taking no prisoners. “This record shows such a level of creativity and finesse that a lot of people who make the kind of music that we make are just not on our level,” declares the singer on a video call from her Berlin home. “A fact’s a fact.”

And indeed, she has every right to boast. Ithaca released their first album, The Language of Injury, in 2019, and received acclaim for the way they peppered jagged hardcore with crooning melodies. They Fear Us is a juggernaut of a follow-up, the most ambitious and charismatic punk/metal album of the year so far, which adds near-shoegaze levels of luminescence to the mix without compromising the band’s heaviness and attitude.

It’s no surprise that Boden Azzouz’s lyrics seethe with anger: preceding the band’s debut were seven years of toil, and being at the receiving end of sexism and racism. Ithaca formed in late 2012, when guitarist Sam Chetan-Welsh wrote on a message board that he was starting a hardcore group inspired by American punks the Chariot and looking for a vocalist. Boden Azzouz was browsing the site, albeit for different reasons. “She was trolling Eagles cover acts from Derby,” the soft-spoken Chetan-Welsh remembers with a smile, joining the same video call from London.

“It was a different time!” Boden Azzouz laughs. “There was no TikTok; YouTube was around, but not in the way that it is now. So, where else are you gonna laugh at people?”

The UK metalcore scene was a drastically different place then from what it is now. Bands that today lead the charge – such as Employed to Serve, Svalbard and Rolo Tomassi – were all youngsters, so Ithaca instead found themselves sharing stages with bullish grindcore and death-metal acts. “A lot of the black metal and hardcore bands were really welcoming,” Boden Azzouz says. “And we didn’t really know what our sound was, so we slotted into so many different lineups without a problem. That was really beneficial to us.”

Although many peers were receptive to Ithaca, there was bigotry against the band from promoters and concertgoers. Chetan-Welsh, who is of Indian heritage, recalls getting “called a racial slur in a pub by someone that was putting on the gig”. Meanwhile Boden Azzouz, a bisexual British-Algerian woman, asks “How long is a piece of string?” when trying to recall how many instances of prejudice she has faced.

She offers up an example: “I wore a T-shirt at a show that said ‘Stop supporting racist bands’ on it. Then our Facebook page was flooded by actual, real-life Nazis, who were like: ‘We’re gonna come and kill you.’

“Even making sure bands at one of our shows had a diverse lineup with at least one non-male was such a hugely controversial thing,” she continues. “People took real issue with that: ‘Oh, you’re making that a thing?’ Yeah, we are!”

Even among the band members themselves, the lead-up to The Language of Injury was a nightmare. Ithaca began writing the album in 2016 and, just a month before they were due to record it the following year, Chetan-Welsh’s mum died. “She passed away after a full-year journey – I don’t really love the word ‘battle’ – with a brain tumour,” he says. “A lot of raw emotion went into that last record: a lot of real-life upheaval and my life being turned upside down.”

At the same time, Boden Azzouz was facing what she describes as “intense mental struggles”. “It was probably one of the lowest points of my life. It felt like we had such bad luck over and over again, in our personal lives and the band as well. It built up to this point where it was like: ‘When will something go right for us?’”

Fortunes changed when The Language of Injury was released in February 2019 and over the following year, they played gigs with everybody from metal aggressors Bleeding Through to folk-rockers Big Thief. But then Covid happened, and in September 2020, the head of their label Holy Roar, Alex Fitzpatrick, was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women (he denies the allegations). Ithaca were among the first bands to respond publicly, leaving the roster and tweeting: “Holy Roar Records is dead.” Boden Azzouz says: “If you’re a rapist and I see you in public, I will batter you. No question.”

‘A lot of people who make the kind of music that we make are just not on our level’ … Djamila Boden Azzouz.
‘A lot of people who make the kind of music that we make are just not on our level’ … Djamila Boden Azzouz. Photograph: Martyna Bannister

On They Fear Us, Ithaca weaponise the prejudice and trauma they have endured over the past 10 years. After those chastisements for wanting gender diversity in metalcore lineups, the album’s art counterattacks by putting Boden Azzouz on a throne, dressed in vibrant orange while Ithaca’s male members appear pale and subservient. The lyrics similarly hoist the singer on to a pedestal, all while verbally eviscerating the world’s bigots and naysayers.

“There’s a wide range of influences that went into the look of the album, from 70s retro to queer fashion,” Chetan-Welsh explains. “The objective was to be disruptive and make people go: ‘That’s a metal band?!’”

The concept of Djamila on a pedestal links back to the power of the divine feminine; the title track has a sample from an Indian ritual that beckons the mother goddess and is all about divine female power. “There are people who come from other cultures or have something to say in heavy music and have thought: ‘Is this for me? I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that,’” he continues. “I want those people to say: ‘I’ve never seen a band that looks like Ithaca; I’m gonna go and do that.’”

Boden Azzouz adds: “Over the past couple of years, we’ve all grown as people. When we wrote Language, I was very much a victim. This time around, it felt so natural for They Fear Us to be the title of the album because there is so much more empowerment in it. It’s a completely different album and it is so much more triumphant.”

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