Ithaca: “When I was younger, it felt like I was fighting everyone. Now, where I get my energy from isn’t that dark place anymore”

After years of disrespect, self-loathing and “fighting our audience”, Ithaca are fast becoming one of British metal’s leading lights. And with it, singer Djamila Boden Azzouz an unintended icon. We met up with her to learn who she is, and found that she’s not as scary as we first thought…

Ithaca: “When I was younger, it felt like I was fighting everyone. Now, where I get my energy from isn’t that dark place anymore”
Nick Ruskell
Martyna Bannister

“Let me tell you something about getting tear-gassed,” says Djamila Boden Azzouz. “It turns out that shit is really painful.”

Djamila knows this because she and the rest of Ithaca got a face full of it from the French police during a stop on their recent European tour. Walking the streets of Dijon before that night’s show, the band turned a corner to find themselves in the middle of one of the country’s admirably aggy protests against plans to raise the pension age. They arrived just in time for the plod to start deploying into the air what amounts to rubbing chilli in your eyes. Coughing and spluttering, face streaming like a burst water main, the singer thought: “This surely has to be it.”

This was, in fact, the third incident on the tour that’s so bananas, today Djamila still can’t quite believed it happened at all. Prior to this, on the Parisian date, drummer James Lewis, having been sickening for something for days already, became “fully delirious” during a conversation with his bandmates. Stepping outside after managing to power through soundcheck, he hit the deck, spark out, requiring an ambulance. More than that, he required actual rest to sort his body out, instead of putting it through the nightly stress of playing a show.

Even on the first day, in Karlsruhe, Germany, things went wildly weird when – and we’re not making this up – the band were forced to stay locked in the venue for hours because of an armed hostage situation in the pharmacy next door.

“At one point, a bunch of police came into the venue, all in tactical gear with fucking massive sniper rifles,” remembers Djamila. “They were like, ‘We need to go on the roof.’ I guess they were trying to get a clear shot…”

Eventually, after hours of being stuck with nothing to do but drink, they opened the back door to have a tab. “That’s when we started hearing gunfire. We were like, ‘Fuck this!’”

And the past 12 months had been going so well. Last year’s stunning They Fear Us album had raised Ithaca – Djamila and James, guitarists Sam Chetan-Welsh and Will Sweet, and bassist Dom Moss – from being a very good noisy hardcore band to one of the most talked about acts in British heavy music. It landed at Number Two in Kerrang!’s Albums Of The Year countdown, and their shows at ArcTanGent and Damnation festivals had furthered the point that here was a band with a deep creative well, genuine emotional intelligence, and a white-hot energy that caused the whole thing to blossom and explode with a violent beauty. As well as gracing K!’s cover on the album’s release, they had a full page in no less a periodical than The Guardian.

“I thought, ‘Who’s reading The Guardian and deciding to check out this really heavy band?’ But people did. It was insane.”

As Ithaca continue to burn their way through the musical world, Djamila is herself becoming a person of interest. With (hopefully less dramatic) shows booked for summer, and a trip to America to appear alongside Korn, Corey Taylor, Parkway Drive and Avenged Sevenfold at Kentucky’s Louder Than Life and California’s Aftershock mega-fests, it’s time to properly get to know one of British music’s most engaging, charismatic, endearingly gobby and interesting figures.

The first time this writer encountered Djamila, I was scared of her. Opening for Employed To Serve at a tiny show in Basingstoke six years ago, she was a whirl of vehement energy, screaming with an incandescent intensity, physically shoving members of the audience out of the way to get to where she wanted to be, without any sign that it was some sort of rough-and-tumble fun. When we tell her this, she laughs.

“More often than not, it’s men who will say that they’re intimidated by me, or scared of me. To which I’ve always said, ‘Good, as you should be,’” she grins. “I don’t know, I just find the idea of someone being scared of me really funny.”

Djamila says she’s mellower these days, and truly, even if she clearly doesn’t suffer fools, she’s friendly, funny and full of banter. But back then, she agrees she wasn’t too cordial onstage.

“At those early shows, I felt like there was a need to be hyper-aggressive,” she explains. “A lot of that anger was directed at the audience. I felt like I had something to prove. A lot of the people in those audiences weren’t very nice to me, for years, so I felt like I had to push back.”

This was a skill already learned as a kid. Growing up with two brothers meant she quickly learned to stick up for herself and not take any shit off anyone.

“I love my brothers so much, but it was punch or be punched,” she laughs. “And growing up in Holloway, you end up being a very specific type of person. You learn how to look after yourself.”

Despite this, Djamila remembers being a “very quiet” child. As a child, illness saw her at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, one effect of which was that she became “really insular”, spending the long stretches away from other kids teaching herself to read. As she grew older, it was her siblings who introduced her to music, bands like Deftones and Faith No More. “I was insufferable because I knew about bands like that,” she says. “We’d have non-uniform day at school and my friends would be in Good Charlotte and Slipknot shirts, and I’d be there in one of my brother’s Deftones shirts being like, ‘Fuck you.’”

After seeing Slayer and Slipknot on The Unholy Alliance Tour, she soon graduated into London’s hardcore scene, and music became “more about local shows and supporting your scene and those values that are really important to grassroots music”.

Even becoming something of a face around gigs (and having done turns in a couple of bands while at university that she succinctly calls “toilet”), when Djamila first went to meet the other members of what would become Ithaca in 2012, she didn’t tell anyone what she was going to do.

“I was so self-conscious about it. I just thought people would laugh at me,” she admits. “I thought they wouldn’t take it seriously. It wasn’t until after we’d had a couple of practices that I felt confident enough to tell people what I was doing.”

Ithaca played their first show at an all-dayer at London’s New Cross Inn, at which the friends who’d come out early had to watch from picnic tables in the pub. Djamila says this was also “toilet”, but they didn’t care. Especially not their singer.

“I had spent a long time being in and around people in the hardcore scene. At that time, I was very much just a girlfriend. And I hated that,” she recalls. “I absolutely hated it. What I really wanted to do was be in a band.”

Things weren’t particularly easy, mind. Not looking like other hardcore bands – “especially not me, a small, tubby Arab woman” – and with a more chaotic sense of musicality, Djamila describes how the early years were marked by “derision”.

“We got so much shit,” she says. “Not just from the audience, but the bands we played with. People were really shitty to us, they had no time for us. We got a lot of sarcasm, and backhanded compliments, all the ‘You’re good for a girl’ stuff. It was so boring and so tiring. Because I was younger, I responded to that in a very different way than I would now. I pushed really, really hard to try to get myself taken seriously. I had to. I didn’t really have a choice, and didn’t really have very many people cheering me on.”

If this is where Ithaca came from, where they are is somewhere very different. As distinct from the chaos and “self-loathing” of their The Language Of Injury debut in 2019, They Fear Us directs its emotional frustrations far more constructively and articulately. Where that album had been recorded not long after Sam’s mother died, telling Kerrang! he was “just about getting myself out of bed to be able to actually do the bloody album”, their most recent is, though scalding, also more reflective. It’s a journey that takes in grief, anger, frustration and hatred, and processes them in a manner that’s as hard-hitting, but where the destination isn’t more darkness.

“There’s much more of a feeling of togetherness when we play than there was in those early days, because we know ourselves so much more. I think people really identify with that,” Djamila says. “The new album is so much more about being together and channeling your rage in a way that’s more healthy and productive. On the first album, that anger was really turned inward. It was a really self-loathing record. I think that showed when we played live as well.”

Indeed, while Ithaca gigs remain an angry place, these days there’s a feeling of connection with the audience, instead of beef. Rather than a terrifying, take-on-all-comers brawler, Djamila – with her uniform orange dresses, fistfuls of glitter and tiara on her head – is becoming a leader, an icon, steering a shared moment in which anger and rage can be dealt with communally. She’s open to this idea that people might look up to her and her fighty spirit, but also says that everything she and her band do comes from within. The change is a result of them feeling different. Nevertheless, here she is.

“When I was a lot younger, it felt like I was fighting everyone, including myself,” she says. “Other people didn’t like me, the audience didn’t like me and didn’t want me to be there, and I didn’t like me. I just hated everything. Going out and playing was an extremely cathartic thing for me. But I was still zeroing in on that self-hatred and self-loathing to get that power and that emotion. I don’t need to do that these days. Where I get my energy when we perform isn’t that dark place anymore.

“Now when we play, it feels like so much more of a celebration. It feels like we’re all sharing a moment, and we’re all doing that together. We’re not fighting each other.”

Should you fear Djamila and Ithaca? That’s on you. For everyone else, your queen is here. All hail.

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