"We didn’t take it seriously until the armed SWAT team arrived”: Ithaca's Djamila Azzouz talks visibility, nightmare gigs and auditioning for Ithaca by singing Break Stuff

Djamila from IThaca
(Image credit: Future (Photo: Will Ireland))

The firebrand vocalist of Ithaca, Djamila Azzouz has a reputation for being outspoken and uncompromising, not only fronting one of the best metalcore bands of the last decade, but helping to spearhead a new vanguard of exciting young British bands. Having moved on from the self-loathing of 2019’s The Language Of Injury to a more furious, empowering perspective on 2022’s They Fear Us, we figured it was high time to sit down with Djamila and find out what makes her tick. These are some of the lessons she's learned over the years.

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“I grew up in Holloway, North London. I’m quite protective of where I’m from, so I’m always reluctant to slag it off. It’s one of those things where I’m allowed to bully my siblings, but you’re not, right? But it was pretty rough, very inner-city London and quite deprived with working class families... all the good stuff.”


"My parents didn’t want me to go to a shit school, so I was sent to school in Barnet, which is pretty posh. But that meant I was a poor kid in a rich place, which was pretty hellish at times. I got bullied mercilessly. It wasn’t like I was Oliver Twist, the only poor kid in school, but it’s interesting thinking about the two places I spent most of my time growing up, and just how different they were. I’d spend all day around these well-off people, then it was like back to the sewer... but thankfully I love the sewer, because I’m basically five feral rats in a trench coat masquerading as a woman!”


“I’m a middle child and have two brothers, so we used to beat the shit out of each other. That meant I had no fear defending myself. These days I’m a very non-violent person, but coming from where I did meant you had to grow up quickly and if someone fucked with me, I’d fuck with them.”


“My entire life has been this dichotomy; I grew up with one really strict parent, because my dad is from Algeria and is a Muslim, and one very relaxed parent, because my mum’s from East London. It was difficult and confusing at times. I was struggling with all these different aspects of my identity and these things my family were trying to enforce.”


“I didn’t have many idols growing up, because there weren’t many people like me doing this. There were a couple of vocalists who I really loved, like I loved Kittie and a lot of Jack Off Jill, a lot of the Riot Grrrl stuff. So if anyone looks to me in that way now, I take it as a huge compliment. I don’t even think you need to say something different: it’s the act of visibility and being there, demanding a space at the table. That can make all the difference.”


“When I met the other guys in Ithaca, I was maybe 19 and had an audition which was basically just a band practice. I was so worried about what people might think that I didn’t tell anyone I was going to this lock-up in  South London in December, which I’ll say now is a terrible idea! My boyfriend at the time was also in a hardcore band, so I’d spent a long time just being his girlfriend and didn’t want that to be a 'thing', so much that I didn’t even tell him I was going. I wanted to be taken seriously. The first time I met the guys, it just clicked instantly and it was like I’d found my voice.”


“For my audition, the guys played a song they’d written and asked me to ad-lib over it, so I just screamed a bunch of stuff. Later, they were like, ‘Wow, that was really cool, it sounded so intense – what were the lyrics?’ and I’d basically just sung Break Stuff!”


“If you’re from London or a major city, you will have a slight privilege just by proxy of being in the vicinity of people. I was very involved in music growing up – I had lots of friends who were in the industry or in bands, but when Ithaca started I was so nervous about things I wouldn’t let anyone help me. I wouldn’t play shows with my boyfriend’s band; I wouldn’t record with the same person they used because I didn’t want to be known as his girlfriend and have people say, ‘Oh she got this gig because they’re dating.’ I had to sever the notion of nepotism completely.”


“Our approach as a band, our philosophy, has stayed the same since day one. We’ve only ever done it for the love of writing music. This band ends when we stop being friends – we’re here to write music we like. Getting older, we put less pressure on ourselves because even though we’re still very much 100% committed, things feel less like they’re on fire.”


“I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like Ithaca have ‘arrived’ – we’re still the same as we were when we were 20 playing in the tiniest, stinkiest practice room! Ha ha! We’ve been privileged enough to do some amazing shows and festivals, but I’m not feeling like, ‘Yeah, we’ve fucking made it.’ When you start thinking like that, that’s when things go badly.”


“The funniest things to look back on are always the ones that weren’t funny at all at the time. We’ve had some absolute dogshit tours where everything’s gone wrong and insane things have happened. Those tend to be the ones that are my favourite memories; we did one earlier this year with Get The Shot and it felt like we were cursed. The first show of the tour got cancelled and we were locked in a building during a hostage situation!”


“We were playing a show in Germany and the police cordoned off the whole block and told us we couldn’t leave. A guy was robbing a pharmacy with a gun and had taken hostages. There were, like, three people who’d turned up to the show really early, so they were stuck with us. We just hung out with them and drank, played card games. We didn’t take it seriously until the armed SWAT team arrived with big sniper rifles. Me and Dom [Moss, bass] kept sneaking off to the fire escape to have cigarettes and started hearing shots. Luckily no one was hurt, but we couldn’t leave until one or two in the morning.”


“I don’t think anything I’ve ever said is controversial, and the people who think it is are generally the problem. I’m not peddling extreme views. It’s more, ‘people deserve respect’, ‘treat people like human beings’. We’ve had a lot of pushback. I’ve been doxed and we’ve had Nazis come after us, as well as so much abuse in my inbox. But more often, it’s not about what I’ve said, it’s more about who I am – being a woman, being an Arab, whatever. People find excuses to be shitty. But I don’t say things for clout or to get a rise.”


They Fear Us is our proudest achievement. We put so much into that record, so much hard work, and it’s nice when people say nice things about it afterwards, it feels very vindicating. It was such a tumultuous time for us, that I’m so proud of it and of us, because we’ve done so much to get where we are.”


"We’ve toured with so many nice bands, but Big Thief stand out because that tour was so different to anything else we’d done. They’re a folk band, but that tour was so punk. They introduced a level of peacefulness, there was no ego, they treated us so kindly. It changed how I approach being a touring musician – just allowing ourselves some grace.”


“I write organically – I never have a particular idea or concept in mind. I write and don’t really know where its going, so only afterwards will I realise what a song is actually about. The first album is so different lyrically, it’s coloured by so much self-loathing. It was literally me talking about how much I hated myself, these experiences of being hurt and then blaming myself for that. Coming round to They Fear Us felt so different, because I got to a point where I was done with hating myself like that – I didn’t deserve it any more and I needed time to heal, to turn that anger outwards and realise that sometimes people are just shit.”

Originally printed in Metal Hammer #380. Ithaca play The Dome in London on November 25.

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.