In fair Verona, where we lay our scene: 22,000 howling teenagers have packed out the city’s pristine Roman amphitheatre. Built in 30AD, the Arena Di Verona has seen much drama play out within these ancient walls – from gladiator battles and medieval jousts to opulent performances of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, the latter of course set in this palatial city of romance.
Tonight, another love story unfolds. Having not played a show on home turf in two-and-half years, Italy’s Eurovision Song Contest 2021 victors Måneskin, who already had two albums to their name when they smashed the competition, have returned as bona fide global superstars. All day, fans have lined up around the sun-soaked Piazza Bra central square in scenes you might expect of the Pope coming to town.
“It’s cool and weird in the best way possible,” frontman Damiano David tells NME in their backstage dressing room ahead of the show, puffing a cigarette and sipping an espresso with an almost cartoon level of Italian cool. “It’s going to be our biggest gig here in Italy, or anywhere.”
The flamboyant rock band, completed by bassist Victoria De Angelis, guitarist Thomas Raggi and drummer Ethan Torchio, previously played two back-to-back weekend slots at Coachella in California. They were one of the most talked-about acts at the festival on a line-up largely dominated by pop and solo acts including Billie Eilish, Harry Styles and Megan Thee Stallion.
“Everyone who came to our gigs was saying: ‘We’ve seen no bands like this’,” says bassist De Angelis. “At Coachella there were like three other bands.”
Their rock’n’roll spirit, glam look and no-fucks-given attitude have been getting them a hell of a lot of attention Stateside. Even Hollywood megastar and Thirty Seconds To Mars frontman Jared Leto was queuing up for a selfie. “He was there in the crowd!” beams Torchio. “He’s a really cool guy.”
Were there any other super surreal moments with the glitterati’s best and brightest?
“I would say breakfast at Chris Martin and Dakota Jones’ house,” chuckles De Angelis. “That was pretty, ‘What the fuck!?’”
David agrees, still buzzing with disbelief: “Yeah, Dakota Jones cooked eggs for us, Sean Penn was there. It was wild.”
“Messiahs? Not yet. Maybe next year!” – Ethan Torchio
“They were good eggs,” adds Torchio, though it’s not clear if he’s referring to the meal or his hosts.
Meeting these four fabulous friends all happily huddled onto the same small sofa, you can easily see why America has taken to splashing them over billboards and late night talk shows. All aged 21 to 23, they’re a hot mess of eyeliner, long hair, tattoos and leopard print – the gang your mother warned you about. But Eurovision-sanctioned Italo-rock? Who the hell could have seen that catching on?
“We’re not new in that thousands of bands have played as good as us or even better, but nowadays it’s unexpected to see a band break globally,” says David. “People are fascinated by that, and Americans are obsessed with Italians. That adds some spice.”
Raggi – fearsome on stage but the more timid of the four-piece in interviews – agrees: “It’s hard for Americans to find an Italian band that makes it over there and plays a real instrument. It’s something weird.”
Life in Måneskin wasn’t always festival buzz and celebrity eggs, of course. It was a year ago this week that the band first came to the attention of the wider world when they were crowned victors of Eurovision 2021 with the Italian language hard-rock stomper ‘Zitti E Buoni’. With their leather, studs, bare chests, massive guitar licks, they looked and sounded like a young, Mediterranean Jane’s Addiction. The millions who saw them to victory through the public vote found a breath of fresh air among the usual cheese and pomp of the song contest.
Fame met infamy, though, when they immediately became international tabloid-fodder after some viewers thought they caught David snorting cocaine off a table in the green room. They denied it and the singer passed a voluntary drugs test. Still, they can laugh about it today.
“I fucking regret my decision to shut it down!” says David after maniacal cackle. “I should have left it. Imagine if nobody knew if I did a line of blow in front of 80million people or not. That would have been a fucking legend! This year, I’d have done it again – in front of every fucking camera!”
Torchio agrees: “We could do it every year!”
David protests that he’s “never done coke in my life and I don’t think I ever will because my heart is too weak for that and I’m too fucking stressed,” but still he loves playing up the rock‘n’roll myth Måneskin have created. After performing at the recent 2022 Eurovision grand final, he was asked for advice for this year’s contestants and dryly replied: “Have fun and don’t get close to the table, guys.”
Eurovision might seem a strange turn for most rockers, but mass appeal and pure entertainment lay at the heart of this band’s DNA. They formed in Rome in 2016 “to have fun and fill up our afternoons,” David explains. Soon they were busking; playing any school hall, dingy bar or street corner that would allow them. “It got pretty serious in a very short amount of time,” says De Angelis. “Even though we were very young and it was like a dream, we were always aiming for something bigger.”
Their first major move was to enter the Italian version of TV’s X Factor in 2017, finishing second. Why X Factor? “Basically, we were sick of carrying instruments and amplifiers on our fucking shoulders,” replies David, candidly. “We saw an opportunity and we just jumped on the train.”
Defending the move, De Angelis argues that the show in her home country doesn’t have the same reputation for trite pier-side entertainment as it might here in the UK. “Here it’s cool,” she argues. “It’s the only X Factor that allows real bands to play, or at least it was the first. It gives you the opportunity to show off something real. We did whatever we wanted to do.”
The four-piece have gained a reputation for their larger-than-life performances (one setting the tone with David pole-dancing) and they still regularly air their longstanding covers of The Killers and Franz Ferdinand at Måneskin shows today – to the giddy delight of some and aggressive derision of others. David pragmatically describes the show as “full immersion training from professionals” in getting “five years of experience condensed into three months”, while Torchio says they used it as “a trampolene” to fame. The tactic worked. “Just three months earlier we were playing on the streets,” recalls De Angelis, “then we had a sold-out tour.”
“Having breakfast at Chris Martin and Dakota Jones’ house – that was pretty ‘What the fuck!?’” – Victoria De Angelis
Still, it seems attitudes towards talent shows have shifted anyway. Harry Styles started out as a product of X Factor with One Direction, and now he’s headlining Coachella and just released one of the most warmly received albums of the year.
“Our generation doesn’t feel the urge to label everything,” says David. “They just want to enjoy your music, enjoy your journey and follow you in whatever you do. Harry Styles is the perfect example. He had the biggest fanbase with a boyband, and now is one of the most respected and worshipped artists in the world. He deserves it because he has been able to make that happen for himself. It’s literally what an artist should do: be true to yourself.”
When Eurovision came, the Måneskin train was already chugging ahead with gusto in Italy, where they’d shifted over one million records with their two Number One albums 2018’s ‘Il ballo della vita’ and ‘Teatro d’ira: Vol. I’ from last year. ‘Zitti E Buoni’ had already clocked 45million streams before the competition.
Now they’re following in the footsteps of ABBA and Celine Dion as one of the most successful ‘Vision off-shoots of all-time. Their cover of The Four Seasons’ ‘Beggin’ alone recently achieved one billion streams on Spotify. “That’s fucking crazy,” laughs David. “That’s fucking ‘Despacito’ or fucking ‘Levitating’! It’s a fucking hit!”
It’s also an audience in their millions discovering the band afresh, probably unaware of their X Factor and Eurovision past. Godfather of punk Iggy Pop recorded vocals for a new version of the sleazy sex-rock smash single ‘I Wanna Be Your Slave’ a month after its initial release last year, and you can’t imagine him sat at home screaming “DOUZE POITS!” at the TV.
“When he recorded that, I was like, ‘Fuck – he’s singing my lyrics with my melody, my structure, and it’s fucking Iggy Pop’,” says David. “He trusted me, and that was the best moment ever.”
Raggi agrees: “It was just crazy because he’s a fucking legend. He was so humble and kind. He was really into this shit.”
Another icon who’s “really into this shit” is Mick Jagger; the septuagenarian rocker anointed Måneskin with his seal of approval when they supported The Rolling Stones last year. Jagger recently upset some rock purists when his big lips declared that the new breed of rockers such as Doncaster tearaway Yungblud and dayglo rap-punk Machine Gun Kelly made him feel like “there is still a bit of life in rock‘n’roll”.
Yet this is “a very old-fashioned way to see it,” reasons David: “Nobody is ‘keeping rock’n’roll alive’. It’s just impossible to kill. In my head what we’re doing is very different to what MGK is doing, which is very far from what Yungblud is doing, which is very far from what Willow Smith is doing, but a lot of artists are bringing back that kind of sound and energy: distorted guitars and real drums, to fucking play with a band with real analogue sounds, stage-diving – all the rock’n’roll shit. Music is just developing. Everything is colliding and mixing in a good way.”
Not everyone, it’s fair to say, is onboard the runaway Måneskin train. “Italy is split into two halves,” explains David. “One side is super-proud, and the other half fucking hates us!” He laughs: “It’s good; I love it. That’s my favourite part.” De Angelis smiles and shrugs: “Haters gonna hate.”
Måneskin showed Coachella how to rock and then delivered a cover of ‘Womanizer’ by Britney Spears. Would it be fair to say that the band take a perverse delight in pissing off the naysaying rock dinosaurs?
“Yeah!” David replies without hesitation. “Too much, maybe! It’s my guilty pleasure. For me, it just makes no sense to expect us to behave like the Stones or Queen. It already happened and peaked. They fucking created a legacy and nobody can touch it. It’s so stupid and pointless to expect a band of 20-year-olds to replicate what was happening in the ’70s and ’80s. We’re in fucking 2022, so we’re just trying to do something new that makes us feel satisfied and happy. I really enjoy seeing people say, ‘Oh, they’re not Led Zeppelin’. I know! We never will be. I’m not Robert Plant; I wish I was! I have to do my own shit.”
David says reflecting the band’s true “experiences as 20-something-year-olds” is essential, while De Angelis believes that their attire and behaviour is “a matter of representation”: “We’ve had so many of our fans telling us that we helped with their sexuality or coming out, or even just boys just saying, ‘Thanks to you I now feel safe to wear make-up and nail polish’. Something that can seem small can be very big to someone who might be afraid or insecure. Suddenly they have something to gain strength from.”
It’s not an act, they insist. Måneskin are just being themselves, and people are following in their millions. “We’re kind of like a Messiah!” bursts David, before Torchio tempers him with, “We’re not, we’re not – maybe next year!”. The singer waits a beat before sheepishly declaring: “It was a joke!”
“Iggy Pop was so humble and kind. He was really into this shit” – Thomas Raggi
Messiahs or just very naughty boys and girl, the band do like to have a message to their music. In April, the band joined the ranks of U2 and Springsteen in the #StandUpForUkraine campaign, sharing a video for the previously unreleased shadowy rock beast ‘Gasoline’. With its fierce rallying cry of “Standing alone on that hill, using your fuel to kill / We won’t take it standing still, Watch us dance”, it’s a defiant indictment of Putin’s terror.
“What was happening in Europe really scared us,” says David. “We have many Ukrainian friends and felt privileged to not be there and have to face that situation, but also we knew that we had a voice to give people the opportunity to think about things. You can’t be unbiased with these kinds of things: there’s a right side and there is a wrong side and there is no grey between.”
Would Måneskin call themselves ‘a political band’? “It’s not even that,” De Angelis replies. “We stand for humanity.”
Their most recent single, ‘Supermodel’, produced by pop mastermind Max Martin for radio-ready dancefloor magnetism and released earlier this month, also holds society up to a lens. This time it’s a sideways glance at the society of the uber-cool elite they’ve met at parties in LA. “We always have this portrait of the US as” – David puts on an American accent – ‘the coolest place in the world where dreams come true and everyone has opportunities!’ That’s true, but then on the other side there’s a lot of injustice, unfairness, homeless people and racist shit.
“At these parties, everyone was a fucking fashion icon. I was thinking, ‘How do they feel when they get home? Are they really happy? Are they really enjoying what they’re doing?’ You want to hang out with this supermodel, but you might get in trouble. It’s like cigarettes: you love them but you know they’re gonna fucking kill you. Still you’re like, ‘Whatever, I gotta die one day’.”
It’s in LA that Måneskin have been writing and recording their highly anticipated third album. The band are tight-lipped about what it sounds like: “We’re not able to label it yet – we’re not good at that,” insists David, who nevertheless reveals that it’s “critical [of society]” at times and “honest through and through”. There may be more eyes on Måneskin than ever, but they only want to use that to their nation’s advantage.
“This is the chance to make a real difference, not only for us, but for the whole Italian music business,” explains David. “There’s a feeling here in Italy and all around Europe that it’s too hard to get big outside of your own country, so artists don’t even take the risk. I want to show that it’s actually possible. There should be no national boundaries for music. If we fail now, people would be like, ‘They had a good year, but they couldn’t make it for real’. Everything we do is for fun, but we have more fun if we win. It’s always been like that.”
Whether they fly or die, will this album be enough of a statement for the band to stop playing covers and opt for sets of purely their own material? “I think we will always do covers,” says David, adding: “It’s one of the coolest things you can do. When you write a song and then publish it, it’s not yours anymore. You’ve gifted it to everyone. When people cover us I’m super proud, because they’ve been so starstruck by this song that they want to make their own version. You can see the same thing born again with hundreds of different shapes.”
Are Måneskin just a jumped-up covers band or the saviours of rock? Hell, why not be both? They’re more Stooges than The Darkness, more Placebo than Steel Panther, but the freedom from po-faced rock posturing has imbued them with a unique kind of energy – the kind that’s landed them a huge billing on the Reading & Leeds line-up before a headline show at The O2 in London next year.
“Pissing off the haters? That’s my favourite part!” – Damiano David
No wonder the four-piece were hand-picked by director Baz Luhrman (of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! fame) to cover the schmoozy ‘If I Can Dream’, made famous by Elvis Presley, for his upcoming biopic of the King, ELVIS. “The meaning of the song is very contemporary: ‘If I can dream of a better land / Where all my brothers walk hand in hand…’,” says David. “It’s about unity, peace, freedom and happiness, and it’s coming out at the right moment. We’re really proud of what we did.”
Is the new film any good? “Fuck yeah!” assures David. “Like Bohemian Rhapsody good! I love how despite that [Luhrman] is one of the biggest directors in the world, he’s like a kid with millions of ideas. You never talk to his team – it’s always directly with him. He’s always there saying, ‘You guys did an amazing job’. Also, Elvis and I were born on the same day! Just like Bowie.”
In the spirit of Luhrman, we leave the band backstage to plan a touch of fitting neo-gothic romance for their set in Verona tonight. Soon they will strut around the legendary venue like born rockstars, segueing effortlessly from the epic balladry of ‘Coraline’ and a handful of covers to a fiery ‘Gasoline’ and an uncontrolled stage invasion from fans. But there’ll be more intimate moments, too.
Backstage, David promises special acoustic performances of the ballads ‘Torna A Casa’ and ‘Vent’ani’, with he and Raggi playing alone under a spotlight: “We’re going to be on the balcony like Romeo and Juliet!” The frontman pauses with an impish grin. “Yeah, we’re going to have public sex on the balcony.”
Without hesitation, Raggi replies with uncharacteristic bluntness: “I’m ready.”
So are we – but who is playing Romeo, and who is Juliet? “I can be whatever,” shrugs David. “I am the poison.”
‘Supermodel’ by Måneskin is out now. The band play Reading & Leeds Festival 2022 in August before headlining The O2 Arena in London on May 8
Hair & make up by Chantal Ciaffardini
Styling by Gucci