By James McClements
degenerates champions Fat White Family are an oh-so-overlooked, and so dismissed collection of misfits and underground artistes. Famous for their beef with artists like Sleaford Mods and Mac Demarco, their surreal and more often than not offensive behaviour is not the sole driver for their clout. Having released 3 strong studio albums to surprisingly-positive receptions, surviving the regular loss of band-members to drug addiction and mental breakdowns; meanwhile gaining themselves a loyal fanbase reaching far beyond their initial crowd of nutty yutes and Brixton squatters, they have asserted themselves as one of the most exciting and compelling bands in the UK right now.
I chatted with the ever-so charming and surprisingly eloquent frontman-cum-head honcho of this anarchic rat pack Lias Saoudi over the phone.
As a group who have so freely written songs about such delights like Nazi Germany, North Korea, Bombing Disneyland (and Dirty-bombing Legoland too), Harold Shipman, Ted Kaczynski, and Ike & Tina Turner’s abusive relationship, just to name a few, I had to ask Lias whether he is naturally attracted to rogue-ness. “I would say that I was always a little bit of a provocateur from day dot. That’s just the natural result of finding yourself an outsider from primary school up.”
Lias grew up in rural-ish County Tyrone, Northern Ireland to a Yorkshire mother and an Algerian Father. Being one of the only kids in town with some sort of alternative ethnic flavour to him, being bullied and beaten up was not a rare occurrence for a most of his adolescence. He was a self-dubbed ‘loner’ who turned to books and art as an escape. “I think there’s always a part of me that wants to question the accepted state of things, and that just happens to you when you’re kind of stood on the outside, it’s just a sort of reflex that never went away.” He responds, whilst tucking into some Algerian fish soup at his Dad’s house in Cambridge.
Lias mentions he’ll often go back to his dad’s after a patch of touring. “It’s very much a Muslim household you know. But it’s not booze-free, not too Haram. My Dad’s not a practising Muslim, he’s a hedon himself. But when I go to my Mum’s there’s always a bottle of gin, there’s always a beer in the fridge… ‘Would you like a drink Lias, would you like a drink?’, which is great but I find it helpful to have a part of my life which is solidly not, you know, Western, and the insistence of every occasion not having to have a drink. It’s essential for a man in my line of work to have I’d say.”
“I didn’t use to think the fact I was half-Algerian meant anything, other than being an outcast growing up and bullied a bit. But the older I get the more I realise the difference. I’ve got no choice but to straddle these two different images of the world, one that’s rooted in Islamic culture which holds onto very kind of archaic values, and another which is a western, metropolitan, progressive, attemptive-ly avant garde view of the world. And I have an unresolved self image as a result of that. I think music, art, writing, stuff like that is a result of trying to understand yourself.”
It wasn’t long before Lias fled down south at age 18 to study art in London, with his younger brother Nathan soon following suit by the time Lias graduated. Moving between bar jobs and squats, they eventually started a band together called The Saudis.
“In terms of music, you’re always trying to offer people an honest view of yourself, an entire panoramic of the world around you. So you can say you’re writing about yourself, but you’re writing about everything via yourself. It’s all distilled within your brain and your heart and that’s the only approximation you can offer people.”
Around this time they met Saul Adamczewski, guitarist and the other core-member of the group, who was in Strokes-esque indie outfit The Metros. When that project didn’t kick off for Saul they joint forces – living and practising above The Queens Head pub in Brixton until they were picked up by Trashmouth Records and groomed to become the peculiar nuisances they are today.
Lias lamented to me just how impossible it now is for artists like them to live in London. “I used to think that London is my home but I feel less and less like that now. I don’t think that it’s the same city it was when I moved there 15 years ago. When I moved there were still squats, and there were so many boozers with dodgy landlords and a back room where you could do a gig now and again, and that’s literally all you need if you’re 20.”
“And when you take that away, and I think it has been taken away, then there’s no places for ideas to take root you know. Look at the Brit School for instance – which has this incredibly prolific turnover of successful artists. I’ve been reading about it, they have rehearsal spaces you can use just to work your shit out. Like, if you’re skint working a bar job in London, and you’ve gotta pay £600 a month on a room in the arsehole of like Streatham, and then at the same time you’ve got to cover the costs of like your instruments and a place to practise, it’s just like infeasible for anybody who isn’t solidly middle class. And that’s okay but what’s really made London, and Fat Whites interesting has been people from a mixture of backgrounds. I was in Manchester a few nights ago for a show up there, and there’s still something sort of feral and out of control about that city, there’s still sort of cracks you can fall down, there’s a sort of violence in the air still, an energy about it that a yuppified London doesn’t have. It’s just a city that no longer recognises itself. Once you extricate the artistic community to that extent I think you really do start to drift away from a real understanding of yourself.” – We’re looking at you Cardiff Council (Save Gwdihw)
However tempted Lias is to leave London for good (and he has many times – living in Paris over the summer, and Sheffield to record the last album), he does always find himself drawn back to the place that made him, and the group. Often playing tiny pub gigs around Brixton and Peckham at places like The Windmill and EasyCome Acoustic, I wondered whether he finds these shows more rewarding than a full album tour. “I enjoy both things immensely. I like the sort of feral shows with no pretensions, and I like being a singer because you can be in the band and a fan of the band at the same time. You can go and have a little boogie with the crowd and just enjoy what’s going on. But for me there isn’t much of a distinction between the two. Sometimes you’ll play like a festival in France yeah, and there’ll be like 4000 people – all completely disinterested because you’ve been booked for some kind of thing that doesn’t really add up. Like they’re here to see French hip-hop or something else. They’ll stand there and politely clap, but the hollowness of the applause makes it almost kind of unbearable. I’d rather like 20 people in a pub who were actually kind of interested than a few thousand people who were going through the motions.”
Fat White Family have had a colourful history when it comes to booting band-members. Perhaps taking inspiration from one of their idols’ Mark E Smith and The Fall, every member is pretty much expendable. From sacking one of their early drummers Dan Lyons for being too much of a coke fiend, to more recently sacking principle songwriter Saul Adamczewski for being ‘hellish’ on crack and heroin during their last tour. I had to find out just how bad it is for the band when on the road. “It sends you mental. It sends you mad. I don’t think there can be too many other jobs except being in the army or on a hospital ward that sends you like it does. It’s a completely schizophrenic way of life.”
“You’re going from these massive extremes… You wake up, you’re massively depressed, you’re in a sweaty little bunk in a car park somewhere, then you get to like 8pm and you’ve got the nerves, you’re shitting yourself, pacing up and down, you’re guzzling vodka red bulls to give yourself the energy to do the actual thing, then you think you’re like Jesus Christ for the hour. Then you’re trying to hold onto that buzz so you drink more and you kind of don’t really want to go to bed because the whole experience is still ringing in your ears, so you go to bed too late, you’re in a really good place with your friends, and then you eventually pass out at like 6am, and then you wake up in that sweaty little bunk bed again in a different car park, and again, and again.”
“I’ve got a little bit more of a grip over the drugs and booze, but it’s really difficult to avoid all that, playing in a band like this one. The only sort of hope to surviving it is to change it up as you go along. There are new trajectories in music that I sort of respect – so although I find a lot of Nick Cave’s work questionable, I think the Birthday Party to Bad Seeds progression kind of admirable really. You go from kind of chaos to pruned. ha.”
Finally the conversation moves to the future of the Fat Whites. Lias tells me there’s a “few things cooking. We were out doing a session in Wales, just writing stuff. We were gonna record soon but I’m just a bit burnt out to be honest. I need to put my head down, read books, play guitar, and write – stuff like that. I think we’ve put recording back now to early next year, but we started demoing sort of stuff which is a radically different direction I’d say. A lot of like violin and flute, soundscapes, a little like Jah Wobble or something, a little bit more spacious.”
“I think we want to do something that moves away from the kind of pop nature of the last one, something less cut up in the studio. Something a bit more grown up and sophisticated. We opened up some territory on the last one that’s allowed us to move on. It’s like that thing David Bowie said about his albums, and I think it’s true for most artists, there’s usually one or two tracks on the record that point towards the next one. A few cues or hints where that’s actually a bit different.”
If you’d like to join me (not very soberly) catch these fine gents down at the Tramshed on 27th November, then please buy your tickets here