In just 12 months, Fat White Family have gone from radical underdogs to a band at the tip of the cultural clusterfuck they once railed against. NME’s Barry Nicolson meets them in NYC, and finds out what exactly they’ve been doing with John Lennon’s old mellotron…
Some bands crave success like a drug. Others place their stock in the bankrupt notion of cool. Some are in it for the girls, or the parties, or the doors that fame might open for them. Some have noble intentions and are unwilling to compromise, while most bend over and bite the pillow. Fat White Family just want to watch the world burn. They are what happens when culture becomes so homogenised that it practically ceases to exist; when society becomes so hostile towards those on its lower rungs that the only sane course of action is to opt out of it entirely. They’re the ugly truth nobody wants to acknowledge, a funhouse mirror held up to the grotesquerie of the modern world, the Stage IV symptom of its decay and the ultimate panacea against it. They are the most dangerous, most scabrous and most vital new band in Britain.
Except we’re not in Britain, we’re in New York, where the Fat Whites have been living and working for the past few months, playing shows and recording the follow-up to 2013’s ‘Champagne Holocaust’. Their lives out here have taken on a slightly surreal hue: following a chance encounter at SXSW, they’ve struck up a friendship with Sean Lennon (pictured below), who’s become a benefactor of sorts, feeding them, housing them and giving them the run of his studio, a state-of-the-art facility in a remote upstate mansion owned by Yoko Ono. As I later discover, the studio isn’t the only amenity they’ve been making use of: “We’ve gone from the crisis loan centre to Yoko Ono’s steam room!” cackles frontman Lias Saoudi.
“They’re chaotic and out of control,” Lennon warns me before I meet the band at the Soviet-themed bar in the East Village that’s become their new favourite haunt. “When they first came over to stay, things got… messy. My roommates are Nels Cline from Wilco and Yuka Honda from Cibo Matto, and they’re an older generation; they weren’t used to the house being a den of iniquity. [Fat Whites] sort of remind me of the Wu-Tang Clan, because they all have very extreme personalities and it feels like a miracle when you get them in the same room together. But you’ll discover that they can be a lot nicer than they appear. The reputation is real, but at the same time, it isn’t.”
To many people, a reputation is all Fat White Family are. They’re the band whose frontman slathers himself in shit and masturbates onstage. The ones who write songs about concupiscent paedophiles, coming in girls’ mouths and bombing Disneyland. The same depraved rabble of sickos that Somerset House in London deemed “unsuitable” to play the venue last year. Most of what you’ve heard about them is true. But so is a whole lot of stuff you haven’t.
As per Lennon’s prediction, I don’t get all of them in the same room at the same time: only the songwriting core of the band – Lias, his organist brother Nathan and guitarist Saul Adamczewski – turn up to meet me. No-one knows or cares where the other three are. “I don’t ever hang out with them,” shrugs Saul. Of those who are in attendance, Lias is warm and congenial straight off the bat, the friendliest and most outgoing of the Fat Whites. Nathan, who arrives wearing an anorak the size of a sleeping bag that looks like it was stolen from a homeless person, is something of an enigma, and all I really manage to discover about him is that he spends his spare time watching LiveLeak videos of people being beheaded. Saul, meanwhile, resembles some sort of Dickensian knave; you half-expect a forked tongue to flicker out from behind the gap in his front teeth. I soon realise that he’s using tonight as an opportunity to suss me out, asking if I went to private school (I didn’t), whether or not I bought their album (I did) and if I’m “secretly sitting there thinking about how much you hate us” (I’m not, though I can’t say how he’d answer that question).
Picture of Saul and Sean Lennon courtesy of Lennon’s Instagram
Our interview the following day takes place at Lennon’s Greenwich Village apartment, where Saul is currently staying – his host has long since given up trying to house all of them. When the band met Lennon at SXSW this year, Saul claims to have had no idea who he was; he was more interested in his girlfriend. “She’s in his band and she’s stunning, so we were all staring at her going, ‘Oh my god, who’s that girl?’ Joe [Pancucci, bassist] kept trying to chat her up; he kept approaching her, and she kept moving away. It was our old drummer who approached Sean, kissing his arse, basically, so they hit it off and he took us all out for dinner. He’s a cool bloke. A strange bloke.”
“He’s a bit of an outsider. Obviously, his place in the world is unique and he’s kind of an oddball because of that. I suppose we’re both quite misanthropic, and that’s what we have in common.”
Have you been using his dad’s old gear on the album?
“Yeah, almost everything we pick up, Sean’ll be like, ‘Oh, that was my dad’s.’ We’ve been using this old mellotron of his – I don’t know if it’s the one that’s on ‘Strawberry Fields’, but for the sake of the story, let’s just say that it is.”
Along with Saul, Lennon is co-producing the band’s second album, which will be released this summer on their own label, Without Consent. While the others are free to play a role in running it, says Saul, “the label is pretty much my thing. It’s something that my friend [Jemma Carnell] and I have talked about doing for a while, and it’s something I want to keep doing after the band’s finished.” Their first release will be an album by Sheffield’s Eccentronic Research Council, which Saul and Lias both appear on, but they’re also keen to reissue a lot of older, obscure stuff. Top of their wishlist is Charles Manson’s infamous ‘The Family Jams’ LP.
“I called up the guy who owns the copyright and he kept asking me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Do you know what you’re getting into?’ I’ve been speaking to Fat Possum [the band’s US label] about it, and they’re going to start investigating ownership of all the stuff we want to put out, so hopefully we can start releasing records next year.”
Of their own album, Saul says, “We’ve really tried to go to the extremes of what’s tasteful, or even good. After we did the first one, people pointed out that we had a lot of different styles going on, which wasn’t intentional, but which I quite liked the idea of. I know that we’re not pushing anything forward. I know that we’re not making anything groundbreaking. But what we do well, I think, is taking bits of this and bits of that – glam rock, punk, psychedelia, folk, country – and putting them all together. I’ve realised that we can make any kind of music; we’re not stuck in one genre. That’s my favourite thing about the band.”
The words he throws around to describe the album – like “easy listening”, “calypso”, “reggae” and “Iain Duncan Smith going around stealing eggs” – would seem to back up that assertion, though what it’ll actually sound like is anybody’s guess, given that his latest thing is making his bandmates record each song in multiple styles. “I can be a bit of an arsehole with them,” he grins malevolently.
Since arriving in New York, Saul admits, “the circles we’ve ended up moving in have been very, very wealthy. It’s not something we set out to do, but we’ve somehow met a load of rich kids and they’ve all been morally sound.” In Sean Lennon, they’ve encountered a genuine fan who just so happens to be the heir to a $500 million fortune, but the band are aware of how the arrangement looks, and in the eyes of many of their friends and former squat-mates back in Brixton, they’ve already sold out.
“One of my oldest friends actually said to me, ‘All you care about is fame’, which I just found completely absurd,” says Saul. “I think it’s because they see us as having gone back on something that we believed in. Because I’m sat here talking to you in Sean Lennon’s house, I must therefore be chasing fame.”
Which isn’t to say that no member of Fat White Family ever has strayed from the path. When I ask what became of their old drummer, Lias and Saul don’t hold back, with the latter brazenly declaring, “we’re not nice people, and his horrible, spiteful personality worked within the band”.
It leads me to ask why they make music with people they don’t like in the first place.
Saul: “I don’t know. The thing about our band is that we’ve tried lots of different musicians, but they were all too normal or too mature. You have to be a social cripple or a fucking retard to fit in. All I know is that the more I see of these people, the less I like them.”
Saul: “It’s true, though. You start a band with someone and you see them every weekend and it’s alright. But then you get to see a bit more of them… there are some fucking depressing blokes in our band. I don’t wanna see too deeply into any of them.”
Fat White Family’s first brush with notoriety came through their politics rather than their music, when Yuppies Out – a Facebook group started by Saul and Nathan – protested the opening of an upscale Brixton bistro by handing out White Ace cider and slices of Dairylea. Yuppies Out was intended as more of a situationist prank than a serious political statement, though their opposition to the gentrification of working-class London is real enough. The nuances of their politics, however, are tricky to define: they’re staunch leftists, but Saul also once went on an EDL march, “not out of support, but because I wanted to see what it was like up close. Those people have genuine grievances – they see traditional working-class English values disappearing, and they’re scared about it. But they don’t realise it’s not the Muslims who are fucking them.” In an ideal world, he says, “I’d like to live in a self-governing anarcho-syndicalist community, where everyone helps each other out.” He’s aware that’s never going to happen, though, so he’s resigned to voting Labour at the next election: “I know they’re fucking atrocious, but if it’s a choice between a quick death and a long, slow one, I’ll go for the quick one.”
Ed Miliband, however, is unlikely to satisfy Fat White Family’s desire for violent retribution against the financial elite. “There’s a class war being waged and we’re all in it regardless of whether you know it or not,” insists Lias. “When they’re selling off the NHS and leaving people to rot, where do you draw the line? They’re even doing away with crisis loans, because obviously these poor fucking drug addicts looking for £6.56 to make their lives tolerable for a few hours is what’s sinking the economy.”
Do you advocate violence as a means of achieving revolution?
“I advocate violence as a means of revenge,” says Saul. “I don’t think it would actually achieve anything, but revenge does need to be taken on these cunts. People need to pay for the harm they’ve caused. They deserve to be killed.”
One of the reasons people are alternately confused, repulsed and excited by Fat White Family is that they simply don’t care about the same things other bands do. All the stuff that most musicians try so hard to conceal – political beliefs, personal dysfunctions, recreational habits – they wear like a badge of (dis)honour. “Everybody in London is trapped in an irony cocoon, where you can’t have an opinion about anything in case you make a fool of yourself,” argues Lias. “Everybody’s so hyper-conscious of what everybody else is thinking that they’re afraid to put themselves on display.”
Fat White Family certainly aren’t afraid of that, but the result is that they’re widely perceived as psychotic fuck-ups. Sure, there’s a smidgen of truth to it: tales of their drug-taking are rife (and increasingly extreme), but for Saul, “there are deep-set psychological issues in this band that are a bigger problem for us than drugs. I’m not saying this to make us sound ‘cool’ or ‘crazy’, but people do genuinely think that we’re mad, and I honestly think of myself as being normal.”
“Everybody in London takes drugs,” adds Lias. “Everybody in New York takes drugs. Anywhere you go, that’s all that people seem to be doing. There’s nothing exceptional about us as drug abusers; we’re just like everybody else.”
Is there a line you won’t cross?
Lias: “I would never shoot up, but there’s nothing that I look down on – people can do whatever they want. But yeah, certain drugs scare me. I’m afraid of dying.”
What about the really awful stuff – crack, crystal meth and so on. Is that fair game?
Saul: “The first day we were at SXSW, two of the others came back from smoking crystal meth with some redneck Jesus freak they’d met. Apparently they’d all been smoking meth and waving guns around at each other. It sounded like the hairiest situation you could imagine.”
During the recording of the album, however, the band – Saul and Lias, at least – have been doing their best to avoid hairy situations. For Saul, it’s been by choice: after “going feral” on magic mushrooms during the first week in the studio, he decided to scrap five days’ worth of work and start over from scratch, this time sober. For Lias, on the other hand, it’s born more of necessity. When he wasn’t on tour, he spent much of last year “shivering and staring out the window” of his dad’s house in Cambridge; his immune system was so weak that at one point his bandmates seriously thought that he might have Aids. The night before, he’d alluded to how low he was feeling when he told me that “people have an idea of what it’s like to be in a band and have a bit of success, and the reality of it is quite different”. When I relay this conversation to Saul, he simply snaps: “Lias talks out of his arse. If he feels a certain way at a certain moment, he’ll swear that’s how he feels all the time. He told me yesterday that he didn’t like performing, that he felt embarrassed and scared. And I was like, ‘I fucking know that you’re just on coke and talking shit here.’”
Even so, those health concerns are very real: last summer, Lias even contracted pneumonia and started spitting blood during a gig in Paris. Does he worry about the mental and physical toll being in this band takes on him?
Lias: “I do, yeah. I’ve been trying to take it easy recently, but I still go out and get fucked up and I still get ill afterwards. I’ve always eaten shit food, I never do any fucking exercise. Actually, I don’t know why I’m beating around the bush here: this band will probably kill me.”
Saul: “That’s such a cliché, though. Bands complaining about being in bands.”
Lias: “So you’re saying I’m not allowed to complain?”
Saul: “I’m saying it’s a cliché. You’re allowed to complain, Lias. It’s how you spend a large portion of your time.”
What do your family think of what you do?
Lias: “Half my family are Muslim, so I’ll sometimes get calls from my dad, going, ‘You are the shame of the Saoudis! You shame the Berber people!’ You’re not supposed to get your todger out in public, you know? It’s haram.”
Saul: “Both my parents are caners, so they’re fine with what I do.”
Lias: “My dad thinks we should sound more like the Eagles. He says, ‘Your music, the notes are all wrong, but the Eagles – that is perfection.’ He’s quite sweet, really. I know our music is rancid to his ears, but he still comes to the gigs.”
Fat White Family’s music is rancid to lots of people’s ears, but that’s part of what makes it valuable – while their contemporaries fret over how best to appeal to everyone, Saul, Lias and the others aren’t remotely bothered about appealing to anyone. It’s partly because of this that they’re on the cover of NME this week. But inevitably there are those who are convinced that it’s all an act: reviewing ‘Touch The Leather’ for NME’s Christmas issue, former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine said she thought the band were “nice boys” who didn’t “live the life”.
“She can go fuck herself,” glowers Saul. “I hate that old punk bollocks: ‘We did it first, we were the real thing…’ She’s got no fucking idea how we live. The only real response to that is to say that we think she’s a complete fucking idiot.”
“I think it’s OK, if it’s coming out of our mouths, to say that music isn’t as good as it used to be,” adds Lias. “But it’s intensely arrogant for the old guard to sit there talking about how shit everything is. It’s like, fuck off, you’ve had your moment in the sun. Maybe everything that’s out there right now does mean nothing, but that’s for us to decide, not you.”
Junkies, fakers, thieves, deviants, iconoclasts… Fat White Family stand accused of everything by everyone, and give not one solitary fuck about any of it. This band answer only to themselves. If they want it – if they can survive it – the next 12 months are theirs for the taking.
This article originally appeared in the January 10, 2015 print issue of NME
Fat White Family hit the road with Palma Violets, The Amazing Snakeheads and Slaves next month as part of the NME Awards Tour with Austin, Texas. Dates are as follows:
Sheffield, Leadmill (February 19)
Leeds, O2 Academy (2)
Newcastle, O2 Academy (21)
Glasgow, O2 ABC (22)
Nottingham, Rock City (24)
Manchester, Ritz (26)
Oxford, O2 Academy (27)
Birmingham, Institute (28)
Bristol, O2 Academy (March 2)
Portsmouth, Pyramids (3)
London, Forum (4)
To buy tickets head to NME.COM/tickets