The Big Read – Fat White Family versus the world

 

Whether you see them as grotty oiks, middle class pretenders or something in between, one thing about Fat White Family is unarguable: they’re the last of the old-school rockers. That means: addictions (multiple, but mostly heroin and ketamine), live shows where anything can happen and interviews where they actually SAY things about STUFF without worrying what Twitter is going to think about it. And so, as Mark Beaumont joins them in Brighton, they let loose on the state of the world right now in their most revealing interview yet. After that, a very, very long night… PORTRAITS AND LIVE PHOTOGRAPHY: ANDY FORD.


Allaaaaaaahu ak-BAR! Allaaaaaaahu ak-BAR!

The call to prayer most likely to put the merry shits up Brexit Britain rings out from the hall beneath the promenade, and the faithful gather. A motley bunch congregate around the door into Brighton’s Concorde 2: one moustachio’d fox with a mullet like a mane, one snarling little tyke in the blazer and tracksuit bottoms combination of a habitual Wetherspoons glasser, one lost-looking guy in a baseball cap carrying his life’s possessions in a Tesco’s carrier bag, as though he’s just wandered away from an inpatient’s coach trip to see what the fuss was about. They’re joined by a couple of shady looking characters and one man, who appears to command the respect of the others, with his entire head shaved into what could only be described as an ultra-mullet: bald, bar a lustrous tuft of hair at the nape.

“It repulses both male and female,” he says, as he begins discussing the tour’s narcotic requirements with his tour manager, mid-photoshoot. “Can you get me some speed and ketamine?” he asks. “If we all put in £20 each a day that’ll cover most of the tour, right?”

For he is Lias Saoudi and this is no prayer meeting. It’s a Fat White Family soundcheck, early in a UK tour set to brilliantly repulse an entire nation. Any rumours you may have heard that FWF’s hugely acclaimed third album ‘Serfs Up!’ has seen rock’s grimiest perverts and miscreants clean up their act and get respectable were woefully premature. They’re using a minaret call as their walk-on tape. Their pre-gig warm-up ritual involves tequila, Guinness, Red Bull and magic mushroom tincture (for “that little buzz”, according to multi-instrumentalist and proud purveyor of the mullet mane Alex White). The setlist is still peopled by Nazis, sex workers, paedophiles, sadists and terrorists. And one of their number – Saul Adamczewski, the hobo-toothed reprobate supposedly fresh from heroin rehab and clean as a whistle – hasn’t even made it out of his tourbus bunk yet, and doors open in half an hour. This is the second date of the tour.

“He’s gonna struggle tonight I think,” says Lias, checking his sallow reflection in a dressing room mirror. “We got a bit excited when we got on the bus,” says Alex, settling into a nearby sofa, “so we cracked on on the way to Southampton and we cracked on in Southampton and then cracked on on the way to Brighton. Hangovers hit that guy pretty hard.”

Lias too, it seems. “I don’t know how I’m gonna go onstage,” he says, pulling at a blurred eyelid. “I don’t know how I’m gonna face my public.”

Family relations had become notoriously strained over the past three years. Saul was sacked from the band following 2016’s second album for his £100-a-day heroin habit and the erratic behaviour it entailed: “One of the worst was in France,” Lias recalls. “We wanted to stay in one hotel, he wanted to stay in another, it turned into a massive argument and he nearly gouged my eye out. He used his thumb. He tried to smash my head with a bottle of tequila and a bottle of wine once. There were some horrible, horrible arguments. When everyone’s under pressure like that and somebody’s completely off their mind on drugs…, people get thrown into that grinder and some people can cope but it’s quite a lot on a person. I wouldn’t begrudge anybody behaving like that, I can understand it, it drives people mental, the touring and the drugs and the parties and the noise and attention. It’s like a recipe for mental disaster.”

When Saul returned from rehabs in South America and Las Vegas, he found himself an unexpected spanner in FWF’s (steel)works. To avoid destitution from the expense of London living, and to escape the capital’s circling smack-hounds, Lias had relocated the band to a terraced house in Sheffield with the proceeds of signing a new deal with Domino (£150 wages a week and a £25 for a box studio) and begun writing the third album with his brother Nathan playing a greater song-writing role to fill the Saul-sized gap. But Saul’s work on Nathan’s songs – particularly the disco rendering of the ultra-personal ‘Feet’, which Nathan originally wrote about hitching and jumping trains to Venice to see a girl he’d fallen for, only to find her seeing someone else – set Nathan’s nose out of joint in a musical difference Lias describes as “a fully-fledged nightmare”, and the band has been on tenterhooks ever since. Has Saul’s behaviour improved?

“He was a little bit better for a while after [rehab],” says Lias, “but there’s a tendency to get hairy.”

Hairy?

Lias: “It slips fast. It’s one bad hangover away at all times.”

Alex: “It’s one coke hangover away.”

“Relations are good at the moment,” Lias attests. “There’s no problem we can’t really fix. The group’s designed in a way that people can come in and out of it. It’s more of an idea than a group at this stage. Having had thirty members, that’s just the way it is. There are surrogates and extras and people that worked on the album and people who work in the live band, you just have to play it as it lays.”

And how it lays as FWF approach the 2019 festival season – playing Glastonbury and various European shindigs – is remarkably harmonious for a band who only made it onto the NME Radar tour in 2013 on the back of grainy CCTV footage of Lias masturbating mid-set in some grotty Camden dive. ‘Serfs Up!’ has been hailed a critical triumph, a front-runner for album of the year thanks to its manner of dressing its deviances in more respectable sonic rags: plush disco, chamber balladry, glorious glam. They’re the inspiration for a new wave of outsider filth-rock (Idles, Famous, Fontaines D.C.) and overlords of a South London gristle rock scene that’s become something of a self-reproductive empire, encompassing the likes of Shame alongside an array of side-projects such as Warmduscher, Insecure Men and The Moonlandingz, for which Lias regularly takes to stages smothered in swastikas and swear-words, and with slabs of meat clingfilmed to his torso. This tour ends with a sold-out show at London’s Forum, where a quartet of cellos and violins will join them for sophisticated lament ‘Oh Sebastian’, Baxter Dury will lend life-soiled poetry of the apocalypse to the mighty glam ‘Tastes Good With The Money’ and Lias will invent ‘crab surfing’ during ‘I Am Mark E Smith’. It’s a Fat White world now.

“I expected it to be well-received,” Lias says of the album’s critical reception,” but it exceeded my expectations. It got to the point where if it wasn’t five-out-of-five I was getting a bit disappointed. When you start to feel slightly cheated at four, I must be in an alright place for once. I think four is reasonable, five is reasonable, three is a little bit of an insult and anything below that is personal, obviously… When one came out that was five and they said it was a masterpiece, I sent it to Saul and he said ‘if this is a masterpiece our futures are brighter than I thought…’”

If the future’s bright let’s delve, then, into the murk of the past. The drugs and the degradations, the trials and torments, the chem-sex roulette and the rimjobs in five-star hotels. Into a time that only the strongest Familial bonds can survive…

THE DRUGS

“One drop or two?”

An hour to showtime, Lias uncaps a small medicinal bottle and tips a pipette over Alex’s tongue. This is the mushroom tincture rocket fuel that powers the Fat White live show deep into the bowels of rock’n’roll Gomorrah, and it’s virtual abstinence compared to their recent intake.

What does a £100-a-day heroin habit look like?

Lias: “That’s massive.”

Alex: “It’s fucking stupid.”

Lias: “I dabbled in heroin a little bit. If I had a ten-pound bag of smack when I was dabbling, if I was to take it just myself, that could last me a few days. You get to a point where Saul’s going through ten of them bags a day.”

Alex: “You wake up in the morning, leave your house to pick up, go back to your house and smoke, basically. You have no desire for anything else, you have no desire to do anything else, it’s a total surrogate for everything, for love… If you’re horny it kills it, if you love someone it can kill it, it completely shoots everything dead in the water.”

Lias: “It’s a one-room adventure, innit.”

Having seen that happen to Saul, and the effect it had on him, what on earth made you want to ‘dabble’ yourself?

Lias: [Shrugs] “It was a bit like Vietnam – the [second album] tour was just brutal, physically, spiritually, mentally, absolutely every part of yourself was just drained. So you’re in a lot of pain. When Saul was in the group I could never get my hands on any because he was like ‘you’re not a junkie, absolutely no way can you have a bit of my pipe’, and once he was gone the bullwark which had stopped me ever indulging in it had gone because I could pressure it out of the other guys because I had a tinge of authority over them. With Saul, he was always kind of the boss in the band whether you liked it or not, so you couldn’t force it out of him.”

What did he tell you about his rehabs?

“He went to South America and did this Ibogaine therapy,” Lias says. “He said he was tripping out of his mind for two solid weeks, he said there was a big green square in front of his face and he was on a drip and there were all these weird hippies there… I remember meeting him after that and this guy had driven him from the rehab to where we were staying in Palm Springs, he’d driven him four or five hours across America and this guy was on acid. This weird culty LA type. Like ‘what is going on here’.”

By the time FWF got to Sheffield – “I’d already been working with Moonlandingz up there,” Lias explains, “and I thought ‘Fat Whites is definitely gonna collapse if it keeps going like it is, so we need to get out and find some space and escape the drugs, get people off the drugs’ – they’d softened their narcotic preferences from full Tory-leadership-candidate to the sort of powders that merely give a mild numbing effect. To a Shire horse. “We kicked the smack out at that point,” Lias says, “there wasn’t crack. We were just huffing a load of kezzle, man.”

What are the artistic benefits of ketamine?

Alex: “Lateral thought connection.”

“It’s true man,” Lias agrees. “We’ve been doing a lot of it on the bus. Your mind just thinks sideways. You make these connections that you normally wouldn’t make melodically and with everything else.”

Alex: “You hear something and you hear a certain resonance and you can listen to it and feel like there’s something just out of reach that you can see and hear but you’ve just got to find it. It’s like a hallucinogenic – if you’re tripping on acid and something comes out of the sky, it’s like that but sonically.”

Word was you were putting away ten grams a day between you.

Alex: “No man, one maybe!”

Lias: “I like the fact that the rumour mill gets to work and straight away you’re doing a kilo!”

Alex: “Ten grams a day, you’d have to be hellbent!”

Did word get round you were there and the local ruffians descend?

“We didn’t really go out,” Lias claims. “We’d have a little party in our living room sometimes. We weren’t doing any gigs, we were just working on tunes. We wanted to make an outsider pop record, something that was the opposite of what we’d done before, which was like heroin dirge, we wanted to do something kinda sweet, eloquent, something inviting, and caressing and sensual. It seemed the obvious thing to do, ‘what would shock people now? If we did something melodic. Let’s completely switch it round.’”

Did you annoy the neighbours?

Lias: [laughs] “Oh yeah, man. When we did ‘Feet’, the first demo, we were sat there, me and Nathan, and we had a hundred-watt amplifier all the way up through a decent soundsystem and we sat there at 6am listening to it at full volume going ‘this is wicked’, then there was this moving shape in the corner of the room and I eventually turned round and there was this neighbour just screaming. He’d just come in the front door going ‘turn that fucking down!’ We were so spangled we were like ‘oh, alright!’, we didn’t even notice. That’s a raw deal, if you’re in Sharrow, a quiet neighbourhood in Sheffield, and the Fat Whites move in next door! Of all the fucking people, what are the fucking chances? ‘Who’s that next door?’ ‘It’s the Fat Whites, they’ve come to do their third album, it’s gonna get great reviews’…”

THE SUCCESS

Life in Fat White Family has taken Lias to unimaginable places. Studios in New York with Sean Lennon, recording 2016’s second album ‘Songs For Our Mothers’ on John Lennon’s old equipment. Movie star parties in the Hollywood Hills: “That was really funny to end up there,” he says. “It was like being a fly on the wall, an anthropological adventure. It really is deeply Lynchian, the most sinister place on earth is LA. The lush hypocrisy of the Hollywood elite, all of them anti-Trump but they’ve got seven houses with their own private waterfall, 22 cars and they take private jets everywhere. It was like ‘wow, it’s not just as bad as I thought it was, it’s far worse’.”

And then there’s ‘Tastes Good With The Money’, a song from ‘Serfs Up!’ inspired by Lias’s romantic dabblings with a West London heiress, virtually in the shadow of Grenfell.

“It was kind of about Grenfell but not too deliberately that way inclined,” he says. “It’s more about everybody being responsible for that. I reached a hypocritical nadir or seeing an heiress in West London and huffing a load of coke and valium and I’d become everything I’d set out to destroy in the first place. I was living in Sheffield and coming down to London to escape the tedium of Sheffield and going to West London. It was like I was living a sham. Then Grenfell went up at the end of the road. I remember going a couple of days afterwards and staring at it, the black monolith. It’s about responsibility, that song. I find it boring when bands are like ‘the Tories are bad, consumerism’s bad’, well we’re all fucking getting off on it, that’s our funeral pyre at the end of the road.”

How did you fit into the world of an heiress?

Lias tugs at his nape tuft. “Quite well, for a bit actually! She completely ruined my… you know when you get your comeuppance? You think you’ve got it all under control, ‘nobody’s gonna get to me, I’m kinda untouchable’, then this absolutely did my skull in. It was an awful experience generally. The deceit and the lies. I found myself in the Ned hotel weeping into my martini. I’m trying not to develop any attachments to anybody or anything. It’s easier to be solo.

“That’s another thing that goes with the territory, you end up in all strata, you end up at the top one minute and then you end up in a crack house in South London the next minute. One minute you’re getting rimmed on the floor of a five-star hotel and the next minute you’re trying to squeeze a tenner out of your landlord, or you can’t afford the bus and it’s raining.”

Is that the reality for working class bands now? To only ever glimpse the high-life from the eternal gutter?

“It’s getting harsher and harsher,” Lias nods. “There’ll be less and less people from that background, which is why when people come out that are explicitly wearing that on their sleeve it’s massively popular sometimes. Like Sleaford Mods, they’re part of the furniture now and deservedly so but it’s so rare that you have an authentic voice from the other side of the tracks these days that when you get one it’s like ‘thank god’. Because who’s stupid enough to put up with that bullshit for that long? They’ve got the best system worked out, just two of them rolling round. There’s seven of us! I can’t help but feel jealous of the immaculately designed system they’ve got there.”

Did you decide to make a less confrontational album because you realised you’d quite like to make some money at some point?

“That’s definitely a sentiment,” Lias grins. “I don’t wanna haemorrhage thousands and thousands of pounds on drug budgets and I don’t wanna fuck it up, I don’t want it to be a mess, I want to make the most out of the opportunities that are sat on the plate now. I’m definitely not in it to make a bunch of money because you’d have to be an idiot to think you could bark up this tree looking for money – even with something slightly more accessible, it’s never gonna happen, not when there’s seven of you. The key thing is to maintain a level of credibility where people are gonna invest in the next thing you do. We might wanna do something with an orchestra or a backing choir and we’d be able to do it, or do a musical. We want to do a musical about Johnny Adair – Mad Dog: The Johnny Adair Story. He was a UVF loyalist paramilitary, we’re thinking of doing a musical about that.

“If anything happens by the by then great but everyone’s expectations are concretely low. I’d like to have slightly better digs. My digs are bleak to say the least. I’m still living with my brother, the oven’s broken, there’s a hole in my window, there’s a fishy smell in the air, I haven’t changed the sheets in three months, I still don’t have a girlfriend, I’m still in the same stasis. You’re permanently whatever you were when you started. Other people’s lives move on and yours stays in exactly the same place. Like Groundhog Day. You get home and people have got decent jobs and you go round their house and go ‘is this your flat? Fucking hell, man!’”

THE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

Is there a philosophy behind creating your empire of bands?

“It was all quite organic really,” Lias says. “Total domination. Nobody really makes any money, you have to work really hard these days, so when one band’s not up and running you’d better have something else lined up to get your arse out on the road or whatever it is, you’ve gotta keep stuff coming out and stay on top of it. We did talk about doing the Fat White Family Revue and having all the different bands, it’d be fun but then you’d have to front three different things in a night and it’s not feasible. You’d have to have a drip onstage.”

For the time being, Lias is wrapped up in the evolution of FWF from confrontational, cocks-out stormtroopers of the immoral and obscene – the John Waters or Lars Von Trier of the musical sphere – into a more subtle and sophisticated affair, luring listeners in with grimy-yet-accessible melodies before befouling their brains with lyrical grotesqueries. You don’t want to shock people so much anymore?

“The shocking thing to do, due to the narrative that we’ve created, is to create something pretty,” Lias argues. “It’s just a big story you keep writing as you go along. You’ve only got your own history to work with and against. Maybe we’ll do a whole album about child rapists and Nazis again in the future but for now I’d rather write about the singer from Pregoblin [the subject of ‘Oh Sebastian’].”

Are you leaving the angry young man behind as you get older?

“It’s so difficult to get your head above the parapet – despite all the lack of money and funds in music there’s still a longer queue for your job than all other jobs to a certain extent, it’s hard to get noticed. But I don’t think it was a puerile obsession, it was making a point that this medium, you can take it all the way out and it can actually be something quite experimental and dangerous and about ideas and concepts. That’s something that’s been lost over the decades. Imagine if Lou Reed put out ‘I Wanna Be Black’ today. It’s just not fucking acceptable, and I don’t find that acceptable because how we recognise ourselves is through our art, it gives us our clearest image of ourselves.”

It’s the natural life cycle of the subversive – natural born rebels come to realise there’s nuance to be had, that you can be subtly seditious.

“You learn that as you go along,” Lias says. “When you start out you just wanna smash everything up and get everybody’s attention. You’re like ‘if I want it to be about child rape and Nazis it will be about child rape and Nazis and nobody can tell me it’s can’t. By sheer will of aesthetic power, we will make that beautiful and listenable and something other people want to indulge in’. It’s a pathetic victory over your audience if you can sing about the most awful things but make it something that people want to get off on. But once you’ve done that you have to keep moving forward and challenging yourself and when that starts to become an easy, go-to thing then you’re flogging a dead horse, so you’ve gotta shift it up in some way.”

So for all the amenable noises of ‘Serfs Up!’ – inspired by listening to Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’ and Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’ during sessions – there’s still plenty of amoral squalor squirming beneath. ‘Kim’s Sunsets’ is a sympathetic portrait of Kim Jong Un growing tired of the despotic life. Lias’s lyrics for ‘Feet’ reference racist terms he was called due to his Algerian background, and take influence from Jean Genet’s book prisoner Of Love, which Lias has described as “fantastic, non-stop all-round buggery”. ‘Vagina Dentata’, as the title suggests, concerns Lias’s fear of the female sexual organs. “I feel afraid and intimidated by the power of the vagina,” he says. “Every time I end up getting involved with somebody it’s just self-mutilation. I’m quietly aware of the fact that the opposite sex wield an ungodly power over me and there’s not anything I can do about it. It’s a combination of fear and respect. I don’t ever get lost quite like I get lost in there.”

And then we come to ‘Bobby’s Boyfriend’. “Bobby’s boyfriend is a prostitute/and so is mine”, the ethereal chorus goes, but it’s about nothing so innocent as dating a sex worker.

“Chem-sex roulette,” Lias explains.

Sorry, chem-sex what now?

Alex: “It’s a thing that people get off on. They’ll have one person with AIDS in the orgy.”

Lias: “One person who’s HIV positive, did you ever read about that? I don’t think it’s a myth, I think it’s a real thing that people do. Even if it’s not a thing people do, it’s worth existing in a song. It’s that sort of sentiment, pleasure beyond reason, your whole life on one moment’s pleasure. Is there anything more fantastic than that? Anything more cavalier, more brave and brazen.”

I mean, I’ve played wink murder but I wouldn’t go that far…

Lias: [laughs] “Neither would I. I read about that and thought ‘that’s far out, man’.”

Are the 1975 your natural enemies now?

“I don’t care about The 1975,” Lias snipes, “it’s just bubblegum pop for teenyboppers, fine. It doesn’t purport to be anything other than what it is. I’m not in the same field as them, it doesn’t cross my mind in the same way Justin Bieber doesn’t cross my mind. I have more of an issue with everybody talking about this pool of shouty-man post-punk thing like it’s genuinely alternative, but the lyrics are like guardian columns that have been chopped up into rhyming couplets and pasted to a post-punk backing track. People posturing but not really laying anything on the line. Not really putting themselves personally in harm’s way for the art. Not saying something that will generate quite a lot of hatred towards you because you feel it has to be said and a point needs to be made. Challenging the audience is not something that happens anymore because everybody’s so scared. You live in this internet realm where you say one wrong thing and you get branded this, this, this and that and it goes round the internet like fucking wildfire. Everybody’s nervous, everybody’s on their toes.”

A lot of those bands have been influenced by you, though.

“There’s been a return of the sweaty, animalistic frontman. I’ve been pouring scorn on Idles and I’m sure those guys are lovely guys and they’re really spirited performers as well, that’s something that’s commendable, they deserve their dues. But for this to be considered on the extremes, that’s wrong. As an embittered, quasi-failed artist myself I have to stand there and say ‘actually, they’ve got one bit of it right, but the other bit, the really difficult bit, which is the risk-taking bit, where you actually lay your reputation and what people think about you on the line to make a point, is absent’.”

Isn’t Idles deconstructing masculinity within punk music risk-taking?

“Did anybody order a deconstruction of masculinity in post-punk music?” Lias asks. “Really? Was there too much testicular energy in it before? There is no better place for toxic masculinity than in music. It’s better that you take it out in music than you take it out on everybody else.”

Well people are certainly calling for 50/50 gender splits on rock festival bills.

“Isn’t that infantalising to women, though? Isn’t that ‘you guys are only on the bill because you’re [women]?’ I don’t think you get good art that way, I don’t think inviting politics and ideology into art in any way is ever a good thing. Art is utterly supreme to politics… art is the only reason I can tolerate reality, to me it’s a pseudo-religious spiritual belief. In my mind I’ve always been able to do what I do because I have complete faith that no matter what happens nobody can take my imagination away from me and nobody can police that region. That is the one part of my person that is utterly mine.

“I’m not completely sure what I believe on the 50/50 split on festivals. Part of me thinks that’s the right thing to do and part of me thinks it’s wrong and you can have a mature conversation about that as opposed to ‘that’s obviously fair’. Shouldn’t we have a 50/50 split with working-class people and middle-class people?”

The difficulty this 50/50 campaign will have, of course, is that it’s insisting on change from the top down. Festival bookers don’t direct culture, they reflect it, and with the talent pool within rock music so heavily weighted towards men the only way a major festival could reach gender parity is by abandoning the idea of catering to any niche and embracing mainstream pop music, a la Primavera. The real solution is to induce change from the bottom up – hence Idles are surely doing good work in breaking down issues that might be stopping women feeling comfortable playing heavy rock music?”

“What you’re saying that it should be from the bottom up is absolutely true,” Lias says. “Why is it that men end up being in bands five times more than women? That’s rooted into stereotypes that are so deeply entrenched, that are inherently sexist, and those are the real problem. They’ve been there since time fucking began. Little boys, when they’re just kids, they’re allowed to go out into the world and play with each other and form these little packs, whereas for little girls it’s a different world, it’s unfair, you don’t have the same rights and licenses. I don’t want to get all Germaine Greer on it but there are all these universal stereotypes that have resulted in this displacement of gender that go back thousands of years, it’s this huge problem that we’re trying to resolve overnight. A 50/50 bill on a festival is a nothing, the imbalance in gender is such a fundamental problem.

“Personally I believe that feminism, on one level, is maybe our only hope of redeeming ourselves. Capitalism is the ultimate male construct, it’s all based on inflation and growth. It’s steamrolling us off the edge of a cliff because it’s against nature. Whereas on the feminine side of the fence, I think women are more naturally attuned to reality in a sense. Men are creatures of the extremes and always have been, whereas women can accept reality in a fundamental way… Every man, sexually, has to get it up in the shadow of mother. A man has to perform or the show does not go on. There’s a pitiful demand on the male libido that maybe isn’t there for women and if you propel that all the way down you end up with a bunch of guys with too much hair, shit clothes and guitars. It’s an extension of that initial shame.”

Stage-time approaches, the mushroom tincture takes hold.

“I wonder if Saul’s gonna make it?” Lias muses.

Alex nods. “We should go and wake him up, shouldn’t we?”

Twelve hours later – a hazy blitz of tequila, after-parties, spilt wine and dark-hearted rock ‘n’ roll, all of it wiped from the memory by the Men In Black neuralyzer of hard booze – NME finds itself roaming the streets of Brighton with all of the possessions it didn’t lose in a bin-liner. Consider ourselves one of the Family…

Fat White Family tour the UK from November 20, concluding with a four night residency at EartH in London from December 2 to 5.