Fat White Family: ‘Everyone thinks we’re complete c***s’
New release Serfs Up! is the kind of album to slap on if the world is about to end
Fat White Family: It’s been a while since we’ve had a band such as Fat White Family to keep us awake at night
Sweary, scary and wilfully offensive, Fat White Family are hands down the most transgressive pop group of their generation. Their hit parade includes songs about Harold Shipman, Mussolini and an imagined loved affair between Hitler and Goebbels. They once threatened to “join Isis” unless cuddly frat-rocker Mac DeMarco “immediately withdraws from music”.
There was also a one-way feud with harmless Mercury winners Wolf Alice, whom Fat White Family derided as “landfill indie”. At time of writing they are merrily chucking brick-bats at Punk Nice Boys, Idles (see below).
“Everyone thinks we’re complete c***s,” acknowledges singer Lias Saoudi “I’ve bumped into people we’ve rinsed. They turn out to be lovely and it’s pure social awkwardness. A Larry David from hell moment.”
The spirit of arch provocateurs such as Throbbing Gristle, John Lydon and Mark E Smith runs through their menacing, skittering repertoire
It’s been a while since we’ve had a band such as Fat White Family to keep us awake at night. In their short and often self-destructive lifespan they have rejuvenated the tradition of the gratuitously unpleasant pop single (the skin-crawlingly catchy Goodbye Goebbels, for instance, relocated Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now to the Fuhrer’s Berlin bunker).
They also went through a period of going on stage naked (in the parlance of the times, their unadorned bodies were not exactly “beach ready”). They’ve been homeless, ripped apart by heroin and once broke up in the middle of an interview with the Guardian.
And yet, at their best – which they frequently are on fantastic third album, Serfs Up! – there’s no one quite like Fat White Family. Their most interesting songs are damaged, weird, careening and seductive. The spirit of arch provocateurs such as Throbbing Gristle, John Lydon and Mark E Smith runs through their menacing, skittering repertoire. On record and on stage, they feel out of control – filthy and dangerous in a sanitised world. You may not approve. Indeed, you may be horrified. But it feels important that they exist.
“When we started I had this burning rage,” says Saoudi, who began the band in Peckham, London with his brother Nathan – the siblings are of Algerian heritage – and guitarist Saul Adamczewski.
“I’d ticked all the boxes. Gone to school, done really well in my A-levels, gone to university. And there I was on the dole. What was I supposed to do? You want to slap everyone around the face.”
This self-devouring anger reached its apotheosis on their previous album, 2016’s Songs For Our Mothers. It was a glowering, disgruntled collection that seemed to actively wanted to be disliked (one song is called Lebensraum; another, Duce, revealed an obsession with Mussolini).
“We were in such a bad place,” reflects Saoudi. “We barely had any band left. Half of the group had really serious heroin problems.”
Things could have gone one of two ways. Either Fat White Family faded away or they came back radically changed. They opted for the latter course. Saoudi and his brother moved out of London and rented a terrace house in Sheffield, on the advice of their new label Domino. The idea was to keep their heads down, stay away from drugs, start over.
“Our plan was to get out of the city, establish a heroin-free zone. Get away from all the bullshit and distractions that come with being a well-known band. Our last record wasn’t the most palatable commercial prospect. We wanted to do something different.”
Lias and Nathan also mended bridges with the semi-estranged Adamczewski. As the two songwriters in the band, Saoudi and the guitarist have a bit of a Pete Doherty-Carl Barât dynamic. By the end of the Songs For Our Mothers tour, Saul had left and nobody could quite remember if he’d quit or got the sack. Either way, now he was back in the fold.
“We wanted to make something more pop,” says Saoudi. “We’d done the heroin drone thing – love songs about love letters from Hitler to Goebbels, the Harold Shipman stuff. We’d gone to the far end of nasty. We thought – ‘let’s do something elegant or articulate’.”
This they have achieved with Serfs Up!, which feels like a pop album you might slap on as the world is about to end or you’ve just learned Brexit has been pushed back to 2020. Yet this new phase doesn’t fully represent a clean break. Last year there was a minor internet quake when Pitchfork accused Fat White Family of racism after they tweeted an anti-Trump screed that included a racist slur against Arabs.
Saoudi was quick to push back. His father is a Berber from Algeria and he was reclaiming and subverting the insult rather than perpetuating its usage. Now, with that firestorm having just about blown out, they have have kicked off a feud with Idles.
Technically it’s a three-way stand-off. Hostilities were instigated by Sleaford Mods, who took at pop at Idles for being from vaguely comfortable backgrounds (how dare they etc). Faster than you could say “Blur v Oasis”, Saoudi weighed in, deriding Idles as “bunch of self neutering middle class boobs”.
Idles, polite chaps who want to make the world a better place by singing honestly about depression and toxic masculinity, were understandably flabbergasted. Yet even as the dust settles, Saoudi isn’t for turning.
“Idles are symptomatic of a general cultural malaise,” he says. “I really resent art that purports to be about saving humanity. Art is always about the artist saving himself. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t see a little bit of dirt on the artist’s soul in what they are doing . . . I feel I am being lied to a little.”
Which brings us back to Idles and their supposed middle-class backgrounds. “This swing to politically correct virtue signalling – I think it’s posh,” says Saoudi. “I’m sure those guys are lovely people and I hate to be really negative. But there’s just so much of that crap around and after being branded a racist last year by Pitchfork I feel up against it.
When he was 12 Saoudi’s parents divorced and his mother married a unionist from Cookstown, Co Tyrone
“How far is it going to swing before you’re not allowed to explore what’s really going on within your crippled personality? Which is the only thing art is good for. There is only one good place for hatred and abuse and that’s art.”
Saoudi certainly wasn’t shy letting his hatred out when Margaret Thatcher passed away in 2013 and Fat White Family dangled a sheet with the words “The Bitch is Dead” from the Queen’s Head in Brixton, their unofficial HQ at the time (this, needless to say, before it reopened as a vegan gastropub). That was in bad taste and difficult to defend. However, it is understandable Saoudi might have a slightly different perspective on British politics compared to his peers.
He was born in Southampton, to the aforementioned Algerian father and a Yorkshire mother of coal-mining stock. Until he was six, however, the family lived in the Galway suburb of Knocknacarra. They later moved to the west of Scotland. When he was 12 Saoudi’s parents divorced and his mother married a unionist from Cookstown, Co Tyrone. On his first day at school he was cornered and asked if he knew the word to “the Sash”. He didn’t so the kids beat him up.
“I wasn’t politically awake in any way. You learn pretty quickly in a place like that. My stepdad was a prod. I had this big Red Hand of Ulster on my school blazer. There were conflicts there from day one. I really hated it. There was a lot of bullying and bigotry, that kind of thing. The Protestants don’t get on with the Catholics and vice-versa. And then you have this Algerian kid who has just come over. It was a f***ing nightmare in many ways.”
Still it broadened his horizons. And when, following the 2017 UK general election, the rest of Britain was googling “what is the DUP?” Saoudi could sit back and chuckle. He’s pro-Corbyn (just about), anti-Brexit and thinks it a cosmic joke that Leavers find themselves hoisted on the original sin of the border in Ireland.
“Watching the British political class get skewered on their one remaining colonial outcrop – it’s too perfect,” he says. “There you go – you get into bed with these medieval bigots. It’s just what they deserve to a certain extent, those bastards holding the whole country to ransom. Just watching the whole thing unravel, I have to say, it fills my heart with a little bit of joy.”
Serfs Up! is out now. Fat White Family play the Button Factory, Dublin, on May 8th