The Thing About Fat White Family and How Fucked Up Everything Is Right Now
Fat White Family are a reminder that rock music can mean something beyond an NME cover, a pull-quote, and a few tracks recorded with Jim Abbiss.
All photos by Chris Bethell
Every so often a conversation sparks up about rock’n’roll and its authenticity. This usually occurs around certain events: a tax-dodger dropping a microphone at an awards show, for example. Or a privately-and-internationally-educated ensemble from New York releasing “the album of the decade”.
The discussion—whether it involves Sergio Pizzorno's bearded orifice making the obscene claim that Kasabian’s new album "will inspire a generation" or Jungle’s supposedly “secret” past—always boils down to the same thing. Do musicians need to adhere to a certain standard of realness? Should the artist and I hold similar political views? Is it OK to see making music as a job, not an art? What is rock’n’roll anyway?
The answer to those questions depends on who you are. And the other fact is that there are more important things happening in the world. The important bands understand this. They don't need to question authenticity because it doesn't cross their mind. The bands that dance around the genre's architecture at every press opportunity are only whoring rock'n'roll out as a force, not for change, but one they hope will continue to fill their own bank accounts.
Fat White Family, in case you haven’t come across them already, are a five-piece band from South London. They crawled out from the squats of South London to release their debut album Champagne Holocaust in April last year. They've been putting on intense showcases in a boozer since at least 2011: fiver-in shows where people are invited to be part of a community. And they're the sort of band you imagine would be standing outside the home of a greased-up tax dodger with a lighter in hand, kerosene scenting the air, grinning from cheek to cheek.
The rumours about the band may all be true: they once rode a donkey into a pub, band members have got their dicks out on stage, and one time they threw a pig’s head around the crowd. Frontman Lias Saoudi has performed while rubbing butter over his naked torso. But that’s not the only reason they’re Britain's most sensational young band.
They're British rock’n’roll’s final hurrah—not just a fuck you to everything that has become sanitised but a reminder that rock’n’roll can, even as the last embers fade, continue to mean something beyond an NME cover, a pull-quote, and a few tracks recorded with Jim Abbiss.
The band, alongside entering the touring stamina league somewhere behind Jackmaster, are actively aware that the world is a bit fucked. I am sitting backstage at The Fleece in Bristol, where the band are on tour, when Saul mentions a song called “Fuck Tel Aviv”. They argue about the Falkland Islands, talk about BNP splinter group Britain First (“the worst”), and ruminate over the recent comment from George Galloway that Bradford will be free from the “illegal, barbarous, savage state that calls itself Israel”. You only need to remember they’re the band that brought “THE BITCH IS DEAD” banner to Margaret Thatcher’s death party to know where they stand on such issues.
An hour earlier, Nathan, the group’s keyboardist, tells me he has spent the past two years couch-surfing. We both hate the fact that one hour’s minimum wage barely covers a pint and a pack of salted Walkers.
However, although Fat White are aware that the world is fucked, they don’t veer into stillborn nausea (Unlike, say, Bono, who isn’t just inherently boring but also the sort of guy who would have philanthropist in his Twitter bio and refuse to play at a charity guy in Italy because he didn’t have his favourite trilby hat, and then pay £1000 to have said trilby hat flown first class with its own seat on the plan. Which is a thing that happened).
Instead, Fat White Family are entertaining: a trait that is missing from our unelected cultural vanguards—people like Alt-J and Jake Bugg, and whatever other anaemic secretions you can name - who care about themselves too much to do anything interesting. The band’s output is, if nothing else, charming. The video for “Touch the Leather” features a horizontally travelling arse. The band released a plea, asking benevolent souls to graciously spare them the currency required by the airline to travel over the Atlantic and “save America.” And when they got there Lias stripped down to his underpants, they played the best show at SXSW, and recorded a version of “Touch the Leather” that literally stares down the mundaneness of acoustic sessions.
Their songs are tarnished with dark humor too, with couplets involving “five-sticky fingers on the dashboard”, questions about assassination, and a lyric in “Garden of the Number” that reads “You’d sell your Mother’s cunt to open doors”.
It’s live, though, where they sound best. There’s just something that they haven’t been able to recreate on records: how Lias uses his voice as an instrument, the way the veins in his neck pop when he screams, and the fixated swamp you get stuck into every time you watch them on stage. As the live shows become more notorious, they’ve been booked for more, playing near around 100 before the end of the year. This seems like it should be a good thing—especially because they’re a band that makes more money from shows than they do recording. But things that seem like they should be good often aren’t—like visiting Paris or asking for extra hot sauce.
You can see the splinters when we arrive in Liverpool and Saul has decided to go back to London. This is not the first time he’s missed a show—he missed another recently in France, too. Lias tells me that they’ve had a “busy Summer, health-wise it’s been a bit extreme” and Saul will be re-joining them tomorrow in Brighton. Tonight, the build up behind his guitar—or lack thereof—is apparent and the murkiness is turned down a notch.
The band warm up with a sing-along to Gary Glitter’s “Leader of the Gang” - and star-jumps, as demonstrated by Nathan. An hour or two before they’re due to go on-stage, I sit down and talk with Lias and Adam.
I’d overheard something the previous evening about the Queens Head—the pub they’ve become synonymous with (and where Lias used to be a pizza chef) in South London—being sold.
Noisey: The first time I saw you guys was at Slide-In. I heard the pub is getting sold.
Lias: It might be getting sold to another guy. He might be selling half of it. I wouldn’t really want to comment on that. For the time being it’s still the best place to drink in town. But if it does get sold—we’ll boycott it. Once it goes it’s over—we’re leaving the country. You can mark my words.
You leave for America soon too—to record a new album. I came across a video where, after talking for a bit about the new album, you were seemingly forced into responding to something about Kasabian being “the last great rock’n’roll” band or something trivial like that...
Lias: I don’t want to do any more bad-mouthing. I don’t want to appear like the guy that keeps bad-mouthing everyone else.
I don’t want you to slag anyone off. But I wanted to lead into how faceless a lot of music has become...
Lias: The real insult from the guys that are like—mega stars now—is that having come out of five years basically being on the dole and working for fucking six pound fuck all an hour, and all that experience. Having just come out of that really, like just crept out, it’s still very fresh in the memory. You hear about guys like that tax dodging and saying, y’know, “we’re the last great rock’n’roll band.” And it’s just utterly uninspiring for everybody else.
Yeah—you get massive, tell everyone you’re amazing, and then piss around.
Lias: I think the key to rock’n’roll music, as an art form, is that it’s available to everybody. It’s so fucking easy to play really; it’s just two notes. And it’s the way you play it, and the mentality and approach that you bring to it. You don’t have to be from any particular background, or have any kind of education really—all you need is a passion for the sound and the experience.
Lias: I think you get these instances, like Kasabian, and it’s always dangerous. People say we shouldn’t be saying these things—that it’s an attack. But I would say I am defending myself—not attacking them.
Adam: Everyone who has a friend is—technically—a potentially nice guy. But you’ve got to fucking draw the line, somewhere. A lot of people mistook good-old fashioned contempt with being a fucking prima donna diva.
Lias: Fame-mongering, that type of thing. Are we not allowed to denounce the major label whores? And the tripe that they force upon us year after year, putting it on our radios and our television sets and our internet – are we not allowed to say that this is fucking garbage? Because it makes you, like, a publicity whore or something, like you’re trying to garner some extra attention? But it’s genuinely how we feel.
I agree. You’re going to answer questions when they’re put to you—it would be different if you wrote an unsolicited blog post about it. Do you all live in Peckham still?
Lias: I stay in Cambridge now. I’ve been trying to avoid London and take it easy. [Adam] is a traitor, he’s moved East. Everybody else is South though—it’s cheap.
I’m trying to move South. But I can’t afford a room on this wage.
Lias: It’s absurd. I’m sick of it—it’s impossible. London has changed more in the last two years than it has in the previous eight years I’ve been here. It really has changed. I’ve lived here for ten years, yeah, and in the last few years the change has been abrupt. It’s ever since the Tories came in...
Do you think?
Lias: It definitely correlates with Boris Johnson and the fucking Tory party. And then all of a sudden everything in London has been getting sold off. It’s been a massive change.
Adam: They’re giving strength through monetary means instead of strength through, y’know, having a vibrant community. All that stuff has gone. Before too long it’s going to be tourists and private companies - all the culture will be gone. It will be like Paris, everyone living on the outskirts of London.
That makes me think about The Queens Head getting sold off to make way for another Foxtons or something.
Lias: Yeah, anything good gets moved on. But [referring to Adam], in any area you’re going to need people to clean fucking toilets. They’re working there; and they should be able to kick around there too.
Right, you shouldn’t have to travel 40 minutes to wipe up some rich guy's skid marks.
Lias: You should be able to live somewhere nearby that is affordable. There should be a difference in people, and class, and wealth, living together, as opposed to dividing them as much as possible. They’re encouraging, actively encouraging, people to be afraid and wary of each other. Everybody that is skint thinks everyone over there is a cunt that is trying to rip them off. And everybody over there thinks they’re benefits scroungers. But in fact the problem is that they come from the same place—it’s ugly.
I am often too tired to care about the real world—my political indifference comes more from being too exhausted that nothing will change rather than apathy. And if that's how I feel about politics, I've even less enthusiasm to dispute something as awkwardly convoluted as rock'n'roll. But Fat White Family, however inadvertently, remind me we're being fucked over on both fronts. You don't have to agree with them, you don't have to agree with their politics—but they do hold a purpose.
Bands like this can help save pubs, keep people squatting above them, and make people feel something. They may joke around, appearing naked in their press photos, but they're also fiercely involved with what's happening in the world, and how our country is being fucked in every single saggy cavity. This is why they're important. The other bands are just like the others, looking down and mocking you, standing on a pedestal made from ill-gotten banknotes and back issues of the NME.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanBassil
All photos by Chris Bethell: @CBethell_Photo