Is Fat White Family’s Story the Last of a Dying Breed?
The darkest, unexplored moments of this band's narrative sketch the story of every struggle that faces Britain’s shriveling artistic underclass in 2016.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
Fat White Family has given me three options. We can meet at the Holocaust Museum, the Royal College of Surgeons of England, or a small drinking hole in Brixton called the Beehive. Most bands are content with chatting in the relative warmth of a private members club or the studio where they’ve been recording; the Fat White’s varied choice of location feels like a test. Go right or go left. Which one do I choose?
Seeing as Fat White Family’s debut album is called Champagne Holocaust and their new album includes a song about Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler, spending an afternoon in the Holocaust Museum makes thematic sense, I suppose. It would provide a necessary, contextual backdrop to the Third Reich imagery the group present in their work. The Beehive is an obvious choice too, as it’s near where the band originated in South London. But what about the Royal College of Surgeons of England? That one can’t be explained without talking to them, so it’s where I choose to meet.
When I spoke with Fat White Family two years ago, there was a real sense that the band were operating in the midst of a collective breakdown. They’d fired a drummer and a manager; their frontman, Lias Saoudi, was recovering from a grave case of pneumonia that put him in the hospital. Saul Adamczewski and I did not get on—when we met, he leaned in and snarled that there was no point in me being on their tour, and every word after that came at me like poison darts. Soon after, he abandoned the tour and went back to London, leaving the band without a key structural member.
Two years down the line, I’m eager to meet with Adamczewski and Saoudi to see where we stand. Given that the group’s most recent album references the pair’s antagonistic relationship—“I’m definitely Tina Turner”, Saoudi told the Guardian earlier this year—I’m keen to see how their relationship is going too. Yet when I arrive for the interview, Adamczewski is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he didn’t want to meet. Perhaps he didn’t like the location I eventually chose—maybe I failed the test?
“Nah… it wasn’t a test,” grins Saoudi, as we stroll through the wings of the surgeon college’s Hunterian museum, rows of placenta and embryos on one side, jars of jellied noses and bone structures on the other. “So why did you pick those three places then?” I ask, thinking that I’ll bring Adamczewski’s absence up later, when we’ve become more acquainted. As it turns out, the choice of location has less to do with the Lias who slathers his nude frame with tubs of fermented cow discharge before appearing on stage as the frontman of Fat White Family and more to do with a young, companionless Lias on his first trip to London as a teenager.
Born in Southampton to an Algerian father and a mother who worked in the coal mines, Saoudi moved to Scotland and eventually settled in Northern Ireland, in a town just around the corner from one of the hardest hit areas during The Troubles. As a kid, he wasn’t allowed to watch television. Instead, he read books. “There was no music in my family; nobody played music,” he says. “My dad had a couple of Eagles and Cat Stevens records. My mum liked Rod Stewart.” Like every other young boy, Saoudi dreamed of playing for the England soccer team. A self-confessed loner at school, he found solace in his obsession with history. Eventually he studied it at A-Level along with English and Fine Art, where he discovered he was born with a natural aptitude for drawing and painting. He liked Basquiat, and he drew self-portraits in the style of Egon Schiele.
At 18, Saoudi applied for the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London—and he got in. It was the first time he’d been to a big city and the first time he’d come into contact with ostentatiously middle class British people. Like any university student, Saoudi was eager to make friends and go out. Before coming to London he’d never taken drugs, but his new pals quickly introduced him to cocaine. The problem came when he started “getting a real taste” for it and realized he didn’t have as much money as his new peers, who were privileged and well-off. “I’d go out and spend all my money on the weekend and have nothing left for oil paints on the Monday,” he says.
“Gradually I just became more and more disaffected until they chucked me out,” Saoudi tells me. Fortunately, a year later, he convinced the school to let him back in. Yet while fine art was Saoudi’s mission du jour and his key to the big city, the obsession he’d developed for history hadn’t been left unnurtured. The Royal College of Surgeons happened to be round the corner from the Slade, and it was just one of the many establishments where Saoudi delved deeper into the history he’d become infatuated with as a kid. Often, he’d visit between lectures. That obsession is why we’re here today, he says, leaning in for a closer look at some monkey’s testicles. “Why would you not be interested in history?”
It’s difficult to disagree with Saoudi. From ancient bone structures to the more recent World Wars, it can often be awe-inspiring to look backwards in an attempt to understand everything around us. When married to art and music, it’s also an interesting contextual component. So as I speak to Saoudi, I’m keen to know more about his own history. As a band who are on a press campaign for their second album, there shouldn’t be much to reveal about Fat White Family’s backstory—but there is.
Up until now, the band have been preceded by gruesome headlines that focus on their profane on-stage antics, like the time Saoudi performed in little more than a pair of Y-fronts and black socks. Or the fact they seemingly crawled, powered on by some well-oiled vitriol rather than food, from the squats of Brixton. These headlines are fine, of course. Anyone with a passing interest in live music needs to see Fat White Family perform live; not just because they’re visually enthralling, but because their sound—a mix of the Butthole Surfers, Bongwater, and The Cramps—combines with that image to create a performance that’s so terrifyingly brilliant it feels like it could explode at any moment, gloriously chugging off into oblivion. Indeed, they did worm their way from the dilapidated buildings of South London, too. But there’s a missing component in that narrative. You don’t just go from studying at one of the best art schools in the country to becoming homeless. It’s not that easy to slip, surely?
Unfortunately for Saoudi, it was. Like most students, he couldn’t find a job when he graduated. As friends used their connections and affluence to waltz into responsible jobs, he was left behind. For a while, he unsuccessfully handed out CVs to bars. Then he went to job club, where he was asked to take a basic literacy and math test. “I was like: Look, I’ve got a degree from one of the best universities in the country and three A’s at A-level,” he says.
Eventually, things got so bad that Saoudi couldn’t afford somewhere to live. Instead, he was forced to move between squats. Then it got worse: At one point, Saoudi and his brother Nathan—the band’s keyboardist, who had also moved to London—slept on their drug dealer’s floor. On another, they sheltered from the rain under bits of plastic. “I thought there was something wrong with me,” Saoudi says, explaining the frustration he felt at not being able to find a job, “I thought I was defunct.” Which, in a roundabout way, is where Fat White Family came in.
Before he came to London, Saoudi had “never sang a note in [his] life.” His family didn’t sing and he didn’t sing either, not even in his bedroom. It was too embarrassing. But he liked the idea of it, the thirst of performing live. “I was really shy and insecure growing up, and it was a way of remedying that or validating myself,” he says. So he booked himself into an open mic event.
“I sat down, and the nerves came like an absolute flood. All of a sudden all I could play was G.” He fondly recalls the situation, which seems to come from an alternate reality to the one Fat White Family exist in. “I was trying to cover an old Hank Williams song or something, but I was muttering into the microphone. Halfway through the first song this guy came up and was like ‘Mate, stop. You’re shite,’" he says, adopting his heckler's Northern Irish accent. "I was so red. It was the most humiliating experience of my life.”
In the end, Saoudi and his brother formed a pub-rock band called the Saudis, who would play near the bottom of the bill at nights in South London. That’s where he met Saul Adamczewski, the guitarist in Fat White Family. The pair ended up living together, and, when the Saudis and Adamczewski’s band the Metros disbanded, Fat White Family formed from their ashes. Saoudi calls the era the pair’s “honeymoon period.” In return for working a few shifts behind the bar or in the kitchen, they would practice and live in Brixton's Queen's Head pub, where the band played many of their early gigs. “We were just feral kids,” Saoudi says, grinning. “We were all having a fucking laugh the entire time.”
When Saoudi speaks the back-history that lead to Fat White Family’s creation, there’s a fire that burns deep within his pupils. Part rage, part determination, part frustration, part unrivaled strength—they’re a portrait in themselves, detailing the feelings that come from trying to make a living in London on a struggling artist’s wage. But they also look scared—and deservedly so. As the frontman of Fat White Family, Saoudi says he makes £200 a week. Then there’s the other issue: Last December, Adamczewski admitted himself into a rehab facility to be treated for heroin addiction. And band members keep changing. If Fat White Family ends, Saoudi will be in a grave financial situation. So is he anxious about the band’s future?
“There’s serious sociopathic, drug-addled [issues in the band]; almost everybody has some kind of personality disorder," he says. "You’re talking about some prize fuck-ups and mentalists. Genuinely: there are issues in the group. Then there’s the pressure of touring for years. It feels like it’s always about to fall-apart. It’s always on the rocks. Me and Saul are always two minutes away from head-butting each other. We love each other, really, like brothers. But sometimes it’s like: that’s it. If that were to be the case, where would I go? I’d be fucked. Am I going to ask for a job? Well [adopts job center voice] ‘What’ve you been doing for the last few years?’ [Puts on an animated version of own voice] ‘Bashing myself off in public, singing fucking songs about child rape.’ [Puts on job center voice again] ‘Well, okay. We’ll see about it later.' Of course—I’m constantly anxious about it.”
As he reels out his innards to me, I can’t help feeling sympathetic to his situation. Even now that the Fat White’s have “made it,” so to speak—playing festival stages, guesting on the radio, releasing records—maintaining a healthy standard of living seems beyond their reach. But while I’m wondering if Fat White Family are one of the last of their kinds, I’m also wondering where Adamczewski is. As it turns out, he hasn’t refrained from turning up because he doesn’t want to see me. He’s playing a show that evening in Brixton with his other band and can’t make the interview. When Saoudi speaks of the pair, he sounds positive. But what about that honeymoon period? Now that their relationship has blossomed and subsequently darkened, does he feel like they have to stay together for the kids, so to speak?
“It does feel a little bit like that, yeah. Because it’s become a thing now that’s bigger than the sum of its parts, hasn’t it? It’s just maintaining [his sobriety] under the constant pressure of touring. I get really depressed on tour. It’s like, you do that big fucking show at the Coronet, then you’re just sat in the pub like—what now? You can’t just go home and go to bed, can ya? And if you’ve developed a penchant for heroin and crack…. That was never my thing. I do heroin maybe twice a year just to remind myself how much I fucking hate it. It’s only really good for me if I’ve got fourteen hours in which all that is expected of me is to lie perfectly still and not vomit. That’s kind of the buzz I get off of heroin”.
As a band, it’s these sort of elongated pull quotes that contribute to Fat White Family being like marmite. The band appeal or they don’t. To some, the group are nothing more than a reputation. But there are two things that are difficult to argue. The first is: against the odds, necessary finances and prevailing health issues, the band have deservedly become a professional, touring, respected group of artists. In September they’ll headline the Brixton Academy; a booking that solidifies their grass-roots rise from the small pubs of Brixton to a venue that, ten or 15 years ago, was only headlined by international behemoths like Pearl Jam. The second is that the band’s passion to create challenging music is seemingly unrivaled.
On this new album, Saoudi’s art school background and love of history have combined with Adamczewski’s songwriting prowess to create songs called “Whitest Boy on the Beach” and “Goodbye Goebbels” and “Lebensraum,” which is sung in German. At times it veers into hyper-sexual disco. At others, it is a fabulously lo-fi rock album. Yet Songs For Our Mothers isn’t without its faults, and make no mistake, it exists as a piece of art. Like a decomposed onion with layer upon layer of ideas, it’s more than a band playing some guitars. Indeed, there’s an uncomfortable amount of depth to it. But I can't really move past it without asking one pertinent question: What’s with the Nazi obsession?
“The fact you’ve got Trump on the telly going on about Mexicans being rapists and everyone voting for him… well, y’know, the whole 'Fourth Reich' thing doesn’t seem like that mad of an idea, really,” Saoudi says, explaining the group’s references to World War Two, while simultaneously pointing out the dangers of putting the most famous toupee-wearing man in charge of America. “But it’s just rich pickings as far as references that everyone can understand. It’s a love song, “Goodbye Goebbells,” and it’s about me and Saul, really. But no one really wants to hear about me and Saul. It makes it more challenging, being about Goebbells and Hitler. If I lent it an authenticity that made [the song believable], people might be like: Oh that [historical moment] was sad. Am I allowed to feel sad about that?”
“Goodbye Goebells” is imbued with an eerily sentimental quality. So in some ways, it’s almost as if Fat White Family are challenging listeners to pose questions that, in some sort of backwards yet no less philosophical and educational way, enable them to become more informed, more rounded people. Which is exactly what a good band should do. Yet no matter how much Saoudi explains his lyrics or his on-stage maneuvers—most recently he performed at a BBC 6 Music event with "Saville" written across his chest three times and then "Rolf Harris"—people don’t seem to take well to Fat White Family because of the image they represent. It’s partly political and partly to do with how they look.
Running the depressing gamut from PC Music through to Palma Violets, it’s crucial to take the public image and background of today’s artists with a pinch of salt. But beneath the veneer of these phlegmatic British musicians are Fat White Family, who look decrepit and sick not necessarily through choice but because they’re poor and living on less than £800 a month. “People tend to hone in on the trashy elements, and it’s not like we haven’t been overt in that sense,” he says, when I mention their image is what was initially focused on. “None of us had anywhere to live for years and we do like our drugs, and our parties, and our drinks—just like every other fucking 20-something in London. Who doesn’t, you know? Except we were all skint. So, of course we were dirty, skanky, and ‘orrible.”
Rather than perceiving Fat White Family as the knowledgeable, intelligent artists they are, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that some have looked upon them as zoo animals. If not that, it’s perhaps easier to see the Fat White Family’s image as one that’s been orchestrated, because that’s exactly what seems to happen with nearly every other musician that’s recently navigated through Britain’s music industry. But the Fat White Family aren’t animals, nor are they the cartoon characters that precede the art they create. They’re people, in a very raw and very human way.
Tonight, Saoudi will visit his dad. When he spends the odd weekend there, he enjoys having a bath, reading books, listening to music, swimming (he wears his pants), and cooking spaghetti bolognese, which he makes with sausage and beef meat. Like a true loner, he still enjoys being alone. Later, he’ll return to his aunt’s house in Tooting, where he’ll fall asleep underneath four life-size cutouts of the Vamps. Then it’s off to SXSW to play a show with his other band, The Moonlandingz, whose upcoming album features a guest appearance from Yoko Ono. “I just want to keep working, working, working. Then next year we can have two albums come out, instead of one,” he says. “You’ve got to work really hard to make any kind of living out of this thing, so that’s what you’ve got to do.”
The sense of intense hunger is palpable. It’s not hard to see why Fat White Family have often been described as a political group, which is another turn-off for some people. Yet talking to Saoudi details the wider struggles that face those who want to create some form of meaningful art, but don’t have the privilege to do so. As fans of any form of culture, that’s something that should worry all of us. Not to invalidate the hours Sam Smith has spent perfectly nailing inoffensiveness, but it’s much easier to develop your craft if someone’s paying your rent. As Saoudi says: “All it requires is space, time, and dedication.”
During our afternoon together, one of his many anecdotes really struck me. One afternoon, when he was a child—during the midst of The Troubles in Northern Ireland—Saoudi walked home from school as a soldier trained the crosshairs of his rifle on his neck. In the evening, his Algerian father told him stories of his country’s fight to gain independence from the French. His mother worked in the coal mines. In many ways, politics tunneled their way into his head from a young age, whether consensually or not. When he moved to London those interests—in history, in art, in writing, in politics—combined with the talents of Saul Adamczewski and the rest of the Fat White Family to materialize the beginnings of something that seems to have been transported from a forgotten era; a place that thrives on what it means to be an artist. To create art, not because it sounds like a nice idea. But because it is a necessity.
These are the contextual components that illuminate the story of Fat White Family. Because they’re not just the “squat band.” They’re a band that doesn’t come from privilege, but is talented enough to study at a prestigious art school. One that doesn’t come from a major label brainstorm, but has triumphed against the system on the merit of the passionate and almost animalistic desire to create some kind of meaningful substance. Indeed, Fat White Family are one of the very last of a dying breed.
Follow Ryan Bassil on Twitter.