Grotesque achievements, backroom wins and notable accomplishments from the British rock band Fat White Family include: jamming with Lady Gaga and Sean Lennon, producing a handful of the most triumphant live performances of the past decade (feat: various bodily fluids) and reinventing themselves, time and time again, in spite of multiple near break-ups, fall-outs and personal issues.
Their younger compadres, Working Men’s Club, are the kind of hyper-teenage crew whose music sounds purpose-built for taking ecstasy to. From Todmorden, a market town in Yorkshire, their teeth-grinding take on post-punk has inspired comparisons to acts like New Order and The Fall, via football hooligan house and synths that sound like they’re from a 1980s documentary on countryside raves.
Both groups operate in a similar sphere – they’ve toured together and, in one capacity or another, worked with Sheffield music producer Ross Orton, famed for co-producing Arctic Monkeys’ blockbuster AM album and razzing around on the drums for Jarvis Cocker’s first solo outings. Both groups have gone through multiple line-up changes. Both have opinionated frontmen.
Crucially, the two groups are also releasing new stuff. Earlier this week, on the 30th of March, Working Men’s Club released psychedelic rager “X” – a new track that stinks of sweat-soaked dancefloors and tightly packed festival tents. On Friday the 2nd of April, Fat White Family will drop Moonbathing in February, a “no budget DIY” film about “lust”, chasing the dream and working out what it means to be “in a band at this abysmal juncture in music history”.
Here, Fat White Family’s strong-cheek-boned frontman Lias Saudi, and Working Men’s Club curly-haired honcho Syd Minsky-Sargeant, came together to chat about their new releases – and in the process, they also spoke about life in lockdown, working class bands and weird experiences. Rob Doyle, the Irish novelist behind books like Here Are the Young Men and Threshold, steered the chat. Have a read below.
VICE: What are your thoughts on independent music venues?
Syd: They’re incredibly important. Most new artists have little to no money or experience when it comes to playing live, and the opportunities out there only come once you have a stage to share your music on. Without independent venues, artists would have nowhere to become accustomed to playing live, especially outside of cities. It’s one thing getting together in a bedroom or practice room – if you can afford one – and it’s another playing in front of an audience for the first time. These venues unite and inspire communities, as well as laying bedrock to aspiring musicians. It’s vital we do all we can to keep them alive. If not, the live music industry in the UK could quite easily crumble.
Lias: Much the same, really. It’s quality when you begin touring a lot and you start to learn the ins and outs of all these little places. They’ve all got their own sort of social microclimate; they’ve all got a different air about them – these little communities spread out across Europe and beyond. The best ones are real labours of love – the people that run them are pure dedication. Tim Perry down at The Windmill is the best example I know of. Hebden Bridge Trades Club is an immaculate venue. Broadcast up in Glasgow. There’s loads of them. It would be fucking tragic if only half of them were left after all this shit goes down. They’re a key part of everything.
Do you think there are a lack of working class bands making music now, and if so: why?
Syd: Yeah, I think that goes without saying. All you need to do is switch on the radio to hear that. There aren’t enough opportunities for the working classes in our society creatively. Britain has an amazing musical heritage, which we have the working classes to thank for. The industry and government needs to reintegrate the less privileged people in our society and create more equal economic opportunities.
Lias: Do I think the scene has become really gentrified? That being in a band is fast becoming pretty much solely a middle-class pursuit? I think it’s pretty undeniable now, really, yeah. There’s a bit of evasion going on lyrically these days. There’s a kind of feeling that people have to express themselves the right way; a best-not-rock-the-boat vibe permeating the culture. The real problem with committing yourself to a band though – and I’m sort of speaking from experience here – is that you could wake up ten years later having just fully, irredeemably ruined your life, leaving yourself no way of clawing back any decency when it all comes crashing down.
If you have no safety net, if your family are proper skint, it’s a risky business, isn’t it? It’s easier to fuck about with music for the time period it inevitably demands, if you know you’ll be able to sort yourself out at a later date. It’s not just a question of money: it’s status, connections. You can build a different kind of a life for yourself at any juncture if you’ve got those things around you; if they’re woven into your social fabric from day dot. Whereas, if there’s no bottom beneath which you can fall, you can just end up completely destitute, mentally ill and quite probably addicted to drugs. The stakes are higher the further down the ladder you start from.
You guys have toured together. What is the best night out you’ve had together on tour?
Lias: Do you remember any of those nights, Syd? You’ll be better at remembering this, I’m too old and jaded to remember anything from any tours.
Syd: I don’t have any particular memory, but there was one night we had that was pretty mental. After you DJ’d, I think it was? [It was] sometime between tours.
Lias: Oh yeah, when your pal started going full flat earth on us? This next level psychedelic ranger who had obviously done ALL of the drugs invited us back to his house after the gig, and he was like, “Right: this is the normal acid, this is the one day and this is the three-day acid,” all of which we had the good sense to turn down.
Syd: He said he’d been in the British army, and that while he was flying over Afghanistan one time he’d spotted a bunch of giant lasers – fields full of these lasers.
Lias: Then he was saying that the moon wasn’t the moon – that it was actually a giant strobe light, insisting that we also live in a strobe light or something like that.
How important have Sheffield and Ross Orton been to you?
Syd: Ross is just an all round top bloke, and a real producer who only cares about doing what is right for the music. As well as being someone I work with on a creative level, he’s always there emotionally and as a friend – I have a lot to thank him for. We need more Rosses.
Lias: The guy’s a bit of an angel, isn’t he? While we were going through that fucking nightmare with the last record, he was always solid, man. Solid as a rock. He just let us borrow half of his studio. Can we have your mellotron? Can we have your synths? Can you come in and help us engineer our album please? All kinds of shit, man. Mad helpful. I miss getting on the session with Ross.
Syd: Coming back to that working class thing as well, he is one of the last remaining working class musicians [working with bands] who has made it completely off their own back. Like, he worked in a steel factory and thought, ‘Fuck this I’m gonna play drums!’
Syd, this one’s for you. Can you tell us a little about your introduction to 808s and drum machines?
Syd: I was a skint teenager and I wanted to start making dance music, so I bought a 505 [synthesiser], which I thought was a cheap 808 [synthesiser], but it sounds nothing like an 808. So that shows how clueless I was at 14 or whatever. I spent all my money on that 505, but it’s a lot easier than having a drummer, do you know what I mean?
Lias: I’ve worked with more than my fair share of problematic drummers, so yes. I do think there is something about that role in particular that invites a certain breed of head-case. Maybe it’s because they’re the only ones that are actually physically kind of fit? The rest of the band can adjust to periods of tour stasis more easily. Drummers have all of this mad energy brewing inside of them that has nowhere to go. Not much of a theory, but there it is.
Lias, being the older person in this conversation, do you find it important to help out younger people in bands?
Lias: I only help Syd out because he’s gorgeous! No, I think it’s great to be doing it for ten years and then be like, “Yeah, don’t do this, maybe try this, definitely don’t do that.” You’ve got the lay of the land, have been burned a bunch of times – it feels nice that some of that experience might be worth something to other folks getting started. Passing the shitty torch on down to a new generation, what could be more crucial than that?
How did you both find lockdown? And can you tell me one book, song or film that was prominent during lockdown that meant something to you?
Lias: My lockdown consisted of mainly two songs: Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time” and Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman”. The production on both is kind of disgusting in lots of ways, kind of gloriously pathetic, which seemed more than apt given the world we were then waking up to; a kind of flaccid apocalypse.
Syd: You come out of extensive touring and you’re just destroyed, so I was actually quite happy about [the lockdown] at first, but now I’m just utterly miserable.
I’m assuming you should have been about to tour your album now, but it’s all off. Is that correct?
Syd: Yeah, I mean I guess it’s a lot easier when you know everyone else has had their work cancelled – as bad as that sounds. It’s just easier to digest. I feel lucky as a writer I can come out of touring and just step back into the headspace of writing and recording, so it’s not all bad.
Any new music that you’re currently into?
Lias: I’m trying to think of something new. I listen to a bit of Paranoid London – that’s the newest thing I’ve listened to in a few months. I don’t listen to much new music really.
Moving into a slightly more literary topic – Ben Myers, the novelist, seems to be a big fan of both of your bands. In The Guardian, he said he wants the national anthem to be written by Fat White Family. Then, on Instagram, I saw he was talking up Working Men’s Club. Has he been an influence on you in any way, or do you read his novels? What’s the connection?
Lias: Him and his wife, Adelle Stripe, who I worked on a Rough Trade edition with, used to live right up the corner from where Saul lived in Peckham way back when. I’m not sure if they were acquainted back then, but I think they were always aware of each other. The Offing, I really enjoyed. I thought it was a real breath of fresh air, [though] it’s not my natural fodder. It’s mad, the vocabulary the guy has, especially where the natural world is concerned. I tend towards a more claustrophobic, narcissistic kind of literature, which is just a mirror of the mess you have bubbling away within yourself. It’s nice to have someone – I wouldn’t say sentimental – but someone who colours the world in like that, in such a delicate and loving kind of way. It’s quite an opulent way to write, I guess. Whether it’s an influence on me or not I couldn’t really say, but I think anything you read kind of has a chance of popping out the other end. It’s all kind of in there, isn’t it?
Syd: I guess after they moved from London they moved where I live, so I’ve kind of known them from being around the local area.
Where are you living?
Syd: Todmorden, so it’s really not far at all. I guess some of the more recent books Ben and Adelle have written have been based around this area. The context of some of my album is, in some respect, writing about similar things. But yeah: it’s nice to be appreciated by much, much better writers. It’s a nice feeling. It’s like: ‘I’m shit and you’re really, really good.’
What’s the best and worst city to play?
Lias: The worst city I’ve ever played a gig in is probably Pontiac, Michigan. The best are Glasgow and Manchester. Newcastle is also really good.
Syd: The best: Manchester and Glasgow.
What’s the best and worst lyric you’ve ever written?
Lias: The worst lyric I’ve ever written, hands down, is “Breaking into Aldi”. I can’t stand it. Sometimes I just sit up at night shivering with raw shame having produced that and put it out into the world…
Syd: That’s the only lyric of yours I like Lias.
Lias: And my favourite is probably the one I wrote about an old pal of mine on the last record – Alex Sebastian Sebley of PREGOBLIN. It’s called “Oh Sebastian”. It’s about the vampiric stuff that inevitably goes down when fully grown egomaniacs bond.
Syd: The worst? Probably one of the lyrics in “Cook a Coffee”, which is pretty dire. “You look like a book.” It’s basically summing up the idiocy of existence as a child. Yeah, that’s really bad, that. Favourite is: “You look like a cunt.” That’s probably the best one. I brought it back in the second verse, I liked it so much.
What’s the weirdest fan experience you’ve seen or had on tour?
Lias: We were doing a gig in north London at that place Nambucca – I must have told this story a million times – and there was all this white powder in the air, like somebody had got a load of talcum powder on the go in the mosh pit or something. We were all backstage, wiping ourselves down afterwards, wondering what to make of it. I stepped outside and this woman handed me a funeral programme, told me she’d just scattered her husband’s ashes at the gig, that he’d been cremated to the sound of “Bomb Disneyland”.
Syd: Fucking hell! I got groped once.
Lias: Me too.
Syd: It was pretty horrible, actually.
Lias, you’re doing a livestream this weekend. What do you think to the way that bands have adapted to live-streaming gigs? And what is Moonbathing in February all about?
Lias: I think it’s really commendable the way folks have tried to make the best out of a truly shitty situation. That being said, I haven’t really been tuning into anything. I’ve been too busy wallowing in self-pity. We thought we’d just make a little cowboy movie instead of live streaming a gig, which I guess is what Moonbathing in February amounts to. It’s a no budget, DIY portrait of that stage of the album-making process where you’re just throwing shit at the wall until something sticks. [It’s] an exploration of ancient Hastings and an attempt to work out what, if anything, it means to be in a band at this abysmal juncture in music history.
Syd, you’re releasing a new single this week. What was it like releasing an album without being able to tour it? What’s next?
Syd: It was strange to release an album and not tour it, but I feel extremely lucky that the record actually came out at all, to be honest. Touring the record would of been nice, but we’ll do that in time – it just is what it is. Despite lockdown, the music hasn’t stopped, so more music and, hopefully, a return to touring is what lies next.