Fat White Family's Sexed-Up Ketamine Voyage to (Near) Recovery
How Britain's fierce anomaly of a band lost a songwriter and came back from the brink to release smooth and sleazy comedown album 'Serfs Up'.
All photos by Jake Lewis
Fat White Family and I are talking about sex appeal, because Fat White Family have become sexier than ever. That’s right: the infamously grotty south London band got fresh, got (sorta) clean, then stuck a Wham! record (the B-side to “Club Tropicana”) on repeat until they figured out how to make a new album, initially without the input of their chief melodic virtuoso Saul Adamczewski.
There were fuck-ups along the way, of course, but that’s all part of the process. “I think you have to fail to understand things and become sexier,” says keyboardist Nathan Saoudi. Despite feeling “ill”, he’s sporting a healthy sun-kissed glow and Daz white teeth (he says he brushes three times a day). Next to him is brother and frontman Lias, also looking rather wholesome, chatting over fish and bread and half-pint glasses of beer in the boujee restaurant next to their rehearsal space.
When we meet, their third album Serfs Up! is on the horizon (it came out on Friday 19 April) and the band are rehearsing for a series of in-stores before setting out on tour. Trouble is, half of them have stopped turning up to practice. So that leaves just me and the Saoudi brothers, talking about how “men blossom in their early thirties.” It’s a side-chat in our much larger convo about what’s gone on since they released Songs For Our Mothers and headlined Brixton Academy three years ago – a time that seemed to be the end of the group, and – as Lias tells it – almost was.
“[After Brixton] we just went into meltdown – the sort of classic stereotypical drug meltdown. And we were completely burnt out... we didn't exactly get dropped from our label. What happened?”
Nathan butts in to help Lias out on the label front: “It’s the taxi analogy.”
What’s the taxi analogy?
“When someone doesn't want you at their house, so they pay for a taxi for you to leave.”
“Yeah, so you're not getting thrown out, you know what I mean? But…”
Incentivised to leave by being offered a far less than lucrative deal, it was Domino Records founder Laurence Bell who stepped in to save the group. Lias had presented him with a plan: move the band to Sheffield for a year or two to establish a smack-free environment and their own space to write and record an album, on their terms. And surprisingly (or perhaps not?) the label went for it. “Either because they believed in us or because they'd put so much money into publishing that they thought 'we might as well give it one last run.’” First stop though: getting clean.
Saul went to New York to work on stuff with his other band Insecure Men; Lias to Cambodia and Laos, where he developed “a deep romance” with a Lebanese/Nigerian guy called Ali, the two of them riding around on a motorbike together; and Nathan to Mexico. Why there? “Well I went to try and get clean because I don't feel well,” he says, “but I just got… fucked. On mescal and cocaine and stuff like that.” Which sounds… not good? “Mescal is the best liquor, you drink a bottle of that, and you go nuts. I advise it.”
Just like Shaun Ryder, who said in a recent interview you could “slap a line out on the pool table and roll a joint” and get “a double-page spread [in a magazine]”, Fat White Family are open about their drug use. It’s part of their story, it’s brought them eyes, it’s been mentioned six times in this piece already. But it’s also problematic, with various members jettisoning in-and-out of the group to various rehabs/binges. Drugs are responsible for many of their ups-and-downs. They’re why Nathan had a gun held to his head in Mexico – “I just gave him like, a couple of hundred Pesos and begged for my life, giving it the whole "please please, por favor!" and he didn't shoot me. Or maybe I'm now living in an alternate reality.” And they’re rooted in the sleazy, k-hole direction of this new record.
Yep: Fat White Family got off the smack, then got on the horse tranquilizer. Grams and grams and grams of the stuff. Some weed too. When they initially arrived in Sheffield, creating an album seemed like an insurmountable problem. “How do we do Fat Whites without the main songwriter, and how have we ended up here in this terraced house in Sheffield?” questions Lias, first with an air of puzzlement, then despair. “And is this like, a bridge too far; is this a horrendous waste of my energy, and should I have just let it die; is fear just keeping me here... in that, like, what else is there for me to do?”
And then out came the ket.
With Saul still not completely back in the group, the original songwriting partnership of him and Lias was put on pause and Nathan moved into the fold. Alex White – saxophonist and a new member of the group who the brothers maintain they first met when, as a newfound festival friend of Saul’s, he joined them on stage at Glastonbury (you can’t make this stuff up) – came on board too. His pawprints can be heard all over the record, notably on “Vagina Dentata” (a sax is hard to ignore). But the first of these songs, and the first one the Fat White’s released as a single, was “Feet” – written primarily by Nathan (his original version exists as the b-side on the physical 7” single).
So how did the two brothers go about writing songs together when they hadn’t before, not without Saul in the group? Nathan answers in a way that reads and sounds comical but is deadly serious: “I just kept playing, you know? Like, just kept playing. When there's nobody else there to do the job you just do it yourself. I think it's as simple as that, just keep doing it. What are you? I’m in a band. What are you going to do today? I’m going to keep playing.”
Lias continues: “It wasn't like we were battered out of our faces on ketamine constantly. He'd be there with a Yamaha keyboard and I'd sing over the top or I'd sit with a guitar. You know, and that's just what you do.”
Lyrically, Lias says the album is more an excavation of himself than anything else thus far. In practice? “It's a similar kind of subject matter to before, just refined and closer to the essence that drove me to write in the first place: narcissism, collapsing masculinity, sexual confusion, all that kind of stuff. All the good stuff.” This topic of sexual confusion is most overt on “Feet”: a homoerotic marching number with lyrics like “I could not believe it / I could not believe my eyes / the thing that I saw down there / down beneath your thighs”, looking at women but now seeing other men and a number of semi-shielded references to dicks. There’s a definite sense of male-on-male attraction in the video too (watch below) – full of strokes on cheeks, licking lips and one suggestive out of shot hand movement.
Elsewhere, the band explore a life among new-found riches/hang-out spots (ie, their famous friends: see Sean Lennon; or the line “tried to finger my way home via the Hollywood hills”) on second single “Tastes Good With The Money” – one of the other songs that Nathan brought to the table. Shot on location in a house adjacent to Hampton Court Palace, the Róisín Murphy-directed video sees the band playing a bunch of rich toffs (watch above). Baxter Dury features on the track too, with all the poise and presence of a coked-up art dealing grandaddy. At this point I wonder whether Fat White’s still see themselves as separate to a lot of the other guitar bands that are going on; all the cheap rip-offs that came in their wake. Lias laughs. “I don’t see it as a guitar band anymore. It’s a…” – and in comes the narcissism and a grin – “national treasure? We’ve been too kind. I don’t know.”
Pause though, for a second: what about their recent spat with both Idles and Sleaford Mods, where they called the former “self-neutering middle class boobs” and said the latter “keep banging on about shit wages and kebabs”? Weren’t they mates with Sleaford Mods? What happened there? “Yeah, I chat to Jason sometimes on Facebook, and I apologised to him for that jab. But he did write a song called ‘The Six Horsemen, The Brixtons’, which was a complete pisstake of Fat Whites, a few years back, when we were really struggling, so I figured they're worth a jab aren't they. And we were just bitter because there's only two of them and they have no backline whereas we have to drag all this shit about and don't make any money.”
Lias continues, sniffing and not riled up: “The difference between Idles and Sleaford Mods is massive. They have something raw about them, Sleaford Mods. There's a sensibility there that's devoid of pretension, whereas that other thing [Idles] is aspiring to it, but it's ticking all the wrong boxes.”
Nathan jumps in, a little more antagonistic: “It's just for 15-year-old idiots that refuse to be called stupid themselves.”
Then Lias continues on: “There's nothing fuckable about Idles, despite their totemic belligerence. But there's something sexy about Sleaford Mods, it's brash and awful and sleazy. It isn't going around saying 'I need a sense of humour' and it has some erotic capacity to it.”
Have you brought a sleazy erotic sense into Fat White Family?
A grin: “Tried to over the years, yeah.”
Nathan smiles cheekily, displaying row after row of those immaculate teeth: “It was effortless for me.”
Once they’d demoed all the songs, Saul came back into the fold, as did the rest of the band, to start brushing things up. “Saul’s just got a really broad musical vocabulary, his references and everything – he's got a sort of scholarly approach to music that me and Nathan don't really have,” offers Lias. “He spends his days off or whatever trawling through labels and different music, he's like a magpie. And that's just to say nothing of his songwriting which he's brought in spades to this project as well.”
They wanted him back in the band, they think Saul wanted back in too, so it was set. He brought in “Fringe Runner”, one of the best songs on the album and entirely coloured with his talent for sickly sweet, tar melodies – the kind that seeped into some of those early Fat White Family tunes. A few more sessions took place, then him, Nathan and Lias headed out to Norway. The guy that used to own The Queens – the storied south London pub where Fat White Family lived, worked (cooking pizza) and played live; and was also home to new up-starts Shame – has relocated over there. “It’s like the anti-Queens, it’s like a rehab centre” says Lias. “The Betty Fjord Clinic we call it.”
And then, once they’d returned, recording sessions for the album started proper? “That's when Nathan walked out on the whole process because he refused to work with Saul and the whole thing kind of went ugly for a while and cast a shadow over everything.”
Oh. Well, what I saw recently – in an interview with The Quietus – is that you’d been arguing over who wrote what, and how the original versions of the songs were better than others, and all sorts of stuff.
“Lias you're not allowed to answer this question,” says Nathan, having perked up from the sofa. Lias leans in and politely speaks directly to me: “Can we not answer this question because it's going to be a bickering match and I'm not really willing to have that right now.”
Nathan pipes up: “You don't tell people that, he's being a cheeky cunt - you're not answering that, it's the discretion of the artist.”
“Well everything in an interview is the discretion of the artist.”
“Yeah but I know you can get fooled by questions.”
“Oh you know I can get fooled. it's like that is it? ... Well: he's got his argument now!”
No, I just want the credits! As it turns out, they’re on the album sleeve notes but they don’t have the percentages. So there’s that. In either case it’s good to see Nathan step up his role, working with his brother, as well as newer members like Alex White joining core Fat White Family member and guitarist Adam J Harner. By his count Lias reckons Fat White Family have gone through 25 different members – sacking drummers, managers, the like. But the core day-one group remains: Lias and Nathan Saoudi, Adam J Harner and Saul Adamczewski.
Still, as always with Fat White Family, things are up in the air. Saul joined them onstage at a February gig in the Lexington – where, it has to be said, we had a chat and he seemed the healthiest and most lucid I’ve ever seen him; as did the rest of the band – however he wasn’t at their recent Rough Trade in-store. On the day we meet it doesn’t seem like he’s been turning up to their rehearsals either. Though, I don’t prod the issue. As Lias says at one point, “Saul has to go on his sabbaticals, and do research and stuff like that... so we have to lose him to a higher purpose every now and then.”
But, against the odds, Saul or no Saul or a little bit of Saul, the Fat Whites have returned with a new album: one that isn’t as grotty poppy as fan favourites “Touch The Leather” and “I Am Mark E Smith” but does add a new shade to their repetoire. It’s a smoozy, dark yet relatively chilled out album: their ketamine and weed on a record. One of them ones for lazing into, soaking it in, finding the hidden depths.
I wonder: what’s the main thing the two brothers have learned from the process, writing together for the first time and in a different set-up, as well as being unsure on the entire future of the band and its core members? Lias goes first with a breath that combines sincerity and sarcasm. “Keep the faith I suppose, keep working, it isn't all doom and gloom if you give it enough time… and if you really want something then… believe in your dreams!”
What about you Nathan?
“I learned what not to do.”
“What? Smack and crack?” laughs Lias.
“No, loads of things. I've learned loads of things over the past two years,” he impresses, like a devious yet intelligent schoolboy. “What's that Aristotle quote?”
“Someday this war's gonna end?”
“No. There's only one evil in this world – ignorance.”
So: not Aristotle, unfortunately. it’s a misquote of a Socrates quote, but it’s close enough (and yes: I had to look that up on Google). The main thing is Fat White Family may not be fully clean, they may not be fully together. But they’re here with a new lease of life, they’re blossoming into their early thirties. “It's weird how this big set of problems turned into something positive in the end, when you support each other,” says Lias. Then on cue, comes Nathan with some knowledge on the trials and tribulations of not just being in a band but any life toil as a whole: “It's like a long walk or exercise or fucking diet change ... initially, it's like, ‘what the fuck’, but it's just a pre…”
“A prerequisite, yeah. To something that will be good. You just have to get through shit. I've done it enough times to know that it's obvious.”
Fat White Family play the first weekend of All Points East festival on Saturday 25 May, in Victoria Park, east London. You can nab tickets here.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.