For a moment, it seemed that Fat White Family had succeeded in its mission to self-destruct. One of the band’s leaders, Saul Adamczewski, was more or less kicked out of the band by the other, Lias Saoudi, with a request to visit rehab. Subsequently, the duo had more fun in their side projects than they ever had in Fat White Family. Yet this year, the London provocateurs released a new album, on which they sing about their fascination for everything dirty, addictive or downright terrible in a surprisingly addictive way.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Sure, a press day full of interviews can be quite comfortable. And Fat White Family is no longer an up and coming band. But it still feels strange to meet the threesome, who have struggled with financial insecurity since childhood, in a swanky metropolitan hotel. In the basement, mainstream Dutch rapper Lil Kleine is launching his new clothing line. On ground level, three striking figures in suits that are just a tiny bit too large, frolic around the revolving door. An extensive smoke break takes place after every conversation: after all, those skins do not remain so gray automatically.
A moment later, the brothers Lias and Nathan Saoudi plop down on a sofa in the darkest corner of the hotel’s restaurant. The next bag of weed is already ready on the glass table. Saul Adamczewski, whose bags beneath his eyes almost seem to cover his cheeks, stays behind at the revolving door, marveling at tourists with selfie sticks. The diabolical guitarist is like Murdoc Niccals from Gorillaz, but without a front tooth. “Just start, you know”, Lias chuckles. "I don't think he's coming."
Instead of Adamczewski, Nathan Saoudi acts as his big brother's sidekick for half an hour. Not much can be expected from him, it has to be said: Nathan slumps, listens only with half an ear and answers perhaps two questions. Every now and then he mumbles something in a dogged tone, but it's clear that Lias is having the conversation today. Nathan mainly seems to be sent along on the press tour because he has a fairly prominent role on Serfs Up, the new Fat White Family record that needs to be promoted. Here’s the deal: at the end of the tour cycle for Songs for Our Mothers (2016), Fat White Family was hanging by a thread. “You should not underestimate how intense touring is,” clarifies Lias. “You can't even read a good book. The back seat of our band bus became a kind of pressure cooker for confusion, paranoia and jealousy.”
Things didn't get better when Adamczewski's drug use—even by Fat White Family standards—started to spiral out of control. Adamczewski had become addicted to cocaine and heroin, and the fascinating and shocking tandem he formed with Lias broke down. Adamczewski left the band before the end of the tour. Partly at the request of his bandmates, partly for his own considerations.
Adamczewski went to rehab in Mexico and Vegas, but returned to the band last year to finish Serfs Up. In the meantime, he made another album with Insecure Men, a project with childhood friend Ben Romans-Hopcraft, also a member of the band Childhood. The two formed the band in late 2015, in the Queens Head, the infamous South London pub that Fat White Family once squatted. It’s where the band took their controversial photo in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's death in 2013.
Insecure Men made their album partly in New York, in the studio of Sean Lennon, son of. The record marked Adamczewksi's rebirth and his reconciliation with the Saudi brothers. They both contributed to the album. “That went really well,” Lias recalls. “We had both been apart for a while. I was in Southeast Asia for a while and Nathan in Mexico. There was not much pressure because it had nothing to do with Fat White Family. In retrospect, of course, it seems as if it should always have been this way.”
And so the prodigal son returned to the family feast last year. There was only one problem. Under the assumption that it might still be a while before Adamczewski would make his appearance again, Lias and Nathan had already started working on their next record. It was Nathan's first time to actively co-write an album. “Of course it was special to do everything with Nathan that I did with Saul before. But it was also refreshing. We made things that were much more melodic than anything we'd made before." 'Feet' for example, one of the first songs Nathan collaborated on; an almost-disco track also referring to rai, a folk movement from Algeria, where Lias and Nathan’s roots lie. “When Saul finally came back, he had to write things that matched what we had already done, for a change.”
Another change: Fat White Family moved. Under Nathan Saudi's inspiring leadership, the band packed their things, left London and found a new home in Attercliffe, an industrial suburb of Sheffield. They were able to rent an entire house in a good neighbourhood, set up their own studio and founded another side project, The Moonlandingz. “Sheffield is not such a social place,” Nathan explains. “There are fewer distractions than in London. Actually there is nothing to do. We could now put the energy that we normally wasted by slacking at all kinds of strangers into our music. We didn't go out, we just got drunk in the studio and worked on the record."
Drunk indeed, because the band used much less drugs than before. It doesn’t really mean anything in this case, mind you, because only heroin was strictly out of the question. The band still used some coke. “To stay awake.” And some LSD too. “Good for creativity. But all in all, we've become much calmer, mind you. At some point you will realize that your hangovers last longer and longer and that you can't have a weekend forever. We realize that we have a chance to make some really weird music, which not many people have these days. When we are forty or fifty, I want to be able to say that we took advantage of that opportunity. That we have made interesting work with interesting people.”
Interesting people have certainly been part of the Fat White Family universe in recent years. Over thirty people featured in the band, some longer than others. Dale Barclay, for example, the frontman of The Amazing Snakeheads, who filled in for Saul Adamczewski but died way too young last year from the consequences of brain cancer. “I've always seen The Fall as an example for our band,” says Lias. “Everyone is in the band and nobody is in the band. In the past, it was difficult to invite people from outside, because we could hardly tolerate each other and molested ourselves with hard drugs. Now everything was very open.”
On Serfs Up, Fat White Family worked with a large group of trained multi-instrumentalists, including new core member Alex White, Ben Romans-Hopcraft, the very young pop sisters Honey Hahs and the brothers Dante and Gamaliel Traynor. The album contains ballads with rich string arrangements ('Oh Sebastian', 'Rock Fishes'), a single that starts with Gregorian choral singing ('Tastes Good With The Money', a kind of apocalyptic 'Sweet Caroline') and a swinging chanson with smoky saxophones that could have belonged to Leonard Cohen ('Vagina Dentata'). “You ever get a feeling that nobody's listening for a very good reason?”, Lias doesn't croon completely in the latter. It's a phrase he first said when he got extremely nervous before a show with The Moonlandingz and started talking nonsense. But the rule actually also applies to Fat White Family, a band who in recent years have more than once made interesting statements about everything ugly in life, but also often fell into tasteless shock rock that used horrors like the Holocaust as material for jokes.
In 2019, Fat White Family approach the same subjects with more nuance, although they also take some distance from their fascination with totalitarian regimes. In the video for ‘Feet’, Lias stumbles naked across a battlefield, through a mighty city that has fallen. And in 'Kim's Sunset' he sings pityingly about Kim Jong-Un. “The song is about a dictator who is a bit tired of it, who watches over his empire while a lonely tear rolls down his cheek, completely bored. A man who sympathizes with his unused arsenal and lets his hand hover over the red button, doubting whether he should just end everything.”
In any case, on Serfs Up, Fat White Family put an end to their own dictatorship, to their desire for self-destruction. It is a – excusez le mot – mature record, which enables the band to go in all directions from now on. “No, I don't believe that anyone expected this record from us”, Lias chuckles. “I don't think anyone expected anything from us. People think we're naked drunks rolling around in our own feces, harassing everyone and writing horrible songs about rape. I like to maintain that image on social media. Then it's even funnier when people listen to this record and hear how sweet, melodic and seductive it really is.”
Serfs Up is out via Domino Records. Fat White Family will play on Saturday December 7 at Upon The My-O–My in Doornroosje and on Sunday December 8 in the Melkweg. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.