South London's Fat White Family have earned themselves a reputation in recent months as one of the most discordantly shambolic, intrinsically subversive collectives on the circuit. Stories of cancelled gigs, borrowed then sold equipment and bizarre stage props (human excrement anybody..?) have followed them up and down the land, arguably making them one of the most controversial outfits to emerge from London's underground music scene in years.
More importantly, they were also responsible for one of last year's finest debuts. Champagne Holocaust, initially released in April, impeccably highlighted their creative side. Fusing influences as disparate as The Fall, The Gun Club, The Country Teasers, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Birthday Party, its eleven tracks represent an innovative assortment of musical styles and ideas.
Nevertheless, it's their live show that has captured the nation's attention, with nearly every night of their first UK headline tour having sold out in advance. It's on the penultimate date of the tour, at Nottingham's Bodega Social where we catch up with tired vocalist Lias Saoudi. Having arrived at the venue over four hours later than scheduled - they were due to soundcheck at 3pm and arrived after doors opened at 7pm - the other members of the group (Saul Adamczewski - guitar/vocals, Adam Harmer - guitar, Joe Panucci - bass, Nathan Saoudi - keyboards, Dan Lyons - drums) search around frantically for equipment to replace that which was broken/stolen/lost at the previous night's show in Bristol. Introductions out of the way, let's meet the Fat White Family...
DiS: You've just one more show to go after tonight. How's the tour been?
Lias Saoudi: Just one more show indeed, praise the Lord! I'm fantasising about the last bars of 'Bomb Disneyland' tomorrow. Put the microphone down then I'm finished. I cannot wait for having three days of doing just nothing! Cannot wait... I'm seriously reconsidering my career choices. I now know why Nick Cave went off crooning ballads after being in The Birthday Party! But yeah, aside from that, this tour's been great. It's gone much better than I originally expected. I was worried we'd be playing to half-full venues, and almost every show's been sold out.
DiS: Some reviews have proclaimed Fat White Family as "the best live band in Britain" at this moment in time. Very high praise for a relatively new band like yourselves.
Lias Saoudi: I think it's just people waxing lyrical. Being in the band I can't really say whether we are or not. We try and give our all. That's why I say I can't wait for the tour to finish. At times it's been completely draining. Because we've been playing to loads of people every night each show has been crucial.
DiS: What's been your favourite date of the tour so far?
Lias Saoudi: I haven't done much touring before this, certainly not as the headline band anyway. My favourite show was probably Manchester. It was a really good night and it's important to me that it was so good, because that's where all my favourite music comes from. But I was also really ill that night. It was one of the hardest gigs I've ever had to do. I was wrapped in lots of towels backstage and it was horrible because they wouldn't put the heating on. I was proper ill for three days. I'd got really excited about going on tour and kicking the shit out of it and then my body just went boom... like I was in a coma. So, I spent the best part of those three days wrapped up, taking TCP. I just stopped taking drugs basically. I came on the road and stopped taking drugs, which is kind of ironic. People would be asking me, "Do you want some of this?" and I'd be saying, "No, I don't!" My body and hands all shivering and shaking. Last night in Bristol was really good actually. Everybody in the band just clicked. Sometimes we come off stage and end up having a scrap, sometimes it all comes together nicely. And I guess when it's like that it's the best.
DiS: Some of your live antics have been well documented, such as the "excrement incident" in Sheffield last week and other occurrences such as audiences being pelted with flour. Do you deliberately set out to shock every night, or are such instances quite organic?
Lias Saoudi: We sometimes do things like that for a laugh. I don't really think about it. There isn't any kind of plan. Nothing's premeditated. If I end up completely naked covered in flour and oil it's because I found a bag of flour at the back of the venue and thought it would be funny to do so. I come from the school of thought that says you've got to try everything once. But I don't want to go too far down the GG Allin road again. That Sheffield gig was like having a force field around me. The crowd kept moving back about two meters away from me every time I tried to go near them. I suppose thinking about it having someone come near you that's smeared themselves in their own shit is pretty horrible. I did it as a protest because the venue only gave us two drinks tokens each. And we'd just drove all the way across the country to play there. So it was my dirty protest, Maze Prison style, do you know what I mean? Two drinks tokens, so I went all Bobby Sands on them. They had nice burgers but two drinks tokens? I want a nice shot of tequila before I go onstage. I mean, it's not something I'd do all the time and I guess it does detract from the music, but sometimes you just need to go a bit mad.
DiS: Debut album Champagne Holocaust initially only came out as a low key release through your Bandcamp page. Were you surprised how many people latched onto it so quickly and ultimately, how many end of year "Best Ofs" it featured in?
Lias Saoudi: We really didn't expect that to happen at all. We made the album and then we all left the country. We spent a year making it, mostly at weekends or through the night after people had finished work. But in the meantime we'd been saving up. The whole plan was to move to Barcelona. And then we got there and realised it was kind of shit. Musicians aren't allowed to busk which is how we were planning on surviving. So yeah, we made it, put it online and then just fucked off out the country. We didn't promote it or put it on anybody's desks. We did nothing whatsoever.
DiS: There's a varying range of sounds and styles across the record. Is that an equal representation of each band member's influences?
Lias Saoudi: I guess so. Me, Nathan and Saul all lived together for a very long time and we're all into the same music to varying degrees. When we started the band we wanted it to be a folk-country kind of thing, but for me The Fall was a big influence. I had my own wild grotesque obsession with them for about three years. There was never a plan for the record to sound like any of our influences. It's just what we were all listening to at the time really. And there was no kind of vein or style we set out to become either. It was just our own fruity little world we'd created in our living room. So every now and then we'd go and play an acoustic club or something.
DiS: How does the songwriting process work? Do you all have an equal share in it?
Lias Saoudi: Primarily it's me and Saul. Generally, he comes up with the melodies and I come up with the lyrics. But there is a grey area there and sometimes he'll write the lyrics and I'll do the music. The rest of the band contribute as well. Sometimes we write things together, other times it's like a game of ping pong where we end up going backwards and forwards with stuff.
DiS: What about your videos? 'Cream Of The Young' in particular being quite striking for its visual content.
Lias Saoudi: That was directed by a guy called Robert Rubbish. He did our artwork for the album as well. We became a little bit estranged from him because he was our manager very briefly. We replaced him with a guy who is an actual band manager rather than have someone play at being Malcolm McLaren for a couple of weeks. 'Touch The Leather' we did with Roger Sargent. It was his idea to get the shotgun, but at the same time we have a pretty heavy involvement with most of them. It's important to get the aesthetic right.
DiS: Do you think having the right visuals to accompany your music is as important as the songs themselves? In terms of selling the overall brand or product as it were, at any rate?
Lias Saoudi: We to do whatever we can to get people in the room. When you have no money to hand and no backing, you end up resenting a lot of the music that is getting attention. For example, there's a lot of ersatz psych going around at the moment. I hate seeing all these Home Counties public school psych rock bands playing Shepherd's Bush Empire when they're still relatively unknown. I think it's wrong.
DiS: You set up a Pledgemusic site recently to fund your South-By-Southwest shows and US tour, which achieved its target within two weeks. How difficult is it for bands to make a living in the current climate? Survive even.
Lias Saoudi: The more people the band has become in the last year, the more unliveable my life has become as a result. I used to have a job making pizzas and I occasionally taught English as well. I was also signing on, working on the blag so I could get my housing paid for. So I had a pretty comfortable set-up with a nice flat. I was earning a bit of money. Enough to afford to move to Barcelona for a while. But then as the band became more popular you can't sign on every week when you're going on tour, so you lose your housing benefit as a result which means you lose your house. And then I had to miss shifts at work because of band commitments like touring so I've ended up with absolutely no income at the mercy of landlords. You then become this burden on all of your closest friends because you're staying at their house for days on end. They're feeding you every day and paying for you to go out, but then when you go out people come up to you saying the band's great and really you just want to tell them to fuck off because struggling to survive is not that great. So if I'm not doing the music I tend to end up hibernating in one of the pubs on Stockwell Road, sitting in whichever room no one else is in. Which is terrible for your health. Hopefully we'll have a few things sorted in the next couple of months. A little bit of cash coming in. It's definitely picking up now, which is great, but the last six months have been gruelling. It can put a real strain on all the relationships within the band. It's not been easy.
DiS: One of the pledges involved you recording cover versions chosen by the pledgers themselves. What did they choose for you? Have you recorded any of these yet?
Lias Saoudi: One of our friends Clarence Baker asked us to cover 'Love Lust' by King Charles. We've got a King Charles hate club going on so it will be the worst thing we've ever recorded! I can't remember what the other requests were but I'm sure we'll have a laugh doing them. The whole Pledge thing went much better than I thought it would, although nobody's ordered a massage. My little brother (Nathan Saudi, keyboards) has got to cook three roast dinners. Some lord has ordered one. He's got to round to this member of the aristocracy's house and cook him dinner. He's pledged for a private gig as well. We had some criticism off some people for using Pledgemusic but to me it makes perfect sense. It also cuts out the middle man, and I'm all for that. The possibilities on the Internet are endless. It's the only redeeming feature of this brave new world.
DiS: You've released a couple of singles since Champagne Holocaust came out that weren't on the album. Does that mean work on the follow-up is already at an advanced stage and almost ready to go?
Lias Saoudi: No, it's nowhere near ready to go. 'Wet Hot Beef' and 'Touch The Leather' are obviously there, and I think the next single will be a song called 'I Am Mark E Smith'. There are probably about half an album's worth of songs for the next album. It's not something I would want to rush. I want to do it like we did before. Sometimes it's easy and sometimes it can be difficult writing new stuff.
DiS: What about signing to a label? Would you ever work with a major should the opportunity arise?
Lias Saoudi: I think our plan is to start a label. Outside of publishing this is what we want to do. And maybe get it funded from up above, so if that involves a major label then so be it. It is a little bit risky but then we've taken risks all the way through. The first record was just us with no money but we got there in the end without a PR working our press or a booking agent. We did as much as we possibly could on our own. All the artwork was produced by us. So we're pretty much a DIY collective anyway. With a little help on the technical administrative side of things I think we could handle running our own label as well.
DiS: There does seem to be a lot more bands coming through who have adopted a similar DIY approach. Hookworms for example have also gone on record saying they don't need a manager, booking agent or PR.
Lias Saoudi: We do need a manager, to a certain extent anyway. There are six people in the band and we're an abrasive group of characters. It can get a little mad at times so we do need someone outside of that group, i.e. a manager, to keep everything together. Sometimes when you're on tour, no one would check the band's email account for two weeks or whatever. Little things like that. But if left for a long period of time can become quite a task. I'm not the most organised person either. I need to be told what I'm doing the next week.
DiS: You make a big point of emphasising the band being from South rather than East London. Do you see yourselves as a reaction to that whole Shoreditch/Hoxton/Dalston scene?
Lias Saoudi: We were in a punk rock band before that, never really tried to do anything. It was just an excuse for us to go out on the lash. So we used to play on that East London circuit in all the pubs round there. We did consciously fuck all that off. There were just so many careerist pricks trying to climb the ladder. All out there schmoozing with everything lined up. They're very self-conscious, almost being in a theatre rather than a band. That's not what inspired me to get into music. It says nothing to me about my life. So we ended up renting a house in Peckham and didn't go out much. It was definitely kid of anti all that kind of shit. I think most people thought we'd just dropped off the face of the earth by that point. They thought we were bums and wouldn't give us the time of day. Whereas now they invite us to all these cool parties and spend all their time kissing our arses. And we're all, "Fuck off!", you know what I mean? I've found my life slipping off the edge before. I left art school and went on the dole for a few years. I just felt totally disillusioned. Frustrated, dejected, angry, skint... nothing. That's why I make music, to reflect how disgusted I am with everything.
DiS: There does seem to be a very safe, middle ground mentality adopted by so many artists at present. Why do you think very few bands are making intelligent social commentaries nowadays?
Lias Saoudi: As soon as someone has an opinion you have people with the opposite opinion. You then end up on one side or the other. So in order to go through life without reading nasty comments about yourselves most just tend to go straight down the middle and say nothing. If you want to put yourself in the public arena as an artist and share your ideas it can be quite an intense experience for anybody. That's why I think a lot of people struggle with the idea of going out and saying what they think, even though they might occasionally get it wrong. It's more about opening up a debate than giving the answers. I don't have any answers, but at least I'd ask some questions. It's that fear of being pulled to pieces by people. I used to feel like that. It took me a long time to get over that anxiety. I used to be in another band and we would be like that, all swagger and getting loads of coke in and partying. It took me a long time to sit down and reassess what I was doing. It was really terrifying - still is - and I suppose it always will be. So I think that's why most artists tend to prefer going straight down the middle. Because they can and it's easy.
DiS: It goes back to what you were saying earlier. Some people use art as expression which is how it was intended, others use it primarily as a career. An alternative 9-5.
Lias Saoudi: Art is something everyone should be entitled to, not just posh kids. I don't come from a public school background. I don't actually have any natural talent or ability. I dread going to band practices. I get abused for my timing. I can play but I'm just not that good! It's the whole amateurishness of being in this band I enjoy. I like that side of things. When it goes right it's perfect. It isn't that we don't take it seriously. We do. We work hard, have a high level of focus and commitment. The worst thing about being in this band is we're always broke. That's when things can get a bit slippery. What irritates me is when people call us shocking for writing something like 'Cream Of The Young'. Shocking? Is it fuck. Half the BBC are up on paedophile charges. It's not exactly a dead topic is it? I've never considered that song remotely shocking. It' patronising when people say that.
DiS: Finally, are there any new bands you're particularly excited about at the minute?
Lias Saoudi: There's a bunch of stuff going on in London. When you go looking for it there's loads. Taman Shud who we did the EP with last year, Meat Raffle are great too. One of the guys from that band played trumpet on the same EP. They have this song called 'Nice Young Guy, Nice Young Girl'. I don't know if it's out there anywhere but it is one of the best new tunes I've heard in a long while. They sound a bit like The Fall. Pretty random. Basically they're a bunch of guys who can't really play. It's drenched in extreme left politics. It's weird and it's good. David Cronenberg's Wife are wicked too. Also, check out Flame Proof Moth. He's like delta blues mixed with The Fall. The lyrics are really dry, probably some of the best I've heard. I'm pretty sure Meat Raffle and Taman Shud are playing a gig together soon in South London.
Photo © Lou Smith.
More of his work can be found here.