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Escape Velocity

Kudos-Proof: An Interview With Decius
Patrick Clarke , January 21st, 2022 09:46

Fat White Family’s Lias Saoudi, Paranoid London’s Quinn Whalley, and Trashmouth Records’ Luke and Liam May discuss their sleazy, seedy new project Decius

Photo by Alex White

In 2013 Lias Saoudi, who was then laying low in Berlin after the recording of his band Fat White Family’s debut album Champagne Holocaust, went out to Berghain. He’d never had that much interest in electronic music before, but “a couple of my mates who dressed like characters from The Matrix were real techno heads, so I thought ‘I’ll give it a go.’” It ended up being completely transformational. “Everyone was naked, fucking each other on a cocktail of drugs and it never stopped. Nobody was the focal point, everybody was the frontperson. It was genuinely inclusive.” He realised that many of Fat White Family’s misgivings with the British indie rock scene that surrounded them during their rise to notoriety in the early 2010s - “how tame and redundant of any libidinal energy a lot of that was” - could be solved with the kind of spirit he found in the Berlin club. “It just made all of that other stuff feel utterly tepid. It was that place that I’d always imagined moving to London but never really found.”

In the days afterwards, he started to think about how he could bring that bacchanalian spirit to his own work. “If I could get back into that headspace I was in at the Berghain when I was doing the indie band onstage, where it’s not about anything other than expressing yourself in whatever freakish way it occurs to you in that moment, that would be a nice thing to import. It definitely planted a few seeds.” Later, he was speaking with brothers Luke and Liam May, whose label Trashmouth Records had put out early releases by The Fat Whites (and their predecessor The Saudis), about his experience. “It sounds exactly like the reason we got into dance music, but fifteen years earlier” says Liam, as he and his brother join Saoudi and I for drinks in a Brixton pub. “Why am I standing in front of a stage looking at some questionable hero? I might as well be looking in the mirror.”

Before they formed Trashmouth a decade ago, the May brothers had carved out their own successful career in dance music as the duo Medicine 8. After a period away from electronic production, they were just recently returning via a casual project with Quinn Whalley of the sleazy acid house duo Paranoid London, mainly as an excuse to socialise and have a drink. They decided to bring Lias in, whose perspective as an outsider was valuable. “Dance music can be quite conservative,” Liam continues. “It’s hard not to get channelled into the same sort of cul-de-sacs you’ve been down loads of times before. So when Lias came in it was somebody who didn’t have any kind of history with it or established reference point, so it went to other places you wouldn’t expect.” The closest model Lias had was Alan Vega, “that kind of weird, degraded white boy soul kind of thing, where you think you’re a sex beast but you’re scared of your own shadow.”

The unsettling, quivering voice Lias employed worked perfectly with the muscular, sleazy beat that Luke and Liam gave him, and eventually it became Decius’ debut single ‘Come To Me Villa’. “We recorded in one long take, straight on the record, no edits necessary,” says Luke. Quinn wasn’t present for those initial recordings, but when he heard what they’d made, he tells me over the phone in a separate conversation, “it was just like, ‘bloody hell!’ It was completely different to all the other house music around. I just thought it was amazing. I was chuffed!” They released the track as a 12” via More About Music, the label of Paranoid London’s manager Mark Potts, without fanfare and without disclosing their personal identities. “It didn’t sell mega-well or anything like that, but loads of really cool people liked it.” It found early admiration from influential DJs like Jacob Meehan, Derek Plaslaiko and Dark Entries boss Josh Cheon, for example. The approval of gay and POC DJs like Mike Servito and Carlos Souffront were particularly validating. “We were homaging the kind of place where house music came from, gay, Black clubs in Chicago and New York, basically. We weren’t trying to package it in that way, but people picked up on that stuff without it being explained or explicit.”

Meanwhile, the project now known as Decius (named after the relatively obscure Roman Emperor remembered primarily for his brutality; the group employ a Roman laurel as a visual trademark), was remaining casual. Trashmouth’s HQ in South London became a space for no-judgement experimentation. “We’d just hit record, go for as long as we want,” says Luke. For all four of the musicians, it was something they deeply needed. “It was cathartic to come out of the Fat Whites, this horribly pressurised environment, and just do a day down at Trashmouth as a way to let off steam,” says Lias. “I didn’t have to consult with [bandmates] Saul [Adamczewski, lead guitarist] or Nathan [Saoudi, keyboard player and Lias’ brother], I didn’t have to deal with hype. Just go down to New Malden and howl some falsetto over a beat for a few hours. I found it therapeutic.”

In Fat White Family, he continues, “There was an element of chaos but it was always extremely tightly controlled and orchestrated. Saul was extremely controlling in lots of ways. That’s not to discredit him, we needed that structure, but having been in that constrained position for so long, to just be like, ‘Here’s a beat, do what the fuck you want for ten minutes…’ that felt a lot more akin to the way we perform live, where you’re just howling whatever syllables come into your mouth. For me, the reins were off.” For the others, too, the project was a release. Like Lias, the Mays know the stresses of brotherhood in music. “Working together as just the two of us for so long, we do each other’s heads in,” says Liam. “But when the four of us get together, it’s like we’ve got to that point where we realise that any conflict is just not necessary. If you don’t like something, don’t do it then.”

They met up sporadically, about once every month or two. Momentum built, but very gradually at first. “It was really nice to just let Decius breathe,” says Quinn. ‘Come To Me Villa’’s initial non-descript launch was back in 2014 (at the beginning of last year it received a more publicized re-release as a full EP), with further one-off releases coming once a year in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Eventually, though, they started to build up a substantial catalogue, “so we thought we should start acting in a way that’s more like someone who actually wants to do something,” Liam jokes. It was Quinn’s idea to start booking some early live shows, the most pivotal of which was at 2019’s Glastonbury Festival. One of the people behind the festival’s high-concept clubbing area Block9, Gideon Berger, had been one of those early fans of ‘Come To Me Villa’, and he booked Decius for a brief live slot at the zone’s central queer club The NYC Downlow, which was modelled after New York’s legendary 80s venue Paradise Garage.

It did not go quite as planned. The magic mushrooms Lias was using to calm pre-show anxiety at the time had not arrived as he’d planned, so he broke his own code to never take cocaine before a gig. “I was really nervous,” he recalls. “It was a club, everyone was super hip, it wasn’t my patch. So I just did way too much Charlie.” With Luke, Liam and Quinn playing behind him in custom-built black boxes, he strode out onto the catwalk stage in a gold suit, doing his best to impress the “disgustingly beautiful people absolutely everywhere” as he strutted, but when it came time to sing his first note, he instead vomited all over the stage and audience.

Nevertheless, Lias styled it out. “You just quietly curse the day you were born until it’s over, channel that self-despising energy, and then it’s the end,” he says. “It went down really well!” insists Quinn, who says the gig in fact ended up being pivotal in inspiring the band to keep stepping things up. “The NYC Downlow is outrageous, anyone would kill to play there, and this is when Decius was a reall small thing that not many people knew about,” he continues. From then on, “We’ve really been punching above our weight in terms of where we’ve played so far.” He cites raucous shows at Fold in Canning Town and a New Year’s Eve show at the now defunct Tottenham club The Cause, as similarly important.

Photo courtesy of Decius

By now, momentum was ramping up exponentially. “As soon as we got some live gigs we started getting it together a bit more,” says Quinn. “We definitely justified our bookings once we played.” Yet the band still tried to keep an emphasis on things remaining hassle free. When the pandemic ended more or less all live music for the duration a few months into the following year – Fat White Family’s 2020 touring schedule was wiped out in an instant – Decius’ informality meant they weathered the storm quite easily. “At that point we had an album recorded, so we just started recording another,” says Luke. “One ready to go now, then another to follow quite quickly afterwards.”

As they put out more singles in the build-up to their debut album (Decius Vol I, released on May 13 via their own label Decius Trax), the band also started releasing visuals that stepped out from behind the relative anonymity of their early days. Their first proper video, ‘U Instead Of Thought’, was released last Summer, featuring Lias painted as a geisha, opening and closing a parasol in time with the track’s grubby beats. ‘Macbeth’ followed it in November. It employs a similar off-kilter aesthetic, shots of Lias buzzing around manically behind contortionist and circus performer Ephyra Ana as she stands perfectly still with an intense Mona Lisa stare, alternating with snippets of the frontman engaging in some enigmatic, submissive ritual. Their latest, for ‘Look Like A Man’ (premiering exclusively with tQ above), finds Lias – his features glamourised into the uncanny valley by augmented reality filter, his voice pitch-shifted up – looming and gyrating from a platform at The Cause.

Lias’ choice of clothing in ‘U Instead Of Thought’ might cross one boundary too many for some, however. The band were surprised, they say, when some people they showed it to were concerned about their choice of imagery. Given Saoudi’s history of provocation with Fat White Family, it might be wondered whether he’s purposely looking to cause trouble by dressing as a geisha. For one thing, the obligatory press quote for the track saw Saoudi’s pseudonym ‘Meat Divine’ spinning a yarn about “The purity of the connection you had with one of your clients - a Lib Dem MP - who used to make you dress like a geisha whilst peeling a never-ending mound of organic carrots in a Raddisson Hotel suite.” Saoudi, however, rejects those accusations. Instead, he says he was inspired by his recent viewing of David Cronenburg’s M. Butterfly, in which a French diplomat falls in love with a traditional Chinese opera performer who is in fact a male spy in disguise as a woman. “There’s a scene at the end when Jeremy Irons cuts his own throat in prison, and it’s just a continuation of that sentiment,” he argues.

In terms of capturing and amplifying the sleazy wrongness of Decius’ music, at least, the videos are a success. There’s no deeper concept behind them – and no deliberate provocation, they insist – other than doing just that. “I hate videos that don’t have rhythm, some are really elaborate and have a story or whatever, but most of the time I think they detract from the music,” says Luke. Ultimately, it all comes back to the central philosophy that emerged when they first started messing around after Lias’ Berghain trip – the casting off of outside pressures, an emphasis on release. It’s an ethos they intend to keep sticking to. “The only thing that could destroy us is even a modicum of success,” Lias jokes. “When you’ve got a new project, there’s that sweet spot at the beginning when everything’s just for your own amusement. It’s really hard to find that place again once it’s got some kudos, then you’re suddenly in this hall of mirrors of anxiety and expectation. This was definitely the most fun I’ve had making record, and hopefully we’ve engineered it so it’s kudos-proof. We’ll kill it before it grows!”

Decius' debut album Decius Vol I is released on May 13 via Decius Trax