Dignity & Labour: Fat White Family Interviewed

Arrests in Algeria, family blood feuds, unreleasable drone music, permanently broken friendships, magic mushroom vomit... Fat White Family may be poised to release a brilliant new album Forgiveness Is Yours, but as he reveals to Daniel Dylan Wray, the stress of keeping the show on the road is becoming too much for Lias Saoudi. All portraits by Louise Mason

A few weeks ago Lias Saoudi was sitting in an Algerian police station sweating it out. He was sick and feeling worse by the second, as his head throbbed, body ached and nerves tightened.

For the last two days he’d been swaggering around the mountainous village where his Dad’s family hail from, dressed in a leather jacket, wearing blue contact lenses, smashing into people as a bootleg Richard Ashcroft while mimicking the video for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. This was not a music video for a Rolling Stones rip-off this time but instead for ‘Today You Become Man’, an intense spoken word free jazz meets blaxploitation era fusion song about DIY circumcision that sounds like a panic attack.

Just as they were landing the perfect final shot for the video, as masses of children flocked around Saoudi, they were swarmed by police and swiftly taken down the station. Sitting with his older brother, Tamlan, and a cousin, Saoudi could sense something wasn’t right. The look on his brother’s face began to sour and turn fearful as irate policemen started shouting at them. Tamlan then leaned over and informed his younger brother that they were going to have to do two weeks in prison.

“He nearly fucking had me, man!” laughs Saoudi today, as we sit in his living room in Brixton drinking herbal tea. The truth was they had been illegally filming a courthouse without realising and while they got a severe bollocking, the end result was just that they needed to fill out some forms. “I really didn’t want to be ill in an Algerian jail,” Saoudi reflects. “But I thought at least I might get an essay out of it.”

Writing essays and avoiding Algerian prisons is just some of what Saoudi has been up to in the five years since the last Fat White Family album. He also co-authored a best-selling book with Adelle Stripe, Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family And The Miracle Of Failure, joined a squelchy yet pummelling acid electro outfit Decius, played a bunch of solo shows, started work on a second Moonlandingz album, and began writing polemic columns for publications such as UnHerd. He now returns with the Fat Whites’ fourth album, Forgiveness Is Yours, a record that he describes the making of as being “a fucking marathon of weirdness, dysfunction and interpersonal mess.”

Founding member Saul Adamczewski left the band acrimoniously, and seemingly permanently, during the making of the album. Also Saoudi hasn’t spoken to his bandmate and brother Nathan Saoudi in months after becoming embroiled in what he describes as a bitter “blood feud” that has hit the family deep. “It’s been predictably chaotic, deranged, and dysfunctional in the most extremely self-defeating way,” says Saoudi. “It’s a shame because we were all kind of in a good place after the third album.”

However, despite the turbulence, the band has produced a fine album; containing some of their most ambitious and experimental music to date. Tracks such as ‘Bullet Of Dignity’ carry on the grubby disco chug of previous highs such as ‘Feet’, while ‘John Lennon’ sounds as if Fairport Convention went through an I’m Your Man-era Leonard Cohen phase and wrote songs about meeting Yoko Ono clattered on ketamine before becoming possessed by the spirit of a dead Beatle.

The album’s opener ‘The Archivist’ is delivered as straight poetry, with floating woodwind adding a strangely wholesome and bucolic feel as Saoudi delivers the grandiloquent spoken word track with a palpable smirk and wink. “I just thought it’d be funny to have a false flag beginning that was horribly indulgent,” he says. “Like, oh my god, Saul isn’t in the band anymore and this is the shit what they are doing. I was really trying to hit the beating heart of cliche.”

And as for the makeshift circumcision song mentioned above, in which the protagonist is duped into thinking he’s going book shopping before finding himself in the middle of convoy with guns being fired into the air before being deposited on a bog standard table in a house with his trousers down? That is the real life story of what befell his brother Tamlan at the age of five. “I’ve heard that fucking story so many times,” Saoudi says. “It is just something that he comes out with from time to time, so I didn’t feel guilty appropriating it. At least this way the next time he starts banging on about it when he’s fucked, I can just put the song on.”

The intensity and punch of the prose-like delivery was inspired by the author David Keenan. “I wrote that like five minutes after finishing This is Memorial Device,” he says. “Somehow his vernacular – as my big brother’s more Scottish than me – gave me access to Tam’s head somehow. It was almost like something straight out of that book in my head.” And how do the family feel about it? “I think my brother is into it but I don’t know what my dad makes of it. He’ll probably hear it at some point but I think it would just go completely over his head.”

While listening to the finished album, you wouldn’t necessarily detect it was rooted in disharmony and disarray. So what exactly made this such a nightmare? As with most bands, the pandemic hit the Fat Whites hard. Momentum stalled and the band lost the heightened sense of connection and drive that had been steering them forward collectively. They quickly realised that the band really needed, and relished, playing live together in order to keep the train on the tracks. It created a sense of equilibrium. “You do a gig and it doesn’t matter how much animosity or paranoia there is going on,” Saoudi says. “A good gig can just fucking wipe the slate. You have a good show and all is forgiven.”

So when they did all get together to make music, it wasn’t exactly clear what the next steps would be. “It was just panic attacks and cataclysms after another,” laughs Saoudi. “There was no plan. Actually, there was a plan: there’s a wall and then there’s these turds and you throw a turd at the wall and then another one, until some of the turds stick.”

And what was it that resulted in Adamczewski’s departure? “I just don’t think he really wanted to do it anymore,” Saoudi says. “I think on some fundamental level he couldn’t be fucked. Or he certainly couldn’t be fucked to work with me anymore. We were making these Glenn Branca-inspired monumental drone pieces and they were fucking great but we didn’t have any songs that had words on them. Me singing on them was like anathema [to him].”

Saoudi feels it was a form of sabotage in a way. “Saul was always trying to destroy the band since there was a band,” he says. “And I think it’s a strong aesthetic, that will to just fucking burn it down, and it’s something that made the band what it was. But this time it was just this bizarre dynamic – like a weird non-starter and our usual fusion just didn’t occur.”

Turns out recording an album of drone music with the lead singer almost entirely absent wasn’t really going to work. “We’d blown our entire budget on these really good drone tracks,” Saoudi recalls. “We spent like 20 grand but we’ve got these vocal-less pieces and that wasn’t gonna swim with the label.”

But given Saoudi and Adamczewski’s long standing and endless feuds and fallings out, along with the latter’s well documented heavy drug issues etc., is life not easier without him in the band? “It’s a shame that it’s not a full collaboration with him,” Saoudi says. “I can hear [that he is] missing. I’ve managed to squeeze in loads more lyrics and turn my vocals up but I can hear in the arrangement there should be a guitar solo here or a moody bit of choral stuff there.”

But does it remain a permanent exit? “It’s always permanent until the next time,” he laughs. “I would honestly never say never even though it’s been pretty fucking dark and nightmarish between us. It’s just sad more than anything else as it’s gotten to a point where we don’t even speak, which is a new development. Before it would come back around – it was never so final as all this.”

Saoudi had also come out the other end of lockdown as a bit of a changed person, which may have added to even more personality clashes. “I just couldn’t handle being in the psychological malaise of drugs as much,” he says. “You hit your mid 30s and the game is up. The high gets less and less, and the price goes up and up. And it’s just this law of diminishing returns. I can’t keep battering my head. There’s that Schopenhauer quote about when life is what happens to you before you’re 40 and then after that everything is the postscript. I wanted to get into the postscript a bit early.”

A combination of an increased interest in writing and reading books, along with an enforced period of quiet and focus, helped speed things up on this front. “I wanted to move on when I was 35 because it’s all a bit of a headache,” he says, now 38. “It’s one of those things where at the end of every single album, I’m like: I’m never fucking doing that again. I’m not working with these people. But then you go out and play gigs and this horrible cloud of delusion rolls back in and somehow you think things will be different. It’s a terrible loop you get stuck in. It’s just humiliating.”

Also, the death of a close friend in 2018, Dale Barclay of the Amazing Snakeheads, also impacted him hard. “That was a real perception shift,” he says. “I think that’s where a lot of the changes for me in terms of my attitude and settling down and all that kind of shit is rooted in. Because it’s like, right, so it is actually finite and all this is going to end. So what do you want to do? That question reasserts itself with more urgency.” Is death something Saoudi fears or thinks about a lot? “Do I fear it?” he asks, before a long pause. “I don’t think so. If I were to go next week it would be a shame but I would actually feel genuinely like, well, you know, I’ve seen a few things.”

Something that does hover over Saoudi with greater terror it seems is the prospect of returning to real world employment if everything were to crash and burn. “That’s the great fear,” he says. “I haven’t had a normal job for ten years now and I consider that some measure of success. I might have to play in three bands and write on the side and deal with all kinds of psychotic fucking mess but at least I don’t have to get whipped down by someone else and their fucking idea of what a business is.”

He continues: “I did enough of that. I did that shit for a long time. To go back to it would feel like an insult to my identity somehow. It would feel like an infringement on my person. I’d struggle with it. If I was suddenly back at the coalface it would be like when they put that fat bloke in Shawshank who is wrongly imprisoned and he starts wailing and wailing and the other prisoners keep telling him to shut the fuck up but he keeps wailing and guards just have to come out and beat him to death. That’s me if I end up having to go back to making pizzas. They’ll have to call out that bloke with a baton and take me down.”

This sentiment might lead one to think that the synth-lashed pulsing charge of new album track ‘Work’ is an ode to this fear but it’s actually a Nathan-penned song. “That was a kind of blood feud, that song,” he says. “It was a fucking can of worms. I think Nathan wanted to sing it and that was an issue that went on and on and on. And then all hell broke loose and it just turned into this never ending beef. We don’t have a very good mechanism for resolving conflict. An argument can just drag on indefinitely.”

And is that looking as permanent an ending as Adamczewski? “We’ve not spoken in months but he got in touch last week through the tour manager and was like, look, I think we should go bowling,” Saoudi says. “And his thinking was that you won’t be able to run away when you’re wearing those shoes. So we’ll see. You reach a saturation point with all of this when you have to start thinking practically about touring.”

Also, speaking of Shawshank Redemption, another one of Saoudi’s activities in between albums was an attempt to remake the film, scene-by-scene, with then housemate and Pregoblin man Alex Sebley. “One of my great artistic regrets is not finishing Shawshank,” he says. “It would have been a real work of art. I think VICE wrote an article about it and the numbers on Instagram were going up and up and it destroyed us. Alex got all auteur about it and was breaking the one take rule we had for it. Stardom was just within grasp but we blew it, the pressure was too much.”

So, after all of this – blood feuds, founding members leaving, aborted drone albums – is Saoudi pleased with the finished album? “I’m really into it,” he says. “I don’t know how Nathan feels about it and I’m sure Saul thinks it’s fucking terrible.” Still, one can’t help but sense the actual making of the records isn’t Saoudi’s most treasured part of the process. “You put all this fucking time in and then you just put it online and that’s it,” he says. “It’s just in this sea of other people’s thwarted dreams. It’s never like this great success or a dismal failure, it’s just this middling thing, which is horrific.”

For Saoudi, the essence of the band has always been being trapped in, and thrown around by, the whirlwind that unfolds on stage. To exist in the screeching fury and unpredictable roar of it all. “[Being in a studio] is a really inorganic unnatural process,” he says. “To spend all of your time in these windowless bunkers for years fiddling with fucking drum beats and tweaking couplets, with none of the dividend of the live experience, where it interfaces with an actual audience.”

Saoudi admits that he’s always found it “nightmarishly difficult” to put albums together and usually throws the towel in about two thirds of the way through until he’s pulled over the finish line. “You just make this thing in this bizarre alien, isolated, place,” he says. “It doesn’t really make sense on an immediate kind of psychic, physiological level. I always thought of it as more like a live thing. Like an experiential rolling performance fuck up. That’s where the freedom is, that’s where the playtime is. That’s where the aggravation and the provocation and all of that stuff is. It’s in there anyway so I don’t want the fucking drama around it.”

Despite appearing bruised and battered from life in the band and making this record, you get a sense of Saoudi reaching a level of contentment in his own life. He’s three years into a stable relationship, living in the nicest place he’s ever lived, and seems more than happy to be gravitating more towards life as a writer. “Until I become completely repulsed by that and then I’ll start fantasising about doing a bunch of K with the lads,” he laughs. “I’m painfully aware of the fact that I’m trying to go from one medium to another. To try and smuggle myself in like a refugee from music into the literary sphere. I’m really conscious of that. But the needle of interest between music and books has just been slowly moving in one direction.”

Saoudi also seems to have reached a stage where he’s come to the realisation that less chaos and drama may result in better artistic outcomes than the full on immersion method that he subscribed to for some time. “If you get it into your head that the weirder and more fucked up it gets, the more fruitier the writing will get, and the more of a statement you’ll have, then you lead yourself into some quite bizarre pathways in your life,” he says. “It’s also quite a naive and youthful way to go about your art. If there’s no division between how you live and how you make your art, everything just becomes this soup and you don’t have any control anymore.”

So, as he gears up to step back into the inevitable turmoil that getting the band back together brings, are hard drugs still a feature of the band that he has to worry about? “I don’t think you’re ever gonna completely get rid of that,” he says. “That’s just part and parcel.” And is the herbal tea-sipping man who sits in front of me as he enters his literary era turning his back on all drugs too? “Nah man, I got raggo on Friday,” he chuckles. “But I choose my battles now. I know what it does to my brain and I like having control of my brain.”

He then recalls the band’s previous tour when he started it full of good intentions. “I managed to not do drugs the first night,” he says. “So when one of the guys was smoking gear in the lounge at dawn when you’re completely sober – that was quite a mad sight. You’re rolling through Edinburgh with the lights coming up and you’re lucid but the foil is out. But smugness is your dividend when you don’t do drugs.”

However, Saoudi’s smugness levels plummeted pretty quickly. “My friend came to the next show and she brought these magic mushroom seeds,” he recalls. “I was eating these seeds and I felt great so I kept eating them. Then I was on stage and a fucking horrible amount of vomit kept coming up. I was offstage puking in this bin and I could hear Saul doing the set without me singing ‘Goodbye Goebbels’. I’d made it one night completely sober and then I was back out on stage and everybody in the audience was hurling really threatening abuse at me and they were all demonic – it was just this mob of hatred. I mean, that wasn’t actually happening, that wasn’t real… I don’t think.”

So at this stage, are there any goals left for the band and is Saoudi beginning to think about things like legacy and what the band leaves behind? “We’ve always been fantasising about this time when we would actually all just get on and things would run smoothly,” he says. “The whole of the Fat White cosmos is just interlinking feuds with separate levels of charge at any given moment. So that would still be a first for us. One thing I’ve always wanted to do with the Fat Whites was tour Algeria. I think after I get the band there then I could kind of be like, alright, well, that’s that project finished.”

So is he genuinely feeling like the band is winding down and in wrap up mode? “Things have been so difficult working with my brother and obviously things have ground to a halt with Saul,” he says. “It’s like, what is it at that point? The Lias Saoudi Fat White Family Experience? That just doesn’t feel right. Is it in wrap up mode? I think it’s always in wrap up mode. Yes and no. Fuck knows, man. We’ll see how bowling goes. A lot hinges on bowling.”

Forgiveness Is Yours is released on 26 April by Domino

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