Time To Get Ill: Fat White Family Interviewed

Horrible little shits or a lovely bunch of lads? John Doran visits Fat White Family's pub in Brixton ahead of tonight's gig to find out

Live shot and Wild American Prairie film by kind permission of Lou Smith

"We were living back near Old Street, just like in the early days… It was a strange building, right on City Road but somehow invisible from the street. You walked through an iron door into a narrow overgrown garden and this tall, sooted, spindly building. I don’t know what it was originally built for. A grain warehouse or something. There were six floors the size of hangars, several huge rooms on each… A guy on the floor above us had two pitbulls that would race each other up and down the corridor and around the empty rooms. This constant thundering and thumping. They’re densely built dogs. They don’t corner easily. And their nails! Shredding my nerves… I spend a lot of time in that room alone. A huge room with bare floorboards and everything we owned dumped in one corner like stuff that someone else had left behind. And me on our mattress in the other. Paul was out a lot, dealing or partying or both. I just sat indoors on my own, listening to those fucking dogs, getting iller and iller."

excerpt from Genie And Paul by Natasha Soobramanien

“Just look at these horrible little scrotes.”

Friday is the cruellest day of the week. It’s when we listen to all the CDs that have been sent over the previous few days. Mounds of the stuff builds up on your desk and under your chair and in heaps in the corners like so much audio slag.

"Look at that one’s teeth and that one’s horrid little tallywhacker."

Piles of utterly joyless and dead eyed indie drivel pile up and up toward the ceilings like dull-witted three chord smokestacks until some miniature, invisible Fred Dibnah conspires with his tiny sticks of invisible dynamite to send each tuneless edifice collapsing across the office floor. Each CD may be an artefact born out of dreams, ambitions and expectations but on nearly each CD these dreams, ambitions and hopes far outstrip talent, self-awareness and reality.

“They’re like the most ill looking people I’ve ever seen in my life.”

I’m over exaggerating slightly here. There are always one or two gems uncovered in every listening session and four times as many albums come to light which – although not to my taste – quite clearly were made by talented musicians dedicated to following their own unique path. But this barely makes up for the cowardly dross, the septic tank scrapings, the pungent latrine smears, the rhinoplasty slop trays, the reservoirs of goitre drainings, the Bob Carver chip lard overspill buckets, the dangling raas claarts and fassy hole queef spatters, up-ended all over our desks by dead-eyed, rule book following, transcendentally fizzing, rat faced helmets suffering under the illusion that by merely adding together recognisable elements of the three or four biggest indie bands they can think of in a very slapdash manner they can get straight to the drinking of the Carling, the snorting of the coke and the fucking of the students without needing to have any other motive for doing what they’re doing.

“Oh my God! Did he say he was yearning for someone’s 15-year-old cunt? That’s fucking appalling!”

Which is why when, at about 1am, three weeks ago, after a dawn til dusk and half way back til dawn again Friday of listening to this energy draining bullshit I was ready to crawl home on hands and knees weeping. But before leaving the office I clicked on a YouTube that I’d been sent by Kev Kharas from VICE with a note asking: "Do you like this?" (The one directly below.) I played it once and didn’t enjoy it but there was just something about how utterly depraved the band looked that made me watch it again.

“It’s ok! It’s ok! He said 15-year-old tongue! Or, is that OK? Is it OK to say you’re yearning for someone’s 15-year-old tongue now? I don’t know any more…”

And then I played it again. And then again. And then again. And then again.

The band were called Fat White Family and they’d crawled out of the squats of South London. They sounded like a mix of Bong Water, Charles Manson, the Butthole Surfers round a campfire, the most smacked out and slowest Birthday Party and Cramps numbers. And someone on Twitter said that one of them had ridden a donkey into a pub. I could imagine it. With every acid head, junkie, squatter, artist, desperado and caner in the area casting palm leaves on the floor before him. I could imagine him riding right up to the bar and saying: “Two pints of Stella please and a pickled gherkin for my ass.”

The long suffering and long shift working Laurie said to me: “Do you not like the way they look then?”

And I replied: “No. I love the way they look. The way they look is amazing. It’s like the opposite of advertising. It’s like the opposite of decency. We must interview them immediately to work out whether they’re as horrible as they look…”

When I arrive at the Brixton pub where the Fat Whites are based I’m greeted by Saul who, if anything, looks ten times more ill in real life, he is wearing a bath house/psychiatric hospital issue towelling dressing gown of the kind the stains will no longer wash out of, he scratches himself fulsomely announcing: “Sorry, I think I’ve got bed bugs.”

I also meet Lias who is relatively better dressed and doesn’t look like a freshly exhumed Tollund Man, but he also looks like he could do with a lie in and a square meal. His eyeballs vibrate as if he’s sitting atop an invisible washing machine. Also present is their enigmatic manager Robert Rubbish, whose extravagant facial hair and penchant for tweed suggest a man of independent means who made all of his money in the great mustard importation boom of 1897. After we get past the customary business of laughing about Bobby Gillespie I present them with a gift – a bag of Taste The Difference Tesco oranges. They were actually a prop for me to make a terrible joke along the lines of… “You may not know what this is but it’s known as fruit…” However the second I get them out Saul sets at them like a wolverine, devouring them in record time. The massive and unexpected rush of Vitamin C causes him to visibly change colour during the interview.

[A writer] emailed me offering to do this interview. He said he loved your music but you were essentially a bunch of shits.

Lias: [He] said that? I’ve known him for years. For fuck’s sake.

Is he telling the truth? Are you a bunch of shits?

Saul: Yeah, he’s telling the truth. We are.

That’s interesting because my friend Natasha has just had her debut novel published and in it is the description of a squat in Old Street which was apparently based on Lias’ squat in Old Street. And she said to me, ‘Ah, the Fat White Family? Lovely bunch of lads.’

Lias: Well, there you go!

Robert Rubbish: I’d be tempted to go with the official story by Natasha the excellent published novelist and not the word of some hack from the Peckham Gazette or wherever it was. "A lovely bunch of lads!" You heard it from Natasha.

You might be nice lads but you don’t look very well to me. Are you looking after yourselves?

Lias: I don’t feel very fresh today and I don’t really look after myself but I don’t worry about it. I don’t have any serious health issues bar irritable bowel syndrome and that pre-dates my drinking and drug use.

The whole punk, post punk and rave thing came partially out of the squat scene in London. You lot are no stranger to squats, does that scene where artists can live cheaply still exist?

Lias: When I moved to London eight years ago there was still loads of squatting going on.

Saul: In Peckham there were still loads of squats that we used to play gigs in all the time but it was just like art student wankers anyway, it wasn’t part of any scene.

Would it be easier for musicians in 2013 if it was easier to squat abandoned property? Because you need somewhere cheap don’t you?

Lias: Yeah, I think what we’ve got here in this pub is good because we live and work here and there’s a room upstairs with our equipment in it. You need a space to play loud and that’s a problem in London. No one can afford to pay for one of those rehearsal rooms.

You two are the core of the group… what were you doing before Fat White Family?

Lias: We were in a failed pub rock band called The Saudis.

What, like Dr Feelgood?

Saul: No man. Nowhere near as good as that. All we used to do was take loads and loads of coke and listen to Bruce Springsteen with our shirts off. We were really self-involved. And really into funk as well. Like Joe Jackson. But on absolutely tons of cocaine.

That sounds pretty good! Like grim yacht rock.

Saul: It was appalling.

Lias: We weren’t getting anywhere. The gigs were getting smaller. Then the money for the coke ran out. I still love The Boss but it was time to move on.

What was going on when the Fat White Family formed?

Saul: We were all living together in a flat in Peckham. Essentially we wanted to form a country band. We were going to London’s oldest running country night called Easy Come by this cowboy dude called Andy Hankdog. So it was born out of wanting to be in a country band and from listening to a lot of Charles Manson.

[It then transpires that the Fat White Family know a young gentleman who once tried to blackmail the author of this piece after selling him some drugs…]

…so I said to him, “Be my guest… in fact why don’t you tell me which police station you’re going to and what time you’ll be there at so I can come with you. I want to be there when you drop the bombshell on them that you know a music journalist in London who may have taken drugs. I want to watch them laugh in your face and arrest you for wasting their time.

Lias: He got sent down you know.

Saul: I was supposed to be his character witness but I ended up staying up for two days and then I was too hungover to get to court. He got sent to Wandsworth for two months. Anyway, he played me the Family Jams album and that’s what really blew me away. It’s amazing.

Lias: It’s not just his reputation. The lyrics are really left field. There isn’t anything quite like it musically.

Saul: We were listening to the Monks a lot as well. We played ‘I Hate You’ at our first ever gig in 2011.

Lias: Our first ever gigs were at that Easy Come acoustic night and everyone else would be these really earnest, political folkies playing workers anthems and then we’d come on and be incredibly noisy, messy, fucked up affair, they were wicked those first few gigs. It got better and better and better but then they told him he couldn’t have his folk night at that pub anymore because things were getting broken.

Saul: So we started this night called Slide In, based in this really fucking horrible pub in Tulse Hill. We played there for ages.

Lias: They said it couldn’t be done – a good night out in Tulse Hill but we proved them wrong.

Which one of you rode a donkey into a pub?

Saul: What?!

Lias: I’ve been on a donkey and we’re in a pub now. Does that count?

You remind me of this old band Bongwater a little bit. Do you know them?

Saul: Yeah, I really like Bongwater. I like that band King Missile, do you know them? I sent our album to the Shimmy Disc email that I found and Kramer replied to it. He said he would have put it out in America if the label was still going but it’s closed down.

I don’t really care that much because I’m a middle aged man but I kind of think that Fat White Family should be on the front cover of NME. Naked on the cover of NME. Naked with Beth Ditto on the cover of NME. Does it bother you that this will never happen because we live in such conservative times for music?

Saul: I’m so removed from that man. I haven’t lived through an age when there’s been a good band on the front cover of the NME. And I’m 24.

If every song on the album was like ‘Who Shot Lee Oswald?’ it would get on my nerves. [Sample lyric: "Who shot Lee Oswald? Was it the FBI? Was it the CIA? Was it the BBC? … Was it the Velvet Underground? … Was it a secret government within the American government? … Was it Bobby Davro?"] It would be too lo fi and shambolic for my tastes. But the fact that there are a couple of dead messy songs on there is quite exciting. Are you trying to wind people up?

Saul: I really like the sound of it. I like noise. I like industrial noise music. Even though what we do is blues based pop music I like that trashy element to it.

Lias: I like the intimacy of those lo fi tracks.

Do you think it’s likely that the Velvet Underground shot Lee Harvey Oswald? Because I’ve been thinking about this and it just doesn’t seem to add up.

Lias: You have to ask these questions.

Beause if you don’t ask them – who will? Talking of which, there was a lyric about underage sex in one of your songs that initially made me feel quite queasy…

Saul: That’s like a parody of the ridiculousness of the WHOLE rock & roll thing. It’s not supposed to be serious or autobiographical. Although I was at my sister’s 15th birthday party the other day and I did question that lyric.

Lias: We are being antagonistic and trying to wind people up a bit but at the same time the lyrics are not entirely serious.

RR: I think if you spend any time listening to their lyrics you can hear all this stuff about rock & roll but you can also hear all these lyrics about Boy George and building sheds as well.

What was making the video like?

Lias: That table was a bit… but it was good fun. I wasn’t hung over. If I had to do that now I’d find it a bit challenging.

Where the fuck do you get a dead octopus from?

Lias: Brixton. I put in an order with Smithfields for cow lungs and chicken skin…

Saul: Chicken skin is gruesome.

What were the pigs heads like?

Saul: After the video shoot we did a gig. While we were playing I threw a pig’s head right up in the air and it hit my friend who’s a vegan. Zoe from Zoetrope. And the back of them where the brains and the bone is…

Lias: It was fucking awful. As the day wears on…

Saul: Pigs have this film over their skin, scrape your fingers along pig flesh and you get this grease under your nails.

Are you proponents of class war?

Lias: I guess so. He’s serious about it though. He wants to set cars on fire.

Saul: There is no war other than class war. You have to put this bit in your piece.

I’ll put as much about class war in as I can but make it quick so I can go and pick my son up from nursery.

Saul: We want to smash Foxtons. There is nothing but The Struggle.

Fat White Family play at the Lex tonight alongside Hey Colossus and Pheremoans

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