Morality Play: Insecure Men Interviewed

Saul Adamczewski of Insecure Men and Fat Whites talks to John Doran about wholesome projects, sonic wrongness and his superb new album.

I first came across the idea of ‘the jury’ about two years ago when interviewing Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre. He explained how he has to silence a host of internal critical voices in order to write. He described them as “patrician and overbearing”, saying: “I’m starting to think that the jury is my dark side. It’s the jury that tries to hold me back from writing certain things that need to be said. My dark side is actually quite conservative and I have to struggle to through that jury out.”

He urged me to consider Charles Bukowski and the extent to which he needed to drink continuously just in order to silence his internal jury – in all probability different iterations of the voice of his violent father. (Though to what ends is another argument entirely – the American’s greatest work of prose writing is the memoir of his childhood, Ham On Rye which reads like it was written by a teetotaller.) He asked me if I knew what he meant. Sure, I told him, every move I make in life – no matter how inconsequential – is constantly picked over and ridiculed by a choir of voices which usually contains at least three particularly demented below-the-line commenters, a talk-radio host, my always angry and mithering father (predictably), the commentator from Robot Wars, a rotating cast of aggressive music writers both past and present, several radical feminist authors, Mark E Smith, the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, one of the nuns from my infant school and Will Self.

It’s not a new idea, simply an old one expressed in an elegant manner. It is something I assume to be most pertinent in very creative fields. In music for example I find it easy to picture a youngish Nick Cave unable to subdue the voice of his beloved father – the accomplished teacher who introduced his teenage son to Nabokov and Dostoyevsky but who was cruelly taken away without warning by a road accident – asking, ‘Is this really good enough Nick?’ Timbaland, a decade ago, plagued by questions – some real, some just auditory hallucinations – ‘Where have the hits gone? Why have you stopped taking risks?’ Delia Derbyshire dealing with a football stadium of booming voices, enraged for reasons of regionalism, class and gender – ‘Just what is it that you think you’re doing?’

As you’ll already have noticed we’re talking here about folk who may have reached for the bottle, the pill or the wrap in the first instance for reasons of conviviality but gone back to it again and again and again when they realised it offered them a great big mute button. A sweet period of respite when the court session gets to be held in camera.

And this is where anyone who creates in spite of severe self-doubt has (for whatever it’s worth) my empathy and respect. No matter what kind of music they make – it clearly hurts them to do this. For many the exertion needed to see a project through to conclusion exacts an utterly unfair price. And this applies as much to Marti Pellow as it does to Kurt Cobain. Grandmaster Flash to Lil Peep. Amy Winehouse to Bobby Liebling. Jhon Balance to Marianne Faithfull. And let’s not forget Mark E Smith –

the man who claimed to have drunk his way out of being a psychic – who seemed permanently at war with an unbidden inner narrator. There is always a hope that artists will find other, less damaging, ways to find that mute button but a grim recognition that when they do, it won’t necessarily be as effective… if it even works at all.

When I first met Saul Adamczewski five years ago to interview him about his role in up-and-coming country-influenced rock band Fat White Family, it already seemed likely to me that he was departing the hedonistic, recreational stage of his drug use, with a course set firmly for much choppier waters. While he has never seemed that bothered either way about talking about his use of ‘hard’ drugs, he has been less clear about the underlying reasons. Although some time later – in a casual conversation down the Queens Head, the Stockwell Pub where he and his band rehearsed and played regularly – he muttered something darkly to me about it being “wrong”, the extent to which he had been introduced to cocaine, among other things, when he was just 16 and 17 and first signed to a major label as the frontman of The Metros.

Meeting up with him regularly over the last half a decade, during gigs and interviews, has been like a dispiriting look at some infernal flickbook of psychic damage which has spilled out into the physical realm. The comic ill-health of the hardcore but still youthful caner of 2013 gave way to something much more robustly distressing in recent years. Hollowed out eye sockets beginning to mirror the trademark missing tooth, a skull laminated in skin. Not crow’s feet ingrained under yellowing eyes but brutal black and blue tattooed, paper thin flesh. More brutalised Game Of Thrones character than young rock star as cocaine gave way to heroin which in turn gave way to crack. And all still while in his 20s.

And what is the internal chatter that he’s trying to subdue? I need to ask him some time. However I have a feeling his answer will mirror what DBC Pierre said. (“It’s the jury that tries to hold me back from writing certain things that need to be said. My dark side is actually quite conservative and I have to struggle to throw that jury out.”) I think part of the reason will be that he (and his near-constant writing partner Lias Saoudi) have a very old-fashioned idea of what the role of a narrative songwriter is but it is very painful for him to fulfil his part of this brief. That he understands his freedoms are exactly those of a novelist or a filmmaker or a playwright or a visual artist, even if very few of his peers have the stomach for the task in hand, or even seem aware it’s part of the job description.

Sadly it seems in 2018 the overwhelming majority are satisfied with platitudes and abstraction – anything rather than the stomach-churning sensation of dealing with sometimes ugly and difficult art. Tokenism, precorporation and wilful abstraction all attract a higher critical value. The thing that stings the most is that criticism of artists who take risks in dealing with unpleasant material will no longer come solely from conservative, traditionally anti-art sources but from most directions. Permanent outrage is the lingua-franca of the current social media discourse and it is often used as a blunt silencing tool by those who really should know better.

For the record this songwriting duo have put a foot over the line a couple of times in the past as far as I’m concerned – I still find it difficult to listen to the lyrics that use the subject of Tina Turner’s violent marriage as a metaphor for collapsing creative partnership, on the Fat White Family’s ‘Hit Hit Hit’. And I’m still waiting for my unease with two Insecure Men tracks (‘Whitney Houston & I’ and ‘Mekong Glitter’) to subside slightly. But if you take these tracks as threads in a larger tapestry, you can see a strangely moral logic at work. Self-deprecation, anti-austerity, questioning received wisdom and empathy for the downtrodden and the unlucky seem to be the governing impulses, rather than hatred or offence for offence’s sake. And even with the songs that make me uncomfortable, I find myself going back to them and testing and reassessing my own viewpoints as a result. And in this way I couldn’t give them a higher compliment as rock lyrics.

In September 2017, Saul came over to tQHQ to record a podcast with me and we used the opportunity to record a quick interview about his new band Insecure Men and their self-titled debut which is out this month on Fat Possum. He looked younger than I’d ever seen him at any point in the past. He was nervy and not as cocksure as he had been during the promotion of FWF’s Songs For Our Mothers (albeit looking like he was about to keel over dead at any second) a couple of years earlier. This time he was bordering on shy and had, somehow, regained his handsome good looks once more. Eyes no longer firing out drill bits and fishing hooks attached to razor wire. He was obviously post rehab clean – I hope it’s a keeper this time. I know from bitter experience you often have to have a few run-ups at these things.

In many ways Insecure Men – the band led by Saul with his schoolmate and stabilising influence Ben Romans-Hopcraft of Childhood – are the polar opposite of the Fat White Family. Adamczewski agrees readily with my suggestion that the band is his “project for sobriety”. He says that the Fat Whites may well be a “celebration of everything that is wrong in life” but Insecure Men, who blend together exotica, easy listening, lounge and timeless pop, are (if only by comparison) very wholesome indeed.

Of course even if you haven’t led the same kind of lifestyle as Saul (perhaps like me, you’ve merely spent some time smoking opium or gratefully hooked up to a morphine drip in hospital) you’ll probably realise once you’ve listened to this superb debut album that the narrative I’ve laid out directly above isn’t as clear cut as it could be. Songs like ‘Subaru Nights’ float past in an opiated fug and the dark lyrical content still lurks in the background on some tracks like a mugger in an alleyway. But the hazy, warmth of the album is as much an attempt to recreate a sense of lost childhood bliss as it is the faithful delivery of the narcotic warmth of the chemical honeymoon period.

Talking about the project in its widest terms he describes how important it is for him to work with another musician who is, in many ways, his polar opposite: “Me and Ben went to primary school together in Herne Hill, South London. Ben has a twin brother and they were in the year beneath me and I used to try and get them to bunk off school with me… but I never did succeed. They were these sweet boys who I always tried to corrupt. That’s my first memory of them.

“Ben’s dad was a musician who played in funk and ska bands and they would always be at local music festivals I would go to with my mum and dad. He was a presence but we were never really friends. When I was in the Metros he was in a similar band with his mates from school and they used to support us sometimes. I remember the night we got signed Ben and his mates were the only ones there, jumping around, going crazy.

“Ben is very centred, calm, rational and nice – which is what makes it work with our relationship because everything I’m lacking he kind of is. He remains incorruptible – like he was at primary school!”

The band started properly in 2015 in the upstairs practice/crash room the Fat White Family had above Stockwell pub, the Queens Head: “In the beginning the band was me, Ben and Nathan [Saoudi, FWF’s suave keyboard player]. I felt that what I did in Insecure Men couldn’t really be expressed via Fat White Family. When I was living at the Queens Head we had a room where we could play whenever we wanted but I didn’t want to be playing Fat White Family songs all the time. Playing that music with all the people living there, it was better for them if we made some different music that wasn’t just… noise.”

He recorded all of the songs he wrote – two of them co-authored with Nathan – at The Queens Head onto tape at Sean Lennon’s studio in upstate New York, while visiting with the Moonlandingz: “I was in quite an angry and belligerent mood and I didn’t want to be recording with the Moonlandingz. As a protest against the session I set up another studio in the waiting room with a tape recorder and started recording these songs, just out of boredom. I was really happy with the recordings and they ended becoming the tracks that are actually on the album. I recorded them in that session on Tascam and then gradually put more and more stuff on top of the demos and eventually so much stuff got added to them that the original parts to the songs are not even there any more, they just got replaced.”

Due in part to his ever-worsening drug use, Saul was kicked out of Fat White Family in November 2015 on a particularly grim night in Paris (the band had no idea that the Bataclan terrorist atrocity was unfolding very close to where they were playing): “I fell into a downward spiral, living on a friend’s floor just smoking crack and heroin and doing nothing else. After four months I snapped out of it and realised I needed to get clean. When I came out of rehab I had nothing left other than these songs – I was like a ship without a sail – so it started to look like Insecure Men was something I should definitely pursue as my main project.”

Since then some of the people who have added to this Ship Of Theseus-like project have included members of the gospel punks the Black Lips and Sean Ono Lennon (who also produced the album), but the line-up has now more or less solidified around Saul (vocals/guitar) and Ben (vocals/bass), with Marley Mackey (of Dirty Harrys) son of Steve Mackey of Pulp on lap steel. Also featured now is Victor Jakeman (Claw Marks) on the organ; Joe Isherwood (We Smoke Fags) plays keyboards and saxophonist Alex White is on loan from Fat White Family. Arguably, the lynchpin is a mysterious South London music teacher known only as Steely Dan, who plays vibraphone and steel drums. And last but not least is Saul’s old pal, Jack Everett (Fat White Family, Warmduscher) who anchors it all on drums.

Saul says: “After getting clean I wanted to make a more wholesome type of music.” But he is quick to add: “I guess if you compare Insecure Men to genuinely wholesome things, then we’re not that wholesome really! Perhaps this feeling is more to do with the music – the fact that it’s pure pop, more like the Carpenters, than anything people would associate the Fat Whites with.

“It’s not an exotica or easy listening record but there are elements of that to it. It’s not kitsch though – I really love Arthur Lyman records and exotica but there’s also a crossover between this style of music and early electronic pop records made by people like Perrey & Kingsley. For me that was the creepiest and most unsettling music, in a David Lynch sort of way. Use the soft approach.”

At first it felt as if he couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of FWF: “The first gigs I did with Insecure Men I did were in New York. For a long time I didn’t really feel like I’d earned the right to be the frontman of my own group. I certainly felt that I was in the shadow of Lias because of what an amazing performer he is and how electric some of those FWF shows were. So to actually do the gigs was quite a big deal. But the gigs in NYC went really well – and not in the way I expected them to. I definitely liked the way I could definitely take something from it but not throw myself around.”

Despite not being an actual member of the group, Lias exerts his influence in other ways. Saul says: “At least half the lyrics on the record were written by Lias. [The singer says he had nothing to do with ‘Cliff Has Left The Building’, ‘Heathrow’, ‘Whitney Houston & I’ but wrote or co-authored the lyrics to the rest of the tracks.] The words don’t come as naturally to me as they do to him. He would sit down with me and talk about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.” In fact it was Lias and Nathan’s older brother Tamlan, who lives in China where he works as a DJ, who always said that the Fat White Family should actually be called The Insecure Men Who Look At their Phones Too Much. Saul loved the name and grew tired of trying to persuade his friends to start a band with that name, eventually taking it for himself.

When asked if Lias had gotten his own back for the torture he had been put through while they were working on Songs For Our Mothers, Saul nods: “While we were writing ‘The Saddest Man In Penge’ – I think lyrically maybe Lias exacted some revenge on me. He gave my character a bit of a kicking but in a funny and honest way. It’s about when I was working as a labourer and spending all of my wages on crack. I was sleeping on my mum’s sofa, waking up at 5am to walk to work in the rain in wintertime and one morning I remember crying and that’s when that line came into my head. Penge is intrinsically a sad place I think.”

The odd couple’s relationship once again takes centrestage on ‘Buried In The Bleak’: “This is a very personal song about mine and Lias’ friendship. Lyrically it doesn’t offer much in the way of hope though. We nearly dropped this song from the album as well even though musically it’s one of the most interesting tracks. When we first listened back to it, it sounded earnest, like it was taking itself too seriously. It was the first song I ever wrote sat down at a piano, trying to do my Harry Nilsson impression.”

‘All The Women Love Me’ was written under the influence of Dave Cloud & The Gospel Of Power: “He was this enigmatic performer who died in 2015. He had this line he used when he got onstage: ‘All women love me, all men are afraid of me.’ It’s really about being blindly arrogant and thinking that everyone loves you when actually they just think you’re a cunt. Which is a trap that I’ve fallen into quite a few times.”

As you’ve probably gathered by now, as wholesome as the music may be, the subject matter is just as weird, surreal and dark as you would expect. Saul describes ‘Cliff Has Left The Building’ as being about “Operation Yew Tree’s greatest urban myth” and his favourite song on the album. But the provocation rises from mild up to critical levels during ‘Whitney Houston & I’, which concerns the similar ways in which the tragic singer and her daughter, Bobbi, died. It’s clearly the track that will have most people reacting angrily – and perhaps reasonably so – because of its lyrical conceit: “It is a provocative song but essentially I don’t take these things lightly and I genuinely found the story unbearably sad. I read how both Whitney and her daughter Bobbi, had died, separately, in the bathroom and I thought about the idea of a song where it’s a daughter singing to her mother from beyond the grave about the sadness of the whole situation. There is a kids’ choir on this. I know this guy called Tim who plays as Flame Proof Moth – he opened for us at Glastonbury and he does stuff like busk on the banks of the River Thames. He’s a great musician, and he has three daughters the youngest one’s nine and the eldest 14. They record as the Honey Hahs and have signed to Rough Trade. They write these brilliant, Manson Family-esque weird songs and they harmonise beautifully. And they are joined by the daughters of Clams from Warmduscher as well singing on this track.”

Unashamed glam-rock banger ‘Mekong Glitter’ is about the now disgraced Gary Glitter: “I don’t think he should be let off the hook, I just want to ask why?” says Saul referring to the double standards applied to a lot of musicians who rose to fame and fortune during the 1970s. “Everyone knew what was going on and it was being hidden in plain sight. It’s interesting that there was a time that was so politically incorrect that you could have a paedophile singing, ‘Do you want to touch me?’ on children’s TV. There’s also something about the Glitter Band’s sound that captures all of the wrongness sonically. The carry-on of that scene mixed with the sound is like a total artwork to me, even though I totally understand how morally wrong it was.”

Lias is not the only Saoudi to make his presence felt on the album, as Nathan is the co-author of ‘I Don’t Want To Dance With My Baby’ and single, ‘Teenage Toy’. The former was written when the pair were beach bums in Spain: "It was around the same time we wrote, ‘The Whitest Boy On The Beach’. Because the song was a bit of joke we couldn’t really place it in anything we were doing but we knew it had a killer chorus and we always loved jamming it. When we sat down and wrote it properly it became about two friends from the Queens Head scene. Lenin – a kind of folk hero, a hero to us – and the relationship he had with his ex-girlfriend which was very rocky and druggy but also very sweet and tender and lovely. But unfortunately Lenin split up with his girlfriend and now every time we play it he gets really sad.”

The track ‘Ulster’ was originally written for FWF’s Songs For Our Mothers: “Everyone loved the recording but it didn’t fit on that album. It was 100% Lias the lyrics on this, nothing to do with me. He’s writing about where he comes from and the claustrophobia of growing up in small town in Northern Ireland in an Algerian family and essentially being an outsider. Gerry Adams is mentioned but he’s become a character who keeps on reappearing in our songs, he just won’t die. We’ve written two more songs about Gerry Adams since we wrote this.”

Talking about the artwork he concludes: “I commissioned a friend of mine who is a painter to do one of those North Korean propaganda paintings where it’s the great leader surrounded by a group of children all looking at him lovingly and it’s done in very pretty pastel colours.

“Who is the great leader? It’s me of course!”

Insecure Men’s debut album is out via Fat Possum on February 23

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