Smarmy music writers always have a field day when they come across an artist who revels in their own shit. It’s an unfortunate truth, but too many journalists who purport to report on issues of arts and culture fast become scandal reporters more akin to the prototypical paparazzo from Fellini’s Dolce Vita. Sure, the music’s all well and good, but what were they wearing? Who are they fucking? What chemicals do they ingest?
London’s Fat White Family know such stories very well, because they feed the press much of that shit on purpose. 2013’s Champagne Holocaust was an un-apologetically brash portrait of scuzzy decadence. Songs like “Cream of the Young,” which tells a story from a pedophile’s point of view, were obscene not just because of the scenes they described, but because the band seemed to bear witness. The music of Fat White Family is reporting, in a sense. The images in their songs fueled the press’ image of the band, which in turn fueled the public’s perception of them, too.
‘If you’re not making something divisive, you’re probably doing something wrong.’
Adding to this was a residency of shows that Fat White Family took up at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right in December 2014, during which frontman Lias Saoudi took no issue with whipping his dick out. That extended stay fast cemented Fat White Family’s raucous debauch stateside—the music blogs all reported that the band had relocated to New York, where all-of-a-sudden they were hobnobbing with super-fan Sean Lennon and working upstate on their second LP using his famous father’s equipment. Friends and well-wishers back in South London cried “sell-outs,” working through their frustrations about London’s dying squat culture and rent-controlled yuppification by taking it out on the band. But Fat White Family never sought to embrace high art. High art thrust itself upon them.
This week, Fat White Family finally released that second album, Songs for Our Mothers. While much of the hedonism synonymous with the band is audibly intact, songs go in a variety of different directions. Echoes of new wave and psych, of German world music and pop creep in. The lone song from their sessions with Sean Lennon to make the album, “Satisfied,” is a hyper-sexual, near-disco number that recalls Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” and conjures the back-door mystique of a room where the smell of sweat and other bodily fluids permeate the air.
“Tinfoil Deathstar” looks at the cheap, shitty heroin epidemic across the pond, chronicling a sense of devastation that New Yorkers are certainly no stranger to, either. Like the most harrowing moments on Champagne Holocaust, much of Songs for Our Mothers is bleak stuff. But there’s something refreshingly honest about Fat White Family’s reluctance to editorialize or sanitize, to embellish or to preach. The filth simply exists on its own, leaving the listener to ultimately decide what they think for themselves. Move past all the stark hedonism and the seeming shock value (here’s looking at you, “Love is the Crack”) and the music becomes salient reportage, truthful in its bleakness and opaque in its intentions.
Sure, the Observer talked to frontman Lias Saoudi and guitarist/songwriter Saul Adamczewski about yuppies, drugs and the decline of Western civilization. But we also talked about politics, the nature of good art, and why pigeonholing Fat White Family as a band reliant on shock value completely misses the point. I fast realized that Fat White Family’s talent for shock and awe is their best magic trick—just when the songs begin to sound like style over substance, a headier conversation about the root of urban decay emerges that most artists are too shortsighted to even think about.
Crazy how long this recording process took, how you all wanted it to be perfect before it was ready to go. Your press release said, “it almost didn’t happen because of Lias’ obsessional idea of what the band should sound like.” Can you talk about that?
Saul: I think that’s a really complimentary way of putting it. Really, like Lias said, I think the process is he’s throwing a lot of shit at the wall, and some of it sticks.
Like Jackson Pollock?
Saul: Yeah, we went with the shit that stuck. And there was a hell of a lot of shit to begin with.
Saul: Just the process of deduction, we get there in the end. The songs have a right voice, and we kind of slip into that voice, and find out what. That takes time, especially when you’re touring and doing a lot of other stuff to keep your songs afloat.
Lias: You have to spend an intensive amount of time with each other, and you have to be kind of patient.
‘Me and Nathan had a big session in the countryside where we bought enough mushrooms for about a hundred people, and I think we cleansed ourselves of our obsession with Gary Glitter in the process.’
And you guys are all such characters, does that ever get cumbersome? What does this press release say, “the grotesque extension of an egotistical fantasy.”
Lias: Yeah, that’s about right. Sometimes it gets quite gruesome, that’s for sure. But when it’s good, it’s really good, you know? It can be quite an extreme environment.
How did you land on these sounds? There’s a lot of different things happening, I know the whole Sean Lennon story and some of his gear made it on the record, but a lot of that stuff got scrapped, no?
Saul: A lot of the stuff we did with Sean got scrapped because it was the formative stages, the beginning, not because the work was bad or anything like that. A lot of the music we listen to is always changing, so we’re always looking for new stuff and that shows itself through the songs.
“Lebensraum” seems like a good example of that. It’s almost got an old-world, polka or waltz thing going on.
Saul: We wanted it to sound like a beer hall where you could sing along.
Well you guys used to play above a pub, didn’t you?
Lias: We played and lived above a pub for quite some time, a terrible [amount] of time, actually.
Saul: Too long, too long.
Lias: Much too long, to the detriment of our collective health, mentally and physically.
Saul: And spiritually.
When you go travel around to these venues, many of which are bars, are you becoming accidental pub aficionados? Is that intimate relationship you had with your space fucking with you at all?
Lias: Well, that pub’s closed down now. We’re not aficionados of the bar…well, by default I guess we are, yeah. I always drink to order, and what order to order those drinks in. [laughs] But other than that, I don’t have a microbrewery going on at home or anything.
There’s a big conversation happening in New York now about the creative class being pushed out of the city, and cities all over the world. A few years ago, David Byrne wrote this op-ed for The Guardian that said if the 1 percent destroys the creative class in New York, he would get out of here. You guys have revealed in many of your past interviews that this is something happening in England as well, so it’s obviously a trend in all cities. How do you reckon with your recent creative success and keep that muse of shit and piss, while allowing people to discover you and allowing your popularity to grow?
Saul: Well, we don’t really have a choice in that.
Lias: I think [with the] bitterness and all that, it was kind of a reaction to what we saw happening all around us. In the last five years it really picked up pace, especially in London where we were based.
Saul: Especially in Brixton.
Lias: Especially in Brixton specifically, it was like it changed overnight, and you’re suddenly no longer welcome. It was kind of disgust at that which spurred some of it in the first place. We retained those ideas, and we’re not there all the time obviously, but there’s nothing glamorous about being on the road. The blood and guts element of it’s not really hard to muster up. It’s a real crisis, and I can’t see it stopping. It’s a disaster, culturally.
‘We’re natural antagonists, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that in the work. It’s not like we go out of our way to deliberately shock people.’
I didn’t realize how bad it was in England. I can speak to it here in the city, but clearly it’s an international issue.
Saul: Yeah, it’s the logical endpoint of a capitalist society, you know? That’s the way it’s gonna grow. This is what happens when money is above everything else, and money becomes God, then we’re all fucked. You’ve gotta buy into that.
Lias: It’s really a case of people trying to find nice places to hide. I don’t think it’s gonna turn back at any point.
Saul: I think it will. Everything turns back at some point, maybe not in our lifetime.
Lias: Should we have some sort of cataclysmic event. A war, some famine, sea levels rising, or Trump. More Trump, speed it up! Get him in there, let’s have it out, you know?
One journalist pulled a batman quote on you guys and said, “They just wanna watch the world burn.” That’s the Joker, but it reminded me of that villain who oversees the falls of cities and civilizations so new ones can pop up. If we accept that idea, then you guys are kind of just nudging things toward their logical escalating endpoint.
[Saul and Lias laugh]
Lias: Yeah, we’re nudgers. I’m comfortable with that term!
Is that where the really provocative shit in your songs comes in, too? There’s got to be this moment where your fans get past the shock value of all the shit you’re singing about and see it’s political, it’s subversive.
Saul: I really don’t see that there is shock value. Not to compare ourselves to David Bowie, but people said to Bowie he was trying to be deliberately shocking, and he didn’t think he was being shocking at all, you know?
Lias: We’re natural antagonists, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that in the work. It’s not like we go out of our way to deliberately shock people.
I’m glad you mentioned Bowie. Both you and Bowie play with a lot of the language and imagery of fascism, not as any endorsement, but from a very objective, pragmatic place. If you listen to “Quicksand,” he’s talking about Buddhism in the same song he’s talking about Heinrich Himmler.
Lias: Yeah, I’d agree with that. It’s not an endorsement at all. We’re leftists, not fascists. That should be obvious to anybody, really, despite the track-listing.
Saul, was you going feral on mushrooms during your first week in the studio a cleansing process? Did that have any positive effect on the recording?
Saul: Me and Nathan had a big session in the countryside where we bought enough mushrooms for about a hundred people, and I think we cleansed ourselves of our obsession with Gary Glitter in the process.
Lias: Yeah, I regularly cleanse myself with hallucinogenics. They’re my favorite type of drug. They’re also great for performing, as well.
Saul: We all need to be cleansed, let’s face it.
Lias: Yeah, we do all need to be cleansed, all things considered. I mean, I think everyone could do with a good cleansing.
‘New York was nearly the death of the band. It wasn’t boring, it was damaging.’
I guess the thing with Gary Glitter is, if you’re tripping so hard you find yourself getting arrested…
Lias: Yeah, these things do happen.
Saul: Me and Nathan couldn’t stop starting at the image of him on the sleeve of the record, and it became a bit scary. And we realized we’d gone too far with our Glitter obsession. It was time to move on into the light.
I’m all about it. Can you guys talk a bit about Yuppies Out?
Saul: Yuppies Out was before the band was taking up our time. It was a way of us expressing ourselves and something where you didn’t have to worry about people showing up for a gig. It was politics. It was always very tongue and cheek, we got equal flak from the left and the right.
Lias: It was just a way of describing our disgust at the changes we saw.
Saul: And it was fun!
The idea of a Situationalist demonstration. Fucking with people on a massive scale. That’s what all art does.
Saul: I think it does, yeah. If you’re not making something divisive, you’re probably doing something wrong. The best stuff’s always divisive, isn’t it? You shouldn’t be afraid to alienate your own fanbase, even.
But you guys aren’t passing judgment on things, you stay firmly in the middle.
Saul: Yeah, I don’t like didactic songwriting, you know. I don’t like it when people implore us to think a certain way. I don’t think that’s the position of any artist really. It is merely to stand and observe.
Lias: It’s like we’re just taking the temperature of something, you know? To gauge how ill it is.
I wonder about your last New York residency when you were here supporting Champagne Holocaust. This crust punk I know said Fat White Family got so sick of New York, said it was boring, and left.
Saul: I never said that. It wasn’t boring. Boring is the wrong word. But we couldn’t afford it, and the drugs are too good in New York!
Saul: We’re used to crappy English drugs that don’t kill us, and the drugs were pretty hard over there.
Lias: New York was nearly the death of the band. It wasn’t boring, it was damaging.