Since their emergence, Fat White Family have done a stellar job of harassing the mainstream with a shocking combination of sonic delights and not-so-delightful antics. Whether flirting with fascist imagery, singing about dictators and serial killers, or getting involved in the Brixton festivities celebrating Margaret Thatcher’s death, the band is by no means afraid to tackle topics that most would run a mile from.
Couple this brazenness with original talent, and it’s plain to see why the band that brothers Lias and Nathan Saoudi founded with Saul Adamczewski have made such an impact.
Yet it seems they have put to bed their brand of opioid-tinged art-rock. With the release of Serfs Up! – a subtle poke at the populism du jour – this south London band has traded grotty garage riffs for crisp synth hooks, veering towards an almost poppy aesthetic. Ahead of their June 3rd show at Kreuzberg’s Bi Nuu, we met Lias and Nathan to discuss how giving up drugs has inspired their clean new sound.
Serfs Up! is very different from your last two albums, Champagne Holocaust and Songs For Our Mothers. Does it represent a break from the past?
Lias: It’s a big break. We banned heroin and cocaine from the writing and recording scenario, that was a big step. We were like, “We’re not doing that again”. Everybody’s ability to communicate diminishes when you’re on hard drugs. It’s just this swamp of paranoia and anxiety. Nobody’s on the same page psychologically, spiritually, or indeed financially. Saul wasn’t a part of the record to begin with; he didn’t come back into the process for about nine months. That was an opportunity for Nathan to start writing songs for the first time.
And how did it feel to start getting more involved in the creative process?
Nathan: Good. I’d been waiting for that moment for ages. It’s like being in the subs. Now is the time to go and score. You’ve got to go on and score a goal otherwise you’re going to be put back on the bench.
So would you say that a lot of your input comes through on the album then?
N: I’m thoroughly into pop. Not pop as you know it now. But I like stuff from Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. Anything that still exists now that would have been pop back then, but is now considered retro or vintage. I like the hooks, the solid spine, stuff like that. I tried to make it more hi-fi, so mums can like it, because mums are part of our society too. Songs For Our Mothers should actually be the name of this one!
We banned heroin and cocaine from the writing and recording scenario, that was a big step.
Elsewhere you’ve mentioned some of the influences behind the album, including Wham’s fantastic ‘Armed With Love’. That haunted, electronic vibe definitely comes across.
L: Yeah, the vocals on that track exist in this weird soundscape. It’s about a minute before George Michael’s voice comes in. It’s really uncompromising. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is the B-side to ‘Club Tropicana’, what a don”. He was a big inspiration in lots of ways for doing this one. Pop was the provocative thing to do after Song For Our Mothers. We’d done stuff about heroin, this kind of monstrous, abrasive thing. It was like, “What’s the difficult, risky thing to do?” You don’t want to be out somewhere just on the line. For this album, ‘Feet’ was the first session we had. Me, Nathan, and these brothers Dante and Gam Traynor, both really proficient grade eight players, were in this little studio for two days, wired on acid and ketamine,. That’s when we came up with the album’s single.
That sounds pretty intense….
N: The original demo is on the vinyl… it’s proper weird! (laughs)
L: It was sort of this really long techno jam. We got back at around about six in the morning after the session and listened to it. I remember thinking, “What is this?” It sounds almost nothing like Fat White Family. How were we going to reel this one back in? You set yourself a challenge, aesthetically. You make it really hard for yourself, otherwise you’re kind of rehashing the same ideas. You have to be a really, really good band to rehash the same ideas.
N: We were doing that for the first three months. Not me particularly, but people in the band were. It was like, “Come on, enough of this garage shit”. I’d had enough of it.
L: We started with this guitary stuff and realised it wasn’t going to wash. It needed to be something scary for us, it needed to make us think, “How the fuck do we pull this off?”. That was the first thing. The dynamic on this one had also changed. Saul came back because me and Nathan didn’t have enough music for a whole record, but he had to set his watch by what we’d already been doing. It was all change.
This fresh direction coincides with the band signing to Domino. Going for a poppy sound seems more mainstream, something you’ve always been outside of. How do you reconcile this with still wanting to inject a more subversive message into your music?
L: I wasn’t too worried about that. If anything, the context laid out by our reputation and sordid mythologising was kind of an opportunity. It renders doing a pop thing somehow subversive, because we’ve already established ourselves as these fuck-ups. By rigidly lowering people’s expectations over the years, for us to come back with something articulate that has sweetness and light in it is by very definition some sort of revolt against what we were before. Lyrically, the content is as bitterly cynical as anything I’ve written before, it just festers below the surface. Writing songs and publishing them is you going halfway, the other half is how it’s absorbed by other humans. People attach their own meaning to it. You only have control of half of the experience as the artist. The other half is down to the listener.
N: I know I can do more poppy songs. Whether or not the audience likes them, I don’t know. I don’t give a fuck really. If I get Lias’ lyrics, which are subversive, and then put them on a pop song, you can piss off more people. That’s the goal here, a Trojan horse. Hopefully it works, then if it doesn’t we can fail and come back with another plan.
L: You’re infiltrating the middle class, so you can tear them to pieces from the inside and expose some of the vicious hypocrisies latent in that kind of milieu. It’s the world I live in. All of my friends in London are all really middle class. As much as I feel accepted by this world, I’ll never fully be accepted by it. So part of me can’t resist trying to pull it to pieces a little bit. And now, especially with things like Brexit and populism, it’s becoming more and more violently exposed just how hypocritical people are.
I know I can do more poppy songs. Whether or not the audience likes them, I don’t know. I don’t give a fuck really.
One message you could ascribe to the album, especially with tracks such as ‘Tastes Good With The Money’ and ‘I Believe In Something Better’, is that it’s a jab at what’s going on in the UK at the moment.
L: I think when there are political implications, with whatever art you make, they’re always incidental. If you make something that’s honest, it will inevitably ring true in some kind of sense. But there wasn’t a great deal of deliberation about all of that. We weren’t thinking, “OK, let’s eviscerate the political setting as it stands”. It’s an outpouring of sentiment, humour, violence, love, and all the rest of it. You’re just trying to get all this crap off your chest so it can be turned into something useful for other people, as opposed to resentment. It’s a therapeutic process. If it pairs up nicely with reality, that’s a good thing. It’s not deliberate really. The album title is deliberate. It’s a tongue-in-cheek nod towards populism, the oppressed masses reaching up and grabbing more oppression for themselves.
Talking about therapeutic processes, how did Saul’s absence for the first nine months affect the process??
L: Before, he’d kind of established a kind of smack dictatorship. It made it impossible for anyone else’s musical voice to reach up and become prominent. I’d write the odd song on guitar and all the lyrics. But as far as he was concerned, he was the architect of the whole thing sonically. This time around he wasn’t there, so we had to establish our own framework and write more melody, and come up with more ideas. He then had to complement those ideas. It was the other way around. He still contributed massively to the record and wrote a lot of the songs. But it was really beneficial in that it allowed everybody else space to create. When he did come back it wasn’t like before. He’s a completely different human being when he’s off heroin, he can be pragmatic, he can be compromising and work around other people’s ideas. But that drug turns people into hideous, paranoid monstrosities all the time. And that’s almost unworkable. That’s why the last album was all about abusive relationships. I thought I was locked and lost in this violent, abusive relationship that was coloured in every way by heroin and crack abuse. At that point, that was my way of therapy for myself. Once the brown cloud lifts, you come out tap dancing. (laughs)
Your recorded material is very different from your live performances. How are you preparing to tour the new album?
L: We’ve approached it by rendering the live side more like the record. We reworked old stuff and brought it up to speed. We started introducing samples to older tracks that have that electronic element but which we never explored because we were all too busy destroying ourselves with drugs. Again, we’ve tried to articulate the music more sensitively with an adherence to what’s on the record. It was really challenging at first. We did about 10 days’ rehearsals at first. The first five days everybody was shitting themselves, nobody knew how to play ‘Feet’. But then you crack the back of it. The two shows we’ve done already really helped with the old stuff. It’s a more diverse package now, it’s become more intimate. I think it’s broadening the lexicon. I’m not worried about it.
When you were out playing the last album live, the band was falling apart. Are you a little apprehensive about getting back together, going out on the road and seeing how the dynamic pans out?
L: There’s always apprehension. You’re talking about a gang of severely dysfunctional people, with serious drug and mental health issues.
N: Everyone can be really lovely, but at the same time it can go real dark.
L: It’s half-excitement, half-dread. It’s been so long since we’ve done it. Having been through everything, without somebody dying, it can’t get any worse. People were doing so much smack that they would stop turning up to shows. You’d just call somebody else in. We’ve established that if you’re not going to pull your weight, you can fuck off. In the studio we’re democratic socialists, live we’re hardline Stalinists. If you’re not doing it, then you’re purged. Part of me dreads it because it’s always going to be difficult, but most of me just wants to get on with it. Being on stage is the only time I feel truly relaxed. The rest of the time I’m an anxious wreck.
We’ve done so much talking about the record, I’m just aching to perform now.
N: We’ve never been at this point really, where we’ve been off the road for such a long time. It’s like starting the car in winter, thinking, “Come on you cunt, please”. You need to get it started man, that’s my main concern. Getting everyone in that room. No drugs, just booze. Once we get on stage, for me, there will be no more apprehension.
L: I need to play now. We’ve done so much talking about the record, I’m just aching to perform now. You just kind of forget what it even feels like.
You come to Berlin quite often, what do you get up to when you’re here?
L: I’ve got some friends in Berlin. Our old bassist Taishi lives here as well. We stayed here for a couple of months about seven years ago. We used to busk outside of Warschauer Straße, trying to get beer money. I think this is where the band also really picked up its heroin problem. So we have very fond memories of Berlin and everything that it offers. (laughs) When I’m here I try to see my mate Arish from King Khan, and his family. I sometimes stay with them. In the summer, Berlin is a pretty untouchable place.
Fat White Family play Bi Nuu, Berlin on June 3. Serfs Up! Is out now on Domino Records
* This feature was sub-edited by Ciara Cunnane.