‘I think everyone should try being on the dole once’

‘I think everyone should try being on the dole once’
A day with Saul Adamczewski — The Insecure Men and Fat White Family man has made a 10-track album full of karaoke covers. We met up in South London to talk Tory governments, turning 30 and why he’s angling for a duet with Peter Andre.

Though Saul Adamczewski is yet to enter the room, there are clues to indicate he’s somewhere nearby: a sausage sandwich (half-eaten) on one table, a pint of Guinness (half-drunk) on another, a joint (tightly-rolled) waiting on the side.

When the Fat White Family and Insecure Men musician finally arrives, he introduces himself with a handshake and wry, gap-toothed grin, before slowly beginning to make his way through the assorted items. Dressed in an oversized blazer and creased blue shirt, he paces as he sets about consuming, making particularly light work of the food.

Saul’s here – his manager’s house in Catford, South London: the “de-facto base” for interviews – to talk about Karaoke For One Vol. 1, a semi-solo venture in the form of a 10-track cover album. Featuring his take on the likes of “Rainy Days and Mondays” to Peter Andre’s “Mysterious Girl”, it’s a typically idiosyncratic affair: part-cruise ship background music, part-haunting, one-man Phoenix Nights band.  

“I did it with this old Yamaha keyboard, which has all built-in presets, so you only have to play one note,” he says, before proudly revealing that he has brought it with him to show off. (He will later disclose that it’s one of 20 that he owns.) 

“It plays the chords, the bass line, the drums. Then I had a karaoke machine which has an in-built delay on it, so I had my vocals coming out through this karaoke machine while I was playing it on a little keyboard – a bit like John Shuttleworth, or something.”

Karaoke For One – how did it come to be?
I was living with my girlfriend in Paris. Her parents were living there as well. I didn’t want her dad to think that I was a slob that lay around in bed all day doing nothing, so I thought I’d record a bunch of covers on my iPad and put them online. I had nothing to do, it seemed like a fun idea.

Where’d you get the karaoke machine from?
I nicked it off someone, actually. I had to get them another one to replace it.

You probably already know this, but the word karaoke is taken from two Japanese words-
– I did not know this.

Well, it’s ‘kara’, which translates as empty or void, and ‘oke’, which means orchestra. So your album is basically Empty Orchestra For One.
That kind of appeals to me [laughs]. I like the idea of that – that’s what it is, isn’t it? Soulless music. That’s what I was going for, you know using those plinky, plonky kind of keyboard sounds. Sad, English.

Despite the bleakness of the translation, for a lot of people, karaoke is about escapism, isn’t it? Living their dream for three, four minutes.
Yeah, I agree with that. I’m not even a fan of karaoke you know, I hate doing it. I used to run a karaoke night at this pub. Well, I say that, but that’s a gross exaggeration – I think they let me run it twice, then they wouldn’t let me come back because I wasn’t very nice to the people that were doing it.

In what way?
I kind of did it with resentment. I used to loathe it, because it used to be annoying. You’d get these professional karaoke heads coming down, singing the same fucking Amy Winehouse song. Did my head in.

I’m picturing you as Peckham’s very own Simon Cowell.
In a swivel chair.

So, it’s been seven years since the Fat Whites got together-
– Fucking hell.

How have you witnessed London change during that time?
For me, London has changed a lot – because my life has changed. When the Fat Whites got together, London was a lot cheaper. We still had the dying embers of the squatting scene – being able to live here and be an artist, spend your time dedicated to being an artist even if you were on the dole. I don’t really see how that’s a viable way of living in London anymore, though I know a couple of people who are still trying.

Back then, London was a lot better. But there was also a lot less music around. There’s been a whole revival of little punk bands and stuff like that – people putting on their own nights and doing stuff in [South London]. I think in East London that was always kind of going on, but – especially when the Fat Whites started – it was very kind of cliquey and hip. You had to look like you were in The Horrors to be allowed to be part of the scene. We didn’t fit in with that at all.

Now there seems to be a whole thing in London. It’s got worse in a lot of ways, but that’s what’s good about when things get tough – art is always a response to that. Through things getting quite difficult, I guess there’s a blossoming of a music scene. Although none of it’s that good [laughs]. But I’m happy it’s going on – people making bad art is better than them not.

When Fat White Family started, that must have been the beginning of the Cameron administration.
We were firmly in Cameron, Osbourne territory.

So in that sense, it’s not just London that’s changed – it’s the entire country.
I think the fact we were all on the dole, you can really feel the squeeze of the government when you’re on the dole. You can feel the Tories squeezing the welfare state, because it directly affects you. I felt far more angry at that point.

Was it a period of politicisation for you?
Yeah definitely, being on the dole was. I didn’t really give a shit before then.

It made it real.
Cos I’m a selfish prick. It just took something that affected me personally. But that’s often the case. Everyone should try being on the dole [laughs].

You said your life has changed. How?
I’ve grown up. I’ve been through, you know… I’ve lived a few experiences, good and bad. It’s been quite a tough seven years. I’ve changed, I’ve grown up a little bit. I’m less sociable than I was. I see London differently – I’m not going out on the town, to squat parties every night.

Would you change any of it?
Not really. I mean, would I change anything I’ve done in the last seven years? Course I would. But I’m kind of happy where things are now, so I’m alright. I’m 30 now. It freaked me out a little bit. I never thought I’d be concerned about anything like that, but it was a little bit like, ‘Oh god, I can’t be living on my mum’s sofa anymore.’

You’ve said that being in the band is like method acting. Is it far to say that you’ve had a problem with separating the assumption of that character with reality?
Definitely [laughs]. It’s funny putting it that way, I’m not sure about that. But I definitely feel that there was a period in the Fat Whites when unless you were a heroin, crack-addicted nihilist, then you didn’t really have a seat at the table. You know, when you’re playing gigs every night, it felt like a horrible travelling freak show.

I felt like it was necessary to fully embed yourself in that kind of filth in order to do it. I guess it probably made it a lot easier. Trying to do it now and not being like that, it’s quite hard, alien and weird. It doesn’t feel the same playing those songs on-stage. Being in a different kind of head space, that’s the new challenge.

But yeah, there was a real sense of nastiness – it was horrible, the way we treated each other and everything. The whole package was nasty. The music sounded horrible, the subject matter was horrible, we were horrible to each other and to ourselves. It was this whirlwind of abuse [laughs]. Trying to do it now, that period in our lives is over. Well, touch wood.

It must be difficult reentering that space. Especially with it being the first record since you left and rejoined the band. Did you have to relearn your relationships with the rest of the guys?
Yeah. It was difficult to do it, because people are emotionally scarred from recording the last record. Some people in the band didn’t want to work with me because of the way I used to behave. There was a whole political thing between us as friends. So making this record in these new circumstances… it was difficult for everyone.

Part of growing up, I guess.
… yes.

The Mercury Prize was [at the time of the interview] announced last week. Did you pay any attention to it?
I wouldn’t be so sure if the Mercury Prize was ever anything interesting. It’s just crap, isn’t it? It’s almost like a kiss of death. Not only is it naff and shit and tasteless and all those kinds of things, but I just find any awards show kind of repulsive to an extent. I don’t see why artists feel the need to give themselves awards. Like, [he begins to clap] ‘well done you!’

Have you listened to the winning album ?
Yeah, I’ve heard a couple of tracks. It’s not my cup of tea, but I think [Wolf Alice] are all lovely guys and stuff.

What would happen if the third Fat White Family album dropped and got you got a nomination?
It actually crossed my mind. I was thinking it’d be great if you turned it down. But then they offer you loads of money, don’t they. So that’s the thing [laughs]. Maybe we’ll win it next year.

That would be a turn of events.
It really would be [laughs].

What’s the bleakest thing about the music industry right now?
It’s a very safe place. I think a lot of music that people actually really like gets overlooked. I think if you look into any local music scene, anywhere, the best bands will be the ones that don’t rise up out of the scene and become figureheads.

The best stuff seems to kind of stay removed, a lot of the time. I guess there’s always a thriving underground, DIY scene going on – somewhere. But in a way, that’s kind of bleak, isn’t it? It’s all run by middle-aged, middle-class white guys. Just like any other thing.

Do you feel fortunate, in that sense, to have risen from the underground without having to compromise your ideals?
Yeah of course. We had a lot of things going for us, luckily. When we started, there wasn’t much other music around. Because we got a lot of press – things like the amount of drugs we took, the fact that I didn’t have a tooth, the fact that Lias put shit on his face – that helped us. It’s not like it’s been any kind of huge success, but the fact that we’re still doing it is the success.

To wrap things up – what do you reckon Peter Andre makes of your cover of ‘Mysterious Girl’?
I think he’d love it if he heard it. I think he’d hear the song in a whole new way. Maybe me and him could do a duet.

Now that would be a turn of events. You could perform it at next year’s Mercury Prize ceremony.
Yes. Let’s hope for that.

Karaoke For One Vol. 1 is available now on Fat Possum Records.

Niall is Huck’s Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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