IT’S A BOLD NEW DAWN FOR FAT WHITE FAMILY
Following the addiction and infighting that characterised their last release, many felt the Fat Whites wouldn’t make it. But against the odds, they’re back with a new album – healthier, and full of seductive new ideas.
Though they spent the last few hours separately, the Saoudi brothers of Fat White Family are in a collective daze.
Frontman Lias has been busy conducting interviews with Japanese press. All of them, he explains, used the same translator – meaning he spent the bulk of his morning having the same conversation, with the same person, over and over again.
Beside him, Nathan – the band’s keyboard player – is sporting a thousand-yard stare. When Lias deduces that it’s probably because he’s been “up all night shagging”, the younger sibling reluctantly breaks his silence. “I wish,” he says, vacantly. “I’ve been… looking for my soul.” (He will not elaborate on what exactly this means.)
Thankfully, both of them perk up when saxophonist Alex White arrives, parading what quickly reveals itself as a startling new mullet that’s just a few hours old. “What the fuck have you done to your hair?” cries Nathan, the spell broken. “Why have you done that?” Lias simply rolls a cigarette, quietly staggered. “What were you on?”
The Fat Whites are here – a spacey pub in Brixton, a stone’s throw from their old south London stomping ground – to discuss album number three. Titled Serf’s Up, it’s an exercise in grimy, seductive pop, delivered with a lightness that perhaps wasn’t as visible among the self-destructive rakishness of previous outings. In many ways, it represents a new beginning.
Recorded in Sheffield shortly after the departure of founding member Saul Adamczewski (partly resigning, partly sacked – though he would later return) it came at a critical juncture for the band. Following an elongated period of addiction, ill health and infighting, many were sceptical as to whether they’d come out the other side.
“Sometimes, the worse it gets, the better it gets,” says Lias. “The tighter the straight jacket, the more you’re going to wriggle.”
So, the album.
Nathan: Alex, can you please tuck the mullet into your shirt?
Alex: It’s a fucking haircut. Get over it.
Nathan: It’s a bit distracting.
Lias: Can we just do the interview?
I mean, we can do more hair chat – if you want to.
Nathan: Who did it?
Alex: Well, the girl who cut this, she flies all over the world doing fashion shoot haircuts.
Nathan: She’s my enemy.
Alex: We just decided to do it at like, quarter to five in the morning. Took her until about eight.
Nathan: Did you decide it, or did the chemicals inside your body?
Alex: About a week ago, I said I wanted a ‘severe mullet’.
A severe mullet? Everyone’s going to be asking for one of those now. Could be a dangerous snowball.
Nathan: [burps]... a dangerous speedball, more like!
Lias: We should probably do the interview.
Yes, the album. You’ve referred to it as ‘a new dawn’. What did you mean by that?
Lias: We try and apply as much hyperbole as we can with everything. Every observation is infused with heroic egotism. I guess it’s just a basic facet of that tendency.
Alex: But [the new album] isn’t as off-puttingly abrasive. Maybe more people can listen to it.
Lias: That’s part of it – having a band that was off of heroin for the recording of it. The last [album] was a swamp of paranoia and absolute barbaric dysfunction. Occasional violence. It was a band up against the ropes, but still trying to emit something. Still trying to excuse itself, somehow.
I think we exceed in that dark, pointless mission. This is a rebirth in the sense we had to start from scratch. We’d fired Saul, so when we started out, it was pretty much just us three. We moved up to Sheffield-
Alex: - and just sat in a dark room, basically.
Nathan: Waiting. For a mullet to come.
Alex: [To Nathan] You’ve been telling me to cut my hair. When we first pulled up to Sheffield, you said, ‘When the fuck are you going to cut your hair?’
Nathan: This... wasn’t how I imagined it to be.
So you were in Sheffield.
Lias: Yeah. Saul wasn’t there – who was our musical director up until that point – so that was a pretty gaping hole to fill, artistically. But we saw a window of opportunity in that. We had time to absorb other music for a while. So whereas the last album was barely surviving, we had the time and the space and the wherewithal psychologically to do something a little bit more ambitious. And more articulate.
Alex: It was good getting musical ideas out of Lias, for example. He’s mostly been just the lyricist. And getting whole songs out of Nathan, who started writing really nice tunes. They might have not seen the light of day otherwise. We were all sort of building it together.
Nathan: For me, it was like being in Rocky 4. As Rocky. [He does not explain why.]
Lias: Nathan maybe wasn’t able to bloom. Saul’s really talented and can have 10 different musical ideas in his head at once, but it’s an overbearing personality. It’s a quasi-dictatorial thing going on, and that not being there for a good period was great, because we really started to investigate our own ideas. When he came back into it, he kind of had to align himself with what he’d already done. It must have been strange for him, reentering the fold to a new dynamic.
Lias: It was new for everybody.
Alex: Maybe that’s why it’s a new dawn.
Lias: ‘Feet’ was the first thing that was really like, ‘Okay’. It was a two-day ketamine jam on one of Nathan’s ideas. I remember listening to it when we were done, and we were shocked – but in a good way. It was so far away from anything that was already Fat White Family.
It was a real mission that went on for about a year, trying to reclaim this band. Saul came back in after all that was done. It was a struggle for him because he had to find a way that was working around the ideas that were already there.
Were there difficulties that came with that?
Lias: There were massive difficulties that came with the power vacuum. Before it was Saul calling the shots. Now it was like, ‘This song is Nathan’s and it’s really personal to Nathan, this one is mine, and so on.’ Then there were Saul’s songs, because he eventually came back in and contributed a load. But yeah, Nathan especially had real problems.
Alex: Because it’s so personal isn’t it, having written a song. If you take it to other people when you’re not used to the process – of someone taking a bit of your song and changing it – it can be traumatic.
Lias: Initially, when I used to write lyrics, I’d submit them to the broader thing and Saul would look at it – as someone who just writes music – and go, ‘Well that’s too many fucking syllables!’ It was mortally wounding. But in a way, it was really good for me to deal with that process early on. Learning to detach yourself is a key thing that takes time to learn. I don’t think Nathan had experienced that before.
Nathan: I didn’t know the language. Once you figure out the language, you can navigate people easier. But you have to go through it. It’s just a shitty part of the process.
Alex: It’s about knowing that you don’t know everything and becoming comfortable with it.
Serf’s Up feels like a title that fits our current moment.
Lias: It’s the rise of populism, basically. The idea of the oppressed masses heroically rising up and selecting more oppression for themselves. Voting their own noses off their faces, so to speak. Whatever you want to say about that is a different thing – I’m neither here nor there with it. It was a tongue-in-cheek reflection of the current climate.
You formed in 2011, and your identity as a band was so entangled with the time and place. Could a band like Fat White Family start tomorrow, given where we are right now?
Lias: I think there’s a tendency towards self-censorship now. A lurch towards virtue-signalling and political correctness and a morality as prescribed by, like, The Guardian. If you’re 20 years old, starting a band, and you want to stir shit up, you’re going to feel nervous about putting a foot wrong.
This hyper-accountability online – where everybody’s got a file on everybody else, and it can be brought up to beat you round the head with whenever shit goes down – as far as I’m concerned, there’s a faux-left bourgeois solipsism to it. I think that needs to be tackled at every opportunity.
Lias: I genuinely don’t think morality has anything to do with art. I think that’s really important to remember at this time. That art doesn’t become a facet of some kind of political agenda.
When we started, a lot of bands kind of followed us in a stylistic way – you know, that DIY mentality. But I don’t see a lot of people willing to stick their necks out; people who are willing to make complete fools of themselves in public, or push difficult buttons. I think that’s depressing.
Nathan: Gotta push those buttons!
You mention that DIY mentality. To jump back to the original question, how would a Fat White Family starting out today fare in an era of venue closures and sky-high rents? The destruction of squatting culture, too.
Lias: I don’t think we’d have been able to exist in the same way. But we would have found a way to survive. We would have found a way to make music. Because if you really absolutely have to do it – if you have to – that’s the only way you can reconcile things.
In those days, me and Nathan just used to live in squats, and that was a big part of how we formed music. The whole thing was about finding a squat that was big enough to put a party on and rehearse in, then you were set. You’d get your wage – or dole – and you’d get a little thing going.
Nathan: If it wasn’t that, then it was £300 for a room. Back then, you could do that. Now? Not a fucking chance.
Lias: I think we’re an example of what’s good about London. How it’s always produced interesting mutant stuff. There’s a lot of cross-pollination going on in London, and that’s a brilliant part of it. But I think that’s going to happen less and less as the city becomes modernised.
Whenever I read a review – of an album, a show – you seem to be referred to you as ‘the last of a dying breed’, or words to that effect. Do you think that’s true, given what we’ve just spoken about?
Lias: When you’re extremely compromised, it can really bear fruit. Yeah, today you’re going to get a load of safe-as-houses, tick-all-the-boxes homogenised industry fodder as a result of that climate. But you’ll get one or two people who are mental enough to persist.
It’s such a fucking grave struggle to do it all, but a stronger voice can emerge there. I think all good art is born of some kind of struggle. You’re trying to resolve something in yourself and the world around you.
To jump back to the album. There’s a lightness in the music that perhaps wasn’t as obvious before. Does that reflect where you’re at personally now?
Lias: I think it definitely reflects that. We had a reputation for hard drugs, so everybody would turn up at live shows with hard drugs. It was unavoidable – a drawn-out narcotic nadir. That fog lifting and being able to look at each other was a key part of that.
Obviously, there’s going to be a lot less doom and gloom when everyone’s not fucked on heroin the whole time. Inevitably, a certain lighter attitude creeps in. But the content is always just a reflection of what everyone’s interested in. This time round, we were like, ‘Okay, we’ve made a doom, noise, heroin album. What can we do next?’
Alex: Why would you then go back and try and be really dark again? I mean, this is the first album I’ve been involved in. There are elements of the previous albums that I like, but they’re certainly not my music by any stretch of the imagination. Given the people we were working with on [the new record], it was always destined to be slightly more melodic. And, for want of a better word, more musical.
That narrative – the drugs, the fighting – was often amplified by the press, because it contributed to that whole mythology you’d built. Was it ever weird, seeing things you were going through personally playing out on such a public level?
Lias: I think you surrender yourself to that the second you render yourself a symbol. You don’t do that by accident. Any artist who says they don’t want to be famous is lying. You render yourself a living, breathing, snorting work of art. That’s part of the fun.
We always thought it was quite funny, you know, that ritualistic lowering of the bar. That’s kind of what Serf’s Up is about: completing that narrative. Going as far as we could into debasement and self-destruction, then magically returning at the other side – with really shit haircuts [looks at Alex].
I heard you went for a swim and a sauna every morning when you were recording the album.
Alex: Yeah. We were all hungover, full of whatever else from the night before. We’d do this big walk up a hill to go to the sauna.
Lias: Sitting in our underwear, sweating out the nine bottles of Rioja that had gone down in the studio the night before. It was a little ritual.
Alex: Then we’d go for a big lunch – a leisurely lunch – and get to the studio for about 5pm. Then do it all over again.
I’m glad Fat White Family finally discovered self-care.
Alex: I wouldn’t quite call it that.
Lias: You haven’t lived until you’ve seen yourself sweat wine.
Will that commitment to wellness hold up once the tour starts?
Nathan: You don’t really control the tour. The tour controls you. But, you know, as soon as people start fucking up – and this has happened in the past, with the drugs and stuff – you’ve just got to get sacked. If you can keep the fucking party going and play well every night, then fucking do it. If you can’t, then you’ve got to stop. And if you can’t stop, then you’ve got to go.
Lias: Because we’ve established this as the rule for this band, nobody expects a particular lineup on the night. If they do, more fool them.
Nathan: [To Lias] You don’t take that many drugs.
Lias: I was never a junkie. I dabbled. But everybody else was fucking diabolical. You’d go to certain cities – Paris, New York – and expect to come out with a different band. We had surrogate Sauls all over the world: UK, European, one on the east coast of America and another Saul on the west coast. While we were doing the best to fuck ourselves up constantly, these other people saved us from ourselves every time.
Nathan: One thing I dread is being in the tour van, sat there looking out the window, and hearing a can crack open at 1pm. I have to have words. You know, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this, because we get into the venue at five or six for sound check.’ I’ve never seen anyone crack open a can at 1pm and last.
Couple of weeks later, they can’t play anymore. Because they’re pissed. That shit pisses me off. Everybody likes to get fucked, but why do you have to get fucked driving down the M1? That is not where the party is, you dumb cunt.
Do you pre-tour feelings change as you grow older?
Lias: The more nervous and anxious I am, the better. And I’m already incredibly nervous and anxious. It’s a great personal reckoning. I always run through the most negative experiences I’ve ever had before I go on-stage. It’s a way of converting the worst of life into something other people can use.
Alex: Do you do that because you’re like, ‘It couldn’t possibly be worse than this?’
Lias: I think that’s part of the reason why I – in a morose kind of way – enjoy being in this band. The more hateful it became, the more fuel you’d have for the fire when it came to actually performing live. Keep your back right against that wall.
Does anything really scare you anymore?
Lias: I think when you do something like this for this long, you became dislocated from reality. Not like, sat in a jacuzzi like Kid Rock kind of way. But part of the process is extreme narcissism. You’re in your own world, constantly thinking about these songs and ideas, and it’s all completely arbitrary.
Being on tour, you’re in complete stasis. When you come back, everyone’s lives have moved on while you’re still pretty much the same. I guess that’s an anxiety you have – that you drift so far from shore that you can’t get back. Iggy Pop said a good thing: ‘Sometimes you eat the art, sometimes the art eats you.’ That’s a good way of summing that sentiment up. You can end up completely swallowed whole.
Serf’s Up is out 19 April on Domino.
Niall is Huck’s Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter.