Is Fat White Family The Last Vulgar, Grimy, Outrageous Rock Band?
They’ve been called the greatest young act in Britain, but whether Fat White Family can keep from self-imploding is yet to be seen. For now, they just want to make you squirm.
“These are my Monday drinks,” says Fat White Family singer Lias Saoudi, arranging a large bottle of water and a separate container of coconut water in front of him on the table at a nearly empty sports bar in New York’s East Village. When the waitress arrives, he asks for a white Russian, but they don’t serve milk. “Do you have anything else like that?” he says. “I’ve got a bit of heartburn.”
“I’ve got a Tum,” his younger brother, Nathan, Fat White Family’s doe-eyed keyboard player, interjects.
“Oh, OK, gimme a Tum,” Lias says, and then orders a margarita. “Not really strong, though. Like, Monday strength.” As the waitress walks away, he says, cheekily, “We’re wild guys, you know? Anything goes.”
So I had heard. The Fat Whites have been said to “radiate filth,” been called “diseased, drug-addled, utterly corrupt,” and been dubbed “the most horrible, depraved band” in the U.K.—the last meant as a compliment. The sound on their debut album, Champagne Holocaust, is a lysergic blend of lo-fi punk, eerie Manson-family folk, warped country, and sludgy blues descended from the same weirdo bloodline as artists from the Fall to Royal Trux. And like those musical and spiritual ancestors, Fat White Family—all sunken-faced and pin-eyed, with shitty DIY haircuts and ill-fitting vintage clothes that reek of sweat—actually want to make your skin crawl. The first look U.S. audiences got of them was the amusingly unnerving video for a creepy-sexy ditty called “Touch the Leather”: Lias looms menacingly in the foreground while, slightly out of focus in the periphery, Nathan’s ass, naked and wiggling, drifts across the frame. The band’s entire MO is aggressive, raw, and teetering on the brink of collapse, everything we celebrate in rock music. But in this age of folk and electro—of Mumfords and Molly—can a real rock band even survive?
By December, when I meet up with Fat White Family, they’ve been hanging around New York for several months, putting on a series of utterly unhinged live performances that have become claustrophobically packed, must-see events. A couple of nights before, at Brooklyn venue Baby’s All Right, they incited a full-on freak-out—the longest and most crowd-engulfing mosh pit I’ve seen at a club show in years. In the back of the room, you couldn’t move. Everywhere else, you couldn’t not. “They’ve got more balls and better taste than most bands,” says Sean Lennon, who played a show with the Fat Whites in Austin last year. “Combine that with a live show that makes both men and women tear their clothes off screaming and they’re sort of in a league of their own.”
As a frontman, Lias has the maniacal energy and creepy, slithery sex appeal of Iggy Pop, and he knows it. “Once the music starts going and you get into it, you’re not even really aware who’s there anymore,” he says. “You kind of black out. It’s the best kind of fun, but then you always feel hollow and depressed afterward, like, ‘What now?’” After their second Baby’s All Right gig in December, I watched Lias come careening into the makeshift dressing room backstage like a sweat-soaked, shirtless zombie. He collapsed onto a banquette and lay there panting and staring blankly at the sky, seemingly trying to figure out how to re enter his body after having left it so completely onstage.
I’ve read stories about Lias slathering his body in butter at one show, masturbating onstage at another, and smearing his face with his own shit during yet another. Sitting with him, a thoughtful, articulate conversationalist clad in an oversize vintage sweater and duck vest, drinking his Monday drinks, all of that feels very remote. “Hopefully the music indicates that we’re not just a bunch of druggie idiots,” he says. “And when people meet us and talk to us, we’re not savage wild men. Sure, the live show can go a bit whatever, but it’s just a show!”
Lias, 28, and Nathan, 25, spent their early childhood moving around a lot—Galway, the coast of Scotland, New York, Chicago—before their parents split and their mother married “a North Irish fella” and relocated them to the small city of Cookstown, an hour east of Belfast. Lias left when he was 18 to attend art college in London, and a year and a half later,Nathan showed up at his door. “I got kicked out of school for being too sexy,” says the younger Saoudi, who’s dressed in a leather cap adorned with a “Free Palestine” pin and a plaid polyester suit that smells like it’s been on him for weeks. “The mayor of the town came to the door and said, ‘You’ve got to leave.’” Ever the diplomat, Lias interjects quietly,“I’m not sure that’s right.”
Though Lias spent five years at art college, he considers the schooling to have been a waste of time. “It was all just hot air,” he says. “There’s this illusion with art school that you’re learning how to do something, but it was impossible to know if anything was good or bad. When I started doing music, it occupied the same energy, and you get a more immediate reaction. You know you’re crap if you’re doing music badly, because people leave or don’t show up.” Before Fat White Family, the brothers had a punk band called the Saudis that they both say was terrible but that did manage to do a three-month tour of Algeria. “That’s where our family lives, in the mountains of Kabylia,” Lias says. “It was like going back 500 years. We were playing for 600 men in abandoned beer halls.” Some Muslim relatives deemed them heathens, and soon the band broke up. Before long Lias found himself living with guitarist Saul Adamczewski, Fat White Family’s musical mastermind.
We had a shared sense of humor, really,” Adamczewski recalls, when I finally talk to him a few days later. “That’s mostly what it is. Lias didn’t know anything about music at all. He’d only ever listened to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. So I showed him some music. And he performs in a way that I could never perform, so it kind of worked out.”
During his late teens, Adamczewski had been the singer in a short-lived band called the Metros, who had a whole bunch of smoke blown up their asses in the mid-’00s, only to be dropped by their label before they actually got anywhere. When he found himself in a band again, Adamczewski says he just wanted to make a record he actually liked, even if the group had to pay for it themselves. For Champagne Holocaust, they partnered with a tiny label called Trashmouth Records that basically paid them in studio time. The band posted the results on Soundcloud back in 2012 and then immediately moved to Barcelona. “We were gonna just go to Spain and busk,” Lias says. “We thought because it was sunny, it would be kind of easier to be beach bums there.” Turns out busking is illegal in Barcelona. “We didn’t look it up on Google,” Nathan says, laughing.
After Spain, the Fat Whites shipped off to Berlin for a while, before returning to the U.K. in 2013. They moved in above a Brixton bar called the Queen’s Head, which one Yelp reviewer describes as “a really anarchic pub, mostly full of extremely right-wing nationals involved in the occult and with the ability to see straight into your soul.” Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, the band draped the outside of the bar with a sign reading the witch is dead. (It originally read the bitch is dead, but even Fat White Family know to reel it in sometimes.)
A shot of them gleefully posed around the sign circulated in U.K. papers: Fat White Family’s first symbolic victory. Lias says that, from the start, they have never taken the band very seriously. In fact, the whole endeavor is based on the opposite premise. “You have to be willing to make a massive fool of yourself,” the singer explains. “That’s what I thought was missing from so many bands when we started. Nothing was funny or sexy anymore. Bloc Party is a good example—just so boring and impossibly vague.”
They started playing at the Queen’s Head every couple of weeks,initially to audiences of fewer than 50. Lias says it took a lot of shows before he truly let go of his fear of looking foolish onstage. “I think not knowing what you’re doing is a huge element of the whole thing for me,” he says. “It’s the only way to invite spontaneity and randomness into what you do—by being kind of unaware or deluded. It took a long time to get comfortable, and a lot of drugs. I used to take MDMA and coke to get over the nervousness—I don’t anymore, just a few drinks or whatever—but it took years to really get there.”
Whether or not the elder Saoudi still relies on chemical assistance, it’s hard not to worry about Adamczewski, who looks like a dead man walking. The 26-year-old’s face is withered and sallow, with massive dark circles around his eyes. His frame is so gaunt that, on the first night we meet, his spine protrudes through his dingy thermal undershirt. I worry about writing a story that romanticizes rock excess, when he may actually be in danger of killing himself. When I raise the subject with Lias and Nathan, they uncomfortably crack jokes about him being healthier than they are. “He’s cool as a carrot!” says Nathan.
“I get sick more than he does,” Lias adds. “He was born with those big black bags under his eyes, and he’s missing that tooth, so everyone thinks he’s dying or something. He eats, he sleeps every now and then.…”
“To be honest, I would say a lot of it is founded on truth,” says Adamczewski about the band’s hedonistic reputation. “I’m being honest with you; some of the guys in our band are, like, idiots and jocks and have no desire to really do anything other than to take a load of drugs. Basically, me and Lias do all the work and the other guys don’t do anything. We don’t really get along, so it’s kind of a nightmare, in terms of personal relationships. I don’t know what the goal is anymore because I don’t know how much longer we can do this. I mean, we can make another record.…” His voice trails off. (His bandmates declined to respond.)
Fat White Family have been working on new songs during their New York stint, traveling upstate to record tracks at both Sean Lennon’s hideaway (“the plushest studio I’ve ever been in,” says Lias) and at producer Kevin McMahon’s—an old farmhouse with an attached silo he uses as a reverb chamber. Adamczewski describes some of the new tracks as “weird attempts at easy listening” but notes that, of the nearly 20 songs they’ve got in progress, only three have finished lyrics. “It’s much easier to write music than it is words, I guess,” he concedes. They say they only have until this spring to finish their sophomore album before a long stretch of touring.
“I think what you have to do is just isolate yourself, not read anything written about you, and force yourself to come to terms with the same anxiety that spurred you on to do the first thing,” Lias says. The band will be headed home to the U.K. in a couple of days, putting their American adventure behind them, if not their reputation as the hardest-partying gang in rock. Journalists, Lias says, love to write about drugs, so they need “one of those bands on the scene.” Worse, a few American blogs have even alleged that, like some of their predecessors in the “next big thing” sweepstakes, the Saoudi brothers are expensively educated rich kids. “Everyone is so fucking cynical! I don’t mind if people criticize the music, but when people assume we’re posh boys and start publishing that as gospel, that’s offensive. Before this, we were all doing crappy jobs, and all of a sudden, you get an opportunity to do something you really wanna do, so you go with the flow and take what you can get and try to keep it on the right track. But it is an intense pressure.” He takes a drink of his Monday margarita. “This has been the longest year of my life.”
Photos by Bobby Bruderle