Fat White Family’s Lias Saoudi: ‘I went on this night out that lasted 17 years’

Lias Saoudi, a man once notorious for throwing offal at crowds, is considering a sidewards step into reviewing it, slavered in jus. “I’m thinking of maybe quitting the band, quitting music and trying to become a food critic, the new Jay Rayner,” the Fat White Family frontman half-jokes down Zoom from the Domino Records offices. “Maybe that would be the truly subversive thing for me to do next – to try and get AA Gill’s old job at The Times.”

Saoudi’s Saturday routine column might make Gregg Wallace look well-adjusted. As the original agitators of the post-everything south London art rock scene, Fat White Family made their name howling mutant psychobilly songs about terrorism, grotty sex and paedophilia – called things like “Bomb Disneyland” and “Cream of the Young” – while off their nuts on psychedelics. Refining the approach gave them a top 20 album with 2019’s Serfs Up! but now, Saoudi argues, such snarling rebellion is gasping its last.

“I think it’s kind of an anachronism, a rock’n’roll band in this day and age,” he says. “I do think it’s a dying medium. It’s been drained steadily of all vitality and it just doesn’t make any sense on a purely practical level any more, when you consider the ups and downs economically, what it costs to actually pull off. You’re kind of living in an anachronistic fantasy. It’s the dregs of the dregs, man, and the dregs are not pleasant.”

The band are certainly greeting the release of their evolved, exploratory and occasionally deeply shocking fourth album, Forgiveness Is Yours, in a state of flux. The combined forces of financial insecurity, hard drugs, creative schisms, sibling “blood feuds” and intense pressure have put their future in a precarious balance. After Serfs Up! saw the band shift from gruesome post-punk, torture-chamber Velvets and twisted rock’n’roll – a style dubbed “gristle rock” – towards a richer sound flecked with disco, industrial dub and chamber pop, the pandemic acted as a reset that widened the cracks between them. Guitarist Saul Adamczewski had previously left (briefly) due to infighting and his heroin addiction; now Saoudi went the other way, reverting to the “social f***-up” and “f***ing nerd” he was when he first arrived in London from Northern Ireland as an outsider art student aged 18.

“Nobody would sleep with me, I didn’t have any friends, so I just had to do all the drugs,” he remembers. “I went on this night out that lasted 16, 17 years. It was not in my nature to begin with, that strange, bizarre journey. But then that pocket of silence right there was just like, ‘OK, actually I’m alright with the sounds in my own head’.” Despite Covid being “this chronically awful event for the musical underclass”, Saoudi found it a dream come true. “I was finally given the breathing room to retune in with the things that I was actually interested in. I could hear my own thoughts. I wasn’t just going from one ego phantasm to another.”

In the intervening years Saoudi began penning columns and essays for the likes of UnHerd, co-authored the best-selling Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family and the Miracle of Failure, and worked on solo shows, his Moonlandingz side-project and a new electro-psych band, Decius. When Fat White Family reconvened in Norway for sessions, he and Adamczewski seemed personal and creative worlds apart. Adamczewski, disinterested in Saoudi’s song ideas, insisted the album of “monumental drone tracks” they were working on shouldn’t have any vocals at all. Their fragile working relationship disintegrated and Adamczewski quit mid-album.

“The whole relationship was just one big crunch point,” Saoudi explains. “It’s just which bit of the crunch you’re lost in at any given time. The long and short of that was that he just didn’t really want to do it any more. There was a dynamic there that had gotten stale for him and for me. We both, during the pandemic especially, had grown into different positions, different people.”

It’s strange, I note, that it was actually creative differences that split the two, rather than the hard drugs that that phrase is often press release shorthand for. “The drugs is the baseline thing that f***ed the whole thing up,” Saoudi admits. “When you’re talking about hard, proper mental health issues mixed with hard drugs and years and years of this fetid post-Spotify musical landscape where everybody’s got this hangover in their heads of what it is to be in a rock’n’roll band that doesn’t equate to the socioeconomic realities of that situation. You’ve got this perfect brew of f***ing disaster. I think that’s what went down. But with the drugs, therein lies the root note of that collapse. You just can’t function for that long on that wavelength and still make sense to each other.”

The band are certainly greeting the release of their evolved, exploratory and occasionally deeply shocking fourth album ‘Forgiveness Is Yours’ in a state of flux (Louise Mason)

Meanwhile, Saoudi also fell out with his brother and bandmate Nathan over who should sing on Nathan’s composition “Work”, a psychedelic electropop ode to wage slavery. Nathan’s position in the band is currently uncertain. “The band has always been a revolving door of members and contributors and a kind of Rubik’s Cube of feuding components,” Saoudi says. “I think we’re at a point where there needs to be some cool-out. Sometimes you just have to have distance for a while before you can make things work.” Plus, he argues, in a musical landscape built on pleasing the algorithm and flattering the masses, there’s little support network, safety net or mercy for the cultural insurrectionist.

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“You’re up against it in so many more ways than maybe people were once upon a time,” he says. “If you take the route of ‘right, we’re gonna just be the antagonists, because somebody’s got to wind people up, that’s a necessary role within the culture, the fool or whatever’, the price you pay for conducting things that way has revealed itself to me to be quite remarkable as I’ve gotten older. There is nowhere to retreat. There’s no get-out clause. There’s no remuneration of any type. You’re left to your own devices and cast aside.”

Settled in a three-year “adult relationship”, Saoudi claims to be more clean-living “by a long stretch” than he was pre-pandemic (“I’ve worked it out that I only seem to get f***ed up at work any more – the opposite of everybody else”). He released a single from the album called “Bullet of Dignity” about the wild-at-heart rebel hitting their mid-thirties and starting to crave the emotional stability and bourgeois comfort they’d previously despised. “It’s putting to death that former self… accepting there’s a part of you that is tragically conventional, that maybe, just maybe, you’re not Lou Reed.” But the antagonist in him still rages against the dying of the fight.

Saoudi, who says he is now more clean-living ‘by a long stretch’ than he was pre-pandemic, crowdsurfs during a 2019 gig in London (Valerio Berdini/Shutterstock)

He rails against the obsession in the “indie microverse” for post-punk uniformity: “This is what authenticity means now, it means speaking in your own accent over angular guitars.” Bring up his recent beef with Idles and he doubles down: “I don’t mind bands being dull or whatever, fair enough, but when you’re grandstanding on that woke ticket I just find that anathema to what rock’n’roll really is, which is the reprobates. This is freak country. We don’t bring that kind of thing in here.” And in classic Fat Whites fashion, Forgiveness Is Yours brilliantly subverts current musical convention. It turns sophisticated en vogue styles such as electronic funk minimalism, retrofuturism and psychedelic rave folk into more subtle methods to get Saoudi’s unsettling worldviews under your skin.

“We’re at the end of the band era,” he says. “Everything is a rehash of a rehash of a rehash. It is the vapour in the tank. People have become, essentially, like the internet… just nodes in a machine and it’s essential for the efficiency of that machine’s functionality that there’s as little friction between these nodes as possible. It’s everything turns into everything else and the result is nothingness. People have become streams of interchangeable code and I think the one bright side about that, if you’re a musician, is you have this ridiculous access to all of these other genres and periods. Why not just soup them all together?”

Get f***ing real, man (…) It’s still gonna tear you to pieces when they decide that they want to sleep with so-and-so instead of you on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday

Saoudi on polyamorous relationships

It’s to a synthetic operatic waltz, then, that he harpoons today’s culture of narcissism in “Religion for One”. “That’s the highest code of honour in our current social order. There’s no higher priority than self-interest. Everybody becomes their own contained religious ecosystem within their own warped head.” And it’s to the sound of Prince playing at an S&M orgy in hell, then, that Saoudi sings “Polygamy Is Only for the Chief”, a track ruminating on how little progress we’ve made from prehistoric practices of sexual domination by tribal leaders: “It’s not really any different to where we’re at nowadays, with Bill Clinton on the Lolita Express, etcetera.” The current trend for polyamory? “Get f***ing real, man. It’s like a have your cake and eat it philosophy and it’s bulls*** because eventually there’s always a power imbalance, right? It’s still gonna tear you to pieces when they decide that they want to sleep with so-and-so instead of you on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.”

Even by FWF’s formidable standards, the album also includes one of the most disturbing pieces of music ever recorded. Inspired by the urgent delivery of author David Keenan, “Today You Become Man” is intended as a full stop on the current alt-rock trend for sprechgesang (or speak-sing) tracks, which Saoudi considers “non-specific drivel half of the time”. In a feverish spoken-word babble, full of details like a flickering nightmare, it tells the story of Lias’s older brother Tamlan being driven through his father’s mountain town in Algeria at the age of five under the pretence of going book shopping. As the song’s avant garde polyrhythms and ceremonial wailings reach a terrifying tempest, Tamlan finds himself on a table in a room of men in a dilapidated building, told to bite down on a wooden tube as he’s circumcised while his father slavers “today you become man” in his ear. If you can get through it first time, you’ve a stronger psyche than I.

‘We’re at the end of the band era. Everything is a rehash of a rehash of a rehash. It is the vapour in the tank,’ says Saoudi (Diogo Baptista/SOPA Images/Shutterstock)

“That’s common practice up in the mountains,” Saoudi confirms. And naturally for FWF, this was surefire hit single material. Saoudi found himself in an Algerian police station while making the video, facing jail time for unknowingly filming a courthouse. And on release day, his father called him up to pass judgement.

“It’s the only time my dad’s ever called me up the day of release,” Saoudi says. “I was genuinely worried about it. I was thinking maybe it’s a bit strong, it’s a bit explicit, and it did happen that way. He didn’t deny it when we spoke about it at Christmas. He had no idea it was coming. But he phoned me up really excited, he was showing it to everybody, he loved it.” It’s a reaction that itself brings home the power and relevance of the track. “One culture’s child abuse is another man’s ritualised masculinisation,” Saoudi nods.

If the record has a running theme, though, it’s reflecting on the horrors of the online culture wars and how self-righteous and closed off they’ve made the modern mind. “This runaway atomisation, so much sententious horse s*** online. But it’s not like other dystopias. When you think of Seventies misery, you think of this specific kind of dirt. This dystopia is shiny, it’s hyper functional. It’s got smoothed-away edges, it’s a different kind of banality as opposed to that acerbic dark wastrel pickled liver of previous miseries. This era, it’s claustrophobic, it’s very colourful, it sounds ostensibly quite friendly, user-friendly at least. But behind it are the same fetid archetypes that have always haunted the human animal – judgement and punishment and pain being the root of every development.”

The main thing that I want to try and avoid is the cocaine. That’s the devil. That’s the thing that makes suicidally depressed (…) Once you’re in that cycle, you’re just in a psychological abyss.”

The “Maoist denunciation and counterdenunciation” at large reminds Saoudi of being a schoolteacher in China for six months around 15 years ago. “You wear a smile on your face and everything’s shiny and runs on time and functional.” Now, globally, he feels “two systems are beginning to merge, where you’ve got the worst bits of socialism and the worst bits of capitalism all married together in this citadel of pure exploitation. It’s just horrible.”

With such sonic and sociological attitude at play, it’s only partly to wind up rock purists that Saoudi likens himself to the ultimate counterculture icon on “John Lennon”, the true story of meeting Yoko Ono at Sean Lennon’s studio while on ketamine. “The first thing she said to me was, ‘You remind me of my husband, he was a singer as well,’” he laughs. “I was like, ‘Really? What band was he in? Did they get good rotation on 6?’ But I was thinking, what if I actually was John and he was speaking to Yoko and I was like a medium? But it wasn’t the peace and love John, it was f***ing angry John. He’s been in the afterlife on his own for 40 f***ing years and he’s pissed, he’s beckoning Yoko to come and join him.” And if that story isn’t quite Fat White enough for you, consider this happened fresh from a “very homoerotic” three months touring Cambodia on a motorcycle with a “really, really handsome half-Lebanese, half-Nigerian guy”. On MDMA.

Financial insecurity, hard drugs, creative schisms, sibling ‘blood feuds’ and intense pressure have put the band’s future in a precarious balance (Richard Isaac/Shutterstock)

The forthcoming FWF tour, Saoudi vows, won’t be anywhere near as hedonistic. He plans to stick to his usual pre-gig tipple of alcohol and mushroom tincture, just to cue up the chaos. “The main thing that I want to try and avoid is the cocaine,” he says. “That’s the devil. That’s the thing that makes you f***in’ suicidally depressed. That’s the thing that means you have to start taking Valium every night to get to sleep. Once you’re in that cycle, you’re just in a psychological abyss.”

If Forgiveness Is Yours is the last thing the band ever do, Saoudi would likely feel that its seditious semtex-ing of rock music was complete. After the tour, he envisions setting up his own “jihadi Graceland”. “I want to take a few bands out to Algeria. I want to tour Algeria and set up a studio out there and spend a few months with a bunch of different people, producers and stuff. I want to try and find a way of enmeshing moments and music and writing so it’s all weaving in and out of each other.” Sunday Brunch will have to wait; the craftsman of the grotesque has work yet to do.

‘Forgiveness Is Yours’ will be released on 26 April via Domino