Rolling With The Punches: Fat White Family Interviewed

Frontman Lias Saoudi on the divisiveness, nihilism and caustic beauty at the heart of the cult band's new album, 'Forgiveness Is Yours'...

“Have you got a rollup?” Lias Saoudi, frontman of Fat White Family, politely asks me as we finish up our interview. We’re in the corner of The Old Coffee House pub on a gloomy Saturday afternoon, sat directly under their speaker as ‘Born Slippy’ plays in the background. We’re finishing our interview a whopping 48 hours after it started. Lias is wrapped in his big coat and staring into the soul of his soft drink as I pass him my tobacco. This feels like an outtake from the movie Trainspotting. Choose life. Choose a job. Choose turning up on time for the interview, maybe? Either way, choose Fat White Family.

Initially starting our chat at Rough Trade two days prior before Lias ran late then cut it, the interview finally concludes in Soho. It’s now the day after the release of their new album, ‘Forgiveness Is Yours’, their first album five years. The frontman of the controversial band admits, “I consider myself a chancer. On a good day, a rampant polymath. On a bad day, a horrible, vagrant kind of chancer. Depends on the time of day, blood sugars, whether I’ve had too much to drink.” He continues: “I was in a good place on Thursday, so I wasn’t drinking. I’m not feeling so great today, so will probably drink tonight.” His honesty and openness to talk about anything is whiplash-inducing. It makes me apprehensive to pry too much into his “dabble in sobriety” and interpersonal relationships within the band. It feels cruel to capitalise on his honesty. But he’s smart, that much is obvious.

“The relationships completely broke down,” he says when talking about recording the new album. “I mean, it was just a nonstop fucking argument, you know? In lots of ways, just like graphic fallings out one after the other. It’s shit. It’s shit to have to fall out like that. It’s just fucking rubbish. It’s sad more than anything else because you fall out and then you’re still there doing the job. It’s mostly just pissing about with drugs.” Why continue making albums when the relationships in the band can be so volatile? “There’s no excuse to down tool and stop with a project. I think you have to finish the job one way or another. Otherwise you can’t move on from it.”

But with a revolving door of members and emotions constantly running high, Lias reveals the departure of band mate Saul was the hardest for him to cope with. “It’s obvious,” he says when I ask which departure hurt the most. “He just wouldn’t fucking show up to gigs. Then he would show up to gigs and it would be some mad fuckin’ episode every time. Then he came back in the band, and it was usually based vaguely around how he was dealing with the madness and the tantrums and whatever… it would always be kind of drug-related. If he was doing well with the drugs, he was fine to work with.”

It seems like talking about broken relationships comes naturally to Lias. Whether that’s due to it being a hot topic in interviews or whether he’s just a confident talker, who knows. But despite him being comfortable talking about it, you can see it hurts him. “I get a wind of things [Saul] writes about me online occasionally. I get the impression they’re fairly negative. But I don’t have any contact with him. I can’t.”

But the vulgar and outlandish songwriting of Fat White Family has continued without his writing partner in their recent album. Especially in the form of single ‘Today You Become Man’. Written about his brother’s circumcision at the age of five orchestrated by his dad in Algeria, the song was inspired by novel This is Memorial Device. “I found I really enjoyed that book, and started trying to incorporate that style of dialogue into my own writing straight away because I really enjoyed how rapid it was, you know?”

With an accompanying music video echoing The Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, the filming was set near a mountain where the circumcision took place. How did his brother react to the song? “I mean, he fucking tells that story all the time when he’s drunk. If you speak to him for more than ten minutes, he’ll start telling the fucking story,” Lias says. And his Dad’s reaction? “He loved it. I mean, it’s the only time he’s ever called me up and said: ‘Yeah, I love the new song.’”

As a spearhead of the South London post-punk scene, Fat White Family have influenced a wave of bands over the years, catalysed with the release of ‘Champagne Holocaust’. However, Lias is not too fussed about hearing new bands. “I haven’t really been on the case with new music. I actually think I associate it generally with a lot of really negative experiences. Of all the hateful things that have happened in my band, I think I hold music in general accountable. I just feel a bit tainted by indie music. It just gets me down thinking about it. So, I just don’t think about it.” 

As a man so disinterested in new music, how must it feel to be seen as an agitator for the modern post-punk movement? “Well, I just wrote a thing about this called Death of the Windmill, which is like a little film I made at The Windmill [venue in Brixton]. In this piece of writing I’m talking about how when I go down there, because I live around the corner, people don’t really talk to me at first, you know? But once they get drunk, they start chatting shit. And it’s like how Elton John must feel everywhere.”

He continues: “I was there one night and this lassie collared me out the back. I’d just smoked a joint and she was like, ‘I love your music. I love’ I Am Mark E Smith’. I’m going in for chemo next week, and I’m going to be listening to ‘I Am Mark E Smith’’’. She starts going on about how she’s got six months to live and how they found two types of cancer. And I was just going out trying to relax. That kind of thing is a bit bizarre, you know?”

But given the topics and presentation of their music, strange fan interactions aren’t out of the ordinary with one fan even coming to a show straight from her husband’s funeral and scattering his ashes. “That was flattering. I was just at the gig getting covered in someone’s ashes. We welcome our arms to the ash spreaders. A Fat White Family gig is an ash-spreading safe space.”

Unordinary approaches are something that Fat White Family have become known for. Whether it’s getting naked on stage, encouraging ash-scattering at gigs or their odd online promo. Most recently being Lias persuading people not to listen to the album on Spotify but to just buy the record instead. “Spotify ruins everything. It just makes everything sound shit and means no one can get paid. Fuck those guys. You know, it wants one thing after another after another, and it just totally encourages that. It’s shrivelling attention spans and dedication to anything.” Would Fat White Family ever boycott Spotify and take their music down from the platform? “I mean, I’ve got Spotify on my [phone] because it’s fucking convenient but I don’t know about a boycott. I mean to successfully boycott anything now you’d have to hang yourself.”

On the topic of Spotify, what was the last piece of music Lias listened to. “I was checking out St. Vincent because her album’s out and I wanted to see if it was any good… and I didn’t think that it was.” He ponders on this for a bit, and then starts talking about his sixth birthday party. “I think doing this brings out the worst in me: album release, publicity, reviews and stuff like that. When I was little, I had a birthday party and we were playing pass the parcel. I couldn’t fathom why, on my special day, somebody else could win. I just couldn’t fucking bend my head around that. And I remember having this tantrum and I wasn’t really prone to tantrums. I was quite a well-behaved child. Like, quite quiet and self-absorbed, I guess. I couldn’t fucking compute it, and I had this tantrum that was so wild that my Mum locked me in the bathroom until I calmed down. I guess that never really went away. That’s some core part of my personality – this kind of like competitiveness.”

His competitive nature is noticeable as we talk. He doesn’t speak fondly of music whether it’s current or something previously-released. He mentions how the band vetoed ‘Breaking into Aldi’ from their setlist, but then he heard it again in a shop recently and realised he might have been too quick to cut it out. He talks about how their relationships seem to get progressively worse as the albums go on. But, despite his nihilism, you get the sense Lias won’t ever do anything else.

“I do this to avoid the terror of an office job,” he declares. “I mean, in this climate, you’re just rolling with the punches, you know?” As we stand outside smoking my cigarettes, Lias mentions he has a bag of mushrooms ahead of his gig tonight. Something tells me an office job definitely isn’t his calling. It’s palpably clear that Fat White Family will always be his ‘thing’. The song ‘Born Slippy’ finishes playing in the background of the pub. It all makes sense now.

Choose life. Choose not having a job. Choose Fat White Family.

Words: Jazz Hodge

Photo Credit: Louis Mason

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