The multi-ethnic South London-based Fat White Family has been called the ‘sonic equivalent of society coming unhinged.’ Their raucous onslaught is leavened with humor and social commentary, as seen in the titles of their albums (Champagne Holocaust, Serf’s Up) and singles (“I Am Mark E Smith,’ ‘Whitest Boy On the Beach’). Ingrid Jensen spoke with FWF’s front man Lias Saoudi for PKM
Any hardcore fans of the Fat White Family will be greatly relieved to know that the famously tempestuous band were not locked down together, an occurrence which would surely have resulted in injury, death, or nervous breakdowns.
The South London band has been hailed as “Sweary, scary and willfully offensive…” (The Irish Times); “… a lens through which contemporary life is exposed, investigated and celebrated…” (Domino Records) and “…the sonic equivalent of society coming unhinged” (Rolling Stone).
“Whitest Boy On the Beach” – Fat White Family:
They’ve taken countless bullets in the never-ending battle for free artistic expression, and produced some of the most lyrically fascinating albums of the past decade, to say nothing of the uncanny power displayed in their live performances. A Fat White Family concert is a portal; a door leading, not out of our present dimension, but more deeply into it than we would prefer to look. Their unsparing lyrics are often an expose of our best and worst qualities as a species, intermingled so closely that good and bad and right and wrong become hopelessly confused.
Plans for a fourth album were temporarily ground to a halt with the advent of the pandemic, and the band were forcibly scattered to the winds with the cessation of travel between countries.
After spending the six weeks of lockdown at a close friend’s house, Fat White Family front man Lias Saoudi is ready for a move. Cabin fever set in long ago, and he’s considering going down to Margate to search for a new home base. Shirtless, his dark hair tousled after a brisk walk across town, he rolled cigarettes and sipped coffee whilst answering questions with a right good grace.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this then is Lias Saoudi. Squat rock degenerate? I think not. Nihilist? Not a chance. Humanitarian man of letters? That’s more like it.
“I Am Mark E Smith’-Fat White Family:
PKM: Concerning COVID-19 and live music: So much of that lifestyle is dependent on being in very close contact. You’re crashing on couches, you’re in vans, you’re in planes, and with the new social distancing requirements that kind of work is going to be so different. What do you think concerts will be like when people are allowed to gather in larger groups?
Lias Saoudi: It’s one of those things that just doesn’t work. It’s an oxymoron. You can’t get a bunch of people in a building together to celebrate music with a lot of alcohol and the rest of it and expect them to follow social distancing. It’s absurd. Every now and then, video of a socially distanced club in Holland or Berlin comes, and it’s better that there’s not such things as clubs anymore than doing that. I don’t think that things are going pan out as drastically kind of awfully as it feels like they will right now. Within six months I think we’ll have a very different landscape.
PKM: People are still in panic mode. That hasn’t been shut off yet.
Lias Saoudi: Most of them are in panic mode. Our government and your government—it’s almost like nobody actually knows what they’re doing.
The one thing that you can be sure of is that they will exploit it to their own nefarious ends as much as they possibly can. That whole thing about living in a sort of post-truth age—I mean, the amount of information you get from all these angles, constantly—it becomes impossible to make up any kind of a concrete opinion as to what is actually going on. It’s constantly shifting. And it doesn’t matter which part of the media spectrum you go to, they’re all trying to crank it up to the max, so they can raise their heads above the parapet, above the din. You reach a point where your attention span is just battered in.
I think that the way the protests have broken out is really hopeful. I think that’s something really special. I went to one the other day and I thought that was the best possible way young people could come back together after something like that.
PKM: Absolutely. The social solidarity. And that might not have happened had not the pandemic thrown such a fright into everyone.
Lias Saoudi: Exactly. It’s like if not now, when? How can you tell these people not to get out and protest? What are you supposed to do? Keep a lid on it till somebody finds a vaccine? Life doesn’t work like that.
But how will COVID-19 effect gigs? I don’t know. I was kind of like, almost angry and bitter at it when it first kicked off, in a way. To the point where I was like, “I don’t want to do any of that online shit.” Just frustrated, angry…And now it’s like, well, if it’s going to be like his for a year, then, just to make ends meet, I’ll have to work out a way of doing it online, doing a show, something theatrical, doing in it weird locations…
PKM: Technology, having to go through that channel, it sucks the joy and the spontaneity out of stuff so quickly.
Lias Saoudi: If you’re a band at our level or above, and you’ve already got a following, maybe there’s some potential in it. If you’re a younger band, just starting out…and you’re yet to carve out a following for yourself…what’s the point of doing it online if nobody’s watching? If you’ve got 50,000 followers, then you’ve basically got a little TV channel. But if you don’t, it’s all about that early period where you’re learning about the kind of communal experience and the way you feed off an energy in a crowd and there’s this kind of like cyclone that gets whipped up.
PKM: You can’t learn that dynamic online. That would be totally impossible.
Lias Saoudi: I read about—there was some stuff in this country about there being like a tracing app, stuff like that, and people having to have like the right verification on their phone before they can go to a festival. To me, that sounds like absolute hell.
PKM: It seems like another way for the government to track you. That’s almost like having a chip implanted in you.
Lias Saoudi: Basically, yeah! You see what’s happening now with mass protests, and it’s like so, say we all went in a tracing app, and we all had to sign up to it, but then anybody that goes out on a protest is suddenly biologically invalidated from going to a pop concert, or eating in a nice restaurant, or taking a train somewhere. There’s no limit to how much that kind of technology could be abused. Under no circumstances would I ever willfully agree to that. I hope people refuse that, completely.
It gets bandied around a lot, but that is next level Orwellian hideousness there.
PKM: Have you been working on anything with the Fat White Family since quarantine has been lifted?
Lias Saoudi: Well, Saul got stranded in Spain…We were all supposed to meet in Algeria, and work on an album there, around where my family live, and collaborate musically with other people from that region. But I had to come back after five days because everything just went mad on the lockdown. I think Saul is back on Friday to London. He’s just finished his solo album, which we sort of collaborated on.
We (Fat White Family) were planning on starting tracking stuff this month. We did a few demos earlier on in the year. There are a few things cooking. There’s not a mad rush on, which is kind of nice. Usually it’s like, ‘oh, we gotta hit this part of this cycle at this point’…that’s all gone. So it’s a good time to be just making things, you know?
All that competitive kind of thing, everybody trampling to get this and that…it’s all gone, which feels like a bit of a relief.
PKM: Fat White Family have such diverse backgrounds. All the different places you come from, how has that affected the music you write as a band? All your different backgrounds, the influences of your families, what has that brought to the table that nothing else could?
Lias Saoudi: It’s difficult to quantify something like that, really, because it’s just your nature. But I think being half Algerian, raised in Northern Ireland and Scotland—there’s some sort of connection there, between the Berber people and the Celtic people, you know? It was only ever really going go one way to a certain extent, which was complete anti-authoritarianism. Like, always siding with the IRA. It was only ever going to be like that. The histories relate quite closely.
But then, my mum’s from the north of England, a working class coal mining family. All that stuff—that’s got obvious implications for how you actually perceive the world politically. Also, it’s that thing where you’re not part of the city. You’re not from a middle class background. Everything was all mixed up.
I feel like an unresolved human being. And sometimes that’s something I can really dig into and make a use out of, like literally make a song and dance out of it, and sometimes you feel kind of homeless. I don’t really belong anywhere, you know? Like Saul belongs in South London, but it’s impossible to put down roots here because of the money. I’m constantly looking for somewhere to kind of like, make home, but it never really adds up. I tried Sheffield for a while. I tried Paris for a while. I’m going to go and try Margate for a bit…
I think being half Algerian, raised in Northern Ireland and Scotland—there’s some sort of connection there, between the Berber people and the Celtic people
PKM: That makes sense. You know, there’s a Maya Angelou quote where someone was asking her—she disliked Thomas Wolfe’s book, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” And someone asked her, why don’t you like that book? And she said she disagreed with the material fundamentally. She said, “Because you carry around home between your teeth.” There’s a certain amount of sense in that.
Lias Saoudi: I’m glad that’s the way I am. I’m very proud of that background. I feel less jaded, maybe, than some of my peers. But then it also hasn’t helped my martyr complex. You can run too far without your own self-mythologizing.
PKM: Let’s talk about your prose writing a bit: “Life Beyond the Neutral Zone,” was wonderful to read, I had so much fun reading that. To have such intricate writing these days, in an online essay, is so rare, because people get to the point so quickly and cut things down so sparsely, and the kind of writing I like to read best is pretty much the style you have…
Lias Saoudi: Oh, sort of like auto-fiction vibes? I’ve been reading loads of stuff like that recently. That’s a long running project. I want to morph into a writer at some point, like at age 40. I won’t be able to take my shirt off anymore because I’ll be all withered. And I’ll be tired of being around drugs and boozing and all that stuff, so I was thinking, if I slowly usher myself into that other realm, maybe I’ll make it out alive.
I feel like an unresolved human being. And sometimes that’s something I can really dig into and make a use out of, like literally make a song and dance out of it, and sometimes you feel kind of homeless. I don’t really belong anywhere, you know?
PKM: Of course you will. You get a little place in the country, and a really big garden, and a lot of dogs, and you can do pretty well.
Lias Saoudi: Yeah, the kind of shit Neil Young’s always singing about. He’s never on his way to the party, he’s always like, “Do you know what? Fuck all you lot. I’m off.”
PKM: He gets good lyrics out of that. That kind of lifestyle is underrated.
Lias Saoudi: It’s difficult to do if you’re on your own. I think it’s one of those things that to sort of successfully pull it off, you have to be able to pair off with somebody. Maybe that’s a conventional opinion. I’m not particularly good at that. I haven’t learned how to do that during lockdown.
PKM: Maybe you don’t have to.
Lias Saoudi: Maybe I don’t have to, but that’s the image, isn’t it? You don’t want to be in the middle of the countryside with just a dog, do you?
The minute lockdown started to get eased in London, the old devils crept back in. Seeing your friends after months, the hangovers just end up blaring into each other.
I think that one thing with the writing that I realized, was that it was something that I could probably do, but in order to do it requires a completely different kind of discipline where I’m not drinking or drugging at all. Otherwise everything you write is like… just absolute drivel.
PKM: The Indian novelist Kamala Markandaya said that in order to write about something, in order to get it done, she had to be infuriated. When you write lyrics, do you find you have to be compelled by a sense of anger?
Lias Saoudi: I think it’s better if you’ve got some kind of fire in the belly. But you don’t have to be angry. I think when you start out initially that’s kind of a big part of it. I mean, with me and my brother it was…we were just sort of skint, and pissing around, and sort of felt like rejects. We were in London, but we were never really accepted, and it was like a building stew of animosity. That was the main sentiment running through it. Rage. Like, “How can we fuck everybody off?”
It’s different, now. To a certain extent I’ve had things that I want. I have a voice. People listen to me. There’s other emotions I want to explore. I think that’s something I’d like to move away from: monotone rage and anger. There’s every kind of sentiment to be explored.
PKM: You were at one of the Black Lives Matter protests in London a few days ago. What was that experience like?
I think that’s something I’d like to move away from: monotone rage and anger. There’s every kind of sentiment to be explored.
Lias Saoudi: It was really good. After the world being shrunk down to nothing, socially, to see that big explosion of color and life, it was an inspiring experience. Even for somebody like me–even for a hardcore cynic, it was difficult not to feel invigorated by that. I though it was one of the most positive things I’d seen on the streets of London, ever. Really, really good positive energy. Everywhere I looked. Just looked like pure love, man.
“Tastes Good With The Money” – from the Serfs Up album: