Redemption Arc: Fat White Family's Lias Saoudi interviewed

With the future of Fat White Family in the balance after a drug-fuelled implosion three years ago, Lias Saoudi snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with searing new album Serfs Up! Ahead of a November tour, he reflects upon a turbulent journey

Feature by Joe Goggins | 07 Nov 2019
  • Fat White Family

“I’m in Cambridge, at my dad’s. It’s a nice Muslim household. Gives you a bit of a distance from the booze.”

Six months after the release of Fat White Family’s third record Serfs Up!, Lias Saoudi is convalescing. It’s a brief break from the road, but one that’s allowing him to take stock of the kind of year that he perhaps never thought he’d have again. When he and his bandmates brought the curtain down on Songs for Our Mothers in front of a sold-out Brixton Academy in September 2016, it looked for all the world as if it might be a last hurrah. The fruitful, fragile bond between Saoudi and guitarist and songwriter Saul Adamczewski appeared to be ready to buckle under the weight of rampant drug addiction and dramatic differences of opinion.

It didn’t, though.

Improbably, Fat White Family worked their way back. Anarchy is a byword for the band at this point but, even amidst the hedonism and the universally provocative worldview, Saoudi has always just about been the elder statesman, the mother hen, the adhesive holding the group together (even if he was more Pritt Stick than superglue). As Adamczewski continued to tangle with his substance issues elsewhere, it was Saoudi who effectively frogmarched the rest of the band (including his brother, Nathan) to Sheffield, where – in the necessarily non-stimulating surrounds of a nondescript industrial estate – he made their unlikely comeback a reality.

Serfs Up! feels every inch a Fat Whites album, in that it has their familiar patchwork quality to it. It’s a sonically diffuse affair that is never afraid to go for a thematic wander. The lo-fi scratchiness that defined its predecessors is evident only in bursts, with sharp melody (I Believe in Something Better) and lush textures (Kim’s Sunsets) suddenly front and centre, with room still allowed for wonky funk (Fringe Runner) and dark rambunctiousness (Tastes Good With the Money). It’s not just that Fat White Family appear to have successfully walked through the fire – it’s that they’ve so smartly reinvented themselves in the process.

Months later, Saoudi is just about beginning to get a handle on what that actually means for himself, and for the band. “The process was all-consuming,” he recalls. “Nightmarishly so. Saul was out of the picture, and we had to build everything up again from scratch. By the time you get to the finishing stages, you feel like you’ve finally gotten this monster out of you, and you’ve made it over whatever shitty bridge needed to be crossed. So you have about a month where it’s all you listen to, because you’re so excited and proud, and then you never listen to it ever again. I guess that’s how you end up getting onto the next thing.”

In conversation, that’s something that Saoudi is doing constantly; his thoughts move faster than his mouth, you suspect, and therefore his ruminations on the ramifications of the success of Serfs Up! frequently evoke the bigger picture. “You know, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy reading good reviews,” is one such diversion. “Any artist who says they don’t want to be appreciated or famous is lying. It's just that I think that meaningful criticism of rock and roll has been abandoned, at this point. I don’t see insightful interpretations of what’s going on, and what that means is that you don’t have that perfect balance between rock being talked about like it’s high art – with the likes of Mark E. Smith being considered as much a literary figure as he is a musical shaman – and also still revelling in that feeling of it being low culture.”

He's on a roll. “A lot of that has gone down the toilet, and I look at things like…did you read the reviews of the new Nick Cave album? Five stars across the board. That doesn’t sit quite right with me. It’s almost as if people need him more than he needs us. Social media has led to everybody policing each other online, and it’s turned the arts into this homogenous, dull landscape where nobody's allowed to truly fail, and so we seem to be desperate for this hero figure to cut through all of that.”

He veers off on these tangents in a manner not dissimilar to the way in which he struts across boundaries of thought and style on record. His decision to take Fat White Family to Sheffield was born out of a sense of “duty to go to the sticks and do the work, instead of hanging around East London sniffing coke and chasing Instagram stars.” He talks of wanting to, on the one hand, avoid “having people kiss your arse for no reason,” and on the other, “of not ending up bitter, having some ego crywank because you’re not where you think you should be.” The fact that Pitchfork apparently declined to review Serfs Up!, after they were at the centre of a spat with the band over Saoudi’s use of what they posited to be a racial slur on Twitter two years ago, represents “something quite sinister…it’s all the worst parts of collectivism – a disgrace to genuine leftism.”

He’s forcefully expressive across all facets of Fat White Family’s existence – an ambitious spokesman who, when pressed, will launch into a spiel about how his father’s homeland of Algeria would be the ideal backdrop for the recording of album number four, rather than being in any way taciturn about what’s next. That is, if they don’t head to a friend’s house in a fjord three hours from Oslo, as he suggests they might to demo for a new EP which they’ve already broken ground on in Wales. That’s in addition to the healthy chunk of side project material he reels off the details of, all to be expected within 12 months – more Insecure Men from Saul, more synth-pop offshoots from Nathan, and more acid house from himself.

It’d seem like everything’s shaping up smoothly, then, for this month’s extensive UK tour, one that the group appear to be entering into at their proverbial fighting weight. That's even if, as Saoudi admits, part of the reason for throwing out off-the-wall suggestions for studio locations next time out is because “none of us have dealt with our addictions in a serious enough way to be able to jump back into a major city like London, Paris or New York feet first.” After the near-collapse at Brixton three years ago, though, have Britain’s most openly hedonistic outfit ditched the hard stuff for mindfulness and kale smoothies – especially when their burgeoning fanbase turns up expecting mayhem?

“There’s no doubt that in the early days, I tried to out-GG Allin GG Allin,” he says, laughing grimly. “When you construct all those myths around yourself as a band, you find yourself letting people down a few years later, when you’re not covered in faeces with a finger up your arse. I’ll still go apeshit doing Whitest Boy On the Beach or Heaven On Earth, but we’re writing different music now. I’m trying to grow as a songwriter, and we all want to go down some different avenues.

"That means there will be a sigh of disappointment, from time to time, because I haven’t set myself on fire on stage, but that’s just the way it is. You can’t carry on like that forever, you know?”

Serfs Up! is out now via Domino. Fat White Family play Potterrow, Edinburgh, 21 Nov; QMU, Glasgow, 22 Nov