Blake lied. The road of excess is littered with twitching corpses and leads only to a portcullis kept firmly shut to those mouthy proles who dare to voyage deep into a prolonged derangement of the senses. But fear not: Fat White Family, the band you hate to love, have stormed the palace, ceased the throne and, with their third album, Serfs Up! are set to embark on their imperial phase as overlords of a kingdom of their own making. It also marks the most gratifying and unexpected creative volte face in living musical memory.
Seven years into a career defined by collapsing masculinity, Celtic mysticism, pound shop shamanism, provocation, eroticism, wanton violence, joy, radical empathy, narcissism, hog-like indulgence, personality defects and a fondness for both extreme left and right-wing aesthetics – and some of the best musical performances this fractured isle has ever witnessed – and the South London-spawned band return, clean(ish) and serene(ish).
Serfs Up! could be called a career-defining moment, were the Fat Whites – always a drug band with a rock problem – to ever have considered this a career. It’s not. It’s so much more. It’s struggle. It’s survival. Potential, finally, has been realised, the odds have been defied, and the Fat White Family’s greatness can no longer be denied.
But it could have all have been so very different. So charge your glasses, stoke the fire, and we’ll tell you all about it…
At the close of 2016 when Fat White Family should have been celebrating their largest headline show at the Brixton Academy after four years of touring, they were running on fumes. Incarcerated in a fiscal Gulag, every single member of the group had developed serious problems with alcohol and/or hard drugs; most were homeless. They were just about held together by singer Lias Saoudi who had led, Rommel-like, from day one. Despite hinting at a more streamlined direction on tracks such as the motoric death disco of “Whitest Boy On The Beach” (chosen by Danny Boyle to feature on T2 Trainspotting), their second album Songs For Our Mothers was the product of psychically-incinerated, part-feral men, an undernourished musical morass described by the band at the time as “going to the extremes.”
The album’s hidden strengths were only truly glimpsed at in their legendary live show – part exorcistic pagan ritual, part violent bacchanalian assault of the senses. No two nights the same. Worst of all though, Saoudi’s songwriting partner and band director Saul Adamczewski had been jettisoned from the band due to drug addiction.
“It felt like the end of Das Boot,” says Lias today. “After all of that struggle, pain and exhaustion we would surely be dropped like a bad habit and consigned to the waste bin of history, despite our obvious aesthetic prevalence, and despite the fact we had inspired countless kids to pick up the craft and inject some fucking menace into music for the first time in years. It looked like all we would have to show would be an assortment of mental health issues and penury.”
Saoudi had previously tried to implement a (failed) plan to save the band by relocating them to Sheffield, where he had worked with The Moondlandingz as an escape from the carnage of the Fat Whites. Deep in debt, salvation came in 2017 via the intervention of Domino, who signed the band and backed their frontman’s stratagem to move the band away from temptation. “Sheffield has a fantastic musical history and struck me as utterly unpretentious, if a little grim aesthetically, but that kind of added to it,” says Lias of this new power-base. “It was an ideal place for me to cut out the crap, do some writing and avoid the narcotic cesspit that was South London.”
Ah yes… South London. It was here that Fat White Family first crawled out of the city’s transpontine squat scene in 2011 with the low-born looks and general subterranean demeanour of the lice that live on the rats that gnaw on the discarded bones of fried chicken parts in the dawn’s half-light. From the offing, guitarist Saul Adamczewski and the Algerian-English / Scotland/Northern Ireland-raised singer Lias Saoudi presented a classic dysfunctional songwriting partnership – more Lenin and McCarthy, then Lennon and McCartney. Lias’s keyboard playing brother Nathan Saoudi provided the perfect foil for this troubled but productive relationship.
Released on Trashmouth Records, their debut album Champagne Holocaust was released on April Fools’ Day 2013; two weeks later Margaret Thatcher was dead. We’re not suggesting the former Prime Minister was murdered by the threnodies for the austerity age that was suddenly being pumped into the minds of the nation’s young and impressionable, but Fat White Family’s arrival certainly heralded a psychic shift towards darkness deep in chthonic England. (Photographs of the infamous ‘Thatcher death party’ thrown by the band in Brixton swiftly reached the front page of the tabloids.)
The psilocybin mind-melt of “Auto Neutron” or the clanging concrete jungle outlaw country of “Is It Raining In Your Mouth?” suggested… Holocaust was an iconoclastic debut set to disrupt and disturb. The furtive pop frottage of their first single “Touch The Leather” followed in 2014 and a cult was born. Fat White Family seemed perhaps the only band worth giving your life for – a freakshow that reminded that, as with Throbbing Gristle/The Gun Club/Butthole Surfers/Jane’s Addiction before them, the outside is the only viable place from which to make true art. America and beyond beckoned, and all the temptations and troubles that go with the touring life. Then the carousel began to spin faster and faster…
Onwards to the end of 2016, bloodied but now not unbowed, Fat White Family rented a four-bedroom terrace house in a sprawling red brick suburb of Sheffield, Yorkshire a move that summons to mind the image of Lemmy’s oft-quoted line about how “if Motorhead moved in next door, your lawn would die”. The band also rented a tiny box studio overlooking a refuse-filled canal, with Nathan honing his own songwriting contributions to the Fat Whites on the house’s upright piano. They spent weeks on end listening to Wham! B-sides and Yeezus by Kanye West at disgustingly anti-social volume until the early hours.
But a crucial piece of the puzzle was still missing: Saul. Could they realistically call this thing Fat White Family anymore? Would anyone buy it? And how do you even begin to replace a toothless rickets-stricken wunderkid capable of crafting gutter symphonies to God?
“I couldn’t bring myself to attempt to flog some ersatz version to the public under the same banner purely because I was incapable of letting go of my position in the world of music – the only role I’ve ever held other than bartender,” Lias reflects. “Up until that period my main contribution to the group had been lyrics and the occasional song that Saul would then fully realise, discovering in it all kinds of angles that sonically I hadn’t the faintest clue were possible. Because even on a really shitty day – and despite an occasionally gruesome temperament – Saul is a powerhouse in the studio.”
During the demo stages of what was to become Serfs Up (working title: Dash The Henge), Saul returned from both rehab and time working with his other band Insecure Man. Freed from the past burdens of musically carrying the project, he returned with a plethora of stockpiled songs ideas, and found the brothers Saoudi had diligently done the same for him to sink his teeth into as arranger-producer.
At last, a consensus. With borrowed money they established Champzone studios in the same industrial block as their demo studio. The collective mission statement: to make a pop record, something to distance the band from the many Fat Whites imitators who had formed in their wake, and leave the land of lo-fi far behind them. Lias’s lyrical irony, previously adopted as a protective layer against insecurity and criticism, was discarded in favour of a forensic examination of the self, what the frontman describes as “a genuine mapping out of my innermost psychological landscape, without ever patronising the listener, which for me is the lowliest crime in lyricism.”
They brought in their former collaborator, Trashmouth’s Liam D. May, to help with the difficult birth, while Insecure Men’s Ben Romans-Hopcraft and saxophonist Alex White became intrinsic to the new recordings too. This being the dysfunctional Fat White Family however, it was far from a smooth process. “With Nathan uncertain about submitting songs so personal to him and us no longer deferring entirely to Saul, a power vacuum emerged,” says Lias. “It was an unspoken battle for the heart and soul of the group one that ended up derailing the process sometimes for months at a time. Ironically, it was a problem that only came about through our attempt at properly respecting each other for the first time. Such is life. Until very recently, a large part of me didn’t think we would ever resolve these issues, and that the war would rage on forever.”
With the smoke now clearing and the battlefield-free of casualties, Fat White Family now re-emerge triumphant. The results on Serfs Up offer something utterly sensual. It’s a lush and masterful work, lascivious and personal. Tropical, sympathetic and grandiose. It invites the listener in rather than repel them through wilful abrasion. Fat White Family have broken previous default patterns of behaviour, and as such their third album heralds a new day dawning for a new world.
Here unexpected Gregorian chants give way to the jackboot glam stomp of “Tastes Good With The Money”, which features English artist (and son of the Blockheads’ Ian) Baxter Dury delivering a state-of-the-nation soliloquy. Embellished with string flourishes, “Rock Fishes” offers sophisticated and lush cocktail exotica, a distant cousin to Spiritualized if you will. On the 80s-tinged electro funk “Fringe Runner”, Lias channels the twin spirits of Alan Vega and Afrika Bambaataa over stabbing synths, while the dramatic production of “Feet” is as immaculately-rendered as Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush. The dirt is still there of course, but scrape it away and you’ll find a purring engine, gleaming chrome.
But there’s more. Check out the celestial sax tones on the laconic and louche jazz-funk of “Vagina Dentata”, the Jah Wobble-like bass lines and subtle steel pan percussion of “Kim’s Sunsets” or the subtle death-tripping vibes of the Bad Seeds / Lynchian “When I Leave”, “a response to Dory Previn’s “Lady With the Braid” and easily one of the Fat White’s most moving moments to date. Echoing within the arrangements throughout are traces of blissed-out 60s Tropicalia, Velvets/Bowie sleaze-making and star-gazing, 80s digital dancehall, David Axelrod-style easy listening, joyous Pet Shop Boys synth crescendos, acid house, post-PIL dub, metropolitan murder ballads, doom-disco and mouth-gurning, slow-mo psychedelia. By the time we reach the string-lead anthem for the disenfranchised “Oh Sebastian” – sung with the intimacy of a tongue probing your ear, but as expansive as the infinite universe itself – only a fool would deny that Serfs Up is something very special. No longer is unadulterated music malevolence Fat White Family’s stock in trade; this is cultivated music for the head, the heart. For tomorrow’s unborn children.
Where once they soundtracked a grubby Britain of vape shops, defrosted dinners and blackened tin-foil, a crepuscular comedown realm stalked by Shipman, Goebbels and Mark E. Smith, Fat White Family now inhabit another cosmos entirely. Serfs Up! is the product of a band of outlaws reborn. Few but themselves could have forecast it: Fat White Family survived. Fat White Family got wise. Fat White Family got sophisticated.
“This album truly represents this band – and not simply myself and Saul with a little peppering from the other guys,” says Lias. “While this might sound idyllic, rest assured the legacy of the past five years of abusive behaviour from all members, the psychological fall out of hard drug abuse and all of the other dirty water that had run under our bridge, eventually took it’s shitty toll. But that’s in the past now and this is the group finally living up to its own expectations. The fact this album exists is the thing in my life I am most proud of.” The struggle continues, always, but for now… Serfs Up!For tour dates and more visit: www.facebook.com/FatWhiteFamily/