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Fat White Family
Fat White FamilyPhotography Ben Graville

A conversation with Fat White Family and Róisín Murphy

The UK squat-punk band asked Murphy to direct their ‘Tastes Good With The Money’ video – so we sat them down to talk Brexit, class, and rave music

South London squat-punk wronguns Fat White Family have had a storied few years. Core member Saul Adamczewski got stuck on heroin and left the band just as their second album Songs For Our Mothers was released in 2016; the other main man, Lias Saoudi, made an ace album with South Yorkshire’s synth experimentalists The Moonlandingz, then Saul made an ace album with his spooky-pop band Insecure Men; meanwhile blockbuster UK indie label Domino signed the Fat Whites and gave them a boost and some financial breathing room. Lias’s younger brother Nathan stepped up and took a bigger role with his synths and songwriting skills, Saul came back to the fold, and the band headed up to Sheffield for a couple of years and set up their own studio, ChampZone. Phew.

The resulting album, Serfs Up!, is a triumph. Dynamics have shifted, horizons have broadened, psyches have relaxed, and the result is a more confident, rich-filthy-beautiful record that oozes ideas and feelings and wildly diverse references. Lead single “Feet” creeps up on you with shuffling sexy disco degradation and swooning strings, and new single “Tastes Good With The Money” rams it home, a stomping heart-bent celebration of wrongness.

Then into the picture comes rave queen Róisín Murphy, who contacted the band a few months ago via Instagram to say she wanted to direct their next video. “I told them, Please! I only like you, I don’t like any other bands!’ and it worked,” as she puts it. The result is an absurdist, cartoonish, chaotic promo for “Tastes Good With The Money”, filmed in a huge posh house in west London with shades of Monty Python, dollops of gruesome satire and a cameo from Baxter Dury, son of the great Ian Dury and a fantastic songwriter in his own right, whose lascivious, self-loathing monologue sits perfectly with Lias’s lascivious, self-loathing lyrics.

Deeper into the album, further riches abound. The lullaby softness and touches of Nat King Cole’s “Stardust” (or maybe it’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”) on “Oh Sebastian”; the insidious horror and appeal of home on “Rock Fishes”; on “Vagina Dentata” there’s uncanny saxophone-laden lounge vibes, full of Freudian anxiety that’s “related to women”, as Lias confirms in our interview, with added “respect for vag power”, reckons Róisín. And on “Fringe Runner” there’s a mayhem energy, with echoes of Grandmaster Flash and perhaps the most straightforward explosion of pleasure on the album. This whole record is full of slink, smooch, and shimmy, but brutal honesty and bleak humour run through it all, same as ever. “When we started, I wanted to do something at the pub but with the art-school sensibility,” says Lias, who studied for a while at the Slade. “It’s rooted in the old punk ethos, the dada situationist thinking, of making anything into art. I never want to patronise the listener, that’s the last thing I want to do.”

We got the Saoudi brothers together with Murphy in a Brixton pub garden last week, and listened as they uncovered more about their shared cultural, political, and geographical territories.

Róisín, what made you so keen to work with Fat Whites?

Róisín Murphy: They don’t really have a class, I think it’s to do with that. They seem to slip that noose that British bands always fall into – you don’t think of them as a ‘white working class’ band or as poshies pretending to be rock stars. And they’re not really from anywhere. I’m a bit like that, too.

Lias Saoudi: We’re shapeshifters.

Róisín Murphy: Who wants to listen to white blokes with guitars anymore? But Fat Whites get away from those things, somehow.

Lias Saoudi: There is an unresolved thing with us, in terms of identity. It’s a way of transforming what for most of your life has felt like inadequacy – you realise slowly but surely that you can weaponise that.

Róisín Murphy: You have to judge them for their visceral content. They have this powerful energy. It’s proper.

“You have to judge them (Fat White Family) for their visceral content. They have this powerful energy. It’s proper” – Róisín Murphy

The video for “Tastes Good With The Money” is pretty dada, pretty absurdist. How those ideas come together?

Róisín Murphy: I saw that teaser for the album and I thought, they’re like Monty Python! So I went with that: the Britishness of it, the irreverence of it, the anarchy of it.

Lias Saoudi: The Python idea made sense to me, because it’s an important part of how I developed my sense of humour growing up.

Róisín Murphy: And rewatching it all now, in this present moment, in this country, it is absolutely perfect. They were the establishment, tearing itself down.

Lias Saoudi: The video sits well with what the song’s about, too – it’s about west London, generally. I was seeing a woman there, living in her big apartment, and I’d become everything I’d set out to destroy. I was huffing a load of cocaine and valium, dating this heiress.

What was that about?

Lias Saoudi: As a songwriter, I’d describe it as an anthropological…

Nathan Saoudi: Oh, fuck off, ‘as a songwriter’!

Lias Saoudi: Okay, as a human, I’d describe in as an absence of self-respect resulting in mercilessly transactional relationships with completely the wrong people. I’d moved to Sheffield to work out what we were doing musically, to forget about the drugs and the bullshit and the distractions, and I ended up getting on the train down to west London to escape the monotony and the boredom and the toil – aware, in my heart, that I was lying to myself and running away from myself. And this was around that time that Grenfell went up in smoke, just down the road from where she lived, so I was drawing a parallel between the moral redundancy that I’d submitted myself to, gladly, and the complete catastrophe at the end of her road. That might sound like the most tragically egotistical thing ever, but I saw that in myself. I felt, in a weird way, “Here I am, a complete lie, indulging myself in this sensual way.” It’s when you completely abandon all your ideals in search of something that is not you.

“We could be homeowners this time next year” – you somehow make that lyric so revolting.

Nathan Saoudi: That line is more offensive than threatening to blow up Disneyland. (There’s a song called “Bomb Disneyland” on the first Fat White Family album.)

Lias Saoudi: It’s revolting, because the next line is about Grenfell, and about a loss of faith in yourself. I looked at Grenfell as, like, the monolith in Space Odyssey, sent through time by Margaret Thatcher to remind us of ourselves and how far we’d fallen from grace.

Róisín Murphy: It was pretty totemic before they covered it up.

Class issues are coming to the fore in this country, along with plenty of other issues.

Lias Saoudi: We’re living in a particularly fractured period. Labour winning in Kensington, Conservatives winning in the North. It’s not like anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime.

Róisín Murphy: Brexit’s classic. They say it’s the people who voted for Brexit, but it’s like my mate Luke Unabomber says, it’s 170 people on the Leave march, then there’s a million people down in London marching (to Remain). You don’t see (Jacob) Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson and that lot smoking little Players, going to Matalan. It’s a fucking public school boy revolt.

Lias Saoudi: It’s upper class opportunism mixed in with working class disenfranchisement. It’s unsurprising to me that people who’ve been disenfranchised for generations get offered a button that says ‘LEAVE’ on it and they press it without reading the small print. My family are all Leave voters, all the English side, except my dad who voted Remain, being an Algerian immigrant. And it really doesn’t surprise me at all. I think it’s opportunism on the part of the ruling class, I don’t think any of it is an accident. And I do empathise with people who voted Leave, I do empathise.

Róisín Murphy: Me too. You want change.

Lias Saoudi: You’ve got nothing in your community, you haven’t had for generations, you want out. En masse. While everyone in London’s living in Disneyland.

Some people have said the People’s Vote march was a bit too muesli.

Lias Saoudi: I’ve never seen a more middle-class campaign. I mean, maybe they should have staged a million-strong march against austerity when it happened. Your house price is going to go down slightly and your business trips to the continent are going to be slightly more complicated – it’s irrelevant to people who live in Rotherham. There’s two different worlds in this country. Even the music kids in Sheffield were voting Leave – you’d think people involved in alternative music would be the other way inclined. And we’d have people coming up from London to work on the Fat Whites record and they’d mingle with the Sheffield crew, and they’d be like, “They’re alright, but they all voted Leave,” as if it was this abhorrent thing. They couldn’t bend their heads around it.

Nathan Saoudi: That pissed me off. There are people in Sheffield who are more socialist in nature than anyone I’ve ever experienced in the music game – helping, a community – and people up from London were like, “You can’t hang out with them, they voted Leave.” I just told them, “You never gave me a fucking chance to express myself and these guys are buzzing for the opportunity.” They voted Leave and they’re socialists, while the people down here (in London) voted Remain and they are absolute capitalists. After that, I don’t know – but that’s what I’ve seen and experienced.

Tell me how Baxter got involved with “Tastes Good With The Money”. He’s an archetypal west London boy, isn’t he, and it seems like he’s also got some of that ambivalence you have towards class.

Lias Saoudi: He’s one of the only people around at the moment who I admire. He wrote his piece for (the track) and kind of nailed it, I think. The more I listen to it, the more I like it. There’s not many people I’d like to share lyric writing with. It could easily have gone completely wrong, it could’ve been doggerel.

Nathan Saoudi: Then we would just have said, “No thanks.”

Lias Saoudi: But then we’d have been in this whole hellish world of social awkwardness.

Nathan Saoudi: That doesn’t matter.

Róisín Murphy: He always writes good lyrics. He’s the bard of Notting Hill.

Lias Saoudi: He writes really good lyrics. “Happy Soup” is great, but when “Miami” came out I was like, “Wow, that is really something else. It’s got everything I love, it’s darkly funny, it’s sexy but it’s also really self-deprecating.”

It’s filthy and sexy and sinister.

Lias Saoudi: And egotistical and all the shit that I really really enjoy. It’s a shame that there’s so little of that around, especially from young people. It’s like they’re afraid to put themselves on the table. And Baxter’s really arrived at that point.

The Parrot and Cocker Too remix of “Miami” is amazing.

Nathan Saoudi: They’ve just done a mix of “Feet” as well.

Lias Saoudi: I also like throwing subtlety out the window. On this song you’ve got the Gregorian chant intro, the sax solo outro, and Baxter’s spoken word bit. That was the idea with the whole album – what would Fat Whites not do right now? Let’s do that.

Nathan Saoudi: And we just needed to fill that space up in the song. There was a gap.

I want to ask you about raving, because this album has a disco-rave joy that was only beginning to become apparent on the previous album.

Róisín Murphy: I think that’s the Sheffield influence.

“I looked at Grenfell as, like, the monolith in Space Odyssey, sent through time by Margaret Thatcher to remind us of ourselves and how far we’d fallen from grace” – Lias Saoudi, Fat White Family

On this current single, and especially on Fringe Runner – the rave cowbells, that Altern-8 noise.

Lias Saoudi: The orchestra stabs!

Róisín Murphy: The ravey-davey vibes.

Lias Saoudi: I think that was when the heroin really lifted and (we realised) there was life in the old dog. And we thought, we’ll make some dance music.

Róisín Murphy: There’s a strong echo of rave in creative culture at the moment, in a really cool way. And some of the stuff that didn’t feel cool at the time, that felt really overtly ravey, borderline happy handbag, even that is finding its way into cool music. There’s a lot of it about – it’s a tonal thing. It’s kind of a deep folk memory at this point.

Lias Saoudi: That’s what the orchestra stabs are, for sure. It’s Jungian rave. I got really into dancing in my living room. After years of touring and being on stage every night, that was my thing. We’re in a terraced house up North and I haven’t had a flat for seven years, and I was in my thirties all of a sudden and I thought, “Well, I’ll have a little boogie in my living room.”

Nathan Saoudi: That’s what we do, at our house. We have a rave up.

Lias Saoudi: We relaxed about the whole thing. Just have a few lines of ketamine and have a dance around the lounge.

Fat White Family’s new album Serfs Up! is out April 19