Warped and debauched

Fat White Family frontman Lias Saoudi has traded squalid squats and debauchery for domesticity and saunas but that doesn’t mean he’s getting comfortable

Hero image

When Lias Saoudi, frontman for South London’s infamously anarchic, warped and debauched rock outfit Fat White Family, pushes a scheduled interview back 30 minutes so he can finish having a sauna, it’s immediately obvious times really are a-changin’.

As detailed in his gritty new memoir, Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family and the Miracle of Failure, many of Saoudi’s adult years have passed in a narcotic haze, a blur of music, nudity, squalor, disappointment, sex, chaos, literature, excrement, travel and triumph. Two years ago taking the therapeutic waters at a lido close to his Brixton home would have been absent from his to-do list. What happened?

“What happened was we went into lockdown,” Saoudi replies in that distinctive accent, a product of his childhood spent between Scotland and Northern Ireland blended with over a decade in South London.

“The way I use drink and drugs and all that kind of stuff is really quite circumstantial. I’m a social user and once that social side disappeared I didn’t have the desire to guzzle Guinness and snort cocaine in a little room on my own.

“I found myself free to use my brain again, parts that have probably been dormant since school, so while I think this period of Covid has been a disaster in so many ways it’s also been an ideal time to relearn basic grammar and shit like that, to have that forced breather.”

For the memoir, Saoudi has partnered with award-winning novelist and poet Adelle Stripe. The pair met when she worked on a long-form interview with the frontman for a short book published by independent record label Rough Trade. A fan of Fat White Family – “It’s not very often that you witness that level of authentic derangement,” she says – the pair began further correspondence while the band were on the European
gig circuit.

“Lias started sending me fragments from his tour diaries, which I thought were hilarious and quite accomplished for someone who wasn’t a writer,” Stripe says. “And I knew that with a bit of encouragement I could help develop his voice and maybe use some of it within a wider narrative framework. So I wrote the straight voice and he created a more baroque register.”

What emerged from this meeting of minds is a frank and distinctive book, one that pulls no punches as those dual voices detail a life spent on the fringes. From the small-town Algeria of his father to the working-class Yorkshire of his mother – via a childhood stint in semi-rural Scotland and nascent years in sectarian Cookstown, Northern Ireland – the memoir’s singular, consistent theme is that constant need for movement, to be changing, to be challenging complacency.

But now Saoudi’s traded squalid squats and derelict, bug-eyed companions for a flat shared with his girlfriend and frequent saunas, doesn’t he fear the very restlessness that’s driven him for three decades is ebbing? Is he, to coin the cliché, losing his edge?

“You might get a little bit more comfortable with your surroundings but you’re ageing so you start thinking about encroaching death and disease. There are new things that aggravate and infiltrate your sense of wellbeing. Things that were on the periphery start to become more of a concern,” says Saoudi. “I can afford to go out for dinner now, you know, but getting too comfortable? I don’t think so.”

Lias Saoudi

Saoudi admits that, artistically, the obliteration of live music during the pandemic has hit him hard, the band forced to cancel an extensive Far East tour alongside postponing domestic commitments. Another extreme irritant has been the fact that “we’ve been left at the mercy of the internet for social interaction for so long”.

Saoudi has form when it comes to online attention. Infamously, in 2017 he used the term “sand n****r” in a tweet – a racist epithet he’d had hurled against himself many times whilst growing up – in an ironic response to Boris Johnson claiming the Libyan city of Sirte could be “the next Dubai… the only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away”.

Ignoring both nuance and context, naysayers leapt all over the insult, leading to Saoudi removing said tweet as he “couldn’t be bothered to sit arguing with fucking morons online all evening”. With such enforced self-censorship now even more prevalent online, you have to wonder if clueless, kneejerk virtue signallers are beginning to win, forcing critical thinkers to eradicate opinions and replace them with either hollow platitudes or, worse, silence.

“At that time I didn’t, but now I do,” Saoudi replies. “And I think we’ve all internalised this censoriousness. Everyone is double and triple guessing everything they say, scolding themselves in this really grotesque, nightmarish sort of way. The amount of kickback you get from expressing an opinion online is disturbing and leaves you feeling it’s not worth it. Social media is not the place for politics – it’s really just the place for photographs of your dog.”

Ten Thousand Apologies is, thankfully, thoroughly unflinching. Given the helm of his own narrative, with Stripe as co-pilot, Saoudi has let rip in a fearless, frank manner. Stripe describes the Fat White Family’s patriarch as “a bastard hybrid of Harold Steptoe, Oscar Wilde and (curmudgeon, humanoid horse cartoon character) BoJack Horseman”, but how does he see himself fitting into the canon of literary libertines?

“There is an element of the book being a cautionary tale but I like to think of it as a picaresque work, more of a yarn than a static A to B to C type of story,” he says. “As long as things weren’t completely damaging to other people’s lives I just wrote whatever I could recall. It is rooted in truth and, of course, I have a different version of some events to [long term band mate] Saul and [band mate and brother] Nathan but I was the one writing the thing, the one with authorial sovereignty.”

Stripe is more forthcoming with comparisons of style, claiming that alongside such famously debauched artisans as Bukowski, Rimbaud and de Sade, Saoudi’s wordplay also contains
“a sprinkle of Eduard Limonov, Alexander Trocchi and Louis-Ferdinand Céline”. High – pardon the pun – praise indeed.

Much of Ten Thousand Apologies is quite disturbing, a stark confrontation between Saoudi, Nathan and their mother Michelle being particularly harrowing. Several mental and physical breakdowns also puncture the narrative, the cast of ne’er do wells almost constantly bickering, failing to make important rendezvous and creating disquiet among all who cross their paths.

There is light among the darkness, though much of the humour is blacker than pitch, but Saoudi confesses: “The stuff that’s not upsetting isn’t easy to recall. It’s only the shitty things in life that keep us sustained through the years. Really life’s just one calamity after another and that’s what people are made up of.”

Stripe describes Saoudi as “incredibly candid” and he certainly lays all – or at least all he can recall – on the line for his first book. But now, with the drug-fuelled fug of his past lifting, does he regret those younger, wilder years? Following a long pause he says: “I think I’ve been really lucky considering the skills I started out with, to be honest. Shitty things have happened, and I haven’t got a lot of money or anything like that, but I get by so I don’t really have any regrets.

“I think I do have a healthy relationship with failure and in many ways I consider myself a failure but also a dazzling success story. I mean, I could barely string a tune together when I started and music wasn’t something I took seriously. But if you find you’re getting bored you have to put yourself in increasingly compromised positions. Then the bad things that happen turn out to be the good things.”

Following another lengthy pause, and apropos of nothing, Saoudi concludes: “I did think about becoming a school teacher. I guess art. Maybe.”

Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family and the Miracle of Failure by Adelle Stripe and Lias Saoudi is published by White Rabbit

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Warped and debauched

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.