The Lexington, London
The disreputable Brixton art rockers are touting their new album as a rebirth. It’s bound to be gory
The trouble with setting your band up as unwholesome desperadoes, viscerally opposed to cosy arts careerism, is that it’s quite difficult to then have a career.
Few bands in recent years have flown the flag for ostentatious discomfort as high as Fat White Family. Originally headquartered in a south London squat, the Fat Whites came to prominence around six years ago, touting provocation, offal, Nazi references and – unsurprisingly – drug use. Over the course of two albums, they have been responsible for myth-making in British indie rock not witnessed since the Libertines (electronic music is another story).
When Margaret Thatcher died, the Brixton street party featured a “The Bitch Is Dead” banner that was of the Fat Whites’ making, a wonderfully old-school tactic that earned appositely retro tabloid outrage. Then there was the infighting, the heroin, the pneumonia, the members leaving, the homelessness, the ayahuasca, the rehab, the umpteen side-projects all united by the seemingly core inability of the Fat Whites to parlay their art into a living. The narrative that surrounds them can border on the heroic. The Fat Whites are the last of a dying breed, runs the story, irritants channelling rock’s subversive essence in an era of safe, consumable ditties, the last hurrah of a super-creative squat scene that has endured in Brixton for generations, but is now over, thanks to the evolution of London as a haven where dubious kleptocrats launder their foreign capital into skyscrapers. A slightly different view would find the band’s fetishistic desire to shock puerile, but effectively counterbalanced by an anti-gentrification agenda (Fat Whites, not flat whites) and some lovely Neu! keyboard sounds. The band very nearly self-destructed, which would have fit their story arc splendidly.
Somehow, however, in April the reconfigured Fat Whites will release their third album, Serfs Up! That nod to the Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up is just the latest in a long line of Fat White references to other records, both sunny and dark; they take their music history seriously. Serfs Up! finds the band on a new label, Domino. It’s a strange pairing, until it makes perfect sense.
Domino is probably best known as home to Arctic Monkeys – not exactly light entertainment careerists feathering their nests with disposable pap, more people with guitars who have turned cachet into money into roofs over their heads.
“Anyone with a nose for genuine rock’n’roll already knows that Fat White Family are plainly the most exciting, influential and talked-about band to come out of this country in the last few years,” declared Domino boss Laurence Bell in December 2016, when he took them in. It was a written statement, but Bell’s voice seemed muffled from adopting the brace position. “We are delighted, if slightly nervous, at the prospect of taking them to the next level.”
Fat White Family’s forthcoming third outing is set to be “the most gratifying and unexpected creative volte face in recent musical history”, according to a sweetly hyperbolic press release. Up until this point, Fat White Family have traded in sleazy rock cut with synths, indebted most audibly to the Fall, the Birthday Party, Throbbing Gristle and the Cramps. A love of krautrock and some sweet double-vocal interplay has accompanied this core racket. Half-Algerian, half-northern, Lias Saoudi is the more guttural frontman, given to pronouncements and nudity; Saul Adamczewski is the fez-sporting guitarist, a Jamie Hewlett cartoon made flesh who supplies cooing counter-vocals and sometimes sings lead. The band told Mojo magazine recently that their new album was influenced by the B-side to Wham’s Club Tropicana. This could be a wind-up, or it could be true.
Over two nights, the Fat Whites are debuting these new songs in the upstairs room of a north London music pub. Given the band’s last London gig was at the much larger Brixton Academy in 2016, these dates sold out in under a minute. A bigger tour has just been announced for May.
As comeback gigs go, this one progresses tentatively. The core band are all here – never a given, since Adamczewski has a historic penchant for going walkabout. Half the band sport the browns and tans of army surplus, double-denim for men aesthetically fond of the second world war era. If you play keyboards in this band – and two people do, founder member Nathan Saoudi and recent addition Alex White, who also figures in side-band Insecure Men alongside Adamczewski – you wear a baseball cap. Pretty much everyone on stage at one point or another gesticulates to the sound desk to turn something up or something else down. No one really cuts loose.
The big new thing is: Fat White Family would like you to dance, rather than throw things, or throw up. Released a fortnight ago, their comeback single Feet added death disco and swirling string sections to the band’s hedonistic genre-mash. Tonight, the song churns along malevolently, the newness of it all underscored by Adamczewski clutching several pages of A4 – presumably the lyrics. Despite the title and the beats, Feet isn’t palpably about dancing. Sex and children washed up on beaches figure in the lyrics. “Feet, don’t fail me now,” intones Saoudi, by now shirtless.
Overall, synths have gained traction in keeping with the news that the younger Saoudi, Nathan, has had a bigger role, alongside other band members such as guitarist Adam J Harmer. Opening track Fringe Runner – another newbie – is heavy on louche rhythms and what sounds like an effect-laden penny-whistle. White plays drones on a saxophone and, later, on flute. Somehow, the bassline and falsetto vocals faintly recall Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It), but there are other more pertinent antecedents for the Fat Whites’ new sound: Primal Scream circa XTRMNTR, Suicide, and, faintly, their fellow Brixtonians Alabama 3, best known for the Sopranos theme.
It isn’t all death disco: Fat White Family still sound resolutely like their bad old selves on another new track. Bobby’s Boyfriend is a slow, mantric, curdled art-tune which finds Saoudi whacking a mini-gong, crooning “Bobby’s boyfriend is a prostitute.”
One of the constituent parts of the Fat White myth is how unhinged they are live. Their two previous albums, Champagne Holocaust and Songs for Our Mothers, drew both accolades and eyerolls for their oral sex fixations and fondness for Goebbels, but united most listeners in the opinion that Fat White Family had never quite bottled the lightning of their notorious live shows.
Tonight, everyone is pretty restrained: the band trying to make the new songs work; the crowd, open to the new tunes, but happiest swirling round to old songs like I Am Mark E Smith or Touch the Leather. Maybe it’s the wrong side of London, or the fact that the room is peopled by the curious as much as the diehards; nothing legendary really happens. The band play for an hour, emanating menace, then depart: a volte-face, in progress.