This is the story of a band that’s always on the brink: of stardom, of madness, of brilliance, of disgrace. Fat White Family, the cult indie band started in 2011 by brothers Lias and Nathan Saoudi, along with Saul Adamczewski, have had an unsettled lineup and a bumpy career. Based in grimy south London and feted as a brilliant, incendiary live act, the band’s records have earned mixed reviews, and their antics – sometimes naked, often provocative, usually drug-fuelled – tend to overshadow their art and their ambitions.
Ten Thousand Apologies, with its detailed descriptions of fuck-ups and come-downs, of opportunities missed and decisions untaken, isn’t going to change this reputation. Towards the end, author Adelle Stripe, who co-writes with Lias, describes the FWF as “a drug band with a rock problem”; a great line that could be applied to many excellent bands but is especially accurate here. The latter part of the book describes a gradually tightening noose of drug excess and utter chaos. If that sounds sexy, well, Stripe understands the Fat Whites’ scummy romantic appeal. The bleak and the funny overlap throughout.
Stripe is known for her imaginative novel/biography of Andrea Dunbar, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, and this book, too, though it reads pretty close to the truth, emphasises that “fact has been used to create fiction” and that people remember events differently. The difference here is Stripe is writing with, as well as about, her subject. Though she has done her work, interviewing Nathan and Saul extensively, as well as others, this book both starts and ends with Lias. He’s the main source of what happened when and to whom, and personally takes over the storytelling in the italicised parts of the book.
We hear about the Saoudis’ background: their mum, Michelle, grew up in working-class Huddersfield; their dad, Bashir, came to England from Algeria. (Some of the book’s strongest sections are the descriptions of the Saoudis’ visits to their dad’s extended family.) After their parents split up, the young Saoudi boys move with their mother to Northern Ireland, to Cookstown, a narrow-minded loyalist stronghold. Lias turns to art to save himself from the grimness (there is an excellent Schiele-esque self-portrait in the book); it leads him to London and the Slade art school.
Grim, too, is Saul’s south London childhood: bullied, suicidal, defiant, he ends up, aged 14, in a boarding school for troubled youths. Self-immolation and extreme attention-seeking are, you could argue, the logical adult result. When they meet, the central relationship of Lias and Saul starts badly (of course), but they soon bond: “Despite the respective shadiness of both our characters, it was something you could have a bit of faith in,” writes Lias.
I once interviewed Lias and Saul for the Observer (a precis of the interview is in the book). I liked them a lot, though they argued from start to finish, and Saul eventually stormed off, supposedly because he couldn’t stand to be in the interview any longer, but really because he needed to score. Days later, he checked into rehab in the US for a crippling heroin problem. When he leaves, “clean and sober for the first time since he was 12”, according to Ten Thousand Apologies, he is welcomed back to the fold with a few lines of cocaine. If you’re doing drugs, the difference between smack and coke seems vast and obvious; if you’re not, such actions seem completely mad.
And madness reigns for much of this book, where, at most points, at least one member is having some form of chemically induced mental or physical breakdown. The anecdotes pile up. Laugh! As a band member ignores the active threat of the Bataclan terrorist attack in order to score! Weep! As a woman with cancer has her last days ruined by the Fat Whites’ noise and chaos next door! Gibber! At a Glastonbury where Nathan has champagne chucked in his face by band hero Mark E Smith and retaliates by chucking some cider into Smith’s face! Actually, Lias’s description of that festival – the grubby glamour, the sweaty tent – is so accurate that it could bring on a sympathetic nervous breakdown.
The excess disguises the true heart of Ten Thousand Apologies, which is a sort of yearning: a search for enlightenment, a way to live, but especially for a home. The Saoudis feel the disconnect of the offspring of an immigrant parent; Adamczewski is unsettled, in all senses. They are restless, without respite.
Still, Brixton is made for people like the Fat Whites, and for a while they survive there, in squats and drug dens and, in one of the funniest sections, in the Queen’s Head pub on Stockwell Road, where the landlord lets them live. Gradually, rental prices soar so high that they’re squeezed out. You could see the entire Fat Whites’ story as a quest – an epic, swashbuckling, decade-long battle – simply to bag some affordable housing.
There isn’t much peace in this book, which is what makes it such an interesting read. But interesting lives are hard to live. Just as the band finally seem to be breaking through to the mainstream, Covid lockdowns stop their momentum and they’re back on their uppers again, skint, nowhere to live.
“We were at liberty to heap ridicule and scorn upon anyone and everything that didn’t quite add up in the world,” writes Lias about the band’s early years. It can take time to realise that the happiness that you sneer at in others is available to you. I sincerely hope that this book, along with everything else the Fat Whites create, is a world-beating success, and that mass adoration and cold hard cash will be theirs. And that they find the right way to soothe the turmoil in their sarcastic, artistic, political, absolutely nutted, still homeless souls.
Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family and the Miracle of Failure by Adelle Stripe and Lias Saoudi is published by Orion (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply