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Fat White Family

Liam May & Kevin McMahon: Recording Songs For Our Mothers By Matt Frost
Published April 2016

Songs For Our Mothers was produced by Trashmouth Studios owner Liam May (front), and mixed by Liam with brother Luke (rear).Songs For Our Mothers was produced by Trashmouth Studios owner Liam May (front), and mixed by Liam with brother Luke (rear).Photo: Luke & Felix May

How do you extract a complete album from a dysfunctional band with no finished songs? Drag them to a remote residential studio — in winter...

Google South London six–piece Fat White Family, and you’ll be confronted with stories of drug–addled debauchery, inter–band punch–ups, on–stage nudity and a whole host of other degenerative acts. And they’re probably all true. Controversy and Fat White Family are conspicuously cosy bedfellows. The band’s lo–fi 2013 debut album Champagne Holocaust included such radio–friendly ditties as ‘Cream Of The Young’ and ‘Bomb Disneyland’, while the band’s new record Songs For Our Mothers gives us a Hitler love ballad (‘Goodbye Goebbels’) alongside odes to heroin, Mussolini and serial killer Harold Shipman.

Behind the nihilistic outlook and confronational image, however, Fat White Family are a mesmerising live act and a genuinely experimental proposition in the studio: krautrock, psychedelic balladry, stoner jazz, demonic disco and twisted country are just a few of the mutant genres that skulk through their new album.

Like its predecessor, Songs For Our Mothers was produced by Trashmouth Records head honcho Liam May, who’s also a member of Medicine 8, the electronic duo he started with his brother Luke back in the mid 1990s. The pair have been running Trashmouth Studios in New Malden since 2002, although they only use the facility for their own projects and artists and do not hire it out commercially.

The 10 tracks on Songs For Our Mothers draw on recordings made at a number of different studios. After some mostly abortive sessions at Sean Lennon’s Brooklyn space, the majority of the backing tracks for the songs on Songs For Our Mothers were laid down at Marcata Studios in New Paltz, New York, with overdubs being added further down the line at Trashmouth Studios. ‘Love Is The Crack’, ‘Whitest Boy On The Beach’ and ‘Tinfoil Deathstar’ were recorded completely at Trashmouth, while ‘Goodbye Goebbels’ came together very quickly during a later session at Camberwell’s Dropout Studios. Liam May produced the record (and engineered the Trashmouth sessions), and his brother Luke joined him during the mixing process at their New Malden home–from–home.


As Liam May explains, working with Fat White Family is never straightforward. Nor is there ever any kind of over–arching musical vision when they’re writing and recording.

“There’s never been any real vision other than a kind of negative force, essentially,” says May. “It’s never been like, ‘We want to say this.’ It’s more about what they don’t like and what they don’t want to be. It’s very anti–whatever! In the way they make music, that’s a very powerful heady force. The spite with which they can treat each other and all the self–loathing and self–doubt should and actually do make making a record with them really hard, but they are an essential ingredient of what the records are and how they turn out. If they were to come in and be like, ‘Hey, we feel so good today! Yeah, we just want to make a record!’, it’s not going to be the same, is it? It’s the complete opposite of that. It’s all pain and fucking misery but, paradoxically, with a very positive force because there’s a real passion and a real energy and a real urgency to unleash something and destroy something else... so it’s very vital at the same time as being very negative.”

One thing that May was thankful for with this album was the fact that the band gave him more freedom sonically than they had during the sessions for Champagne Holocaust.

“I think Lias [Saoudi, lead singer]’s lyrics are very strong on this second album,” enthuses Liam. “And the music is great and I like the experimentation. I like the fact that it’s kind of opened up a little bit, because the first one was so dingy and so deliberately scratchy and horrible and lo–fi–sounding, because they had a massive aversion to anything sounding clean or open or hi–fi. If anything did sound like that, Saul [Adamczewski, guitarist] would have just been like, ‘Nooo! Nooo! Nooo!’ He told me when we first started that record, ‘We want it to sound shit!’ I said, ‘Shit? What do you mean?’ ‘Just shit!’ So we had to take it from there, but with the second album, they were much less preoccupied with the sound of things.

“I think a lot of the Fat Whites’ hatred and venom comes from being surrounded by all this music that’s so vacuous and bland and clean and not borne out of necessity and, initially, they just wanted to not sound like that. They just wanted to reflect what was different about them and what was real and so it’s not going to sound clean because that’s not where they’re from. But, for the second album, they were in a different place. It’s still pretty grimy, relatively speaking, but maybe not as grimy as before. I think they’ve got more confidence now and are a bit less preoccupied with those kinds of things and a bit more into the ideas behind the songs and the lyrics behind them as well.”

Nowhere To Hide

Many of the songs that ended up on Songs For Our Mothers came together in typically ad hoc fashion while the band were holed up together in the various studios they were booked into, particularly Marcata in New Paltz.

“There was some stuff that Nathan [Saoudi, Lias’s brother and Fat White Family keyboard player] and Saul had written in Shropshire the year before,” Lias says. “They went up there and did a load of mushrooms and came up with a few sketches. I also had a few things sitting around that I had written... but then we got into the studio and came up with a bunch more stuff. A large part came together up there in New Paltz, actually. That’s when we started to get an album shaped together. There were less places to hide. I think when you’re making a record, the less places you have to hide, the better, you know? I think a little bit of isolation is good. Even if it means you come to fisticuffs every five minutes, at least you get the fucking thing done!”

No Distractions

Marcata Studios’ remoteness from civilisation was part of its appeal for Liam May, who thought that the lack of distractions would help the band focus.Marcata Studios’ remoteness from civilisation was part of its appeal for Liam May, who thought that the lack of distractions would help the band focus.Marcata Recording is run by engineer–producer Kevin McMahon, whose impressive CV boasts the Walkmen, Titus Andronicus, Frightened Rabbit, Swans and the Felice Brothers. In fact, the original Marcata was in Harlem and was owned by the Walkmen, who employed McMahon back in 2003 to manage the daily running of the facility for them and engineer the records cut there.

Today’s Marcata is situated in a remote area eight miles outside of New Paltz, New York, just at the base of the Shawungunk mountain ridge. The studio itself was originally built around 30 years ago and is located inside a large, high–ceilinged 200–year–old barn on what was once a veal farm. With very little of the band’s material finished prior to the start of the sessions, recording was a  necessarily haphazard affair.With very little of the band’s material finished prior to the start of the sessions, recording was a necessarily haphazard affair.

For Liam May, who had been recommended the facility by Tim ‘Love’ Lee of Tummy Touch Records, Marcata was the perfect isolated location needed to get the best out of Fat White Family. “They were going to be in America anyway so I thought we’d record over there to change things up a bit. There was talk about doing it in Brooklyn, which I knew would not work. Me and Luke used to go to New York a lot but — even when it was just the two of us showing a lot of willing and saying, ‘Let’s go and make some music,’ because we were spending a few days there — it’s impossible! You’d just look out the window and get all fidgety because you just want to go out! In New York City, you can’t do it and especially when you’re trying to organise the Fat Whites... no way!

“Basically, before they turned up at Marcata, they’d been in Sean Lennon’s studio for something like two weeks, but they just got shitfaced the whole time and didn’t really do a lot. They brought a couple of things back, one of which was the backing track of ‘Satisfied’. So, wanting to go to a residential place in Upstate New York was partly wanting to be locked away so we didn’t have those kind of logistical problems.” Liam and the band ended up staying on site and recording at Marcata for 10 days over the Christmas period of 2013.


Although Kevin McMahon usually engineers and produces all the records he makes, he agreed to act solely as engineer for the Fat White Family sessions. The band certainly intrigued him, although Kevin admits their wild reputation was a concern. “I had not actually heard of the band,” explains Kevin. “And, once I did some research on them, I was kind of nervous! I was pretty petrified, because everything you saw or read about them, it was like, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to destroy my studio!’ so I was like, ‘Hmmm, I don’t really know about this...’ but PR is often PR and there are things out of that that are usually spun a certain way.

“On the other hand, it was just very in line with music that I do. And, actually, it wasn’t like they were crazy in the sense of destroying the place. In fact, I would say quite the opposite. They were really thoughtful people, but incredibly chaotic in terms of there being none of that conventional sense of order with the sessions running in a certain way or following some logical path. They were just very, very, very steeped in the character of who they were, and the movies that they were living were all very, very real and they were just following a purely artistic path.”The large Marcata live room, as seen from above. The large Marcata live room, as seen from above.

McMahon found engineering the sessions an eye–opening experience, given that organised chaos was, more often than not, the order of the day. “The way they approached the sessions made them very technically difficult to accommodate. We really couldn’t set up too many things with the idea that they would stay in one mode for long. You know, we’d be all set up and they’d be doing a basic track and that would be with live vocals, but then they’d want to do two live vocals. That would be set up for a while, but then they’d want to do guitars and keyboards, and then they would decide that the piano had to be live, but of course the piano was in the room but not set up.

“I realised pretty quickly that it was good that I had a lot of equipment, because you just really had to set up some contingency plan for any goddamn thing that somebody may want to do! It was really amazing to watch Liam’s patience and his sense of nurturing, because we couldn’t really stay on one track for more than 10 or 15 minutes before every single thing would change! It would also depend on the combination of who was there. They basically showed up and everybody was sick, so there was a lot of that too and, at other times, somebody would be off cooking a stew. Sometimes, it would go from a full band to then just one person doing stuff. Your train of thought and what you were working on was constantly changing.Fat White Family’s Lias Saoudi (left), Saul Adamczewski (centre) and Jack Everett laying down a  track at Marcata.Fat White Family’s Lias Saoudi (left), Saul Adamczewski (centre) and Jack Everett laying down a track at Marcata.

“I feel like Liam is a genius at just quietly moving things in a certain direction, but it’s in a very invisible way, because I think you really need to stay out of the way of the momentum with this band. Everything was very much being discovered on the spot. It was more like trying to set up a petri dish that was capable of being populated by some form of bacteria. You’re setting up the conditions and then hopefully the magic will happen. And there were a lot of times when the magic did happen and it was so cool watching it. It was about capturing the emotion between the people and the communication that was going on between them, which is really what playing music is, but it’s not often what people actually end up recording.”Nice studio, shame about the accommodation! Rare smiles from Fat White Family members and ex–members at Marcata: from left, Saul Adamczewski, Lias Saoudi, Nathan Saoudi, Jack Everett, Adam Harmer, Liam May and Joe Pancucci.Nice studio, shame about the accommodation! Rare smiles from Fat White Family members and ex–members at Marcata: from left, Saul Adamczewski, Lias Saoudi, Nathan Saoudi, Jack Everett, Adam Harmer, Liam May and Joe Pancucci.

One additional feature at Marcata that Liam May was impressed with was one of the echo chambers, which is an old grain silo. You can hear this chamber in the “clanky drum hits” in the chorus of ‘Hits, Hits, Hits’. Unfortunately, Kevin’s other echo chamber, the old slaughterhouse’s bloodletting tank, was out of action because it was winter.

Mouth Music

Back at Trashmouth Studios, which is a single–room setup with an SSL X–Desk situated within the live space,Among the eccentric selection of gear at Trashmouth is the Carlsbro PA amp used to amplify the drum machine on ‘Whitest Boy On The Beach’, plus Dallas (left) and Traynor (right) guitar amps. Among the eccentric selection of gear at Trashmouth is the Carlsbro PA amp used to amplify the drum machine on ‘Whitest Boy On The Beach’, plus Dallas (left) and Traynor (right) guitar amps. Photo: Luke & Felix May Liam and Luke May have ammassed large quantities of both conventional and unconventional gear, though Liam insists: “We’re not collectors. We don’t have anything here that doesn’t get used. The reason I think a lot of these prices are so ridiculous is because I think a lot of people who buy this stuff are collectors. It’s got to look a certain way, it has to be brand–identifiable, but most of the things that we’ve got are really odd–looking. They’re things that people ignore because they don’t look right but they can sound amazing! Our studio has just evolved on a shoestring and we’ve just gradually incrementally improved things along the way. Our philosophy is that you always work with what you’ve got available and you can do a good job if somebody is making a good sound out of the amp or if what they’re doing with their voice is good. The equipment does make a difference but it’s not the be–all and end–all.”

Trashmouth Studios is a  single–room operation, with no separate control room. Trashmouth Studios is a single–room operation, with no separate control room. Photo: Luke & Felix MayMay’s approach to capturing the drums and the room is, in his own words, pretty idiosyncratic. “One day, we didn’t have much time and I chanced on something. I just stuck these two mics up in the room facing the back wall and it just seemed to capture it really well. Basically it’s two mics 10 feet apart about seven feet up in the air, with both facing the drums. Then I put the guitar amp to the left of the bass amp in the middle of the room so they’re almost underneath the room mics — they pick up a little bit of the guitars, but only a little ghost. The main stuff that they pick up is the drum kit. I’ll also just put SM57s on the snare and an [AKG] D12 on the kick, all standard sort of stuff.”

Capturing a performance was always paramount in Liam’s approach. “’Whitest Boy On The Beach’ was a drum machine–based thing but it was actually played live in the room. We had the drum machine coming out of this Carlsbro PA amp we use a lot and I was just turning it on and off and doing the little drum fill thing. And we’d put a feed from the drum machine into the Korg MS20 so it was doing this sort of pitch–tracking thing and then Nathan was playing the keyboards and I think Saul was on a bass guitar. Then later Jack [Everett, former drummer] did those hi–hats and then Saul did some more guitars and Lias did the vocals.

“‘Duce’ was an interesting one, because that was like a failed experiment that yielded something way better than was intended. I think Nathan had said something like they’d heard about the way Gary Glitter used to record and it was something like he would record a drum track, slow it down, then they’d play over it and then speed it up again or something. We were like, ‘OK, well, let’s try that’. So we did this rough take with drums, bass and guitars, without too much thought of an arrangement, and then we slowed the original take down. It just suddenly sounded really fucking weird and ominous and kind of nasty. We just took it from there. I think it was time–stretched rather than pitched down, and it wasn’t really what we were intending on doing, but it just worked out like that. That was interesting and... I wouldn’t say aimless, but a bit kind of feeling your way through the dark. A lot of the songs were like that, where there was not much of an idea where they were going, but it was just about getting something that made you feel upset or weird when you heard it.”

Near Death Experience

Marcata Studios owner Kevin McMahon acts as producer and engineer on most sessions, but agreed to take only the latter role with Fat White Family.Marcata Studios owner Kevin McMahon acts as producer and engineer on most sessions, but agreed to take only the latter role with Fat White Family.Photo: Owen ShearAll in all, making the album was an intense experience for all concerned, not least Fat Whites singer Lias Saoudi: “All I can remember is Saul screaming at me the whole time! I’m trying to black it all out from my memory now. I’d rather not revisit it. It was fucking godawful to make, though, and it nearly killed me.

“I think you have to look at the personalities involved and the things that were going on in everybody’s lives in that period. It’s weird when you get put under pressure and you’re a bunch of kids, basically. You go from sitting in a house just making music to amuse yourselves, to swanning about in New York hanging out with all these people. You find yourself in a completely different realm with all kinds of quite terrible things happening sometimes, and you can’t really foresee how things are going to affect you. It’s strange.

“For me, a lot of it was quite dreadful, but that’s because I indulge my own passivity with this stuff, and with relationships sometimes. I try and pass it off as obedience or responsibility, but it’s really just decadence. I think, for me, coming to terms with all that, in some small way, was kind of what I was trying to do [with the album]. It’s like a therapeutic process, although not therapeutic in an obvious way, but eventually you can get some of the weight off your chest.”

Roughing It

While recording at Marcata, all six then members of Fat White Family (only four of whom are still part of the line–up) and Liam May ended up staying in a former slaughterhouse just yards from the doors of the studio. Looking back, the experience doesn’t exactly fill singer Lias Saoudi with dewy–eyed nostalgia.

Fat White FamilySaoudi: “It was Liam who booked us in there, which was incredibly cruel of him,” he laughs. “The studio was great. I loved the studio. It was a really nice place. It really had a feel to it and not a lot of studios do. You can tell that it’s a labour of love, that place. But the digs that we were staying in were fucking terrible! It was like this meat shack at the fucking side of the barn, a converted abattoir or something like that. There was just a metal grill for warmth and there was just a few futons and everybody hugging the plug–in radiator. There wasn’t a shop for 10 miles and we didn’t have a car so nobody could drive anywhere. We had one hob and it was outside and Nathan would be out there making stew every night with this giant ankle–length blue puffer jacket on. He’d just be out there stirring away in the snow with this fucking stew! It was really bleak. And there were no drugs or anything up there. That was out of the question, so everybody was kind of feeling that. It was pretty grim.”

“Staying in that former slaughterhouse wasn’t really my cup of tea, but at least it was going to mean that everyone would be there literally 20 metres from the studio,” adds Liam May. “But still, the drug problems in the band are such that at any time there was always somebody that was in bed with some fucking weird shivering drug hell thing sort of going on. There was never a point where everyone was all bright–eyed and bushy–tailed. I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to have problems getting them into the studio now!’ But there was, man! They were never fully functional as a whole band at any point during the whole recording process.”

Fat White Drum Sounds

Marcata Recording’s Kevin McMahon has some unorthodox opinions on drum miking: “I believe we used an AKG D36 on the kick drum and then, on the snare, I tend to use two microphones, one of them generally being an old condenser and then something like a [Shure] SM7 or a [Sennheiser MD]421. For toms, I used these ribbon mics made by a friend of mine. They’re called PotoFone and they’re really fucking awesome! I use a Telefunken U47 usually as a room microphone and then an RCA 74 as a kit mic, sometimes between like the floor tom and the rack toms, at the side of the kick drum. A shotgun mic tends to be behind the kit about six feet back hitting the beater side of the kick drum. Then an Altec [639] ‘birdcage’ microphone is usually just dumped on the floor underneath the floor toms.

“I tend to like the back of the kit because it just shows a whole picture. What all of these mics tend to be used for — although, of course, I have no idea if this happened because I wasn’t involved in the mixing — is the fact they can facilitate the ability to possibly dramatically change your entire drum sound, because you’re able to choose one of these microphones to pick up the whole kit. Then, certainly in this case, we had at least two very effected vocal microphones that were not always being used, so there was a lot of ambience in that way.

“I probably used RCAs on guitars. Again, it was a little bit different because, as just an engineer, I’m presenting somebody a picture. I don’t tend to do stereo pairs. For my ears, the strongest form of a dramatic stereo image, unless you’re looking for some clarity, tends to be two mono pictures that are not really the same at all. I think what I’m saying is that I preferred the first form of stereo. The idea of symmetrical, well–balanced recordings that actually feel like you’re standing right in the centre sounds to me just a little flat.”