Interview: “We want to compete with Donald Trump but on a studio level” – The Fat Whites open a studio in Attercliffe
Be honest: if members of Fat White Family opened a Sheffield-based recording studio and it wasn’t in Attercliffe, within spitting distance of the famous City Sauna, you’d be a bit surprised – and maybe a tad disappointed too…
Last year, brothers Nathan and Lias Saoudi left the perpetually rising rents of London behind and headed north, hunkering down in the Steel City where Lias continued to work with local duo Dean Honer and Adrian Flanagan of Eccetronic Research Council on The Moonlandingz debut record, ‘Interplanetary Class Classics’. Following that, there was the matter of a third Fat Whites album to get stuck into and the band started searching for their own place to record in. They eventually found their spot, an old industrial unit nestled just off Attercliffe Road and soon to become the home of ChampZone Studios (“Ready to record, ready for gold”).
We were invited to have a poke around the studio on its first day of business. The in-house engineer Jack Howorth was on-hand to meet us outside and apologised that Lias wouldn’t be around but claimed that Nathan would be; he was just running a bit late. “Herding Fat Whites is a bit like herding cats at times, as I’m sure you can imagine,” he says as we take a seat in the mixing room and bide some time talking about how the band have taken to Sheffield and whether recording with one of the country’s most chaotic groups is as hectic of an experience as you’d imagine. “They mainly just like cake and pie, and it’s cheap up here, so I think they’re fans. In terms of working on the album, when work is actually happening it’s really quite productive. It’s just when the booze runs out that it becomes a problem, when the session tends to end.”
Nathan arrives a few minutes later, not best pleased with the grim northern deluge of March rain outside, and after introductions are made takes up a spot on the sofa opposite for a chat.
So: ChampZone – now open for business, right?
J: Yeah, ChampZone. It sounds a bit like a gym, which is exactly the sort of vibe we’re going for: you come here, you work out, and leave a far better band than when you arrived.
N: It is like a musical gym. We do press-ups more than we make music.
J: Today’s the first proper day of business. There’s a band called Working Men’s Club who should be arriving in about an hour. We’ve got some stuff booked in for April and hopefully we’ll be properly cooking by May. I’m the only in-house engineer; Nathan’s on-hand for producing and bringing ideas to the table. But it’s his and Lias’ money, their joint-investment.
When did you first decide to take the plunge and invest in a studio?
N: Well, we were working out of this studio around the corner, it just had a little desk in there but we were getting pretty good at using it because we didn’t really have a recording studio down in London as it’s so expensive. But you can come up here and set up a DIY thing for like two and a half grand. We were working on this pretty problematic song, which was sounding good but getting a bigger studio would mean we could go hi-fi on our own terms. DIY is always associated with lo-fi and that’s doing my tits in, it sounds like a piece of shit. I mean, would you give that to your mum to listen to? No. Would you give that to a five-year-old to listen to? No. Then what’s the point?
You dig in and get loads of work done. Sheffield doesn’t spare laziness in the winter because it’s so miserable. But then in the summer it flips, and it’s the most beautiful place to be.
Almost like purposely selling yourself short, just to stick to the DIY principles.
N: You’re making music and doing it yourself, sure, but it’s an echo chamber. We didn’t want to sell ourselves short. If you’re going down to the bookies, put £50 down; don’t put a quid on an outsider. I see people doing that and it makes me sick. Go in hard, man.
And now there’s the opportunity to work with other bands and pass that knowledge down.
N: The idea for me here with the bands that I’m producing is to try take on the big guns a bit. Without sounding like a pretentious piece of shit, it’s like Marx’s idea of owning your own tools of production. Until you have that it’s like you’re constantly playing in somebody else’s dream, and you’ve got to live your own dream a bit, haven’t you? We can do anything here really.
J: We just need to keep building on it, we’re still a little bit bare bones at the minute.
N: You don’t need really need all of that though. You don’t need good microphones, you need a decent lamp. [laughs] J: That’s the headline right there
N: But yeah, that will happen. Come back in five years’ time and it’ll be, like, 20 stories high.
Like Attercliffe’s Trump Towers?
J: That’s the dream. We want to compete with Donald Trump but on a studio level.
How are you finding Sheffield, Nathan?
N: It’s good, man. In the winter it’s so bleak that it almost forces you into being proactive, and that’s what happened last winter. You dig in and get loads of work done. Sheffield doesn’t spare laziness in the winter because it’s so miserable. But then in the summer it flips, and it’s the most beautiful place to be.
Yeah, it’s a city of contrasts – the seasons are really thrown at you up here.
N: You can ignore the seasons a bit more down in London. I don’t believe in summer holidays; I think you should live in a place that’s good in the summer and so shit in the winter that you get things done and look forward to things getting better again.
J: You were saying last summer you could imagine it being like Barcelona, you know, tourists wanting to come here and stuff.
N: It is. You go into the Peaks during the summer and you can hear loads of Americans, loads of foreign accents around. Yeah, I could imagine people sitting in some shitty, arid desert land in Spain or whatever talking about coming here in the summer, to this lush, green piece of land. I could see the appeal of that.
J: Those Fat Cat pies helped you out this winter though.
N: Yeah, there are always things which help pull you through. There’s intense beauty here in the summer though.
J: Talking of contrasts, you’ve got this place which is like an oasis from the bleakness outside. It’s pissing it down out there, so come to ChampZone and make some nice tunes.
Are there any sorts of qualities you’re looking for in the bands you’ll be working with?
N: Good bands, always. It’s cheaper here compared to other studios because we know that being in a band is fucked up, like when you’re trying to record a few demos and you have to pay £400 for two days with a guy who just wants to make money. We’ve got our own personal projects and we don’t want to make money off these bands; we want enough to come in so that bands can still get a good deal. If you want some advice, we can help but we won’t take anything away. On paper we’re the same as other studios, but you usually have to pay a lot of money for that.
J: I think the ethics are different here. If we’re not taking home wages then we don’t take home wages and we’ll still keep the place open for bands to use. There aren’t many people who start a studio as a business but make themselves the least important part of the equation. If the bands are happy and the studio is still ticking over, who cares about us?
N: Yeah, fuck us.
What would you say the biggest challenge facing young bands is now? Is it mainly about not having the cash to spare?
N: One thing I noticed is that once they made squatting illegal that fucked a lot of bands up. I knew a lot of bands that spent a lot of time in squats. It kept them together.
J: Having cash is a big problem for young bands, but having people who give a shit about them without wanting to make money first and foremost also helps. We’re investing in bands, not ourselves.
N: A lot of it is to do with cash. I mean, I still struggle like a motherfucker, but a lot of people are struggling these days. I’ve got a theory, which you can apply to a lot of artists. With art, you’ve got the very top of life and the very bottom of life. Good art normally shows to the listener what it’s like at the bottom or top, that’s the best stuff. You can really feel what it is in one moment, where you can sense this person’s creativity or output. And what I’m noticing today as everyone’s wallets are getting shrunk, the people who make it through this scene are increasingly more middle class, not that I’m saying I hate the middle class – just if you’ve got money don’t lie about it. These people are from a very comfortable middle ground on the spectrum and that’s all they can reflect with their art. But the only people who will find any longevity in that are people with the same background. I like a lot of the pop music that comes out, I’ll be honest, but the biggest constraint is that the lyrics have absolutely zero depth. I can hear really cool basslines and it’s wicked, but if I’m sitting there trying to get deep into this other person’s life, I’m like, ‘what are you talking about?’
Which makes it more important for bands to have affordable places to come and record music.
N: All I’m offering is a good studio for a cheap price, really. I’ve got this band called Starlight Magic Hour, who are wicked, and they’re all a bunch of broke motherfuckers but they’re really good. I’d say if the group is four lads who all work in Greggs, they could probably afford to make an album here in about three months –and it’ll sound good. If it’s good enough for the Fat Whites then it’s good enough for anyone.