Post-punks Algiers tackle political unrest on American and British soil on The Underside of Power
As a three-piece, Atlanta natives Algiers were a voice of political disenfranchisement during a distinct era of American apathy. Now with former Bloc Party member Matt Tong in the mix, the group has both US and UK roots in the time of Trump and Brexit. Claire Lobenfeld talks to the band about their upcoming Matador album and the political tire fire currently scorching American and British soil.
One of the weirdest ideas expressed in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential Election was that punk, and art in general, was about to make a shift toward the better. It is not untrue that the American public went a little soft during the Obama administration – looking at you, Team Kim Kardashian is a Feminist Icon – but to say that there weren’t still bands, regardless of genre, pointing out the xenophobic, capitalistic nightmares still bubbling up across the nation would be a lie. (And no amount of fascism is worth good art, if we’re being completely real here.) One band who has always been about the fight is the undefinable New York- and London-based four-piece Algiers.
Algiers are a band who are unafraid of urgency, whether it is the righteous indignation of their lyrics or the polyglot playground of their sound. While eschewing genre may be an approach many groups claim, Algiers truly cannot be contained. Started by restless Atlanta natives Franklin James Fisher (guitar/vocals), Ryan Mahan (bass) and Lee Tesche (guitar) with former Bloc Party member Matt Tong joining them on drums, the band makes music that is truly dystopian. It is inspired by Afrika Bambaata and Suicide as much as M.E.S.H. and Vatican Shadow (who bassist Ryan Mahan says influenced music on their upcoming album). Fisher’s voice is informed by the sound of gospel records his mother played while he was growing up, but the lyrics are far less hopeful. Full of righteous indignation, theirs is soul music for the end of the world.
But if there’s anyone who knows that the world will keep spinning despite the proliferation of the hard right, it’s this band. Algiers have been a part of the resistance long before both the Brexit vote and Trump taking office. Both affect the band – Mahan and Tesche live in London and Tong is British – and that thread is weaved throughout their upcoming album The Underside of Power (June 23, Matador). Frontman Fisher and Tong spoke to FACT about the album, America’s political amnesia and how A$AP Rocky’s ‘Fucking Problems’ is “total blaxploitation”.
I really want to start with the title of the album. Where did the phrase “the underside of power” come from?
Franklin James Fisher: The initial recording sessions we did for this record were with Adrian Utley from Portishead and his production partner Ali Chant. We did it at Real World Studios, which is Peter Gabriel’s fancy studio out in the countryside in west England. In the evenings, there was this private French chef named Jerome and he made these extravagant meals for us. [We would eat in] this dining room and we would just sit there and talk. Often times we would talk about what was happening with current events because the beginning of these recording sessions when things [with Brexit] were starting to come undone. Ryan would talk about his job – he monitors human trafficking and they help refugees get settled in. He deals with the worst of human nature on a daily basis. All these conversations kind of led me to find a narrative from the perspectives of all these people who are under the heel of the powerful and really can’t do anything about it.
The band is coming from both Brexit and the Trump presidency. FACT is a British magazine, but half of the editorial staff is American, so there has been a communal experience watching the fracturing of our ideals and futures, a thing that didn’t seem possible last year. I was curious about how you guys were able to balance a perspective about what’s going on in the world right now and how you wanted to present that on the record?
Fisher: From my perspective, it was very much a whirlwind, this recording process, and so fragmented. We worked with six or seven different engineers and in all these different studios, from Bristol to London to New York. In the midst of doing all of this, it was just kind of absorbing everything that was happening, for me, without really having the a specific opinion or diagnosis about what was happening, other than I knew what it was rooted in. We kind of knew it was fucked. It was only kind of recently that I’m going back to listen to the record again that it’s starting to become elucidated to me. It was really just about absorbing and reflecting everything that was happening, which is kind of what we’ve always been about.
Tong: I think the whole point of Algiers is to illustrate the myriad things wrong with the way our various systems are set up. We’ve had this wave of public outcry that’s flared up against them, but it’s just a part of a number of similar processes that have happened over the last couple of centuries where fear of the other is exploited for political gain. This isn’t new to us, but I think the important thing to underline right now. Algiers is, hopefully, a long-term project and that [project] is to kind of constantly remind people that these same problems have always existed in various forms.
Fisher: What did Gore Vidal call it? “The United States of Amnesia”? I mean, obviously this is happening: this kind of right wing resurgence of fascist populism in Europe, as well, and in the UK, but the United States is particularly good at erasing or revising history. And the people are particularly good at not learning it or unlearning it. I think there’s a certain indignation underlying what it is that we do as it pertains to this idea that, “Wow, people are fucking idiots and how are they letting this happen again?”
These forces have always been just beneath the surface of the culture and of the politics. That it’s kind of reaching a kind of unprecedented prosperity, for lack of a better word, it’s really angering and frustrating… I lost any sort of faith in the American people after they re-elected George W. Bush back in 2004. But with this election, the Democrats took [Hillary Clinton], this cardboard cutout product of the standardized political electoral machine just resting on her laurels, without any sort of critical self-examination or real zeal going against obvious fascists. Everybody was so self-confident, so self-assured that it was a foregone conclusion that she was going to win. That says more to me about the state of the Democrats than it does about the Republicans.
“Over the last couple of centuries, fear of the other has exploited for political gain” –
You guys have a very stacked deck of collaborators: Adrian Utley from Portishead, Ben Greenberg from The Men, Randall Dunn, who has produced for Sunn O))). How did you guys build this team?
Tong: A lot of it was good fortune. At various points, it felt like we didn’t have enough time in the initial sessions with Adrian and [his production partner] Ali [Chant]. It felt like we probably could have done with a bit more time, but our schedule and finances made it difficult to be able to get everything down in that time.
Fisher: With the rare exception of a couple of really bright moments, spending some time at Real World and meeting Adrian and ultimately Ben, for me, personally, recording this album was an utter nightmare.
Tong: It was tricky. It was a real problem child.
Fisher: It was so amazing working with Ben Greenberg because he got it immediately and it’s the not the easiest world for somebody on the outside to kind of step into and understand what we’re trying to do. Our music’s quite weird and the way we go about making it is quite convoluted, but he got it. That was the missing piece of the puzzle we needed. Later on, Ryan, Matt and Lee, at different intervals, went out to Seattle to mix the record with Randall, who is also really brilliant. He did these finishing touches that made it really nice.
Tong: His pedigree speaks for itself. We were very lucky that he wanted to come aboard. He took what was quite messy, giving that we had recorded in different places. He just brought everything into the same world.
Reading the annotations for the record, or even just being told a list of influences, it is a little bit inscrutable, but when you hear the album, all of those references, whether it’s Kraftwerk or Suicide or gospel, all make sense. How do you guys fit those puzzle pieces together?
Fisher: The way that we write as a band changes almost perpetually from one song to the next. A year ago this time, we had just taken a break after the first tour cycle. Everyone went away for a couple months and came back with different sketches and various demos and we kinda sat down and figured out what out of that bunch we would work on. I think a lot of the songs on this record came from Ryan, from his initial sketches. For songs like ‘Death March’, we were looking to incorporate Matt, who is obviously an amazing drummer, and we were trying to do it in a way that was organic. There was some trial and error there, but we were finally able to bring his style into [our] cadence and to have his drum sound that are produced without any kind of weird flashiness or “Look everybody, we got Matt Tong!” You do whatever you need to do to serve the song, but you have to put the craftsmanship first.
Tong: Everyone is really patient to accommodate everyone’s ideas. In my experience, it’s important to be able to do that, but equally as important is to be able to be mindful about when the song could potentially getting away from you. By that I mean, the producer or engineer or whoever it is you’re working with, who is there to help you realize that idea, you have to make sure that they kind of understand what you’re trying to do, as well. You’ve gotten be careful that you don’t go too far to accommodate them that you can’t come back and you have to start again. It’s very tricky.
“The only real way that you can instigate any sort of change is to give credence to the idea of difference within the people themselves” – Franklin James Fisher
Another thing that stuck out to me in album details was that the track ‘Walk Like a Panther’ is referred to as a love letter to A$AP Rocky, Drake and other pop star rappers, but the rest of your notes do not make it sound like you have much esteem for them or their music.
Fisher: It comes from my work. My best friend runs a club on the Lower East Side, and he gets me work there checking coats just so I can make some cash when we’re not on the road. I’m really grateful to him for doing it, but at the same time, it completely sucks your soul dry. The music that the clientele wants to listen to is nothing but Drake and Nicki Minaj and bling era hip-hop. It’s a mostly white audience and it’s a white DJ that’s spinning this stuff. It starts to grate on you when you’re in this subservient position and you’re listening to this music. It’s total blaxploitation. It really plays into this narrative that I have been fighting against my whole life which is what is expected of you in the eyes of, not just the mainstream American culture and in the eyes of other black people. Authentic black representation is this bullshit that you hear on Top 40 radio and that you see in fucking movies, which is all fucking manufactured and perpetuated by white-owned corporations and it’s completely fucking destructive to black identity.
Listening to songs like ‘Fucking Problems’ with 2 Chainz and A$AP Rocky with that one line, I can’t get over it: “They say the money makes a nigga act niggerish / But at least a nigga’s nigga-rich.” It’s a room full of drunk white people singing along to the fucking lyrics and, in the meantime, I’m waiting on them. That’s fucked up. And I got sick of it. When Ryan and I were demoing ‘Walk Like a Panther’, he laid out the beat and everything, and he was like, “Just improvise”. I did something, I don’t really remember. He cut it up and re-arranged it and presented it back to me. I wasn’t singing any words or anything. I heard it and I immediately had this image of a modern day Reign of Terror, post-French Revolution, and the black aristocracy, so to speak. The people, the real people, went and rounded up all these motherfuckers for selling them out and they were gonna bring them to the gallows and execute them for their crimes except for at the last minute, they don’t get executed. You realize, ultimately, they’re just playing into the hands of The Man, and if you love somebody, if you love something, then you discipline them. So that’s where it comes from. It’s a weariness and an anger with this entire culture which has gone on uninterrupted since the early ‘90s. This is the pervasive image of what it’s like to be a black person in our culture and, therefore, the rest of the world. It’s bullshit and I’m sick of it.
Do you think there’s any possibility popular culture will change, specifically the portrayals of non-white people?
Fisher: The only real way that you can instigate any sort of change is to give credence to the idea of difference within the people themselves. Dylan called these kinds of songs “finger-pointing songs”. I’m talking to other black people. The irony is other black people don’t listen to our music. But I’m not the most optimistic person in terms of social change, but I know the difference between right and wrong and it’s a moral obligation, once you do know what’s right, [to work toward change]. I think that’s the basis of any sort of social change and the drive to enact change, even if you don’t think you’re gonna see it or you don’t think it’s achievable, at least not in your lifetime. You still must be compelled to do it if you understand the situation and the basis of things. I think that may be a theme of our record.
Claire Lobenfeld is on Twitter