Algiers – Interview 2017

AlgiersThe acclaimed political alt-rock experimentalists Algiers – named with reference to the political film The Battle of Algiers, an anti-colonialist classic – are composed of vocalist/guitarist Franklin James Fisher, bassist Ryan Mahan, guitarist Lee Tesche, and since 2016 drummer Matt Tong. Their self-titled 2015 debut was released on the Matador label, and became Resident Records Album of the Year. They combined post-punk, industrial rock, gospel and psychedelic soul into a passionate and malevolent whole. As does their follow up, this year’s The Underside of Power. Produced by Portishead’s Adrian Utley, and the first to feature ex-Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong, it confirmed Algiers as a highly politicised band with plenty to say in the Trump era. Franklin James Fisher talked to Brightonsfinest.

How you doing, and where are you?
I’m good. We’re on the highway, on our way Zurich. It’s nice to tour the new record in Europe. We played in Bern last night, at an interesting festival called the Saint Ghetto. It was a music lovers festival, which are always very nice to play. You really feel like you’re being drawn in or adopted by a relevant scene, which is touching.

Your recent second album, The Underside of Power has garnered universal acclaim, much like your debut album…
It was meant to be an elaboration on all the things we articulated on the first record, on those themes, both lyrically and musically and, of course, politically. It also acts as a journal entry that documents a particular point in time, those six months last year. Where we were as individuals and as a band. A lot of it was deliberate, but a lot of it was circumstantial. Finding ourselves between two tours, taking on the ambitious project of trying to record an entire album in a matter of weeks which wound up being a matter of months. Hopefully, as conscientious individuals as world events were unravelling, that was reflected in what we were writing and doing as well.

The record took too long to make?
Definitely not the way we wanted it. When people live in different geographical locations and people have jobs and responsibilities you do what you can, when you can, where you can. Recording turned into a very laborious six month process, with six or seven different producers and engineers across two continents in various cities. It turned into an ordeal. But we came out of it all the better for it. At best we were able to meet some new collaborators along the way.

Where did producer Adrian Uttley (of Portishead fame) fit into all of this?
Adrian has his stamp on every track. He literally plays on every song. It would be remiss to downplay his role. We’re all major fans of his work, and he’s an extraordinary human being. He had a major influence on this record, but there were other people who may not get the public recognition, like Dan Greenberg who helped us with post-production. After we left the studio with Adrian he was the one who reeled everything in and made the record make sense to us. And there were others, too.

Next time you’d like to record in one place for a shorter time!?
Everything we do is a work in progress. The art form is not just about recording a song, it’s about understanding how things come together, and managing that, and those expectations. It’s a trial and error thing. We’ve definitely learned a few things about what we want to do going into the next record. Between the four of us somebody is always writing something.

You all have other jobs, when not touring and recording. I think you were a coat clerk?
I was for a very long time but not at the moment. Not just this side (musicians) but everyone in the industry is really struggling to carry on. It’s an industry of passion. It’s only been in the past 40 years or so, this invention that the artist can enjoy the fruits of their labour in their lifetime, that you experience this mythical fame and fortune and lead a life of leisure. That’s not what it means to create at all. For some reason, people enjoy the delusion of people who strive to create things with the celebrity lifestyle. It couldn’t be further from the truth for most people. Almost everyone I know who is in a band has to work in order to live. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

You made The Underside of Power while Trump was campaigning for the presidency. Most didn’t expect him to win…
That’s symptomatic of the problem, isn’t it?

What’s the atmosphere in the States now? Can you describe it?
On the one hand if you live in America and have been paying attention to all the systemic malignancies that are the undercurrent of American political daily life, that Trump won is no big surprise. At the same time it’s not true or accurate to say it’s business as usual, and nothing has changed. Things have changed. You have someone who is so openly and unrepentantly repulsive in the highest office in the land, and has emboldened groups of neo-fascists and the so-called alt-right to come out and do things openly that maybe 15 years ago they wouldn’t have had the gall to do. We’re seeing that unwind at an accelerating rate. You see it in the news when a situation comes to a head, like an insane right-wing, white man decides to get a gun and shoot a bunch of people for whatever the hell reason. But it’s equally, I would argue, as disturbing to see the quotidian banalities when you’re driving through any mid-western town or any southern town and you see people with Trump stickers on their SUV’s. There’s a middle finger defiance to anything that is sane or just in the world.

You don’t sound very hopeful…
I’m hopeful insofar as it is in my power to resist. Otherwise, what’s your option. Nihilism? That doesn’t do anything. Going back to one of the themes of this record, it’s about not rolling over, and covering your head and pretending that this isn’t there. It’s about marching into certain defeat but still doing what’s right, and holding your head high. That’s empowering. It’s the major theme of the record.

That all relates to the ‘Hymn for an Average Man’, a song off the album?
You could call them the ‘red hats’ which a friend of mine does. Whenever you look at any totalitarian regime of recent history, the people who were complicit in letting these things happen, you can ask, ‘How do you sleep at night’? You’re just imagining that. That is what that song is about.

The title track, ‘The Underside of Power’?
The same as what I have been talking about. Even if it means the ultimate disintegration of society, the people in power right now, they’ll eventually fall, and that is something to celebrate.

Also ‘Cleveland’?
That one is a bit uncharacteristic for us, explicitly topical. We don’t generally write topical songs. We’re not a current events band. But, that inspiration came after another instance of a victim of police and state violence, with the murderers walking free. It comes from a sense of being fed up with seeing that over and over again. The names that we mention, or the people we allude to, represent the faceless magnitude of people you don’t hear about. We were compelled to do something.

Do you personally find there is more racism since Trump came on the scene?
There is more overt racism. It was there when Obama was president, and they were talking about a post-racial society. But that was bullshit. It’s always been there.

Tell me about the beginnings of the band, and your connections with England…
The three of us went to college together (in Atlanta). At different points in time the three of us then went to graduate school in London. Ryan still lives there. He decided to settle there. It was always the plan to pursue the band, it’s just happening across space and time! Found ourselves in different places. Our friend Tom Morris, who produced our first album, was good friends with Matt Tong. He’s been playing with the band essentially since we were a live band, because we had never played a gig before we signed. We played our first gig after we were recording. We didn’t think we would get a record deal! Circumstances dictated the sporadic formation of the band. I told Chris Lombardi (who founded Matador) when I first met him that we are a live band, we just didn’t have the chance to be one, because of circumstances. We existed online. The first gig we did, it felt right.

Jeff Hemmings