algiers - vulturehound

“It’s Joyful and Angry in Equal Measure…”: Algiers and The Underside Of Power (The VH Interview)

Algiers’ 2015 debut album mixed powerful and rousing soul and gospel influences with dark and experimental post-punk. Tracks like ‘Black Eunuch’ and ‘Blood’ we’re full of the light and dark of their respective influences, culminating in one of the years most exciting and innovative debuts. It was a genre-meshing stroke of creative genius that seemed to understand the history behind the (often assumed to be disparate) genres they were fusing. Two years on, the Atlanta born trio of Franklin Fisher, Ryan Mahan and Lee Tesche, along with ex-Bloc Party drummer/now full time Algiers man, Matt Tong, are ready to release album number two – The Underside of Power. And it might just be the most powerful and important album you’ll hear all year.

Heavy with the weight of revolutionary struggle and the fight against colonialism, this is a defiant album of ‘finger pointing’ – drawing attention to the systemic racial atrocities woven through the history of America. But don’t just assume it’s all about looking back – this is an album for the here and now. If the last 12 months have shown us anything it’s that sometimes the wrongs of the past don’t always communicate themselves to the present. This is something Algiers is trying to put right.

Vulture Hound spoke to vocalist Franklin James Fisher and Matt Tong to find out about the world from which The Underside of Power was born…

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Since your debut album in 2015 there’s been some strange election results both sides of the Atlantic, how much of that unrest is has been fed into Underside of Power?

Matt: Well that kind of begun as we started recording so that angst and unease definitely worked its way into the music in various ways.

Frank: In a general sense, in a very abstract sense it fed into some undertones of the record but what we do when we approach any sort of socio-political situation we’re looking at things that are more systemic, things that have been persisting for a much longer time…

Cause a lot of these issues you’re looking at didn’t just appear 12 months ago…

Frank: I think Trump was the logical conclusion of late capitalist America and the erosion of a bankrupt electoral system. And in somebody like Trump we’ve found someone who had the hubris and the wherewithal to play the game. So instead of feeding to the dog whistle that was employed by the Bush administration he just decided to come out and throw the entire system into chaos. So the Republicans who were already hanging off a precipice and capitulating to their more fringe constituencies just kind of folded to it. But that’s something that’s been a long time coming, unfortunately.

Along with the first album, The Underside of Power reminds me, often in an incredibly stark way, of incredible weight of modern history. Even the name Algiers – something that is incredibly invocative of revolutionary struggle – can’t but set the tone for the message behind the music. Is it important to you to remind people, or at least make people aware of the history behind the message?

Matt: I think so. We’re very aware of history. Obviously we’re directly referring to the Algerian war of independence – and I think it is very important for us to highlight the colonial struggle and actually connect that to the present and show how the post-colonial project is still a massive force that needs to be pushed up against. I think a lot of what this band is trying to do is combat traditional narrative arcs prescribed to us by popular culture – where everything has all its loose ends neatly tied up, so to speak.

So was this the ultimate reason for getting into music, Frank? When did you realise that your strong beliefs in these socio-political issues could be carried forward in a musical project like this?

Frank: I don’t think it was ever imperative for me. I never set out to use music to be a means to an end to shout a political agenda – that’s not what I do. Ryan is the one who came up with the idea of ‘Algiers’ as a band, and I thought it was a very intriguing idea – but we were never meant to be a political band, and I don’t think we are a political band with a capital ‘P’ – that’s too restrictive. The people I look up to, they speak to the whole gamut of the human experience, and much of that is politics, and much of it is existential, too. I think that’s just as important, if not more so, and I try to address all of those things in my writing. But also I try to write beyond the spectrum of what’s dictated to people as what is acceptable within popular music, particularly nowadays. It didn’t used to be as restrictive but now it seems that people just really want escapism, so when you listen to Top 40 radio there’s only a few topics – sex, money, and…

Matt: Asses.

Frank: (Laughs) yeah, asses. I work in a nightclub so I hear a lot of really vacuous music on a regular basis, and there’s one song that’s quite popular right now in the United States and the lyrics are literally just “Ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass” – so yeah, there are a lot of issues the contribute to the absurdity of the human condition and that to me is what is exciting and so rich with material to address.

As far as the music goes it’s incredibly hard to know where to put Algiers – there are snippets of band’s I love in there, yet I find myself resorting to just putting the word ‘Gospel’ in front of words like ‘Post-Punk’ and ‘Experimental’ whenever I’m under pressure to explain to someone what you sound like. But that’s only because I struggle to put you up against anyone else – this combination of musical style and lyrical message on both albums are unlike anything I’ve heard before…

Frank: Well that’s a great compliment to us, but I know what you mean. Often times I’ve seen us compared to TV On The Radio, because we’re a multi-racial band! But that’s where to comparisons stop – I mean they’re a great band but we don’t have any conscious connection to them at all.

So how did these influences come together?

Frank: There was a lot of trial and error in the beginning. But after a short period of time and workshopping of ideas we kind of stumbled on to the overlapping of energies in our respective musical backgrounds – Ryan was primarily punk music and mine being traditional African American music, and not just gospel – it was soul music too. I think things really materialised with the song ‘Black Eunuch’ (From 2015’s Algiers), that’s when we realised we were onto something unique. Those energies – if you want to use gospel as a shorthand – the energies between gospel and punk are very similar, as different as they may seem on the surface. They’re both about group participation, a driving beat, and they’re often songs about dispossession and trying to gain a sort of hope. There’s a lot of call and response. I think just because we have this mutual admiration and respect for different types of music that’s where our advantage lies. But oftentimes, and this is somewhat controversial, especially in the United States it’s very rare that you have white people who understand the energies and the visceral contours of traditional black music, and vice versa – a lot of us don’t quite understand the complexities of guitar music in rock or punk, which is usually why you end up getting these really dodgy cross pollinations with like ‘hip-hop rock’ or ‘metal hip-hop’ – it’s just never really worked that well.

But it shouldn’t be a surprise that something that’s predominantly black and something else that’s predominantly black, music wise, can work well together…

Frank: No it shouldn’t. But increasingly people forget that you can’t really divorce the aesthetic package from its historical roots. And that’s the key to understanding how cross pollination works – you can’t just use it from a completely aesthetic basis, and a lot of that has to do with the history and the understanding of that history. I mean rock n roll was born from these cultural intersections, and a lot of the pioneers, white or black, they couldn’t really ignore the differences in the historical origins of these things because it was such a hotbed of political unrest that they were presented with on a daily basis. But now it’s just easier for people to push that aside and approach it from a completely aesthetic point of view – and I don’t think you can do that very well.

There are a lot of tracks on the new album that can be dissected and analysed but one track in particular, ‘Cleveland’ manages to, with immense power, bind a lot of these issues together – what’s the story behind that track?

Frank: We tried to find a way of expressing the not so recent phenomenon of systematic and institutional murdering of black people, that’s been going on for as long as America has been in existence. I came across a couple of cases while looking on the internet, where it seemed obvious that foul play had occurred but the local authorities had just swept it under the rug. ‘Cleveland’ is very much about that theme I’m constantly exploring – never really finding justice in the world and trying to find some divine vindication. There’s all these people who think they’ve gotten away with these things, at some point you like to imagine there will be divine justice for what they’ve done. I really like that idea, and this partly comes from my background in the church – ‘the righteous judging the wicked’, not being able to hide in the shadows. So it’s very much my take on songs like ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ by Bob Dylan, or D’Angelo recently did a song called ‘The Charade’ from his album Black Messiah. It’s a ‘finger pointing’ song, calling out the names of these perpetrators who hoped it was all snuffed out and forgotten. So this was my way of making my mark in the long list of conscientious objectors and hopefully it’ll draw some attention to some of these lesser known cases.

And, on an album full of powerful moments, musically ‘Cleveland’ is just massive. It shows that you need a strong musical basis in order to carry such a powerful message. It’s like someone listening to The Clash when they were young and loving what they hear, even if they don’t, at first, pick up on the message…

Frank: It’s a song that’s a good representation of what we would like to get across. It’s a very bleak subject matter but at the same time it’s joyful and angry in equal measure – and that’s what I like to think is my basis in faith, and basis in my faith in justice.

Joyful and angry is a great combination of words. It’s something that can be applied to the whole album, especially for songs like the title track too…

Frank: Yeah, like you said – if you were a kid and you listened to The Clash you may not have been privy to the subject matter and what’s going on. And that’s why music is so important – if functions on a very visceral level, perhaps more than any of the other arts. If you are able to take advantage of that and say something of meaning then maybe at some point it’ll start a dialogue and that’s very much what we’re trying to do.

And of course ultimately, from a youth point of view, if they connect to something on that visceral level they will potentially connect to it later on a socio-political way also. It has the ability to open people up to these issues, for right or wrong…

Frank: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. I mean when I was younger I went through – and this is off the record* – I went through a really dodgy phase of listening to progressive rock, and I remember Yes had a record called Close To The Edge and after hearing it I was like “this is amazing, I wonder what this means…”, and you find out it’s just some sort of really milk toast, self-referential idea about the boundaries of music (laughs), and it couldn’t be more disappointing, you know? But later on you get into music which does have wider, sociological and political implications and that can turn into a gift that keeps on giving – when you find an artists in whom you find your ideals are aligned. [*sorry, it was too good an anecdote not to print…].

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Algiers: (L-R) Matt Tong, Ryan Mahan, Lee Tesche, Franklin Fisher

In terms of the recording personnel on The Underside of Power there’s an impressive credit roll – Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Randall Dunn (Producer – Sun O)))) – how much did that team compliment the recording of the record?

Matt: There’s actually an earlier point you made about how the combination of styles works, and a lot of if comes from within the band but there are so many tangibles that can only be uncovered if you have a great team around you. So like, Randall was entirely instrumental in… the sounds on this record were more disparate than they were on the first record, so he just applied a magical glue to the whole thing that made all those songs sound like they belonged on the same record.

What was the first track that came together where you thought, “yeah, that’s the level we need to be at for this record”?

Frank: That’s an interesting one, because it didn’t develop so linearly. We jumped into the recording with these demos with Adrian for a 2 week period between two European tours last summer, and I think shortly after we realised it was a bit ambitious – at the end of the summer we found we had a very fragmented piece of work that didn’t quite make sense to us as it relates to our universe. So we spent several months attempting to sort out the missing pieces on our own, which we weren’t quite able to do because the 4 of us need to be sat in a room together to do it – Lee and Ryan are based in London now and me and Matt are in New York. So it wasn’t until we found Ben Greenburg (Python Patrol Recording Studio) that it started to make sense as a record, which at a later point Randal helped to reinforce that fact. At that point it was some very basic things that Ben did that helped tie things together for us….

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… I remember specifically sitting down to listen to ‘Cry of the Martyrs’ after Ben had just tweaked a couple of things and I was like “oh, okay. That sounds like us now”. So really after the ground work we put down with Adrian that summer, it wasn’t until later it came together when we were able to sit down in a less stressful atmosphere – which was largely brought upon by ourselves, because of the timeline we put on that initial recording session. As as it was to work with Adrian and to be recording at Real World Studios – Peter Gabriel’s studio – it was quite stressful for a band in our position, with the exception of Matt, cause we had never really experienced anything like that before. It took us out of our comfort zone, but ultimately in a good way. We just had a lot of coming to terms to do after those initial sessions in order to wrap our heads around what we really wanted to do and how we wanted to achieve it. So that’s where Ben Greenburg came in with the post-production. He finally helped us to claim some ownership over what we had done. I think ‘Cry of the Martyrs’ was the first song that started to elucidate the record for us as a statement we wanted to make. Then definitely ‘Underside of Power’, once Ben got his hands on it, ‘Animals’ as well were those first tracks that started to piece things together.

What else have you got planned over the next few months?

Frank: Well we’ve been working with Massive Attack on and off for about a year now. Rob (Del Naja) contacted us around the beginning of 2016 and they were interested in our work and they wanted to collaborate, which obviously we were thrilled about. So we’ve done a couple of tracks together and we’re going up to Bristol next week to work on a couple more.

Is that for a new Massive Attack release?

Frank: I don’t know what capacity they’re planning on using any of this material – it’s a bit early to tell. But there are a couple of songs that are quite good, so I’m excited to see what they do with them. But other than that we’ll just be rehearsing, getting ready to go out on the road with Depeche Mode. For me to say either of those things is so incredibly surreal – I can’t quite wrap my head around it. It’s such a dramatically different reality from when I’m back in New York checking coats for a living.

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So, has there been the thought that you should all be in the same place, rather than either sides of the Atlantic?

Matt: No, I’d rather we all lived in separate countries!

Frank: (Laughs)

Matt: I mean, it would be nice but I think this is showing us that there isn’t a true path through all of this. It would make life easier, for sure, but one of the benefits of not always being around each other is that there’s no pressure to make things happen there and then. So having a bit of physical distance gives you time to pause and reflect. Particularly when we’re trying to pull all of these different influences.

Is this born out of your experiences with your previous band?

Matt: I don’t know… Within the Algiers camp I refer to it as “my prior experiences”…

Frank: (Laughs)

Matt: Just to illuminate potential pitfalls of being in a long-term band. I mean – Bloc Party was working perfectly fine for me and then at a certain point it wasn’t. I don’t think it had anything to do with proximity or any of that… that’s all I’m going to say on the subject! (Laughs) But it was a huge part of my life.

But Bloc Party, for me, will always be about the fact you wore an AFC Bournemouth scarf in the video for ‘So Here We Are’. Seeing that on MTV2 was mind blowing. It was pushing the boundaries of what could be done on music television…

Matt: It was just my cynical attempt to get us a headline gig at Dean Court…

Well Wales got the Manic Street Preachers to play their Euro 2016 homecoming gig, so AFCB should have gotten Algiers to play the Premier League promotion party 2 years ago… Not sure what the set list would have been though…

Frank: (Laughs) They have used one of our songs for – what was it?

Matt: I think it was for a Champions League match – they used an Algiers song during a preview…

Frank: I think it was ‘Black Eunuch’, yeah.

And how delighted were you that Reading lost in this years Championship Play-Off final…?

Matt: Oh I don’t want to evoke the fury of Reading… but I did experience a certain amount of schadenfreude because of the way they’ve treated us in the past. I remember when they got promoted first into the Championship and then the Premier League and how often they would make fun about the fact they would never play us again and now the boot is very firmly on the other foot…

It was that Defoe season wasn’t it? In 2000/2001 when he was on loan and AFCB needed to win the final game of the season against Reading to reach the playoffs… And they just spent the whole game kicking us…

Matt: I was at that game and I think we were like 3-1 up at one point and Stephen Purches almost scored in the dying moments of the game and yeah… that was depressing.

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The Underside of Power is out on Friday, June 23rd via Matador Records.

Algiers European Tour June/July 2017 (* w/ Depeche Mode)
22/6 – Berlin, DE – Olympiastadion Berlin *
23/6 – Berlin, DE – Musik & Freiden
25/6 – Rome, IT – Stadio Olimpico *
26/6 – Milan, IT – Santeria Social Club
27/6 – Milan, IT – Stadio San Siro *
28/6 – Rome, IT – Monk Club
29/6 – Bologna, IT – Stadio Rentao Dall’Ara *
1/7 – St. Denis, FR – Stade de France *
4/7 – Gelsenkirchen, DE – Veltins-Arena *