Released through Matador Records last year, Algiers’ self-titled sophomore album quickly secured the Atlanta-bred band their well-deserved place among musicians to watch. Praised for marrying genres (like punk rock and gospel) that seem like they would create nothing but an oxymoron when combined, Algiers produces an apt fusion of music rich with history mood and experience.
Both on an off stage, Franklin James Fisher (on guitar and vocals), Ryan Mahan (on base) and Lee Tesche (on guitar) aim to provoke discourse on oppression and inequality. Distinct for their politically vocal and unapologetically scrupulous lyrics, the experimental collective does not hesitate to use their voice as a tool for protest.
Algiers is the first to admit they wear their influences on their sleeve, crediting a wide palette of musical and political influences ranging from Paul Robeson to gothic literature to post-punk for inspiring their sound. We caught up with the unpretentiously virtuous and refreshingly sagacious trio at Primavera Sound Festival to discuss election politics, protest music and the secret history of the American South.
This gospel punk hybrid, though sounds like an oxymoron, works really well together. Was the marriage of these two genres an organic evolution or a conscious one?
Franklin: In the beginning it was definitely organic. We started to throw around ideas and tapped into this energy that was very natural. Our backgrounds, things we all share a passion for, helped open that door. Nina Simone’s live catalog is all about that kinetic energy inside of funk, gospel, and other forms of African American music. We tapped into that. Now it’s a conscious decision to see how far we can go and how many avenues of that we can explore within our own perimeters.
Ryan: It definitely happened over time. When I was younger I was very adamant about punk rock; I liked punk rock and punk rock only. But as I got older, I developed more taste. By the time we started playing together, we each had developed a much wider palette of influences.
Lee: There are a lot of similarities; it is not a far reach to connect the dots on these genres. Finding commonalities in different types of music from different counter cultures appealed to us. It allowed us to be exposed to all kinds of different things. The communal aspect of those particular genres like the fact that they speak to dispossessed populations, was also appealing to us.
Would you say that punk rock and gospel are also similar structurally?
F: Definitely. Both in gospel and punk, you are looking at a driving beat. You’re looking at group participation. You are looking at call and response. There is often clapping (demonstrates) There is also a sense of abandon that is incorporated in how these songs are sung and how people participate. They are the music of rising up and giving voice to people who are voiceless otherwise.
R: Structurally a lot of gospel music is very repetitive. It’s very much based on either a rolling verse that continues or a verse chorus structure just like punk rock. But we are not singularly influenced just by punk rock or just by gospel in the same way rock & roll bands weren’t singularly influenced by blues but also had gospel influences. We are also heavily influenced by soul, and noise among other things. And the next record we are working on will definitely reflect that wider palette.
L: Even historically you can trace back rock & roll a 100 years prior to American sub-forms. I don’t think it’s this radical thing to connect the dots back again.
F: You could argue Little Richard was gospel punk, really. I don’t think people appreciated him for what he really was. We like to wear our influences on our sleeve. We know that nothing is created out of nowhere. Everything owes what it is to something that came before, especially in music.
How does a band as politically vocal as you guys find balance between artistic integrity and marketability?
R: We never had to compromise on any level, musically or politically. We emerged around the time that a lot of issues were in the forefront of cultural discussion and it struck a cord with people. Black people have been struggling in the United States since the birth of United States. The political element of our music has been identified as a big part of our craft. We don’t even think about marketability, we do what we want.
F: In regards to the music industry, everybody is fighting for relevance to stay alive. From the owners of record labels, all the way down. It’s very difficult to have longevity in the industry so I can understand that. But politics is an importsnt component of what we do.
R: This reminds me of a speech by Paul Robeson. One of the only black actors able to claw his way to recognition outside of the black communities in the 20s, Paul Robeson was an avid communist but also someone who spoke of dispossessed peoples and sang gospel music in the deepest voice I’ve ever heard. He was recognized throughout the country, even at a time of Jim Crow lynchings.
F: He was a genius. He spoke seven languages. The United States made him a non-person during McCarthyism so you can’t find any information about him.
R: In his speech about the Spanish Civil War, he talks about how artists can’t stay aloof. The artist can play a fundamental role in moving culture and society forward in given circumstances. It’s a very powerful speech. It stuck with me.
How do you guys feel about the political race, taking place in the US?
F: When Obama was elected, I was in London. I go to get a newspaper and people see that I’m a black American. So they’re asking me, “Now that you have a black president, what’s gonna happen?” What happened is republicans did just about everything they could to be strictly contrary for the sake of being contrarians, which created this Frankenstein that is Donald Trump. Now their eyes are big and they are like “We don’t know where this came from! This doesn’t represent us.” I’ve been quoting this cliché lately: You get the candidate that you deserve. They’ve been feeding the beast for 8 years and now everybody is surprised of the consequence. You have a pendulum effect to an extend, you have conservative times and you have…
R: …less conservative times. (laughs)
F: Exactly. I was gonna say proto-fascist. I mean, the last Donald Trump we saw was George Wallace I suppose. Not to say that Reagan was any less extreme or Bush or even Clinton to be honest. But Donald Trump is essentially the spleen of extreme right and that’s what they needed to cope with the fact that there was a black guy in the white house.
R: Let’s not forget that the entire American political and legal system is fundamentally bankrupt. It always has been. It’s oil gained off the indigenous people, workers, people from South America. Donald Trump is also bankrupt. How many times has he been bankrupt in his life? He built his wealth on debt and credit.
F: I’m not even sure if he believes in what he says he believes in which makes it even worse of a situation. He’s a demagogue; he’ll do what he needs to do in order to get the attention he needs.
R: Hillary is really similar in that sense. Whereas Bernie Sanders obviously has tapped into something people are feeling on the left, and actually it’s one of the first times in my life the media is covering somebody in extreme left-wing politics. It doesn’t happen. The tea party on the other hand has had so much coverage that it became legitimate through that coverage. Left wing politics don’t get coverage, I mean how long has Sanders been in the senate? Since the 60s?
Do you think there’s a sense of hopelessness in America?
R: Yes, and that hopelessness is what we tap into. People try to sweep it under the carpet. I think that hopelessness is actually what brought us together. Feeling unable to do anything and slipping into nihilism. But hopefully from our music, one can also gleam a little bit of optimism even in the darkness. Hopefully that comes across because we are cynical but we are also quite optimistic I’d say.
F: The thing that ultimately drove me insane, had me going to therapy was, when I was working at a bank—I’m a teacher but this was a temporary job—and on the trading floor where there were 50 televisions all tuned to CNBC 24 hours a day, everything was inevitably broken down to its macro-economical consequences, regardless of what it was. All these events were happening in 2012, Tsunami, the Arab Spring, and professionals were weighing them for their economic value and their economic impact only. People were talking about the Facebook and Twitter playing an important role in these revolutions and it made me sick.
R: Oscar Wilde said: The problem with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings. That’s the fucking mentality. Revolution is not a dinner party. At the end of the day, you have to recognize the consequences. Once you truly invest yourself into something, you have a lot to lose.
F: Ryan’s job is resettling refuges and helping displaced peoples in the UK. And I think he also deals with post-traumatic stress every day, because of the type of work he does and the type of things he sees. Our cynicism, for lack of a better word, comes from the jobs that we’ve had and the things that we were collectively and individually going through during all those years, leading up to our last record.
How did you guys end up in the UK?
R: It was mostly us, wanting to leave the South, wanting something different.
Most people move to New York…
R: Totally but for me, it was the American political discourse and also the saturation of American media, the celebrity culture. I actually had to leave the United States. We live in an era of punditry where you’re told how to think. A news article comes out and automatically people around that article tell you how to interpret it whereas maybe in the past maybe you had the opportunity to maybe develop an idea for yourself, I think that’s what’s really missing now.
Do you follow protest music around the world?
F: That’s funny, I was going to ask you about Selda (Bagcan)
I was gonna ask you the same!
R: We love Selda.
F: There seems to be a positive correlation in the 20th century with increased appetite for celebrity culture and the increased atomization of society and the individual. The more people starve for fame and for celebrities, the more distanced and atomized they become from one another and the less sense of community they have. I consider music to be the most temporal and visceral of the arts because there is something that can be very genuinely felt, communicated and connected there. So I think when people hear someone they like, it speaks to the necessity to engage and commune with people through something outside of this ultra-capitalist superstructure which is getting increasingly rare to find.
R: It’s interesting you bring up Selda because we were just talking about politics outside of the music industry but there are also all those of politics within the music industry: there are gender politics, minority struggles, politics of reappropriation within music as in any other institution in society. There is a colonizer’s mentality, which is to say you’re an explorer, you can discover music and rip it out of its social context and throw it back out into the consumer sphere. That’s frustrating because what makes music so valuable is where it comes from and the context in which it was formed. When I hear Selda I can feel the context even though I don’t understand the language. It’s the same with Fela (Kuti) That music has life for where it comes from and what it represents. I think that the problem with people attempting to take genres and make something new is that if they don’t recognize the politics at work within that social space, that make the music real, and authentic and alive.
F: And it will come through if something’s been stripped and reappropriated and used as a marketing front. You will feel that emptiness in the music.
R: And especially for us, and unfortunately with us, we come from the American South so it’s rich with content. Not only oppressive content but also really meaningful art, politics and movements. My parents are from East Tennessee, the smoky mountains. We have this impression of places like that as being very monocultural and homogenized. But there was a school there called Highlander Folk School, and it was started in the 20s by a group of working class and poor white people from the mountains along with the oppressed black people of the south, socialists and communists. This was a school in the South, a place people went to learn how to build a movement. And it was dangerous. But it was also interesting because that’s a piece of history no one talks about. It’s the history of people actually coming together in a very meaningful way under very difficult circumstances. For me that’s very rich.
What are your inspirations?
F: This conversation made me think of James Baldwin in particular. He was such a fucking genius. I don’t know anybody that exists like that in the American public eye right now.
R: Such a force: so outspoken and direct and full of passion.
F: Think of language as a fire, and poetry is like a Bunsen burner, so sharp, focused and specific to the essence of the point. That’s how James Baldwin is, every time he speaks. When I was in grade school, I was one of four black kids. James Baldwin talks about the moment you realize you’re black, when your race is interpolated on you. Because there is a period that you’re not aware of that and it goes pretty late in life sometimes. For me it wasn’t until I was about 9 or 10 at that moment when you realize you are cheering on the wrong team when you cheer for the cowboys as you watch cowboys and Indians.
R: Everything I could possibly learn about politics, I learned from black politics We don’t even recognize that we’ve had some of the greatest radicals around, I mean Cesar Chaves, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, James Baldwin… Those are all huge influences for us.
R: Maybe get into banking? (they all laugh)
R: Yes, bank of Algiers.
Sounds legit I’m definitely investing in that bank.
R: We definitely won’t charge you interest.
What’s next for Algiers music-wise?
F: We are getting ready to collaborate with Adrian Utley from Portishead in the middle of the forest.
When should we expect the next album?
L: Hopefully beginning of next year.