Algiers’ second album, The Underside of Power (Matador), released last Friday, is a reflection of our precarious politics—both present and past—a coming together of literature and history, and an offering of communion that might just funnel unrest into action. It’s also the result of four self-described “super nerds”—Franklin James Fisher, Ryan Mahan, Lee Tesche, and Matt Tong—joining to make a raucous punk- and gospel-infused record. “You can look at the last one, the first record, and say, ‘This is our statement. This is our mission. This is Algiers,’ and it’s one entry point,” says Mahan of their 2015 self-titled debut, which in its name references both resistance and colonialism. “I think this one has multiple entry points.”
Algiers started out as a three-piece in Atlanta, Georgia back in 2008, but has since spread across borders. Though Tesche remains in Atlanta, Mahan has settled in London, and Fisher and the group’s most recent addition, Tong, are both based in New York. When Interview caught up with Fisher and Mahan by phone before the album’s release, they said their diverse geography has informed their varied perspectives, but the “fragmented” and “chaotic” collection of songs they’ve created speak to a shared sentiment.
“I do feel that there’s some kind of essential shift in the wind that I can’t quite put my finger on yet, and I think that’s why I like art, that’s why I make music, because it’s about that thing, that unutterable thing you can’t quite articulate,” explains Fisher. “You try to come as close as you can to giving that thing a name and giving that emotion something that’s identifiable, but you never can quite get it. When people interact with whatever it is that you’ve created or produced, then in that space it begins to take more of a meaning, more of a form, and it’s reflected back to you, and then you can maybe understand it a little better.”
HALEY WEISS: Frank, you wrote in your notes about the record that the intention was to make something that showed what had changed for you guys when you performed live, but life intervened and you ended up with something that you didn’t necessarily expect. So what interfered with that initial intention and how did you arrive at this record?
FRANKLIN JAMES FISHER: I think just scheduling and time restraints and travel restraints and financial restraints and personal obligations and work obligations, all of these things kind of comingled to hammer home the harsh reality of what it’s like trying to be a band and make a record in 2017—when you’re a band in our situation, anyway. It definitely wasn’t that streamlined or as simple as we thought it would be, or hoped it would be, but I think maybe that turned out for the better.
WEISS: Part of the result of that is it’s a more raw record, right?
FISHER: To an extent, yes. There are a lot of threads and edges there that if we had the luxury of time maybe we would’ve polished a little more. There are definitely parts that Ryan and I would’ve changed if we had a chance to, but it’s good insofar as it’s a very accurate reflection of where we were and what we were trying to do at the time that it was recorded. There’s really nothing, for better or for worse, that anybody can say, at least to me about it, that I don’t already know, that isn’t already very apparent.
RYAN MAHAN: And I don’t think you can say that there was really an intention going into the record, actually. I think the record is a consequence of playing live for a year, for sure, and it definitely on some level captures some of that energy, but we didn’t go in with the intention of saying, “Okay, we want to show off our performing credentials.” We went in with each of us having demos that we had written—which personally speaking, I was really excited about the demos that we brought to the table—and it was a slightly different process. With the first record, we had been sharing these songs transatlantically and building on top of them, the three of us. With this record, we basically went away, set ourselves the task of writing a number of demos each and then bringing them to the table, so it was definitely a process of negotiation to start with. We had to actually negotiate with one another to get each person to work on the song, to be intrigued in and engaged with the song. Then we had another outside party that we hadn’t worked with before in the form of Ali [Chant] and Adrian [Utley as producers], that also complicated the process. It was a lot more of a—I hate to use this word—dialectical process in the sense that we actually had to argue for our ideas and really push for what we individually and collectively thought should go in certain places. That obviously changed the dynamic, and I think that’s really important to reflect. It wasn’t like the four of us said, “This is how it is.” It was more all of us individually and then collectively in that environment working and negotiating these songs and trying to bring them to a place that we thought they should go, and sometimes letting them lead us.
WEISS: When exactly was it that you wrapped recording the album?
FISHER: It was around November. It’s a good way to bookend the making of this record. We went into the studio with Adrian and Ali right around the beginning of Brexit, and then the record was mixed and mastered right around the inauguration of Trump.
MAHAN: It was finished before the election, and the songs were conceived a long time before the election.
WEISS: Now that you’re preparing to release it, and things have progressed with Trump being inaugurated and everything that has come with him being President, do the songs feel more important to you? Do they feel the same?
FISHER: I guess for me personally, it’s given me more of a sense of ownership of the songs in some weird way. I feel like I was less hands-on in terms of instrumentation on this record. The majority of my efforts were towards singing, or trying to sing, and writing vocals, and that was a weird space for me to inhabit. But given the absolutely devastating state of current affairs, it kind of feels comfortable to inhabit that space, and I’m happy to do that.
MAHAN: That’s interesting. For me, it never feels different, because there are so many lines of continuity between Donald Trump and the Founding Fathers and our entire violent history. He might be the disgusting plastic face of American democracy, but he’s the representative of its core. The record reflects not only our engagement with current politics but our engagement with history. The band started over a common and shared understanding of our particular relationship with the American South and its violent, racist history. So in that sense, there are so many continuities—and yes, obviously each phase of history is contingent and has very different appearances—but I think we have always reflected on the frustration of all these histories that had been repressed and desired for some real fundamental change in drawing attention to them. In that way, it doesn’t really feel any different than when we made the first record other than the fact that it’s more apparently repulsive.
WEISS: Frank, before you got on the phone Ryan was saying that you guys bonded over history and literature. I wonder at what point in your lives you first found something that felt vital or interesting or changed your perspective through literature or history? Do you remember a certain time period or book that changed things?
FISHER: Ryan, you have a good response to this.
MAHAN: [laughs] I’m actually curious to see what you would say, because I don’t know if I’ve heard it.
FISHER: There was really no crucible for me with regards with wanting to study literature or the humanities. From around the sixth or seventh grade, I started having this succession of really incredible teachers. Every single English teacher that I’ve had from seventh grade through graduate school was exceptional, and I knew I wanted to go and study and literature and the humanities by the time I was in the ninth grade in Dr. Brown’s class. It was just the study of the human condition and empathy and of everything, really, and forming that empathy and understanding through art. That’s something that drew me towards literature, but there was never any one specific moment. I also knew that the entire idea of the job force and the market place was kind of bullshit from really early on. I knew that it didn’t really matter what your degree was in so long as you had a degree, unless you were trying to go into medicine or something. So I decided to go ahead and study what I loved, and all based on the idea of the liberal arts, that the more that you know the freer you will be in your mind and the better you’ll be able to understand things and approach life. But it was never anything more specific than that for me. Ryan has a very different background and a very specific approach toward history.
MAHAN: It probably happened for me at the same time that it happened with Frank, just in a different environment. We grew up in very similar conditions outside of Atlanta in the suburbs on opposite sides of the city. I grew up in a white Southern household that went to a white Southern Baptist church, and for some reason I was very attuned early on, probably learning from my sister who was slightly older, to this deep-seated form of hypocrisy that exists within supposedly mild-mannered, white American society, particularly in Southern society. On the face of it, it always seemed to be very much based on manners and based on humility; underneath there was this constant ugly churning away of policing difference and marking off boundaries and repressing gender difference and this pure violent hate speech that sat just beneath our mores and codes. My sister brought me in tune to that, and at the same time I was learning about our own history. I used to go to the library a lot and be obsessed with political fanatics. It wasn’t something that I even thought about, because I was too young to really understand the consequences, but I would go and read about the French Revolution, I would read about Robespierre and Danton, and then I would read about the Cuban Revolution. These books were at my library in suburban Georgia. Then I started getting into punk rock and rap, and all these things came together at one time. I think you can still see some of those themes intermingling in my own contributions to the band. I was always interested in the concept of revolution and anti-capitalism, and it really came from a very personal place but then also a very naïve place of interest.
Punk rock taught me about politics, too, and it all kind of made sense. But as a young person in that environment you feel so different, you feel so strange for thinking like this, so it’s hard to express. Meeting Franklin and meeting Lee and sharing some similar interests actually personally enabled me to articulate things more than I ever had been able to before through this concept of Algiers. I think that’s what’s most powerful for me, because it is a space of struggle; we do actually interact with one another and have to have dialogue and conversations and fight for ideas like I said, but it’s an open space and it’s a space that is safe for all of us to contribute these political ideas. It makes us stronger and it enables us to articulate what we want to the world without fear. That’s the first step that we would want everybody else to feel; you want other people to feel like they’re not alone and that they can actually articulate these things as well. That’s a really powerful feeling and I derive that from the band.
WEISS: The final track on the album, “The Cycle / The Spiral: Time to Go Down Slowly,” leads me to this question: I would like to know if you both consider yourselves optimists, generally speaking?
FISHER: I think I try to be optimistic in spite of myself. [Mahan laughs] I’m not a naturally optimistic personally, generally. I’m not a pessimist either, but I don’t think I’m an optimist. I try to be.
MAHAN: I see where you’re going with that, and obviously how depressing our history is and how depressing our present times are, how naïve could you be to be optimistic? How naïve could you be to believe in change? That’s what you imagine somebody saying. But without any kind of imagining of some sort of new horizon, we’re just dwindling and dwelling in nihilism, and nihilism, for me, only serves the status quo and only makes things worse—postmodernism, irony, disengagement—it can only serve the injustices of the status quo. So I think in that sense, for me personally, there is an obligation to maintain some sort of fidelity to what have become very passé ideas, like emancipation and freedom and justice, even though they’re unattainable. So yes, I’m extremely cynical, because how else could you be? And at the same time I think it’s so important to have hope. I guess there’s a difference between optimism and hope. To have hope and to have some sort of belief is important, and when I say belief, I mean to think beyond what we’re being told, to take things that appear normal, natural, and necessary and show them as contingent and that things can be different.