Algiers interview: "We're talking about people who have been disenfranchised and oppressed, and what it's like to identify with them."
Algiers' self-titled debut album was a truly unique blend of rock, industrial, gospel, pop and beyond, which saw the talented Atlanta trio signed to Matador. Today they release the follow-up, The Underside Of Power, which sees them applying more craft and diversity to their sound since - as we discussed in our conversation - they actually had experience as a touring live band before recording this one.
I spoke to the band in the gear-stuffed dressing room downstairs at the Shacklewell Arms, before their sweaty and enthralling headline gig there. Singer Franklin James Fisher, co-leader Ryan Mahan and guitarist Lee Tesche were all present, though Lee hung back in the cut and let the other two do the talking - much like he does on stage. In fact, sitting between the band's two figureheads and watching them interact and complement each other's answers was much akin to how their genre-mashing music comes about. On the one side we had the boisterous and guffawing Franklin Fisher, while opposite him was his collaborator Ryan Mahan, equally as enthusiastic but more pensive.
The resulting conversation about the inspiration, writing and creation of The Underside Of Power was an extremely engaging and enlightening one. When the too-brief 20 minutes was up I was dismayed that I hadn't even reached half my questions, as the pair had been so loquacious in answering all of my previous queries that time had just evaporated. Nevertheless, the time that we did have was filled with nuggets of thoughtfulness and wisdom from the band, and made me even more excited to go delve once more into The Underside Of Power.
You were just saying how you all live in different places now, so what are the first steps for making a new album; who contacts who?
Franklin: Well I think it came together towards the end of the first touring cycle, which, to be fair, we'd made the decision that we din't want to take too long to follow up the record. I think a lot of bands get into that rut of "oh we have to make our masterpiece now for the sophomore album," which isn't what we wanted to do.
But you didn't want the sophomore slump.
Franklin: Yeah exactly.
Ryan: I think that's a thing some people worry about, but for us we weren't really worried about it, because we had the extra added value of never playing a show before the first record. So then we played a year and a half of shows and it gave us a completely different impetus and impulse. For example, for me, when we got off tour I was really excited to just start writing furiously just because of the different influences everybody was bringing to the live sound.
So did the songs get composed in a different way this time?
Ryan: In some ways I think they did, we still have this tendency to write separately and share what we've written. But on this record I think you can hear sometimes more individual voices than you can on the first one. With the first one we had more time to pass tracks back and forth and layer them. With this one we had maybe grown as songwriters in some ways, so we had more fully-formed demos when we passed it off to someone else, so there was that slight difference, but everything else was relatively the same. The other difference obviously on the first record we had built a really strong relationship with Tom Morris, who recorded it, engineered it and produced it with us. On this one we had to build an entirely new relationship in a short period of time. So those are subtle differences.
Franklin: A major difference is that we'd never played a gig before the first record, this time we were touring for two years before.
Had you played these songs live before recording?
Franklin: Some of them we had; 'Cleveland' we had, 'Animals' we had.
When were you writing the lyrics to this, what was happening in the world?
Franklin: One of the songs for example, 'Mme. Rieux', that's a song Ryan wrote back at the beginning of the band. He wrote that back when he came to visit me when I was living in France, and that's when the archetype for that song fell into place. And then 'Cleveland', that song I started jotting down ideas for that around January 2016. But the vast majority of the lyrics were written in the studio or outside of the studio during the beginning and end of the sessions. That was around June last year through October or November. The last bit of lyrics were written in late October.
In the build up to the election
Franklin: Yeah, I suppose, but it wasn't really influenced by that in a topical sense. The election is just the latest symptom of our ongoing structural issues that we're always engaging with, but it's not like we're just going to put this out and discuss it - with the exception of maybe 'Cleveland', that's pretty exclusively about a very specific issue.
Do you consider this album to be aggressive?
Franklin: I do, but Ryan and I are completely on the opposite sides of the fence with musical things. There's a venn diagram where all of our tastes coincide and that's where we work. But Ryan and I have completely different ideas about what we do [laughs]
Ryan: It's really funny. So Franklin and Lee were doing promo in Germany, and Lee texted me saying "you'll be happy, a lot of the writers think this record is darker than the last one." I always have this tendency to want it to be darker and more confrontational, noisier, all those things. It also depends on the song, but I think in the vast majority of things I was always a little bit anxious that it wasn't as intense as it could be. So in some ways yes it is, but with us working together we've found some spaces - not a middle ground at all - but it's the space that takes all of our ideas somewhere else.
Tell me what is "the underside of power" - what does that phrase mean to you?
Franklin: The underside of power is a general sort of summary, for lack of a better term, of what we've dealt with thematically and lyrically as a band up to this point. We're talking about people and groups who have been disenfranchised and oppressed, and what it's like to identify with those people, whether it's empathetic or sympathetic, and it's really just about not having control over your own life, because you're under the thumb of somebody who wants to control you. It comes from this quote, that I still don't know where it's from, but it goes that you don't really know the true nature of power until you're on the receiving end of it, in the negative sense, when it's being exacted upon you. And that resonated with me. And then when we were in the studio with Adrian [Utley] it was very much stressed that I needed to get lyrics done for the vocals, so I spent the majority of my time in those initial studio sessions at Real World writing lyrics. The idea of this came from when we finished the session, at the end of the day we would all go and have dinner together and we would casually discuss life and politics and everything that was happening in the world, but Ryan at one point was telling Adrian and I about what he does for work and the types of things that he runs into on a daily basis, and I thought that was very useful in terms of lyrical content. I never like to just write something in vain, I like to address something that might be empowering. I wanted to take a sort of inverse approach to The Temptations' 'I Can't Get Next To You', so for every line in the verses one of the voices, one of the narrators, is talking about some incredible super power that they have. For 'The Underside Of Power' I wanted to imagine a different person in a different horrible situation talking about something that's happened to them, and that's where the structure and the basis for that came from.
Ryan: Frank's genius us actually being able to take a theme that one of us might suggest and articulate it in ways that we couldn't even imagine. So there was a couple of simple things that I wanted to get across that are very basic, like the notion of solidarity in struggle. Because the first record feels quite overwhelmingly oppressive in some ways, almost expressing like a shout at the underside of power, but like a sigh or a gasp of "there's nothing we can do." This one, even though we're still underneath that, there's things that we can do, we can still imagine the future, and if we get together we can imagine the future together. I think those are really simple important messages to get across. I think the name Algiers, one of the things it represents is this idea of international solidarity; so transcending borders and conditions and coming together and reimagining the spirit of the anticolonial struggle in the 50s and 60s, where people from around the world were inspired by each other pushing against some really horrible forces, or the onset of capitalism. So I think those are some themes that really actually through Franklin's writing come through to me really amazingly.
Any particular lines or songs?
Ryan: There are so many lines to me; the chorus of 'Walk Like A Panther' is absolutely brilliant. I remember listening to it, and I was reading about it being a hundred years since the Russian revolution, and there's this amazing artist/poet called Mayakovsky and he wrote this piece about the party is a clenched fist, and it's a single destructive fist. And the chorus for 'Walk Like A Panther' is "we won't be led to slaughter/ this is self genocide/ it's the hand of the people that's getting tenser now/ and when we rise up I feel it coming down." I mean that's deep! That's about collectivity. That stuff inspires me.
'Walk Like A Panther' is the opening track on the album, there's a sample at the very beginning, what is that sample?
Ryan: It's a sample from a speech that Black Panther Chicago Chapter leader Fred Hampton gave toward the end of his life. He was just specifically talking about these notions of solidarity and also not being afraid to represent yourself as somebody who's pushing against any system. In his particular case he knew he was going to die, so it's this really amazing eloquent expression of courage, and I think we might not be as individuals courageous in any way, but you can pull from the past and just remind people how courageous people are in these circumstances, and how much they believed in something different, even though they knew that it's really difficult to change the world.
In 'Walk Like A Panther' there's a lot of "you" in the lyrics; who is "you"?
Franklin: I love Bob Dylan and I remember him talking about what they call "finger pointing songs," back in his protest period. And for me, especially in this band, because I find that to me a lot of things that we make - often times almost by happenstance - a lot of these songs turn out to be very aggressive, and I use the song as a thematic basis of what it is I want to address. Often times that becomes a platform for me to vent my spleen at a lot of people or groups or organisations or institutions I have issues with. For 'Walk Like A Panther' specifically it's most generally addressing the culture industry and how they choose to portray African Americans to the world at large, but to me more damagingly to African Americans ourselves. There's a sort of, what Malcolm X used to always refer to as "psychological colonialism," and I think when Ryan first played that demo for me, it was just so mean, so dirty, I imagined kind of like a ring of terror situation and in this situation you have the people who have been sort of purposely deceived by those who used to be one of them, but chose to sell them out for their own personal gain and wealth and notoriety. And they go and move up on the hill and they live this life of luxury, but at a certain point people are like "nah, this isn't gonna fly anymore." So they go and get these cats and they bring them down to the gallows or to the guillotine and they kind of read the list of sins they've committed against their own people. But right before they're executed, the idea of compassion overcomes and they don't get the axe. It's very in my own imagination and I try to infuse very real issues into it [laughs].
Are you writing in character a lot of the time?
Franklin: Sometimes I do, yeah. I think it's important to be sort of objective and displaced - it's very seldom that I write autobiographically. My favourite writers don't really do it, not to the point where it's transparent, anyway.
That begs the question, who are your favourite writers - both of you?
Franklin: My favourite writers are generally fiction writers, novelists and poets, and to a certain extent lyric writers. James Baldwin obviously is one of my favourites, so is William Faulkner, and on this record I've stolen a hell of a lot from T.S. Eliot. Nas is another amazing writer, Ghostface is one of the best storytellers I've ever heard - you know, he can write about going to the bodega to get a sandwich and it can be the most amazing thing you've ever heard, and you can just sit down just like you can with Dylan and just extrapolate, and not know exactly what he's talking about, but that's what makes it fun!
Ryan: My favourite writers, just to take away from the fiction side, are mostly non-fiction or philosophy stuff; those who say what they mean, or are able and confident enough to articulate that in a very direct way. And not afraid to repeat things that have been said in the past, because often times - as Franklin has often said in relation to our music - there's not really a complete break from the past, there's nothing new under the sun in some ways. So people that aren't afraid to take ideas from the past, and maybe recoordinate them for a new period. But often times, particularly if you're talking about politics, people get lost in trying to just completely invent a new politics and I don't think that's necessary. And sometimes it's almost like psychologically it's a therapy when I read somebody who's actually able to articulate exactly how I think I'm feeling. I think that's really powerful - I wouldn't name any names, but that's the kind of thing that if you connect on that level it's pretty amazing.
A lot of the songs themselves seem to be drawing a line in the sand, an 'us v them' thing, is that accurate?
Franklin: I think there are definitely people with whom we wouldn't necessarily go and sit down to dinner with, but I think it's important to make a distinction. But at least this is me personally speaking, I don't think there's anybody there's anybody so far down in the vast majority of the population that you wouldn't be able to have some sort of dialogue with, that you wouldn't people able to have a meeting of minds with. But I don't particularly believe in lateral violence and doing to others what they did to you, that's not the philosophy I follow.
Ryan: I don't think any of us do. I think we do have a sense of justice that's above or beyond or outside of the law, but that doesn't mean violence in the explicit sense. I think in that way, there's also a tendency in the United States to try to mask or obscure the inherent conflict within politics. They say "oh why can't everybody just get along, just agree on something." But it's impossible when the people in power are constantly bringing violence to our doors, so I think its also important to recognise that there is a difference and there is an argument to make.
Tell me about the song 'Death March'.
Franklin: I remember Ryan saying that for the title and it was kind of tongue in cheek, it was like "come on everybody, come on and do the death march!" [Laughs] I think that was a direct result of being here [in Britain] during Brexit. Because those lyrics were written during and just after when that went through. Because I was on a very short schedule, to be productive I was doing the William S. Burroughs technique that he got from the Dadaists that Bowie also used, when you cut up words and paste them. I was doing that with articles and headlines that I thought were cool, that pertained to the sense of dread, and also just describing what was happening. Because what's happening here is obviously happening in the US, and these things like we said are structural, they've been coming to a head for some time now.
Ryan: The song itself is influenced by Italo zombie films, so even the sound of it is like this Italo zombie disco. But also in my mind when I hear it I think of these scenes from films like The Battle of Algiers, where you have colonialists in Algiers, who are literally in the film hanging out at the club dancing while this struggle is going on outside. So there is this sense that people are completely obscured from what's really happening - and also their role and relationship to what's happening.
Ryan you wrote 'Mme. Rieux', so tell me about your relationship with the word "abstraction."
Ryan: Oh that's a really interesting one. It's really actually quite personal. For me - and it's interesting to hear Frank sing it - because it's actually about God. So my relationship with the word abstraction, it's a conversation with my mother - we're all from the south, all our parents have a strong relationship with religion - and it's some sort of imaginary thing where me and my mother have a conversation about God, but we can't get to the crux of it. It's actually about that feeling of repressing that and not being able to have that direct conversation. I think the lack of ability to communicate really deep things is really the bottom of it. And, probably at the time we were writing it, we were thinking about the failure of language and, again going back to courage, feeling pretty prohibited from actually being able to be direct and truthful about things that you know will hurt somebody.
Franklin: What's cool is I think that's still my favourite Algiers song, and when we wrote it I was teaching at this boarding school and we were trying to work with different ideas - because there was a music room on the premises. It was one of those 'Stairway To Heaven' moments, because we kind of hit a block, and Ryan was like "alright let's take a break I'm gonna go take a shower and then we'll get something to eat." Then he got out of the shower and was like "I got it!" and he sang the melody and the lyrics and I went and cut up and made a sample from this piano track that I'd recorded a few months earlier and Lee's house -
Ryan: They had recorded this fucking incredible Morricone-esque 20 minute epic.
Franklin: Mostly Lee, because that's what he does.
Ryan: And then we used about 9 seconds [laughs] We took out a tiny part of the entire fucking soundtrack, it was pretty rad.
The Underside Of Power is out today on Matador Records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 26th June 2017.