INTERVIEW

VALIDATE YOUR ANGER: Gospel punk band Algiers are a tran-Atlantic group making political music at a time when we need it most. They spoke to Dom Haley about their debut album and remembering where we’ve all come from

algiers

In my mind, music has always echoed people’s political opinions rather than shaped them. From Woody Guthrie’s lyrically astute folk through to the righteous anger of Crass, political songwriting has always tapped into popular feeling rather than led them. In a way that has always been the power of music as a social force; it acts to rally people and serve as a lightning rod for thought and action.

If that’s true, then judging by the amount of people crammed into the Waiting Room jostling to see Algiers, something big is in the air. Any way you cut it, this three piece (four-piece, including former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong) has certainly caught the growing sense of fury at the status quo, and they have succeeded in drawing out the kind of badge-wearing, socially attuned punks who have been absent from a lot of shows recently. As if to make my point, a middle-aged woman clasped my arm just as the band struck up – “is this them,” she said, trying to steal a glimpse over the crowd of people. “I read about them in the Socialist Worker today, and I didn’t want to miss them.”

“We were trying to create something that was outside of ourselves,” muses bassist Ryan Mahan as we discuss the response to the band’s self-titled debut album before the show. “It’s not really about us, but more about building a space where we can throw our thoughts in and hopefully have other people throw their thoughts in.”

For a band that have always had their views squarely displayed on their sleeves, Algiers seem genuinely taken aback by the reception that ‘Algiers’ has been getting. “I don’t know what ‘doing well’ is; I don’t have any way to gauge it,” adds lead-singer Franklin James Fisher. “It’s all a learning experience for me, so I have to take it as it comes. I think it’s safe to say that none of us ever thought that we’d be in a band at any stage of a career, let alone one that is on a label.”

Algiers have definitely struck a chord with many people out there. Forming in Atlanta in 2009, this trio of multi-instrumentalists have caught the imagination with their righteous blend of drone, soul and Marxism. For a band with such a powerful and coherent manifesto, it’s always been more of a pick up and put down project. With the band members spread across different continents, they move forward in short leaps and bounds, which seems to suit them perfectly. “For better or worse it’s just how it’s been drafted,” explains Lee Tesche, the group’s guitarist. “Our circumstances mean situations like this, where we’re together for about 3 weeks where we had to rehearse, play a bunch of shows, take two days at the studio and record new songs, means that it can be quite intense sometimes, but it works. We do this and then go off and do our own thing.”

This disparate way of working is perhaps the cause of Algiers extremely eclectic sound, with all three members bringing different and often conflicting influences to the table. The result has been a sound that is infuriatingly difficult to pin down, and Algiers have invited comparisons as diverse as Public Enemy, The Clash and A Certain Ratio since Matador released their album earlier this year. Tesche’s spooky, wiry guitars recall The Birthday Party and Gang of Four, while Mahan’s rumbling bass lines and sharp, urgent synth stabs bring hints of Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle to the mix. Holding it all together is Fisher’s mournful, soul-like vocals that add a real melodic punch to what should be a pretty minimal affair. On paper, it’s an approach that shouldn’t really work, but thanks to the band’s sheer musicianship, they manage not only to mesh together this wide-ranging collection of styles but also transcend them.

Despite the band’s myriad of influences, it has been Algiers’ gospel flourishes that have most focussed the critics’ minds. I’m keen to find out how the band are feeling about the attention; “I suppose that’s because on the surface it seems so antithetical in nature to the punk element,” offers Fisher, “but when we started this thing we quickly realised how much they have in common. Originally I tried to sound like other people, and it wasn’t something that I felt comfortable with, so these guys told me to reference something that I knew, and y’know, I’m an African American and gospel music and the church is very much a part of my identity.”

“From my perspective, gospel music sits at the nexus of a lot of American history and it’s about liberation,” adds Mahan. “A lot of people pick up on the religious aspect, asking, ‘why would you choose religious music?’ Well, no, it’s music about emancipation.” For Fisher, though, the whole argument seems slightly redundant. “It’s not just gospel music, it’s soul music and it’s R&B and it’s jazz and it’s blues and it’s hip hop and it’s funk,” he says. It’s all those types of music that make up the history of American music and popular music. We noticed a lot of the shared lineage of all of these genres but the construct of all of these genres is a divisive tool and I think the easiest way to overcome it is to pay them no mind.”

For Mahan, the chance to comment on the state of the world is one of the main motivations for being in a band. “It’s just based in dissatisfaction,” he says earnestly. “You come from your environment and you interact with your environment. We have all been influenced by political bands so to speak or bands who have had something to say about the times that they lived. For me personally, it’s very difficult to have music or art without some kind of engagement with society. I’m not very interested in listening to something if it doesn’t at least somehow engage with our social conditions.”

The danger for most political bands, from Nation of Ulysses to Body Count, is that they can end up stuck in an echo-chamber, with the message only resonating with a close group of fans. “If you engage with politics as a band then essentially it’s a suicide mission for your career,” agrees Fisher. “I think it’s very difficult nowadays for any sort of musician or artist to make a living and one of the last things you’re going to do is sabotage yourself. You’re going to be talking about whatever’s selling or whatever’s marketable. I don’t know what degree of success we’ll see but I think we’re at a particular place and a particular time that people seem to be responding to what we’re doing.”

And that’s the point, people are responding to what Algiers are doing. Whether it’s the band’s sharp criticisms of the politics of the South or the groundswell of outrage that has come from the recent events in the USA, the trio’s calls for racial justice seem more vital than ever. “I think those events reflect a reality that has existed in the same way for a very long time,” says Fisher as we touch on the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. “It’s built up into a massive powder keg and it’s been something we’ve wanted to exorcise for a very long time, so it feels great that this is resonating with other people. The things that we talk about and the things that speak to us and the things that piss us off – those same set of emotions are resonating and it’s a good feeling. You feel somewhat vindicated in your anger and somewhat validated in your disgust. You don’t feel like you’re crazy or that you’re the only person in the world who has been feeling this for so long.”

Shining a light on the rifts and divisions of the American South is, in many ways, the core of Algiers music. “As someone who’s quite conditioned by my own environment I feel like there was a lot of weight there,” sighs Tesche. “I didn’t feel like I was able to express my thoughts in that space until I left that space. It’s like I couldn’t leave it until I left it and it still took me a long time to actually get away from it, in an emotional sense.”

Mahan is more blunt: “The fundamentals of this band are based in memory and our engagement with history and how we feel about our own past, but also the general experience in the world, which can be really dreadful. We have a Southern Gothic element to our inspiration but that is very much about kind of a dread in society and a sense that things are not as they seem.”

As we continue to talk, I slowly begin to glimpse how complicated Algiers’ relationship with their home can be. Mahan, Tesche and Fisher are all certainly politically astute, but they also have a keen sense of history and I get the feeling that they’re caught up in an attempt to make sense of a region that is still coming to terms with the wreckage of the past. “Because we have criticised the history of the south, people think we have this malevolent distaste for it,” explains Mahan, “but it’s just us trying to understand it as a concept and how it defines us. You can’t totally repress all that history; it’s like it’s still there, in your ear, and you can still feel it. I think a song like ‘Remains’ is about that. There’s a reminder there for you as an oppressor or the oppressed. You might not recognise it, but it hangs around like a haunting, ghostly feeling, structuring your life and your interactions with other people.

I’m suddenly reminded of Doris Salcedo’s ‘Shibboleth’; the huge crack in the floor of Tate Modern. Its purpose was to show that at the core of all this culture and high ideals, there is a scar that British imperialism left, and there’s no way it can be easily papered over. It’s a sentiment that I see reflected in Algiers’ music. “There’s definitely an element of void in our music. A nothingness,” says Mahan when I mention it. “It’s not a nihilistic thing, it’s like however you try to fill it in with society, culture and laws, you can’t forget that fundamental rift and you can’t get rid of it. That’s why it’s melancholy. It’s political, but – and this is why I’m drawn to gospel – there’s an acknowledgement that we’re not going to get there, well maybe we are, but not right now. That’s pretty melancholy, but there’s also an affirmation there.”

Perhaps unwilling to leave it on such a bleak note, I offer that like recovering alcoholics, maybe the first step to healing these deep wounds is to accept that they exist. “I think it does help to recognise issues like these,” nods Mahan, “if more people did, maybe we could move towards a reconciliation.”

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