The Revolution Is Always, and Algiers Are Writing the Score
The sole practitioners of the not-as-of-yet fashionable genre of Roller Disco Agit-Pop explore new sounds with 'The Underside of Power.'
Photo by Dustin Condren, courtesy of Algiers
In a recent filmed interview with Salon's Amanda Marcotte, one of those interminable segments of the "hey, everybody! Protest music is back!" that are all the rage among people who hate paying attention, Algiers bassist Ryan Mahan, in sunglasses and unbuttoned-just-right dress shirt stated, "We're as silly as anyone else is." This is a damnable lie. Algiers, charming in person, are maddeningly pretentious. Algiers, erudite and sweet in person, are committed to a justice that is inseparable from rage. Algiers, one of the best rock bands in the world and ambitious enough to try to live up to that, are many things, often at once, but one thing they are not is "silly as anyone."
The Library bar, where I met Algiers to discuss their new record, is one of the last standing rock and roll dives in Manhattan. Its books are graffiti scrawls and one of the best jukeboxes in the city. It's not rough, exactly, but all the old men who are 86ed from Milano's on Houston (and, by implication, everywhere else) are still given refuge there. The late Mark Spitz used to frequent it. It's a place for cheating on your lovey dovey and band meetings and, when you just can't take your drummer's lectures on your drinking, cheating on your band with other bands. The Library has a wide front window that captures enough dust that you can go without showering and not feel self-conscious. It's a good place for afternoon interviews, but don't expect the bartender to turn the music (Joy Division, Tina Turner) down even if you and the band are the only customers. It would be weird to ask. I badly want the full-sleeved bartender to be impressed with Algiers, but that's not how anything, especially here, works.
Algiers—vocalist/guitarist Franklin James Fisher, the aforementioned Mahan, guitarist Lee Tesche and drummer Matt Tong (the band's newest addition, formerly of Bloc Party)—join me after load-in in the rain for a pre-album release party down the street. The men look sharp but harried. Rainy day load-ins are never not bullshit, and we won't get dry 'til our second round. I buy the drinks, lying that Noisey will cover the tab, because I'm always worried that Algiers, sole practitioners of the not-as-of-yet fashionable genre of Roller Disco Agit-Pop, will starve if I don't pay. The fact that they are promoting their second album for Matador, The Underside of Power, and about to embark on a sold out European tour with Depeche Mode indicates that I'm insane/delusionally condescending for my protectiveness. But Algiers, existing in opposition to whatever prevalent currents you got, are underdogs by disposition and design.
The band formed in 2007, but its self-titled debut didn't arrive until 2015. That record, ten tracks of gospel-infused post-punk, was received with a fair amount of accolades. Sales-wise, the record was a slow burner, doing, you know, fine, if not Meatloaf numbers. Matador Records, perhaps not having made bank with weirdo-hardcore-band-in-Strokes-clothing Iceage and having lost or misplaced both New Pornographers and Ted Leo, quite reasonably seemed to see the first album as a stepping stone for Algiers. And why not? The songs are catchy, the boys pretty within reason, and, as nobody in the industry knows shit about shit, Algiers have as much a chance of recouping as anyone. That being said, labels like Matador spend money promoting their bands, and Mr. and Mrs. Matador need to eat too. The resultant pressures led to a torturous recording process for Algiers's follow-up, indicated by an oddly self-flagellating press kit and intercontinental studio credits.
"It's interesting because we wrote those notes for the label so they could understand the music we are making," Mahan says when pressed on the decidedly odd song notes (alternating between the bravado that one expects from a press bio and Fisher writing things like "Making this record was an incredibly frustrating and fragmented experience") that music journalists were sent. He adds, "We didn't actually write those notes for popular consumption, which is cool. You know, we're transparent. But the fact that we had to actually write an additional tome so that people could understand our music more is indicative of not the label itself but in general the realm of music right now." Being smart is one thing for a (post) punk band, but like people who call themselves "weird," those that announce themselves as such rarely are. And if they are smart, God help the music. This is one of the paradoxes of the Algiers steez; they are smart as fuck and happy to slap you around with their big-ass brains while, against all odds, never being pedantic or dull.
From industry gossip, I'd heard that Matador wanted a "name" producer for Underside of Power, and they chose Adrian Utley of Portishead. Mahan says that the thinking was that the band's "sound was too dense and they needed somebody to help make that palette a little more accessible." Being able to name only one producer at the top of my head (Butch Vig obvs), I'll take the word of my betters that Utely counts as "name," and, if it weren't for the knowledge that there are six separate engineers credited, I'd say he did a bang-up job. Underside of Poweris a cinematic sprawl of power electronic bop and soul, interspersed with a couple songs I wouldn't hesitate to call classics. The title track alone is, if you're revolutionary enough to still pay for music, worth the price of admission. Pitchfork called it "overwrought," but is Ian Curtis overwrought? Is Larry Henley? Is This Bitter Earth (both the Dinah Washington song and the trying place in which we reside)? Yes, obviously, but also, more importantly, heck no.
As a fan who is decidedly rooting for the band, it's difficult to parse the new record's strengths and weaknesses. But I'm throwing no one under the bus to admit that songs like "Walk Like A Panther" and "Animals," with all the beats in the room hurled against and through the wall, have a more declarative immediacy than some of the more—cough—atmospheric tracks, like the death dirge synth workout of "Plague Years." The initial recording of Underside was 15 days (12 in a proper studio and "like, three or four in Utley's house, diving into his synth collection") sandwiched between festival gigs. Mahan is quick to make sure that responsibility for the album's difficult birth resides with the band. He says, "I just didn't feel a creative spark really kicking off and igniting. I think that's the process of having some outside hand come in and trying to mold it. You're like 'no!' You're very defensive. We had a really good plan going in… it ended up being a challenge in a lot of ways."
Part of the issue is that Algiers is a band of fully engaged individuals in a unit that places a premium on autonomy, even within the collective. If full communism will inevitably result in a lot of meetings, then the Party can't always be a party. When I tell them about a musician I interviewed who claimed band democracy is an impossibility, Mahan says, "I don't think we are a democracy in the traditional sense of 'yay let's all vote together' and everything works out. Not at all. We have to fight each other for our ideas. In a positive way." Fisher adds, "It's constructive but it's fucking exhausting. I'm not gonna lie. You pick and choose your battles." And Tesche rounds out the discussion with, "When everybody is in agreement, it doesn't always mean it's a good idea."
Though the band blames itself for being overly ambitious in what they thought they could accomplish in the recording time they initially had (Mahan says, "I should've been more mindful of the fact that it took you over five months to do the first one."), it should be noted that recording an album is rarely easy, under even ideal time constraints. And the building of the skeleton of Underside of Power was also a period that included, as Fisher says, "some happy accidents." He explains, "We recorded piano for 'Mme Rieux' at Adrian's front salon/parlor in his house. We had it all mic'd up in his top floor studio and I'm sitting there between takes while they're sorting out the mic-ing upstairs—and it's the warmest piano. If you're a massive Adrian Utley/Portishead fan, as I am, it's exactly how you imagined it to be. I mean that piano was so nice and so I just started fooling around and so I wrote that initial riff while recording 'Mme Rieux.'"
"I still don't consider us a political band—to me that's a gimmick, a shtick. We reflect the world we are a part of, that we're accosted by every day."
After working with a number of engineers in a number of cities, Algiers went to Ben Greenberg—of Brooklyn's prettiest/surliest/arguably best noise rock duo, Uniform—to "declutter" the record. Mahan was a huge fan of Uniform's Perfect World LP and Fisher knew Greenberg through fellow—and unjustly slept-on—purveyors of New York gothic rave-up, Bambara. Mahan concludes, "Our experience with Ben Greenberg was we had to do this weird post production/mix to make it sound right. And he just compressed the fuck out of it and made it sound awesome."
People love The Clash because The Clash empirically rule. But The Clash are historically lucky as shit because, while they were steeped in political ideals (of debatable authenticity and follow-through, but this ain't the place) were still considered more a Band, with capital "B" and no preceding adjective, than a "political band." Algiers, while not existing, for good or ill, at that level of success or influence, are operating within that same framework. The rhythm, a Grebo-esque stew of all the treasures soul, post-punk, and hip-hop bequeathed us, is paramount, while simultaneously serving to give shine to a deep liberation theology. Underside of Power is a call to arms and laundry list of genocides; 95 theses as 99 Problems, with late period capitalism as (number) one. There may be all sorts of This Year's political bands with new boots and contracts but, for bands like Algiers, in it before the wind shifted, the personal is the political, same as it ever was.
"I still don't consider us a political band—to me that's a gimmick, a shtick," Fisher says. "We reflect the world we are a part of, that we're accosted by every day. I think it's very telling with any of these 'political bands,' if you talk to them for five or ten minutes about their ideas, it's a style." Mahan then adds, "The fundamental thing about it is there's always a structural or institutional critique and that critique can exist at any point in history… Do I get angry at bands? It's a difficult one because on one level if you're committed to some kind of political change then no matter what is the trigger, you should be happy. It doesn't matter what time it is; if they get politicized to me that's a good thing. So that's always the pitfall, that it's a momentary thing. We have to deal with that and make sure we put a lot of thought in what we say because no matter what, it can be co-opted immediately."
Algiers refuse to fall for the trap of political music as fad. Fisher, while citing the Native Tongues as an example of political musical ancestry, says, "There's always like, 'The only band that matters' or 'Finally people are making political music!' This has been going on for ages. It's what the 'tastemakers' or the 'culture industry' whatever you want to call it choose to acknowledge, and a vast majority of people aren't going to do that much work to get their music. I know, 'cause I was one of them—I wasn't someone who just passively listened to music on the radio, sure, but my friend Mercer, when we were in college and high school, he would go out thirsty, always trying to find new music. I didn't do it because he did it for me.
So while the music might support any number of individual political awakenings, Algiers are a band that is well aware that America did not newly become an imperialist power, built on slavery and self-deception, with the election of Trump. The band has been hip, woke-ically speaking, since its inception. Trump's ascendency does, however, provide a wrinkle to a shared cultural narrative, as he's part and parcel of a celebrity worship that even progressives largely embrace. Nobody wants to be a snob or a "hater" but, from punchline to NBC star to president, what is our shabby Mussolini but poptimism's logical extreme gone aggressively sour? Nonetheless, this connection can be difficult to chart when you are also in the business of entertainment, and the business of entertainment relies increasingly on the mechanics of celebrity. On album opener "Walk Like A Panther," from his perspective as the coat-check man at an LES club he won't name to me no matter how much a nag him, Fisher refers to the tracks by black artists sung along to by moneyed and smug white customers as forms of "self-genocide." This is not how we are encouraged to discuss these things in the echo chamber of the internet, but, then again, discouraging that discussion is exactly the problem when it comes to art.
"Jay-Z is, first of all, not a musician" Fisher tells me. "I'm pretty sure he's not even a human being. He's essentially a billionaire. I'm not going to register on his radar. He's even said himself, 'I'm not a musician, I'm a businessman,' it's like, 'dig yourself.' You already laid out the framework. That's a sad state of affairs. Especially when people say he beat Nas in that whole feud when Nas is actually out there talking about real shit. That gives you a pretty good idea of what time it is." Ryan peaceably interjects, "We obviously try to be diplomatic because we're southern and say, 'Uhh well ultimately it's the culture industry's fault,' It's capitalism's fault for the way the artist behaves!" These are deeply unfashionable views, and reasonable people can disagree, but I will say that it is very much a post-punk band's job to not be friends with pop stars.
"I don't care what people think about how I express myself. This is how I feel comfortable. And I actually feel, through this band, particularly liberated and able to do that."
What is in the purview of post-punk bands is to explore the existential landscapes of various sounds, and, in that spirit, one of the more overt references on Algiers's first album was gospel. Through their parents, the church was either a focal or at least an adjacent experience in all of the original members' southern youth (though Tesche mainly worshipped at the altar of DC post-hardcore). Fisher's parents are more of community minded religious while Mahan seems to see the church as something to actively flee from, while never denying it or holding it in contempt. I pointed out that Underside of Power, while still having a touch of ecclesial boogie, was far less inclined in that regard. Mahan says, "There's still this kind of thing that happens over and over again when you read a piece about us, 'Ahh this gospel band!' It's like, 'really? Is that what you heard from this?' It's even more post-punk because it's got those influences."
Fisher points out that the gospel influence remains where appropriate, saying of "Cry of The Martyrs," "You can imagine a group of revolutionaries going into certain death. They're sitting around a campfire, singing this song of hope and inspiration despite that fact. That's allegorical, but, still, we wanted to evoke that. I didn't want to be so heavy-handed with the gospel reference, personally, on this record, and I wanted to emphasize more live textures." I ask him what he means by "live textures" and he elaborates, "Well, you know the gospel thing, that really came about us not thinking we would be a live band. And so it's just like, you know, just layer and layer background vocals because that's what worked. Gospel doesn't necessarily outweigh any of our Afro-American musical influences. There's our own forms of soul, and blues, and R&B, and hip-hop. I'm kind of glad—I'm hoping it's less of a talking point on this record."
The band does value the different ways their music is perceived. Fisher especially is fond of the meaning changing by the listener's' engagement, and Tesche says, "I think part of making the record, then having to talk about it and play it, to fully come to grips with what it means and what it means to other people. Doing the press is when I first start to actually understand some of the thoughts and narratives that the other guys may have had, and [it] helps me better understand what my contributions were and what our underlying agenda may have been, whether we knew it or not."
While still not remotely silly, the band is genuinely excited in the possibility of shared experience. Their radicalism is of the distinctly empathetic kind. It would do a disservice to the band to focus too much on their individual warmth; as the tail-end of a lineage that encompasses German industrial and New York Suicide, the band has an aesthetic; one with a wire of coolness running through its history. I would hate for their innate niceness to group them with DIY summer campers so I'll admit to their friendliness. But even Nico presumably loved dogs.
It's easy to to mock the accoutrement, the high-minded seriousness of intent. Every answer and every song is an essay (in the case of the press kit, a literal one), and the band throws so many references, musically and philosophically, at the listener, that one's none-too-admirable anti-intellectualism can kick in. In bad times, many perfectly good-hearted people keep the interrogation of our culture limited to an easy "Nazi Punks, Fuck Off" and back to bed. Algiers, of course, do indeed want Nazis to fuck off. But they also want to dismantle the entire depraved system that acts in accordance with fascistic ideologies while keeping its bloodied hands under polite, semantic velvet. Being a rock band seriously down with getting free requires a level of analysis that oafs such as myself can, in bewilderment, can call "pretentious." Mahan graciously says, "I don't care what people think about how I express myself. This is how I feel comfortable. And I actually feel, through this band, particularly liberated and able to do that."
One of the guys—doesn't matter which one, let's say it's all of them, in unison—says, "That's one of the reasons to join a band. It's liberating and empowering. It's not always liberating and empowering. Sometimes it's a nightmare. But for us, it's super liberating."
Zachary Lipez is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.