Soundtracking the Resistance - An Interview with Algiers on Their Politically Charged New Album

Looking to the Future

Jun 23, 2017 By Stephen Mayne
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Not all musicians are political, and not all those who are think too deeply on the subject. That cannot be said of the members of Algiers, half of whom lay out concerns and hopes for the future in our interview this week. This week's column also tackles Republican healthcare plans, lost elections, disturbing footage, and memorials. 

The Big Event 

"Sorry, it's Ryan. I tend to jump in off the back of Frank." It's only been a matter of minutes and a dynamic is already settling into place. Half of Algiers are on the phone in the form of vocalist/guitarist Franklin James Fisher and bassist Ryan Mahan (the other half consist of guitarist Lee Tesche and drummer Matt Tong.) They riff off each other naturally, quick to run with thoughts sparked by the other. And one thing Algiers don't lack is thoughts.

In 2015, they burst onto the scene with their self-titled debut; a mix of everything from post-punk to gospel and visceral political commentary summed up by tracks like "Black Eunuch." Now they're back with sophomore effort The Underside of Power, and the intervening years have only made them better.

Fisher and Mahan are considering how they've changed as a band with Fisher laying out one big improvement. "When we signed to Matador we hadn't played a gig together as Algiers and now we've played upwards of 200 shows. That's a drastic difference in how we go about writing the music and how we interact with each other."

Going on tour is more than just a chance to tighten their sound though, according to Fisher. "It provides a platform to go out and meet people and engage in proper dialogue. We've made a lot of very interesting connections and friendships. It allows us to try to instigate some sort of real political action."

For the members of Algiers, politics isn't simply playing the odd benefit and lending support to a party at election time: it's an intrinsic part of who they are. The Underside of Power is full of bleak songs about the number of black people killed in America ("Cleveland") or the media obsession with Donald Trump ("Animals"), while the title track comes complete with a video plotting revolution.

It's also made them hard to place, according to Mahan. "There's a tendency in the culture industry to try to impose genre onto a band, to try to insert them into some sort of musical scene. If you're a political band it's a political scene."

The band is named after the Algerian city that lay at the heart of the anti-colonial struggle against French imperialism but Mahan doesn't see it that narrowly. He cites Foreign Office, a film project by Moroccan visual artist Bouchra Khalili mapping out the groups that drew inspiration from the city. "Algiers was essentially the epicenter of revolutionary ideas for people attempting to throw off colonialism," Mahan says. "You had everything from the Black Panthers based there to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The name Algiers implies a search for community, a search for collectivity and that old internationalist dialogue of coming together beyond boundaries of a state or a country and really communicating."

While Mahan sees himself and his bandmates as "musicians first" he's also quick to point out they're "looking towards a better future, something different." But finding something different can be difficult, particularly when Donald Trump is president, monopolizing attention amongst supporters and foes alike.

Although they hail from Georgia, and are often described as an Atlanta band, Algiers actually formed in London. Fisher and Mahan are calling from the British capital, albeit in different places across the city. They may be out of the country but it's hard to ignore the man in the White House back home.

Is it a problem though? Does the relentless spotlight on Trump distract from broader socio-economic problems? Fisher doesn't think so, albeit with caveats. "It could be a pitfall when people focus on individuals or topical occurrences," he says, "but I don't think it's necessarily dangerous when people become aware and start to react against some kind of malignant political force. It could serve as a point of entry for coming to terms with and understanding things that go much deeper."

Mahan jumps in again to expand. "I'm always happy to see people becoming politicized. It could be a distraction in some senses because Donald Trump is only one obviously repugnant manifestation of deeper rooted issues, but he still is a repugnant manifestation so he should be fought."

Picking the right battles can be hard with someone as ridiculous as Trump often appears. Mahan points to the recent furor over Trump misspelling a word in a tweet. "This whole social media thing which came with this 'covfefe' term is an example which shows how outlandish but also how silly it can look, and how flippant the treatment of him can be."

As they see it, Trump is part of the problem, but the problem certainly exists outside of Trump. Mahan appreciates the reaction from many people, particularly in the artistic community, would have altered had Hillary Clinton won, but her victory wouldn't have solved all problems. "There would have been different conversations but there would have been some form of politicization."

He's more interested in the shock of what he terms "white liberals." He doesn't think this makes much sense. "Donald Trump is as natural a conclusion of American democracy as there could be," Mahan says. "He took Bush's dog whistling and Clinton's dog whistling and made it direct and people jumped on it. A certain segment of the population said, 'you know what, we're gonna go with this now.'"

Carrying on their juggling act Mahan passes the baton to Fisher. "Frank, you've articulated some really interesting things about this surprise that, 'oh my God, Donald Trump is elected.'" Fisher is quick to run with it. "The song 'Animals' on the record is about the lies of Donald Trump. I wrote those lyrics around March of last year and it was about the mass media's love affair with someone as absurd and obscene as Donald Trump and about corporate media just seeing ratings. Whether or not they're wittingly doing it, they're normalizing him and propelling him to power."

Fisher also turns on the Republican Party in general. "The only reason the Republicans didn't like Donald Trump leading up to the primaries was because he was bad PR for them, not because he was saying things that were not aligned with their ethos. They all hopped right on board when they saw he could get away with it."

The Democrats don't come off much better as far as Fisher is concerned though. "The Clinton campaign was run on sheer hubris and almost laziness and obliviousness. The entire campaign seemed to be you can't like this guy so of course you'll vote for me." However, he doesn't want to give the impression the presidency is all-powerful. "I'm not so naïve to think that the president of the United States is the main one calling the shots. I think there are a lot of powerful people you never hear about, but that's just my conjecture."

Mahan backs this up. "Yeah, there's an economic system operating in the background of everything. You can't possibly have a real left in the U.S. when you don't have a critique of the economic system on which it's all based. The political class has a lot to answer for because they never questioned the fundamentals of it. Bernie Sanders was a relief in some senses because he was a person who proclaimed himself to be a socialist, one of the ugliest words in American history."

All of which begs the question, where do we go from here? How can deep-rooted inequalities be tackled in any meaningful way? Fisher thinks things need to get worse first. "A good analogy, particularly for the United States, is if you look at somebody who's a drug addict. You can't do anything for them until they hit rock bottom, so the expression goes. I think for Americans it's going to take something very similar when all the perversities and inadequacies of the capitalist system come to their doorstep and force them to say, 'let's finally begin to think of an alternative.'"

It doesn't have to be quite the apocalyptic scenario rock bottom suggests. "It could be basic things. People who were so vehemently against the Affordable Care Act and then found out it benefitted them for example. When the Republicans do away with that people might realize what's been taken away and maybe that will provoke inquiries."

Mahan brings us back to Algiers and where the band fits in the political discourse. "If you use Donald Trump as an entry point then you can explore other ideas like we do in our music. It's the reason we talk about our music so much. We're also attempting to articulate all these concepts and ideas in different mediums and different ways. A lot of people will think why is the left not proposing a solution? Well capitalism developed organically over 500 years-you can't come up with a system on your own in your lifetime. It's an uphill battle but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. There's a certain melancholy in our music because we're looking at the past and seeing failures on the part of people who tried different things, but we're seeing these moments and little opportunities, these events that opened up other futures."

Keep plugging away seems to be the message then. When it comes to the new record, Fisher simply wants the chance to keep doing just that in the future. "I hope people enjoy it and I hope people listen to it and give us the opportunity to keep making music and further exploring things we would like to do. I don't think you can really ask any more than that by putting out a record."

What's Going On

It seems the Republicans are aware no one much likes their healthcare plans, because they've been rushing forward to deliver on Trump's "repeal and replace" rhetoric concerning the Affordable Healthcare Act in secret. Senate Republicans have been deliberating behind closed doors on the bill and have now revealed details that would be more lenient than the legislation that passed through the House of Representatives while still making major cuts to the current system. They also want it passed as soon as possible. Given the potentially disastrous impact it could have, no one should take their eye off this.

The Republicans also crushed Democrat hopes by securing victories in a couple of run-offs for seats in the House of Representatives. However, both races were far closer than is normally the case in usually staunchly red districts in Georgia and South Carolina, leading to speculation Trump is dragging down the Republican vote. The GOP won the day this time, but expect both parties to go through these results extremely carefully.

Finally, this week so the release of camera footage from the fatal shooting of Philando Castile last year. It certainly makes for hard viewing, especially as Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who was recently acquitted of manslaughter charges appears to escalate the situation quickly. His partner stands by looking visibly relaxed, a sign the prosecution suggests proves there was no threat posed by Castile in the run-up to the shooting. Whatever went down, it's only one of many unnecessary and racially skewed fatal shootings by law enforcement in the U.S.

Speak Up 

New York rapper Prodigy, one half of influential hip-hop duo Mobb Deep died this week aged only 42. Fellow artists were quick to pay tribute to a man who inspired many of them and helped shape a music scene.

 

 

Another week, another update on the ongoing row over Radiohead's decision to perform in Israel. This time a group of protestors picketed the office of their accounting firm in the U.K., which technically counts as their corporate HQ. The protest included the singing of Radiohead songs with updated lyrics. One version of "Creep" went "When we got the call/Saw dollars in my eyes/We're supporting apartheid/But the pay's really high."

Meanwhile Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead announced they will perform a benefit show as a duo in Italy to raise funds for the restoration effort in Le Marche, hit by an earthquake that killed hundreds last year. The show will take place on August 20.

Song of the Week: Algiers - "Cleveland"

"Cleveland" is not an easy song to listen to, because the subject matter is far from easy listening. That's hardly a unique situation when it comes to Algiers, but given the ongoing fallout from the Philando Castile shooting, it hits harder. Slower and even more melancholy than usual, this sonically dense track offers hope soured by the sheer number of bodies stacking up. Franklin James Fisher even lists a number of victims, each name punctuated by a show of defiance that just about makes it out over the crushing weight of lost lives.

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