At some point or another, every artist ponders their purpose. Do they matter? To whom and in what way? What does it even mean to be relevant? And as the world changes quickly, will their art, their music, their words, continue to have an impact?
Algiers consciously ask these questions of themselves, and are constantly aware that doing so both is and requires a struggle. One of the things that makes them such a notable act is that their consciousness of this both ideologically and structurally. The images deliberately conjured by the lyrics and sound of their first, self-titled album range from the heady, actualized slogans of 1968 to the shattered promises of punk rock, from a Southern gospel/gothic tradition run through by militant Black power struggles to the giant question mark lingering over late capitalism’s potential end.
Their second, newly-released album The Underside of Power continues to grapple with these themes, tropes, and queries. And though they do not seem necessarily any closer to an answer than any of us, the honesty and urgency with which they explore the possibilities makes the album a fascinating and truly unique entry into the ongoing experiment of music and radicalism. No doubt this is one of the reasons that The Underside of Power had been landing on an increasing number of “best of” lists.
Two members of Algiers – Franklin Fisher and Ryan Mahan – spoke to Red Wedge. The result raises a large number of problems and questions about the above and much more. Again, no definitive answers. There’s always the obvious: songs won’t bring down capitalism, but we cannot imagine a society beyond capitalism without songs. In between there’s still a lot to figure out, and we would do well to listen to what a group like them have to say about it.
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Red Wedge: The press release for this new album includes a quote that seems to be showing up more and more lately from Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes there will be singing. About the dark times.” The first question is why? Why sing in the dark times?
Ryan Mahan: You’re starting off deep! I think that’s a great question, though. When we talk about the relationship between art and politics and music and politics. I think that quote resonates so much with me, with our band, because we’ve always engaged with history, with the history of the oppressed, and that is something that has been a fuel for our music and the general thrust and sound of our music. It’s an expression of frustration, so one level there’s a catharsis. But for us it’s also a discourse and it means something to engage in a discourse as everyday we are bombarded with images and media bullshit. I think its important that we engage in that to sing about the dark times, if that makes sense.
Red Wedge: Is it fair to say that there’s something about singing in the dark times that turns us towards the light?
Ryan: The point of using someone like Brecht is that he’s always looking at the future and for a future politics. It’s not just a nihilistic thrust in the dark. To use the musical past to create something that means something now and will mean something in the future; I think that’s important. Art and pop music – and ultimately what we do is a form of pop music – are forms of discourse. When I was a kid and listened to punk like Minor Threat or Crisis, it taught me things. Same with rap. Chuck D and KRS-One talk of hip-hop as a tool, how hip-hop can teach things. It’s important to express anger and frustration but I think it’s important to, as you say, turn towards the light.
There’s always been an impulse in our music, a more general desire for emancipation and liberation, what a different future would look like. But for me there’s always a really palpable sadness and melancholy. Music will always be haunted by its failure to bring about emancipation, as well as the ultimate failure of any movement in history to overturn power. The choice of the name Algiers kind of straddles these two things. There was a time right after the liberation of Algeria when that city was a nexus of all the liberation movements all over the world. I went to an art installation recently that mapped out all the liberation movements that had foreign offices in Algiers. The Black Panthers, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, other radical and Third World movements from all over the planet. But that’s not the case anymore. When I think about it, that’s the stuff that inspires me to play with the linkages between music and history. The collision between so many different times and places.
Franklin Fisher: The reason we have culture, art, is that it addresses the part of us that’s human and it addresses the anguish of existential issues. Music got people through dark times. Think about work songs, slave songs, for example. And these are definitely dark times. I don’t think anyone is enjoying themselves like now except fools and greedy people at the top...
Ryan: There’s some pigs right now who are enjoying themselves…
Franklin: It’s something that comes along with the will to survive and the will to live and having to be alive and to suffer. Especially with what this generation is going through, this is one of the few things that gives you any solace.
Red Wedge: You’ve mentioned history and how it informs your music. Do you think there’s a different history haunting this album compared to the self-titled debut from a couple years ago?
Franklin: When you’re a group of people such as we are, you’re kind of tapped into these powers that are always bubbling under the surface of media, entertainment, capitalism. If there is a difference, it’s that the making of this record was bookended by Brexit on one end and Trump’s inauguration on the other. And you know, a lot of people, most of our friends, people with whom we share similar philosophies – they had intuition about these things. They felt that there was a domino effect of right-wing populism, America’s latent fascism coming out in an unprecedented form.
Also, just because of the logistical pressures, part of the record’s composition was definitely linked to the observational reportage to events unravelling on some songs. The first album had more of a general scope. This one gets more specific at points. That’s the only immediate difference.
Ryan: From my perspective, it’s important to remember that quote from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte: “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” We’re obviously in a farcical situation.
Frank: It’s weird. My relationship to this record is very alien. I think the only thing that I have connection to that I can remember is the lyrical inspiration. When I think of this record in terms of the production, it was such a shit-show. It was so fragmented, so much interference, so many different places and obstacles. It was over such a long period of time, but at the same time we had no time. So it’s very much a chronicle of where we were, of what was happening over that eight-month period. I think it represents who we are without any powdering on our nose or any mask to hide behind. Laid bare. For better or for worse, that’s what this record is.
Ryan: That’s kind of how we are when we perform as well. We try not to hide behind any kind of artifice. We just let it out. The first time I ever played with Algiers I just remember being so moved by everybody’s directness of performance and – it sounds cliché, but – honesty. It felt like something for me. It meant something when I was actually a part of these songs for the first time. I think that’s how we are when we perform and I think some people don’t like that. Some people are rather repelled by our engagement with the musical and lyrical content. It’s an intense performance and some people don’t like that. I’m kind of just echoing Franklin’s exposition of just laying bare on this record.
But I think the issue on this record – and I think it’s really important – is that it’s still caught up in these relations of production in music. You know? We have a record label. That record label makes decisions. That record label brings something that can be different from what you envision. So there is a lot of… How do I put this… diplomatically? Hmmm… Maybe I should just put on my Southern accent…
Red Wedge: What’s that you were saying about edifice, Ryan?
Ryan: Hey, it’s how we get by! But there definitely is a push and pull of different forces with the label particularly. And communication is difficult when you live in different places as well. So you just so many different layers of communication. I think we ended up working with about three or four different engineers. So this was a totally new experience for us where we just went in saying “okay, it would be interesting to have other people involved.” But it also complicated matters in some ways, and in some ways that made things better. We did end up working with some people who absolutely changed our lives. Greenberg from Uniform is an amazing person, an amazing producer. We were so lucky in some ways that the record didn’t get finished during Brexit and the breakup of the fucking European Union because we ended up recording with them. So it is a product of a lot of forced that were outside of our control and it kind of reminds us of what we need to do in the future in terms of our own work.
Red Wedge: Do you think all of this speaks to a paradox in musical performance between the way it’s perceived as an individual act and the way it can also speak to a shared, collective experience?
Ryan: It’s funny because Frank and I were recently speaking with a friend about music and individuality. Frank was suggesting that music tends to be this kind of solipsistic, individualistic act that expresses our inner core but that it can end up being…
Franklin: Yeah, I was referencing the Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalisation. In it he talks about how being part of a system, it makes it harder to see outside of it and beyond it, and how American liberals think when they are resisting the system they are actually feeding into it. He cites myriad things in proving this, but one of the things he ends up referencing is a documentary that had been made on Patti Smith in the 70’s. How, after the failed experiment of 1968, after the state was able to assassinate all the leaders and quash revolution, the artists began to think that they could change society through the way they thought and how they presented themselves to the world. But ironically this turned into a very narcissistic, self-aggrandizing act as opposed to engaging in any real sort of societal change. And so it almost becomes a kind of self-worship, like “Aren’t I great? Don’t you want access to how artistic I am? I’m an artist. Look are the world as I see it.” Which is bullshit, and we all know that.
My dad always taught me that nobody gets in life without help from somebody else. Even from a purely practical and logistical standpoint, no artist that makes music, be they an individual or band, just happens to make music from where they are. Any level of success Algiers has – and we’re not the most successful band in the world – is because of a whole lot of people in the background doing really good work and working really hard for the most part to position us where we are. A lot of that is lost on the public, and part of that has a lot to do with the way the culture industry posits itself and sells these ideas of artists and art to people so that it comes across as this singularly concocted experience. And its never truly that. Not to say individuals aren’t capable of creating some truly amazing things – they are. But one thing that I’ve personally learned with this record – it’s not something that I didn’t know before but it’s just been hit home – is that when you set out to create something you have a very limited amount of control over the finished product when you’re signed to a label. And it’s given me a whole new level of respect to any number of artists that I look up to who have put out work that I enjoy… And particularly for those artists I look up to who have put out work that I don’t enjoy. Because there’s a whole bunch of factors that go into that and people don’t want to see behind the curtain. They don’t want the strings. They just get this aura.
Ryan: At the same time, we wouldn’t put out a record that we didn’t believe in. We all believe in this record 110 percent, but we definitely had a very clear idea of what we wanted that then had to be communicated. And things get lost in communication. And so part of the struggle in making the record was in making sure that those initial ideas made it to where they needed to go and came to fruition. And like Franklin said, that’s part of the process.
Back to the other question, though, there had been a neoliberal turn in music. It’s pretty amazing actually that right when neoliberalism gets hold in New York in the 70’s, immediately the art starts reflecting that in some ways, even if it thinks it’s being revolutionary or radical. It’s similar after September 11th. You would expect to some degree… And you did have this in some ways. I remember artists coming out against the war in Iraq and things like that… But you would expect something much broader and more collective to emerge. Instead, what you got, particularly in popular culture and bands that were supposed to be “edgy” or speak to struggle, it became very ironic. It became very “above the struggle,” very postmodern in some ways. “We’re not going to get involved in these messy things such as politics because disaffection is a shield that protects us but also is something that we as artists in this particular time period are above.” And I think that’s problematic in any art.
I’m not saying that everything that an artist sets out to do has to be directly and overtly anti-capitalist. But to recognize that your music comes from somewhere, comes from a place and a time. And those places and times have historical forces, political forces. I think, again, that’s what always draws me to this band, because it is so engaged. I mean, we’re all huge music fans and varying degrees literature fans and interested in politics. That helps us reflect things a lot more clearly than we probably could have in the past. We’re also grown men sleeping on other people’s couches. So that all comes together to help us make pretty much what we want to make. Playing music… it’s hard to actualize it. I’ve spent half my life trying to actualize one idea. And I’ve never been able to do it. But now being in this band with Franklin and Lee and Matt and I’ve been able to finally actualize some kernel of an idea. It’s pretty powerful and pretty empowering. And that drives us going forward. And I think that’s why I talked about our live performance too because I don’t think anyone is imposing any particular rules on us when we perform or anything like that. But there are rules. There are rules for different scenes, and they’re all set out by the culture industry.
Franklin: To that point, I don’t think we’re ever going to really be a band that gets a whole lot of attention or recognition within the cultural establishment. It’s already problematic for some people that we’re a “multiracial band,” which is absurd even by the label, but I’ve seen it everywhere. But we’re also a multiracial band that plays “inter-genre” music. I also think it’s tough for some people that I’m a Black guy that doesn’t “fit in the boxes.” If I was playing more into this “nigger-ish” kind of role that is demanded for Black people to play, if I was playing this role that white corporations are telling Black people they are supposed to be, I’m sure we would be a lot more commercially viable or successful. But because that’s not who we are, and that’s not what I do, we’re constantly told “oh, we’re just not sure how to market you guys,” or “oh, we don’t really know what you guys are doing.” And we get swept under the rug. Which is fine, because the big success isn’t what we want anyway, but it definitely makes you realize what makes the machine work. Being consciously against that, you’re privy to the blowback from it.
Red Wedge: The new record starts off with “Walk Like a Panther.” This is a very unmistakable way to start off the album. Even if you’ve never heard Algiers before, you know this is going to be a polarizing work. Why start off the album with a song like that?
Franklin: That’s one of my best memories from making this album. We were getting ready to start the first leg of our tour last summer. We were still working out demos. A friend of ours let us use his space. So Ryan and I went there for a couple of days in London and worked on some ideas. Ryan wrote most of the music for “Walk Like a Panther.” We were still sketching it out, but it needed vocals. So we were in the space and he told me to just improvise and do whatever over it. So I just started bullshitting on top of it, not really knowing where I was going or what he had in mind. And then when we got together a few days later he had cut and chopped some things up and arranged them. He played it back for me and Lee and it was one of the hardest things I had ever heard! That was my voice, but there’s no way I would have been able to conceive of it on my own. It was so violent, and so mean! Ryan has a gift for doing that. He’s done it in the past and on this record as well. That made it very easy to write lyrics to it afterward. It was awesome, and that’s one of the things I love about this band! Things like this happen!
With the last record a lot of people missed the point of the two songs that introduced the album and closed the record. People didn’t understand the statement we were trying to make. So this time we just really wanted to blow people’s fucking heads off with a shotgun. And the sound of that song accomplishes that. It’s just a force. And it’s appropriate for a band like Algiers. We’re a band that hasn’t been exposed much in the past couple of years, and with everything in the state it’s in, I think that’s the right way to come back onto the scene. We wanted to come out of the gate swinging, so people would have no illusions about what this record was supposed to be.
Red Wedge: Who is that speaking at the beginning of the song, saying “I am not the pig”?
Franklin: That’s Fred Hampton.
Ryan: Yeah that’s a Fred Hampton sample, and it’s a sample that’s actually been used on a number of different songs in the past. I know dead prez used it before. In terms of the context of the record, I think it goes back to the early discussions that Franklin and I were having about the kinds of themes we wanted to incorporate into this record. If you think back to the first record, it has a very melancholic reflection of history – particularly of American history, of southern history. From my perspective it’s very obviously accurate and correct. It was the approach that we needed to make for that record. But I think when we were talking about what we wanted to do for this record, we wanted to feature more on the idea of the future, of resuscitating the project of the future. No matter how difficult it is, it’s so important to look elsewhere and to reject and deny the current state of affairs, to reassert collectivity and solidarity. To recognize the real sacrifices that people have made in the past for that future. People like Fred Hampton, who was killed for his convictions and beliefs. I think that all comes together, like Franklin says, we want to come out swinging and attach ourselves to this project. We want to show that we’re not dying under cynicism or nihilism.
Red Wedge: This brings up a question about your stylistic choices generally. You don’t often hear old gospel or blues rearranged in this kind of post-punk, industrial, electonicized framework. It’s one of the things that makes Algiers a very distinct band. During a session at KEXP in Seattle last year, you spoke of how this transgression of styles. As you talk about a past and a future, do you think there’s something about stringing together these styles that points to this alternate timeline?
Ryan: For me it’s about connecting points of solidarity in different social spaces and social contexts in history. That’s extremely important when we’re talking about music, because music emerges from very specific historical contexts. And it is very interesting to me to connect these different kinds of movements, different cultural and political movements, and to find some point of shared collectivity and bring them forward in a different configuration. I think that’s what makes the music valid, rather than this abstract genre exercise where we just combine things. It’s important to have those contexts there both in making and listening to music; having those different points reflected back to me. It’s important to show that these points of connection are there no matter how much the status quo or mainstream music or the culture industry wants to deny them and tear them from each other.
Franklin: With music that we write, it’s constantly ideas competing for space. I’m often surprised with what we wind up with. It’s never premeditated. What we do comes out organically. Whoever’s influences seem to comingle most harmoniously, those are what wind up on the record. But it’s never anything we plan out. It’s not “well, we’re going to use these elements to make this statement.” I think the fact that we disregard genre altogether functions as a political act in and of itself. Anytime you have music that is new and different and breaking with the paradigm within which it was created, it is so because of a cross-pollenation of influences and genres. It points toward something new. Which helps elucidate some of what Ryan was saying.
Red Wedge: On that notion of the future, you are clearly countering this hydridization with something coming from the status quo, which brings to mind the line in “Cry of the Martyrs.” That line “mangled our horizons.”
Ryan: It’s interesting, because like Franklin said, there are so many different ideas that go into each song. And this may sound a bit cliché, but when I wrote that I was thinking about Che Guevara in Bolivia the night before he was assassinated. He was still clinging to this belief in something different no matter how grim it was. The lyrics of that song take a look at the way that the ruling class view anyone who fights for social change almost as locusts. But then the song turns that around and says it’s they who destroy our horizons. It’s all the bleakness and bullshit that comes with “the end of history.”
Red Wedge: There’s also a very different side to the album, a far gentler side. Songs like “Mme Rieux” and “A Murmur, A Sigh.” This is on the first album too when it ends with a track like “Games.” Why put those very gentle, contemplative songs on an album called The Underside of Power?
Franklin: Recently I’ve been thinking about what that title, The Underside of Power, means. It’s really just a summary of everything we represent and everything we’ve talked about as a band up to this point. It’s a shorthand. You’re talking about everybody who has been oppressed, everybody who has been dispossessed, everybody who’s downtrodden. You show a voice of solidarity with them if you’re not one of them yourself. That’s what our songs talk about, and this record was meant to be an elaboration on that. So the hard songs are meant to be harder, the soft songs are meant to be softer, the weird songs are meant to be weirder, etc. What I was really hoping initially was that we would be more explorative from a musical standpoint. For various reasons we weren’t able to go as far down that path as I had hoped. But there’s still ample evidence of musical and artistic growth on this record I think. But the underside of power is what we’ve always been talking about. It’s nothing new.
Ryan: It’s interesting that you bring up songs like “Mme Rieux,” because they’re reflective not only of the band but of the relationship between Franklin and me in terms of writing music, particularly in what we try to do in terms of exploring themes that go beyond just “structural” politics. It can be personal politics as well. And those songs in particular – again we may have different understandings of them – they do reflect gender dynamics and little asides and interpersonal sighs. You know, those moments where language doesn’t quite capture what you want to say and what you can and can’t do. It’s that kind of impasse that language and life and relationships throw at you.
In terms of “Mme Rieux,” she’s a character in Albert Camus’ The Plague, indicative of a kind of end-of-the-world scenario and how different people react to it and how it affects relationships in different ways. But also how, in some ways, despite the depressive nature of it, there’s still a glimmer of hope. And I think that’s always what we are interested in reflecting. That persistence in spite of everything.
This interview appears in our third issue, “Return of the Crowd.” Purchase a copy at wedge shop.
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Franklin Fisher and Ryan Mahan are both members of the experimental pop music group Algiers. A mix of post-punk, gospel, industrial dance and other genres, Algiers’ music is also profoundly influenced by the struggles of the oppressed and the need for revolution. Their first, self-titled album received acclaim from The Quietus, Entertainment Weekly, Uncut and other outlets. Their sophomore release, The Underside of Power, was released in June of 2017.