Aretha Franklin

Algiers Talks Resisting Trump, Fascism & the Need for 'Militant Politics'

Joe Dilworth
Ryan Mahan, Franklin James Fisher, Lee Tesche and Matt Tong of Algiers.

The band released its sophomore LP 'The Underside of Power' today (June 23).

Algiers was signed by longstanding indie rock powerhouse Matador Records before ever playing a show. 

Suddenly, their post-punk-gospel salvos could reach people outside their trans-Atlantic email chain, the signal boost leading to 2015’s self-titled debut and affirmation that vocalist Franklin James Fisher, guitarist Lee Tesche, and bassist Ryan Mahan could stare down the onslaught of relentless capitalism, murderous cops, and civilian-killing drone strikes in a live setting, too. This was all before Brexit, President Donald Trump, and the sudden woke-ness much of the population was jolted into.

Still, on Algiers’ staggering sophomore album, the quartet -- now officially including former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong -- isn’t dousing its lyrics with names from Twitter’s trending topics. “It’s important not to be topical writer,” Fisher explains over burgers and drinks at an innocuous SoHo brunch spot. “The motivations behind it are a bit dubious sometimes and it borderlines on being a gimmick.” The Underside of Power is more concerned with themes that have defined socio-political strife for centuries, particularly the struggles of the disadvantaged many against the mighty few. “Power’s not total, and if you work together, it can crumble pretty easily,” Mahan says.

The topics are heavy, and no, Algiers do not fit in easily with most of the decidedly less-political indie rock world. But that’s not to say hanging out with Algiers is like office hours with your professor. At one point, “Layla” blares on the restaurant speakers, to Fisher’s groan of, “I hate this song” and Mahan’s “F-ck Eric Clapton,” referencing less-than-savory moments from the guitarist’s past. The multi-racial band is well aware of the exploitation and appropriation guitar music has indulged over the years; not only do they bring rock back to the revolution, they make it sound bafflingly unidentifiable, unlike much of anything on the circuit today. The new album was co-produced by Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Ali Chant, with post-production from The Men’s Ben Greenberg and mixing from Sunn O)))’s Randall Dunn. Experimental rock input abounds, while it also claims influence in ‘90s Atlanta hip-hop, ‘70s soul, and zombie film soundtracks. Great as it is, it’s a lot to process without hearing from Algiers themselves. 

Here are the highlights from our lengthy conversation with Fisher and Mahan.

What's it been like adding Matt Tong as an official member, especially to a band with such established viewpoints on the world?

Franklin James Fisher: It’s funny. Matt has been touring with us since before the first record came out… For the vast majority of the existence of Algiers as a live band, Matt’s been involved. He’s such a good guy and he’s such a good friend, I feel like I’ve known him just as long as I’ve known Lee and Ryan. It’s totally natural.

Ryan Mahan: He’s a really wonderful person. He’s had success in his career, but you don’t get that from him. He has no ego, puts on no airs, and he’s also a really talented guy. 

FJF: I’ll still forget sometimes [that he was in Bloc Party]. It’s crazy. I’ll be at the gym listening to my headphones and “Like Eating Glass” will come on and I’ll be like, holy sh-t, I’m in a band with this guy.

RM: He’s an artist and you get a sense that sometimes he’s able to express that with us. You really get the sense that Matt is actually getting more and more artistic, flying his freak flag… He’s also a political person. People don’t recognize that Matt is political. 

When your label rep first played “The Underside of Power” for me and a few others at Billboard, we were all like, “This is the first Algiers song in a major key!” How’d that happen? 

FJF: Never let anyone tell you Ryan Mahan can’t write major key music; he can do anything if he wants to! He wrote that part. 

While everyone went away and was demo-ing things, we made a shared folder and uploaded what we’d been working on. Ryan had the demo for what became “Underside,” but Lee also had a demo that turned into it. They’d essentially written really similar Northern soul-inspired songs in the same key, basically the same BPM. When I heard them they just sounded like compliments, like a Lennon-McCartney thing. 

RM: I wanted to do something that was super referential to Suicide as well. Most of their music is notoriously intense, but it’s mostly major key. It made sense to me to inject a different vibe to it. Also, the other thing to remember -- it’s a false major.

FJF: The operation of relative minor -- the chorus starts on the major but it still resolves on a minor.

RM: [Laughs] It still functions in a minor! But it does lift you up. 

FJF: This record, we wanted to emphasize the hope that may have been lost on a lot of people on that first album. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here, but a lot of what this album’s about is this sense of purpose and hope and drive in spite of the impending apocalypse, symbolic or otherwise. A lot of songs on this record touch on those themes. A major influence on this record, thematically, was The Plague by Camus. There’s at least five or six songs that deal with those concepts. 

RM: It’s really interesting because we only specifically referenced specifically it on “Mme Rieux” but it does come up a lot, with the contagion, the way the capital operates, the insidious way it controls and manifests itself… what was the question? 

We were riffing on "Underside."

RM: The record itself [concerns] coming to terms with impossibility and going one of two ways: you can be completely cynical -- nothing’s gonna change -- or you can find some sort of hope in that impossibility. It’s quite philosophical but at the same time it’s really powerful to say despite all the odds, we’re still going to push forward. 

In terms of Trump, Brexit, and other big societal issues that play a role in the album, where along the timeline were these songs written?

FJF: Ryan wrote “Mme Rieux” when he came to visit me when I was living in France and he was in grad school in London in 2006. That existed in various incarnations before this record. Generally, the songs were written between Brexit and Trump. That’s a nice bookmark. It’s more nuanced than that obviously. “Cleveland,” for example, was written about a year prior to us going into the studio.

RM: Our music is usually not directly relational to what’s happening. We’re not a “current events band.” We analyze structures and institutional power and that provides a critique no matter who’s in power. It just happened to be a particularly bleak point in time for people living in Britain and the United States... The way that Franklin writes lyrics is amazing because it’s, at once, direct and oblique. So you can pull from it so many different meanings, even on a political level. 

FJF: I think the best “political music” is usually written from that same sort of standpoint. Bob Dylan is my favorite lyricist, in rock music anyway, and you can just mull over his lyrics for hours and they can speak directly to your current political situation and you still won’t ever know for sure what he’s talking about… [1963’s] “Masters of War” is one of the greatest political songs ever. It’s important not to be a topical writer, because usually people that do that, the motivations behind it are a bit dubious sometimes and it borderlines on being a gimmick. 

RM: It can be a part of an album campaign. This is not to question anybody’s politics, but if you think about the Green Day record, American Idiot, it was very much a part of an entire campaign. There’s a fine line to walk and we always recognize that. 

Do you think a lot of musicians -- because Trump -- are just starting to get political? 

FJF: Yeah, I do. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I think it is necessary to differentiate us from any sort of spirit that would be “of the day.” For the aforementioned reasons, we don’t want to come across as exploitative, disingenuous or opportunistic because the current political situation presents itself. That’s not what we do. 

RM: We wrote the first album throughout the Obama years. We criticize and critique anyone who’s occupying positions of power. In terms of other musicians, we can’t really speak to it, but it doesn’t mean it’s bad. The more people that are actually politicized, the better. At the end of the day, I would rather people be politicized than not. However fleeting that may be, sometimes people who are engaged in a longer term analysis of the issues of the day -- that’s sometimes their responsibility to maintain that: Okay, well how about this? What happens now? It’s not just Trump.

Trump, as grotesque as he is, is a difficult character to address, because he’s so ridiculous. If you grow up using logic and challenging, say Obama’s drone strikes, you can rationalize and argue against it. But with Trump, he’s so absurd. Sometimes it’s hard to find an entry point and I find myself going back to when I first got into punk rock --just being, “F-ck Trump.” It functions really well, because it’s direct and he doesn't deserve a rational critique. He deserves to be cast away.

Ryan, I've read that you also work in fighting human trafficking. What's that like?

RM: We work with unaccompanied children, so in the UK that’s places like Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, all those places. Even though the UK has brutal immigration policies as well, so they don’t really support or care for that many refugees or asylum seekers. We fight against trafficking on a legal level. One of my goals in the organization is to change UK law, so that it better protects refugees and trafficked children. You’d think that’s normal and that makes sense, but because they’re so focused on immigration, they discriminate against trafficked children who weren’t born in the UK, more than they do UK children. So we have to really focus on changing systems, changing laws. I work mostly with boys who’ve been brought over from Vietnam and are forced to grow marijuana, usually locked in a house, don’t speak the language, always exposed to noxious fumes and horrible lighting… Then the police raid and arrest them and put them in jail. So we do a lot with the police to get them to understand they’re victims of crime, rather than perpetrators of crime.

For the next few years -- as ordinary citizens or with Algiers -- what are some realistic goals for things you’d like to change in the world around you?

FJF: I’d like to see New York City reclaim its soul from the super wealthy. I’m talking about New York because I’m thinking locally and I think people really need to start engaging with their local communities on a very basic level, to see what they can do to change the misery around them. The way the status quo thrives is by convincing people they’re powerless and they can’t change anything. People buy into that, so they just become disaffected. 

This is happening in every major city: you have luxury condos being put up on every corner, but the number of working homeless keeps going up, which is obscene. The majority of these condos go uninhabited. They’re like blue chips for millionaires that will never step foot in them. It just drives up prices of living for everyone. That needs to stop. 

RM: I’d like to see a continuation and further development of militant politics, because I think politics require militancy to shift things. If you can shift -- even a discursive shift, the way people talk about things -- it’s really important, to shift it to the left. That’s really important to me. There are a lot of bands that are doing that. 

The Jacobin, for example, is a very popular publication. Black Lives Matter comes from a similar place as the [Black] Panthers. They’re taking a more militant approach. In the UK, it’s actually happening now with the Labour Party… They came out with a manifesto that asserts all these things we’ve been talking about: free tuition, nationalizing the railways, and that’s been shifting the discourse. It’s important to challenge this malaise. Like the Democratic Party -- what the f-ck? What they’ve done to Bernie Sanders.

FJF: They played themselves. And I don’t think they realize that yet. Still.

RM: I read something the other day, Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in the United f-cking States. The dupes and the idiots in the party did everything they could do to get rid of him. 

FJF: The United F-cking States. That’s the name for the third album!

For now, Algiers' second album, The Underside of Power, is available on Matador Records.