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Algiers' Franklin James Fisher on Rejecting the Role of 'Soapbox Preacher' With Third Album

Algiers
Christian Högstedt

Algiers

While the majority of 21st century popular musicians tread lightly when it comes to politics, Algiers have no time for the anodyne. For the better part of ten years, the four-piece band has fearlessly embraced social commentary that would make many a manager, label head or publicist blanch: anti-capitalist ("The Underside of Power," the rousing title track from their sophomore album), anti-racist ("Blood," "Walk Like a Panther," which opens with the words of Black Panther Fred Hampton, "I am a revolutionary"), anti-police violence ("Cleveland"), anti-colonial ("Irony. Utility. Pretext.") and pro-immigrant. The band's very name – a city synonymous with resistance and uprising – was chosen as a statement by bassist Ryan Mahan. Musically, Algiers has also rejected any proscribed musical rules, upending facile genre-labeling with a hybrid of soul, post-punk, gospel and experimental jags that showcase the urgent, impassioned vocals of frontman Franklin James Fisher. For progressives – political, musical and otherwise – they've been a godsend.

And yet, two albums of resistance-ready polemic set to a Southern Gothic sonic brew came with a price. Mahan, Fisher, guitarist Lee Tesche and drummer Matt Tong found themselves painted into a one-dimensional box: they had become the 'political band,' and the leftist embrace they received for their bluntly Marxist worldview began to feel like suffocation. As they toured relentlessly on The Underside of Power and looked toward a third record, Algiers knew that, to borrow from Sam Cooke, a change was gonna come. A band that embodied fighting oppression had to shuffle off perception shackles of its own making.

Much of the pivot fell on the shoulders of Frank Fisher, who -- with his powerful pipes and fist-pumping presence -- had come to be regarded by some as, in his own words, a "soapbox preacher and an activist." With no desire to be anyone's Messiah, the singer concluded he had to dial it back, to something less macro and more personal. On Algiers' latest, There Is No Year (titled after author Blake Butler's 2011 book about an anonymous family set upon by creepy doppelgangers), Fisher turns inward. He mines lyrics from his own long-compiled journal of collected writings, titled "Misophonia." The album's vibe is unsettling but compelling, a reflection of what many of us feel at the dawn of a new decade: daily uncertainty over what blow the world will deliver next.

Many of the new tracks Fisher calls "love songs," but some still can be seen in a political context. They include the propulsive centerpiece "Unoccupied," and a moody and haunting "Losing Is Ours." On "Hour of the Furnaces," raucous but melodic, Fisher sings, "We all dance into the fire, la la la la," while an ominous "Wait For the Sound" opens grimly: "Streets are raining fire, we'll be gone now any day." The band clearly appreciates the value of a hook – they're present on There Is No Year like never before, not least in the furious tracks that bookend the LP. A driving title song leads off, Fisher declaring it's "two minutes to midnight," where we are "only to get shot down." It's more than matched 35 minutes later by the fiery closer "Void" and its shouted-sung "Got to find a way…to get out of it."

Algiers ceded unprecedented creative ground this time around to their producers, experimental rock savants Randall Dunn (Sunn O))), Earth) and Ben Greenberg (Uniform, Hubble), and the band explored some unexpected directions. Bleating saxes creep in and synths abound, particularly on a sparkling, surprisingly danceable standout "Chaka," named after the soul icon Ms. Khan, a touch reminiscent of Algiers' friends and 2017 tour mates Depeche Mode. On lead single and video "Dispossession," Fisher even allows himself a last run at politics in these powder-keg times, evoking both Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. "Freedom is coming soon," he sings, giving a skeptical side-eye to such hopeful sentiments.

Fisher is a man with much to say, something never more apparent than on last year's avant-jazz one-off "Can The Sub_Bass Speak?" on which he ripped racists a new one, with a recitation of many of the boneheaded assumptions and presumptions that a "black man who doesn't rap" encounters. Among his musical inspirations he counts Bob Dylan, Thelonious Monk and Michael Jackson, and in an hour-plus conversation, a gamut of names, from Kierkegaard to Cornel West, Freddie Mercury to Ernest Hemingway-by-way-of-Morgan Freeman were all invoked. Billboard sat down with the singer and poet at a waterfront restaurant in DUMBO, Brooklyn, days before Algiers left for Brighton, England, where the band began a month-long European tour.

Frank, I saw the mini-set you guys did the other night at [Brooklyn's] Rough Trade. That was amazing. You're about to leave for the U.K. Are you doing most of There Is No Year over there?

Well, as with everything else in this band, it's kind of ruled by committee. Which in one sense is great because it's very literally democratic. But in another sense, it can take forever to decide anything! But we'll play mostly the new record for this go-around.

Are there any on the new record that either aren't gonna be in the set or are especially challenging to do live?

I'm not particularly convinced by "Chaka" yet.

I was gonna ask you about that one! I love that song.

Really?

Yeah! And it's funny that you would say "really?" like that, because I've read reviews and it does seem to be polarizing. Are you not sure about it because it's different? Is it hard to do live?

More so because of how it sounds when we rehearse it? Some songs it takes a while to like grow into their skin when you play them live. Other songs it's, you know, automatically it's there. But it's interesting what you say – when we were writing a lot of the stuff going into this record, in like the fall of 2017, I guess we kind of reverted to this childhood state, and we were listening to Thriller like really heavily – which I guess has…different implications now, of course.

Well. I still hear Michael's music everywhere.

Yeah. But so the direction of the song started as we were also listening to a lot of Rufus and Chaka Khan – hence the name, cause that was just the title of the demo. But the making of this record, which we did with Ben Greenberg and Randall Dunn, it was more like as I understand the way it is when people make a film, where hundreds of hands touch this idea, from conception to realization, and I don't think any of us imagined what the end product would be. There was no way of really knowing. And that was interesting – the only thing I was able to really focus on was the lyrical content, because that was really the first time we had properly worked with producers. With the first two records, we had the steering wheel, and the producers were in the passenger seat. And those roles were flipped this time around, with Ben and Randall. They did all the sound design basically. We made the commitment to trust them, which has caused some distress within the band. But ultimately it was necessary to do that, to go in a different direction. You can't just keep making the same record over and over again.

You were saying you went into this record with a different mindset.

This record for me was really personal. And without going into the details of my personal life, I would say that more than half the songs on this record are love songs, whether people like it or don't like it. You know so many people are stuck in this mindset of only looking at what we are doing through a political lens. And that's a bit frustrating, you know? Cause this was a time to do something else, because that's, for me personally, that's where my heart and my head have been for the past two years. You know, I'm not trying to make some sort of grandiose statement about geopolitics. I'm just expressing from a true place.

Tell me about "Misophonia" – your work which has been described as an "epic poem" that you drew upon for the lyrics on the record.

Basically something I have been doing since I was like 13 is keeping a journal. And I realized that lyric writing is much more natural, and much more enjoyable, if I can just kind of plagiarize what I've been writing already. Because ideas can come to you whenever, on the way to work, in the bathroom, whatever. So, I just started writing, from then on. "Epic poem" is a bit misleading, I don't even really think it's a poem, per se. But I took a lot of those things and I started to give them form about a year ago. I started to put them together. And so, working with Ben and Randall, they would have me come in, they would play me music and say, "Okay now go home, write lyrics, and come back!" And it was like, I already had everything!

The album borrows its title from your friend and author Blake Butler's book. Both his book and your record seem to share this quality of something dire looming.

Sort of an unnamable dread that is omnipresent. That's sort of what Blake wanted to capture. And for me that's – I hate the word "zeitgeist" – but that is where we're at right now. You know, if you want to think about late capitalism, how you're constantly being bombarded with a vague sense of paranoia or fear, so that you can be a better consumer, or if you think about the state of geopolitics and the "doomsday clock," if you want to think about climate change, or even a specific point in your life. I'm reaching the point where parents are starting to get sick or die. It's like everybody I know, at this age, no matter what they do, nobody is particularly feeling triumphant about things. I have friends who, you would think would be like, "You're killing it right now!" but everybody is just – there is a general sense of this feeling on a macro and a micro level. And to me, that's what was important.

This has been a personally turbulent time for you?

Oh yeah. I mean I haven't had an apartment – I've been homeless for two, two and a half years now. I got divorced, I have really close friends whose parents died, friends who had kids and there were birthdays and retirements, people falling ill, and when you're touring, you're not around for any of that. I've missed so much of that while trying to, chase this idea, and hopefully make it sustainable. And the psychological and emotional ramifications of that, to me they are so much more central to this record than any sort of grand political statement. But of course, there is also that. Like everybody knows that the world is burning. And you don't need another Algiers record of me shouting at you about it happening, or why it's happening. We all get that it's happening. But hopefully this is just a more human expression of all of it.

In the lead-up to this album, you've all echoed this idea that you're more than just a "political band." Was there a moment where you said, "We need to dial the politics back?"

Look, Ryan [bassist Ryan Mahan] named the band. The name of the band itself is political. And by virtue of who we are – a mixed-race band, from all these different places, from England, from the South, that's political! We don't have to try to be political. It's an inherent part of who we are and what we do, but it has gotten to the point where it's eclipsed any other aspect of the band. And I've known these guys and been in this band for so long – we're capable of so much more than just this one-dimensional thing. But for some reason that's what the press latched on to, and I suppose that's how we were marketed as well from the label or by our previous PR, but we've always talked about more than just that. But that seems to escape people. Because at a certain point you start to feel, if that's the only thing you're "allowed" to talk about, you feel like you are being fetishized. And you start to feel like you are being used only insofar as you are serviceable for somebody's politics. And they don't care about anything you have to express as an artist, or as a human being. They just want you to be an apparatus.

It's something that I anticipated and which I addressed when we put out "Can The Sub_Bass Speak?" [2019]. You know people are obsessed with our "genre mash-up" only because the singer is black and he doesn't rap. Often times, when I have an angry song, I'm not even shouting at the right wing. You know what I mean? I'm actually shouting at the people that are supposed to be with me, and they're not paying attention, you know what I mean? It comes from frustration. Like Langston Hughes said, he didn't want to be considered a "black poet" – he wanted to be a poet! You know what I mean? Or like, Freddie Mercury. Nobody ever said, "Oh he was one of the best gay singers of all time!" He was a genius! He was an amazing musician! But it's like, if people aren't just manufactured to tick these boxes, it's almost like there's an obsession with why they don't fit in these boxes, instead of just accepting them as they are, and broadening your understanding of other people, by doing that.

People talk about There Is No Year as having this impending doom surrounding it, but do you think there are glimmers of hope, too?

Yeah. I mean, I think just by virtue of doing something constructive like making art, that in and of itself is an act of hope. Because otherwise, nihilism, why bother doing anything?

There's a bridge to jump off [the Manhattan Bridge, over Fisher's shoulder] right behind you.

[laughs] Yeah, exactly! So yeah even the darkest music, it's laced with hope. You go and listen to black metal, at least they're trying to find a way to express that sort of terrible conundrum of human existentialism. You know, and as long as you do -- it's like in that movie Seven? The last thing that Morgan Freeman says, he quotes someone [Hemingway], and he says, "The world is a fine place, and it's worth fighting for." And then he says, "I agree with the second part."

Are you a religious, or spiritual person?

Yeah, I'm a Christian, but in a Kierkegaard-ian sense, I suppose. I think the vast majority of people who subscribe to any religion try to weaponize it and try to make themselves superior. I was raised – the black church, especially in the South, was always a place of refuge, of sanctuary and celebration. And that's also where politics happened, even now. Politics are in the pulpit. It's the idea that you don't judge anybody because everybody is trying to figure out what the hell is happening between birth and death! [laughs] It's not something I talk about too much, because I don't want that to define the band, 'cause it certainly doesn't. Because we all have our own beliefs to a degree. But where we coalesce is where Algiers is born, you know? Ryan's a communist, essentially. I'm a Marxist, essentially because you can't have any sort of cultural critique without using Marxism as your point of departure. But it's like, Cornel West, who is one of my biggest role models, talks about how if you were born in the west, you have to do two things. One is to recognize that we were all born within the context of white supremacy, and that is dictated by capitalism, and all these horrible things are predicated on that – xenophobia, homophobia, racism, sexism – all of those things are what happens when you are educated within the white supremacist system. So you have to recognize those things within yourself. And then, on a constant and daily basis, you try to overcome those things.

One year from now we're either going to be at the dawn of a new presidency in the White House or buckling up for Trump 2.0. Do you have a prediction?

When Obama first won, I was living in England. Ryan and I were doing the beginning of Algiers, and I was sleeping on his floor. And the day Obama won the election – I remember this so vividly – I went to get a paper, and cause I'm a black American guy, at least two or three people asked me, "So what do you think's gonna happen now that you have a black president?" And I was like, "You're gonna have a massive coming out of the right wing like you've never seen." And you know, it started with the Tea Party, then came Trump. Once he won the nomination, I knew he was gonna win. And I think he's gonna win again, unfortunately. Donald Trump to me is just the natural consequence of American culture. He is the result of what had been building throughout the entire 20th Century, you know? The right wing right now, what they are doing, it's kind of like a political murder-suicide. It's like, "We know this guy is a threat to the entire world," but they would rather we all go down in flames than allow a Democrat to take office. And impeachment? These are the people who won't change gun laws when someone goes into an elementary school and murders a bunch of children. I think he'll get a second term. And who knows, maybe a third, maybe a fourth. 

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