Algiers on Bernie Sanders, Appropriation in Music & Playing Coachella While Critiquing Capitalism

Algiers 2016
Courtesy Photo


Since 2016 is a presidential election year, artists (as with most people) are naturally talking politics a lot more than normal.

But one minute of conversation with Algiers makes it clear that the experimental rock band isn't concerned with politics simply because we're choosing a president this year. The Atlanta outfit speaks quickly, eloquently, passionately and directly about the politics of everything -- whether that be Hillary vs. Bernie or the cultural appropriation build into the music industry -- with a level of incisiveness that illustrates they're thinking about politics more than just once every four years.

Of course, if Algiers was all academic discourse and no groove, no one would care about them as a band. But with their innovative mélange of post-punk, gospel and soul, the Georgia group offers one of the most exciting new takes on rock in recent years (their self-titled debut came out last year on Matador).

Speaking with Billboard at Coachella (the irony of such anti-capitalist group of people performing at the scenester playground isn't lost on them, though refreshingly, they're not defensive about it), Algiers touched on everything from the election to Nina Simone to their next album.

So your band's politics skew toward the anti-capitalist. Does that make it weird playing festivals like Coachella?

Ryan Mahan (bassist): If it's a question of how do we reconcile ourselves with being a band and putting out a record and playing at a festival like this, that's something we haven’t been fully able to grapple with. It's not something we really expected to happen. Fundamentally, we try to express ourselves in those terms, but we also understand music as an expression of capital and oppression and exploitation. So when we talk about race politics it's not strictly about American structural violence -- it could also be about colonial violence or the violence of the music industry itself, which, we know, is based on appropriation. To a degree -- I don't want to make blanket statements, but to a degree that's true, with certain artists being able to capitalize on the work of other people who suffered and whose work came from that life experience. There's a sense of music as a social experience, but the more capital gets involved in music, the more detached it is from that experience.

Franklin James Fisher (lead singer): Music is entertainment, isn’t it? Regardless of what you try to convey when you use it as a platform, it's still so people can have a good time. Hopefully if you're trying to say something constructive, it will register with people and you can have that dialogue. But my understanding of festivals has always been you're there providing a soundtrack for everyone's good times. Fortunately enough you're called there because whatever you're doing [musically] has enough gravity to garner attention.

If you've been to any festival as a concertgoer, you walk past a tent, you might not know the band, you hear it and go in. If you do have a message you're trying to convey, people are going to be more willing to engage with you if do it on familiar terms. As opposed to if you go up to someone and shout into their face and try to convert them, which isn't what we're about anyway.

Ryan: Discourse doesn't have to be hegemonic. At the end of the day, we play music. One of the reasons we like to talk to people after [our shows] is that we actually like to talk about music. Some artists don’t like to talk about it but it helps me to further understand what we're doing to talk about it afterward. So I think it's important for us to engage with people.

Your debut album is great. I was struck by the disparate influences on it. Do you each bring different musical tastes to Algiers or did you just find you guys all have the same eclectic tastes?

Franklin: It's a little of both in equal measure. Depending on whatever the song is, we try to let the song dictate what energies are brought to the forefront or left to the side. As Ryan likes to say it's a constant state of self-discovery. And that's fun.

How do you write your stuff?

Franklin: The process changes with every song.

Ryan: It starts with trust. Trust and understanding. Understanding that this may be outlandish to you, but how does this work within the context of what we want to achieve? Conceptually we laid a groundwork of certain things we want to pull from [with Algiers], but outside of that it emerges organically. And it's not limited to who plays which instrument. 

For me, personally, it's based around life and social experience. If you can connect to social experience, that transcends genre. You think of Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, Public Enemy, Discharge, punk rock, hardcore -- there are threads that can be connected to think about it in those terms rather than genre terms. When we made the "Blood" video, that's what we were thinking.

I've seen positive things you've said about Bernie Sanders in the past. Is he "your guy" in the election?

Franklin: I'm into him as much as I can be behind any political figure. I'm never going to put my personal voice or stamp on any politician.

Do you not vote?

Franklin: I vote but I don’t endorse politicians.

Ryan: We are not party political. Well, we are party political in that if you're a Republican candidate we will not vote for you and we will attack you vehemently. But we're not party political in terms of standing up for an institutional politician.  

We aspire to something more fundamental. That doesn’t mean it's going to actually happen. You can say we're idealists but I still think it's important to have ideals. It's important to hope as individuals. We live in a time of cynicism and ridiculous amounts irony and people who say, "I've learned everything there is to know and now I'm going to live a life that transcends it." I think it's important to think politically and think maybe, "What is there outside of this system?" And at the same time be able to say, "this is what we have now."

I do think it's more hopeful than when George W. Bush and Al Gore were going against each other or Reagan and whoever. There are elements and little moments [in this election] that aren’t complete depressing.  

What will you think if Sanders loses and it's Clinton vs. Trump or Clinton vs. Cruz?

Franklin: I kind of expect it personally. Sadly.

Ryan: When we think about music we think of different worlds. How to express something that's not of this place. You have to hope for something beyond what's being presented to you and forced to you with the natural mechanisms of politics. So yes, there will be a sense of loss and sense of depression having to choose between two candidates that represent a system that fundamentally does not look after working people or people of color and does not express freedom and liberation. But at the same time, we are where we are. We work within that system sometimes.

Do you have a timetable for a second album?

Franklin: It's funny because we have a lot of people telling us we need to have X done by Y and we're racing against the clock, but at the same time we all have jobs and live in different places and it's not luxurious. We can't just all decide we're going to go somewhere and write a record. But we do have stuff we've been working on for a while and hopefully we'll get it sorted out sooner than later. We'd like to get something out by early next year ideally, but it's never that simple. It's one day at a time. 


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