Heads Angled Hellward—An Interview with Algiers

By Nathaniel Dove

The suggestion that punk and gospel could be fused together to make good music would seem like musical heresy, like oil and water mixing to make beer. Yet the band Algiers proves otherwise. Full of uplifting, angry and articulated energy, their show at the Silver Dollar was like being in a dystopian cathedral. Seeing this band live reminds you of James Brown in their dance moves, new wave in their posturing, punk in their energy and lyrics, and gospel in their harmonies and passion.

And their passion live – which their album fails to capture – is infectious and captivating. Onstage the band beat their chests and slap their heads to the rhythm, behaviour I have only observed in churches in the American South. Lead singer Franklin Fisher switches between guitar and tambourine, hammering so hard on the latter that I expect his hand hurts for several days afterwards. His singing is emotional and even away from the microphone while writhing on his knees he is audible. He is a man taken by the music and the message in which he believes.

The infectious rhythm had the audience quickly clapping along to the opening tune “Black Eunuch“. The set ended with “But She Was Not Flying” almost forty-five minutes later. In lieu of an encore, there was a recording played back on tape, a symptom I think of a small catalogue and of not having anything left to give.  After the show I interviewed the band about their music and how they as a multiracial punk band understands the racial tension in their home country of the United States.

Demo Magazine: How would you describe your music?

Ryan Mahan (bass, keyboards): We’ve never really actually been able to describe the kind of music that we’re trying to make. I think fundamentally one of the basic premises of the band is to try to construct a vernacular that we can use to understand the political and artistic situation in which we find ourselves. And I think therefore that we didn’t necessarily have a particular genre in mind; we knew that we were very much, as a group, influenced by soul music obviously, by a particular strand of gospel music, Nina Simone’s more political music, pulling from gospel but just pushing it in so many rad directions. And then punk rock maybe initially in the early phase was very interesting, very exciting. And I think those styles of music come together in a very interesting way. We’re obviously influenced by hip-hop as well and many other styles.

DM: There is clearly some gospel influence. Did you guys grow up going to church with gospel music?

Franklin Fisher (vocals, guitar): I did and I know their parents used to take them [Ryan and Lee Teshe, guitar] to church and that we have very different experiences and relationships with the church. But I still go to church and for me it’s the best music ever. It’s really good, it’s really cathartic and it’s just packed with energy. It’s not always like that but every now and again you’ll get two good songs on a Sunday and that makes it all worthwhile. But people are so focused in on the gospel and it’s just interesting to me because at first glance it’s antithetical to punk music or rebellious mainstream youth music, whatever the hell that is, but you need to remember that gospel music is nothing but the root of all African-American music. Everything else came from that and there is a clear lineage from gospel to blues to jazz, soul, R&B, to hip-hop, and when you have that you have all of these other genres, every other genre came from black music in modern pop music. From some form or other it all has a debt to that.

Lee Tesche: And one of my favourite bands Spacemen 3, legendary kind of psych band, have a lot of gospel undertones and spirituals and this space stuff, but its not really something that is highlighted as that strange. And there are a million examples of things like that, but it’s definitely an element that is in our music, for sure.

DM: Did you have any problems mixing the very punk stream of your music and the very gospel stream of your music together?

FF: No, quite the opposite. That’s when we kind of discovered what it is that we were doing. And it was just comparing musical ideas and sketches of songs. Ryan and Lee had these sketches of, skeletons of punk songs and I had these very gospel-based things and it was such a good marriage and so obvious. It was shocking to us that we didn’t think of it before and that we hadn’t heard of it before. It’s about process and this entire thing is about us still chiselling away at this process and going into it as far down as we possibly can. There’s a long, long way to go because we can already see things that we want to do but we need to start building the foundations of the house before we can start building the house. We are already set to write the next record. We have all the material all ready for the next record.

DM: How long will that be?

FF: God knows. It depends on how much touring we do. It will probably be next year.

DM: What is “Black Eunuch” about?

RM: Good fucking question.

FF: Well, at first, nothing that we ever write is one-dimensional and everything is allegorical to some extent. But it was about… it was like an anti-love song. And it was kind of going back to growing up in a predominantly white affluent suburb when I was in high school. I was like a black kid and just… I didn’t realize… I didn’t have a lot of self-esteem when I was in high school and I didn’t realize that it wasn’t my problem but a product of my environment that I grew up in until I left.

DM: Because you stood out?

FF: I didn’t… it gets into racial politics and how people kind of interpret you as Other and they play your Otherness and they place your race on you and so forth. And that was kind of the starting point, but it also came from reading about the Ottoman Empire and how they would take slaves and how they would castrate them and then make them the guards for their harems and stuff. And I conflated those two. I just think how horrible that has to be, just a total erasure of your identity in order to fit their idea, or their ideal of what you should be in relationship to who they are in order to bolster their superiority. And I named it that because… I hate the title. And it makes me cringe and I think it should when you say it. But there is more in there than just that and I don’t know if Ryan wants to expand on that.

RM: Well I don’t really want to say too much other than we’ve all read To Kill a Mockingbird, we all understand how the American legal system developed, so racism and racist violence is not necessarily some outlandish thing that sits outside of the system but is very much inherent within the system and is very much control of black male bodies within the American legal system. And it dates back to how the law was actually prosecuting men on allegations of abusing white women, sexually. And I think very much that that whole system was built upon this, which was definitely built on that control of black men using that as a protective, trying to protect evidently from the Other. And I think that’s very powerful with the sexual politics and the racial politics.

DM: So I’m guessing this is influenced by events within the United States within even a month or two. Is that accurate?

FF: Yeah. Forever. It happens every day, it has happened every day since the inception of the United States of America and since before then.

RM: And we talk about, I mean, if you look at the construction of the American nation-state, then you look at genocide, then you look at slavery, then you look at ultimate violence through sharecropping and other forms. But then also you have police violence, so you have a system in itself that is built upon violence and suppression and oppression of difference. And to that degree we are very much engaging in that history, that long approach, and understanding. And it just so happens that, since we recorded the record last summer with that in our mind and weighing very heavily on Franklin when he was writing the lyrics.

DM: So what was Baltimore?

RM: What was it? In what sense?

DM: I think that we saw the reemergence, on the world stage, of a scar that’s been on your country for a while, a scar that I think you address in your music and are certainly conscious of. We talked about “Black Eunuch” and being the Other; I’m curious about how you would sum it up. You’re from a part of your country where that tension is more pronounced and I think that you guys would be a little more tapped into it, coming from there and also as artists. And also as a multiracial band who address this sort of thing. So I’m curious what movement, what characteristics you would attribute to that event, the riots there, riots that I think that, if pictures of those riots were converted to black and white, would look very similar to the Detroit riots. I’m just curious to hear your thoughts about that.

FF: Baltimore and Detroit are two cities that are some of the most desperate victims of white flight and economic violence in the country. And I forget who said it, but the most dangerous man is the man who has nothing to lose, man or woman. And I think that translates on a macro scale to places like Baltimore or Detroit, or people who have become so dispossessed. And when you have pushed them so far, when you have taken just about every sort of dignity and amenity that one should have access to away, and so… again I can’t stress enough how this type of shit happens every day. It’s not… I don’t know how many times this must have happened in Baltimore this year prior to this one event that the media has focused in on. And I think the only reason that the media has focused in on it in the United States is because when you have no other means of communicating you have to do something in order to get people to listen. I think that’s very much what is at the essence of the rioting. Baltimore is just another day for black America. But it’s time for people to start paying attention and listening and I think that the only way that the United States has ever changed anything, to the benefit of the people, is when people have held the mirror of hypocrisy up to itself and its made the system face that and change it in order so that they can carry on selling the lies that they sell to the rest of the country and to the world. That’s the only way that any sort of progress has happened. It’s really a desperate situation because I have family in Baltimore and it’s not a nice place to live and it’s through a systematic process that the city has turned that way.

DM: What are two bands that each of you are listening to?

RM: Jenny Hval just put out a really rad record. And I love a band called Good Throb. They’re from England. They’re a fucking, kind of riot punk rock band. They’re really awesome. Those are my two bands.

FF: I really like Downtown Boys right now. And I’m also really into Mac DeMarco. I think he’s a genius. And he’s one of the most unpretentious presences in music right now.

LT: I don’t even know. You guys keep borrowing my headphones so I haven’t been listening to music this entire tour. We played with two bands in Atlanta. One’s called Landline and they’re really great.

FF: They are good. I like them.

LT: They’re really great and they have a record coming out. And the other band that played with us was Twins. It’s this guy who runs DKA Records. Those are the two things that I’ve been listening to recently.

FF: This one cat out of New York—I know this is three—but this dude called The Flat, he played with us in New York. Really interesting stuff.

 

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