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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Radical Spaces: Q & A with ALGIERS

On December 15, 2012, I finally received a long-awaited delivery in the mail. Double Phantom shipped away my late year order of the powerful single "Blood," a song that stuck in my mind since the first time I saw the video on the label's website. Algiers, a global collective with Atlanta roots, presented their blend of spiritual / Gospel vocals, programming, and noise without shying away from the violent imagery that their name hints. I received the 7" record the day after the Sandy Hook Massacre, which shook me to my core, and this physical manifestation of the music now confronted my ears from my home stereo. At such a bleak time, the emancipatory feeling of the music itself never escaped my mind, and Algiers was an antidote to political and existential sadness that can only be provided by likeminded souls. While writing for Foxy Digitalis, I named "Blood" the top song of 2012 in my year-end list.

At the beginning of 2015, Matador Records announced that they signed Algiers, and the label is releasing their self-titled debut in June.  The album itself advances in each direction initially hinted in the "Blood" video. While most songs follow the dramatic mix of rhythm & blues, Gospel, programming, and noise, several songs trend more in one direction than the other. "Irony. Utility. Pretext" maximizes the political potential of rhythm & blues, leading to a vocal-driven climax that surpasses its industrial scaffolding. On the other hand, "But She Was Not Flying" features bright interludes with keys and "Old Girl" employs rock'n'roll drives, ultimately showcasing the band's redemptive side (rather than their protest or confrontational angles). Yet, it may be the album's closing suite, specifically "Games" and "Untitled," that demonstrate that the Gospel approach is not a front, but genuine exploration of (or rumination on) both "self" and "community" (if either of those can be separated). No single style wins out on Algiers, giving the self-titled debut a depth of production that rewards return listens and gives the audience a chance to have a different set of favorites each time around.
Algiers - "Blood" from Algiers on Vimeo.

This spring, I spoke and emailed with Franklin James Fisher, Ryan Mahan, and Lee Tesche about their politics, art, and tour. Given the political and historical weight invoked by the mere name Algiers, the self-titled debut arrives at a salient time of protest. Mahan wrote of the name, "we do strive to discuss these historical movements for liberation in the context of neoliberalism, where the dominant ideology has moved on to other insidious methods of suppressing class consciousness and global solidarity." He added during our phone interview, after I apologized for another political discussion, "with the political and historical element, that’s really important, so we’re always happy to have that conversation. Iteration is one of the most important things in the battle for hegemony.” There is no sense in which politics is a facade for Algiers, as the trio openly embraces historical struggle, protest, and emancipation as their armor.

Fisher firmly placed the band in a politically-minded context, adding, "because everything is politics, you can't extract anything from a greater political context." While music fans may prefer their art to be separated from politics, Algiers arguably could not be released at a better time, since its openly political direction may give listeners a chance to encounter their beliefs in a more productive setting than the news cycle. Since members of the band are stretched as far as New York and London, their tour dates in 2015 have given Algiers a chance to come together once again. “We haven’t done a lot of touring as a band," Fisher noted, adding, "we’ve been apart for so long, so it’s kind of a new experience for us.”

Tesche also echoed Fisher's sentiments, noting of the album, "recording this record was the first time that all three of us were in the same space writing and recording and it was a bit of an adjustment period for us." Together, the album and tour both allowed Algiers to confront the political and personal spaces they constructed during their global writing process. Since the band focuses on layered production that incorporates live and programmed elements, the tour will give the group an opportunity to explore new technologies while embracing their live instrumentation. Over the course of the phone interview, discussions about the band's politics, album production, and tour seamlessly portrayed their vision for their music, videos, and art.

June 5 - The Earl, Atlanta GA 
June 7 - Black Cat Backstage Washington DC
June 9 - Mercury Lounge, NYC NY
June 10 - Baby's Alright, Brooklyn, NY
June 13 - Silver Dollar Room, Toronto ONT
June 15 - Schubas, Chicago IL 
June 16 - Triple Rock Social Club, Minneapolis MN
June 19 - The Sunset, Seattle WA 
June 20 - Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver BC
June 21 - Doug Fir Lounge, Portland OR
June 23 - Bottom Of The Hill, San Francisco CA
June 25  - The Echo, Los Angeles CA 

  Phone Interview Key: N = Nicholas Zettel, F = Franklin James Fisher, R = Ryan Mahan, L = Lee Tesche. The interview occurred on May 12, 2015.

N: Your tour seems to be of the time with the open protests lately. You’re touring and your album is very much of the time, how do you feel about that?

F: I don’t want to trivialize anything that’s happening in the world, but with our personal experience and where we fall, I think that we’re extraordinarily fortunate because it gives us a real world context for people to understand what it is we’re doing and where we’re coming from. Now, touring with Interpol, is a different kind of shade. For instance, last night we played in St. Louis, and we dedicated a song to Ferguson, and ideally, it’d be kind of nice to talk about that kind of thing at length, but we have to respect the fact that it’s not our tour and it’s Interpol’s crowd. But, it’s priming us for the possibilities for June, when we’re doing our own tour.

R: There’s an element of hope and optimism, because all these injustices are starting to get publicized more and more in the mainstream press. One of the things we’ve always focused on is the historical resuscitation and reminder of injustices, of silencing the minority, of all those types of violent actions, so to see all those actions be recognized and shoved in the faces of figures of authority, surrounded by a very mobilized, from-the-ground movement, that’s very interesting and fits with our diagnosis of the situation. It’s also something when we were writing “Blood” that we didn’t expect, we didn’t expect this outpouring of protest and reaction against the police state and the violence of American society. We had seen it in the historical context, but we were actually feeling quite disempowered. We did not have the type of language to engage fundamentally with the situation. Now, there were things that were going on like “Occupy” that had a class-based approach and an interesting approach to problems and issues in the world, but as far as it goes, we did not necessarily see this renewal of the civil rights, Black Power, and global solidarity. So in that way, it’s really interesting and hopeful for us.

L: I guess I’ll add, for me too, good art always has the responsibility to question and provoke, and I think that’s always something we’ve been interested in. We’ve been interested in engaging people in general, just as a provocation and interaction you get with people, even with these Interpol shows where you’re playing for an audience that isn’t yours, you have the opportunity to rattle their brains around a little bit. Even if they’re really uncomfortable with it, just that simple act of coming around and provoking a response completes the art.

R: It goes back to when I was a kid in Atlanta, and I was first getting into “alternative music,” all my favorite bands were speaking in a language I didn’t understand or rexcognize, but it forced me to think, and it forced me to work to actually learn about the world. That was the thing that drove me to punk rock and hardcore in general, just that feeling or expression of not knowing, but being able to discover [its meaning] on my own terms. That’s really a part of our project as well. The other interesting thing is, I know you mentioned “Blood” in 2012, people have tended to focus on our southernness, but you were actually positioning it in a global context. One of our ambitions is to introduce a discourse of global solidarity. 

N: It’s interesting to me that people focus on the Southernness, rather than the Global approach, because it seems to me that immediately the name “Algiers” invokes “revolution” and the struggle in Algeria where it was one of the most prominent anti-colonial movements. It just seemed clear from the beginning that with the name and music, you guys had a very clear image to go along with the music. It always seemed to be overtly political. 

In your experience, do you think people understand what the Algerian revolution was about?

F: I think it matters which part of the world you’re in, and which population you’re talking about. Obviously, in France, there are very loaded connotations because it’s so close to home, whereas in America it’s much less [loaded].

R: Even in France, you have a lot of people that struggle with that history, and even in France it’s very repressed. We have interacted and spoken with people in France who have not necessarily come to grips with colonial history. It’s kind of the same way in the United States, people talk about how there’s no class struggle or class warfare in the US, and kind of disavow the history of colonialism in the US, from the destruction of the Native Americans to the war in the Philippines. The whole Algerian Revolution represents so many fundamental things in modernism, in revolutionary thought, in black thought (Franz Fanon wrote extensively about the Algerian Revolution). But also that notion that, after the French revolution after the revolutionary war, those ideals were quashed, that kind of sober moment of failure, because once people were united in Algeria, there was also a violent, destructive, and bloody civil war that followed. Just those forces that were unleashed, not from the people who tell you your house is on fire, but the people who set your house on fire, fundamentally, structurally, in the colonial context it’s very difficult to see any other result than violence.

N: I’m wondering if we can transition from that theme about globalism and political conflict to the great distance you guys experienced while living in different cities. How did that distance influence your recording process? Over the course of this album, how have the songs come together with that kind of physical separation?

R: I guess it goes back to what you were talking about before where you’re looking for people that share similar ideas to yourself, and that you can share ideas and be a part of it. Distance and separation could be something that divides, but it also makes the heart grow fonder. Fundamentally, when we started working on this, because some of the things we were working on were so alien even to us, that being apart, and having that distance to be able to listen to somebody’s contribution without being forced to immediately respond to it or immediately acknowledge it. There is a pressure when you’re in the same space to respond or acknowledge immediately, which puts tension. We’re not against tension, because tension also brings about really positive outcomes, but I think being apart has helped us have that time and space to digest something and do something on our own terms, and be influenced by our own environments. Living in London for me has been quite a complex experience, it has been somewhat a lonely experience, and to be able to do that in a room and exchange without speaking to someone is very powerful. I think Frank has spoken about this a lot, too, with his experiences in New York, but being able to bring those life experiences, and being outside scene politics has helped immensely and helped us grow.

F: I always talk to people about how being in a band since the time I was 13, to the rest of my life, and in high school that served as a protective shield from all the teenage bullshit you have to deal with. You know, we had our own little world, and our own little bubble, and I think Algiers serves the same function. The three of us have undergone major changes since the existence of this band, we’ve all moved to different places, we’ve all had to deal with different stresses. professional stresses, psychological stresses, relationship stresses, and the tie that bonds has always been our shared passion to music, and the fact that we have this evolving and ongoing project. The fact that we’re writing music together, that’s been one of the major things that’s sustained us, I think, on a very practical psychological health level. That’s reflected in the quality of the work, on this album, and one of the reasons it’s so personal for us. Notwithstanding all the other subjects and issues we pour into it, but it’s also our own blood, sweat, and tears, it’s really been a life-saver, a life-preserver for us.

L: I think it’s interesting, geography has influenced the sonics to a great extent. if we were all in the same place, or all in the suburbs of Atlanta where we grew up, it would sound very different. It'd be us all in a room, exchanging ideas differently, with different instruments we’d have access to that were dictated by the space we were living in, which would be a lot of live drums, or live instruments. But when you go back to how our lives have been, and in you’re in these urban spaces where you don’t have a lot of space, and you have access to different things, you will work with loops a lot more, or recontextualizing things, or when you’re an individual trying to get ideas across, you get to layering things like vocal harmonies or vocal arrangements. When we were working with “Blood,” for instance, I was still in Atlanta, and I had this idea more of space. Frank had these ideas and loops he’d hand over, and I was struggling with my environment, and I had this kind of underlying tension, where I’d want to shake things up, or challenge, or provoke, so I was really trying to explore these harsh sonics as well to provoke.


 N: I’d be interested to know, working in these separate spaces, were you actually passing along the recordings and working on them in your own spaces?

[All] Yes. Absolutely.

R: I think in a few cases, there’s a few songs where two of us would be together and we would be able to lay a foundation. I know if you look at “Black Eunich,” Franklin and I were in New York together, and we were just working on things, so the basic structures and elements came together. So, it’s not totally about separation, but there’s also that experience of coming together that really influenced us. The things that happened on the record, there were a few songs that we had not written, or there were elements that had been written and brought in, and we had that inspiring moment of working in the studio space.

F: Just getting us into the studio was interesting, because that was the first time the three of us had been together and working on something in years, in the same room. It was also a learning process, because we were fundamentally different people than four or five years prior when we first started passing things in the mail. It’s interesting how time and place can take on these different waves of meaning, and really add and shape the process.

R: “Blood” was really the thing that made us think about Algiers in a real sense, that congealed a lot of the ideas. It is a part of that process of throwing something out into the world, and then being forced to respond to it and react to it. It wasn’t something that was contrived, but we had tried so many songs, and once we put “Blood” out into the world, it also spoke to us in some ways and pointed some directions and opened other avenues we wanted to take.

N: That’s interesting because I was wondering about the timeframe. So you had other songs, but“Blood” was the starting point of Algiers proper?

F: Ehhhh….it was Algiers crystallized. Algiers “proper” was around 2007. For me personally, “Blood” came into existence once I saw the video. The video, to me, is inextricable from the song now. Once I saw that, it was like seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time.

L: It wouldn’t be far off to say that “Blood” was us proper in the sense that we had been working on stuff for three years before that, and in all these different places, it was something that even though we had our adult lives and these other things going on, it was something that was always important to us to have this outlet. A lot of times, we would meet up, at least a couple of times, whether it was London, New York, or Atlanta. With “Blood,” once we did that, that was the first time all three of us had been exposed to the process of how a record was made….I had done that a lot through previous things, and maybe once before with another band with Ryan and I.But it was an interesting thing for us, we had this song and we were living in other places, so the only way to actualize our music if we weren’t performing live at a time was to record something and put it out in the world. We had to assign a visual to it to give context to the pretext of what we were doing, because at that time you could not see us in a live setting. And the video was a road-map that lists the DNA of everything that was making up our sound at that moment in time. Then the three of us did go through to see how it works getting someone to help us mix it, master it, press the records, get the video out there, doing our own press, controlling this entire process gave both Ryan and Franklin this insight into everything that goes into getting your music out there before we got involved with other people who did that.

R: When we put out “Blood,” when we worked on the video, which Lee is responsible for the design and production of our videos, we were very cognizant of this notion of nostalgia and the issues with nostalgia in popular music that consign things to the past, or rip them from their social situation, without acknowledging that these always bubble underneath the surface. They’re still there today, and it’s important that we acknowledge the words and actions, and failures and successes, of iconoclasts, or people who are working toward something beyond themselves. But also acknowledge that nostalgia is a very dangerous concept, but it’s very prevalent in these postmodern times. I think that’s something we were very cognizant of, and the video helped complement that in some ways, because maybe if you first heard some of our music you might think “this is really rooted in the past,” we were working with those ideas, and within that problematic as well.


N: I’m curious, if you don’t mind me taking this thread, I’m wondering with this production you put together, with the layers and the writing process, how did you approach your live set up? How did you approach your current tour?

R: It’s forced us to work with different mediums that we weren’t necessarily working with in the past, working with drum machines, loops, and samples. There is  always going to be an element of a ghost in the machine, and I think that is not only by design but also by circumstance.  Since there are so many layered vocals, it almost represents our own…not inability but some of the challenges of bringing ideas to life. We do work with machines and loops with the more organic elements. We have a live drummer, we play bass and synths, but there’s always that undercurrent of maybe a ghost in the machine, a loop, a drum machine, as well.

N: With this approach, what kind of reception have you seen during your headlining and opening shows?

R: The response is different from night to night. People have generally been more receptive than maybe I expected in ways, but there will be an element where it can be polarizing. I think we know that it can be head-scratching, polarizing, or confusing with all these things going on from song to song.

F: Yeah, the response from people has really run the gamut, and polarizing was a word that I thought of when you asked that. We have to be cognizant of the fact that opening for a band like Interpol, even though they are an indie band, their sound is still pretty accessible, and to come from somewhere as left-field as maybe we are, there’s going to be a lot of mixed reactions from their crowds. On the other hand, we played some underground clubs in London where people have heard things that really normalize our sound. So, I guess it really depends on the audience you’re playing to.

L: That’s also the exciting part, too, because we’re not in this to make friends or meet girls, or have this great future in music. We want to really challenge people and push the conversation forward on so many different levels, just to make some sort of ruckus.

R: But to supplement that, I think we are in it to make friends and engage with like-minded people, and share that space together. There are so many like-minded people. There’s been so many discussions in the media of politics in music, and that type of stuff, and there’s actually such an explosion of really interesting and also politically engaging music that influences us. It’s maybe not strung together in any particular scene because of the global situation, I think it’s very difficult to construct physical scenes, I think we are also in it to make friends and be influenced as well.

Algiers will be available from Matador Records on June 2, 2015. Email Nicholas Zettel at [spectiveaudio] at [gmail], or follow @spectivewax on twitter.