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Algiers: Too Good to Fail

As the Matador band heads out on tour after their self-titled debut earlier this year, we attempt to get inside the band that, honestly, sounds like no one except themselves.
September 17, 2015, 3:38pm

I fear that Algiers are perhaps completely fucked. I want badly for them to be the biggest band in the world, and they’ve been selling out dates on their just finished tour, but I’m generally wrong about everything and what I love turns to dust and anyway they are too black, too white, too politically and sonically knotty, too weird for the straights/not weird enough for willful eccentric, and just too damn good to survive. RIP Algiers. It was a grand couple months. Hope Matador cuts you a nice check from the Pavement reissues. Or maybe they’ll be fine. Because, despite their enormous grab bag of influences, more than enough for an entire new genre let alone one solitary band, Algiers don’t sound like anybody. That’s a worrisome proposition in the rock landscape of 2015, where pastiche is king and kingdom. How will Algiers survive in America, if you get what I’m saying.

Algiers is a Rock and Roll band from Atlanta but Not From Atlanta. They grew up in and around it, steeped in it and always feeling apart, as young people are supposed to. We adults in the contemporary rock game tend to talk about “community” like it was some sort of end goal when we first got into punk, ignoring that to most kids, regardless of politics, alienation is the key and lockbox of their existence. Algiers became men in Atlanta and then they left (two of them in 2006 and one, Lee, in 2011) and became from New York But Not From New York (like most people here) and From London But Not From London (post-punk but with gospel roots that no amount of English fetishizing of the American tradition will ever be able to do more than ape).

“I guess it goes back to this continual theme of us always being on the periphery and excluded from or never really operating as part of a particular scene,” says Lee Tesche, guitar. “We’ve dealt with that our entire lives. We seem to be just as alien in London as we are in Atlanta or New York or wherever, and we may be influenced by a lot of these spaces but ultimately we were determined to create our own space. It’s extremely liberating to not fit in anywhere, to belong nowhere.”

Continued below.

Algiers self-titled debut is a heady mixture of Nina Simone, The Wake, and Einstürzende Neubauten playing God’s own roller-rink. There are gestures to junkie era Bad Seeds and the last song samples T.L. Barrett and The Youth For Christ Choir. With soulful vocals over tough as leather tracks that layer industrial guitars atop dubbed out goth punk rhythms and beats, Algiers embrace contradiction like proper 21st Century Boys (with all the Scott Walker, T Rex, and other schizoid men that encompasses) and keep that shit moving. Their website reads like The Society of Spectacle (I assume, never made it past page ten) but with all the 3D glasses on the cover replaced with sunglasses because this is, after all, rock and roll.

Ryan Mahan, bass, in particular has a tendency to answer question in Nation of Ulysses liner notes, a combination of the high academy and high cool. When I asked them about comparisons to TV On The Radio, Ryan responded, “The overall culture industry is problematic—it feeds off the same impulses that drive the economy: exploitation, commodification, racism, etc. This is a structural concern, and leads to a type of class warfare within music that seeks to separate people. At the same time, we should in no way indict any individuals who find similarities within our respective forms. It is subjective, and has to be open to interpretation and comparison.”

There was a brief buzz about Algiers back in 2012 and then they sort of fell off the map, to reappear full on last year. I asked them what happened and how they ended up on Matador. As Lee tells it, it was a slow process, “working independently, making time around our separate adult lives. We would try not to get discouraged by the passage of time…” Trying to write and shape songs in isolation is no easy task but it does allow a certain amount of experimentation too. And Lee feels that even the songs that were perhaps sparked by the solitary vision are remembered as part of a collective experience.

“There was a night when I visited Ryan in London where we first started laying down some of the foundations for “Irony. Utility. Pretext”, and we had worked for hours with this distorted sample off of an old [British Afro-pop band] Osibisa record. At a certain point we put it down and went out to the Marathon, where there used to always be a late night dance party in the back of this kebab shop. While I was standing in line for the toilet, this guy next to me turned and said, ‘This music is shit; my music is much better,’ and I just kind of smirked and nodded and asked ‘What’s your band?’

‘I play drums in a band called Osibisa,’ he said. We all danced and chanted the sample snippet from that song for the rest of the night.”

And to the question of the Matador signing, “We put out a demo of Claudette in 2013. Matador emailed us. We are really lucky.”

If you ask the wrong people—depending on their level of cynicism—political music either doesn’t or shouldn’t exist in 2015. It’s easy to veer from the extremes of lazy didactics to “all outrage is a pose.” And politics one agrees with guarantees nothing. You can hate Ayn Rand and still know The Incredibles is a better movie than The Lego Movie. But Algiers seem to be aiming to be a non-capital P punk band that espouses radical politics with quality and without apology. Algiers aren't a “DIY” band and to their credit they don’t misuse the term for marketing as so many bands do. With such songs as “Black Eunuch” and “Irony Utility Pretext”, singer and main lyricist (Ryan: “Franklin writes the lyrics. Lee and I contribute where we can, but it is ultimately Franklin’s intellect that drives the content. It’s a dialectic process in the sense that ideas beget responses and spill over into form.”), Franklin James Fischer bridges a divide between the absolutely essential sensuality of rock and R&B and the learned scream of post-punk.

Franklin says, “For as long as I can remember, both of my parents have always been very heavily involved in the community. My dad helped found one of the main black youth outreach programs in the state and since my mom retired she's committed herself full time to more community service organizations than I can count—all of which keep her very busy. The one thing they always repeated to us when we were growing up was to 'be a productive member of society so you can give back.' I suppose Algiers is my personal version of that but I'm not sure that's exactly what they had in mind."

Ryan says of the necessary for Algiers balance of aesthetic, politics, and action that, “Art is limited in its ability to effect change. It can, like philosophy, seek to render the contours of what a different world could look like or act as a sticking point for people to express common desires and frustrations. Ultimately, it is a discourse, which can have real effects in society. Sadly, the dominant discourse within popular music is ideologically apolitical, in that it manifestly maintains the status quo and supports capitalist hegemony, consumerism, misogyny, violence and individualism. Given this context, you have a choice to make. We choose to intervene in this situation. We do not have a road map to avoid clichés, other than to be honest and maintain fidelity to a notion of justice and truth.” All the members are directly political to varying degrees, with Ryan himself having worked with People’s Assembly in the UK and worked with refugee communities to “demand access to mental health and other provisions.”

Algiers briefly came under fire from Atlanta partisans because of a interview where some things they said were out of context and could be taken as a pretty harsh take on the area in which they all grew up; the implication taken that Atlanta was some sort of cultural wasteland from which they couldn’t wait to escape. Some of the criticism came from the understandable place of general ire at the notion that one had to move to NYC or LA or London to “find yourself.”

Lee, who felt most responsible for the quotes in question, says, “That wasn’t what we were implying at all. We grew up in the endless sprawling suburbs outside of Atlanta, and the city itself was where we looked for inspiration and an escape from the conservative and repressive trappings of our experiences with the South. None of us actually call Atlanta a cultural void in the interview, and none of us would ever refer to anywhere as such. For me, it was a place that I spent my entire life until the last few years that had a great impact on me as an individual, both good and bad. Quite the opposite, the city of Atlanta was a cultural oasis for us that had a profound effect socio-politically as well as musically, and is where we were able to connect with like-minded people and scenes that influenced us immensely… At the same time, you can’t profess a love for everything, and just because something was homegrown doesn’t make it inherently interesting or desirable to me. There were definitely periods that I felt stagnated, and sounds and art that I found banal or had no interest in. One should desire for things to be destroyed so that new things can grow and take over and new generations can inject new life.”

Ryan adds, “It is absurd to label any place a 'cultural void.' All societies are fluid and changeable, and we challenge any fixed notion of identity. One of our fundamental points, however, is to highlight how the dominant culture—in this case the white supremacist superstructure that we have inherited in the South and the US generally through Native American genocide, slavery, Jim Crow and the modern police state—has maintained power by silencing and suppressing difference. Similarly, neoliberalism, following David Harvey, contributes to a cultural voiding of urban spaces. In other words, colonialism continues to this day in the form of 'urban regeneration.' It is a very real and violent process, destroying communities and negating entire histories. In this situation, there are people who benefit from this, however obliquely, and no matter how well intentioned, well connected or artistic they profess to be; they cannot escape the implications of this privilege.”

Growing up in churchgoing (to varying degrees: Ryan went to a Southern Baptist church, Lee to a Catholic church, Franklin to a Baptist church) families in Atlanta, Algiers’ connection to the church is complicated. Gospel is a huge influence whether directly or through spiritual protest singers such as Odetta. So what place does faith actually hold for the band? Or is it just a genre that moves them so they use it?

Ryan says, “Gospel has always lingered in the margins of pop music. Racism has ensured that it remains liminal, that the originators rarely benefit from its global commodification. But as an influence, it is actually really commonplace, particularly in the most decadent forms of rock and roll. This album is an attempt to problematize this history in our music. Religion also makes people angry. You can literally see this anytime we are written about online. Alongside how much they hate my hair, they really rage at our deployment of “spiritual” music to further an anti-establishment agenda. In order to be truthful, however, there has to be an attempt to represent these contradictions. That said; the establishment’s God is nowhere to be found in Algiers.”

Operating within the traditions of faith but rejecting the divine fits snuggly within Algiers’ contradictions. I, being a godly man myself, pray that people, the kids as it where, get it and, more, embrace the band. Hell, may happen. I hope so. Lee told me a story that’s probably as close to biblical parable as Algiers is willing to get. It combines the power of the earthy secular (youth, rock music) and the transcendent (Stevie Wonder, Fisher-Price).

Lee’s father, after seeing Young Lee dance around to his Fish-Price tape player in his under-roos, made him a tape of “classics.”

“A few years later, I decided I really wanted to play the guitar. After pestering my mother for months, she took me to the one music store near us. It was the first time I had ever set foot in one. I picked out the cheapest guitar that they had and arrived at the front counter at the exact same time as Stevie Wonder. The store clerk introduced me to him. He said it was my first guitar. Stevie shook my hand and wished me the best of luck in my music career. I remember at the time thinking it made sense, that musicians hung out in music stores, that he probably went in there every afternoon to fuck around on the keyboards, that Boz Scaggs would ring me out the next time or I would see Slash in the parking lot.

I went straight home, plugged in the guitar, set the Fisher-Price tape recorder in front of the amp, and recorded over the music that my father had given me. When I played it back, due to extremely dirty tape heads, remnants of Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the rest of my father’s music crept up and faded in and out of my feedback and noise. I suppose things haven’t really changed.”

God is real (maybe). So is the revolution (maybe). Get into Algiers (definitely).

Zachary Lipez believes in this, damnit. Follow him on Twitter.

Catch Algiers on tour:

Sep 17: Brighton Music Hall, Boston MA
Sep 18: The Mercury Lounge, New York NY
Sep 19: Boot & Saddle, Philadelphia PA
Sep 20: Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington DC
Sep 22: Terminal West, Atlanta GA
Sep 24: Three Links, Dallas TX
Sep 25: Red 7, Austin TX
Sep 27: Valley Bar, Phoenix AZ
Sep 28: The Roxy Theatre, West Hollywood CA
Sep 30: The Independent, San Francisco CA
Oct 2: Kilby Court, Salt Lake City UT
Oct 3: Larimer Lounge, Denver CO
Oct 5: Firebird, St. Louis MO
Oct 6: The Empty Bottle, Chicago IL
Oct 7: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Cleveland OH
Oct 8: Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto ON
Oct 9: Bar Le Ritz PDB, Montreal QC
Oct 11: Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY
Oct 27: Loppen, Copenhagen DK
Oct 29: Strom, Munich, DE
Oct 30: Mousonturm, Frankfurt, DE
Oct 31: Badehaus Szimpla, Berlin, DE
Nov 1: Motolow, Hamberg, DE
Nov 2: Gebaude 9, Cologne, DE
Nov 3: Beautes Soniques Festival, Namar, BE
Nov 4: AB Club, Brussels, BE
Nov 6: The Hug & Pint, Glasgow, UK
Nov 7: Gulliver’s, Manchester, UK
Nov 8: The Hope, Brighton, UK
Nov 9: The Lexington, London, UK
Nov 11: Les Inrocks, Paris, FR
Nov 12: Festival Les Indisciplines, Lorient, FR
Nov 13: La Cartonnerie, Reims, FR FREE SHOW
Nov 14: Sonic Visions Festival, Luxembourg
Nov 16: La Coope, Cermont Ferrand, FR
Nov 17: Le Ninkasi Cafe, Lyon, FR FREE SHOW
Nov 19: Frion, Fribourg, CH
Nov 20: Palace, St Gallen, CH