It would be easy to define Algiers as an insurgent ensemble. After all, they named themselves after a city that was at the crossover of the revolutionary movement of the 1960s, a place where Black Panthers, Angela Davis and other expats seeking to buck American authority took refuge when they were declared an existential threat to the internal order.
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The Atlanta-based band makes no attempt to mute that impression, and indeed, since their formation in 2012, they’ve consistently threaded together an array of disparate elements and ingredients to prove that point. The group — which currently consists of Franklin James Fisher (vocals, guitar, piano, Rhodes piano, cello, percussion, sampling), Ryan Mahan (bass, synthesisers, piano, percussion, drum programming, backing vocals), Lee Tesche (guitar, loops, percussion, backing vocals), and Matt Tong (drums, percussion, backing vocals) — creates a sound that combines a post punk ferocity and a hip hop mentality over third world rhythms and a lyrically political stance intended to rally the masses and shake up the establishment. Imagine an unlikely combination of Prince, Marvin Gaye, Fugazi, Iggy Pop and P.I.L., and then — and only then — Algiers’ antagonistic attitude begins to take focus.
Or simply sample this line from There Is No Year, the band’s fiercest effort to date: “Don’t Forget, it’s us against them,” Fisher rails, and indeed there’s not a moment throughout the album that doesn’t find them driving that point home with some kind of fiery finesse and manic mayhem.
To that end, the three albums they’ve issued so far — their eponymous debut released in June, 2015, their sophomore set, The Underside of Power, which came out precisely two years later, and now the aforementioned There Is No Year — offer a nihilistic view of an unsettled world where revolution and revolt seem the only answer.
Surprisingly then, Guitarist Lee Tesche not only sounds surprisingly civil, but downright amiable and accessible while explaining the origins of Algiers from his home in Atlanta.
“Ryan and I played in bands many years, and our mothers were actually friends many years before we were born,” he explains. “They were both school teachers, so we always knew each other and grew up playing music together. When we were in a band at the university, Franklin, our singer, was our number one fan, so when that band ended, he and Ryan decided they wanted to make music together. So we continued writing and inching along even though we were living in different places. In 2012, we put out our first seven inch and began to actualize some of the music we’d been writing. After Matador Records took an interest, we just continued on from there.”
Nevertheless, given the band’s dark underbelly, it’s not surprising that there’s always been some volatility involved. “It was a complicated thing, because we all wanted to approach it differently,” Tesche relates. “We had different ideas on where to go with it. A lot of it was informed by our last record in 2017, which in turn, couldn’t have been more different than the record before that. With our first album, as is usually the case, we had all the time in the world. Then all of a sudden we found ourselves touring and looking at the calendar, and realizing we had to do a follow-up album. We also realized that when you’re recording for a major label like Matador, it takes a long time to go through things and get the proper set-up and all that stuff. That pushed everyone into the studio at the end of that first record, and for better or for worse, it put a lot of pressure on us to write and come up with material on the spot. It became a very fractured process. It was a very disorganized blur which, in the end, turned into a fairly interesting album. This time around, we wanted to learn from our mistakes, do everything right and have the proper preparation.”
Indeed, the band’s been busy, touring Europe with the likes of Depeche Mode, performing at last year’s Glastonbury Festival, and filling huge stadiums and arenas in-between. At the same time, Fisher found himself creating an epic series of lyrics that would eventually become the foundation for the new album that was to come.
“We grew up on a lot of all sorts of music, from early rock and roll to punk and post-punk,” Tesche says of their disparate influences. “When I grew up, I was obsessed with the music coming out of Washington D.C., all the hardcore that wasn’t necessarily escapist music. It was socially conscious and had a lot of raw emotion. It just sort of struck a chord with me, and all of us relate on that level. Ryan and Franklin grew up huge rap and hip-hop fans, and a lot of that race-conscious West Coast stuff. All that energy and thought has always been part of that great arc we’ve been drawn to.”
While it might seem strange, at least on the surface, that all those disparate elements would eventually forge a cohesive whole, Tesche insists that it’s been far easier than it might otherwise appear.
“It’s actually been really easy for us to write and play music together because we’ve known each other for so long,” he says. “There are always love songs on our albums. Franklin’s a brilliant writer. He’s always writing about love and loss. He’s the romantic poet in the band. Ryan went to the London School of Economics and studied politics and history, so he can break it down and explain what it means. I went to art school, so my means of understanding and engaging in the world is by making art, so I leave it to other people to analyze and figure out what it’s supposed to be about. I feel like music and art shouldn’t always be so specific. We try to create songs that are left up to the listeners to interpret so they can draw their own conclusions and give it any meaning they want.”
Ultimately then, perhaps Algiers aren’t as didactic as they may first appear.
“There’s no specific agenda with this band,” Tesche insists. “To try to make some sort of artistic statement is just as naive as thinking you’re going to sell a million records. We’re trying to figure it all out just like anyone outside the group might be trying to do. I think that’s a healthy thing.”