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Escape Velocity

You Have To Fight For Change: Algiers Interviewed
Luke Turner , April 22nd, 2015 10:37

Politicised trio Algiers come roaring out of the American South with a righteous and heady mix of gospel, Rowland S Howard guitar noise and a drum machine. They speak to Luke Turner about the cultural void of Atlanta, colonialism, racism and the apathy of their peers

When did you last hear an American indie rock band who might be described as righteous? Recently on the Quietus, David Stubbs wrote an excellent essay in which he pointed out that one of the many myths of a musical Golden Age is the one that states politics has been wrung out of contemporary music. Then again, when I sat down to wonder who might count among the fellow travellers of brilliant, visceral, roaring new group Algiers, I was utterly stumped. I asked friends. Who were the successors to Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre? They were stumped too. If there's one thing that has characterised the supposed left field of American indie rock over the past decade, it's a strange beige distancing from the reality of 21st-century American life, let alone a critiquing of it. The various scenes that have come and gone - chillwave, witch house, PBR&B, the tonnes of stuff that sounds like Pavement - have thrived on a detached, unthreatening irony, something I wrote extensively about in this essay from 2011.

Which is why Algiers demand your attention. The trio hail from Atlanta, a place that they're far from positive about in the course of this interview. This is perhaps why their members are now based in New York and London, and it's certainly why their music is a wrestling with and slicing up of their Southern roots, politically and musically. Are Algiers an industrial group playing gospel rock, a gospel group playing industrial rock, or a rock group playing some new-fangled industrial gospel? Their debut self-titled album begins with a menacing drone and drum pattern and a Southern gospel hum, all rising to a chorus that never quite explodes. Tracks like 'Old Girl' have a drum machine that hisses like they're Suicide's grandsons before Franklin James Fisher's vaulting chorus. Their website, which is where I first encountered them, is a scrolling pamphlet, not just of radical musical influences (Public Enemy, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Throbbing Gristle, The Slits, This Heat) but essays and speeches from Edward Said, The Weather Underground and radical African-American politics. There is, for instance, a link to the Black Panther tract Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide.

Given that most of tumblr is an easily-thrown-together load of old mush this could count for nothing. Algiers, though, are not posturing dilettantes. Every video they've released in the run-up to Algiers has come accompanied online by a well-written and argued screed putting them in a political context. Their answers to my interview were considered and in-depth, whether discussing the desolation of Atlanta, the radical inspiration of being in Newcastle on 9/11, Ferguson, their name and colonialism, or how "the guitar has committed more pop crimes than any other instrument in the latter half of the 20th century". Their music just bristles with a thudding intensity that I've not heard in ages. They sound like early Bad Seeds fixated on politics rather than sex and a voyeuristic trip through a macabre fiction of the American South. They see complacency as the enemy in the country of the birth where, as Fisher puts it, "institutionalised violence against people of colour is more American than apple pie." Algiers are righteous, and this is what they have to say.

Was gospel music a big part of your upbringing and childhood?

Franklin James Fisher: It was for me but it was also kind of distant. Both sides of my family are from North Carolina, but we moved to the suburbs of Atlanta when I was two years old. We were one of the first and only black families in the county and therefore, became members of a predominantly white church, where the music was very reserved, very stoic. On Sunday morning we'd wake up to my mom blasting this amazing gospel music on the downstairs radio - it was the music she and my dad had grown up with. In fact, my father's dad was in a gospel vocal group in the 30s. We'd listen to the gospel channel on the car radio on the way to church and have this great musical experience until we actually got to church, where the party would abruptly end, so to speak. But my parents were also very active in, what was then, the very small black community, so we would travel to other neighbourhoods and visit more traditional gospel churches - which provided the same intensely visceral and spiritual experience we would get from the Sunday morning radio. But what made the greatest impression was when we went to my grandparents' churches in North Carolina. It was something altogether different: three-hour-long services, everyone dressed up, old people dancing in the aisles or catching the spirit and fainting, the whole congregation singing along, people playing tambourines. It made a lasting impression on my sisters and me and to this day remains an essential component of our spiritual and cultural identities, which are inextricably bound. I always joke that so many of my white friends are atheists because the music they had in church was so bad.

Ryan Mahan: George Jones was the closest I ever came to popular religious music as a child. I arrived at gospel much later, drawn in by its contradictions, the expressions of exaltation and exasperation - the overriding sense of doom amid the jubilation - present in everything from Judy Clay to the McIntosh County Shouters. As a source for our music, gospel also poses a number of theoretical challenges. It problematises my own relationship, as a privileged white southerner, with indigenous forms, how we're all inextricably linked to appropriation and dispossession. It also throws into question the modern obsession with the artefact and the 'Columbising' impulse of musical discovery. That is why noise, harsh sonics and other experimental forms are such useful tools when exploring this musical past, representing in some senses incommensurability and the violence of capitalist exchange.

How did Algiers all first meet? How did the band form?

Ryan Mahan: Simon Critchley says philosophy - and by extension art and politics - begins in disappointment. As three Southerners at the turn of the century, the manifestations of such misery were everywhere: the historical amnesia, the faceless suburban homes, the race baiting, the Bush bumper stickers and the Jesus billboards. When Franklin, Lee and I first met, we bonded over this shared sense of frustration and powerlessness. Thinking back, I'm reminded of Mark Fisher's concept of capitalist realism: "It's easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is the end of capitalism." We felt particularly out of joint with our personal and collective environs. We loved music but had no scene. We were engaged in politics but had no outlet for political expression. Yet constructing any coherent alternative narrative seemed equally impossible. For us, the old punk adage, 'there is no future', did not go far enough; there was no present or past either. But rather than descending into the worst forms of nihilism or hedonism that had stricken so many of our peers, Algiers, at this stage, became the closest thing we had to a riot, a lashing out and an expression of discontent. It also named, however unwieldy, this search and this reclamation, recalling [Frantz] Fanon's messy political project of the anti-colonial struggle, reasserting the idea of the search for the new and reclaiming the promises of lost or forgotten futures.

How was Atlanta as a city to make music in?

Lee Tesche: Complex to say the least. One finds oneself defined by place at a young age. I think I once said that Atlanta was where dreams go to die. It's an environment that has continually tried to rework its identity all the way back to the end of the Civil War - from baby boomers fleeing the decaying cities of the north in the early 70s and building a highway through the centre of one of the most affluent black communities in the United States to the complete commodification of the city with the arrival of the Olympics in 1996.

By the time preparations for them began, any trace of the fledgling punk scene of the 80s that was centred around 688 [Club] or the Metroplex, or any bit of counterculture still remaining, like remnants of [newspaper] The Great Speckled Bird, had been eradicated along with one-way bus tickets for all of the homeless out of town, to make way for a bland Disney-fied culture and blank identity defined by Coca-Cola and CNN for the international stage. It felt like nowhere real, a place that was continually aspiring to be another place, and would always be in the musical shadow of Athens.

When you're 16, trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world, and you live in a city that is claiming and justifying its majesty by trying to be somewhere else, i.e. the New York of the South, someplace it wasn't and never would be nor should be, it creates an atmosphere where it's almost impossible to believe that anything real exists or that one can do anything remotely daring or challenging concerning art.

That environment and way of thought led to a city of emulation and revivalism, and a powerful mindset where if you really wanted to do something that mattered, you had to leave town and go to one of the "real" cities or scenes. If you stayed, a deep, unending malaise would set in, increasing exponentially with each year. It was such the antithesis of the city that an institution like WRAS was making possible. There were a few pockets of hope, these great places like the Eyedrum and Kirkwood Ballers Club, but the audience for them was very small. The most radical, forward-thinking sounds were coming from the other side of the city with the Dungeon Family and the burgeoning trap scene. Then I look over my shoulder and you've got these bozos trying to be the Reader's Digest Rolling Stones for some unknown fucking reason, like the world really needed that.

I really think that that whole stagnant climate and mode of thought infected that generation to the point that so many I know are cursed to a life adrift, jumping from one scene or city to the next, still searching for that identity and definition of place that we were deprived of. And those who stayed put, who didn't buy into the suburban idea, ultimately turned self-destructive.

When did you hit on what might now be described as your 'sound'?

FJF: I remember as Ryan and I were comparing song notes, it became increasingly apparent that punk rock and gospel had very similar energies: driving beats, shouting, call and response vocals, group participation, etc. It was enthralling to stumble on the similarities, and it's something we are still exploring.

Was the religion that often goes along with gospel part of your lives? What's your relationship with religion?

RM: Religion looms like a golem in my memories. Rather than a site of salvation and emancipation, the church was a house of repression and damnation. I went to a Southern Baptist church only a few miles from Stone Mountain, a towering 1,600-ft rock behemoth defaced on one side by a huge bas-relief of three 'leaders' of the Confederacy: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. Now this church was not the baying, fire-breathing caricature of Southern evangelicalism, but its 'respectable', middle-class cousin. The contradictions of white Southern identity permeated its foundations, a monochrome smattering of grey suits and polite smiles papering over the signs of the judgment: intolerance, hypocrisy, hierarchy and political conservatism. The solemn songs we sang, like 'Onward, Christian Soldiers', had none of the millenarian zeal or collectivism that I would later find in so much of African-American gospel. At the time, it was the boredom and the social isolation that initially pushed me away. Only much later was I able to locate some of my anti-establishment fervour in these experiences.

Did you have a formative personal experience, or a moment of political awareness?

FJF: I was young and living abroad for the first time in Newcastle, as part of a group of sixteen students studying British and American culture. The programme was about deconstructing concepts of nationhood and cultural identity at a time where those very concepts were being rallied into a propagandised, ideological frenzy by the American right. It was just after September 11 and just before the Bush administration's unilateral invasion of Iraq. As an American kid who grew up naively apolitical, living abroad while witnessing these events occur - particularly while deconstructing the effects of ideological indoctrination with myself as the subject - I found myself in the midst of a perfect storm which led to a Joycean epiphany. This is largely thanks to a series of honest but intense debates I had with Ryan at the time, who was another one of the students in the programme. There was something special about that whole group of kids. They've all gone on to do great things and most of us are still very close friends.

RM: My sister was the rebel in the family. She challenged racism and stood up to patriarchy at an early age. She also happened to introduce me to entirely new musical worlds: Repeater, Daydream Nation, Unknown Pleasures, Bizarre Ride II, The Pharcyde and Entertainment. This introduction to American and British independent music also formed another basis of my political awakening. After that, I was forever pouring over the SST, BYO and Dischord catalogues at my local record shop. This happened to coincide with my introduction to the black struggle in the United States, moving from the Civil Rights Movement to SNCC to the Panthers. I came to see African-American movements as the only truly American emancipatory politics. I then broadened out to the French Revolution, Cuba, Russia and Burkina Faso. I found particular fascination in the Highlander School and Myles Horton, but also gobbled up books on John Brown, Nat Turner, the Jacobins, Emma Goldman and Angela Davis. These two awakenings seemed to emerge simultaneously, but it took me another decade to eventually work out their interconnections and significance.

LT: One month after I picked up the guitar I interrupted a conversation some adults were having around me in a pizza restaurant with my promotion of gay rights. That's when my parents first started getting 'concerned'.

Why did you choose Algiers as a name? There are resonances with the postcolonial struggle with France - was that deliberate? I was wondering if that connected with what you said in a recent interview about "a larger indictment of a systemic and institutionalised oppression that transcends the African-American experience and which has managed to immobilise and suppress all marginalised voices"?

RM: Yes, Algiers refers to the anti-colonial struggle in general. The Algerian revolution was one of the first modern anti-colonial struggles and served as an inspiration for revolutionaries from Cuba to Mozambique, Oakland to Palestine. The Panthers had an office in Algiers; Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver were exiled there in the late 60s/early 70s. In this way, the name also refers to a dissipated notion of common cause, a truly global consciousness in opposition to the elite cosmopolitanism we see today. Of course, we learned about this through a variety of secondary sources: [Gillo] Pontecorvo's film, the Sartre and Camus debate on revolutionary violence and Fanon's Toward The African Revolution. Morricone's score to The Battle Of Algiers and Pasolini's use of African-American gospel music, most notably Odetta's version of 'Motherless Child' in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, also provided inspiration as soundtracks to resistance. Symbolically, the name refers to a contested space, where violence, racism, resistance and religion commingle. Fundamentally, it evokes a double movement of hope and melancholy - referring to the optimism fundamental to any political project and the violence and reaction inherent in the attempt to overthrow the status quo. You can probably also glean undercurrents of the current 'war on Islam' in the name as well.

Do you get frustrated with the political apathy of your contemporaries? If I look at most of the artists who might be considered your peers in the American independent music world they seem more concerned with escapism than politics.

FJF: I totally agree with that, but it's not surprising in the age of individual celebrity and fragmented communities. It seems nowadays everyone is too busy looking at themselves to look around them, no less do something about it. I remember when I was first learning about postmodernity somebody qualified the culture as being fun, shallow and meaningless... I think that sums it up quite nicely.

RM: Yes, this apathy shrouded in irony and peddled with a sense of superiority motivated us immensely. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. And it is obscene to suggest that any of us can avoid the consequences of historical, economic or social relations, particularly if you are an artist who benefits from the repackaging of certain musical forms for mass consumption. The culture industry in America, particularly as it relates to American independent music, also has a lot to answer for - most American tastemakers champion cults of beauty and youth over substance, and when it comes to African-American music, there is a creeping exploitation and fetishisation of black authenticity.

At the same time, I wouldn't lump all our peers or forebears into this. In general, there are a multitude of ways to practise musical politics, from Crass communalism through Neubauten noise to Public Enemy fury. We're also seeing a reinvigoration of music that speaks truth to social antagonism on both sides of the Atlantic: Priests, Perfect Pussy, Good Throb, Vatican Shadow, Helm, and so on. Ultimately, though, while I would say politics is fundamental to art, I would not say, following Stokely Carmichael, that we are an issue-based band.

I do find it fascinating that you mix gospel influences with sonic aesthetics that I hear from more electronic/harsher places. Never the twain shall meet, usually. Why is this natural to you?

RM: Lee and I both touched on this earlier. There is a sense of a grappling with the notion of musical history, that exchange is not free and that the music industry has been affected by the same violent impulses underpinning colonialism or capitalism. It speaks to the limitations of communication and the monstrosity of entertainment in such times. It is also a matter of personal preference. We all are drawn to experimental forms that emerged in the intervening years between gospel and 'noise', and certain points of intense cross-pollination, drawing the lines from Kraftwerk through Bambaataa, Section 25, Cybotron and Throbbing Gristle.

I can also hear Rowland S Howard and Blixa Bargeld's work with Nick Cave here. Were they inspirations?

LT: If one could take away two things from them, it's a) the importance of the role of the musical foil in the dynamics of a band, and b) that it's extremely important to have a healthy amount of disgust and disdain towards your chosen instrument so as to approach it with the right amount of scepticism and restraint. The guitar has committed more pop crimes than any other instrument in the latter half of the 20th century, and it has a very limited and overly exhausted palette. Most guitar I encounter, particularly in a modern rock context, makes my skin crawl. I have a deep aversion towards the guitar, but at the same time, I'm somewhat cursed by the fact that it's the instrument I chose, the one I'm the most proficient in, and the one that I really have to battle and wrestle with so as to wrangle out the proper expression. I've always subconsciously connected it to some sort of loss in my life and because of that, I've quit playing more often than not because I just associate it with negative things.

Before we went into the studio I hadn't played it in a year. I wasn't in the best place in my personal life, and all I wanted to do was to destroy anything romantic or of beauty that I encountered. When I engage with it now, it's as a weapon that I only use when I absolutely have to.

Do you feel any positivity about the future of America? Do the Ferguson shootings and police violence make you feel like things are going backwards?

FJF: In my adult life, I've never felt any positivity about the future anywhere - certainly not in America. I'm not fooled by the office of President Obama; America is the same place it's always been. Institutionalised violence against people of colour is more American than apple pie. It's just that we have these ubiquitous handheld devices that can document it all now. But you have to fight and you have to try for change, if anything, to prevent conditions from becoming more miserable than they already are.

RM: I am both cynical and hopeful. Despite what we know about the state of the world - the crushing injustice - fatalism only serves the interests of the powerful.

Algiers is out on June 1 via Matador Records. They play Power Lunches in Dalston, London tonight, followed by dates in the US in May and June; head to their Facebook for full details