Peer Review: Algiers Interview Backxwash… And Vice Versa

As Algiers prepare for the release of their new album SHOOK, tQ invited them and one of the album's collaborators Backxwash to interview one another about metal, rap, gospel, cage fighting, cocktails and more

Algiers, photo by Ebru Yildiz

Music writers. Who needs ’em? We recently had the opportunity to get collaborating artists Algiers and Backxwash together. We left Franklin James Fisher and Ryan Mahan representing Algiers and Ashanti Mutinta, aka Backxwash to have a conversation about both their individual and joint practice, without any interference from us.

Algiers are an Anglo American post punk band with gothic, gospel and hip hop tendencies. James Fisher and Ryan Mahan have known each other since childhood in Atlanta, Georgia, co-founding Algiers just over a decade ago. The name Algiers was selected to underscore an anti-colonial mindset, and an interest in resisting violence and racism, while exploring other issues such as religion. The band have been a permanent fixture in tQ’s end of year charts over the last decade.

Ashanti Mutinta, known to her fans in North America and beyond as Backxwash, is a Zambian-Canadian rapper and producer who lives in Montreal, Quebec. Her 2020 debut album, which mixes hip hop with both doom metal and post rock production, God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It won that year’s Polaris Music Prize.

Algiers’ fourth album SHOOK, out next week on Matador, is a game-changer for the band, roping in an all-star cast of supporting musicians, vocalists and writers, including Zack De La Rocha of Rage Agains The Machine, Nadah El Shazly, De Forrest Brown Jr and Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands. Backxwash appears alongside Billy Woods on the track ‘Bite Back’.

Algiers Interview Backxwash

First off, you are an absolute dream collaboration. It was amazing to work with someone so incredible at their art and someone so kind, open, trusting and generous with their time! How are you so amazing in what can sometimes be a less than ideal environment for collaborating? What are some of your dream collaborations?

Ashanti Mutinta: I have always been a fan of your work and am extremely honoured to have worked on this project with y’all! I’m an introvert, so I find it helpful to work on projects that allow me to build a creative environment within my own space. I struggled to find a recording studio that supported the themes and style of my music, and as a result I felt less comfortable expressing myself in sessions. I finally found a studio that was a good match for me with my friend and mixing engineer Will Owen Bennett. When Covid hit, I had to set up a DIY recording space at home which ended up being a positive as it allowed me to work at my own pace and have more flexibility.

My dream collaborations are Trent Reznor, Lady Of Rage, and Godflesh. I would have loved a Gangsta Boo verse. I think a Mos Def collaboration would be really interesting! Diamanda Galás, being an artist that I draw from and hold dearly, would be a nice addition to this list as well. There are many interesting people I would love to work with one day.

We all have very different approaches to process. At the same time, process is super important for our creative fulfillment. What is your process? What are some things you have to have — physical, financial, gear or otherwise — to achieve what you set out to do?

AM: I have an intuitive approach to producing music and usually like to start with the instrumentals or a sample. Sometimes the concept may start as one thing before making the beat, but then takes a turn leading me elsewhere. In terms of tools, I like to keep things simple for the most part; I mainly use FL Studio if I am producing the music myself. I’m not into stock plugins and spend a lot of time sourcing VSTs and session recordings. I love Kontakt suite, it helps me a lot with curating instruments. As for the rest, I write my rhymes and fine tune and edit them while recording. It’s important to me to get the music mixed and mastered so that all the chaos can make sense together and translate the way I intended it to.

We don’t have a huge metal background — despite working with and befriending Randall Dunn, loving bands like Duma and knowing the words to pretty much the entire Iron Maiden catalogue. Lee has also seen Korn an ungodly amount of times. Can you put us onto some metal that Algiers should rep? Where did your love of metal come from, who’s your fav and can you rank the following metal genres: power, progressive, black, death, nu, grind and thrash?

AM: I tell this story a lot but Linkin Park and Nine Inch Nails were my gateway into harsher music at the time. I really loved the mixture of genres in Hybrid Theory and ‘Faint’ was my goto song. This is back when I lived in Zambia trying to burn music onto compact discs. I think Algiers should check out Godflesh, Pupil Slicer, Ithaca, and The Callous Daoboys just to name a few. Oransi Pazuzu and Imperial Triumphant are some of my top bands. Diamanda Galás isn’t necessarily metal but I feel her work fully captures and even goes beyond the spirit and intention of metal. I would rank those genres: Death, Progressive, Nu, Black, Grind and Trash in terms of just the sounds I gravitate to but I’m mostly interested in everything. Also shout out to The Antifascist Black Metal Network for introducing the public to non-sketchy black metal bands.

We also have to rap about rap. Can you put us onto some of your favourite oldies? And your current top 5 — either mcs, albums, etc.?

AM: My favourite oldies would probably be Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous by Big L, Mm…Food by GOD MC MF DOOM, Mos Def’s Black On Both Sides, From Filthy Tongue Of Gods And Griots by Dälek just to name a few but my lists always change. Dirty Harriet By Rah Digga is hard and I can’t forget Mystic Stylez by Three 6 Mafia. My current top five emcees are JPEGMafia, Little Simz, Censored Dialogue, Danny Brown and Pusha T in no order at all.

You seem to be a huge fan of UFC, and sports in general. Sports fandom seems to be a little “uncool” for left-of-centre musicians. But we have fans amongst us — Lee, baseball; Matt, football; Ryan basketball — how did your interest take shape? Who do you stan (teams, individuals, otherwise) and why?

AM: I just gradually started watching it and getting into it. I used to think it was mindless fighting but once I was aware of the tactical stuff that went into it, and the strength of the mind it took, it became ten times more interesting for me. Right now in terms of fighters I stan Ciryl Gane, Yair Rodriguez, Amanda Nunes as well as Izzy Adesanya (I just have to mute him on all social media though!) My reasoning is that I love quick agile fighters and dodging and evasion is my favourite part of the sport. Seeing a counter fighter pick out an opponent is always so magnetizing. I love Amanda because she is literally just the best. I think she is even better than Shevchenko.

We feel an affinity with you for your absolute transcendence of genre and trespassing through — and still industry wide — cishet white spaces (though we recognise the work so many fans and artists are doing to actively undermine this). How do you cope with the industry’s propensity toward reductionism, mislabelling, misidentifying and sometimes deep refusal to accept liminality in musical, personal or political terms?

AM: I think it is most important to remind myself that I am making music specifically just for me and whoever listens can receive it how they want. I really have no control over that but all I can do is grab onto what feels authentic to me when I am sharing my art and work, that is something precious that can never change or be taken away.

Additionally, we have literally been called everything from industrial soul rock to doom soul to plain old indie rock? What’s the funniest/most annoying genre label you’ve received? How do you describe your music to parents and other older folks you encounter on a day-to-day basis?

AM: The one that annoys me is the trap-metal tag. Nothing against it, I love trap-metal but I feel like what I’m doing with the drum work, mixture of noise and how the guitars are placed is more indicative of the works of Dälek, 2nd Gen, or The Beatnigs. The last three works have been straight up industrial hip hop and that is something that I carry proudly. When it comes to older folks I just usually say it is a mixture of hip hop and metal. That is basically what I told my dentist.

The name Algiers references both an anti-colonial/ anti-capitalist/ anti-oppressive resistance and the desire to open up creative worlds where everything can be expressed from the deeply personal to the deeply indifferent. How does your own work relate to these poles? Can artists be free to express all this? Or are we forced to be one or the other?

AM: I think both of these can be done at the same time. Algiers is an example of a band that does this very well. It’s challenging for me to bring in anti-colonial resistance while also being so personal, but I’m always reminded that my existence in itself is anti-oppressive. The structures in place don’t really want people like me around, and I am reminded of it in daily interactions but to me that is what makes it impactful.

Can you tell us how your work relates to your own unique history growing up in Lusaka and living across Canada? How do all the scenes compare?

AM: The music scene in Lusaka was great; things were very DIY and communitarian while also being extremely creative and unique. Sharing of sounds was a hallmark of the scene. There was a time when you could know what neighbourhood a beat came from just based on the drums used because someone you know shared that same sample pack with you. We never really did get airplay, especially if you were rapping in English, but making music without any other care was very gratifying and beneficial to my development as a musician. I find that from my experience as an adult, the Canadian scene tends to fall into the same structures they are trying to fight against. When capital is introduced, then someone somewhere is being exploited.

For some levity, what is the strangest thing that has ever happened to you? What is your favourite place to play? If you drink, do you have a favourite cocktail?

AM: There was a time when I was contacted and asked to perform at a government ceremony, but was required to keep it “clean”/“apolitical”, I have a hunch that they hadn’t listened to the music beforehand. As for my favourite place to play, it’s probably La Sotterenea. I just love the energy and dedication to the DIY scene that the venue has. Completely engulfs itself in weird bands and everything else in between all located in this weird little basement environment. I usually drink hard seltzers these days but I did love straight Vodka when I used to go hard.

Finally, after shows some of us like to rave at goth clubs and others like to have a quiet cocktail. Can you put us onto the best late-night spots for these purposes in Montreal?

AM: Make sure you hit up Casa Del Popolo, these days I usually go home but Casa is a bar and music venue has a very familiar and comforting feeling. Also can I please get a guestlist spot when you play in Montreal thank you!

Backxwash by Chachi Revah

Backxwash Interviews Algiers

Apologies for starting off with a slightly clichéd question, but I’m wondering if there was something specific that triggered the creation of the album process? Algiers are a very deliberate band and I was very curious if there was a specific event that lit that spark.

Franklin James Fisher: That’s not clichéd at all. To be honest, there was no masterplan at the beginning of this album. When the world shut down we suddenly found ourselves with a lot of free time and personal space for the first time in years. Lee and Ryan took time to pursue the Dead Meat and Mondo Decay projects, respectively and I just started writing songs indiscriminately because it’s what I love to do. Months later all these pieces came together and we had the foundational elements for a new Algiers record.  

One of the first things I noticed when I first heard Algiers back in 2015 or 2016 was Franklin’s booming voice. It brought me back to having that experience as a child going to a black church but over these harrowing industrial sounds. I was wondering if you could talk about how your experience in the black church and the effect it had on your artistry.

FJF: I really wish I had started singing in the church when I was a kid. Both of my sisters did and they’re incredible but I never did. For every Beyonce, Whitney Huston or  D’Angelo you’ve heard you can find people who sing better than any of them in any given Black church in America; they’re just not interested in the world of fame and fortune. I guess I absorbed a little of that energy in how I sing but I didn’t really discover my voice until Ryan and I started writing what would become the earliest Algiers songs. Before that I was always the lead guitarist in bands and never really sang much. I used to get in trouble in school a lot for talking too much…only to find out later that I just got singled out because I talk very loudly. I come from a loud family. We’re a nightmare to watch a movie with if you’re the type of person who requires total silence when you want to watch something. 

I read in an interview that at that time you still didn’t consider yourself a singer which is extremely wild to me because you have such a powerful voice. Do you still feel the same way?

FJF: I’ve come to terms with my voice but for the same reasons as the above question, no I’m not really a singer… not by my standards and I’m definitely not a gospel singer – that requires years of training and a command over one’s voice that I simply don’t have. I feel very constrained by what my voice can do, which is to say, I wish it were more versatile but it usually just comes out as the “booming” thing. More importantly though, I’m learning to work with what I have and to always (hopefully) become a better songwriter. 

You sampled Pastor T.L Barret on ‘In Parallax’ and that made me extremely happy. Did his music have any effect on you?

FJF: Word. Yeah, it makes me happy too! I listen to gospel music on Sunday mornings and when I’m feeling particularly down. I bought that record randomly one day and it turned out to be a gem. That one section of ‘Wonderful’ (the song I sampled for ‘In Parallax’) jumped out at me one day. It’s funny how sometimes samples can announce themselves to you in that way.  

You are a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, piano and even the cello, just to name a few. I’m a huge fan of artists with off-shoot projects. Is that something you would be ever interested in doing?

FJF: Absolutely. For whatever reason, a lot of our fans who’ve never seen us play don’t realize that I play an instrument but yeah, there’s nothing I love more. I’ve been working on my own project for a while now that I’m hoping to finish this year. I wrote the original demos the same time I wrote most of the demos for SHOOK but my hard drives crashed and all my files were lost. It was pretty devastating but I took it as a sign that it wasn’t time yet. Otherwise, I’m always looking for new opportunities to play with people in different contexts. I feel like doing that makes you a better musician and a better bandmate whenever you rejoin the fold in your own group. 

Okay I would like to segue into a hip hop question for now because I’m a fanatic. Who are your top five emcees and what are your top five hip hop projects of all time?

FJF:  Top Five Emcees:


(I feel like that changes for me every few weeks) 

Top Five Hip Hop Projects: 

Dungeon Family
Wu Tang Clan
Native Tongues
That thing when MF Doom just had random cats waving the mask and pretending to be him on stage. It was a brilliant piece of performance art.

Ryan Mahan: I’m going to cheat on this one and just randomly list things because it’s so hard to reduce it down — I gotta say ATL (from Outkast, Goodie M.O.B., Killer Mike through Jeezy to Future and Young Thug), Memphis/Houston (Three 6 Mafia, Gangsta Boo, UGK, SwishaHouse, 8Ball and MJG), Y2K NYC (Jean Grae, Cannibal Ox, Doom, Company Flow, El-P). Currently, I love Backwoodz and Backxwash of course, and that Akai Solo record! Navy Blue. Earl. Geng PTP just dropped our Shook World collab with some of the best folks around: Nakama, Desde, Maasai, Amani and more. Boldy James and Danny Brown are Detroit icons. I think Curren$y is so underrated. Fatboi Sharif. That shit is endless. As far as old school — the typical ones, KMD, Ultramagnetic MCs, EPMD, Biggie, M.O.P., Foxy Brown, DITC, Boot Camp, Lauryn Hill, Bahamadia. The list is endless. 

Some of my all-time favs are Supreme Clientele, Piñata, In Our Lifetime, Fetti, The Ecstatic, The Future Is Now and Blowout Comb

The first album I heard from Algiers was the hard-hitting self-titled debut. It is extremely powerful and I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit about how your politics influence the songwriting in itself?

RM: Thank you so much for saying that. I love the first album. SHOOK is closest to our debut in terms of process. But this is actually a very complicated and intricate question. I wouldn’t say that politics influence our songwriting directly, unless there’s a specific emotion or feeling that sweeps through the conjuncture, say for example ‘Cleveland’ which attempts to act as an evolving memorial to every single person past, present and future, murdered by the police state in the US; or ‘Cry Of The Martyrs’ that speaks to moments of revolutionary courage in the face of abject reactionary betrayal and certain death. But even those deal with personal, complex subjectivities, rather than reductionist notions of activism. Moreover, we have so many different tendencies within the band. Franklin prefers not to be reduced to a political band, finding it narrow and constraining, whereas I am proudly communist, finding liberating elements in even the most historical materialist forms of artistic expression. When we started out, however, we felt we had to make clear the foundations and principles from which our art progressed. For example, more than the axiom that everything is political, which it is, we wanted to state that music is social at its very root, emerging from a nexus of specific historical contexts, capitalist modes of production and complex forms of oppression, whether in the form of colonial violence or imperial appropriation. Second, music industries act as numerous means of exploitation, preying upon the creative output of creative labourers, most notably Black cultural labourers, for corporate and individualist gain. From there, everything else from heartbreak to laughter has a social ground.

Algiers photo by Ebru Yildiz

Do you have any plans to do a show or tour Africa?

RM: We have been trying to get to Africa, Algeria specifically, since we started. We got close in 2019, right during the Hirak Movement. We had been invited to perform at a Pan-African Festival, but had our performance visa revoked during the uprising. I still took the opportunity to visit and spent a number of fulfilling days meeting and building with folks who had an intimate relationship with their anti-colonial past, including the late Saadi Yacef, Algerian revolutionary and producer/actor of the film, The Battle Of Algiers. We’re literally trying everything in our power to go back. Can we organize a larger tour with us, you and Duma?

One of my favourite songs from Algiers is ‘Irony.Utility.Pretext’. The production, performance, lyricism are just so top notch. The visual element is also something I admire a lot. I’m in love with the different quotes throughout the video and I was wondering how you went about selecting them?

RM: I really love that song and video. Frankie and I wanted to pay respect to the Black roots of techno and post punk through the distorted horror lens of John Carpenter. It was kinda like Cybotron or Planet Rock in sound meets Assault On Precinct 13 or They Live in concept — kinda how the mainstream media and some white artists by proxy prey on black creativity and materially perpetuate the social misery from which it emerges, committing a kind of artistic murder. It was made at a time when there were white bands wearing polos and using Afropop textures to further their careers. I won’t mention any names! So we wanted to stage the “we put our faith into Afropop in a decolonised context” lyrics against historical settings of so-called communist utopian architecture and the impassioned calls of revolutionaries. Those quotes are from people who lived lives in direct opposition to these states of affairs — Angela Davis, Frantz Fanon, St Just, Marx, Fred Hampton, Kierkegaard and more. Ultimately, despite all that heady stuff, it’s a fun b-boy anthem. 

For artists creating music in this space of leftist politics, how essential do you think reading theory and actively participating in community organising is?

RM: Music introduced me to politics. And politics inform our music. Theory is great if you’re into it. But living or communing or organizing or expressing are important in and of themselves. There is no template and we are far from ones to be able to lead in these spaces. We are traveling together. 

On this next project you have Big Rube, Billy Woods, me(!) and Zach De La Rocha (who is one of my favourite artists). What made y’all think to get such a really eclectic round of features?

RM: For this album, we dreamed up a list of folks to work with, and we were thankful to have spaces and pockets for y’all’s beautiful artistry to manifest. It was all a dream. It was amazing for us to experience such enthusiastic responses. We had no idea anyone would actually join in the process, so it was incredible to feel and experience. The eclectic feeling emerges from people we thought we had a kinship with, chosen family in their respective fields, avant-jazz, rap, metal, avant r&b, spoken word and so much more. It became something like various meditations on the concept of SHOOK

I think this would be a nice spot for advice. Is there any advice you would give someone who is influenced by your music? Thank you so much for answering these questions.

RM: Thank you so much for your kindness and consideration. Your music is incredible. You are such a warm and genuine collaborator. Speaking of leadership, we feel you play such a great role in expressing and influencing great shifts in musical discourse, whether that’s genre trespassing or political representation. My only advice is to accept yourself, accept that it’s tough to exist in the margins, accept that you are more than the empty expectations of an exploitative industry. Every expression, however microscopic it feels, is meaningful.

SHOOK by Algiers is out via Matador on 24 February

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