Algiers, the Atlanta-based power trio turned into a four-piece (Matt Tong on drums), is back. Follow-up an incendiary record like their self-titled debut could be a frightening challenge for most, but in these dark times they show up more ready and energetic than ever. We talked Franklin James Fisher and Ryan Mahan about the impressive mix of punk/blues/hip hop/noise/industrial/gospel, cynicism, the US of A, and their fantastic new album The Underside of Power.
Ryan, I was looking your facebook page, checking if there was something that could help me with my interview and… it’s funny. I found out that you shared an article, a couple of months ago, that actually talks about something we talked about in our first conversation – if you remember we talked about how the so-called former colonies are in fact, to this day, still exploited by its colonizers. I’m talking about The Guardian article about the research made that concludes that “There’s such a powerful narrative in western societies that Africa is poor and that it needs our help. This research shows that what African countries really need is for the rest of the world to stop systematically looting them. While the form of colonial plunder may have changed over time, its basic nature remains unchanged.” It’s funny because a very recent research actually allows us to pick our conversation basically were we left off two years ago.
Ryan Mahan: Yeah, it’s really interesting how that works because obviously… There’s a lot of research done on neo-colonialism and the fact colonialism never disappeared and it’s just taken on different forms and manifestations. That’s definitely the case. I work in charities, in the UK, and I have a problematic relationship with certain elements of charity sector, particularly the development sector, because they have this narrative, as you say, that Africa is poor and it is almost a self-fulfilling thing where people then seem to think that they have some sort of expert knowledge over people who live in countries in Africa and therefore they, young white kids, can go there and help them develop business without recognizing that fact that the reason that poverty exists is the completely economical unbalance, oppression, injustice, exploitation, and extractive policies of all the countries in Europe, including Portugal. Yeah, it’s definitely an interesting topic that we try to keep alive. Obviously that’s part of why we chose the name Algiers, to reflect this entire history that’s supposed to be in the past, but is still in the present and it will exist in the future unless we do something about it.
Talking about white kids trying to help the people in Africa. I remember researching about it when I was 18 and I was impressed knowing that, in Portugal, in order to go on a mission you need to go through a religious organization. I thought there was a kind of perversion to it, to be honest.
Franklin James Fisher: I will say though, coming from one of the few exceptions in the world, I believe, where you don’t necessarily always have that kind of perversity embedded within a specific religious community. Within the Black church in America, it’s always been community organizing in a place for sanctuary, a place where you can actually go to be human without necessarily being lectured to or somebody trying to dictate you what to believe, and how do live your life. It’s not always like that but mostly… yeah, it usually is.
Well, I would say that from what I saw there’s a big difference between the Black church in the US and the church in Europe. Here that sense of community, for the most part, doesn’t seem to exist.
Franklin: Yeah, it’s complicated because generally, I would say more than 90% of the time the church is just used as another ideological apparatus of power and exploitation. It’s a sad state of affairs but… definitely in Europe, as we’ve seen for centuries, that’s what the case is.
Ryan: And it’s always attained with colonial power as well. Religion is an institution that’s always worked with economic power and has always worked with political power. It’s part of the whole exploitation process, which is very complex and not necessarily immediately recognizable. But yeah, religion generally tends to be an organized oppressive force and it’s really a shame that’s kind of how it’s organized in a lot of places around the world, because there are so many people… You can’t question a lot of people’s genuine desire to do something different, to intervene in situations. It’s just that institutions make it so problematic to do so.
And you become cynical, even if you don’t want to. That’s also a problem. When you start noticing all these flaws and problems, you can start becoming suspicions of everything and everyone to a point where you know it’s a bit fucked up to be always suspicious, but you can’t avoid it anyway.
Ryan: It’s true, and that’s one of our messages, that cynicism is extremely important and to be suspicious is very important. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to recognize obscure systems of power. But at the same time, we’ve been through complete dejection and disappointment for so long in our lives that the only way we can actually feel empowered, not only personally but also collectively, is to also challenge nihilism. The other side of the coin of pure cynicism supports the status quo just as much. Disaffection supports the status quo.
I would love to know your thoughts on the current state of affairs in the US. Personally, I feel it’s more important to reflect on the people who allowed Trump to be president, rather than Trump himself. I don’t know if you feel the same way…
Ryan: We feel really similarly. Obviously we have a deep critique of the Republican Party because ever since it became a conservative party after FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] it has essentially in its belly been a crypto-fascist party. It’s dressed itself up in the politics of relative decency and the myth of the American dream, but at the heart of it, and what Trump represents for the Republican Party, is its underbelly. Its nasty, repugnant, self-consciouness that’s been brought to life. He’s like the Frankenstein that they have been working on their entire history as a right-wing conservative party. But, of course, by the same token if you look at the Democrats… There was a really interesting article that I was reading today, just laying it out and basically saying that politics is actually about contestation and conflict. The people in power bring division to people who are not in power, they divide you, and therefore it is essentially a conflictual state of affairs. The Democratic Party, Barack Obama included, thinks somehow that you’re able to compromise with oppressors. There was this whole thing, even among liberal circles outside of the Democratic Party, where people were discussing if it was ok or not to punch a Nazi. Of course it’s fucking ok to punch a fucking Nazi. You punch them in the face and you make sure they are not a Nazi anymore. How did we defeat Nazism? It was defeated through violence. I’m not advocating violence, but I’m also just recognizing, like [Frantz] Fanon did, that power is violence, power is politics, politics is power, and therefore you can’t have some sort of mediocre compromising situation. What that does is that allows people like Trump to get into power. White people in this country are so self-congratulatory about somehow being progressive and enabling Barack Obama to get in power. They take a lot of credit for that, but at the same time didn’t take Trump seriously as if somehow they didn’t recognize the history of American society, that somebody like Trump could actually be in power or that someone like Trump has been in power before. The complete denial of a lot of liberals in not taking him seriously and turning him to some sort of, what they perceived as some constant joke actually legitimized him rather than what they should have been doing, carrying on a systematic attack on the entire structure.
They allowed someone like Clinton to run.
Franklin: The problem has always been not allowing somebody who will actually change the system or represent some sort of oppositional party ethos into the dialogue or into the discourse. They did the same with natives for fuckin’ years. Bernie Sanders isn’t anything new. And there was actually – I forget this guy’s name – this guy that came out of FDR’s administration, he’s like one of the only true socialist candidates that’s ever existed in this country, and the Democrat party were about to nominate him, but his campaign was poisoned during the convention and that’s where Harry Truman was elected – during that convention and he eventually went off to win the presidency and you saw the great things that he did in the world. Trump, like Ryan said, his victory I think is just kind of the extended logical conclusion of years of a bankrupt American electoral system. The democrats need to dig themselves for enabling that, because they still don’t quite understand that they are the ones that really precipitated that demise of themselves.
“You can’t have a different future unless you try to start thinking about it, or at least imagining that there’s got to be something other than this. In a lot of times in history that’s been a really dangerous position to take. Malcolm took that and he was killed by people within in his own organization.”
What did you want to convey with the title of the album?
Franklin: It’s just basically talking about the fluidity of power and that nothing is absolute, especially power. And realizing that no matter how bad things get there’s always a slight chance to change things and even if that change doesn’t result in some sort of victorious utopian ideal, knowing that the people who are on top will eventually fall. You said you were a pessimist… we are not necessarily pessimists but that’s out version of optimism. With the song “The Underside of Power” it’s really just a survey of everything we represent and everything we have talked about to this point as a band. It was a very natural thing how that song came into being, both in terms of how Ryan and Lee [Tesche, guitarist] worked the music and how I came with the lyrics on top of it. It’s almost like a calling card for who we are and what we’re about. It’s just a slightly different texture, a slightly different emotion than “Blood” for example [song off the band’s self-titled debut album], which was also a calling card for the band, we feel, in terms of what we represent and who we are.
You start the record with a speech from Chicago Black Panther, Fred Hampton. I’m always curious about the influences, especially, like in your case, if they come from other walks of life. How did Fred Hampton’s work and words enter your life, how did they influence you, what does this speech means to you, and how relevant you think it is now?
Ryan: One of things that we express is that we are a band from different backgrounds and there’s a perverse notion in popular consciousness that the Black Panthers only represented a particularity. For us they represented the exact opposite. They represented universality, they represented ideas of emancipation… yes, they focused on blackness and black emancipation, but they were also representing universality and freedom for all people around the world who were in situations of oppression. That’s working people, that’s people from places like Mozambique to stretch out to Sri Lanka, all over the world. For us one of the bigger lessons that the Black Panthers and Fred Hampton brought into the light… particularly was this idea that universality and collectivity, which is almost like this old European idea who had been reclaimed by people who were oppressed. As a band from different backgrounds that’s really important to convey. It’s a complex message to convey, but it’s also very important. At the base of it, it’s a socialist message. It’s a message of looking after each other. It’s a notion of collectivity over individuality. It’s all those things and also militancy. I think to start the record with that… Fred Hampton is an inspiration. Somebody starring in the face of death, knew that they were going to be killed at some point in their life by the FBI for actually being a human being and expressing humanity way more… and teaching America about humanity. That’s what he did. He taught America about humanity. He was killed for it, because he wanted something different. Just like Malcolm X wanted something different, just like Angela Davis has wanted something different. That’s kind of a common thing we share and we try to express. We’re not saying that we are revolutionaries, but we are saying that’s important for us to recognize what’s come before us and feel empowered in some senses of the term. That’s an empowering speech. I wrote a letter to his son asking for clearance for the sample and just outlining why we felt his father and him were important to us. Most people would be surprised because we’re southern. Hamptons are from Chicago and they were dealing with very different political circumstances, very different historical social conditions. Lee, Frank, and I, we are from the suburbs in Atlanta. It’s a very different environment, but it’s that power of imagination and that power of connecting struggles that really draws us together.
Is it fair to describe “Cry of the Martyrs” as a refusal to give up on hope even if there seems not to exist light ahead of us?
Ryan: Totally! I think you kind of hit the nail on the head there. It pulls from two very different traditions. It pulls from gospel, there’s a lot of Old Testament references in there, but that’s referential to people who were singing gospel music in the face of slavery, who were singing gospel music in the face of death. Personally, some of my thoughts about it were about a revolutionary who is facing certain death and still believes, deeply, that things can be different. That’s a very melancholy feeling but also quite a powerful thing.
You’ve mentioned that Albert Camus’ novel The Plague was a major influence on this record. I did not have the opportunity to read it, but can you please pinpoint its influence on The Underside of Power?
Ryan: It’s about people finding themselves in very dark times, figuring out a way despite the fact that the world is ending. To find some sort of meaning in that existence through colectivity or even through some sort human expression. There’s a Bertolt Brecht that’s very powerful, that says, “In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” That’s something that’s expressive of our music and expressive of The Plague as well that it represents that type of… as you’ve said about yourself, being pessimist. Seeing the world as it is. Seeing the world as ugly and dark, but also trying to, and often failing, find meaning in that. I think that’s very powerful and a lot of what we are trying to communicate with our music. That can be a powerfully political message and it can also be a personal message. It can be a message about being together in these dark times, and that’s what happens in The Plague. It’s an interesting book, it’s an interesting novel… Cammus’ politics are also complex and not always where we would lay either. In terms of the novel and the author that’s a different conversation, but the book itself is really powerful and expressive of the modern world.
“We’ve been through complete dejection and disappointment for so long in our lives that the only way we can actually feel empowered, not only personally but also collectively, is to also challenge nihilism. The other side of the coin of pure cynicism supports the status quo just as much. Disaffection supports the status quo.”
Could you talk about the song “The Underside of Power”? For what I understand, it is an unplanned collaboration between you and Lee, like you were channelling the same energy without even talking about it.
Ryan: This is correct. We were actually doing the exact same key and BPM. My song kind of won out, I won the battle of the songs. [laughs] His song is fuckin’ killer though. I wish somebody could hear that entire demo because it’s got all kinds of totally different shit going on. Basically Frank had the genius stroke to take his bridge and put it on to my verses and choruses, and it made it something really special. He obviously conquered it with that amazing vocal performance. The first time I heard it I actually shed a tear. I was so amazed by what came out. Actually that song is the poppiest song we’ve ever written, but it’s a weird song if you really dig into it. There’s some many weird artefacts of shit of me singing in my fuckin’ front room in London that made into the mix. There’s so many artefacts in that song that are really interesting. There’s a drum machine that we used called a Bentley… the way that Randall [Dunn] mixed it, it’s so high in the mix that if you listen on certain stereos is the dominant thing in the entire song, which is rad.
Your political and social’s commentaries never seem to be rooted exclusively on what’s happening, I would even argue that you’re more interested in finding similarities between different times in history whilst trying to make sense of it all. Like you’re more interested in finding out the causes of the disease to try avoid it in the future rather than just talking about the disease’s existence, if you know what I mean…
Ryan: Yeah, I actually feel that you should just write what you’ve just said in the article because that’s really sick. I mean, that’s a very powerful way to construct it and I fully agree that that it’s what we are at least trying to do in a lot of ways. That’s a different type of analyses. There are times and places for bands and musicians to be like that. Public Enemy was actually trying to actively be what they called “The Black CNN”, which is nothing great to aspire to be CNN, but you know what I mean. They aspired bringing the news to the black community. Maybe we just don’t take the same approach and that’s a consequence of us being interested in history, and us being interested how history reflects the past, but also being interested in notions of the future, and at least trying to bring back to the discussion. I know this all sounds academic but it’s not. Just the idea of imagination and what a different future could possibly be like. You can’t have a different future unless you try to start thinking about it, or at least imagining that there’s got to be something other than this. In a lot of times in history that’s been a really dangerous position to take. Malcolm took that and he was killed by people within in his own organization.
Even though I feel that way about your music, I need to know if current events like Brexit and Trump’s presidency influenced directly your observations.
Franklin: The record was already recorded before Trump was elected president. Brexit had some direct influences though. Well, the vote went through after we were in the studio for four days, maybe three days. It permeated everything. Every conversation that we had a dinner with [producers] Adrian [Utley] and Ali [Chant] was really about what was going to happen. Everyone was really afraid for their children, and the world as they knew it. That sense of fear… [pause] being an American, for me anyway subjectively, or just being in a society where something that cataclysm happened was a privilege to me to witness because it gives you a glimpse to the way through which right-wing bullshit really impacts people’s lives. In the similar sense that I was in France, in 2007’s elections when Nicolas Sarkozy won and his party came in and liberalized and destroyed so many things and so many people’s lives in France. Being an American and being able to be in a foreign country and watch how different political systems can also ruin the lives of other people in different ways… that was interesting and that is what resonated with me, being there. Trump is just the latest incarnation of that in the US, but it’s nothing new.
Ryan, I found out that you work in fighting child exploitation and trafficking. I thought it was funny because your work is a kind of a parallel with this album in the sense that asks you to don’t give up on hope even if the future seems extremely and irremediably bleak. I don’t know if you would agree with that.
Ryan: I think my work does play a roll, or I think our philosophy plays a role in what I do and why I do that work. It’s part of the process. To be honest with you, before I started doing any type of work in activism or involved in social justice and education or mental health access or working with refugees, I was also very cynical about it because, to go back to the beginning of our conversation, that type of work is institutionalized and it’s hard to make adifference. Non-governmental work is often times used to replace the role of government and the responsibility of government and it’s also a challenge to remove politics because often times some of these questions are questions of politics rather than questions of charity. There’s definitely a sense that I work with young people who have dealt with really horrendous situations and who’ve actually come through it, and have lived and struggled through things remarkably on an individual level. Obviously from my perspective… my only job is to make sure I’m working tireless alongside them. I think Frank, some of his lyrics reflect that in some way, right?
Franklin: Totally. A lot of The Underside Of Power was written through just stories Ryan told us about people that he’s worked with, and things that he’s seen. It was just trying to document in a very plane picture kind of certain things people undergo without taking too much creative freedom. It’s got to be some of the most psychological taxing work I’ve ever heard. I don’t understand how he does it, let alone does that in conjecture with touring.