Growing up in America’s south and being exposed to a political system that still very much nurtured racism among many other forms of injustice, ALGIERS have always been a band of outspoken individuals that have used their music as a powerful means to draw attention to their frustration and anger about the predominant conditions.
And they are continuing to fight and criticize those political events and social injustices on their new album The Underside of Power even more so in a bigger, global picture that has not left the band numb, but instead inspired to address those issues in new, compelling songs. Recorded in Bristol with the help of Portishead’s Adrian Utley, ALGIERS have set out to face the dark times of today in a musically fierce and scrutinizing way that grasps the opportunity to be an intelligent and much needed statement.
It is almost a bit peculiar that our conversation with distinctive singer Franklin James Fisher and Lee Tesche is constantly accompanied with the alarm of police cars and fire brigades going off outside of the hotel in Berlin as if they were also sensing the highly flammable issues we were about to discuss with the band.
Reflecting on the new album The Underside of Power, Franklin J. Fisher states that: ‘Up until very recently, I felt very alienated from this record. I didn’t know what to make of it. I certainly didn’t really feel like I had any ownership over it. Our first album was very much like a monolithic statement. This new record was much more nuanced and complicated to grasp for me up until recently.’
His bandmate Lee Tesche adds: ‘I think it’s quite natural to be confused by the process and finish and feel a bit like you didn’t get to do everything you wanted to and you’re already thinking about what to do next.’
The process of being creative evokes one particular thought that Franklin describes to us the following way: ‘If you have to make something, I believe, you’re missing a part of yourself that people who aren’t compelled to create have. You have to have some sort of weird, external, narcissistic manifestation of your ego. Once you’ve created that, then you have to remove yourself from it after it’s done because you’re always trying to get further away from who you were. It’s a compulsion.’
This compulsion also led ALGIERS to further explore the dystopian existence and struggles society is facing at the moment, although Franklin contradicts that what we experience really is dystopia: ‘My thesis is that it’s not a dystopia because it’s what our culture desires. The dystopian future is something that was imagined a hundred years ago by the modernists, but that was because it was threat to the values that they held. Those values no longer apply to this society and this generation. As a result, it’s not this nightmare existence that they foresaw.’
Instead, the reality we’re in is much more concerned with something else for him: ‘It’s about freedom and manmade utopias. That’s what the idea of progress really is. Humankind trying to construct utopia on earth which is impossible, but it’s also about trying to have freedom. If you get closer towards having this sort of freedom, it’s a dangerous thing. If you get everything you want, you turn into a kind of shitty person.’
‘We are in an age now where everything is instant gratification and information is everywhere. There really is no positive correlation of knowledge. So many people are living on this very thin film of reality or irreality. It’s so tenuous because all you need is one event. And then it all totally comes down and your cosmology is shattered. It can be traumatizing. That’s the real danger and that’s the nature of the dystopia we’re in right now.’
Avoiding the ‘Second record blues’
While making The Underside of Power, ALGIERS were facing a ticking clock in the background that somehow suits the urgency and acuteness that is at the core of the new songs. For guitarist Lee Tesche, it was a crucial factor in shaping the album’s outcome: ‘I feel like it almost helps the process more when you set yourself certain guidelines and constraints than doing like everything you want to. Time is always going to be a limitation for us. Time and money. I didn’t want to have this ‘second record blues’. You can just get caught overthinking an idea. I didn’t want us to get caught up in this type of scenario.’
‘We always have too many ideas overflowing so it’s never a problem where we don’t have a clear direction or idea of what we want to do next. It’s more a matter of which one we want to pursue.’
Franklin agrees with him by saying: ‘It’s all about the idea. You have to serve the idea in order to let the song become what it needs to be. I think if you don’t have limitations you can get a lot of access fat around the kernel of the idea.’
Time may be a limitation for them, but looking at the complexity of topics the band talks about on The Underside of Power, it becomes clear that the four piece band from Atlanta is far from being limited when it comes to their ability to address important issues. The concept of power being one of the main topics that can be found throughout the whole album.
It’s something Franklin sees as: ‘Something that is never definite and never fixed. It’s always fluent and it exists in relationships. It’s a very post-structural thing. That’s the essence of it.’ Furthermore, he states: ‘There’s a quote that says ‘You don’t know what real power is until you’re on the receiving end of it – On the wrong side of it. Then it confronts you like a mountain. That’s a horrifying thing, but at the same time because power is fluent. That means it won’t always be that way. There is a way that it can be transferred and manipulated even if you’re think that you’re powerless.’
Breaking the seriousness in the room for a moment, Lee jokingly reveals the real meaning of the album’s title to us:
‘The underside of power is actually being in the van with us on the road and everybody is trying to search for their lost phone chargers. It happens all the time!’
In recent times, there has been an increasing number of artists that have chosen to openly talk about their political views. Thankfully. ALGIERS have never shied away from being one of the bands who were among those that have added valuable and constructive criticism.
Singer Franklin James Fisher explains why being political is only natural for them: ‘There is no such thing as being apolitical. If you’re apolitical, then you’re really a vessel for ideology. Cornel West says being children of the western or northern world, we’re all raised within this white supremacist system. Therefore we all have these ideological seeds sawn within our mechanisms and patterns of thinking that are conducive to racism, homophobia or xenophobia. The only way that you don’t fall victim to that is to realize that within yourself into almost on a constant daily basis fight the sort of proclivity that you may have towards it.“
‘It’s a thin film of reality that almost all of our culture is based on. Violence, unfortunately, seems to be the last refuge of the real. That could be a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. That seems to be the only thing that can interrupt this possession of bullshit, that’s images and false information and false reality which is scary.’
Hope for change
Despite all of the truly horrific political developments and daily scenarios, there is still hope for change. It’s a message that the four-piece conveys on The Underside of Power as well as during our conversation: ‘Nothing lasts forever. Things are so desperate at the moment, it can’t go on forever. So there is a hope in that sense, but there’s also a more traditional form of hope that you can change existing conditions and maybe make things better for people while they are alive and while we are able to change the direction of society. Even if it’s not such a grand scale sort of change, I think there’s hope in small gains’, says Franklin.
Like the presidential elections in France, for example: ‘Le Pen didn’t win the presidency in France so there’s hope now. Right-wing populism isn’t spreading as much as we kind of anticipated it a couple of months ago so there is a little bit of hope to have in that. We’ll see what happens in Germany in the elections with the AfD. There is still hope that logical and empathetic people will ultimately win. It’s all you got.’
As people, we have a voice that should not be underestimated, no matter how desperate things are. ALGIERS are using theirs in a way that shakes you up all without preaching. It’s more about appealing to people’s consciousness and their ability to make change happen. In that sense, The Underside of Power has already become an important and powerful work of art for a band that is still in the early stages of their career that promises a lot more that is worth looking forward to.