By Marc Hogan
Mission accomplished for the former President George W. Bush: Without him, there might be no Algiers.
Franklin James Fisher, the singer for the punk- and gospel-melding band, credits his time protesting the American-led invasion of Iraq while studying abroad in the United Kingdom with activating his political consciousness. “That was almost the moment where I actually became politicized,” he tells Radio.com.
Revolutionary fervor fuels the self-titled debut album from the Atlanta-formed trio, which takes its name from a locale historically and culturally associated with postcolonial resistance. Fisher delivers his heady agitprop through raucous, full-body howls, all artfully framed within jagged post-punk and atmospheric electronics. The results are protest songs that strike first for their intensity rather than their message, though there’s little mistaking the grim intent when, for instance, on disquieting dirge “Blood,” Fisher moans, “Still three-fifths a man.”
“We can’t in good conscience not address how perverse and how widespread and utterly wrong things are—on a lot of levels, for a lot of communities and a lot of people who suffer,” the 33-year-old says of the group’s inclination toward social critique. “That’s just who we are and these are the things that resonate with us. But we’re not a topical band. It’s not like we wrote these songs as soon as Michael Brown was murdered.”
Indeed, Algiers’ brimstone-haunted righteousness has a long history. Fisher met guitarist Lee Tesche and bassist Ryan Mahan while at Georgia State University in the early 2000s, and by mid-decade they were sharing a house together. It wasn’t until 2007, when Fisher was living in France teaching and Mahan was studying in London, that they became a band, sending each other long-distance ideas for Algiers songs. “Blood” and its frenetic B-side “Black Eunuch” arrived in earlier versions in 2012; the Four Tops-invoking Southern-gothic scorcher “Claudette” surfaced online later that year.
The band’s far-flung nature helped it to create in a “bubble” that was influenced by geographic scenes but also independent from them, Tesche says. Despite not fully being present in Atlanta, Algiers had subtle ties to the wave of punk-inspired bands coming up there in the latter-2000s. When not playing in other bands, Tesche curated the city’s entry in the Burn to Shine live DVD series; the Atlanta disc’s July 2007 filming brought together such local lights as Deerhunter, Black Lips, the Coathangers, Mastodon and Snowden, plus now-deceased ’60s soul singer the Mighty Hannibal. “The whole basis for what this band was originally about was creating our own space outside of these other places that kind of enabled our ideas to exist,” Tesche explains.
The volatile homebrew of Old Testament fury with New South sonics and politics was eventually enough to catch the attention of venerable indie label Matador, which put out Algiers on June 2. But Fisher, Tesche and Mahan didn’t perform together onstage until a handful of London gigs last summer. “Man, it was so good—it was like a seven-year itch,” recalls Fisher, who’s currently based in Brooklyn. “We’re a live band. That’s where the songs exist.” The three-piece has since toured with Interpol—“one of those life-changing experiences, you know?”—and set out on its own batch of headlining shows upon the release of the album.
The way Algiers channels anti-establishment unease and churchgoing Dixie roots through doomy noise-rock is distinctive, but it isn’t easily reducible to a formula. Along with the Motown echoes on “Claudette,” another surprise is the Kraftwerk-via-Afrika Bambaataa drum machine that glides across “Irony. Utility. Pretext.”—a song that has Fisher declaiming, “We’ll put our faith into Afro Pop / In a decolonized context.” A vocalist as brawny and raw-powered as his conversation and lyrics can be erudite, he cites influences on his singing ranging from Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and gospel belter Rev. James Cleveland to alt-rock luminaries Thom Yorke and PJ Harvey.
Nor is the cultural criticism here strictly theoretical. “But She Was Not Flying,” an especially pained and ominous mid-album cut, refers to the death of a friend in a murder-suicide around 2008. “It came from this residual sense of not really being able to get a sense of justice, for all of these reasons,” Fisher says. “You want justice and revenge for her. But at the same time you realize this happens all the time, and I’ve had a lot of friends who have been killed. All of us in the band have known somebody that’s been a victim of senseless, violent crime. But I’ve also had too many friends who have committed suicide as well, and who have been raped. And it’s never just a random individualized act of violence. It’s always tied into a greater structural thing.”
Another album confronting inherent systemic injustice in recent months was Black Messiah, the surprise late-2014 return of D’Angelo, whose landmark Voodoo almost a decade and a half earlier helped a then-12th-grade Fisher reconcile the gospel, soul and Motown of his parents, the early-’90s rap and R&B of his younger years and the Jimi Hendrix obsession he’d developed as a suburban teenage guitar player. “It was like an epiphany,” he says of Voodoo. “It gave me this total belief that you could still make good quote-unquote black music. That’s still one of my favorite records, and I still love D’Angelo. He’s one of the closest things we have—if not the closest thing we have—in soul music today to people like Marvin [Gaye] and Stevie Wonder.”
How does Fisher navigate his position as an African-American artist in the “quote-unquote” white realm of indie rock, which regularly draws fire for lacking diversity? “The best thing that you can do is realizing that genre is nothing more than just more political constructs to conquer and divide, and it’s garbage,” he says. “I appreciate that people need to label things in order to understand them in some sort of way, but the way that genre has come to predetermine not only how people consume and listen to music but how artists actually create music, it’s really counterintuitive. The best weapon you can use to undermine that is to not even give it any credence at all.” When it comes to preconceptions, at least, Algiers can be said to possess a weapon of mass destruction.