The Underside of Power
Punk | Gospel | Soul | Indie
Interview: Experimental Punk Band Algiers Talks About Speaking Truth In Music #SoundCheck
By Nathan Leigh
July 17, 2017
Algiers’ self-titled debut turned heads with its mix of punk rock intensity and gospel feel. Their latest, the jaw-dropping The Underside of Power turns those knobs up to 10, adding an impressive depth of atmosphere and energy. We recently got a chance to talk to lead singer Franklin James Fisher about making enemies and speaking truth to power through their music.
So you were just on tour in Europe?
Yeah for about a month.
I feel like your music is so uniquely and distinctly American in the mix of styles. How was it received there?
That’s weird because we really have a fan base; our music really resonates with people in Europe and not so much in the States. It’s like night and day.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. It may have something to do with the mixture of genres and styles which isn’t anything we do consciously or deliberately, but I think in America people need things to be more categorizable. I think it’s actually more problematic when you have a black vocalist who doesn’t do something immediately recognizable as R&B or hip-hop. So a lot of people, the first thing that comes to their mind when they see a multiracial band with a black vocalist, they just immediately compare us to TV On The Radio. And they’re a great band, but we don’t really have anything in common with them other than the fact that we’re a multi-racial band. So yeah, I think it may have something to do with that.
Yeah. I mean more that the mixing of gospel and punk rock is kind of as American as apple pie, you know?
[laughs] Yeah, I mean they definitely share a common lineage, for sure.
What is it about those two sounds that drew you to throw them together?
It’s just energy really. When Ryan and I started writing music together at the very beginning of this band, we just went to our respective references for what we knew and what came naturally to us. It kind of revealed itself to us that we had this shared energy of punk rock and not just gospel, but just like black music. Because on the real, you know, all modern pop music comes from black music anyway, whether it’s gospel or soul or negro spirituals. That continuous cross-pollination of cultures and musical styles is what makes new music and new art forms. That’s what contributes to the evolution of art. It’s something we embrace very openly.
Absolutely. So something that I’ve thought about a lot listening to your music—I got turned onto you with “But She Was Not Flying” 2 years ago—you have this sound that’s almost like a preacher preaching about secular things that I love. I’ve always wondered, was there ever a moment where you considered joining the clergy?
No, I’d never had any inclination of studying theology or becoming a minister or anything like that. I’m not that great of a role model, so I don’t really find myself in the position of telling other people how to live their lives. It’s hard enough for me to sort my own things out. [laughs] But I did grow up in the church and I do still go to church and I suppose that’s something that’s been embedded in my subconscious. But it’s really just me doing my shouty kind of thing. If I had a different throat or had come up with a different background, I might sound a bit different. When I shout instead of sounding like…
Like Ian Mackaye or whatever.
Yeah totally, instead of him I might sound like a preacher in a church, but it’s not a deliberate thing, it’s just my voice. I’m very loud. It’s fortunate, I guess. It’s the one time that being loud has worked to my advantage. So it’s not very intriguing, unfortunately, but that’s just how it comes out, you know.
No, that’s all right, you know I’d had this whole kinda mental narrative of you that you’re basically destroying. It’s cool though. So I want to talk about the new record The Underside of Power; the sonic palette is so ambitious and the shit that you’re talking about is so real. It seems like on the first record you were flirting with some of these ideas, and on this one, you’ve really taken some bold leaps and taken it to a whole new level. Was there a realization or a moment where it all clicked?
Well, thanks very much. I mean that first record it was sort of a monolith. We’d been writing those songs back and forth for a period of years.
You guys started in 07 right?
Yeah, I mean that’s when the very first beginnings happened. But I think you could say we really solidified as a group around 2011. But we’d been working on those songs and working on those songs, not really thinking we’d we would be afforded the opportunity to be a live touring band–let alone signed to a label to put out a record. These were just things that we were going to put out online. But by the time we found ourselves in the studio, we had very specific ideas of what we wanted to do. And for this record, what we wanted to do before the recording process began, was we just wanted to elaborate on all of the themes we set out on the first one. Not just in terms of lyrics or content but sonically. Anything that was harsh on the first record, we wanted to make even more aggressive or meaner. Anything that was soft, we wanted to elaborate on that and make it sweeter and more nuanced. And I think we achieved that to some extent.
I think you definitely did.
Well, thanks. I think it was just the result of a having been a band in some fashion or other for almost 10 years; we have a lot of music. We didn’t really have to worry about what some bands might go through when they have the dreaded sophomore record. Because we weren’t a particularly hyped band. So we didn’t have to rig our brains to figure out if we needed to make some unnatural move to fit in some progression. It was just something that had always been there. It worked out pretty well I think. Recording this album was anything but ideal in terms of the logistics and the circumstances. It’s far from a perfect record but I’m happy with the results. I think we all are.
In terms of lyrical content—I really want to talk about that—I feel like you really get explicit in terms of police violence and structural racism in a way that’s a lot more explicit and nuanced than a lot of other artists on this record. That’s what I mean when I say your songs kind of sounds like sermons, or essays even because you’re talking about that shit in a way that’s so dead on. How have people been responding to it?
Well, I’m not quite sure yet. I mean it’s still early in the game, you know? The only touring we’ve done since releasing this record is in Europe so far. It’ll be interesting. With “Cleveland,” for example, that was a bit of a detour in terms of process and approach to lyric writing, because it came from a very personal place. I have lost a lot of friends through random acts of violence and state sanctioned violence, and I referred to them in the first record, but not by name because I didn’t really want to go there. But when you’re reading stories in the news of people who fell victim to the same sorts of atrocities, and that resonates with you on a personal level, it can almost bring focus and attention to the larger picture. When you say the one case or the one name of somebody who’s been a victim, it almost magnifies the innumerable cases that you’ve never heard of. That was part of the motivation behind becoming more topical with “Cleveland.”
Absolutely. And even “The Underside of Power” particularly right now when we’re watching some of the most powerful people on the planet self-destruct, is so succinct in a way that outside of like Bad Religion or something, music tends not to be.
Well with “The Underside of Power,” that was written in the studio. I’ll try to give the short version. It was basically me trying to synopsize what the band is about, everything we talk about, and everything that we represent in a song, really.
So you were writing a thesis then!
Kind of yeah. If you look at it that way, I guess it makes sense. Each verse, the lyrics are just kind of snapshots of people in different situations that find themselves oppressed, and each situation may be more miserable than the next. But it’s also kind of our desperate attempt at optimism because no matter how bad things are, everything ends at some point. It might not be this rapturous Utopian ideal of overthrowing everybody and the good guys finally win, it might just be that society drives itself into the ground. But at least at that point, the suffering and pain and all of that are over. So it’s kind of like trying to find a little silver lining in what seems to be an extraordinarily dismal situation otherwise.
Well, a lot of your music tends to have this apocalyptic doom and gloom kind of sound to it. Is that generally your outlook on the world?
Not really. I mean, as a band the four of us are bound together by this thing that we’ve created. It’s our way of engaging with how dark the world actually is as a place. It’s kind of like a therapy for us. So by confronting the darkness that’s actually there, it enables us to cope better as individuals and it empowers us as a group. It gives us some sort of language that that helps us combat all these nasty things that occur in the world on a day-to-day basis. But also I do have a certain responsibility to that ethos of Algiers as a singer and as the primary lyric writer. I don’t want things to be ensconced in my own subjective viewpoint of the world. It’s a slippery slope to walk. So I do tend to focus my scope a bit more narrowly with regards to what I’m going to write about so it does align to some extent with what it is that we write about a band. But as a musician and as a person it’s only a small fraction of the things that I generally write music about or concentrate on.
So would you say there’s a mission statement for the band?
I mean we’re not really in the business of prescribing things to people. We’re more about just kind of expressing what our world view is, and how we interpret things and try to cope with them, and having a dialogue with people. And if that resonates with them on a level that’s positive for them, and they want to join us and we can talk about these things together, then that’s great. And I think that’s the most you can ask for with any kind of art, really. And if people don’t like it then that’s cool too. You know, cause you wanna have the right enemies. You don’t want everybody to like the music. Some people you want to hate the music. And that seems to be working at the moment too [laughs[
Who are your enemies right now? Do you have a list?
Oh, you know. Not a formal one. But there are certain people out there that do have it in for us. They do stick out from the crowd. If you pay attention you can find them.
Damn. I mean I don’t think there’s anyone out there that hates me, which makes me wonder if I’m living my life wrong, but how do you confront that person? How do you engage with someone that has it in for you like that?
It all kind of falls in that same filter, where if you endeavor to make art, if you make music, then that is your way of addressing the whole gamut of human emotion. Even anger and conflict. And I think the best thing you can do at the end of the day is just to ask yourself “have I made good work?” And if the answer is yes then that’s what enables you to sleep at night. That’s the only thing you have to answer for. That’s the only thing you have to do. You put it out into the world and it’s there forever. But when you perform these songs, they have a different living breathing soul each time. For that one song, for that 4 minutes, or for that hour and a half that you’re there on stage you’re totally vindicated by performing and doing it. Then you can walk away from it. Anybody who gets riled up, who has it in for you, they have to deal with it after that. It’s no longer your problem. And that’s one of the great things about being in a band and making music.
I like that. That’s a good way to look at it. It’s an impressively healthy outlook.
I hope so. It seems to work so far.
So what’s next for you guys after the tour?
So the proper tour for the record doesn’t actually start until September. We’re gonna do about half of the month of September with !!!
Yeah, we’re really excited about that. It’s gonna be fun. Then we’re gonna do our own thing from mid-October to mid-November in the US. And then we’re gonna tour for about a month in Europe pretty heavily. Before all of that, just keep writing. Some of us are in different places in terms of head space after just releasing this record, but I’m personally just really looking forward to writing again, and to carry on making music, and to keep taking what we’ve done with this record to the next level.