Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but distance makes the music mightier — or at least it does for Algiers. The trio of self-described “Southern émigrés” — Frank James Fisher, Lee Tesche, and Ryan Mahan — grew up in the suburbs outside Atlanta and have known each other since they were teenagers, but it wasn’t until they started using their passports more than their driver’s licenses that their musical endeavor took shape.
“It’s a real long, convoluted history!” laughs Tesche when asked about the band’s beginnings. As he and Fisher outline it, all three members of Algiers have never lived in the same city at the same time since they founded the band in 2007; both Fisher and Mahan were living abroad in Europe when Fisher crashed with Mahan in London for a spell, and the brainstorming that took place during that visit led them to where they are today. Eventually, they settled in to their current locations — Fisher here in Williamsburg; Tesche and Mahan in London — and their ideas traverse the Atlantic far more frequently than they do. The transcontinental exchange of chords and stanzas and electronic drumbeats dates back as far as the first days of the band, when Fisher and Mahan were tinkering around with structures and sounds in that London flat, and Algiers, their debut with Matador Records, incorporates these as well as new tracks that were written in the recording studio mere weeks ago.
Vintage or fresh, their songs are, in a word, furious. Algiers is a Southern Gothic tornado charged by the swirling winds of punk, electronic, metal, gospel, and blues. They leave nary a stone unturned on the sociopolitical front as far as their lyrics go, and they pair these thought-provoking lines with a sound that’s devastatingly current — and appropriately overwhelming.
In a world where the modern protest song taking racism, homophobia, ignorance, and violence to task is (unfortunately) relevant, Algiers have figured out a way to fuse the charging aspects of genres that have historically championed disenfranchised voices without doing so for the sake of concept or gaining moral high ground. The disillusionment rife on Algiers is real; the fact that they refer to themselves as émigrés — i.e., people who have willfully taken up residence elsewhere as a sort of self-imposed political or intellectual exile — lines up perfectly with the themes of their songs. From chain-gang-channeling album opener “Remains” to the sinister spiritual quality of “Blood” to the kinetic, industrial “Irony Utility Pretext” that more or less rips from today’s headlines (“They said it’s not enough just to shoot us down/It’s a sound that’s systematized”) and back again, the pent-up aggression of Americans who’ve had time to think about the shit-show taking place at home while keeping it at arm’s (or ocean’s) length makes for a consistent, compelling listen. The tension isn’t quite so bottled, though: They’re frank about the fact that they’ve been working out these feelings from the first musical volley. Sadly, these issues may run the news, but they’re not new.
“It’s a world we’ve inhabited all along,” says Fisher of their ability to preach the gospel of #realtalk without lecturing their listeners. Whether it’s the war in Iraq — which was starting to boil over when Algiers initially put pen to paper — or police brutality, Fisher is quick to point out that these problems didn’t just appear. “It’s interesting to see that everything we’ve been talking about is somehow in the national dialogue. It’s absolutely not new. That’s one of the major points we’re talking about. This stuff has been happening not just for years and decades, but for centuries….It’s just interesting that whenever something happens enough — like institutionalized violence against people of color — and now that people have iPhones and can record something, and post it, and make it part of the national debate, then it becomes somewhat urgent. This is always been happening all the time, and it seems very new if you’re not in tune to that — it’s not new at all. Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing that the pot is starting to bubble over.”
And while it’s difficult to reconcile the South they were born in with both the region’s long and troubled history and their ideals, they don’t shy away from their roots. Tesche makes the point that rock ‘n’ roll is one of the South’s more benevolent exports, and that it’s an honor to be deemed a “Southern” band based purely on that association.
“Just living in England, we over-enunciate because if we speak with too much of a drawl or say ‘y’all,’ people’s brains explode,” he says. “They’re really confused. If you want to confuse an Englishman, use ‘y’all’ in a sentence and watch him get around it. As much as we walk away from or feel a need to escape the South, it’s always had its fingerprints on everything we do. For whatever reason, geographically, that environment has influenced so much music and it’s had an effect on the sounds of things, to a certain extent. We’re proud to be included in that. Growing up, so much music that I can think of that I listened to even more recently — British music trying to invoke the South and stuff — sometimes it all comes around. Its influence is inescapable no matter how we approach things.”
“The Southern émigrés thing, that stems from the fact that we don’t [identify] with this romanticized South that you hear people overseas speak of a lot, when they’ve never been,” adds Fisher. “But now you have this suburbanized, consumer-driven South, which by its very nature tries to sweep its history under the rug, but it’s still bubbling under the surface. It’s even more difficult to engage with on a day-to-day level, so it’s a very discursive, conversational type of thing, and it’s always there. When we say Atlanta, that’s one thing we should mention — Atlanta was like a cultural oasis for where we grew up, because we were 45 minutes out of the city. We kind of needed to leave there in order to gain perspective and go back and engage with it on our own terms.”
That, in a nutshell, is Algiers: the Southern émigré manifesto that turns a roving glance to the ashes of the world that burned in the background while stamping out the flames licking at their feet.
Algiers play Baby’s All Right June 10. Tickets are available here, and Algiers is out now on Matador Records.