In Conversation: Algiers Expose “The Underside of Power”
Class warfare, civil rights, Donald Trump: That's not the whole story.
Algiers was an idea before it was ever a band. It first took root in 2007, when three friends from Atlanta, Georgia—Franklin James Fisher, Ryan Mahan, and Lee Tesche—were living in different countries , but only started to manifest itself physically over the past few years. Their self-titled debut was released to much critical acclaim in 2015, and now, with former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong aboard, they’re following it up with The Underside of Power.
Fiercely intelligent and highly radical, Algiers is now based in New York and London, and they combine that international outlook with a considerable knowledge of American political history and a vast array of musical influences—from gospel to punk to experimental noise to soul, and everything in between—creating an insurrectionary battle cry that’s as cerebral as it is muscular.
In a Greek café in Brooklyn, Fisher and Mahan sat down to talk about what fuels their particularly outspoken, rebellious fire. This is just a fraction of that conversation, which was just as broad in scope as the band’s music and the ideologies that propel it.
There’s this notion that art thrives in times of conservative rule, but people forget you still need to be vigilant when there’s a “left-wing” government. Your music suggests that you understand that. How do you reconcile being a politically minded band under a regime like Trump’s as opposed to one under Obama?
Franklin Lee Fisher: My positioning during the Obama years—especially at my old job [as a bilingual receptionist at an investment bank] where I was surrounded by hyper-conservative middle-aged people who came in from the suburbs to work—was that there was this very strange overlap where right-wing and left-wing politics could get blurred sometimes and that could be very bizarre. I was criticizing the Obama administration from a left perspective, realizing that you can’t really have a left-wing president in the United States—but also very conscious of the fact that I’m having to [defend] him from all these Republicans and alt-right people who were criticizing him because he’s a black guy, and, for obvious reasons, they just hate him. You don’t want to be on any terms of agreement with people like that. With Trump it’s just easy; you don’t have to worry about that sort of conflict of interest.
Ryan Mahan: We’ve always had a systemic, institutional analysis of violence, of power, of the way the United States was built on destruction and genocide and all these other concepts. So in some ways, no matter who occupies the position of president, we’ll still be able to come up with a critique, because in America it’s still dominated by capitalism. Nobody challenges capitalism—that’s the starting point for the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
Fisher: Which is what makes it so impossible to have a [truly] left-wing government.
Presumably, you see yourselves as part of the resistance that’s happening in America and the UK right now. How keen are you to play an active role, beyond the music, in that discourse? Do you seek to inform people about situations that are occurring through your music, or actually engage in direct action? Franklin, you’re wearing a Black Panthers pin—it doesn’t get much more direct than that.
Fisher: I think we just do what any other conscientious person would do if they’re not OK with the political situation and they want to have some kind of control over their own lives. We make music because we’re musicians, but it’s a natural extension of what we care about and what we do. People don’t need us to tell them what to think or how to act, but it does form a nice platform to get your ideas out there. It’s mostly about community and the possibilities of what could happen when people put their heads together.
It doesn’t seem like you particularly care about commercial success, but having a message that’s as radicalized as yours isn’t going to help you storm up the charts.
Fisher: I think it’s a death sentence, to be honest. If you want to not have a successful pop career, make political music!
Mahan: One of the biggest challenges we face is that people will literally just lop off the top of the message. It’s something we’ve seen over and over again with this first song that we released, [“The Underside of Power”]: “It’s civil rights!” And it’s like, “What the fuck is that?!” Civil rights are cool and it influenced us at a particular point in time, but it’s a little bit more nuanced and radicalized than that. So there is a danger of losing a lot of the content and substance. [We have to] ensure that we inject substance into things that we do.
“Nowhere in the world does class warfare work better than in the United States.” — James Fisher
Also, the way Franklin writes lyrics, they’re often open to interpretation. It doesn’t always have to be consumed as a political message, and I think that’s really important. That helps us develop multiple identities and express all the contradictions that we have. It’s about community and collectivity, and that’s personal, but it can be political because of times like now, where we don’t actually have a lot of collectivity and we’re being divided in so many different ways. Because the people in power, their only mission is to divide you under the guise of bringing people together. And that’s really important to recognize—this class warfare, this racism that divides people and gets them to fight against each other over the spoils.
Fisher: And nowhere in the world does class warfare work better than in the United States, the one place where the vast majority of the population never think to question the inherent flaws of capitalism and the pitfalls that result.
Mahan: All the time, there are people at our shows who say, “You talk too much about race—you should talk about class.” But they’re fundamentally intertwined. Our prism might oftentimes be through race, but that’s also the prism of American politics itself. The Black Panthers, for me, are so powerful not just because they were so militant, but also because they expressed themselves in terms of socialism and in terms of internationalism. The only access to left-wing thought that I had from a political perspective were the Black Panthers, and they had a class analysis. So to say that an analysis of racism and an analysis of class are antithetical is bullshit.
Why is the left is so stagnant now? Why isn’t there a viable socialist alternative in America?
Mahan: I think it’s really difficult to say that there is or there isn’t. There’s not a directly visible movement so to speak, but you have Black Lives Matter, which is one of the most visible political movements that I’ve seen in my time. I grew up in the ’80s and the ’90s in the South. There was always stuff gurgling under the surface, but in terms of actual nationally visible things, where they’re talking about police violence and murder on TV, it didn’t happen in the early ’80s and ’90s.
Black Lives Matter is long overdue, and incredibly important, but it does often seem more reactive than proactive.
Fisher: I think the key aspect here is that it’s always been there within black communities, but it’s not [perceived as] a real threat unless it starts to transcend and overcome these divisions of class politics that are deliberately implanted from above. The Black Panther Party—and they definitely weren’t the only ones—were systematically demobilized by the FBI and the federal government, [as were] the progressive leaders who were really starting to gain momentum in a very dangerous, very threatening way: Malcolm X, after he came back from Mecca and started to talk about real cooperation with anybody regardless of their origins. When MLK started organizing the march on Washington for poverty he was getting to the real issue of the matter—that it wasn’t about race, it was about class. [Revolutionary activist/Black Panther] Fred Hampton was about to go national and was working with Southern white people from the mountains and starting to mobilize. Once you have this, then it’s a problem. And then they get rid of you.
Mahan: We live in a society that stamps out alternatives of any sort. You’re talking about crack cocaine in the ’80s, you’re talking about the military-industrial complex, the prison system that [Bill] Clinton specifically [implemented, that] was so vile in terms of the three-strikes policy. Bill Clinton was one of the worst.
Fisher: And then Hillary Clinton is just completely surprised when she doesn’t get the black vote, like “What’s wrong with you people?!” It’s so perverse. [Editor’s note: Hillary Clinton received 88 percent of the black vote, down from 93 percent for Obama in 2012.]
Mahan: But don’t forget, we’re—what?—sixty-five years from McCarthyism. There has always been a direct attack on communism and socialism, so we really are missing some sort of alternative. The US is this hyper-real society that can co-opt and completely level any sort of political discourse that’s valid and meaningful. You just move on and move on. You look at Occupy, it’s like, “Oh wow, there’s some class consciousness developing!” But no, we’ve got to move on to the next thing and the next and it’s impossible to actually form some sort of lasting movement in that environment.
With that in mind, what impact do you hope The Underside of Power can have? The video for the title track was rife with revolutionary imagery; how serious are you about that?
Mahan: We’re dead serious about these things, but we’re also playful. We recognize the limitations and we also recognize that we’re human beings and we have fun. It’s attributed to [political activist/writer] Emma Goldman, but it’s not actually a quote that she said: “If I can’t dance to it, it ain’t my revolution.” That’s a really fun way to put it together, because it’s about being human and coming together and congregating—and that’s what our music is about. FL