By Brian F. Johnson
Franklin James Fisher, the lead singer of the band Algiers, used to live — as he sings on the band’s song “Blood” — in a television coma. In 2009, the out of work teacher had taken a job with a French investment bank in New York and the position included being exposed to toxic levels of constant information. “I was working on a trading floor as an administrative assistant and there were rows, endless rows of televisions, most turned to CNBC 24 hours a day. My brain was in overdrive and I was over-stimulated and I watched all of these events — the earthquake in Haiti, mass shootings, the tsunami in Japan — get boiled down to their financial implications. And that was the only thing that even mattered,” Fisher said during a recent interview with The Marquee.
Algiers’ video for “Blood” parallels that time in Fisher’s life, albeit with vintage video clips that capture the racial unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s. But the decades don’t matter. “Blood” might show Black Panthers and Malcolm X, but it could just as easily be featuring news footage from Ferguson, Mo., or any number of other situations or locations that highlight the absurdity of modern society. Strip away those vivid clips though, and the haunting music that is left is a stirring mix of droning industrial synthesizers, screaming guitars and Fisher’s gospel-inspired vocals that resonate long after the video montages have ended.
While “Blood” is the most overtly and blatant political track on the self-titled debut, Algiers effortlessly straddles a boundary between timeless and topical, with a delivery that is equal parts gospel tent revival and industrial punk, and their messages ring out with a blend of angst, anger, frustration, and ultimately a bit of hope. It’s a sound that a Belgium newspaper said “kicks you in the balls and then kicks a conscience in you too.”
“This is our way of engaging with and making sense of this vernacular that we’ve constructed, where all of these political forces, these artistic forces, and musical forces, past present and future can kind of convene and we can use that to express how we feel in terms of engaging with all of this chaos,” Fisher said.
Algiers is in one regard an American group, Fisher, and his bandmates bassist/multi-instrumentalist Ryan Mahan and guitarist Lee Tesche all met in the suburbs of Atlanta. But it was overseas in London that the band actually took form, and ironically it was one of the last times that the band members lived in close proximity to one another. “I was teaching in France and Ryan was in school in London and had come to visit me. We never had plans to do anything concrete, we were just showing each other bits and snippets and then Ryan said, ‘Why don’t you come over to London this summer and we’ll demo up some things.’ Two weeks turned into six months, and finally we decided to form a band,” Fisher said.
Visa struggles and Fisher’s job back in New York at the investment bank forced the band to swap files overseas to write music and as it turned out, it was a formula that worked well for the group. Fisher said that in addition to supporting the idea of absence making the heart grow fonder, the file sharing allowed each member to digest each other’s submissions and ideas without ego. “It helped remove the pitfalls that come with being in a standard band. If somebody has an idea and brings it to everybody you don’t have to have a reaction immediately, and you don’t have to worry about how that may be received. We’re glad to have that distance and space to create. It’s also really fun because what you send out and what you get back is often completely different and that’s the real bread and butter in Algiers,” Fisher said.
It may be the bread and butter of how the group writes, but ultimately the substance of Algiers lies in the conversation they are having with listeners — a continuation of a conversation that started between the band members back in their college days. “A long time before the band ever formed we became friends and we shared a lot of similar views — philosophical views, aesthetic views and political views — and ultimately what we’re seeking to do is engage in a dialog. You know, we finished this album before all of these events entered the national dialog over the past year and a half, but all of this institutional violence and hate crimes and all of these things have been persisting for decades and even centuries on a daily basis. Unfortunately that’s why it may seem that our music is topical sometimes. But I do have a sense that people can tap into a general energy — not to sound mystical or anything like that . But I think that people can think similar things at similar times and it’s almost a synchronicity, particularly with politics and political action. I think that we, Algiers, the three of us, are just another symptom of something that’s starting to bubble under the surface and resonate with a lot of people, and I feel very fortunate to be in a position where we can do something constructive and concrete to reflect where we are, and hopefully that starts to get some momentum.”
Go If You Dig:
- Edwin Starr
- The Four Tops
- Nina Simone