Last February, Algiers released one of the most extraordinary tracks of 2019. Can the Sub_Bass Speak? was a five-minute collage of free-jazz sax, drums and sampled southern US spirituals, over which Franklin Fisher recounted the insults and misconceptions he has received as the African-American frontman of this uncategorisable group – ranging from: “You remind me of Lenny Kravitz” to, “Fuck your experience … you ain’t from the hood”.
Sitting in a London cafe with his bandmate, bassist Ryan Mahan, Fisher explains that he wrote it “so that I would never have to discuss my race any more with the white media. They don’t understand what you’re doing as a person of colour in a context that is not – very reductively – black.”
Algiers’ politicised lyricism and abrasive, industrial-tinged songs shaped by the musical heritage of their Atlanta, Georgia home have been misunderstood by white audiences. “This is not an R&B group, you’re not rapping, we don’t know what this is,” he repeats mockingly in the song. At least on a personal level, Can the Sub_Bass Speak? did what they needed it to. “It was like an exorcism or a purge of an anger that I’m not carrying around any more,” says Fisher.
True to Fisher’s word, the topic is off the cards, leaving space to discuss There Is No Year. Algiers’ third album is an elegant progression from 2017’s The Underside of Power. That record was a stark examination of what Mahan describes as the racism and “homogenous and repressive nature of society” that he, Fisher and guitarist Lee Tesche encountered growing up in Atlanta. Drummer Matt Tong, formerly of Bloc Party, joined in 2015.
Mahan says they came together to disrupt the idea “that somehow America is exceptional”. For Mahan, the only exceptional thing about it is “its violence, and getting close to meeting the Greek and Roman empires in a complete spiralling and collapse. It was: this makes us feel fucking alienated, how do we deal with it? That’s where the band comes from.”
The new album was recorded after Algiers finished a world tour supporting Depeche Mode, playing stadiums one night and tiny venues in eastern European cities that most bands do not deign to visit the next. “Being in a band is like being a shark; keep moving or die,” says Fisher with a wry smile.
The experience illustrates how music has changed since Depeche Mode were able to top global charts with music that is not all that dissimilar from the gothic, politicised potency of Algiers. You can hear Depeche’s influence on their new track Chaka, which mixes drum machine, shredding guitar and warm synths. Yet whereas Depeche Mode sold millions, Algiers continue to struggle commercially. “I listen to a lot of new music and not fitting in sonically gives me a feeling of dislocation,” Mahan says. “It’s been tough.”
Yet, as Fisher says, their contrasting of discord and melody merely reflects what they see around them. “The political situation is complex, so the ways of speaking about it must be complex because otherwise it’s anachronistic, and that doesn’t work for me,” he says. It is what makes his band different from forebears such as Manic Street Preachers, whose music was always shaped by a simpler rock aesthetic and more orthodox politics.
Fisher’s lyrics on There Is No Year were taken from a sprawling poem, an impressionistic exploration of both the American condition and the band’s personal lives, which “seemed to be always close to spiralling out of control”, he says. “Something needed to get more existential.” He called the poem Misophonia, after a psychological condition of hating certain sounds, from which he has long suffered.
“As a kid I had nervous breakdowns because I thought the world was going to end,” he says. “I had a religious upbringing, and would imagine Satan as the tuner of harps, or the seventh trumpet being the most horrific supernatural sound that you could imagine, everything fucking dying.”
This is not to say that Algiers are nihilists. Melody often wins out in their cocktail of prickly sounds, so while a track such as Dispossession might have lyrics about America in flames, it comes with a killer chorus and a louche swing.
“There’s a larger theme of sound that’s revisited throughout the record,” says Fisher. “Sound as something that is redemptive and threatening and soothing and everything in between.” Their conversation is punctuated with dry humour, and although they are eloquent when it comes to discussing the bizarre and frequently terrifying state of the world in 2020, they are level-headed with it.
“If you’re hopeful without pessimism it’s quite naive,” says Mahan, “and if you’re just pessimistic, it’s fucking cynical.”
There Is No Year is released 17 January on Matador
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