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Algiers: The Power of the South, the Internet, and the Past

Atlanta trio seeks to actively confront inescapable history

/ November 10, 2015

Photo by Alex De Mora

Originally formed in Atlanta, GA, unique experimental post-punk group Algiers has existed in some form or another for nearly a decade, but Algiers released their self-titled debut album on Matador only earlier this year. Their noisy, heavy sound, which draws from gospel and folk as equally as it does from influences across the wide sonic expanse known as post-punk, is powerful, poised and painful, fully conceived as a political and artistic project that maps the members’ personal histories alongside the bloody history of the United States and the cultural traditions that our society is built upon. I talked to bassist Ryan Mahan and vocalist Franklin James Fisher (who, alongside guitarist Lee Tesche, also contribute further percussion and programming to the band’s full aesthetic) about political realities, political possibilities, and changing landscapes.

 

 

JES SKOLNIK: Since your work is so rooted in the American South, I wanted to start off asking your thoughts on all that’s transpired in the South since the album was released – obviously we’re seeing such major cultural shifts and such big conversations happening.

RYAN MAHAN: It’s a really interesting question, and it’s actually quite a huge question, talking about our history and how it relates to the present and how it intersects with the past, and our own personal histories as well as our engagement with the overall stereotypical Southern identity, and the identity that’s been pushed down upon us through the media, through politics, through every basic manifestation in the US. So it’s quite a huge question. We were recording the record – we actually started recording the record before the events in Ferguson, so in fact we were in the studio when Michael Brown was killed, when everything started kicking off. It was unexpected – and expected.

We often talk about growing up and bearing witness, either directly or indirectly, to the structural violence that has been heaped upon black Americans, particularly in the South. I remember just vignettes in my mind, where a black man was gunned down by the police, and it was on the nightly news every night, and most people didn’t think twice about it. It had become depoliticized. It was also probably before my own political consciousness began to emerge, but that was really commonplace. So these outbursts of violence were placed at the very center of these institutions, so not at the margins, not crazy violent racists, but very much ingrained in our laws and in our practices – through police, through the health system, through the welfare system, through every point in society.

So when I say that it was unexpected, it was unexpected in the sense that it was – it had started to become politicized again. The murder of black Americans was politicized in a very public way. That’s not to say that people weren’t pushing against this and trying to draw attention to the violence at the heart of our system, but it was very much – the media was being forced to focus on this, through actual people coming together, speaking up – through direct action, essentially. I always think that for something to change it has to be forced to change. There has to be a force. So before we can congratulate ourselves for being benevolent and changing our society, benevolent about our democracy, we have to look and see that everything that’s taken place in positions of power has had to have been demanded and gained through action.

So in that sense it was unexpected, but at the same time it was very expected, because we’ve seen it over and over and over and over again.

The project of Algiers has been about memory, and about frustration, and about this repression that we had been seeing, this complete repression and the violence at the heart of our systems. And this is not something that we saw that was isolated to the South.

I absolutely agree with you. I grew up in DC, so that landscape and those tensions are something I’m really familiar with.

RM: Things have changed so much in DC, haven’t they?

So much! So much. It’s almost unrecognizable. I live in Chicago now; I left DC in 2005. In the last ten years the entire landscape of my childhood has been wiped out. Speaking of memory, it’s really stunning and scary how quickly gentrification has just utterly – the buildings I grew up playing in are gone, the place I learned to skate are gone, the places I started going to shows are gone, with the exception of one or two big clubs. It’s just bizarre to go back there. There are condos everywhere. I think a lot about the displacement, when a landscape that you love and that you’re familiar with, that’s home to you, is forcibly taken from you by gentrification. I think a lot about the people who I grew up with – we grew up without much money, and most of us didn’t have chances to access the types of housing that moved into our neighborhoods as they changed.

RM: It’s really depressing to think about the cultural obliteration in DC. There’s a rich history there. There’s a rich political history, and there’s a rich black history.

The project of Algiers has been about memory, and about frustration, and about this repression that we had been seeing, this complete repression and the violence at the heart of our systems.

Yeah, absolutely. All of the black-owned businesses I grew up around are gone from that neighborhood. Everything is condos and boutiques that cater to moneyed white clientele. It’s horrifying to me. I was going to ask you how you felt that your personal landscapes have changed, as well? I feel like that’s something that I picked up from the album, that it’s very much about memory and landscape and chronicling your personal histories, mapping them along with US history, so I was curious to get your thoughts on that as well.

RM: Franklin, do you have anything for that?

FRANKLIN JAMES FISHER: Again, this is something that we’ve talked a lot about, that I think you should respond to, Ryan, if you want.

RM: Yeah, I don’t mind. Before the band started we were – I had been in a shitty kind of post-hardcore band – not shitty, it depends on who’s listening and whose perspective it is – but we had just finished playing, and I was a bit lost, and I kind of wanted to not do music any more, but then for some reason started thinking up what would be a good project to work on. I just started thinking up concepts, and this notion of Algiers came about really as an engagement with space, with space and sense of place, and not in any sort of individualized identity sense, but just that notion of feeling out of joint. That philosophical notion of feeling out of joint, and trying to put some sort of words to that feeling, to express that sort of displacement in your own community.

I think that’s part of it for all three of us, that there is a sense of displacement in our actual spaces that we grew up in. It’s looking at this notion of space and looking at how to construct space outside of physical places. You can start getting into discussions of digital spaces and things like that, but this was very much about using a medium such as music to start building some sort of symbolic world – a world in which our expressions and our language is not disciplined, we are able to create and build a space. That also reflects the violence that is a part of that process, so – very much about process, very much about history, very much about dredging up the past. Not in any shallow sense, or in a sense that we should be proud of this past, but very much using that as a tool to break loose from the strictures of our own place at that time.

So it was very important, and that was also a political engagement. Because at this time you’re talking about immense frustration with the democratic process in the US, immense frustration with the way that the US government under George Bush was almost baiting its citizens – excluding us, talking about the “real America,” all these dog whistles. All this dog whistle language that was being used at that time was just reinforcing this displacement and this exclusion from the American political process that most people have felt their whole lives. So that’s one element amongst a lot of elements about place and space.

Yeah, that makes sense – thank you for sharing that. As you were talking about that rage, that frustration of feeling like you’re being shut out of conversations about your own life, policies that affect your own life, and, as you mentioned, digital spaces, I was thinking about the importance of social media in the last few years but especially in the last year. I was thinking about the importance of Black Twitter in cultural conversations, and about Black Lives Matter, and about organizing, and the importance that marginalized voices have been able to have on these platforms that weren’t even designed for us.

RM: Yeah, completely.

So I was wondering about what you think about that impact, how you’ve seen that play out in your own lives if it has at all? I was wondering about your thoughts on all of that?

FJF: You know, I’m personally still ambivalent about it. I don’t really know – something has clearly happened, and people have clearly been mobilizing through those means, but I’m not exactly sure where it’s going to end up and the extent that change will come through those vehicles, through those means. I’m not exactly sure. Not to say that I’m out and out dubious about it, but – you know.

Yeah, for sure.

RM: I think you always have to be ambivalent about these things, because ultimately it really is about content. It’s ultimately about the action and the content of the messages. If the content is authentic, if the content has meaning, if it’s constructed in a positive way, then social media can definitely be a means by which to broadcast that message and through which to really shine a light, or draw momentary attention, to an issue. There are obviously a lot of downsides to social media, which I’m sure you’re aware of. Because it’s so quick, because it’s so fast, probably in terms of building a political consciousness it can be more difficult.

In my personal experience there’s also the potential for immense and terrible backlash, as well, because things happen so quickly. I wrote a piece earlier this year about misogyny in noise rock that was fairly complex and contextual, and had to deal with five straight full days of rape and murder threats from 4chan, and that kind of response is pretty standard for journalists and other writers, for musicians – and so that kind of stuff is part of the landscape as well.

RM: It can be a really disgusting place, especially – it can reveal, or just unveil, or reinforce all the horrible hate, and it gives a platform for hate. It gives a platform for misogyny, it gives a platform for racism as well. People hide behind it. There’s a lot of distortion in the digital realm that wouldn’t necessarily exist in the person-to-person realm. Or even if you’re dealing with the [static] written word, there would be less of that going on. It can definitely be a very violent , violent place as well. And just like any other space, it can reproduce the inequalities and oppressions of society.

Right, exactly. And I think that because we’ve seen the ability of marginalized voices to use these platforms to amplify our voices, I think bigots are very quick to respond, to try to shut it down. That’s always something to be wary of as well. I think the platforms themselves can tend toward libertarianism in their structure. In my experience dealing with Twitter support, I think that general libertarianism can really allow for that violence you describe.

RM: Like the ideology of free speech?

Right. Even though the Constitutional idea of free speech is very different from how private businesses practice that

FJF: Yeah. It supports the haters.

Right. Like, it’s ok that some guy sent you multiple violent rape threats on some Internet platform and talked about knowing your address, it’s free speech, we don’t need to do anything!

RM: What the fuck! They didn’t do anything about it?

Nothing substantial. I just had to block every account individually.

RM: There was no other action that could be taken?

I mean, you can always delete an account, but it didn’t seem like they really wanted to do it. Some of the accounts might get deleted when something like that happens, but it can take a really long time if it happens at all. It’s just interesting to see how those policies get applied and who benefits from them, who they’re applied to. I was reading something about the WDBJ murders and how Twitter responded very, very quickly to take the shooter’s video down, which is good, but that video of Eric Garner’s death and other videos of police brutality and police murder, they’re still circulating now.

RM: They’re happy to exploit that.

Exactly.

RM: It’s interesting – you’re talking about who is actually able to be a victim of crime, and who’s not able to be a victim of a crime as well.

Exactly. Who’s considered human and who’s not.

RM: Yeah.

FJF: Yeah.

There’s a lot of distortion in the digital realm that wouldn’t necessarily exist in the person-to-person realm…It can definitely be a very violent, violent place as well. And just like any other space, it can reproduce the inequalities and oppressions of society.

Sorry to be so brutally depressing – my last question is kind of brutal and bleak and big as well. We were talking about the potential for organizing – things can seem very very bleak in our culture and society right now. I was wondering what you guys thought about the potential for change within the system – or do we just have to dismantle everything? And where do we even start with that? I know it’s a big, kind of ridiculous question, but it’s something I think about all the time, something I was very curious about having been immersed in your album and having read your thoughtful interviews before.

RM: If I’m thinking about the continual process of my own engagement with politics, my own oscillation between cynicism and affirmation and optimism working within a system even though you know that system is bankrupt, and then working outside of the system and knowing that in this day and age – not to use anything from Baudrillard, but in the age of spectacle anything that’s outside of the system occupies a position within the spectacle, and therefore even that can be very easily absorbed or disregarded.

So in terms of actual political action and political avenues, if we’re thinking lofty ideals, if we’re thinking about the future, if we’re thinking about actual substantive change – some reforms at a local level, potentially, or in a very specific area, if you’re dealing with sexual violence against women, if you’re dealing with things that can be localized that people experience that you’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis, there are things that can be done on a practical level that can provide a safe space or challenge violence, challenge oppression. At the same time, if we’re thinking about changing the system, we need some more ideas other than this very procedurally bankrupt democratic practice that we have. We have a lot of things at our disposal. We have direct action, we have protests, we have a lot of things that have actually emerged. So if we’re talking about the US we are talking about very different things than we’d be talking about, say, in Greece, or in Egypt a few years ago. So it’s very difficult to have any kind of prognosis for that. But I would say that a level of militancy is important in politics. A level of direct action – a level of actual radical emancipatory thought, even just to stage the potentiality, so we’re not living in this very dreary world where all we can look forward to is the world of punishing disciplinary work, where all we can look forward to are small victories, where all we can look forward to is more violence and more oppression.

Right, right. I think that’s a much more hopeful way than I was thinking about it, so thank you for that. [laughter]

RM: [laughter]

I’ve been thinking a lot about survival-level politic lately, and thinking that all I can do, really, is survival-level politic. So thinking about that survival-level politic being radical in its nature is very hopeful, and I really appreciate it, so thank you for that.

RM: I mean, I have to be. One of my favorite books is “The Plague” and everyone knows that the end is coming, so it’s kind of this perpetual trope about apocalypse. Everyone knows the end is coming but there’s some sort of attempt to construct something: some semblance of humanity, some semblance of relationships, some semblance of love, some semblance of politic, even though you know that that end is there. I guess I’d have to say ultimately I’m optimistic even if I’m also unrepentantly cynical. [laughter]

Yeah, totally. I was actually thinking that as small as it sounds, in terms of music itself – I was thinking about music itself as resistance. Making music is pushing forward, especially making something like your record, and that’s a radical act in and of itself, even though it doesn’t seem like one on the surface – to just try to build something meaningful out of this political drive is in and of itself as a radical. I don’t know if that’s something you agree with?

FJF: Yeah.

RM: I agree with that, yeah.

So – I didn’t know if there was anything else you wanted to talk about in terms of music and politics, and where your own politics stand?

RM: Frank, did you have anything?

FJF: No, I think that you covered everything. I mean, I agree – I haven’t said much in the conversation, but I really think it’s been very thorough. You’ve touched on a lot of major tenets of what we’ve constructed this band around, what we’ve constructed our identities around.

RM: Yeah, I mean – we did want to have some sort of intervention on some level as a band, like you say, to just desire to construct something meaningful within, ultimately, a pop-culture setting. It can be very different. It can be at least an intervention into that field, into that space.