STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK
@dutchgodshalk on Twitter
Not two days after a gunman opened fire in the historically-black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., June 17 — killing nine and raising to a scream the already-fervent national debate on racism in the U.S. — politically-charged rock band Algiers performed an intense and impactful four-song set for Live on KEXP, out of Seattle, Wash.
The roiling, emotionally-saturated performance seemed to fill the room thick with the week’s desperate frustrations, bewilderment and impotent rage, all etched into singer Franklin James Fisher’s face and heard pointed in the serrated rasp of his voice.
Closing the KEXP set was the quietly powerful “Games,” a song that, according to Fisher, was originally written with “institutional violence in this country, gun violence in this country” in mind. In short, the kind of senseless killing that had just occurred in Charleston.
“I think at that time [writing ‘Games’] — not that I need to pinpoint a time — there were so many mass shootings, literally one every other day or every week, so much so that you couldn’t even keep track of it anymore,” Fisher said. “And, in fact, that hasn’t changed.”
In the face of such tragedies, Algiers’ music, its unapologetic politics and the sheer force of its giant, genre-mashing sound, provides an emotional release for Fisher.
“It’s the best therapy there is,” he said. “It’s the only thing that I have, that we have, to not just absolutely lose it or go crazy. I don’t really know how else I would function. [Gun violence] has just become so crazy and so normal in its frequency at this point. It’s maddening.”
Listening to Algiers’ debut, self-titled record (released by Matador in June), it’s no surprise that the band has been striking a chord with audiences who hear in their music impassioned retorts to a mess of modern American controversies — shootings, police violence, institutional racism, riots erupting from Ferguson to Baltimore — all occurring with shocking regularity and demanding more action as time advances.
“I think it’s something that everybody feels, even if we can’t articulate it very well,” Fisher said. “It’s something that’s been bubbling beneath the surface for years, decades even. I do feel that we [Algiers] have tapped into the same spirit that a lot of people around the country are tapped into, and it’s kind of reached a fever pitch recently.”
Algiers has existed in name for the better part of a decade, though the band spent most of that time apart, expatriated, chasing graduate degrees overseas. During those years of distance, Fisher said, his bandmates remained connected online through philosophical and musical threads as well as through shared, deeply-rooted feelings of being outsiders — feelings each member harbored in his own way while growing up in the American south.
“A lot of it has to do with who we were as individuals growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta,” he said. “It’s interesting, the foreign press romanticizes and imagines [the south] to be this sort of ‘Gone with the Wind’ fantasy. But it’s not even that. It’s these stretches of identical strip malls and highways, and it kind of lacks identity and is very isolating, and it’s also very politically conservative and oppressive. From young ages, we were all tapped into that.”
Increasingly disillusioned with their surroundings, future bandmates Fisher, Ryan Mahan and Lee Tesche explored their creative passions, looking always for a way out.
“We had things like music, we had things like art, to kind of puncture holes in this edifice that was presented to us as what the world was,” Fisher said. “And we saw light coming through those holes, so to speak, and that’s what kind of beckoned us to leave those suburbs, to leave that world where we were from, in order to learn about a world that was bigger and complex and richer…”
But it seems fair to say that, all these years later, the men who comprise Algiers — through their gospel-infused, post-industrial, rattling and stomping chant rock — are still railing against that nebulous edifice they fled as young men, thrashing at a cloud of beliefs now personified by public figures such as Donald Trump, who seems to mix a cocktail of panic and furor with every spoken word.
“Donald Trump is a symptom of what’s going on. He’s not some exceptional, weird blow-hard that the mainstream media makes him out to be,” Fisher said of the ubiquitous presidential hopeful. “He resonates with the voices of a lot of closeted xenophobic, homophobic racists in America. It’s really disconcerting, but it’s not surprising, which, ironically, makes it even more disconcerting.”
This sort of thinking hints at why Algiers formed in the first place, Fisher said — in order “to form a language or to forge a weapon where we could meaningfully, for ourselves, engage this monolith, this confounding machine and its politics, right now.
“We’re just not particularly happy with how things around us turned out in terms of the world that shaped us and the world that we see around us,” he said. “We’re a part of it, but we don’t accept it.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Boot & Saddle, 1131 S. Broad St., Philadelphia.
When: Concert is set for Sept. 19. Doors open at 8 p.m. with show following at 8:30.
Tickets: $12. This event is 21 and over.
Info: BootAndSaddlePhilly.com. For more on the band, check AlgiersTheBand.com.