On a May night in New York City, Algiers perform the fiery post-punk songs from their new album The Underside of Power in a tiny rock club on Avenue A called Berlin. Singer and guitarist Franklin Fisher is out front in a leather jacket, armed with a mic and tambourine. He bellows the words to “Cleveland”: “Here come the boys in black and white with the kerosene/It’s been the same evil power since in ‘63.” His baritone vocals blur the line between punk and soul, or maybe just show where the line never was.
Fisher wrote the lyrics to the song early last year, inspired by an internet rabbit hole that began on the Unsolved Mysteries website. “I started noticing a pattern of young black people that died mysteriously and the police in their local jurisdiction really made no effort whatsoever to figure out what happened and shut the case down,” he recalls, speaking over the phone from a flat in London. He is joined by drummer Matt Tong, formerly of Bloc Party. Both musicians live in New York city, but they’re in England rehearsing for their impending European tour opening for Depeche Mode.
Many of the cases Fisher is referring to are like that of Sandra Bland, a death that occurred in police custody under suspicious circumstances, but ruled a suicide. He invokes Bland’s name in the song, with the refrain “we’re coming back,” as part of a litany of others whose cases were less publicized. Fisher calls deaths like hers a “pandemic that’s been going on for as long as America’s been around.”
Confronting the horror of injustices like these is a big part of what the quartet does as a band, even if the individual members of the group do it in different ways. Fisher, for his part, identifies as Christian and believes divine judgment awaits evildoers: “Even though the people who are responsible for these things think they’ve gotten away with it, at the end of the day they’re not getting away with it at all.” That’s part of what he’s communicating with “Cleveland” when he sings, “innocence is alive, and it’s coming back one day.”
He finds in faith a source of community and affirmation, the things that have helped strengthen many people throughout history in their fight for justice, as they did during the American Civil Rights movement. “My own experience of that was growing up as an African-American within the church,” he explains. Nevertheless, he’s anxious to make it clear that his personal beliefs don’t represent the band. For bassist Ryan Mahan, the themes on “Cleveland” are connected to German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s idea of collective divine justice. Fisher explains this as, “the idea that there will be some sort of uprising within the community, who will strike back at the institutions that allow these things to carry on and continue happening.”
For different belief systems to coexist in one song, in a single lyric even, isn’t just possible for Algiers, it’s central to what the band is. When it comes to songwriting, the members deliberately create a radical space where even irreconcilable perspectives can overlap. The three original members of the band, Mahan, Fisher and guitarist Lee Tesche, grew up in Atlanta and went to college together. Sharing philosophical ideas is as natural to them as swapping song files over email, which is how Algiers began—trading demos, concepts and lyrics from a distance when the three of them were living in different cities. The band members still don’t all live in the same place—Mahan lives in London and Tesche in Atlanta—so their process hasn’t changed significantly.
He invokes Sandra Bland’s name in the song, with the refrain “we’re coming back,” as part of a litany of others whose cases were less publicized. Fisher calls deaths like hers a “pandemic that’s been going on for as long as America’s been around.” A lynching that takes place in a jail cell is still a lynching.
Fisher writes most of the lyrics, but roles in the band are not sharply delineated. Everyone can contribute and shape a song. “That doesn’t mean it’s a utopia because oftentimes there are competing ideas, and there could be arguments,” Fisher admits. But, he adds, “It all happens within a safe space.”
Far from perfect harmony, the musical result of their method is dynamic tension and creative combustion, fueled by influences and inspirations ranging from French existentialist literature and the Bible, to trap music and Marxism. Their self-titled debut was a blast of raw gothic gospel that seemed channeled from beyond. The new album sounds more chaotic, but also more soulful and more rhythmically driven, like The Four Tops and Killing Joke collaborating on a sound collage project. It speaks of the grinding tension between hope and despair that the members encounter as they shuttle between the xenophobia of Brexit England and the open racism of Trumpist America.
The chorus to the lead single and title track feels ecstatic, with all the pure exultation of a Motown chart-topper, but in the lyrics there is a heavy undertow of pessimism. Fisher sings “I’ve seen the underside of power/It’s just a game that can’t go on,” and the subtext is that the powerful are not as invulnerable as they look and change is going to come, but who knows when. He says that both the song and the album itself are about “doing the right thing even though you may not be able to facilitate change immediately or even in your lifetime, but doing it anyway because it’s not only the right thing to do, but also because the other option is unacceptable.” Both Tong and Fisher acknowledge that’s a bit bleak, but Fisher suggests it’s a little less bleak than their debut was. “I think this record is tinged slightly more with little rays of hope,” he says.
Tong theorizes that those “rays of hope” filtered into the album through the sheer joy of performing. “I think maybe some of the excitement and energy that comes from being a live band, the record became imbued with that,” he offers. When they perform, another radical space opens up. The stage is a place of liberation and sanctuary for Fisher. “When I’m onstage I feel completely free. I feel like I can do anything and express anything that I’ve ever wanted to express,” he says. Ultimately, it’s this small, ephemeral space for hope and freedom that Algiers wants to share with other people, however briefly, whether for the playing time of an album or the length of a set. It’s one thing they can do.