91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Band Apart

Photos: Courtesy of the artist / Illustration: Sarah Gonzales for NPR

Every group of working musicians has its own origin story, ranging from the widely familiar — friends jamming in a garage, someone responding to a classified ad — to the random and unusual. The story of how the Pet Shop Boys met — by chance at a hi-fi shop in London as they were separately browsing equipment — makes for a particularly charmed example. The band Algiers might have one of the most unexpected stories of all: As one member explains, it all started not merely before they knew each other, but before any of them individually existed.

"You can probably trace our origins back to the births of me and Ryan, because our mothers were friends before we were born," Lee Tesche says. "We've been playing music together for probably almost 20 years."

Tesche is speaking on the phone from Atlanta, the closest thing his band has to a hometown. Deep as its roots go, Algiers also has distance and disagreement woven into its DNA. On a separate call from the UK, where he's lived for some years, Ryan Mahan tries to be a bit more precise.

"Really, the band fundamentally came together in 2012," he says, pointing specifically to the day a tiny Southern indie released the group's first 7" single. "Before that, we were spread out: We were exploring our own musical and political spaces, and trying to figure out how it would work. It really didn't form until Franklin put down the foundations of 'Blood' and then it came into the world."

Joining our conversation from New York, Franklin Fisher listens as Mahan lays out his timeline. When asked if he agrees, he laughs and responds, "No — but that's what makes this band interesting. We've gone through just as many evolutions and phases as any band that's put out however many records, in however many years' time."

Exactly when and where Algiers began may be less important than where it is has ended up. Founded as a trio of Atlantans, it is now four musicians living in three cities on two continents, separated by one massive ocean. On June 23, Matador Records will release its second album, The Underside of Power, a work of political critique that draws on and repurposes aggressive '80s punk, Italian horror soundtracks, modern-day hip-hop and R&B, film, literature, current events and continuing tragedies, all conceived as national politics on both sides of the Atlantic were boiling over. If there's anything in their history that the members do agree on, it's that the group — named for The Battle of Algiers, the 1960s film about an anti-colonial uprising — has always prized a collective instinct, where no one vision is definitive.

From the outside, there's at least one moment in the story of Algiers that feels pivotal: around 2008 back in Atlanta, where Tesche and Mahan had begun playing in bands together as teens. Fisher, also active on the scene, was frequently at their shows, and a creative current had started to stir between the three of them. Then, their circumstances changed.

Franklin Fisher.
/ Photo: Courtesy of the artist / Illustration: Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Photo: Courtesy of the artist / Illustration: Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Franklin Fisher.

"Ryan and Frank were both about to move overseas to do post-graduate degrees," Tesche explains. "I was still in Atlanta. I think at that point I kind of just decided not to play music anymore, because it was always a tough experience to do stuff creatively with a bunch of people and then have it come apart. [But] Ryan and Frank were quite keen to continue making music when they left town, and tried to rope me into it. They had an idea of the overarching ethos of all this stuff, and even the sounds they were going for."

As the three began to collaborate remotely, it became clear that some discipline was needed to turn their sounds and ideas into statements. Mahan says making "Black Eunuch," the B-side to "Blood" and one of their earliest songs, demonstrated that one way to get there was simply to take turns.

"If you look at the liner notes it's like, 'Well, Frank's the vocalist, Ryan's on bass and synths' — but we were trading that off. And then Franklin took it and developed it more, and then I threw in a chorus, and it kind of developed organically," Mahan says. "We feel comfortable as individuals to construct even the barest of demos and share it with the rest of the band, and know that one, there'll be little judgment, number two, there'll be little ego, and number three, the other person can make something of it."

"We have been trying to create something that is our own for much longer than just 2015, which is when the majority of people heard of us," Fisher adds. "It was just in our own private space."

That private space, it seemed, looked outward as much as inward, as political observation became a central engine in the band's songwriting. "I guess you could trace it all the way back to growing up in the South: developing a structural critique of racism, and then looking back into history and understanding where that came from," Mahan says. "I think what we wanted to reflect in our music — not even necessarily through the lyrics, but through the music itself — is this idea of time and memory collapsing upon one another. That's why the music extends in different directions, because our thoughts on history and society and violence and racism and capitalism extend in so many different directions."

The range of those directions became even clearer in 2015, when Matador released Algiers' self-titled, full-length debut. As Tesche describes it, the sessions for that album were transformative: "That was really the first time the three of us had been in a room playing music together in five or six years, so there were a lot of growing pains," he says. "We were just re-learning each other's personalities, because we'd changed completely as people over time."

The popular critical line on Algiers was 'industrial meets soul,' an attempt to describe the base equation of Fisher's singing and the dark, energetic music pounding beneath it. But its appeal was broad, finding favor with everyone from recovering goths to Motown obsessives to indie-rock fiends to hip-hop heads to Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, with whom Algiers recently finished a series of dates in Europe. It was also recorded in London with producer Tom Morris, a choice that ultimately led to the addition of a fourth member.

Matt Tong.
/ Photo: Courtesy of the artist / Illustration: Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Photo: Courtesy of the artist / Illustration: Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Matt Tong.

"I fell in with the band pretty quickly," Matt Tong says. Known for over a decade as the powerhouse drummer of Bloc Party, the British-born New Yorker was familiar with the music on Algiers through his own friendship with Morris — but even he was surprised when the band recruited him to drum on tour. "That came out of the blue. It came up when I was about to go back to university and go down a different avenue. I felt like I didn't have anything to lose."

With Tong, the band solidified as a four-piece, each working with a variety of instruments and programming. Though on stage they now fit the profile of a traditional rock band — Tesche on guitar, Mahan on bass, Fisher on vocals and Tong on drums — Fisher says they were determined as ever not to let those designations dictate how they worked.

"I don't particularly view myself as a singer," he says. "If you look at how Lou Reed worked in The Velvet Underground, different people would sing depending on what was appropriate for that song. I think that's a really healthy way of going about it. My favorite record has always been Kid A by Radiohead, and I remember reading interviews saying they had to learn how to be a band without playing their instruments, because at that time they were changing their sound. That was such a challenging and daring idea, and I think that's something that we do in this band — not just from one album to the next, but from one song to the next."

This sense of a de-centered creative space, of constant process and healthy instability, was top of mind as the members began to consider their next full-length release. "Once we got the band on the road, it clicked; I was really blown away by how fun and easy it was touring," Tesche says. "Being put back in the studio was almost like rolling the dice again."

"These recording sessions were sandwiched between two European festival tours," Fisher recalls ruefully. "It's crazy to switch gears between recording and shows. It was a bit of a baptism by fire for us."

Bringing songs from a variety of sources — live improvisations, old and new demos — Algiers began initial sessions for The Underside of Power in the UK. Working with the band for the first time was the team of Adrian Utley and Ali Chant as producer and engineer, longtime collaborators based in Bristol, where Utley first made his mark more than two decades ago as a member of Portishead.

On a FaceTime call from Utley's home studio, Chant says one circumstance defined their time with Algiers above all else: "We never seemed to get them all in the room at the same time."

"Every band's different," Utley says. "I think for them, they were really busy touring. They had been jumping about a bit. And they live in different countries as well. We had a fairly long time with them, but there were gaps in between; it was quite fragmented. That was what it was, so that informed how we did it."

The patchwork schedule, Chant says, meant that "things could go in oddly different directions" depending what combination of members was present, at what time of day. Sometimes, as with Tesche's guitar odysseys, that unpredictability could be rewarding.

"He'd get out little dictaphones and string together bizarre combinations of effects," Chant says. "He did a lot of stuff with putting cymbals, drum cymbals, under the strings. Once when he was about to overdub something, I remember saying, 'Wait, do you need to sit down or anything?' And I looked at him and he had a rope around the guitar and was dragging it across the studio floor."

Lee Tesche.
/ Photo: Courtesy of the artist / Illustration: Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Photo: Courtesy of the artist / Illustration: Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Lee Tesche.

When the members did collaborate more directly, they found other ways to upend expectations. In the interlude "Bury Me Standing," co-composed by Tesche and Tong, the latter's famed drumming punch is almost entirely absent, in favor of layers of drones and chimes.

"I wanted to be very clear from the outset that it wasn't about adding a drummer and having to showcase certain aspects of what it is I'm able to do," Tong says. "They had known each other for so long; they had a certain musical rapport that I'm still weighing up. I didn't want to be intrusive. I just wanted to be able to what I needed to do, and to contribute texture."

Elsewhere, there was lively tension. "We definitely all pushed for certain things, and it's our job to convince each other," Mahan says. "We had written some really interesting demos going into it, but we hadn't had a chance to actually build upon those demos like we did for the first record. You'll hear more individual voices than on the first album. That's good and interesting, and I think is also indicative of how this process worked."

At times, they called upon voices other than their own. The song "Cleveland" creates a terrible sublimity via a sample of the gospel standard "Peace Be Still," as police shooting victims like Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland are named and memorialized, interrupted by a brutal cut-up of wailing and blasting sounds. The stellar opening number, "Walk Like a Panther," begins with a speech by the slain Black Panther Fred Hampton, before Fisher jumps in with a lyric inspired by his experience checking coats at an East Village nightclub — a black man watching white yuppies shout along to mainstream hip-hop and finding all sides wanting.

All the while, clouds from the world outside crept in, shading the songs' intensities by default. "The Brexit thing was happening right there when we were doing it," Utley notes, "so we were amongst a huge political volcano." In a set of notes released to press early this year, Fisher explained that his lyrics for the snaky, reverb-heavy "Death March," modeled on T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," were a direct reaction to the 2016 global political climate:

Oh no
On no, no, no
This can't be how it all falls apart
Constant fear of explosion
Crypto-fascist contagion

Oh yeah
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah
They took no time to unwind it all
Manufactured suggestion
Wag the dog and then drown him

"Lyrically, this was probably the easiest song for me on the record, because all I had to do was simply describe the recent events in the UK and US," he wrote. "I imagined someone struggling with denial as they watch the world burn."

In the end, it was the more prosaic pressures of money and time (further complicated by Utley's own heavily booked schedule) that proved the most imposing. The Bristol sessions couldn't be completed as fully planned, much to both the band's and the producers' regret.

"A little bit more time would have been good," Chant reflects. "The bulk of the key tracks of the album, we'd already done what we felt we could bring to them, and the rough mixes were sounding great when the guys left. [But] there were a couple of tracks that only really surfaced as going concerns right at the end, so I don't know if we felt like we really got a chance to work through those."

"Everybody was scrambling," recalls Fisher, "realizing that if we wanted this record to come out when it was supposed to come out, we needed to find somebody to help us do post-production."

New York-based musician and producer Ben Greenberg had been suggested to Fisher by a mutual friend. "I reached out to Ben," Fisher says, "and Matt and I met him for coffee. Immediately, I saw he had this Tristero [a drawn symbol of a muted trumpet] from Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 tattooed on his arm. I was like, 'I like this guy already.'"

Greenberg punctuates his sentences with plenty of easy laughter, reflecting an ebullience that doubtless stands him in good stead in studio situations like the one he found himself in with Algiers: Namely, the album was unfinished, time was still an issue, and while Tong and Fisher were also NYC denizens, that was only half the band. "Lee and Ryan were going to be in town in two weeks," Greenberg says. "There was a bit of a scramble."

At the same time, he says, the tension around the US election was peaking. "By the time they came to me, it was October. We worked on the record before and after I went on a tour in November, so we were meeting each other and they were starting to finalize things — lyrics, song content, song titles, the title of the record — all under the guise of, 'Holy s***: What is about to happen to the world?'"

Between dates at two New York recording spots and his own home studio, Greenberg assembled a week's worth of sessions with the band. Most of that time, he says, they were all in the room together — "listening through things, throwing out editing ideas, arrangement ideas. We did some new vocals, we added a bass line to a song; we jumped around a lot. It was really fun, because I got through the material very quickly. And I fell in love with it, honestly."

Ryan Mahan.
/ Photo: Courtesy of the artist / Illustration: Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Photo: Courtesy of the artist / Illustration: Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Ryan Mahan.

The band members, in turn, were thrilled. Mahan praises Greenberg's "incredible scope and knowledge of music," and calls him "one of the loveliest people you will ever meet." Tesche says Greenberg worked especially well with Fisher, locking into a space where the latter's vocals could get even more focus and care.

"He's become such a great singer between the two records," Tesche avers. "He was really particular about wanting to get certain things right, and making sure his voice was as strong as possible on a lot of things. Even though we only did a handful of days, that's where everything came together for all of us, and we were like, 'Wait, maybe this is OK.'"

The last link in the creative chain was mixer Randall Dunn. "If you asked me what Randall's other career would be," Mahan volunteers, "it would be as a psychologist. The man just understands people."

Dunn himself, a reflective conversationalist, makes the same comparison unprompted when we connect on the phone: "Sometimes you're called in to psychologically help the artist through the record, just finishing it. Sometimes that can be the role," he says. Known for producing and mixing bands with a heavier bent, including Boris, Sunn O))), Black Mountain and others, Dunn had entered the band's orbit months earlier, when he met Tesche by chance at a Chelsea Wolfe concert and told him he'd love to participate in the album somehow.

"One thing I noticed about them right away was the vision of what they wanted to say about sound," Dunn says. "Amongst a lot of modern music, the trend is a bit escapist and electronic and luxurious. This record stands out because it's confrontational, and it takes a stand on politics, and it's not ambiguous or escapist. I think that's something really powerful that needs to happen with music and art right now."

Working with Dunn, then based in Seattle, meant another radical shift in location — and a hard decision. While three of the four members made the trek, Fisher stayed behind in New York, unable to attend to due to work commitments and, by this time, general exhaustion.

"I wished that I could have been there," Fisher says. "There were a lot of references to some songs that weren't communicated to him, that I would have been able to do if I had been there. But the way that Randall was still able to bring things together is astounding. We were joking about this: It's kind of as if we took parts from a Lexus and a Honda and Buick and were like, 'Here. Make us a car.'"

Dunn is more clear-eyed about his contribution. "It's kind of a fluid space that you occupy when you mix a record," he says. "You can actually end up being a very heavy force in how it sounds, or you can be a very passive force — just making it sound good because it's already good, and embracing the work that happened before you were involved. I think for the most part they knew what they wanted to do. They weren't quite sure how to get there, so I was brought in to sort of midwife that."

He adds, "If everyone's happy in a band with a mix, usually I feel like that makes us boring. So I try to take a stronger stand for things that are most impactful. And that is not always a consensus."

In late April, Algiers released the video for Underside's title track. In it, a group of anonymous revolutionaries move about a dimly lit, trash-strewn compound, reviewing documents and planning activities. Black and white film clips from past protests and rallies are interspersed throughout, callbacks to an American tradition of resistance. The band members are seen in quick cuts, playing and singing to no one in particular before disappearing again into shadow. As the song's glowering stomp surges upward, a violent conflict breaks out in the room, the radical instinct suddenly caught up itself — until at last, Fisher falls to his knees to belt the final chorus:

Because I've seen the underside of power
It's just a game that can't go on
It could break down any hour
I've seen their faces and I've known them all

To know that this simultaneously catchy and thorny, compelling and forbidding collection of songs is a product of separation, crossed communication and irresolution, that it exists very much against the odds, may be to understand something essential about the group of people that made it. Toward the end of our phone conversation, Mahan ventures a thesis statement for the album.

"It's a place with all the imperfections and all the layers of history stacked upon each other — just like us, as individuals, have all these different experiences and histories that we bring to the table," he says. "It's just this constant negotiation process. There's constant construction and destruction. And I think it's indicative of us."

There is a beat, and then he adds, "There's so many things that I would love to have done differently. I could write an essay on it."

Reflecting on his growth from touring player to full member, Tong emphasizes just how differently he sees the band today than when he started. "This next part, of making an entire work, was something very unfamiliar to me — and it took a while to figure out how it works in Algiers, which is more of a long chiseling away at a piece of marble," he says. "There's such a turnover of culture and it happens so quickly. Some people get caught chasing their tails, trying to do something that will be current or ahead of the curve. You've got to step back and some point and accept it for what it is."

"This record is just riddled with imperfections, but those imperfections are what makes it charming," Fisher offers. "[The experience] taught me, with any artistic endeavor but particularly within a band, how little control you really have over the final product of something. It's really you trying to harness and organize chaos to the best of your ability, in order to make a statement from a specific point in time."

Were the word not lately drained of all meaning, it would almost make sense to call this body of work "disruptive." A better word, perhaps, is "questioning." The Underside of Power never feels like a series of grand declarations — rather, portraits of situations, states of mind, songs that begin or continue conversations. In the piano-led, uneasy beauty of "Mme Rieux," the chilled goth intensity of "Plague Years," the full-speed hardcore thrash of "Animals," there is righteous ire, tender reflection, relentless self-analysis and overwhelming sadness. And there are four people trying to work together, in a situation where the simple way through is rarely an option.

"I think if a process doesn't go through that entire range of emotions, then maybe you're not doing something right," Tesche says. "I would actually be really worried if we went through the whole process thinking we were making the greatest record of our career, all these songs are incredible, every single bit is perfect. I'm sure we would come out with a record that was a total piece of trash."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 20, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story implied that Matt Tong moved to New York after joining Algiers. He has lived there since 2010.
Ned Raggett