Courtesy of Matador Records
In 2012, Algiers, a trio of “displaced Southerners” who now live in New York and London, released its first single, “Blood.” A somber tune that features bluesy vocals and the sound of rattling chains, it sounds like an old spiritual rather than a tune that was recorded in the 21st century.
“That particular song was the moment when we arrived at what we had been working toward,” says bassist Ryan Mahan via phone from London. He’s joined on the line by guitarist Lee Tesche, who also lives in London. “[Singer-guitarist] Franklin [James Fisher] had written this song. I was in Atlanta at the time, and I was just trying to come up with guitar ideas. Out of frustration, I just laid down some guitar stuff over it. There is a sense of frustration and failed progress [in the song]. There’s a feeling that racism is incessant, and we can’t see an end to it. But it’s also open to interpretation.”
On its recently released self-titled debut, which includes the aforementioned “Blood,” the band adroitly mixes together soul, gospel, rock and trip-hop. There’s a political dimension to the songs as well as the lyrics refer to post-colonial theories, the kind of heady stuff that’s usually reserved for graduate studies classes that dabble in critical thinking.
They recorded the album in London at 4AD Studios with Tom Morris (Bloc Party, Lydia Lunch), a producer who helped them cultivate their decidedly different post-punk sound. The band’s music has been described as “dystopian soul,” a term that Mahan says provides an apt description.
“That’s an interesting descriptor,” he says. “It captures some of the elements or some of our influences. It has millennial gospel and minor key or melancholy elements or raw elements. And it makes sense if you think about the music pulling from protest music or psychedelic soul. There might be sweet melodies in the later Temptations work or that era of music — even Marvin Gaye — where you feel that element of dystopia present. I think it has a nice ring to it.”
He admits there’s a political dimension to the lyrics, which make vague references to current affairs.
“We all think about things in a historical context,” says Mahan. “Unfortunately, because of the way the world has been built through happenstance and power struggles, the history still lingers in the present. The violence in the Middle East has definite vestiges of the past and vestiges of those power struggles. People cannot actually turn their heads away—just like in the U.S. with the grotesque violence taking place against black people, men and women. It’s just re-emerging. It’s been there and is re-emerging. It’s the same with refugees across Europe. This is the denial of years of imperialism. I’m not saying it’s the only thing but it’s definitely a continuation.”
Matt Tong, formerly of Bloc Party, has been playing drums with the band. Tesche says he brings “a great deal of experience” and has helped the band refine its sound.
“He’s been a great person to have out with us,” he says. “It’s all quite new for us. We never played a show with a band until well after we signed with Matador [Records]. We had played in bands previously but we hadn’t done much heavy touring. He’s a great guy. It’s been great having him around. He helps us understand how to operate and he’s an incredible drummer. It brings another element to the live show. The shows in the live context has this added element and dynamic. And he hits the drums really hard.”
Tesche says Tong is likely to be involved in the making of the new album too.
“It’s not too far off,” says Tesche when asked about whether the band has started to write new material. “We’ve been writing songs for years, never thinking we’d be in this position. We’ve got a lot of material. We’re anxious to get back to that. We’re excited that Matt is involved as well.”
Mahan says that touring has helped the band refine its sound as well.
“Playing in that live space has provided inspiration for what might happen next,” he says. “When we play live, we bring in different elements in between songs. We’re beholden to the influence of Fugazi and Brendan Canty and how he would hold a dub beat between songs. We all bring in these different elements when we play live that inform how we’re going to write in the future and they alluded to our new songs. It’s a growing process. We’ve been using the live setting to develop as a band and introduce things that point toward the future.”
Sonic Sessions: Algiers with special guests Lives of the Saints, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, 1100 East Ninth St., 216-781-7625. Tickets: $5.50, rockhall.com.