A multitude of moving parts: Algiers’ Franklin James Fisher on finding the center in the music

Algiers w/ Horse Lords, Sinner Frenz

Gabe’s — Friday, April 6 at 9 p.m.

Photo courtesy of Mission Creek Festival

Algiers, the sonically undefinable band from Atlanta rolling into this year’s Mission Creek Festival for a show on Friday, April 6 at 9 p.m. at Gabe’s (tickets are $15; weekend passes ($75) are also still available) tend to get a whole lot of press for their lyrics and their politics. They may in fact be, as Noisey asserts, providing the score to our ongoing revolution — but damn, what a score it is.

The most surprising thing about Algiers is that lead singer (and multi-instrumentalist) Franklin James Fisher, has no formal musical training. Although all of his bandmates — Ryan Mahan, Lee Tesche and Matt Tong — wear multiple hats as well, Fisher’s list of duties just on their most recent album, The Underside of Power, is astonishing: vocals, backing vocals, guitar, bass, cello, double bass, piano, keys, sampling, Wurlitzer, tambourine, percussion, drum programming. He’s a powerhouse. And he got there on his own.

“I don’t really have any [formal training],” Fisher said in a recent phone interview. “I really wanted a guitar when I was 13 — I begged my parents for it for a couple of years before that, because we didn’t really have any instruments in our family or in our house. So I guess they thought a guitar cost, like, $5,000. You know, when you have a kid, you think that they’re going to play it for a week, then throw it in the closet with the skateboard and whatever else. But I wanted it so bad, that by the time I finally got it, I just became obsessed with it. It was just right.”

Fisher is self-effacing about his skills and eminently gracious. “Most musicians are multi-instrumentalists, really, to a greater or lesser degree,” he said, and called out Mahan as also having a great singing voice. “I just started singing because somebody had to sing.”

“I don’t think I sound like any of my vocal idols,” Fisher laughed. He counts everyone from Michael Jackson to PJ Harvey to Thom Yorke as his inspirations. “I think you try to imitate things that really speak to you, and it comes out as some strange mutation that is your own voice.”

Both he and Mahan sang when the band first got together, but he happened to be the one who sang on the first recording they released in 2012. “We’ll continue down that path until it exhausts itself, and then we’ll find a new one,” he said, “and who knows who’ll be singing at that point? Who knows what we’ll sound like?”

That openness and fascination with possibility is at the heart of Algiers’ releases, even as Fisher’s formidable voice is at its sonic center. Their music is rooted in styles of the past, but woven together in ways that predict the future. A comment from YouTube user inphanta on the video for their 2017 album’s title track, “The Underside of Power,” gives one interpretation: “It’s like post-punk meets Motown in a post-apocalyptic nightmare.”

From the outset, Algiers was built from a multitude of influences and moving parts. Fisher, Mahan and Tesche are all from Atlanta (Tong is English), but although Fisher said “you take a piece of home wherever you go,” he notes that the band was born from travel and transition. When they first formed, he was in France, Mahan was in London and Tesche was in Atlanta. One of the reasons Mahan chose Algiers for the band name, Fisher said, was to give them a place.

“We didn’t emerge from any particular scene, either,” Fisher said, attributing their “relative obscurity” to that lack of clear trajectory. “I think it’s easier, particularly for Americans, to understand a band within the context of a particular scene or place, and neither of those really apply to us.”

What could be a hindrance is, for Algiers, more possibility. They’ve created their own center in each other, in the midst of the musical and situational chaos that they emerged from, and Fisher’s persistent attitude of taking the future as it comes reveals a fluidity that can only be possible with artists who deeply trust each other. It’s clear that the members of Algiers do. Their mutual love of music gives the band a tight sound with the art clearly at its core.

The Underside of Power, which was produced by Adrian Utley of Portishead and his production partner Ali Chant, is nothing less than grand. It’s a departure from their self-titled disc, a new exploration. Fisher attributes that both to having less time than they had for their first album (it was recorded in the space between two European tours) and to having more resources. They recorded it at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, a space in rural Bath, England that Fisher called “bizarre and majestic” (both adjectives that could equally apply to the album itself).

“The label [Matador] wanted to bring more people in to contribute to a fuller sound, to add more dimension to what we did on that first record,” Fisher said.

Utley and Chant work already with label-mates Perfume Genius, so when Matador asked the band to reach out to someone who could build their sound, they were the obvious choice.

“We were all massive fans of Portishead since we were very young,” Fisher said.

“It really depends on process — process determines so much,” said Fisher of recording the album, which eventually included four or five producers and several other engineers in various locations over the following six months, after the first two weeks at Real World. “It’s hard to appreciate just how many hands touch a project and how many other people are involved and how difficult it is to come out the other end with that same sort of visionary integrity that you may have started off with. And sometimes you don’t necessarily want that. But it was definitely a ride, for sure.”

He looks back at the experience with that same openness and fascination with process. “I think the most important thing is that you learn what you want to do going forward and what you don’t want to do going forward, and that very much shapes the next body of work that you produce. For me personally, and I think I can speak for the rest of the guys, it’s very much a record, or a song or a group of songs, more specifically — it’s like a diary, it’s like a journal entry about who you are and what you are at a particular point in time, and whatever it is you’re going through that reflects your relationship to the wider world at that space in time.”

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