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29 Mar 2016

Goth and Gospel Go to Coachella: Algiers Is Not Afraid to Get Political; In Fact, the Atlanta Band Embraces Activism

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Algiers. Algiers.

After a 2015 that included a debut album, a tour with Interpol and praise by indie-music critics, 2016 is taking Atlanta-based Algiers to Coachella. The band will take the stage Saturday, April 16 and 23.

Algiers originally formed in Atlanta in 2007, but officially became a band in London. A local label in Atlanta released the band’s single “Blood” in 2012. This, in part, eventually led the band to sign with Matador Records, which released the band’s eponymous debut album in 2015.

Algiers is influenced by political happenings, Southern gothic literature, gospel and post-punk music. Somehow, according to guitarist Ryan Mahan, putting all of these things together came naturally to the members of Algiers.

“I think it’s a number of things; obviously, we share similar influences,” Mahan said during a recent interview. “We come from punk-rock backgrounds. (Lead vocalist) Frank (Fisher) grew up in a church, and at the same time, we were listening to punk rock and getting into hip-hop.”

Gospel music in particular influenced Algiers.

“I think that’s where we found the music, especially around more fiery and political stuff, and more of Nina Simone’s things where she’s talking about racism,” Mahan said. “(Simone’s) ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is always a touch-point when we’re thinking about utilizing gospel music, which tends to be something that looks to the afterlife or something other than this world, and is not typically used for anti-establishment purposes. That’s something that struck a chord with us. The thing about gospel music and protest soul is that it confronts the idea of utopia. While that may be employed religiously, it still confronts the idea with a very dreadful scenario … and the light and the darkness of it both.”

The band name Algiers is powerful alone. It makes people think of politics, especially when you understand the history of the capital of Algeria.

“There were a few different impulses there,” Mahan explained. “We were very much following the idea of the colonial struggle and how it related to black people in America, and the connections made by the Black Panthers and the United States, the struggles of the Black Power movement in the United Kingdom, and colonialism overseas. It’s connecting those dots … and the idea that there is something better despite this oppression that people are facing.

“The name refers to the film The Battle of Algiers, which is one of the best political films ever made. Ennio Morricone, who is one of our favorite composers, did the score for the film. So it combines sound and image in a complex way, and Algiers refers to the messiness of political struggle and the ideas of putting the sound to that struggle.”

For Mahan, the opportunity to record an album with Matador Records was something he never anticipated.

“We thought, ‘Wow, this is a great opportunity!’” he said. “Leading up to that point, I had been living in the United Kingdom for 10 years, and then in New York for five or six years, so we really hadn’t been together and didn’t see an opportunity to play a show together or record an album. When it came time to choose someone to record with, we just happened to find a person named Tom Morris who fit perfectly for us. He told us some of his influences and some of the albums he had worked on—some quite out-there stuff, but also some pop stuff. He really just got it and was able to go with the flow and incorporate it all and push us to make exactly what we wanted to make.”

Mahan said the response the band has received while playing live has been quite welcoming.

“We’ve been really lucky and played upwards of 75 to 80 shows last year, and that was our first year. We’ve only been a live band for a year and a half, so we were writing songs living apart from each other and being embedded in different music scenes,” he said. “We hadn’t had the opportunity to play together. The experience has really been fantastic. We toured the United States twice, and the record had just released, but the turnout was good. There were some shows where we were performing to half-empty rooms, but that’s all good and part of the process. But for the most part, it’s been fantastic, and we’re writing for the second record. Europe was fantastic, and places like Germany really jumped on the political message and the critique of American politics. That really resonated in Europe, more than in the United States, with everything that’s happened with Black Lives Matter and in Ferguson, Mo.”

When I mentioned the term “Super Bowl of music festivals” to describe Coachella to Mahan, he laughed.

“We’ll bring some of the visual references of Black Lives Matter to the Super Bowl of music festivals as well,” he said. “But of course we’re really blown away to be playing a festival like this. When we started writing music together, we had no idea we’d be recording an album or be able to even construct a record that we wanted to make. The fact we’re now going … to be playing Coachella is pretty astounding for us.”

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