Rolling Stone named Algiers one of the 10 new acts you need to know in 2015, describing their music as “spiritual, political and confrontational.” Hailing from the suburbs of Atlanta, the band’s songs are about financial corruption, social injustice and racism in the United States — while fusing punk rock, gospel and '80s electronic-rock music.
Franklin James Fisher, the singer for Algiers, joined us to talk about the new album. His voice is distinctly rough around the edges, with vocals that haven't been auto-tuned to death.
"First thing I tell anybody is that I'm not a singer," Fisher says. "I have two older sisters, both of whom were in choir and chorus and all of that. When I started playing in bands, when I got my guitar when I was 13, just kind of singing started out of necessity for me."
Fisher says that using the term "singer" means more to African-Americans.
"It was always very difficult for me, because in the black community, if you call yourself a singer, or if you profess to be a singer, then people expect you to really be able to... you sound like Marvin Gaye or Donny Hathaway, or somebody like that. So I was always really nervous about it, but the more I got into punk music, the more I realized, as long as you get your point across, then it doesn't really matter — you can just let it go."
Keeping auto-tune out of the recording process was another decision made by the group along the way.
"As we started developing our own identity, we also came to the conclusion that it sounds better if it's just human. Because everything nowadays is so auto-tuned and packaged and plastic, it doesn't even sound like human beings making the music anymore. It's just computers making music for other computers."
There's a big gospel influence in Fisher's background. He grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and went to a white church, then started to also go to a black church that embraced gospel.
"When I was growing up, we were one of the only black families in the whole town, really. And I wasn't aware of it until I was about 13 years old or so," Fisher says. "We would go up and visit my grandparents and aunts and uncles and so forth, and we would always go to church when we were up there. And it was, still is the most exciting thing, man. It's really, really cool."
Fisher says that music in the gospel context has an extra power.
"The music gets into you, and when there are added aspects of spirituality, then the music presents itself as this very powerful force, especially when you're at a very young age."
Fisher grew up in Atlanta suburb Marietta, where they went to a white church because it was a place where his dad knew people, and because it was important in the early '80s to fit into the community in that way, he says.
"We would listen to all this great music that was so personal and so close to us, then when we would get to the church — it was just a really alienating, really weird atmosphere, and it was nothing at all like the music that I knew. But even the church itself, it was very alienating. And I remember when I got into high school, that's when I started noticing that the kids that I went to church with at this particular predominantly white church, I just didn't fit in, and they didn't have me."
Gospel is often about the struggle and the experience of the black community, and Algiers continues that talk of struggle in their music.
The message in the lyrics of "But She Was Not Flying":
"I know a woman with a scale in her hand
They bound and gagged her with the laws of the land
She couldn't tell what she was measuring
So they tilt the scale to meet their own personal ends
Saying, 'I'll shoot your son if he's out of line'"
Fisher says the band's message is born out of a frustrated place he was at with the deaths of several of his friends.
"A lot of my friends who have been murdered, and a lot of my friends who committed suicide as a result of social injustice. And, by both my friends who were killed, sometimes it's institutional violence and sometimes it's individual violence, which one could argue is residual of institutional violence. But just this really, really dark place I was at, and just not feeling like there was any sort of justice on this Earth, for things like that happened."
"But She Was Not Flying" is specifically about a friend of Fisher's from high school, who was killed in Atlanta.
"You don't feel like there's any justice, and [the song's] kind of broken up into these two sections. In the very beginning part, underneath all of that noise and all of that frustration, you have a very traditional call-and-response gospel form that's talking about what's going to happen when I get to Heaven, and I'm going to see my friends, and everything's going to be all right — if I get into Heaven, because I might not make it, because all of this other crap is happening, and that's the kind of stuff that makes me want to resort to violence and get my own justice, because there doesn't really feel like there is any at this moment in time."
The writing and performing of these songs comes in the wake of the deaths of rallying points like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.
"I think music and art in general should always reflect the times and the culture, and what's happening on the streets. And in an ironic sense, it seems like most of what you hear right now being played on television or on the radio, in the mainstream anyway, it doesn't deal with the reality that people are living at all. I mean, it seems to me, in the past 10, 15, 20 years, music in popular culture has been very much about escapism, and at the very best, I think music has the ability to inspire people and mobilize people to actually do something to want to change things. Because I think it should be. Art should be a dialogue."
Fisher says that he thinks about musicians from Nina Simone to the D.C. hardcore scene when it comes to creating a dialogue about things that matter with the listener.
"We're talking about institutionalized violence against people of color in the United States," Fisher says. "I think it's always groups of people who don't try to put themselves on a pedestal, and people who don't try to glamorize who they are as individuals, but they're always about creating a community and a discourse between their audience and themselves. And that's very much what we try to do — and we just want to be part of that tradition."
Algiers' self-titled debut album came out this week.