Algiers: “The Expression and Search of Community”

Cover Photo: Ebru Yıldız

Atlanta-based post-punk/gospel/electronic/R&B/all-in-one band Algiers has impressed us since their conception in 2012. Their fourth record, SHOOK, was released February 24 via Matador Records. Roaming with wonderful guest artists and explosive energy, the album inspired us to contact the band for an interview. After some delays, we finally managed to meet on Zoom on April 1. Franklin James Fisher and Ryan Mahan spoke to us on various topics. It was a deep, emotional, enriching chat with technical and spiritual revelations. Take a look below.

How are you doing these days?

Ryan: We have been on tour for 70 days.

Frank: It is going well. It’s tiring, rewarding, and challenging. It’s fun, it’s hard work, it’s all the things.

Ryan: We are super thankful that we did so much preparation musically going into this. The music aspect is the fun part and it is less challenging when you go into it prepared. 

Frank: We have never been tired musically as a band. 

I was there at your last Istanbul concert in 2019. Do you remember that time?

Ryan: Yes, of course. It was in Babylon. Super cool place. We had a good time in Istanbul. We were there for a couple of days. Did some sightseeing and also hung out with our friends. We had a late-night dive in a bar that had an electronic/dance vibe. It was definitely fun. What was that other band that we played with?


Ryan: Yeah! They were cool.

Going into your new record: SHOOK is your first album of the post-pandemic era. How did the post-pandemic reality affect your creative process, both politically and psychologically?

Frank: I don’t think I would split it up like that, it affected everything. It also had a positive effect on my mental health and space. Because we tour and work hard. You do that as long as you can without a break. Then everything is forced to stop. For us, we were allowed to breathe for the first time in years. On tour, you live from one day to the next, worry about money all the time, and very often have to share a room with a few others. You are on the clock. Having space is what allowed us to remain friends and remain a band.

Ryan: The entirety of 2020 and 2021 were possibly the most creative period we ever experienced since our Algiers and The Underside of Power eras. Frank wrote so many songs. Over 30 songs or something. Lee (Tesche) and I recorded a couple of songs as a group called Nun Gun, I did my own solo electronic thing called Dead Meat. So it was a huge creative flurry that we had. SHOOK’s genesis is a part of that flurry, while 2021 and 2022 were more about the mechanics of actually making the album in a studio. Me, Frank, and our friend Matthew Ricchini. Lee would also come in and add his parts. So it started as a recreative period and then turned into full-on production.

SHOOK is a loaded album in terms of musicality, guests, and cathartic moments. Your music has always felt uplifting to me in the sense that it evokes power despite the darker things around us. With this many guests on SHOOK, I feel like that uplifting feeling is stronger than ever through the sense of community. Would you say building catharsis and salvation through friendship was an important aspect of its making?

Frank: First of all, that’s a really good observation. That is the essence of what we strive for. That’s the best you can get. That’s what Algiers has always been about.

Ryan: I always thought that, as a band, our default mode is seeking. A seeking for inspiration, home, friendship, community… This record is not just an expression of community, but also a search for that. In some ways, it helped us find it.

The album obviously features a lot of collaborations, and in preparation for this interview, I was reading your talk with Backxwash, where you asked her about her dream collaborations. I was wondering the same thing for you: Who are some artists that you would love to collaborate with one day?

Frank: That’s a hard question. It depends on where you are at your process. For me, it depends on what type of music I’m writing, the mood I am in, and where I am at. It can fluctuate greatly based on all that. But I’ll still think of a real answer for your question.

Ryan: I agree. It’s totally dependent on where the head is. With this one, we collaborated with a lot of people that I would actually like to collaborate with more fully. Something deeper. Say, for example, Patrick Shiroishi, who plays saxophone. He’s incredible, and brings out so many different elements. With just one song, you can’t go deep enough and have a richer experience. I would love to incorporate his wilder jazz stuff, or more meditative, spiritual stuff for our music as well. As with rappers, JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown just put out their new record. That would be an amazing duo to work with on the production side of things.

Frank: I’m thinking about something you asked earlier. It occurred to me that, in many ways, SHOOK is not a perfect album. It’s a good, fun album, but it’s not perfect. There were so many things that we, both as individuals and as a collective, needed to purge. Particularly after our last record, There Is No Year, because we lost so much control. We had no control on the formulation of that record. I think that’s why there are so many ideas on this one: That impulse was repressed for so long. Ryan and I decided that if we decide that someone produces us that way again, it could be cool to do it with hip-hop producers, someone who will help us out during the beat session. DJ Premier, The Alchemist, someone like that.

Ryan: Yeah, we did a collaborative voice record on this one. A collaborative music record would also be sick. You bring songs to your homies and a couple of dream producers. They put together something that works as a piece, but definitely has a lot of people involved. That would be great. We already mentioned The Alchemist and JPEGMAFIA, but how about some Turkish artists? Can we do a whole goth record for She Past Away for example?

Why not? That would be dope.

Ryan: (laughs) Yeah. Or an old school, Barış Manço type of thing maybe?

Lee said in another interview that “Irreversible Damage” was influenced by Turkish psych-guitar stuff, so I knew you would be familiar with Turkish music to some extent. Do you know Erkin Koray?

Ryan: Oh yeah. Randall (Dunn), our producer from There Is No Year, is a huge fan Erkin Koray. I think he is more similiar to Selda Bağcan.

Give both of them a chance for collaboration, they are arguably the biggest artists from that generation who are still alive. I would love to see how those songs would sound like.

Ryan: That would be sick. People occasionally say we do psych-soul stuff. Lee was saying the other day we were off the nuts already, so it would be great to get even weirder in the psych underground. Speaking of hip-hop, the first time I met Selda was in a Mos Def record, as sampled on… What was it?

Frank: “Sugermagic.”

Ryan: Yeah. Anyway, that would be dope.

I can later recommend to you a list of great Turkish artists you could possibly collaborate with.

Ryan: Please do.

I heard that for the beats on this album, you two mostly used physical gear. Can you elaborate on that process?

Frank: I used a SP-404 Sampler. Just because it is tactual and very intuitive. So when you are going through listening things to sample, if there’s something you dig, you can play it back and get to it just like that. And then I put those into Ableton, meddle with the BPM or something.

Ryan: How does it work? Can you put a mic on it, or just record into it?

Frank: Yeah. You can record into it too. But it’s better if I just record into Ableton and export that as a file. 

Ryan: When I was doing the beats on “Bite Back”, I had a similar process. I would just run MIDI synthesizers and loop them. Basically, I would just be jamming as I run some lines and send those MIDI to different synths and drum machines. After that I would just walk around because I had an empty house for a while, just listening to what was happening. Then I would maybe have a drink and come back in to record jams. That was the result of a jam basically. And then I chopped it up.

Frank: That’s interesting, your process is fundamentally the same as mine, but it’s extracted. You delved into different modalities and instruments. Before Algiers, you and Lee were in the band The Partisan, which I was a fan of. It was much more guitar and drum-based. You did most of your writing through jamming. I was obviously taken back by everything you did, that’s why we formed this band. When you have been writing with somebody for 15 years, you develop an understanding of their work. When I heard “Bite Back” for the first time, it reminded me of even the old days with The Partisan, and I knew exactly what to do with it.

Ryan: In comparison, I don’t know how you worked on The Underside of Power, especially when demoing a track like “Cleveland”, but I mostly used Ableton as I didn’t have a drum machine during that time, so all my drums were shitty plugins. So that was a whole different process, actually.

Frank: The cool thing about this band is that our process is so dense. We go through so many phases as we explore what we can do artistically, but we tend to forget the outside world doesn’t know about that. We know about it, and it is just this restless creativity. We have to find ways to get it out. You never know what the next record is going to be, it might be a completely electronic album. Or maybe a punk record that has 15 songs across half an hour.

Among the songs from this collection, what do you think were the easiest and hardest songs to form?

Frank: That’s a great question.

Ryan: I know the hardest one for me, but you go first.

Frank: I also know one of your answers already. For me… In “Bite Back”, the build out of that bridge into the pre-chorus going into the second verse was pretty hard for me. I was mentally pulling my hair apart. And I had a really short time to get it back and sing that chorus again. We are touring pretty heavy at the moment, so it is a challenge. A good challenge, that’s what you want. “Out of Style Tragedy” also comes to mind, because the initial lyrics to the song are just the blueprint. What I do is completely internalize it, which I have done for the most part. It has gotten to the point where I don’t have to recycle lyrics at all, I can plug in whatever is happening on it. It is challenging, but I manage. 

Ryan: For me, the easiest ones just happened and came to be. “Cold World” was very easy for me to put together. And it was super easy for Frank to record on. I definitely took a way less songwriting role in this one, everything you hear is 99% Frank’s songwriting. 

Frank: 73%. (laughs)

Ryan: 73%. So in that sense, I took on more of a supporter / producer role. A producer is partly in the studio to provide emotional and psychological support. Giving advices like “Don’t do that this way”, encouraging Frank… I loved being there for him during his vocal parts, because it is nice to bounce off each other. But there was one song that really challenged me, and it is “I Can’t Stand It!” We worked on that f.cking chorus for long? Three months! That one was really difficult, because we knew something good was there, but we weren’t there yet. You always work with the intention to get something and be encouraging. You are like “We still need to work on this without trying to force something.” There was patience in always trying to get back to it. That was definitely the one that took the longest and the most challenging.

Frank: Which is fine, because it was one of the first songs written musically. You are like “I don’t want to ruin this beat!” You get demo-itis sometimes. (both laugh) I was also going through something. Long term relationship that ended really, really badly. I almost killed myself in December 2021. The writing of this song was still happening during that time. I was trying to get over my ex. The whole ass record is about her. This song as well. It turned out to be quite healing. It was cool to get this guy’s support while I’m trying to do that. Sonically trying to make it too. It’s like two sides of the same coin. Interesting process. But it did take a long time, because I wasn’t in a good place.

Ryan: When you put so much effort into something, those things tend to come together as well. It was a huge amount of pressure for Frank. By the time the project is over, all those emotional experiences culminate in a challenging environment. All we could do was trying to be there for him and giving him space when he needs it. But we were lucky about our whole collaboration community, because we have a lot of friends that we can count on! There is a lot goes into and record and also into the actual making ot it.

Frank: Yeah. I don’t remember who it was, but someone once said “If you are having an easy time making a record, then you are doing okay.” There is so much that goes into it. And it is hopefully a rewarding process. At the end of it, this certainly was.

I’m glad that you are better now, Frank.

Frank: Thanks. Owe it to my friends and therapy.

Ryan: Your own work, really.

I remember saying “This shouldn’t go on there!” for a couple of songs. That’s super healing. You can just say no. You can cut something.

Ryan Mahan

Your answer resonates with this next question: What is the most healing moment you have felt making music so far? Is there a specific moment that comes to mind?

Frank: Again, that’s a really great question. In terms of a general healing, the experience that I told you about certainly helped. Beyond that, the small moments of whatever the song means to you and whatever inspires you to contribute to that song get you through the entirety of the performance, no matter how long. You said in the beginning of this interview that one reason you were drawn to us was this feeling of power despite the darker stuff. I think music is a therapy in that sense, certainly the best therapy for me. When you play those songs, you win through whatever motivation brought you into making them. You get to do that almost every night for an extended period of time. It gives you something to go on for.

Ryan: I was dealing with a lot of anger and disappointment after There is No Year. A lot of my mental health issues arise from feeling creatively averted from expressing myself within the unit. That’s coming from the band members, because we are really open to trusting each other, but the circumstances on that record were creatively and sonically very depressing. It kicked off a long depression. A period of loneliness and grieving too. A part of that needed to happen in order to better understand my role and experience in the band. So just making the record so that Frank and I can remain friends was a big healing factor. Also for us to say “Let’s cut this song from the record. Let’s not put this one on there.” Those were really healing decisions too, because you feel confidence putting aside songs that you worked on to death. I remember saying “This shouldn’t go on there!” for a couple of songs. That’s super healing. You can just say no. You can cut something.

Frank: When you work as hard as we worked for all these years, you don’t see a lot of return. You don’t get money, often times you don’t get exposure for various reasons. We did two records with too much work and very little return, and then you go into a third record with all that fatigue. You’re made to feel powerless over the very thing that you made too much sacrifices for in the first place. That’s gonna cause a lot of turmoil. 

Time for a fun question: When you check out your streaming platform’s search history, what are the last three songs that come up?

Frank: Let’s see… I’m dating this girl back in New York, and I get anxious and insecure. I haven’t heard from her for the past day or two, so I was listening to the blues in my car. (laughs) It’s very seldom I do that, but I was feeling in that sort of way. I listened to “Red House” by Jimi Hendrix, Live in Woodstock. Then I listened to “Once I Had A Woman”, which is on Hendrix’ Blues collection. After that I started feeling sorry for myself and listened to an old 60’s song called “Gimme Some Lovin’” from The Spencer Davis Group.

Ryan: I didn’t listen to any music today, but I can count the last three things I listened to: “Burfict!” by JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown, f.cking love that song. It seems that everybody has their own favorite from that record, but that one stands out for me. It’s just slamming. There is “So Hard To Tell” by Debby Friday, she put her album out just recently and that song really got me. Then there is Outkast with basically the entire Aquemini.

Frank: And there is this web series we were listening to on the road. What was it called?

Ryan: “60 Songs That Define the 90’s” or something.

Frank: Yeah. The guy hosting it is a music critic, f.cking hilarious.

Ryan: He puts down a list of “The Worst Song Titles from Red Hot Chili Peppers”, and they are all like “What the actual” (both laugh) It’s like that Nick Cave quote which goes “Whenever I say ‘What the is this thing on the radio’, the answer is always Red Hot Chili Peppers.” (all laugh)

My final question is a common closer that I ask to most artists I interview: If you had a chance to carve one of your lyrics to your memorial stone 100 years from now, what would you choose?

Frank: Of our own songs?

That’s the ideal scenario. There have been artists who answered with other artists’ lyrics, though.

Frank: I don’t know if I have the ego to put my own words on my tombstone. (laughs) Let’s see. On occasion, Ryan writes lyrics too, as does Lee. Maybe I can take some of his lyrics. That’s a really complex question. I have no idea.

Ryan: I know what Lee would pick. He would choose another artist and just one word: “Tequila.” (both laugh) I will give you some context on that. We were doing karaoke the other night in Chicago. This song “Tequila” by The Champs is literally just the word “tequila.” (laughs) Lee wanted to do that song, but the karaoke guy refused to let him do it! He went back and tried to tip him, but the guy just refused. At some point, Lee took his piece of paper back and ripped it in half because he couldn’t sing his song!

Frank: (laughs) That’s amazing!

Ryan: It is fine to not be too serious. People often think we are super serious people, but we are actually really silly and like to have fun. But aside from that, I really like the lyrics to “Walk Like A Panther” which Frank wrote. Particularly this part:

“It’s the hand of the people that’s getting tenser now

And when we rise up…

Woo, I feel it coming down”

It just feels like this beautiful, hopeful sense of community. Whatever that is, it’s strength and power.

Frank: There is group called 311. They are terrible, they are from the 90’s and they have a song called “Down.” There is a lyric that just goes “Chill.” I want “Chill” on my tombstone. Finally stripped away from the world’s bullsh.t. (laughs)

SHOOK is now out via Matador Records. You can check out Algiers’ Bandcamp profile here.