Posted September 30, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Talking Postcolonial Politics with Algiers


A trio of “displaced Southerners” who now live in New York and London, Algiers adroitly mix together soul, gospel, rock and trip-hop on their self-titled debut. There’s a political dimension to the songs as well. Multi-instrumentalists Ryan Mahan and Lee Tesche (Franklin James Fisher is the third member of the group) recently phoned us from London to talk about the album, which they recorded in London at 4AD Studios with Tom Morris (Bloc Party, Lydia Lunch), and upcoming tour.

You all met in Atlanta but then formed the band in London. Talk about how that happened.
Lee: We all grew up together in Atlanta and then met at Georgia State University. I played in a band that Ryan used to go watch. The three of us developed a friendship based on similar shared interests. We developed a desire to play together. We were pursuing different things at school. Ryan moved here and Franklin was living in London and France and they were working on music, and that’s where it officially began.

Ryan: From my perspective, the idea of the band came at the tail end of Lee’s and my band. We had come to the natural end of the band. I was hoping to do something new. Lee had moved in a different direction. Franklin and I wrote a few new songs. One of them morphed into “Games.” We wrote that in a practice space right before we moved to Europe. We bonded previously over politics and ethics and literature. We had shared those types of experiences and influences. You can place us in Atlanta and then you can place us in that displacement that took place when we moved away.

The band’s music has been described as “dystopian soul.” Is that accurate?
Lee: I guess as much as anything else. It has those elements.

Ryan: That’s an interesting descriptor. 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.

You self-released “Blood” back in 2012. That song is really soulful. Talk about what you were going for sonically with it.
Ryan: That particular song was the moment when we arrived at what we had been working toward. Franklin 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. I might have had some difficulty getting used to what I was trying to do and then it became something that we got really excited about and it turned into our first release.

Are those rattling chains we can hear on the tune?
Ryan: We’re working on some deconstructions of a few of our songs that we hope to release later. We were talking about how people thought of it as almost chains or whips. I think that was very intentional.

Lee: It’s just a tambourine. We tried doing it with a chain itself that I use to lock up my bike. It’s this huge chain.

From whose point of view is that song written?
Ryan: We as a band work out the concepts together. We have clear ideas about the messages we want to convey. It’s not heavy handed and we don’t want to be pedagogical about it but there are some things we’d like to allude to. It’s very personal to Franklin. It’s difficult for Lee or I to go into lyrical content or the perspective of the speaker in the song. There is a sense of frustration and failed progress. There’s a feeling that racism is incessant and we can’t see an end to it. It’s open to interpretation.

You’ve been described as anti-colonial, but we live in what’s been called a postcolonial world. Talk about your anti-colonial impulses.
Ryan: It’s the same experience I had in university with the way people were describing the decolonization struggles or the aftermath of decolonization as postcolonial. That has so many different connotations. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around it. If you think about “post” anything, it’s something that comes after something. Like postmodernism, which is after modernism. It also has very specific connotations about people disengaging from politics and from metanarratives. Anti-colonialism from my perspective refers to the continuation of colonialism by other means. There’s a space to reignite or resuscitate that through a global politic and solidarity that would be present if you look back to anti-colonial struggles. You had people in Palestine-occupied territories looking back to people in Africa. You have the Black Panthers being influenced by the Algerian anti-colonial struggles. You have a sense of non-alignment but also an alignment across cultures.  That realignment of common cause and solidarity in a political sense.

It’s quite intentional and might sound passé or old school, just like when people say that the election of President Obama has resulted in post-racial society. We know that’s bullshit. It’s the most bullshit thing I’ve ever heard.

It seems like the vestiges of older ways of thinking have stuck with us.
Ryan: We all think about things in a historical context. 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.

To what extent do your beliefs find their way into the music?
Ryan: I think Franklin said recently in an interview that there’s an element of the unconscious with any type of medium outside of just pure language. Even speaking to the inability to articulate frustration through language. Potentially, there’s an element of unintentional discourse coming out that’s us enabling to engage with these elements without even using language.  In that way, but in other ways, it’s outside of ourselves. It’s different from what other people interpret.

Matt Tong, formerly of Bloc Party, has been playing drums with the band. What does he bring to the table?
Lee: He brings a lot of experience, for one. He’s been a great person to have out with us. It’s all quite new for us. We never played a show with a band until well after we signed with Matador. 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.

Have you started thinking about the next album yet?
Lee: It’s not too far off. We’ve been writing songs for years, never thinking we’d be in this position. Now, it’s a matter of trying to get together and mix a couple of songs to put out. Now, we have this luxury of being able to do this more regularly. We’ve got a lot of material. We’re anxious to get back to that. We’re excited that Matt is involved as well.

Ryan: Playing in that live space has provided inspiration for what might happen next. 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.

Upcoming 2015 Shows








Salt Lake City, UT – Kilby Court

Denver, CO – Larimer Lounge

St. Louis, MO – Firebird

Cleveland, OH – The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Toronto, ON – The Horseshoe Tavern

Montreal, QC – Bar Le Ritz PDB

Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall of Williamsburg


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].