Feature interview: Algiers at the Basement

Joel Oliphint

When Franklin James Fisher got the news that a grand jury would not indict the Cleveland police officers who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, the announcement coincided with Fisher's online research into the mysterious deaths of other young black people like Kindra Chapman, Andre Jones and Lennon Lacy.

“You have a tendency to look at cases like this as a microcosm,” said Fisher, the lead singer of ferocious experimental rock act Algiers. “You have one case where a young black kid dies under dubious circumstances — and that's an understatement — and then you think of all the other cases that you've never heard of.”

After learning of the grand jury verdict, Fisher needed to channel his anger into something constructive. The creative fury resulted in “Cleveland,” a fiery, apocalyptic song from the most recent Algiers album,The Underside of Power. The song mentions black victims of violence by name, and a chaotic bridge section plays like a cauldron from the underworld, with sounds of weeping and crying stirred together with squalls of noise and Fisher's own wailing.

The song title also refers to the gospel song “Peace Be Still” by Rev. James Cleveland, a sample of which runs underneath the percussive track while Fisher shouts like a preacher at the pulpit. “It's been the same evil power since in '63/They hang in Homewood, Alabama, with the whitest sheets/And in Montgomery County, Maryland, from a sapling tree,” Fisher sings, followed by a chorus that's more hopeful than the fire-and-brimstone vibe implies: “But innocence is alive and it's coming back one day.”

“The apocalypse is only a bad thing if you're one of the bad guys,” Fisher said. “For the vast majority of people who live in misery and are suffering, the end of the world would be a relief. … In the worst-case scenario, you're only king for a day, and even if it means that civilization is completely wiped out, at least those people won't be in power anymore.”

“There's always a message of hope underlying what we do, but people don't catch that all the time,” Fisher continued, referencing the untitled closing track on the band's self-titled 2015 record, which sampled Chicago pastor T.L. Barrett's Youth for Christ Choir. “That was meant to be kind of like a ray of light penetrating that gray monolith of bleakness that was running through the record up until that last moment, and I don't think people quite got that.”

The gospel samples and Fisher's spirit-filled singing recall the frontman's upbringing in the church on the outskirts of Atlanta. To this day, Fisher takes refuge in Sunday morning services. “I still go to church. Not only because of my personal faith, but also as a cultural practice and reaffirmation of black identity in this country,” he said. “I think for a lot of African-Americans, the church has historically represented a place of liberation and hope.”

“It was also a place where politics and hope and faith intersected,” he continued. “What we do in this band is create a place where you can have different philosophies and schools of thought and ideologies, and you can let those things coexist in order to create your own dialog and to engage with the world on a political basis. My personal relationship with my background and my faith has nothing to do with what Algiers is or what the other guys believe. It's very much about emancipatory projects and liberating people from the various appendages of oppression.”

Rather than primarily focusing on specific incidents that end up on a CNN ticker and then disappear a day later, throughoutThe Underside of Power (and particularly on the title track), Algiers rages against abusive power structures prevalent in society at large.

“We're not a topical band, and I don't even think we're a political band. People act as if politics exists outside of the realm of life. Politics is in everything and it shapes everything,” Fisher said. “I think it's antithetical to the creative impulse to say that I'm only going to create around this one specific thing. That's pointless. You create because it's a need to express, on an existential level, your life as a human being: love, loss, tragedy, politics, anger, revenge, heartbreak.”

The Basement

7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18

391 Neil Ave., Arena District


ALSO PLAYING: Mourning A BLKstar