Algiers Talk "Shook", Sampling, and Studio Synergy

Photos by Ebru Yildiz, courtesy of Matador Records.

"In the world through which I travel," the Martinician philosopher-psychiatrist Frantz Fanon once wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, "I am endlessly creating myself." These words were written in the steep context of colonial domination during the years that led up to the Algerian War of independence, but they could also illustrate the trajectory of the band whose name pays homage to that site of struggle and liberation.

A photo of the band Algiers, photographed by Ebru Yildiz.
Algiers. Photo by Ebru Yildiz.

Ever since they released their eponymous debut album in 2015, Algiers have avoided the trap of easy definition and have proudly worn disparate influences on their sleeves. Though the Atlanta-born quartet has fluidly fluctuated between post-punk poetics, fiery free jazz, and rambunctious rap production—often in a matter of mere bars—their raison d'être has remained consistent: to disrupt the illusion of American exceptionalism and to create a contrasting community of collaborators in the process.

This ethos reaches new heights on their forthcoming fourth album Shook, which sees the band take a seamless sonic journey through their native city with the assistance of a motley crew of contributors, not limited to Rage Against The Machine's Zack De La Rocha, Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring, and underground rap veterans Backxwash and Billy Woods, who trade verses on the album's scathing standout single "Bite Back".

Upon pressing play, the album instantly evokes a homecoming through its plurality of voices alongside the field recordings and samples that are interwoven throughout. "This record is us finding home," frontman Franklin James Fisher claims of Shook in the press copy accompanying the album. "It was a whole new positive experience—having a renewed relationship with the city we're from and having a pride in that."

Over an hour on Zoom, Reverb sat down with founding members Ryan Mahan and Lee Tesche to discuss the band's Atlanta roots, their strategy in the studio, and their approach to building what the band refers to as "invented sample libraries". Shook is out this week on Matador Records, and is available on the band's Bandcamp.

The official video for "Bite Back", directed by Murat Gökmen and featuring Backxwash and Billy Woods.

Frank has framed Shook as a voyage that begins and ends in Atlanta. Jumping off of that, I want to start with a broad and somewhat abstract prompt: I'd like for you to elaborate on your individual experiences with the musical vocabulary and sonic ecology of the city.

Ryan Mahan: That's a really interesting way to start. The events of 2020 and 2021 kind of coerced feelings of exploring our memories and experiences of Atlanta, because we all had left and hadn't lived there in so long. IIt started by me looking out the upstairs window of my cousin's house in East Atlanta and just having this really common scene—a very dark street with a tiny little street light and trees all around. That started making me remember these experiential memories of what Atlanta sounds like as a city.

You'll notice that throughout the album, there's definitely sonic textures of the city's ecology and environment. It's a very wooded city which is relatively unique for a major city in the US—I think it has the most trees,, as far as American cities go. So even those basic palpable memories of being a child on a couch, hearing the wind and rain, the cicadas, those kind of things that just bring you to an impalpable place. That was one of the things that we really wanted to capture on this record. We've always been so focused on actual sonics created through either machines or samples, so it was important to get environmental textures in there.

Lee Tesche: Atlanta obviously holds a particular place in our growth as musicians and friends. It's where we all first started playing music, hearing it and learning it. Ryan and I started playing together and then Franklin would come to all of our shows from our previous band and was a super fan—that was kind of a coming of age moment for him, his punk rock moment. We all started playing together and exchanging records. We have this long history amongst each other that was largely centered and based around there for most of our lives, so to go back to those environs to create and write was a unique experience compared to our previous records.

The first time I sat with the record, it definitely struck me as a "sound map" compared to your past work.

LT: During the pandemic, we were spending a lot more time outside. I definitely was and I know Ryan was. We've gotten a lot more into field recording and that type of thing over the previous few years. Listening to our environment and recording the space itself, and trying to insert that sense of space into every single song was something we'd never done before and I hadn't even really thought about that much until recently. There was this goal of trying to bring more of that physical character into everything.

RM: If you think about our band name in and of itself, it's a place and it's a reference to a particular set of historical political coordinates, but it's also representative of how memory functions and how reality is distorted. Not only through our minds, but through capitalism and all these other artifices. This time around, it was really important to actually try to represent space in those ways.

Our experience as musicians and in life is an endless search, one that doesn't have an end point—when you aren't searching and seeking and trying to find a home. I never really fully found a home until I moved to the UK. Now, embracing that sense of just understanding home, is also an idea of searching and never having a final place and being okay with that. We've always tried to grapple with those types of things through sonics.

I'm told this record emerged from months of marathon beatmaking. I also understand that Frank and Ryan have a shared love for YouTube series such as Rhythm Roulette and Against the Clock in which producers are challenged with certain constraints, whether those are time management methods or blindfolded sample sources. For this album, did you throw any oblique strategies of your own into the mix?

RM: I think our strategies are constantly oblique because we've always been rather random and archaic in our practices. For example, if I'm using a drum machine, it'll be recorded and played as it goes along rather than sequenced through, partially because of my desire to just get something down, or maybe it's my relative laziness. Even our constraints enable us to actually make interesting things and go off like that.

I think one of Frankie's oblique strategies was staying up all night and switching between videos and video games. All I could hear while I was sleeping was just him tapping on the SP-404, constantly re-sampling what he was watching on television. That approach is interesting because it's not institutionalized and not within any kind of parameter that you think a band, particularly a band who's put out some records would function in. But that's kind of how it worked.

LT: There's definitely a conscious effort too from Franklin's side to not work within the grid or even completely in tune. He was spending a lot of time putting things at different BPMs that were a little detuned or in the in-between, almost to recreate the organic nature of a lot of the records and things that we were digging on, and break away from the locked-in computer-based art that so much of us had been making and hearing.

RM: Before we made this record, Lee and I had made a record with our project Nun Gun called Mondo Decay where we used a lot of tape manipulation. The record was based on recording and running everything through tape. Lee can take you through the actual scientific process of it, but we obviously were very much influenced by our work on that record for this one. Given the constraints of everything, we weren't able to actually go to that full place of full dumping everything to tape and slowing it down at very precise calculations. You can hear it on "Something Wrong".

I was going to bring up "Something Wrong", because it illustrates the process you're describing in a way: you have this Liquid Liquid-style bass-driven post-punk groove which is then slowed down and given the classic DJ Screw treatment. In the record's accompanying press copy, a certain phrase also jumped out at me: "building imagined sample libraries from scratch". I'd love for you to elaborate on that angle, perhaps through the lens of that track.

LT: When Frank was writing a lot of the demos for this record, we were working on other music with our photographer friend Brad Feuerhelm, creating a soundtrack for a photobook that he was doing, and we got the idea. It was just based on some accidental playing of records at wrong speeds years ago—we wrote all these songs at regular speed, slowed them down, and built arrangements on top of that. Brad called the approach "Goth and Screwed". It was an interesting experimental process to hear how frequencies shifted when you do that. All of a sudden, certain things would jump out and others would recede in ways that you wouldn't imagine as frequencies shift.

Then, when Franklin shared his demos of this record, his demo for "Something Wrong" jumped out. I was like, "Wow, it sounds like you were actually experimenting and playing around with the same type of ideas and stuff that we were." For him, it was more of a conceptual thing because it was based around being pulled over by the police as a teenager and just the slowing down of time that came with that.

I immediately was like, "We need to at least try and adapt that particular process for this song and the way that we were going to build that out in the studio." It took some time to figure out. To me, it sounds like one of those Sly and Robbie productions for Grace Jones—but we were following the process to see where it goes and not pursuing a particular sound. Following and not chasing.

I have a TASCAM 388 reel-to-reel eight track that we used for most of these things. We were doing a lot of bounces of certain stems within the record, so there were a lot of mixed media moments where we'd go back to the computer. A lot of it was actually based around stuff that we had acquired on Reverb over time. That's why I was excited about this interview because I was like, "Oh, I need to plug my store a little bit, and say thanks for all the money that we've wasted on gear over the last several years."

We love an endorsement.

RM: Yeah, it's been amazing. What do you have on Reverb now, Lee? Do you have the Argon on there? Do you have the Octa?

LT: Yeah, I'm selling our Elektron Octatrack and I'm selling the Modal Argon8

RM: We have two of those, by the way. It's a really great synth.

LT: Then a couple Eurorack modules... a lot of this was stuff we used on the record that I'm just trying to clean house on because I've got way too much stuff. Ryan was down here last month and we were doing some pre-production for touring next year. You were like, "You've got too much gear." And I was like, "Yeah, I know." We all do.

RM: We're turning into an Akai showroom—we've got like two MPCs, a Force, we used to have a 2000… Anyway, to go back to the "imagined sample library" stuff, I suppose that's something that we've always done. This time, we were just trying to reinforce that aspect of our music. Even if you listen to our first record, with all the gospel textures—we created those with our voices. We will always want to acknowledge the sense of the familiar with the uncanny, that's at the heart of the band. The best way that we can do that is to take an idea as you would if you were making musique concrète or rap music: you either sample an idea or you take that idea and you build it within the framework of the song. Maybe we were pulling from a different musical lineage or musical history than we are this time around, but it's always been there.

I think it's most crystallized within "Can The Sub_Bass Speak"? On that song you have have essentially three layers. You have Frank's vocal, and then you have the free jazz skronk layer in the middle, and then the base of everything is essentially Franklin's historical lineage of black music, how it's embedded in every sort of genre that we have today. It goes way back to work songs, through ragtime and dub and punk, and everything else.

We're talking scores of songs that he wrote just to use as ten second samples throughout the track. So, that in and of itself is representative of this type of approach to creating samples: you write the song, you create it, and then you sample it, and then turn that into a sample. We did that throughout this record.

Do you find this process of sampling you've laid out to be more of an archival science, or is it more a question of following your ears? Perhaps a bit of both?

RM: Acknowledging, representing and manipulating the sound worlds that we have experienced is something deeply embedded in our music and that we want to progress through our own lens. I'm sure Frankie can speak more to his own experience of how he creates samples and writes, but for me personally it tends to be to simply follow the ear: listening to records, listening to YouTube, whatever I have at my disposal. When something jumps out, I literally just take out my notepad and write down the time of wherever that particular sample is. A lot of the stuff that I reference through a sample process would be film.

I'll just be watching and writing down the timestamp of the film, and then pulling from there and seeing what can come from that and then build off that. Oftentimes, the three of us have approaches to writing that shift from each other. I'm much more based on feel and experience when writing, and I think other members might have a more conceptual approach to something. That's what makes writing within our group so interesting.

LT: With the sampling aspect, I would say both. For me, there's both the conceptual; you're pulling from certain things or referencing certain things for certain reasons sometimes, like you're trying to recapture something, you're chasing a sound. Or even just putting something in a physical space, or something. And then also following the ear, too. It kind of works both ways.

Talk to me about the environments where this record was recorded—I know that you've made records with Portishead's Adrian Utley and experimental metal producer Randall Dunn before, who both have ample experience with genre fluidity and pull from disparate musical sources. How did this differ in comparison?

LT: As Ryan said before, a lot of it started at his cousin's house—it was just working on our own demoing process, and we continued to work together in different home studio spaces. Then we slowly made our way to Philadelphia, where we worked with our good friend Matthew Ricchini to then continue to piece things together. We moved into some studios up there to do some more of the live things. It was always something that began with us working on our own gear in our own spaces, and branched out from there until we finalized it.

RM: Initially we had planned to just do it in makeshift spaces. We were going to do it at Matt's warehouse space in Philly, and we were going to try to make an album within these rooms. We started getting into the studio and feeling like we were really able to flesh things out so much better. As far as recording vocals went, they were recorded so well that having that kind of duality between home and the studio. If an artist has the capacity and ability to access a studio, you have the duality between being at home and in an actual space.

Another difference in terms of actually making this one versus previous records is that this was a much more familial type of experience—people just hanging out and making an album and just being friends. Talking, chatting shit, joking. Even though we were in a proper studio, it just felt very deinstitutionalized and was a very relaxed process—I think you can hear that. There is definitely an honesty in the music from us just hanging out together and making it. There was a lot of outside influence obviously with all our guests, but in terms of us just going with what we were feeling, this is the first record since our debut where we followed that approach and really followed Franklin's muse throughout.

LT: The gear that we had in our spaces influenced a lot of the early writing process and sounds that we kind of preserved throughout. We might have made different decisions if we had access to other things. I was speaking earlier with somebody about the song "Fight Back"—I lent Franklin this guitar I've had since I was a teenager. I can't even think of the brand of it. The only time I've ever seen it is on the cover of The Shaggs' record, it's what the sisters are playing. It's not the best playing guitar, but on most of his demos, it's what he was playing. It lent a certain character of sound to just some of the sampled guitar bits that we used on "Irreversible Damage" and other tracks.

RM: There was a feeling of having access to time and space without the other myriad daily pressures of life. Because we had such a break in history through 2020 and 2021, it was just a different appreciation and acceptance of time—using it in completely different ways than we had in the past. I had access to a space where I could make noise all the time, every day, I would just jam for hours.

So, I would just run a really simple setup. I would run my Argon8 alongside Dave Smith's Tempest drum machine. I would also have my 808s and the more traditional drum sounds within Ableton that I could jam on, too. I had one of those Behringer Neutrons that just helps create sound beds like drones. A lot of the things that would start with a drone. I just need some sort of sound to build sound off of, you know what I mean?

From there I'd turn the bias up and just get something. And then I'm like, "All right, cool." And you'd run that. I also had a Korg Minilogue, which is so user-friendly for jamming—I'd run that through an Eventide H9 and then a JHS Colour Box, and it made all the difference. That was my simple setup. I'd hit record, I could record my MIDI and then I could mess around with the parameters. And then suddenly I've got sections of songs fleshed out.

The album features an ensemble cast of collaborators from different walks of radical musical practice. One could argue that the list of names alone—which runs the range of rappers and improvisers and cultural theorists—mirrors the band's history of evading genre and embracing sonic cross-pollination. Overall, it plays as a celebration of the community that you've cultivated since the first record. Go deep about the collaborative angle of the record and assembling these contributions. Am I right to assume that this was a process of curation, or was it more informal than that?

LT: From my perspective, it was a little of everything. It started with curation—people that we thought might be appropriate or work within the context of what we were doing—but we were als pulling in friends. It became kind of a combination.

RM: Franklin's mentioned before about previous times where the focus was always on one particular voice all the time. We have always wanted to bring that sense of community to the way that vocals are approached and vocals are treated. So, that was one of the main bases for that too, you know?

Correct me if I'm wrong on this, but it feels like you're moving away from a traditional band dynamic and moving towards something that resembles an open-format collective.

LT: Yes and no. I mean, maybe—one thing that we would always reference is that we were doing a Massive Attack type of thing, you know? But that doesn't always mean that that's the future either, it's just where we are at this one particular point in time. Where we end up in six months from now might dictate something different.

RM: I do think it's an astute observation, though—also without having seen us live. In the past year we've started playing with different musicians, whereas before, it was always just the four of us playing shows. There's always been an interesting contrast between our recorded music and our live performances. That's a super huge influence on the work I do: that the recorded piece is not the live piece, and the live piece builds or subtracts or does whatever it does with the recorded music.

We played a show last week with a drummer who we will be bringing with us, so we're now working with two drummers, and so many other different performers. We feel more flexible because the band can be one person, four people, seven people—it can have this fluidity, particularly in the live context.

"Irreversible Damage", featuring Rage Against The Machine's Zach De La Rocha.

I know you just played National Sawdust in Brooklyn with several of the collaborators last week. I imagine just the process of getting everyone together after all those studio sessions was quite the endeavor. How do you go about transforming a studio creation to the stage when it's that many voices involved?

LT: Yeah, it was all of that. Just pulling in guests on a record was hard enough, and then trying to pull them into the show was even harder. We've been rehearsing a lot to learn all this material, and get it in a place where it translates well live.

RM: It's like I said before: presence vs. absence, familiar vs. uncanny—that duality is always there. There's always been a slight disembodied nature to our music anyway. The voice might be present and focused around our wonderful lead singer. But it's also focused around the voice that isn't present on stage. So any chanting, anything from chanting to group, collective vocals that we can't have a large choir on the stage. I don't want to be too philosophical, but that's all a part of how our music works and how it functions. There's not necessarily always a pressure to have those voices represented in the body itself.

And at the same time, I think it's something that we can do, and we did the other night where we just had people. We had Big Rube and Billy Woods and all these others on stage. We were built for that even without maybe necessarily rehearsing. You know what I mean? I think we just had folks come in and had them do it when they did it.

How much direction do you give your guests? Or is it more a question of spontaneity?

LT: A combination of those things. Vocally, Franklin might be able to shed some more light on that, as far as just sharing what he had been working on before the person came in and did their part. Sometimes it was completely organic, where we would just let them have a go at it.

RM: For specific examples: We all reached out to different guests at different particular points in time. We were really interested in vocal textures, where they would fit and who would represent that voice texture. I had a part I was working on and I love the rapper Backxwash, so I was like, "Well, this seems like the place for Backxwash. So, what do you think about..." And so we sent an instrumental and asked, "What do you think about rocking over this particular part of the song?" And that was it. There wasn't a ton of back and forth in terms of like, "Oh, can you try this? Can you try this?" It was just like, "I'm going to bless this, and this is what it is." And it worked.

A photo of the band Algiers, photographed by Ebru Yildiz.
Algiers. Photo by Ebru Yildiz.

With Nadah El Shazly, it was a similar process. She came to me and said, "Hey, this is what I have, what do you think?" So, she essentially demoed it. She said, "I have this, what do you think?" And then I was like, "Yo, this is dope. Can you try these three layers on top of that?" And then she came back and again, there wasn't that much more to it. It was almost like things fit really well, without a lot of forcing.

I think what's interesting for me about the record is it sounds natural. Nothing sounds like, "Oh God, we got to make sure Zach de la Rocha has a place on this album." It was like everything fits within that space, almost too naturally, where you just take it for granted. You could almost have that experience of like, "Well, this is just whatever." This is just how it happens.

Where I think we were lucky to have the constellation of people who were open and fluid and flexible as they were. And Patrick. I would imagine Patrick did a similar thing in... I know there was different work with Zach and DeForrest. But say for example, with Patrick Shiroishi, I think it was just like, "Here's some saxes."

As far as sessions were concerned, were things largely remote or in-person? Again, maybe a bit of both?

LT: Yeah, a bit of both. It was still kind of mid-pandemic that we were really digging in deep with this. Mark Cisneros came up to the studio and spent a day with us doing all sorts of different instruments and that type of thing. We recorded remotely with a few other people. Patrick just was sending things in. The same went for a number of the other folks—because we were just all in different places. In many ways, that was nothing new or unique for us. As a band, we've always worked that way. I mean, even just amongst the three of us early on, when we were working and writing and living in different cities, there were some times where we were not together but we were still able to continue to work on music. It wasn't an alien process by any means.

You'll be touring the record in the spring. What will that look like in relation to this sort of large ensemble of collaborators, and what are you hoping that the experience will be of transitioning this from the studio to the stage?

RM: I think we got a good look at it live on Thursday, in terms of how it works. It's really dependent upon the space and the place, for example—bringing people from Montreal, LA, all over the map to a single city is a challenge. But it could also be dependent on space, wherever somebody is at a particular point in time, they join us. Franklin and I have also talked about guests. These guests, their parts are very important.

At the same time, we have other friends and connections throughout, that could come and bless a similar part of the track, and could maybe change even the context of that track even more, and give it a different spin. I think we kind of played with this on Thursday, because we had Fatboi Sharif on one of the songs, and we just rocked the end of the song and let him spit over it. That's another framework that you can use, where you can just have somebody in who maybe isn't on the record. I think it's all about that openness to what the space dictates, and obviously what finances dictate. That's a part of the world that we live in: how you enable musicians to play and perform in such a difficult and restricting environment.

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