august 2017

Wong plays both with a flatpick and fingerstyle. When plucking the strings with his fingers, he was intent on developing a unique approach. “It was more a way to get percussive—to make the guitar not sound like a guitar,” he explains. “I palm mute it and mainly use my fingertips rather than my nails. That gets more of a hand-drum sound.”
Photo by PSquared Photography

The avant-garde player reveals his looping techniques and explains why he limits his pedal acquisitions to about two per year.

Guitarist/loop-master Dustin Wong likes to keep it simple, although that isn’t obvious at first glance. His music is an intricate fabric of complex interlocking rhythms, multiple looped layers, and subtle timbral contrasts. But simplicity is his music’s dominant feature, which explains its accessibility and tunefulness, as well as its swirling, repetitive, mantra-like feel.

Simplicity also explains Wong’s penchant for low-tech gear.

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Algiers is an experimental rock-soul band from Atlanta, Georgia. Members are, from left to right: drummer Matt Tong, bassist Ryan Mahan, guitarist Lee Tesche, and guitarist/frontman Franklin James Fisher.
Photo by Dustin Condren

The punk-gospel rockers share tricks for getting killer guitar sounds, and discuss what’s brewing on their thematically potent, musically heavy new album, The Underside of Power.

In the late ’00s, Franklin James Fisher, overeducated with his master’s degree, took a job at a Manhattan nightclub. While working in the coat-check room, he made good and efficient use of his time, channeling the sounds of drunkenness into song lyrics. Fisher set these lyrics to music in Algiers, a lean and powerful band that takes cues as much from politics and literature as from gospel and punk.

Algiers released a self-titled debut in 2015, but the group’s roots go back much further. Fisher and two of his bandmates—bassist Ryan Mahan and guitarist Lee Tesche—first played music together in the mid-1990s, when they met as high school students in suburban Atlanta.

Though years later Fisher, Mahan, and Tesche found themselves living in three different countries while pursuing graduate degrees. They maintained their collaboration through file sharing and through a shared collection of influences—musical, literary, and philosophical—on Tumblr.

On Algiers’ sophomore release, The Underside of Power, the group is joined by Bloc Party’s Matt Tong on drums. The album is dark and urgent and is clearly, as the name suggests, a response to the current political climate, touching on the sense of oppression and dystopia that many are feeling.

But regardless of your political orientation, the album has a lot to recommend to guitar fans—killer riffs galore, with all kinds of uncanny textures and oddness percolating beneath the surface.

Via conference call from their respective homes in New York and Atlanta, Fisher and Tesche had a lot to say about their methods and benchmarks.

You’re both products of Atlanta. How has that impacted your music?
Franklin James Fisher:
It was probably different for both of us. I remember always romanticizing these other places and other music scenes, like in New York and the U.K. It wasn’t until I left Atlanta that I was able to look back at it from a different perspective and kind of appreciate a lot of things that were going on—things that over the last 20 or so years I wasn’t so privy to.

I think also about the opportunity it gave us, growing up in a place where there’s a lot of space, because it kind of dictated the music we made. It was really easy to be in a full band with drums, and play in people’s garages and basements. You could have seven members and play a lot of different instruments and have two drum kits and all this stuff, because the space allowed for it, whereas you move to a bigger city and you must be economical with how you approach things.

Lee Tesche: Growing up in Atlanta in the ’90s, the hip-hop and stuff here obviously had an influence on us. At the same time, we were looking at some of the music scenes we grew up listening to as well, like in Bristol, in the U.K. A lot of that ’90s hip-hop stuff was coming out, with people combining these ideas with guitars and full-band instrumentation with sampling and beat-making, throwing all this stuff into a blender and sometimes ending up with really exciting results.

Fisher: It’s definitely a combination of those two aspects: making that impact on what you’re doing depending on where you are and what’s going on at the time. It’s definitely an issue of space and your immediate surroundings. When you’re younger it may have to do more with how you access music and what’s going on with where you are.

But it plays increasingly less of a part as we enter this new—I hate the term but, global village or whatever—with the internet. I was hanging out with Randall Dunn, who mixed the record. He was talking about how they don’t have these scenes anymore in different cities, because there’s no localized music scenes that just kind of exist in one pocket or another. Everything’s kind of been homogenized by the internet. Internet seems to be shorthand for capitalism. That’s really what it is.

The Underside of Power was largely written in minor keys. “Ryan [Mahan, bassist] talks about a sense of melancholy, a sadness that’s embedded in the band’s ethos and one we try to communicate,” says Franklin James Fisher. “There’s sort of an unofficial mandate in the band that we can’t really do major-key songs.”

Talk about the gospel influence on your sound. Does it come from first-hand participation in the church?
Fisher: For me, it does. Not really for the other guys. It took a long time for me to try and find my voice, as it were. In the early days, Ryan [Mahan] and I would put songs together and we would both try singing on them. It took a while to get right. Eventually he told me to just kind of approach it in the most natural way that I could, and for me that was just kind of…. I have a very loud voice and really was imitating what I heard in church and what I heard from Motown and soul records and things like that.

It was just like shouting, scream-singing almost. And then when we first demoed [2015’s] “Black Eunuch,” I think we felt as if we touched upon a nerve there. It was an interesting combination of punk aesthetics and gospel aesthetics and there was a synergy. So we started kind of playing with that. That was much more featured on that first record and I think a lot of people could tell just because they’re strange bedfellows.

Tesche: For me, rhythm and blues and gospel and jazz are the bedrock of everything. Everything that’s come in the last 50 years sprung forth from that, so it’s not that alien a thing to have these reference points in your music. I feel all the British Invasion stuff I discovered as a teenager, and getting into my parents’ old soul and Motown and doo-wop and gospel stuff, gave me kind of a belief system, in a sense.

What about that punk-rock influence on your music?
I think the punk-rock reference is a great one to bring up, because as a teenager that was something that also came to me. When I was 14 a friend’s older brother played in a hardcore band, and I saw them play downtown [in Atlanta] at one of the dingy, dive-y clubs. I’d never experienced anything like that before. It was this big sing-along. I was like, “I want to be part of this.” It just changed my entire musical outlook, and I think for me it’s always just been about maintaining that, remembering what music is and where it comes from and what expression is, and not being afraid of that.

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