It’s been nearly a decade since Lee Tesche, guitarist for the Atlanta-rooted band Algiers (whose brain-jostling blend of gospel and hardcore punk has been sort of blowing up since the band release their self-titled debut last spring) convinced a longtime idol, Brendan Canty of Fugazi, that his hometown music scene was worth documenting. Canty, along with his collaborator Christoph Green, had been working on an episodic rock-documentary series for the past few years, Burn to Shine, a stripped-down take on various music scenes across the country. And Tesche wasn’t wrong in thinking it was high time they came to Atlanta. The doc captures bands like Deerhunter and Black Lips at the moment before they blew up big, as well as veterans like Shannon Wright, who went on to stake out even wider renown.
But Volume 6, shot in 2007, became something of a time capsule, after it failed to see an official release when Canty, Green, and many of the bands they had filmed, ran up against the collapse of the DVD industry and advent of YouTube mid-way through the project. Finally, almost ten years later, Burn to Shine 6: Atlanta is seeing a proper premiere as Algiers has set out on an East Coast mini-tour, playing music and screening Tesche’s portion of the series along the way. Tonight marks the band’s New York City stop, when they’ll be playing Le Poisson Rouge (along with Savak) following an 8 pm screening of the new BTS installment.
By the time they heard from Tesche, the filmmaking duo had already consulted with leading local yokels in places like Portland, Louisville and, of course, Washington D.C., as a means of celebrating the individual talent smattered across the country. BTS’s microscopic inspection of these various scenes demonstrates not only the special connection between music and place, but has captured a fast-disappearing way of life– one that the filmmakers acknowledge is owed both to the ephemerality of art scenes in general, but also to processes of transformation (in the name of progress and development) happening all over the world.
Tesche has since followed his Algiers bandmates, Ryan Mahan and Franklin James Fisher, in getting the hell out of Dodge– while he’s resided in London for the last five or so years, Mahan and Fisher are based in New York and “have both been out of Atlanta for close to a decade at this point.” When I spoke to Tesche, he and the rest of Algiers had returned to Atlanta, where they were rehearsing and getting ready to set off on their BTS tour.
“It’s always a weird thing, being back,” he said. “The city’s changed a lot since we’ve moved away. I’ve always been connected to things that are going on here, and it was very, very difficult to tear myself away.” Lee’s departure was for a number of reasons including personal growth and a simple change of scenery. “I spent my whole life here and I’d never lived anywhere else and I did need a change at a certain time, so it’s kind of bittersweet coming back and playing with a band of musicians who all grew up here too, but we’ve kind of done a lot of our stuff elsewhere.”
That, of course, includes Algiers, which formed after all of the members had left Atlanta behind. And yet, the roots tying Algiers to their hometown are thick and gnarly ones. For one, the heavy gospel influences are practically part of the Georgian soil. “We all grew up in Atlanta, but we had different takes on what we encountered here,” Tesche recalled. “Where I was kind of active in the punk and indie scene quite a bit when I was a teenager, Frank kind of grew up in the church, and Ryan I think was really into hip-hop and stuff from an early age. As we all grew up together, we bonded over our mutual love of Nina Simone and Gang of Four, along with politics and literature, all these things that have fallen into the cauldron of whatever it is we do.”
Algiers, however, is not just a collection of its separate and various influences, but it’s the sum of all those moving parts as well. “It’s a dialectic between the two, it’s an ongoing discourse of ways to communicate with one another and share,” Tesche said. At first, gospel and punk might seem like completely disparate musical forms– one an occasionally nihilistic form of catharsis and rebellion, and the other a celebration of Biblical stuff. Lee admitted that, yeah, even after entering that established-band phase, people are still somewhat confused if not completely baffled by their sound. “I think we always will encounter that to a certain extent, because it’s one of those things that doesn’t really fit anywhere,” he explained. “There is something that’s very Southern about it in some sense, that makes it feel quite out of place somewhere like London or New York. But I think that the more we play, the more people start to grasp or understand where we’re coming from– it’s a continual battle. But we’ve definitely found a fan base, people who connect with the music.”
But consider also that both gospel and punk have a similar spiritual core, having both sprung from a tradition of protest, both genres have long been the musical realms of oppressed groups. Tesche agreed, adding that Algiers had come together especially around the “melancholy elements of gospel music.” I wondered if, for that reason, their Southern identity complicated things for them. “I mean, growing up and confronting a lot of conservative thought has definitely been a part of what shaped and influenced us, but in Europe, talking to people, there’s also this very romantic view of the the American South,” Lee said. “I think it’s something that continually haunts our music in a sense, for better or worse, it definitely plays a roll in our sound, and where we come from, and what has effected us, negatively and positively, that we’ll never be able to escape.”
Algiers isn’t all about bleakness or backward beginnings though. The band communicates in a soulful agit-prop style that can be uplifting as it is gloomily aware, with hyper-politically-conscious lyrics and a track record of speaking out about issues spanning racism, colonialism, and religion. “There are aspects of hope [in gospel] or trying to get to another place, there’s this collective idea and thoughts that, ‘not in this life,’ and that we can be reaching or striving for something greater,” Lee explained. “Just like with punk music, it’s these dispossessed populations coming together and using music to communicate radical ideas. The root of a lot of the radical movements in this country are in the church, historically, and that’s something that we’ve been able to draw from.”
But back when all this Burn to Shine stuff was broiling, Algiers was just a glimmer in Lee’s eye.
Growing up, Fugazi was one of his favorite bands, and Lee said that he’d always felt a tinge of jealousy about the potency and energy behind all of the music coming out of D.C. at the time. “I’d look to the D.C. punk scene, wishing I had access to an interesting music scene,” he recalled. “And over time I grew to realize that I had all of that, and that a lot of people do in the different places that they’re from.”
While Lee had been in a number of bands in Atlanta over the years, he admitted that in 2007, when he’d finally convinced Canty and Green to come down and film a dozen of his favorite bands, he wasn’t “that active” as a performing musician. “But I was always a huge proponent of the Atlanta music scene, which has gotten a lot of attention in the last decade or so– there have been a lot of bands that have done quite well,” he explained. “At that point in time, it wasn’t really on people’s radar in the same way. The rap scene always has been, and the indie scene really wasn’t, and there was a lot of interesting stuff going on and I thought it was just as compelling as what was happening in other parts of the country that were getting a lot of attention.”
The impetus behind the documentary, he said, was partially to bring attention to that scene, but also a way to satisfy his own yearnings to freeze things as they were. “And for me, too, it was about documenting that point in time, knowing that it was always a changing and fluid music scene that I was always a part of,” he said.
In the opener to “Volume 6: Atlanta,” Canty’s raspy voice provides the voiceover: “Lee had a burning desire to document his scene in Atlanta. Things were changing, he said. People were losing their group houses, practice spaces were closing, shopping malls and condos were going up in their place. This, of course, was happening everywhere in the world, but to Lee this was personal. Just like anybody whose community is threatened, Lee felt like he wanted to do something to remember it by.”
As an added element of life-meets-metaphor-meets-reality, the short, audience-less concerts of each Burn to Shine volume were shot in places that quite literally disappeared immediately after filming. The location for the D.C. film, for example, “was ultimately donated to the fire department to do a burn drill, so the day after they had their friends play in it, the house got burnt down,” Lee explained. The little green home where Volume 6 was shot, on the other hand, had been boarded up and was located in a neighborhood, that, Canty explains in the film, “is toast– the landlords doubled the rent, the people left with haste, now the houses sit and wait for the wrecking ball.” Inevitably, as the voiceover reveals, condos would shoot up where the humble little bungalow once stood.
There’s a feeling that emerges from that broke-down backdrop– a looming sense of doom and a sort of powerlessness in toiling against the forces of change. Seeing the bands play in empty, white-walled houses is almost like watching them play for a funeral procession filled with ghosts. For outsiders looking in, confining the film’s focus to a very small, very vague place has the effect of throwing a white drop-cloth over the rest of the music scene– we don’t see the graffitied DIY spaces where bands play, the dive bars where hangers-on and musicians convene, and therefore none of the superficial elements. Yeah, there are drawbacks to this in that it can feel like we’re missing out on some local color, but the result is a purely documentarian take on this sliver of the Atlanta music community and the fruits of its labor. When I watched the film, it suddenly became all too clear exactly what was at stake here (and how much more this– the music– needs to be held on to and fought for, rather than some ratty old show space).
Burn to Shine places great emphasis on the homogenizing forces overtaking almost every growing city in the world. Atlanta is no exception– its residents have stories of gentrification and skyrocketing rents that ring all-too-familiar for New Yorkers. And yet, during our conversation, Lee seemed a bit lost on how exactly he should go about reflecting on all this, even hesitant to call anyone out for the destruction of neighborhoods and the displacement of residents. After a decade’s separation from the BTS project, and half that time spent away from his hometown, Lee’s assessment of the situation seemed to have cooled slightly– at first, anyway. “Atlanta changed just like any city changes– London has changed, definitely, since I’ve moved there, and I know New York has over the last five or six years– all places grow and neighborhoods change and stuff,” he said. “So it’s just coming back and finding these new hangouts and new places to eat and stuff.”
After the conversation wore on, though, he did admit that returning home involved more than just seeing the fancy new restaurants and glittery buildings that didn’t exist before. “Having a film that captured that moment in time when I lived here” and playing it again for the premiere, “it’s kind of a strange experience, actually,” he explained. “Some of the people from ten years ago, they’ve gone on to do different things– open up restaurants,” among other things. “[The film] captured this point in all these people’s lives and the city’s music scene, that for better or worse, is no longer here anymore,” he said. “Coming back here, rehearsing and revisiting this day and this film from ten years ago, there’s just a lot of heavy emotion involved. It’s something that I haven’t been able to make sense of quite yet.”
Algiers plays with Savak tonight at Le Poisson Rouge. The event kicks off with a screening of “Burn to Shine 6: Atlanta” to 8 pm. Tickets: $15