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Matt Tong, Algiers' elastic timekeeper, surrenders to the song

Drummer Matt Tong (second from right) with the members of Algiers. The band released its fourth album, <em>Shook</em>, in early 2023.
Ebru Yildiz
Courtesy of the artist
Drummer Matt Tong (second from right) with the members of Algiers. The band released its fourth album, Shook, in early 2023.

Listen to the opening minutes of Shook, the 2023 album by the Atlanta-born, transatlantically based, globally minded quartet Algiers, and you might wonder what's become of the drummer. For a song and a half, the only pulse is machine-made: first, a shopworn sample from "Subway Theme," the click-clack beat that raised the curtain on cult hip-hop film Wild Style in 1983; then, a spray of hi-hat artillery mined from Zambian rock but forged in the digital furnace of Ableton Live. It's only in the final 60 seconds of "Irreversible Damage" that sticks meet skins in real space: Following a verse from rap-rock warhorse Zack de la Rocha, the song's industrial rattle pivots to the loose double time of Mediterranean folk, and a cloud of bashed cymbals and swung toms rolls in, nudging those rigid intervals off the grid.

Matt Tong's fashionably late arrival to this party hits twice as hard for those who remember him from his old job. The British-born New York drummer introduced himself to the world in far splashier fashion with "Like Eating Glass" — the cannonballing opener from the 2005 debut by his previous band, Bloc Party — on which he builds from a faint murmur to an insistent garagelike loop that withstands dozens of hard swerves, dead stops and unsettled fills while only gaining in momentum, until it appears to lap itself. On his four albums with the band, he cut a narrow lane through post-punk's great millennial revival: detailed but never cluttered, with a martial focus that never excluded the listener. He'd clearly grown up with the same blacklit '80s records as his peers, but onstage, he often seemed to be having the most fun.

Those instincts were not lost on the members of Algiers, who recruited Tong in 2015 after he'd left Bloc Party, first as a touring anchor for their fractured arrangements and soon as a true bandmate. Shook finds him as embedded as ever in the egalitarian vision conceived by singer Franklin James Fisher, bassist Ryan Mahan and guitarist Lee Tesche, which extends beyond their progressive politics: In the studio, any member might pick up any instrument they can get a sound out of, and songs emerge as city-sized quilts of ideas, rarely spotlighting individual chops. The new album features guest appearances by a dozen outside contributors, from Dungeon Family soothsayer Big Rube to Future Islands growler Sam Herring, whose names fill a block of text on the front cover. (In a few spots, it's not even Tong you hear behind the kit — the drummer entrusted producer Matt Ricchini to perform the parts he couldn't be in the room for, after Shook's production schedule collided with the birth of his first son.)

For such a distinctive, exuberant player, raised in the era of college-radio darlings gone Hollywood, Algiers' collectivist vibe would seem an unlikely fit. Tong, now 44, says it's exactly where he needs to be. From a tour stop in Austria, Tong joined me on Zoom to discuss the fluid role of the rock drummer and the value of treating the music industry like a community, even when it's hard.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daoud Tyler-Ameen: When you perform with Algiers, you're often playing along with pre-recorded samples. To do that, you kind of have to surrender the drummer's canonical role as timekeeper: The playback has final say over how fast or slow you go, and if you drift away from it you'll be in trouble. Is that a restrictive feeling, or is it freeing in some ways?

Matt Tong: It's restrictive insofar as there are plenty of heart-in-the-mouth moments. We're a very ambitious band, and quite often we try and do more onstage, and bring more equipment, than a bunch of people in a van really should be carrying around on tour. It doesn't take much for a misplaced limb to disconnect something: The other night, Ryan accidentally ejected the SD card with all the tracks on it midway through a song, so we had to fudge our way through it. But something that's liberating for me is, that part of my brain that has to think about timekeeping just switches off. And I do naturally start playing a little ahead or behind the beat given whatever mood I'm feeling; you can still subtly influence the way a song comes across live doing that.

You know, I'm notoriously sloppy at timekeeping. You don't have to wade through too many live Bloc Party reviews to find someone going, "Matt Tong sucks! He's playing the songs too fast! It's all over the place!" But I was always much more of a mood drummer, I guess. For me, it's perfectly natural to speed up a bit during the chorus, or if the audience are really into it. I'm like that, and I'm entirely happy to suck up any flack that comes my way because of it. The drummers I always looked up to were like that.

Do you think of what you do as serving a song — as in, there's a composition that already fully exists, and you're adding on top of it? Or do you view it more as co-creation, where your drumming is as much a part of a song's essence as anything else? Because Algiers is one of those groups where the lines between songwriting and arrangement, between composition and instrumentation, seem extremely blurred.

Yeah, absolutely. I think specifically in this band, I'm serving the music, and that was always my intention going into it. Everyone's aware of what I can do: I do write music, and I feel somewhat creative. I'd like to think by now that the other members and collaborators of this band understand that I'm open to performing any number of roles. But I'm not going to force the issue unless someone really needs me to. ... Sometimes the job of a musician isn't necessarily to actually play something. Sometimes it's just to validate someone else's idea, or to make a suggestion that nudges them into a different direction. It's not always about playing together.

It was very different back in Bloc Party, because at the time I joined the band, I don't think they'd really worked with a drummer who felt like a peer. And whilst I wasn't as technically gifted as some of their previous drummers, I seemed to be a bit more relatable to the rest of the band, and we could actually talk about ideas. There was more space for me to try to incorporate my own vision into the songwriting.

That makes sense — the albums you made with Bloc Party are arranged in a way that really gives each member their own pedestal to play on. I'm thinking of a song like "Banquet," which starts with four bars of just drums. Then the two guitars come in, and they're panned hard left and hard right. Then it's another 30 seconds or so before the bass comes in, so it really announces itself.

That approach means that at any time, you can clearly discern who is doing what, and even the drums get a lot of spotlight moments. The song "Like Eating Glass" has this stuttery, really distinctive drum part; even though there's singing and melodic elements happening, the drums are effectively the hook.

It's funny thinking about that song now, because I probably wouldn't approach it in the same way. You know, you're in your early or mid-20s and you're just full of these ideas. You think, well, you're only going to get one chance to get them all out — I'm going to do as much as I can. But I've got to be perfectly honest: A lot of that playing was informed by the fact that I'm not particularly athletic. I always struggled with sports at school. And that drumming, I was always being asked to play faster than I was ever comfortable with.

I heard you were a heavy smoker at the time.

Yeah, I used to smoke a pack a day back then. In fact, the very first rehearsal I did with that band, I had to stop between every song, roll a cigarette and just sit there smoking. And so a lot of that playing was informed by the fact that I'd get really tired — so I'd try and change the parts a bit, and write something that felt different and less intense. That's why the drum parts kind of evolve, or are so scattershot, throughout that record. It's funny thinking how one's way of being informs one's sense of creativity.

One thing that sets you apart from your current bandmates is, you have the weird privilege of having come through a totally different era of indie rock — a world I would argue was a little more intense in the 2000s, at least in how it tended to create cliques and cults of personality. Listening to Shook, I imagine something more like a community barbecue, where the individual is less prioritized. Your drumming will sneak into a song partway through, then drop out for a while and let other kinds of percussion take over. Even Franklin, the ostensible frontman, doesn't read as the "star" of this album, since he's constantly handing the mic off to the guest vocalists you brought in. Every choice seems to serve a collective ideal. Is that a comfort to you, having witnessed some of the different ways a band can be?

Yeah, I think it was really important to not really foreground any of us. One thing that's been odd for me in this band is being amongst a group of people who, for the very first time in their lives, were beginning to learn what becoming enmeshed in a touring cycle was like. The longer we ground out dates, the more I could see how hard it was for the rest of the band to confront that there are conditions within the music industry that make it almost impossible for community-forming to exist in a real, tangible form. And something I really loved from the beginning was this intent to reach out and try and find a community, to be open to meeting all manner of different kinds of people on tour. ... You see how it runs through pop and hip-hop: Collaboration is useful and fertile and interesting, but a lot of the time it's a strategy. Here, there was this real intent to show that we are actually part of a wider community.

This is a weird question, but do you think of Algiers as a rock band? I know that labels are limiting and the genre thing can feel like kind of a trap, but I'm curious if self-identifying that way does anything for you.

I mean, there's no simple answer. We've never lived in the same city, or even the same country, so we don't necessarily carry that aura of a crew of people who hang out and eat and drink and live in each other's pockets. Going into this album cycle is about as prepared as we've ever been: We've done like a month and a half of solid rehearsals, which we've never done before. There are times that I've really struggled with that, and it's been quite hard to figure out where I fit. But I think there's always been this hope that maybe we could operate in opposition to some of the more traditional ways of thinking about a band, and I think ultimately the music reflects that.

Has it changed how you write your parts? Do you leave more negative space around yourself now?

I tend to be a lot more restrained. It's no good me coming in there like I'm 24, recording my first record, and just doing every single thing I can think of — it's not gonna work, you know? So I save all that energy for the live performance. And although I'm starting to feel older in my body, I would like to think that I'm still capable of working out something I can't otherwise communicate in day-to-day life once I'm up there onstage.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daoud Tyler-Ameen

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