How do you document the transition from vital to obsolete? While losing relevance is synonymous with stopping or halting any progress, we overlook that this process is one of a slow perpetual motion. It just happens to be in the wrong direction.
For their new collaborative multimedia project, Mondo Decay, Lee Tesche and Ryan Mahan of Algiers paired up with famed visual artist Brad Feuerhelm for an immersive exploration of a world moving in a slow decline. The project includes a 144-page book of Feuerhelm’s “malformed post-industrial gazing photography” along with an 11 song album — under the new band Nun Gun — that draws inspiration from ‘70’s Mondo, Cannibal and Zombie films, as well as dub, post-punk, industrial and Houston rap.
Tesche and Feuerhelm trace the start of the project back to 2013 when they were both living in London. The two became fast friends while both being a part of a shared social circle. One night, they found themselves back at Feuerhelm’s apartment burning the midnight oil, when they first bonded over their love of old Mondo horror soundtracks.
“The two of us were hanging out late at night listening to records,” remembers Tesche. “I am familiar with a lot of these Italian horror soundtracks and [Brad] had pulled out this one Cannibal Ferox soundtrack [by Robert Donati and Fiamma Maglione] to share with me. We must have listened to it a dozen times and I thought, ‘Man, this is so heavy! This is really amazing.’ We were hanging out late, and we had come to find out the next day that we were playing it at the wrong speed. It was a 45rpm LP and we listened to it back at the regular speed and it wasn’t quite as heavy and I remember being a bit disappointed. At that point, we made the decision and thought this idea might have legs and that we should build something out of this happy accident.”
With Tesche releasing music and touring with Algiers and Feuerhelm being an in-demand photographer, visual artist and journalist with American Suburb X (ASX) — the two could hardly make time to bring this warped concept into fruition. The two also lived on opposite sides of the globe. But as the world began to shut down, it ironically put both of them on equal enough footing to entertain the idea once again.
“It all happened quite quickly,” Feuerhelm recalls, “because I had been shooting in Athens in the first week of September through the first week of December in 2019. So, already there was something bubbling on the radar in December about China, but it wasn’t fully happening. I shot a bunch of film… got back home, had it developed [in color film] in February. Lee mentioned this and everything came together organically.”
Not knowing there was a market for the lab experiment they were cooking up, Feuerhelm caught wind of an open call by the Italian photography publication Witty Books for cassette and zine submissions, pairing photography with a specific soundtrack that would create a cohesive experience. Feuerhelm could see the stars were finally aligning to make Mondo Decay happen.
“I saw that he [Witty Kiwi, the publication’s founder] had put out something about sound and photography, which is something I’m very interested in and no one is touching,” says Feuerhelm, who even plays drums on four of the album’s 11 tracks. “It’s a really strange thing. Photography and sculpture; tons of it. Photography and painting; not as much but there are some crossovers historically. But photography and sound — apart from perhaps people like Christian Marclay or maybe even Carston Höller, that’s more video and installation — there’s no crossover. There are musicians that happen to be photographers. There are photographers who happen to be musicians and so on. But there’s not a lot of emphasis on this crossover.”
With Tesche working from his studio outside of Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Feuerhelm contributing from his home in Slovakia — the resulting multimedia project, when experienced with it’s intended pairing, presents the once defiant city of Athens, Greece — with a few photos of Germany and Belgium — in a state of slow decay from its recent economic bungling.
While Feurhelm’s photography in Mondo Decay is striking, Tesche and fellow Algiers bandmate and Nun Gun collaborator Ryan Mahan were both excited to present these warped recordings in such an easily manipulated format: the cassette. Looking at tape reel wizards like King Tubby and Houston rap legend DJ Screw, there was more than enough fertile ground for exploration on what it means to “decay” a recording.
“From the get go, as Brad and I talked more, I spent a lot of time reading a lot about the ‘80s and ‘90s Houston rap scene and DJ Screw, Darly Scott and a few of those other DJs who were exploring the same ideas. I realized, obviously, other people must have experienced this phenomenon where you put a record on at the wrong speed. There’s a long history of that,” says Tesche. “But a big component of all of the stuff we were pulling from was the physicality of the tape.”
The project has a who’s who of great featured vocalists contributing narration throughout the album from The Pop Group’s Mark Stuart, Chicago No Wave pioneers ONO, Mourning [A] BLKstar, renowned authors Blake Butler, Sohail Daulatzai and Michael Salu; visual artist Luiza Prado; along with musician and designer Farbod Kokabi.
It all makes for a thrilling and, at times, terrifying listen that is clearly reminiscent of the sonic territory that Tesche and Mahan have explored with Algiers, it also points towards an exciting future for the boundary pushing band.
A future that Tesche says we will be hearing soon enough. As the band’s dynamic lead singer Franklin James Fischer has been going through a pretty prolific writing period.
“Frank basically started writing and wrote the next Algiers record, then kept writing and wrote another 12 songs. I think he wrote a solo record, too. Basically, he’s written the entire next Algiers record and wants to have this great unveiling, but I’ve heard bits and pieces of it and it’s great. We’re going to probably finish that sometime this year. All of the rest of the band has moved up to New York, so we just have to figure out how to do it.” says Tesche about the new Algiers material.
“It’s the right record for us to make at the right time, so to speak,” he adds. “It’s building on some of the stuff that we’ve done over the last few years. The song we put out, ‘Can the Sub_Bass Speak?’ was the first time I think that we ever just let him do something and no one interfered with it. Frank really wanted to say something and make an artistic statement. We’ve always been so hands on with everything because we’ve all known each other for so long and are all up in each other’s shit so much. It’s this constant tug of war and this was the first time where we were like, ‘lets let him work.’ It was probably one of the biggest achievements in the history of the band. It’s this true singular artistic thread that he pulled off incredibly and I couldn’t be more proud of him. So, it’s kind of the same way with this where he’s really earned the right to dictate what this will be without any outside producers or the rest of the band making it one way or the other. It will be his record through and through and I’m really excited for that.”
While the project is inspired heavily by Italian Mondo and Cannibal films, the project is rooted in our current reality rather than the dystopian worlds those films portray. Which begs the question: Have we caught up to these visions of a society on it’s last breath? Do we now find a sort of comforting escapism in dystopian films?
“I think if you look back, certainly over the past 2,000 years, we’ve always had the desire to see the end of things in an eschatological framing of the world,” explains Feuerhelm. “There’s something about the fantasy of dystopia that appeals to all of us. A really easy example is if you go through Netflix, you’ll notice that they’re catering to it.”
“There are all of these films that are coming through that people are interested in seeing. Whether it’s Mandy, Outbreak, or the zombie genre, all of this man-woman against the world survival instinct is something we have a desire to see,” he continues. “I don’t think it will stop. Two years down the line if everything goes okay, it won’t matter. 10 years down the line, there will be a nostalgia for thinking about the terrible times.”
Stream Mondo Decay by Nun Gun below.