Band To Watch: Protomartyr
The best bands sound like everything you love and nothing you’ve heard. So it goes with Protomartyr, a Detroit quartet that seems to have ingested every classic post-punk record and evolved into a new kind of beast. The band’s forthcoming second album and Hardly Art debut, Under Color Of Official Right, is ripe with reference points for those so inclined; it encompasses everything from Wire, the Fall, and Pere Ubu to the Constantines, Iceage, and those early Spoon records when they sounded like Wire. They sprung from the same post-industrial primordial ooze that birthed Tyvek and Frustrations, but even in Detroit there’s no clear precedent for the racket they’re making. It is revolutionary music without an agenda, and if you live in North America or Europe, it’s coming soon to a dive bar near you.
How strange that such urgent, exhilarating sounds would emerge from amateurs and jokesters. Protomartyr is the first band frontman Joe Casey ever joined, yet his ominous baritone is one for the pantheon. The rest of the group — guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard, and bassist Scott Davidson — used to perform under the name Butt Babies, but you wouldn’t guess it considering how much gravitas emanates from their gleaming, gravel-encrusted rumble. Under Color Of Official Right is a triumph, a set of immensely adventurous neon-golden post-punk with a sense of humor so deadpan it’s practically flatlining. And as my conversation with Casey last week proved, it is proof you can think very hard about life without ever taking it too seriously.
STEREOGUM: To start off, could you give an origin story?
JOE CASEY: Sure. 2008, I was working at the Gem Theatre in downtown Detroit. I don’t even know if they have plays anymore, but it was always like Menopause The Musical or things like that. Red Hat ladies would show up for them. I just worked as a door man, opening doors, and checking coats sometimes. If there was a wedding there I’d be a doorman there. That’s how I met Greg, our guitar player. Turns out he went to the same high school as I did, U.D. Jesuit, but like 10 years after I went. We just started talking about music and stuff. We had some similar interests. He was in a band with Alex, who went to school with him, called Butt Babies. It was just a two-piece. They’d play shows around. Just from hanging out and getting drunk and singing along, we worked out some stuff. It was like: “Oh, lets do some stuff with Joe, and then we’ll also have Butt Babies.” So it started out that they’d do Butt Babies shows and kind of as a joke about halfway through I’d stumble up and sing two songs then stumble out. And people would be like, “Who the hell was that guy?” Then we decided that it was more fun and started doing it. At first, Kevin from Tyvek helped us out by playing bass for a few shows, and then Scott, who had started playing bass with Butt Babies kinda took over as the Protomartyr bass player. Kevin played second guitar for a while, but the he had Tyvek stuff that he had to take care of, so he went and did that. That’s kinda how it started. It started as a joke or a way to kill time. And here we are!
STEREOGUM: That’s interesting that it was kind of a joke because I don’t get the sense that it’s humorous, joke-y music when I listen to the album. It sounds vaguely serious.
CASEY: That’s funny, because I was pretty worried that people were gonna think it was a joke-y record. Parts of it are serious. I hate records that are all one mood. There’s a lot of dark music, you know “i’m gonna put out this album and it’s gonna be ten songs about suicide or whatever,” and I like dark songs, but if I have to listen to a whole album of it, it kinda bums me out. So there’s a little but of humor, maybe mine doesn’t come through, but it’s not like a joke record.
STEREOGUM: It probably comes from a closer reading of the lyrics than I’ve given them. Sonically it’s kind of aggressive.
CASEY: Yep, Yeah. And you know, I like mumbling too. I kinda like songs that sound one way, and it’s pretty hard to do, because you can’t stretch it too much. Like, I don’t write lyrics ahead of time, I’m not precious with like, “This song’s gonna be about this.” I like to hear what the band’s doing first before I can — I’ve got ideas that I try to slot in, but if it doesn’t fit it doesn’t fit. I know I’m using examples but a lot of bands that have kind of a similar sound and they’re really kind of doing like Bela Lugosi, spooky topics and things. I don’t know how to put it, but just doing that by itself is pretty wrote. Like, on the first album, “Jumbo’s” is about going to a bar and drinking, but its one of the biggest sounding. It sounds like there’s something going on, I’m on about something, but I’m just going to the same bar every night and just drinking too much. But yeah, I mean there’s some dark ones on there. I always have a couple dark ones on there.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned kind of wanting to have a range of topics. There’s kind of a range of sounds coming from the band too. Though there’s definitely a unified feel to the album the songs definitely range all over the place. I would call it all post-punk of a sort, but it covers a lot of different ground, which I imagine dictates where you take the lyrics too.
CASEY: Yeah, absolutely. At first it’s always interesting to put out music and see what people say about it, “Oh, this sounds like post-punk.” I guess what I like about that is that post-punk is very wide open as far as what sounds you can do. I was telling somebody, what really inspired me — and I’m kind of an old dude, probably too old to be in a band — what inspired me was this series of CD-Rs and later CD’s from like Hyped To Death that was collecting post-punk. They were called Messthetics, and they collected obscure singles from England, and then they did one called Homework that was the same thing but from America. So it was kind of punk-sounding, but you’d hear so many different sounds on one of these CD-Rs. That kind of adventurism, wide open, could sound like anything, really appealed to me. It seems like nowadays there are a lot of bands that decide before they even get started, “We’re gonna sound like this, like this period of music between these two years,” and it’s just — sure they’re doing a good job sounding like that, but it’s not — I don’t know, there’s got to be some variety.
STEREOGUM: Is it fair to say that you guys aren’t aiming to sound like anything in particular?
CASEY: Well it’s funny because the way that we write songs, each song is different, but we’ve done it a couple of times by listening to a song we like. Any one of us can bring a song, and we listen to it and we try to get something out of it. It’s almost like we’re trying to cover it — we’re doing it really badly, and from there it doesn’t sound anything like the influence at all, but from there we get the basic feeling. The song “Violent” on the album came from a children’s show. There’s a song that I heard that was on a children’s show, but it was a really good song. I liked the way it sounds, and it kind of morphed and changed into something completely different.
STEREOGUM: Yeah. I think it takes a certain combination of musicians in order for that to happen, instead of just replicating the influence it kind of refracts it a little bit in a different direction.
CASEY: Right. It’s easy enough to be like, “Oh, we don’t sound like anything,” but you always sound like something. If you have no influences then that’s another kind of boring sounding band, I think. What works is that I came to the band like, “you guys gotta hear these” I really like these CD-Rs. I like British post-punk, and stuff like Pere Ubu and things like that, but since I have no musical skills whatsoever, I can’t push that sound because the band is gonna sound like whatever, they have their own influences. And so I’m glad, looking back — I’m sure at the time I was like, “You know, we don’t sound like this enough” — but I’m glad because now we’re kind of developing our own sound. We’re not just a copy of something else because of that push and pull. It feels like there are some bands that sound exactly like their influences. And it’s pretty impressive — I don’t think we could do it if we tried — but I’m glad that one person in the band doesn’t have complete say on what it’s gonna sound like.
STEREOGUM: Where’d you guys make this record? Who’d you make it with?
CASEY: The first one we paid for ourselves, and so we recorded all the songs like at once — like 20 songs in one day. On this one we had money from Hardly Art, the wanted to put out a record, and so we went to the Key Club studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan which is on the west side of the state. It’s kind of small industrial — kind of like a little tiny Detroit in many ways. Tyvek had recorded their second album there, and I know that Wolf Eyes had recorded some stuff there, I think Fred Thomas might have recorded some things there. We had heard some good things about it, we figured lets go someplace where we’re kind of away and have to stay there, and so we recorded like over a weekend there last summer.
STEREOGUM: What’s the plan for touring? Are you guys gonna be out a lot? What level of touring are you guys into right now?
CASEY: When we started we had very simple goals. It was like, lets get a show at Jumbo’s, a band that we like is coming through town, lets try and open for them. It kind of slowly snowballed, and so this year we decided that, we have this record out and people are gonna hear it, lets actually get out there and do a lot of touring. We went to SXSW last year, but maybe we played like four shows the whole week. This year we’re playing almost three a day. And then after that we come back for a few weeks for an east coast tour. Then down and up the old Mississippi and back. Then we’re back for a couple days and then we do the west coast. We’re getting together a European tour now. So we just figured if we’re gonna do it, lets actually do it.
STEREOGUM: Have you guys been in bands before that have had that much touring?
CASEY: No, no. I haven’t been in any bands before. Greg had been in some local bands, but no. We toured, we’d been to New York a bunch, and we played a lot of the Midwest — not as much as we probably should’ve. But last year we did a west coast tour with Turn To Crime, another local band. But we all have jobs so it was hard to get the time off. Now we’re doing this thing where we’re like, “Let’s just leave our jobs and see if they’re there when we get back.” Hopefully they will be, we’ll see.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to ask you about the song “Scum, Rise!” because I think that for a lot of people that might be the first song that they heard by you guys. It seems pretty straightforward, but maybe you could explain the idea behind that one.
CASEY: Well, they all kinda start with a certain idea what it’s gonna be about, and then it kinda changes over time. I originally had the idea that the song would be about shitheels like me, like, “Hey, lets all get together!” It was gonna be almost like a positive song. The more we worked on it, it changed a lot. Those lyrics kind of stuck around in a couple different songs. I was also kind of thinking about the age I’m at, people my age. Those guys that are just starting to have kids, but are like cool and hip — “I’m a punk dad” or whatever. But there’s still some pretty bad dads. It’s interesting to see the deadbeats of my generation becoming deadbeat dads. So it kind of came from that and a personal story of a guy we know being a shitty dad. So we started thinking about the future. It’s a futuristic song in a sense. The Wayne County Snakedogs is kind of a fake band that we have, if we’re practicing sometimes we’ll do something really corny, like a cheesy bluesy kind of thing, and we’re just like, “That’s a Wayne County Snakedogs song.” And so in like 10 or 15 years we’re gonna be the old guys that play sports bars and all their buddies come and see them, and we’ll be the Wayne County Snakedogs. We’ll be all washed up. It’s just kind of the idea that there are all these new kids being born and given all these goofy new names and being raised on computers and being ignored by their dads that are going to punk shows and getting new tattoos. This new generation that’s coming up is gonna really take it out on us and probably seek revenge. And I know a lot of people with a Steve Yzerman number 19 tattoo after the Redwings player who was so good. This idea of tattoos looking bad when we’re old.
STEREOGUM: Kind of like a reckoning for your decisions now later on down the road.
STEREOGUM: I’m glad I asked you to explain that one, because that’s not what I imagined.
CASEY: It’s funny because with this one I don’t mind explaining it because its a single and, you know. What I’ve heard from other people is like “This song is definitely about this!” and I’m like, “No it’s not.” But sometimes what people come up with is better than the actual story. I like music like that, where I don’t understand what the story’s about, or like I only get pieces of it.
STEREOGUM: Have you started moving on new music yet?
CASEY: Yeah, its gonna be interesting to see what touring does to it. But, when we recorded the first album we kind of cleared, we recorded 22 songs we used, we ditched a couple. By the time we recorded that first one, we probably had about half the new album, and that kinda changed a bit. I mean, “Scum, Rise!” is one of the last ones we did. That’s usually what happens is like, we’ll have ideas of what the album will be and then right before we go in we come up with 3-4 songs that change the album and point to where we’re going. So right now we have a whole album’s worth of new songs we’re working on, but we’re wondering if eventually we’ll see if touring stops that or how quickly we can get the next one out. We’d probably be ready to record right now, but we’re gonna wait till we get back from touring. If the album’s a flop maybe they don’t want to put out another album. So we’ll have to see.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that you guys all have day jobs. If you don’t mind saying, what job are you leaving to go on tour?
CASEY: Well, like I said I was a doorman at the Gem Theatre. Before that I was a doorman at a comedy club, but now I’m a doorman at a comedy club out in Ferndale, which is a suburb of Detroit. I’m just working in the box office. I’ve always had these — they’re not crappy jobs, but they’re not well paying jobs, so it’s almost like I had the rock ‘n’ roller’s job without having the life. That was one of the reasons that it seemed like a good idea to be in the band because its a job that I could walk away from and hopefully come back and it would still be there. The others do other things. Alex, the drummer, has like a real-deal job, healthcare and all that, so for him to walk away from that for a little bit is daunting. But that’s what happens with a lot of bands, there are a lot of great bands that never tour because they’re realistic and they don’t want to lose their jobs, then that’s the life of the band, they’re just a local band that plays around. So we’re trying to actually go out and see if it works, but we don’t have any illusions.
STEREOGUM: I know you mentioned that you had some overlap with Tyvek for a while. Are there other bands that you consider peers in Detroit, or bands that rub off on you guys?
CASEY: Sure. Maybe this will change now that this album’s coming out. But I always figures that in the detroit, loud, sort-of-punk-but-not-really-punk scene I would kind of consider us mid-tier. We look at those bands like Human Eye, with Timmy Vulgar is in human eye, and he’s the one. If you’ve ever seen him perform — people come to see me and are pretty bored, I don’t do that much — but like Timmy does the whole thing. And then there’s like some bands from the past, I really like Piranhas. But current bands, the Frustrations are really great. I like Terrible Twos. There are some younger bands that are really coming up that will probably supplant us. I like Growing Pains. It’s funny because that band Growing Pains is from the same high school as us. So I always joke with the Protomartyr guys that when they get to old we’ll just go back to that same high school and keep pulling guys.
Under Color of Official Right is out 4/8 on Hardly Art.
[Photo by Angel Ceballos]