We didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s likely the last rock band we will have seen perform this year — like, live, in a densely packed crowd of thousands (remember those?) — was Protomartyr, who warmed up the crowd for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s big Detroit rally for president in early March. Sure, the Detroit indie rock band — part of a three-band bill that included singer-songwriter Anna Burch and the soulful folk of the War and Treaty — may have lacked the level of superstardom of some of Sanders’s other rally opening acts, like the Strokes in New Hampshire, and a Flavor Flav-less Public Enemy in Los Angeles. But led by unassuming frontman Joe Casey, Protomartyr rose to the occasion nonetheless, filling the TCF Center with its icy, dark sound.
“To be honest, I’m sure that we were like, third on a list, or fifth on a list,” Casey says of the gig. “It’s funny because I thought that was going to be the most interesting thing that was going to happen to us all year.”
There was more in store for Protomartyr’s 2020. After the Sanders rally, the band had a short string of Midwest dates where they were going to be joined by a new member: Kelley Deal of the Breeders, the alt rock band Deal formed with her identical twin sister, Kim, of the influential band the Pixies. Protomartyr had previously collaborated with Deal on a 2018 EP, after releasing a split single with her band R. Ring in 2015.
Casey was geeked.
“We had practiced with her, and she made our old songs sound amazing,” he says. But the only show the band got to play was the first stop in Chicago; shortly after the gig, live music everywhere was put on pause for the foreseeable future as the coronavirus crisis unfolded.
“I saw on YouTube somebody had recorded like one song from that show,” Casey laments. “I usually hate when people record our shows, because it sounds bad and it’s distracting. But I wish there was a recording of that entire show. That may be the last one for a while.”
Still, Casey’s looking on the bright side. After all, Protomartyr have been a luckier band than most. Its fifth record, Ultimate Success Today, drops Friday on Domino Recording Co. And this year marks a decade milestone for the band.
“Most bands don’t last that long,” Casey says. “Even, like, most great bands don’t last that long.”
Protomartyr emerged in the early 2010s as one of the biggest rock bands to come out of the Motor City since the White Stripes-led garage rock revival about a decade earlier drew international attention. Casey credits the band’s big break to Pitchfork choosing, for some reason, to review its debut record in 2013, a year after it originally came out on scrappy local label Urinal Cake Records. (“They must have had a quiet week,” Casey muses.)
So all of this — playing at presidential campaign rallies, collaborating with an alt-rock icon like Deal — was a bonus.
“I think what has sustained us, in a sense, is that we have kept very small goals in mind,” Casey says. “It’s been a slow ascent, and hopefully it’ll be a slow descent, as well.”
The band became critical darlings thanks, in part, to Casey’s odd charm. A former nightclub doorman, he started the band in his 30s with no musical experience after teaming up with his younger coworkers, members of the punk band Butt Babies. Casey has an anti-rockstar, everyman sort of stage presence: usually wearing a suit jacket and holding a drink in one hand, he’s been compared to “the guy at the end of the bar talking as much as singing” or even the band’s “alcoholic uncle.” His deadpan growl has earned Protomartyr comparisons to acts like the Fall, Joy Division, and Interpol, but he’s also got some Iggy Pop in him, too, crooning and howling.
Ultimate Success Today was originally slated to drop in late May, but as the coronavirus forced most businesses to close, the label made the call to postpone the release until July. “At the time I was quite pissed off.” Casey says. “But they really expressed the point that, as a band, we sell a lot of records, like actual records — we’re not much of a streaming band. So they were actually kind of optimistic where they thought if they pushed it to July that record stores could actually be opened, and people will buy the record, which I guess now seems like it will be true in some capacity.”
Casey believes it’s his best record so far.
The band recorded it at Dreamland Recording Studios, a former church in upstate New York, co-producing with David Tolomei. Casey says they picked Dreamland because indie-rock act Parquet Courts had success recording its experimental album Human Performance there. The result is the band’s most textured and lush record yet, featuring guest musicians bringing alto sax, bass clarinet, sax, flute, and cello into the mix, as well as guest vocals from Nandi Plunkett of Pinegrove — quite a change for a stripped-down four-piece punk band that cut its teeth performing in Detroit-area dive bars.
Casey says guitarist Greg Ahee, who he calls the “the band leader,” went into the sessions influenced by jazz, specifically, Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel in the Lotus. “We were afraid it was going to be a terrible record, like, this guy doesn’t know how to do jazz,” Casey says. “But [Greg] had a pretty clever idea as to how to incorporate collaborations and stuff. Being influenced by that music is probably the biggest touchstone, I’d say, for the album, as far as the sound being different from our other ones.”
Working with guest collaborators, Casey says, was challenging, but pushed the band, which also includes bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard, to tighten up its act. “If we’re bringing [someone] in to collaborate, we have to have shit for him that actually has to be some good stuff,” Casey says. “So it makes you work a little bit harder, and a little bit cleaner, too.”
Of course, this being a Protomartyr album, it packs a punk rock punch — tracks like the propulsive “I Am You Now” and menacing “Tranquilizer” land with a bang. It’s also plenty gloomy, with lyrics seemingly plucked from local headlines: “Don’t go to the BP after dark,” Casey sings on “June 21,” a duet with Plunkett. “Don’t be caught dead at the Short Stop/ Green lights are flashing/ No love for outer ring/ All the cops are working traffic for the stadiums downtown.” Field recordings of crickets singing in the night recorded outside the studio fill make the empty space on the record sound even emptier.
“When people say, ‘Oh, you’re, psychic, how’d you know to write a song about, like, police brutality?’ — it’s not like it just started,” he says. “One of the things with doom and gloom is the world is kind of full of that sort of stuff.”
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