Protomartyr is on the eve of their third album's release. The songs on the massive The Agent Intellect are different from their previous records. It's darker, and more introspective. But it all still sound like Protomartyr; they're one of those distinctive acts who have lots of different kinds of songs, in the extended family of post-punk bands like the Fall, Joy Division, Pere Ubu, and Wire. But they always sound like themselves.
They've accomplished a lot in their five years of existence: written tons of songs, released two singles, now three full-lengths, toured extensively in the United States and in Europe. They've also gotten more international press than just about any other current Detroit rock band. It's been a little exhausting to read how many times they've been asked "How do you guys feel about Detroit?" (Probably something any Detroiter who travels can relate to.)
Much has been made of the fact that vocalist Joe Casey started his first band at age 35 with three guys a decade younger. "I know that that's an angle, and if we didn't have an angle, less people would be interested in us," Casey says. Drummer Alex Leonard jokingly suggests the headline "Mysterious boring guys release cool album." "'Guys from nowhere release music,'" Casey suggests.
I'm friends with the band and got to hang out with them for a few hours on a recent Sunday afternoon. We traded stories, cracked jokes, and talked shop about touring, recording, and other aspects of life in music. I'm left with the overwhelming sense that they're honestly an incredibly disciplined band that truly operates as a unit. We spoke extensively about how every member contributes. Leonard joked that they are "like a Ford assembly line." And they write great songs.
It's true that they are all graduates of University of Detroit High School and that until recently the band exclusively wrote all of its songs and practiced in the historic Russell Industrial Center. Their lyrics consistently include local references; who else would write the lyric "The eyes of Kayrouz are upon you?" But cheesy as it may be to say, what really makes them a very Detroit band is their work ethic and humility.
This summer they performed at a friend's wedding, and had to learn a set of covers and standards. The experience of trying to play "normal" music was informative. "We realized how much we are stuck in our own way of playing," says guitarist Greg Ahee. "It's not normal how we play." A friend's father told them point blank, "That is not how a band is supposed to sound." But it works. To borrow a phrase from Tobi Vail, Protomartyr operates using their own internal logic.
Protomartyr played their first show in 2010 but say they got serious in 2011. At the end of 2011, they wanted to record and called up Hi Bias Studios owner and producer Chris Koltay, whose name they got from the back of the City Center album Redeemer (K Records, 2011). "In a weird way that kick started Protomartyr because we were obsessed with that record," says Ahee. "We were like, 'Let's just record every song we can play. And some we can't play.'" Those songs became the first two seven-inch singles and their debut album, No Passion, All Technique (Urinal Cake, 2012). An essential part of the process was cutting the songs that didn't work. Protomartyr are ruthless editors of their own material.
"The press definitely focuses on Joe, but when it comes to how we operate and how we write songs, there's no ego there," Ahee says. "The band is us; it's all of us." "The band wouldn't have existed without us being equal," Casey says. "Everyone has a say and everyone does something in the band to keep them busy."
Around the time of that first tour, Protomartyr signed to Sub Pop subsidiary Hardly Art, and headed to Key Club studio in Benton Harbor to record their second album, Under Color of Official Right, which both greatly expanded their sound and helped them reach a wider audience. "We always had that local punk community here that was good to us," Ahee says. "But in terms of getting beyond that, it wasn't until other cities that people I didn't know personally would come to our shows. For years I would recognize every person at our shows."
Last winter, they returned to Key Club to record The Agent Intellect. For this record, their songwriting process had drastically changed. They had moved out of their space at the Russell and into bassist Scott Davidson's basement. "There's nothing warm about that practice space we had at the Russell," Ahee says. "It just felt cold. We didn't have any insulation. Everything had reverb; it sounded gigantic.
"We started to write in that basement and it didn't really feel that good," Ahee says. "So I bought an acoustic guitar, something I haven't owned in like 10 years, and started to write some music at my apartment. I would bring it [to practice]. Alex would start to do some drum stuff, and that would change it. A lot of it's based on what Alex does because he's got such a unique way of playing drums. He's doing these weird fragmented, really tom-heavy beats. It will change the direction of the songs."
I've always privately thought Davidson was the band's secret weapon. His bass lines are the pop element of the band and the songs' foundation. "[Scott]'s like the stability," Ahee says. "Even if I come to him with something that's really complicated and doesn't really work, he'll have a way of molding it into something that's really stable and will drive the song. So if I'm doing something weird and crazy, it'll still sound like a song. The way we write songs now, it would just sound really chaotic and nothing like it does because it wouldn't have that anchor that Scott's bass serves."
"This method of working gave us a little more time to figure out what didn't work, because I'd be thinking about it all the time," Ahee says. "Which drove me a little bit fucking nuts, cause I'd just be at my apartment being like 'Does this work? Does this work? Does this work?'"
The last piece is the lyrics and vocals. "Sometimes I really wish I could go play videogames or something while they're coming up with songs, but it's important that I'm there through the whole process when they're trying to come up with something because I'm mumbling and figuring out what sounds good with it," Casey says. "Then I kind of go back later and figure out words go with it, finesse it so it's not just gibberish."
"A lot of the songs will get reformatted along what Joe's doing," Ahee says. "It's never a case where I have a fully formed song and it stays like that. We've gotten good at all compromising. I think we're all good at realizing that none of us are geniuses, and we can all make stupid ideas that we think are good."
Casey has a particular genius for creating or observing great lines and repurposing them in a new context for the lyrics: "Your secret lovers exist as numbers." "Here it's cold by law." "Your passive mind that thinks perhaps my ship's come in." "False happiness is on the rise." All lines from the new album, all copies of which are equipped with a lyrics 'zine made by Casey, who also does all of the band's artwork.
The new album's first single, "Why Does It Shake?" takes its title from something Casey's mother, who has Alzheimer's, said. Early press about the song says it's about his mother. Casey explains that he did get the phrase from his mom, but in fact it isn't about her and he is applying the phrase in different contexts. "A lot of the origins are weird," says Casey. "That's why I hate describing exactly what a song is about. It's less specific; it's more just like a mix of different things."
"I feel like Under Color was a way different direction than No Passion, All Technique," Ahee says. "The first one felt like a blast of punk. It was a very direct, at times almost garage rock-y record. For the second album, we threw that out the window, didn't put any mind into trying to make songs that people could chant to and throw their fists in the air — not that anyone ever did that, much to Joe's dismay. I feel like this one is combining the approach of those two, and just tightening it up."
The album builds up to the band's longest song to date. "Ellen" is the emotional center of the record. It's their first song you could really call a love song, and it's sung from the perspective of Casey's deceased father to his mother. "It's nothing like anything we've ever written," Ahee says. "It was unclear until we finished it if it would even work. It wasn't until Joe laid down the vocal that it was a song that was good and sounded like Protomartyr. But up until then it was like, this might be terrible."
"Engineer Bill Skibbe looped the song, and the three of us are with Bill in the control room. And Joe is just singing it over and over again for like 45 minutes," Ahee says. "And we were just talking and not paying attention and finally we hear the melody and we're like, 'Oh shit!' It was like the dumb movie biopic moment. 'Do that again!' In the words of Skibbe, 'Song went from shit to hit.'"
"These guys wrote a really beautiful piece of music so I couldn't shit all over it," Casey says. "I can't go in there and say my usual nonsense that has some arcane meaning. I wanted it to be pretty emotionally direct."
"Musically the album is very symmetrical," Ahee says. "The first and last songs have very similar chord progressions. And 'Ellen' and 'Cowards Starve' do. It's something that I like to just play with, and it works when it works with what Joe's doing too. I like it to be just a little bit off, because if it's too perfect it becomes a gimmick and it'd be really stupid."
Their two-day record-release shows at Marble Bar will be the second and third shows they've played in Detroit this year — far less than years past. These days, a local Protomartyr show is an event. "I definitely miss being able to play small places and having no one show up," Ahee says. "That was actually fun. But I get claustrophobic, and I don't like playing Jumbo's when you can't move."
If all goes well, they hope to spend most of the next year on the road. They laugh their way through tales of almost getting murdered for breaking someone's skateboard in North Carolina, being trapped on a malfunctioning ferry causing all passengers to get massively seasick en route from England to France, and getting robbed in Barcelona. "But I love all this stuff," Ahee says. "That's what makes touring great — not at the time, but looking back."
"Things have changed for the band," Casey says. "There's more people coming out. There's sometimes people singing along, which is disturbing. But you come back home and nothing's changed there." The band's glamorous jobs include working the door at a comedy club, and at one of their family's jewelry stores.
The little downtime they've had lately is driving them a little stir crazy. "I'm just writing every single day still, just anytime I can," Ahee says.
"I view it like a job that I love doing. But any job, there's gonna be parts that are not fun. Especially if you wanna do it long term, you can't have the mentality that every part is just gonna be a blast, because it won't. You'll get disappointed and you'll resent it eventually. So if you treat it like a job that you care about, then the stuff that's not fun you just kind of wash over because you know it's just an ends to a mean."
Protomartyr plays Friday, October 9 (with Deaf Wish and Casual Sweetheart) and Saturday, October 10 (with Spray Paint and Growwing Pains) at Marble Bar; 1501 Holden, Detroit; Tickets are $12.