There was a time,before the Internet and Auto-Tune, when punk bands had to do everything themselves minus the ability to hide all of their many flaws. Rather than drown under the pressure, they reveled in it. Essentially, that DIY, “wear your shortcomings on your chest” attitude was punk. It didn’t become a Vivienne Westwood-inspired uniform until the second wave, when the Exploited and the like took plaid trousers and Mohawks and created a new fashion. The real punks were ignoring such bullshit and continuing to do whatever they wanted. By the time everybody else started wearing safety pins, Richard Hell was doing something else.
In other words, if the media is telling you what punk is, providing very clear instructions, fashion tips and artistic outlets, that thing is no longer punk. A real punk would never be told what to do. It is that very spirit that molds Protomartyr. The band, consisting of Joe Casey (vocals), Greg Ahee (guitar), Alex Leonard (drums) and Scott Davidson (bass), doesn’t give a crap what anybody else thinks they should sound like, though Casey’s apathy towards uniformity comes out with a kind of rueful shrug rather than with a snotty Stiv Bators or Johnny Rotten sneer. He’s his own man, see?
Protomartyr put out a full-length album last year on the Urinal Cake label called No Passion All Technique. It would be easy to suggest that the title is a classic punk pun, laced not so much with irony but with a whopping, bare-faced lie, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, because there is some truth in the title. The three musicians in Protomartyr are more than a little bit technically proficient, while Casey’s vocals recall the Fall’s Mark E. Smith — dispassionate and nihilistic. As the title character says in the movie We Need to Talk About Kevin, “There is no point, that’s the point.” So when the band puts “no passion” in the album title, they kinda mean it.
Protomartyr formed in 2010, when everybody but Casey was playing together in a band called the Butt Babies. “They were playing and I hung out with them, had a few beers,” says Casey. “I just thought that playing with them would be a fun thing to do. It started as a little bit of a joke. They’d play Butt Babies shows and I’d come up and sing two songs that we’d worked in halfway through the set. It’d be like a surprise, then I’d stumble off and they’d keep playing.”
The Fall reference previously mentioned hits home with Casey, though the band pulls influences from other, less obvious places. “The weird thing is, the band doesn’t really have one sound that we go for or anything that we look for,” the singer says. “I always like the Fall. Greg’s favorite guy is R. Kelly. He went to go see him when he went through town and, when the Lager House did their Halloween thing, Greg performed R. Kelly songs. He’s a super-fan.”
What could be more punk than an open, unexpected adoration of R. Kelly? “Definitely, when we started, the idea I had was that it’d be a punk band,” Casey says. “It’s funny because we just got a review of our record where somebody was saying that this isn’t, the first single is post-punk and this is post-garage, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what they meant by it. It seems like it’s a handle to say. We just say that we’re punk because I can’t really sing very well. It’s easier to say that.”
Protomartyr recently shifted over to X! Records to release the “Colpi Proibiti” (meaning “death warrant” in Italian) single. “I’d known Scott [Dunkerley, X! Records’ main man] from being around the shows,” Casey says. “He seemed like a nice guy. He put out the first Tyvek 7-inch, so I thought I’d ask him if he wanted to put something out and he said yes. I used to be a dog’s body for Tyvek, hanging with them. I have always known that it’s a good label. A lot of times, people will over-egg it. But he’s released a lot of records and done it right. I always liked that.”
The 7-inch single certainly looks awesome, the front adorned with some black-and-white religious imagery and the back featuring a Sniffin’ Glue-style choppy cartoon. The single screams out, “We did this ourselves, by hand.” “What I like and what inspired me a little bit was a collection of CDRs that came out where they took a lot of 7-inches that came out after punk in England,” Casey says. “Bands you’ve never heard of them but they had really great singles and handmade art. Nowadays, when you can do everything on a computer for free, I like the handmade aspect of it.”
Much like punk singles of old, “Colpi Proibiti” also features two songs on each side. “We’d heard that if you go over five minutes, the sound quality goes down, but basically we had recorded a bunch of songs and, especially nowadays where it’s hard to get people to buy anything, if a thing has four songs on it there’s a little bit more incentive,” Casey says. “The Detroit hardcore stuff, I really didn’t listen to much of it growing up. It’s interesting when you get a review and people say we sound like something, and a lot of times I don’t know who they’re talking about, then I go and look them up and it’s usually flattering.”
Playing the dive bars of Detroit, Protomartyr has already seen its fair share of show-time adversity. “The worst show so far was at the Majestic, I think the Fucking Awesome Fest last year,” says Casey. “They had a couple of different stages. We were the last band to play on Saturday night so it could look like we were headlining. We were playing right after Ty Segall, who is very big right now. As we were setting up, we see this huge crowd to see Segall. We knew that we weren’t headliners, we were the afterbirth. As soon as he was done playing, the whole audience kinda goose-stepped out and we played to about five people. It wasn’t pretty, in that big room. It was all open, so it was obvious that no one was here for us.”
Not to worry, boys. As Chazz Darvey says in Airheads, “Do you know what it’s like to be on the bill and to play for 15 minutes and the only people there to see you are the other bands and their girlfriends? I am rock ’n’ roll!” (If you’re counting, that’s the second movie quote of the feature.) Bands are supposed to go through these things, and there are always little bright moments to make it worth it. “We got an email from a guy in Belarus saying that he really liked the album,” Casey says. “You always worry that the music scene is littered with the bodies of bands that played the local bar and you find in the CD dollar bin. That’s probably going to happen to us eventually. For right now, [it’s great] to know that there are people on the other side of the world listening and not hating it.”
Perhaps wisely, Casey’s goals for his band are modest. “What you do is you have low expectations and then you’re constantly surprised,” he says. “For me, when Tyvek were nice enough to let me tag along when they toured Europe, I thought it was the greatest. I wanted to start a band to have a reason to travel, a reason to sit in bars and drink in different places. So more touring, and more records.