The Passion of the Protomartyr

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The members of Protomartyr have learned several valuable lessons since achieving minor-league success with 2014’s Under Color of Official Right. For example: distrust comfort.

Take it from guitarist Greg Ahee. For years, Protomartyr rehearsed in a grimy warehouse space in the band’s native Detroit. Then, while prepping The Agent Intellect—the band’s third and finest yet album, released last week—the group moved their practice space into bassist Scott Davidson’s basement. “It was a little bit less inspiring to write there because it was more comfortable,” Ahee says. “Our [previous] practice space, being that it was a warehouse space, was very cold, very uninviting. That made it so we just want to get right down to work every time we’re there. When we’re in Scott’s basement, we didn’t really feel that way.” Behold the luxuries: “He’s got a nice TV. He’s got air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter.”

None of those amenities were available in the practice space where the band wrote every song on its first two albums, including Under Color and 2012’s No Passion All Technique. So Ahee bought an acoustic guitar, locked himself in his room, and wrote several hundred song fragments, which—once he brought them to frontman Joe Casey—mutated into the material on the new record.

That fear of growing too comfortable pervades The Agent Intellect: This is post-punk that refuses to sit still. Alex Leonard’s drumming stutters with anxiety, occasionally shifting tempos mid-song, while Ahee’s guitar work alternates between darkly melodic riffs and sudden blasts of white-hot noise (as on first single “Why Does It Shake?”). And then there is Joe Casey, whose vocal presence exists in a low, rambling growl that teeters between a sung baritone and hoarse, chant-like repetition. Sometimes he’s muttering to himself, and sometimes he’s barking surreal orders: “Remove the fire from thine eyes…please!” he repeats, steadily but obsessively, at the end of the frantic “Boyce or Boice.”

An obvious point of comparison is Mark E. Smith of The Fall, except that Casey favors a subtler intensity—he intones more than he shrieks, and obviously isn’t British. (Still, the Smith influence is especially apparent on the great Under Color track “Tarpeian Rock,” in which Casey appears to be rattling off people to be thrown from an Ancient Roman cliff.) When I tell Casey that he doesn’t have a particularly conventional singing style, he chuckles a bit: “That’s a nice way to put it.” It’s meant as a compliment—Casey’s oddball vocal exertions are part of what makes Protomartyr stand out from the indie herd—though the frontman will be the first to admit he has zero singing experience outside of this band. So how’d he land this role?

“Alex, the drummer, has a really good singing voice,” Casey says. So does Ahee. “But neither of them wanted to sing at all. And because I can’t play guitar or play drums, it was like: ‘Oh, I guess I’ll have to be the singer.’” Audience reactions often amuse him. “Occasionally someone will say, ‘The lead singer doesn’t sing a note until, like, the third song.’ And I’ll cop to that. I’m like, Oh, really, I sang a note! I’m very surprised.”

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Want tour stories? Spend 30 seconds with Protomartyr, who’ve spent much of the last two years on the road. “We’re not a band at the level where we can just stay in a hotel every night. We gotta ask people if we can sleep on their floors,” Casey says. “That can be a little bit harrowing.” He fondly recalls one gig in Syracuse, at an instrument shop where nobody showed up. They found a couple willing to let them crash. The downside: “When you find people nice enough to let a band stay in their house, they’re usually nice enough to have eight or nine cats. Seriously, you could not look anywhere without seeing cats.”

Alex Leonard happened to be highly allergic. He spent that night sleeping in the van.

Protomartyr’s origin story, like most aspects of its existence, is an unusual one. Joe Casey is 38—roughly a decade older than his bandmates. He lives in northwest Detroit, in the same red-brick house where he grew up in the 1980s. His answer to “Why now?” is surprisingly poignant: When he reached his mid-30s, his father died of a sudden heart attack and his mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“Once people [you’re] close to start dying, you realize how limited your time is,” Casey says. “You should at least try to do something that you like as opposed to sitting around and being bummed out all the time. That’s kind of what I was doing before dad died. Now’s the time to do something.”

When Protomartyr formed, Casey was working as a doorman at the Gem Theater in downtown Detroit, which he describes as a sort of dinner theater often filled with bus groups or elderly people. “The story of my life is a series of shitty low-paying jobs usually involving opening and closing a door,” Casey says. “I felt like an old failure because most of the other people that had this job were like 10 years younger than me.” One of them was Greg Ahee. The two got to talking, realized they shared some musical interests and that they’d gone to the same high school, University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, but 10 years apart.

At the time, Ahee and Alex Leonard had a band called Butt Babies. “We both kind of screamed into microphones,” Ahee recalls. “We made an album, it just sounds like noise.” Casey started going to their practices. “He would just bring a bottle of whiskey and yell on top of songs.” From Casey’s perspective, it really began as a joke. “It was ‘Hey, let’s book a show, they’ll give us free beer, and that’ll be the end of it,’” Casey says. Once Davidson joined on bass, the group took on the name Protomartyr, rented the infamous practice space so they wouldn’t have to rehearse at their parents’ homes, and eventually began recording. The group hoped its first album might be reviewed in the local weekly paper; it wound up being praised by Pitchfork.

But those early gigs baffled as much as they delighted, largely due to Casey’s stage presence. With his business-casual attire and thinning hair, the singer looks more like a side character on The Office than a rock star.

“We didn’t see it as strange that we would start playing a song and Joe would be at the bar and would stumble up onstage and just start singing,” Ahee says. “Early on people thought he was like 20 years older than us and just this old guy who would come interrupt these kids’ set. To people, it was really strange and jarring that this guy was coming up and singing with us.”

Casey suffered extreme stage fright then, and still does. He used to conquer it by getting drunk before every show. “That worked great!” he exclaims. Then came a show in Seattle where he was already wasted and someone put a tray of five shots onstage. “I was drunk enough where I was like, ‘Oh, those are all my shots. Someone was nice enough to know that I like five shots.’ I heard it was a fun show, but I don’t do that anymore.”

His new trick is to take his glasses off, so the audience is a blur. “It makes the songs less boring for me if I’m trying to struggle through them.”

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Three albums in three-and-a-half years is one way to keep the momentum going. “If we really sweated over something and it took two years or three years to write an album, that seems like a luxury to me,” Casey says. “That seems like someone with a lot of money and a lot of time can do, and we don’t really have either.”

The new one was recorded over a week in the miserable dead of winter in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Again: Avoid comfort.

“I went outside once during those seven years, to get a taco,” Ahee recalls. “Besides that we were inside the entire time. Started to get a little bit stir crazy by the end. We’re used to doing things pretty quickly, and seven days felt a bit extravagant for us. You can’t do anything else except stay focused there because there’s nothing else to do.” The studio, with its bunk rooms, felt like a log cabin. “I just remember staring at my guitar or the floor for hours on end. Parts of it felt torturous.”

Since he spends much of his time outside of the band caring for his mother, Casey’s lyrics have begun to take on a more mournful tone. The bleak, chugging “Dope Cloud” is an eerily catchy ode to the inevitability of death and decay: “That’s not gonna save you, man,” the singer warns, over and over. One of the more unexpectedly moving songs of the year, “Ellen,” imagines an eventual reunion between the singer’s mom and his dad, who vows to save the memories she’s lost to disease. Casey wrote the lyrics last-minute, in the studio. His vocals take the form of a haunting, murmured promise: “I will wait for Ellen.”

“My mom is still my mom, but she’s a different person now than she was five years ago,” Casey says. “She pretty much had lost her short-term memory by the time I started the band. She’s been to a show before a couple years ago and she’s listened to the music. At this point I have to tell her, ‘Oh, I’m off to Europe.’ ‘That’s great, why?’ ‘Oh, I’m in a band.’ And if I mention it five minutes later, it’s a new thing.”

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