“We aren’t trying to have a new sound or do anything particularly unique,” Greg Ahee says. “We’re just trying to make music we think sounds good, or maybe sounds like the bands we like. It’s still weird to hear people say we are doing something new.”
This is just one of the many misconceptions about Protomartyr, the Detroit four-piece whose second album, Under Color of Official Right, is gaining some attention in time for its release on Hardly Art last week. As guitarist Ahee points out, “there are a lot of bands in the Detroit music scene doing really cool and exciting things, a lot more exciting than us.”
His modesty is sincere, but not necessarily correct. By sounding like the bands they listen to and making music that’s in tune with their ears, Protomartyr stumbled upon something that strikes a chord beyond their practice space. Sure, it might be easily paraphrased as Nick Cave fronting a more math rock-leaning version of The Fall, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t special.
“It’s probably like this for every band, but I hate trying to describe what we sound like,” Ahee says. “I’m afraid to put it into words and having it influence the direction. I don’t know what direction we are moving in but I’m afraid if I think about it too much, it will influence it.”
Ahee and frontman Joe Casey are quick to dispel post-punk as a direct ancestor of Protomartyr, with Casey summing up the similarity as stemming from their “one guitar, one bass, one drummer, not really playing blues-based rock with a singer that can’t sing.”
“We arrived at our sound very naturally and very slowly,” Ahee adds. “It wasn’t a conscious choice and there isn’t really a lineage in the city to the sound we have.”
That city is Detroit, home of Motown, Eminem, Big Sean, Kid Rock and tons of other music that has nothing to do with Protomartyr. It’s a city that gets labeled without thinking by people who have never been there without the realization that it, like everywhere, is much more dynamic than it is often given credit for.
“People are really surprised to hear that even though Detroit’s fallen on hard times, right in the suburbs are some of the richest neighborhoods in America,” Casey says. “So, it’s not like the whole area is desolate. I think that’s the thing the press in Detroit is really kind of obnoxious about, this tendency to color it all one of two extremes. Either it’s the city on the rise or it’s a total shit hole. We try to take it upon ourselves to tell people who aren’t familiar with the area that it’s not one thing at all. The people that say that Detroit is a shit hole make me jump to defend it, but others will say that they hear it’s so great for artists make me call it a shit hole.”
This complicated environment is all over Casey’s lyric sheet, with his words often being noted for their bleakness and dark nature, which doesn’t always sit right with the young frontman.
“I get a little bummed out when people are talking about this depressing record,” he says, “because I like topics that are little bit weird. I think there is a sense humor, too, but I’m beginning to think my sense of humor isn’t very good. A lot of people aren’t picking up on it.”
One of the places it is most, or least, apparent is on standout “Tarpeian Rock,” which is literally a laundry list of things that Casey wishes to crush on an Ancient Roman landmark, known as the site of executions.
“The thing with ‘Tarpeian Rock’ is it started out with his list of things I was really pissed off about,” Casey says. “When you think about this kind of song and performing this kind of song, it is almost a joke in and of itself—being so angry at things. So the things on the list, I added some that were ridiculous because the very act of one seeking revenge on these things is kind of laughable itself.”
Among those making the cut: “Greedy bastards,” “emotional cripples,” “Internet personas,” “recent memories,” “adults dressed as children” and “most bands ever.”
“Most bands ever” does not include Protomartyr, but they are still surprised at the attention their debut received,
“It helped us move forward,” Casey notes, “because we did something some people liked, it gave us confidence to keep at it. If we released the first record and no one listened to it and those that did hated it, then we wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”
Ahee chimes in saying that they’d probably still be making the same music regardless, with Casey deadpanning a display of his often missed wit, the proverb of the perpetually misunderstood: “The key to being happy in a band is to have really low expectations.”