A Catholic Education
Here Is the Thing: Protomartyr is Still in Ascent (Relatively Speaking)
Protomartyr is the rare band that started from a solid foundation and improved on each of its first three albums. As much as I looked forward to the new Relatives in Descent, I didn’t dare expect the Detroit quartet to continue that trajectory. After all, 2015’s The Agent Intellect had the markings of a once-in-a-career, everything clicking into place record. Add the band’s stated intent to create something “more complex” coinciding with their move to a top-tier indie label (Domino, following two albums on the scrappy Sub Pop imprint Hardly Art) and my guard went up a little.
Such worry was unwarranted. While I’m not yet ready to declare Relatives in Descent better than its predecessor, it’s damn close. If you can envision a path connecting Zen Arcade and 154, Relatives in Descent is stationed at its midpoint. That latter Wire reference particularly resonates with Protomartyr guitarist Greg Ahee. “Yeah, if we can get anywhere near the intensity of 154 we’ve succeeded. I remember wanting Under Cover (of Official Right, their 2014 sophomore release) to be our Chairs Missing – which I think is pretty much a perfect record, not that we could ever match that.”
The embrace of Husker Du isn’t as unconditional, but a welcome comparison nonetheless – of the first wave American post-punk bands Protomartyr sees Pere Ubu more as its role model. “Of that breed of bands I’d definitely put Husker Du near the top,” allows vocalist Joe Casey. “They experimented.”
Not only the label, but the entire creative process behind Descent was different. “For the first three records Alex and I were working full time jobs,” Ahee recounts, referring to drummer Alex Leonard. “This time we were able to get together five days a week and focus on writing. Then Joe and Scott (Davidson, bassist) started coming in every day too.” Lest you envision a joyless grind he’s quick to add, “It wasn’t all grueling stuff – we had a Nintendo 64 so we played a lot of NFL Blitz too.”
Casey’s contributions tend to be late additions to the process, which is a bit surprising given his perceived role as the band’s sage and hardscrabble poet. “By the time I showed up they had already picked the cream of the crop,” he demurs. “The lyrics always come very near the end. The noises I’m going to make, I try to come up with those pretty quickly – they’ll play the song and I’ll mumble over it. Then I’ll think about what words fit into that right before we record.”
Once he determines those words Casey’s delivery can usually be best described as barking or reciting, as opposed to singing. And as a balding guy in a sportcoat standing amid what otherwise looks like a crew of day laborers, he’s hard to ignore.
Protomartyr had never ventured outside Michigan to record before, nor spent more than a week in the studio. They hadn’t worked with an outside producer, either. Their new label suggested a list of names, and the members decided to go with Sonny DiPerri, flying to LA for two-plus weeks of sessions. “We wanted a producer that could help us get where we needed to go without putting their fingerprints on us.” Ahee explains. Casey reinforces the thought: “He had recorded a lot of bands that all sounded good but also really different from each other.” Perusing DePerri’s resume (Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective and their respective offshoots, plus Portugal the Man), it’s hard to find common ground among those bands beyond a taste for pushing boundaries. There’s now another title to add to that list.
Without a single overt political reference Relatives in Descent manages to sound eerily timely. Amid its heady rock attack sits a treatise on the elusive nature of truth, and the search for human connection in the modern world.
Casey frequently turns to Catholic imagery in his lyrics. “It’s a handy shorthand for a lot of our themes.” A case in point is closer “Half-Sister,” on which he recounts:
In ancient Palestine, a Roman middle manager
Dresses down a radical
“I have a backlog of so-called prophets.”
Notwithstanding the humorous twist that recalls Monty Python’s Life of Brian it’s a dark image befitting a track heavy enough to appeal to alt-metalheads. Casey – and his bandmates by extension – come by this imagery honestly. “I grew up right next to a monastery so it kind of seeped in.” All four attended the same Jesuit high school, at somewhat different times. “Greg and I met working the same job (4-5 years after graduation) and it came up that we went to the same school. There’s kind of a weird language you can speak with someone who’s had that same experience.”
“It’s a great school but kind of a weird way to grow up,” marvels Ahee. “I didn’t learn how to talk to women until I was 20 years old.” The school has also produced an odd cluster of Detroit musicians. “I think someone should make a compilation of bands that have come out of there,” suggests Casey, pointing to contemporaries Tyvek (who share some DNA with Protomartyr), ’60s garage rock cult heroes The Index, “one of the guys from The Gories, and bands ten years younger than Greg.”
The school, University of Detroit Jesuit, has not yet seen fit to list Protomartyr (or any of these other musicians, for that matter) among Notable Alumni on its Wikipedia page. However the school does stake a claim to Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison and hard-boiled fiction writer Elmore Leonard – the latter of whom happens to be drummer Alex’s grandfather.
“I’d been in zero bands before this,” explains Casey, who has about a decade on his fellow Martyrs. That’s a pretty uncommon path for a now internationally prominent band, so how did he fit into the mix before then? “Did you ever see that Coen Brothers movie The Man Who Wasn’t There?” he asks me. “At the end they tell the guy (Billy Bob Thornton) ‘You know what you are? You’re an enthusiast.’ That’s me – I was an enthusiast. I never dressed like a punk, I kind of hung around the scene.”
Ahee and Leonard had started gigging around town as the Butt Babies, but neither of them really enjoyed singing (“More yelling,” Ahee claims). “They were doing this band for shits and giggles and I would like hang out at practice. It started out really low stakes,” continues Casey, who doesn’t play an instrument. Eventually the pair succumbed to Casey’s prodding to take the mic. “I had tried it on other people but got shot down pretty fast. ‘You guys need a practice space? I’ll pay for half.’ Then Scott joined and eventually it turned into Protomartyr.”
Being a bit more established financially, Casey wasn’t above bribing either. “I’d give them an allowance, like ten bucks to buy drinks for friends. I figured we’d be known as the nice guys – go to their show and they’ll buy you a beer.” Among his various day jobs Casey used to work the door at a comedy club, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine his dry, aw-shucks wit on another type of stage.
At one point Casey had planned to lighten up a bit on the lyrical themes for this album, an idea that fell by the wayside amid the Flint water crisis and other assorted mayhem. According to Casey that angle is overblown regardless. “It would be very bizarre if we released three records about the doom and gloom of society, and then all of a sudden the next album is all happy – I’d question our morals. I don’t think I’m a dark person, though.”
He allows a glimmer of hope to seep through on “Night-Blooming Cereus,” which includes the uncharacteristically tenderly delivered observation “only in darkness does the flower take hold.” “I don’t want to tie them too closely, but I was thinking about this after the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland when all of a sudden these DIY places were being closed. And I thought of myself growing up and going to these places and a ton of them were fire traps – they could be on the fringes, but they were very important. In America a lot of art has to live on the fringes because there’s no space or money for it.”
The band’s attention to detail is such that the album’s opening and closing tracks both end on the repeated line, “She’s just trying to reach you,” “she” being truth, the half-sister of the title. In addition to the lyrical symmetry, “A Private Understanding” opens the record with Leonard’s complex drum patterns while the final tracks foreground Scott Davidson’s loping basslines.
This is no accident, of course. “One hundred percent,” Casey responds when asked whether sequencing is important to them. “Greg’s got the musical flow, I’ve got the lyrical flow, and we sit down and figure out how it all fits together – Side A, Side B, the whole thing. We think about putting our weirder, more experimental songs toward the end, before the final statement. Whereas on Agent Intellect we started out with a series of short blasts.”
Those blasts are more evenly spread throughout Descent – “Male Plague,” whose burly ’80s hardcore vibe befits the band’s Midwestern roots, the hard-charging “Don’t Go To Anacita,” and “Here is the Thing,” on which Casey spiels more than sings. The track also proves they didn’t obsess over every detail. “There’s a part in ‘Here Is the Thing’ where I’m kind of burping. Afterward Alex asked, ‘Joe, that sounded kinda weird – you wanna do it again?’ It’s still in there. I wanted the words to sound like they were tumbling out like that.”
In the past it seemed drummer Leonard had the lowest cymbal-to-tom ratio in rock, which served the sense of foreboding underpinning Protomartyr’s music. This choice was pragmatic as much as strategic. “Cymbals are notoriously hard to get the right sound, so in the early days he avoided them,” Casey explains. I think there are more cymbals on this record than the last two combined, but he had the time to work with the producer to get it right.”
Descent’s credits for violin and synths might be another source of trepidation until one realizes how those weapons are deployed. “It’s not like we’re going for ‘Eleanor Rigby,’” laughs Casey. “I loved the way The Raincoats used violin on some of their later, darker stuff,” Ahee offers. He points to Mica Levi’s (better known as frontwoman for Micachu and the Shapes) soundtrack to the film Under the Skin as their model. “It’s basically for atmosphere rather than making melodies, a swarming unease that runs through the movie.” Sure enough, the instrument mainly serves to provide a backdrop of swirling dissonance, often flying below radar until the noisier instruments fade out.
Ahee then schools me that he’s played synths on every Protomartyr record, “we just tend to bury them.” Their only song with anything approaching a recognizable keyboard note is “Feral Cats,” which doubles as my favorite from their 2012 debut No Passion, All Technique. “We brought in a fresh pair of ears for this one on two or three songs.” Guest Olivier Demeaux added a new dimension with a PaperSynth, “these super-cheap kits from the ’70s that you’d assemble yourself” now staging a mini-comeback via the Maker craze (picture the caustic soundwaves Alan Ravenstine added to Pere Ubu’s classics). “They’re pretty expensive now, though. We had the time to try things, sit on them, and decide if they worked or not.” They did.
For Ahee, any musical enhancements must conform to one basic criterion. “It’s important to us to be able to play it live. So if there’s a very distinct sound that I can’t replicate on guitar then it’s not worth including on the album. It’s kind of a balancing act.”
The retro-funk feel of “Corpses in Regalia” leaves me wondering whether Ahee had old-school Detroit in mind on this one. “No, but I was thinking about some of The Pop Group’s stuff, which has a funk vibe,” he tells me. “They have a way of pulling it off without making it sound like fucking Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
Last year Protomartyr got an opportunity to collaborate the recently rebooted first-wave genre benders The Pop Group as part of Rough Trade’s 40th anniversary events. “It kind of came out of left field,” Ahee explains of the pairing. “We were pretty terrified by the idea, but finally decided ‘Heck, we’ll probably never get a chance like this again.’“
“We’re not a band that’s into jamming out the songs,” Casey adds, “We were worried this could totally blow up in our faces, that we’d be revealed as frauds. I probably had the easiest job – I sang two of our songs and made some noises on others,” on a live set that may eventually see the commercial light of day. “It came right in the middle of our writing this album so it was a good kick in the ass for us – gave us a shot of confidence.”
It also came at a time that Protomartyr, despite having been around since 2010, was wrapping its first year of extended touring. Until then their jaunts had been more limited and economical. “I was lucky because I worked for my grandma and uncle – they’d let me take a lot of time off if I brought back some clippings to show people were taking notice. I probably forged some stuff,” Ahee laughs.
As Protomartyr becomes less parochial, it’s encouraging to see they can spend months in close quarters and still enjoy each other’s company, working more than ever like a finely honed machine. Well, maybe. “Did we mention that Alex lives in New York now?” Casey deadpans. As long as Leonard doesn’t catch the 3:10 to Yuma, everything should be fine.
Photo by Daniel Topete.