Raucous Indie Rockers Protomartyr Embrace Imperfections

click to enlarge Raucous Indie Rockers Protomartyr Embrace Imperfections
Pitch Perfect PR/Zak Bratto
The raucous, bulldozer-driven post-punk of Detroit-based Protomartyr’s third release, The Agent Intellect, landed the album on more than one best of list for 2015, including those compiled by Consequence of Sound and Rough Trade. But lyricist-singer Joe Casey can’t quite pinpoint why, nor does he want to. The most he’ll say is that the band’s growth has something to do with its full-steam-ahead attitude, a work ethic hell-bent on producing, producing and producing without fretting over possible imperfections. Any rough edges can be sanded off later, any holes patched up with stucco. 

“What I liked about the band early on, and what I think we still do now, is that we just kind of approach it, we don’t do much chin-stroking, we don’t sit around and wait for inspiration, we just kind of get to work,” says Casey via phone from his Detroit home. “Even though there’s a lot of mystery in the songs, there’s not a lot of mystery in making the songs. Not to use a terrible Detroit analogy, but it is kind of like an assembly line and at the end there’s a car.”

The band, which also includes guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson, certainly works together like a well-oiled machine. The instrumentalists create an eerie sonic landscape for Casey’s deadpan vocals, with rolling and tumbling repetitive musical phrases that alternate between jarring, brash guitar and mind-expanding dream pop. Many have called Protomartyr post-punk: brute force riffs stitched together with a surprising amount of thoughtfulness and elegance.

The band succeeds at self-editing too. While preparing to record The Agent Intellect, the band spent countless hours whittling down the monster of a contraption they had created, hoping to form an album that would run at optimum efficiency with no dragging parts or grinding gears. Though it’s their longest album to date, the band has achieved its goal: an album that delivers consistent crescendo. The group plays Now That’s Class on Feb. 10.

Although he majored in English, Casey had no significant writing experience when he began sitting in on pre-Protomartyr jam sessions between Leonard and Ahee around 2009. Band members all attended the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, although not at the same time; Casey is almost a decade their senior. Protomartyr’s first album, 2012’s No Passion All Technique, leans more towards ’70s and ’80s punk and new wave than their latest, with tracks reminiscent of early Wipers or Joy Division running side-by-side with others more like the Damned. The second album, 2014’s Under Color of Official Right, the band softens their sound with a coat of early indie rock: Casey’s vocals mimic Morrissey on tracks such as “Maidenhead,” and segments of noise guitar hearken to Sonic Youth.

For a songwriting process that is so calculated and mechanistic, Protomartyr’s methods are equally haphazard. Casey doesn’t approach his lyric writing with a message in mind; instead, he starts by mumbling over music he’s hearing for the first time in the band’s group writing sessions. He’s a 38-year-old who has spent his years sucking up every bit of culture around him, and Protomartyr gives him a reason and an outlet to deconstruct and reassemble decades’ worth of observations and obsessions into newfangled inventions. Casey is more in the business of junkyard salvage than antique store picking: rather than indulging in pop culture references or working from over-mined high-brow source material, Casey is good at gathering treasures from the quotidian realm. He draws inspiration from the ancient Christian history he was taught in Jesuit high school and long periods of unemployment that he spent with the television caricatures of Judge Judy and late-night infomercials.

“Growing up I was next to a monastery, and my first experiences with art were with religious art,” he says. “You know, stained glass windows. There was a stained glass in our church next door of the St. Timothy, the one that was shot full of arrows, and when you’re a young kid, the martyrs are always the coolest saints because they’re the closest to an action movie.”

The band is named after St. Stephen—the first martyr, or protomartyr—who was stoned to death. “I picked the name because I thought it sounded cool,” Casey admits. “It’s a little too long [laughs], but it looks good on a record.”

All this is not to say that Casey doesn’t engage in purposeful intellectual exploration: his love for obscure literature is fed by hours spent in Detroit’s John K. King Used & Rare Books. (His current obsession is Belgian author Georges Simenon.)

“I just try to draw from wherever I can, I think that’s how everyone does it,” he says. “As you’re walking through the day, you can’t really control what affects you or what stays with you, it’s all kind of floating around.”

A cultural amalgamator in the truest sense of the word, he fashions poetry in the way Rube Goldberg makes machines. Sometimes that means joining strings of words that don’t exactly seem to fit together.

“If you try to force meaning on something, it really can blow up in your face. So I stick with these phrases and things that I think about and try to plug them into a song. Either they kind of grow thoughts around them or they don’t, they kind of sit there,” Casey explains.

While he hesitates to take credit for consciously conjuring up the mysteries that lie within Protomartyr’s music, Casey is intent on preserving their cryptic nature. He shies away from attributing definitive meanings to his lyrics; instead, he likes to hear the meanings listeners derive themselves.

“A third meaning can come from two things that don’t make sense next to each other. And if I had a robot for every song and said ‘OK this means this, this means that’ then that kind of takes away that third meaning that I always know is coming about, and I think it kind of ruins the song,” he explains. One song he’s been asked to discuss time and time again is “Uncle Mother’s” from The Agent Intellect.

“It’s actually about people going over to somebody’s house and having a medical procedure done. I read somewhere about plastic surgery parties and things like that. The older you get, the more worried you are about your health, and it almost becomes your prime concern. Which when you’re young, you might go to a party to just take drugs and get off your head, now you do it to try to continue your life, and how weird that is.”

After decades of being an avid cultural consumer, Casey is keenly aware of the vast amount of human-produced content that has been accumulating since the beginning of time. So how does he know that his work serves a greater purpose above adding to the rubble?

“You want to create something that has a little bit more longevity than something that just is so many characters long and goes past. Especially when you’re making music, it can drive you mad how much music there is out there, so you just have to try to find personal fulfillment in it, because if you start judging it by the outside world, the outside world is very fickle. And I’m very fickle.”

Protomartyr, Priests, Total Babes, Bummed Out, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10, Now That’s Class, 11213 Detroit Ave., 216-221-8576. Tickets: $10, nowthatsclass.net.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Music News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.