Friday, October 9, 2015

False happiness is on the rise: Hanging out with Protomartyr

I interviewed Protomartyr for Metro Times recently; the published story is here. However a lot was cut due to space so here is the extended version of the piece. 

Protomartyr throw a weekend-long release party at Marble Bar, release new album The Agent Intellect
The boys from nowhere
By Shelley Salant

Protomartyr are on the eve of their third album’s release. The songs on the massive “The Agent Intellect” sound much different than their previous records – darker, more introspective. But they still sound like Protomartyr. They’re one of those magical bands that have lots of different kinds of songs, but always sound like themselves. 

They’ve accomplished a lot in their five years of existence: written tons of songs, released two singles, now three full lengths, toured extensively in the United States and in Europe.  They’ve also gotten more international press than just about any other Detroit rock band of our current era. It’s been a little exhausting to read how many times they’ve been asked “What’s Detroit like?” “How do you guys feel about Detroit?” (Which is probably something any Detroiter who travels can relate to.) Much has been made of the fact that vocalist Joe Casey started his first band at age 35 with three guys a decade younger.

“I know that that’s an angle, and if we didn’t have an angle, less people would be interested in us,” says Casey.  Drummer Alex Leonard jokingly suggests the headline “‘Mysterious boring guys release cool album.’” “‘Guys From Nowhere Release Music,’” suggests Casey. (While Casey is becoming known for his wit, for the record all the members of Protomartyr are hilarious in their own way.)

“I like to demystify everything,” says guitarist Greg Ahee. “This is not glamorous. We’re not interesting, we’re not cool, and neither is most of the bands you like.  But I’m a huge David Bowie fan and he’s like the opposite - he’s a showman. I can appreciate both ways.”

I’m friends with the band and got to hang out with them for a few hours on a recent Sunday afternoon. We traded stories, cracked jokes and talked shop about touring, recording, and other aspects of life in music. Afterwards I am left with the overwhelming sense that they are honestly an incredibly hard working, disciplined band that truly operates as a unit. We spoke extensively about how every member contributes and drummer Alex Leonard joked that they are “like a Ford assembly line.” And they write great songs.

It’s true that they are all graduates of University of Detroit High School and that until recently the band exclusively wrote all of its songs and practiced in the historic Russell Industrial Center. Their lyrics consistently include local references – who else would write the lyric “The eyes of Kayrouz are upon you?” But cheesy as it may be to say, what really makes them a very Detroit band is their work ethic and humility. They are not now nor have they ever been cool scenesters, and despite all their success they don’t act in any way like rock stars.

This summer they performed at a friends’ wedding, and had to learn a set of covers and standards. The experience of trying to play “normal” music was informative: “We realized how much we are stuck in our own way of playing,” says Ahee. “It’s not normal how we play.”

They recall the time their friend and local rocker Derek Stanton’s father, himself a long time rock n roller, saw them play. “He was like ‘That is not how a band is supposed to sound.’ I don’t think he meant it as a compliment,” says Ahee.

But it works. I am reminded of the term Tobi Vail used to describe the music of the Raincoats and Grass Widow: each band has with its own internal logic. Though very different from those bands, in their own way Protomartyr are operating in the same way. Somehow all the elements fit together in a perfect way. It’s certainly fair to say their sound is in the extended family of bands like the Fall, Joy Division, Pere Ubu, and Wire, but they have their own thing going on.

I’ve known these guys for about six years now.  Bassist Scott Davidson used to host shows at his house the “No Bummer Zone” in Ferndale, which were renowned for always having an ample supply of Hungry Howie’s pizzas. I got to know him going to and playing shows there, and through his record label Leroy St Records. Joe Casey was a longtime friend of the founding members of Tyvek, and I met him when I was in that band for a couple years. I met Ahee and Leonard when they and Casey gave me a ride to Chicago to meet up with the other members of Tyvek to open for Death. Ahee and Leonard immediately bought 24 Hour Energys, which I didn’t know existed but seemed designed specifically for a one day trip from Detroit to Chicago and back. They told me they had a band called the Butt Babies, and I immediately told them that that was a horrible name and they needed to change it. They insisted that they were keeping it - that the point was that it was stupid.

“I think the rationale was basically [that] it’s the dumbest name we’ve ever heard so we won’t take ourselves too seriously,” Ahee explains. “But after a while we just realized that we’re never gonna take ourselves too seriously.” They’ve retained this attitude, and it seems to keep them grounded.
Since Ahee and Leonard were friends with Casey, and he had been harboring the idea of starting a band called Protomartyr, it made sense to join forces. Ahee and Leonard played as the Butt Babies, and with Casey singing over them they started calling themselves Protomartyr. Butt Babies played a few shows at Davidson’s house, and he joined on bass a year or two in, in a characteristically low-key fashion.

Butt Babies was certainly no Protomartyr, but it did lay a foundation for their modus operandi. “We recorded a terrible sounding record on a computer microphone,” recalls Ahee. “But what we would do is write a song a day, and the idea was to do 30 songs and cut 10. And I think that probably informed how we went about things from there on. The idea was, ‘Let’s just keep working, keep trying stuff and not be afraid to cut it if it’s not working.’”

Protomartyr played their first show in 2010 but say they got serious in 2011. At the end of 2011, they wanted to record and called up Hi Bias Studios owner and producer Chris Koltay, whose name they got from the back of the City Center record Redeemer (K Records, 2011). “In a weird way that kick started Protomartyr because we were obsessed with that record,” says Ahee. “We were like, ‘Let’s just record every song we can play. And some we can’t play.’” Those songs became the first two seven inch singles and their debut album No Passion, All Technique (Urinal Cake, 2012). But as always, an essential part of the process was cutting the songs that didn’t work. Protomartyr are ruthless editors of their own material. 

When I finally caught up to seeing their band, they blew me away. I was actually shocked. I immediately told them I loved the band and wanted to book a tour for them. So I booked their first tour - of the West coast, on which they were joined by Turn to Crime. Their excellent first album was getting attention, but they were relatively unknown.

Though this was his first tour performing, Casey used to come along on Tyvek tours. I asked him if those experiences had informed his approach with Protomartyr, and he said that it had “100%. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for touring with Tyvek. Seeing that they had fans singing along in a small town in Poland was just mind blowing. It looked like an adventure. It was a fun time to be just seeing my friends have fun and do it. ‘Hey, we can do this too. Tyvek toured the West coast, anyone can do it! You just meet the one cool person in each town and that’s it.’ Don’t worry about if people in Detroit like you, if people in Chicago likes you or someone in New York likes you.

“To see what they did that was good, and what they did that was bad, definitely helped me. I knew I didn’t want to be the one person in charge. [We] have no real leader in the band.”

“The band is us,” says Ahee. “The press definitely focuses on Joe, but when it comes to how we operate and how we write songs, there’s no ego there. It’s all of us.”

“[The band] wouldn’t have existed without us being equal,” says Casey. “Everyone has a say and everyone does something in the band to keep them busy.”

Around the time of that first tour, they were signed to Sub Pop subsidiary Hardly Art, and headed to Key Club studio in Benton Harbor to record their second album Under Color of Official Right, which both greatly expanded their sound and helped them reach a wider audience.

“We always had that local punk community here that was good to us,” says Ahee. “But in terms of getting beyond that, it wasn’t til other cities that people I didn’t know personally would come to our shows. For years I would recognize every person at our shows.”

Last winter they returned to Key Club to record their new album The Agent Intellect. For this record their songwriting process had drastically changed. They had moved out of their space at the Russell and into Davidson’s basement. “We started to write in that basement and it didn’t really feel that good,” says Ahee.

It was a big change from their previous environment, in which they wrote all of their songs together. “There’s nothing warm about that practice space we had at the Russell,” says Ahee, calling to mind descriptions of This Heat’s legendary studio/laboratory Cold Storage.  “It just felt cold. We didn’t have any insulation. Everything [had] reverb; it just sounded gigantic.

“So I bought an acoustic guitar, which is something I haven’t owned in like ten years, and I started to write some music stuff at my apartment, and I would bring it [to practice]. Alex would start to do some drum stuff, and that would change it. A lot of it’s based on what Alex does because he’s got such a unique way of playing drums: he’s doing these weird fragmented, really tom-heavy beats. It will change the direction of the songs.” Leonard’s trademark drum style is in full effect in the opening seconds of The Agent Intellect’s second track “Cowards Starve.”

I’ve always privately thought Davidson was the band’s secret weapon – his bass lines are the pop element of the band and the songs’ foundation. “[Scott]’s like the stability,” says Ahee. “Even if I come to him with something that’s really complicated and doesn’t really work, he’ll have a way of molding it into something that’s really stable and will drive the song. So if I’m doing something weird and crazy, it’ll still sound like a song. The way we write songs now, it would just sound really chaotic and nothing like it does because it wouldn’t have that anchor that Scott’s bass serves.”

“This [method of working] gave us a little more time to figure out what didn’t work, because I’d be thinking about it all the time. Which drove me a little bit fucking nuts, cause I’d just be at my apartment being like ‘Does this work? Does this work? Does this work?’” says Ahee.

The last piece is the lyrics and vocals. “Sometimes I really wish I could go play videogames or something while they’re coming up with songs, but it’s important that I’m there through the whole process when they’re trying to come up with something cause I’m mumbling and figuring out what sounds good with that,” explains Casey. “Then I kind of go back later and figure out words go with it and finesse it so it’s not just jibberish. But it always starts out as jibberish.”

“A lot of the songs will get kind of reformatted along what Joe’s doing,” says Ahee. “It’s never a case where I have a fully formed song and it stays like that. We’ve gotten good at all compromising. I think we’re all good at realizing that none of us are geniuses and we can all make stupid ideas that we think are good.”

Casey has a particular genius for creating or observing great lines and repurposing them in a new context. He generally has a habit of “writing down interesting phrases that [he] hear[s] or read[s] or come[s] up with.”

“Your secret lovers exist as numbers.” “Here it’s cold by law.” “Your passive mind that thinks perhaps my ship’s come in.” “False happiness is on the rise.” All lines from the new album, all copies of which are equipped with a lyric zine made by Casey, who also does all of the band’s artwork.

“Something Joe’s really good at is taking some really small thing that happened or some joke that we made and then just morphing it into something much bigger and making it just apply to something way broader,” says Ahee. “It’s funny to find out the origin of something.”

The new album’s first single “Why Does It Shake?”, which takes its title from something Casey’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s, said. Early press about the song says it’s about his mother. Casey explains that he did get the phrase from his mom, but in fact it isn’t about her and he is applying the phrase in different contexts. “A lot of the origins are weird,” says Casey. “That’s why I hate describing exactly what a song is about. Cause it’s less specific, it’s more just like a mix of different things.”

 “I feel like Under Color was a way different direction than No Passion, All Technique,” says Ahee. “The first one felt like a blast of punk. It was a very direct, at times almost garage rock-y record. For the second album I think we threw that out the window, and didn’t put any mind into trying to make songs that people could chant to and throw their fists in the air - not that anyone ever did that, much to Joe’s dismay. I feel like this one is combining the approach of those two and just tightening it up.”

“The first album had a lot of songs about the world being fucked and violence around every corner, and I was reading [Dante’s] the Inferno so I was really trying to put that kind of imagery in it - like Hell,” says Casey. “So I like to say this one’s the Purgatorio. It’s the next stage up. It’s more about internal - not necessarily bad people - but mental states more than the outside world. That’s a cheesy way to put it but that’s kind of what I was going for. Whereas the other one’s about, ‘You can die young,’ this one’s about, ‘You can live a long and happy life, but who are you through the different stages of your life?’

The album builds up to the band’s longest song to date: “Ellen,” the emotional center of the record. It’s the only one so far you could really call a love song – sung from the perspective of Casey’s deceased father to his mother.

“It’s nothing like anything we’ve ever written,” says Ahee. “It was unclear until we finished it if it would even work. It wasn’t until Joe laid down the vocal that it was a song that was good and sounded like Protomartyr. But up until then it was like, this song might be terrible.”

Casey didn’t have the lyrics totally written. “I said I’d worry about the second part later,” he says. “I was like, ‘I can probably get away with just Joe Casey-ing it.’ But then I was like, ‘Fuck, I can’t. I’m gonna have to try to sing.’” Casey as crooner.

“[Engineer] Bill [Skibbe] looped the song, and the three of us are with Bill in the control room, and Joe is just singing it over and over again for like 45 minutes,” remembers Ahee. “And we were just talking and not paying attention and finally we hear the melody and we’re like, ‘Oh shit!’ It was like the dumb movie biopic moment. ‘Do that again!’ In the words of Bill Skibbe, ‘Song went from shit to hit.’”

“These guys wrote a really beautiful piece of music so I [couldn’t] shit all over it,” says Casey. “I can’t go in there and say my usual nonsense that has some arcane meaning. I wanted it to be pretty emotionally direct.” It works.

“We knew first it was gonna be ‘The Devil In His Youth,’” he says of the opening track. “I like the fact that it talks about youth and then the last song is about Ellen and beyond death, and then the last song is ‘Feast of Stephen’ and it’s like waking up on another day. The cycle of a day.”

“Musically the album is very symmetrical,” says Ahee. “The first and last song have very similar chord progressions. And ‘Ellen’ and ‘Cowards Starve’ do. It’s something that I like to just play with, and it works when it works with what Joe’s doing too. I like it to be just a little bit off, cause if it’s too perfect it becomes a gimmick and it’d be really stupid.”

Their two day record release shows at Marble Bar will be the second and third shows they’ve played in Detroit this year – far less than years past.  These days, a local Protomartyr show is a special event. “I definitely miss being able to play small places and having no one show up,” says Ahee. “That was actually fun. But I get claustrophobic, and I don’t like playing Jumbo’s when you can’t move.”

(Jumbo’s Bar was something of a home base for the band; “Every night at Jumbo’s” is the refrain from a song off their first record. For several years, the band hosted annual shows there the day after Christmas, but the last couple years have gotten out of hand – addressed on the new album’s “Pontiac 87.”)

If all goes well, they hope the spend most of the next year on the road. They laugh their way through tales of almost getting murdered for breaking someone’s skateboard in North Carolina, being trapped on a malfunctioning ferry causing all passengers to get massively seasick en route from England to France, and getting robbed in Barcelona. “But I love all this stuff,” Ahee assures me. “That’s what makes touring great. Not at the time, but looking back.”

 “Things have changed for the band,” says Casey. “There’s more people coming out. There’s sometimes people singing along, which is disturbing. But you come back home and nothing’s changed there.” The band’s glamorous jobs include working the door at a comedy club and at one of their family’s jewelry stores.

The little down time they’ve had lately is driving them a little stir crazy. “I’m just writing every single day still, just any time I can,” says Ahee.

“I view it like a job that I love doing. But any job, there’s gonna be parts that are not fun. Especially if you wanna do it long term you can’t have the mentality that every part is just gonna be a blast, cause it won’t. You’ll get disappointed and you’ll resent it eventually. So if you treat it like a job that you care about, then the stuff that’s not fun you just kind of wash over cause you know it’s just an ends to a mean.”

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