Protomartyr: The Wall of Sound
It’s summer 2019 and Protomartyr’s lead singer, Joe Casey, is up late, watching TV—again. The hot Michigan air makes it hard for him to sleep, but, at this point in his life—as he barrels toward his mid-40s—Casey is used to it. He relishes it almost. This particular bout of insomnia has yielded musical inspiration in a weird way that, somehow, is everything his band Protomartyr is about.
“Late at night, the ads get more and more depressing,” he says in his trademark deep, husky, voice. “They’re for jobless old people who don’t have much of a future. There are ads about how you can be buried without leaving a debt when you die, for pain-free catheters, for oxygen tanks. Among all these ‘you’re on your way out’ type ads are the ‘you should start flipping houses for money’ ones. The idea that you could have ‘quick success’ is often repeated in these commercials. [The slogan] ‘ultimate success today’ stuck out.”
That phrase became Casey’s guiding mantra for Protomartyr’s fifth album, Ultimate Success Today, a collection of 10 songs that he describes as being a bunch of ideas that needed “wrapping up.” But the band isn’t winding down by any means. Over the last decade, they’ve slowly amassed a catalog of angsty, angular rock songs that are often described as “post-punk,” and have even drawn comparisons to acts like Wire and The Fall. Another way to classify their sound is “punk psychedelia;” their songs are tinged with an improv attitude in a way that makes it hard to guess what sounds will hit you next.
Casey dresses for the stage in a suit, with no tie—his shirt collar unbuttoned at the top, looking a bit like he’s stumbled out of a wedding reception late at night after a few too many. His bandmates—guitarist Greg Ahee, bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard—are nearly 10 years younger than him.
Far from an overnight success tale, Protomartyr’s rise is a lot like the late-night commercials Casey found himself watching one summer night. Those commercials are often trying to sell a sense of hope to a certain type of desperate person, anxious to grasp onto a Hail Mary, last-minute play that will finally bring their dreams to fruition. Over the course of five albums, Protomartyr has dished out similar feelings—that nothing is simple, that futures are depressing, that past mistakes need to be reckoned with and that the paranoia of insomnia, realized in a burst of guitars and drums, can be wrapped in self-deprecation and honesty.
“Lucky for me, I have a lifestyle where I’m not really expected to wake up the next day,” Casey says. “I feel like I have to run my body ragged to get tired enough to fall asleep—or my brain will make up the difference and start running too fast. That helps you come up with different ideas for songs, but in the long run, it doesn’t make you feel too great. That’s especially true in the summer, when it’s still hot in your room when you finally pass out. My house doesn’t have any air conditioning. It’s a continuous process.”
Protomartyr began in an unlikely fashion—at Menopause the Musical. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2000, Casey didn’t exactly go down a typical career path. His first job out of school was finding land to build new cellphones towers on. He’d go around and pitch the idea to farmers, a rather foreign concept to most people back then.
“I wasn’t very good at it,” Casey recalls. “I was fired from that job for incompetence after about a year.”
From there, Casey worked at comedy clubs before landing a gig as a doorman at the Gem Theater in downtown Detroit. He describes it as a spot where retirees could bus in and grab dinner and a show; his job was to dress up in a suit and tie and take tickets when people would walk into the theater for a production of Menopause the Musical. And he shared that job with his future bandmate Ahee.
“It was a very limited job,” Casey says. “It’s the only job where you can be replaced with a piece of wood—just prop the door open and you’ll be fine.”
Since there are only really two times you need to hold the door during a show—the beginning and end—the new friends had a lot of downtime to get to know one another and talk about music. Ahee also introduced Casey to his high school friend, Leonard.
In 2011, the first iteration of Protomartyr booked time in the studio to track a seven-inch, but ended up recording their debut album, No Passion All Technique in just four hours, according to the description on the band’s Bandcamp page. It’s a raw and messy album in spots, but delivers on Protomartyr’s promise immediately. There’s angst, wit, passion and abrasiveness, all swirling around at once—a true sonic onslaught.
“A lot of people don’t take [music] that seriously—early on, we were like, ‘Let’s practice way more than we have to,’” Casey says. “It was more than just a hobby. We were like, ‘Let’s put the work in and see. Let’s tour as soon as possible.’ Those steps helped us. It wasn’t just dumb luck.”
From there, the band released their second and third albums on the small indie label Hardly Art, 2014’s Under Color of Official Right and 2015’s acclaimed The Agent Intellect. The latter record, which received a Metacritic average score of 85, dove into Casey’s feelings about losing his father to a heart attack and his mother to Alzheimer’s. The songs were emotional—and it was becoming clear that Protomartyr’s music was truly multilayered, both sonically and lyrically.
A Protomartyr song these days is typically constructed in two basic parts: Ahee, Davidson and Leonard will sketch out the music for a song and then turn it over to Casey to write the lyrics. The way words fit into the overall sound of a song is extremely important for the band, and it’s a concept that has become easier over the years—but still something Casey pours over. “I’m getting better at hearing the music for the first time, after the band has already worked at it in a room for a while,” Casey says.
“I’m getting better at having my emotional impression of the music be related to the lyrics. In the past, I would really try to force certain things into a song that didn’t work. The phrasing is the most important thing. When you have the cadence and the way the consonants come out of your mouth down, then it’s easy. It’s a fun game—because the emotion is already there.”
“We have longer, more repetitive sections that drive the song now and we try not to write something that’s boring,” Leonard says of the band’s evolution. “We’re all paranoid about writing boring songs. We are sure that if we play something over and over, then it has to move in a certain way. It’s been about four years since we’ve [focused on] the band full-time. We used to do it in our free time, thinking about it all day at work. Once we quit our jobs, we were like, ‘We can’t squander all this time.’ There’s always a reason to keep approaching it.”
Ultimate Success Today was recorded near Woodstock, N.Y., in a converted church that’s now used as a studio. This time around, though, they were more conscious of playing with song structures: Casey says Ahee got into jazz, especially Herbie Hancock—and in doing so, discovered that Protomartyr songs could be looser. On album opener “Day Without an End,” the band climaxes in a crescendo of paranoia, while on “June 21,” Casey warns, “Don’t go to the BP after dark,” over a driving drum and bass beat as he describes the anxiety of being trapped in a city over summer. And on “Michigan Hammers,” a standout on the album, the band’s immediacy is on full display, as the drums and guitars frantically back Casey’s musings about bar rats, debts, gangs and pills.
“The lyrics are pretty bleak on this one,” Leonard says. “He’s always had a struggle against outside forces—physical ailments seem to be popping up on this album more.”
Right before the country shut down for the pandemic, Protomartyr played a gig in Chicago that, by all accounts, was a phenomenal show. They had recently collaborated with Kelley Deal—who made a guest appearance on their 2018 EP Consolation—and were set to tour with The Breeders guitarist in the spring. This gig was a soft launch of sorts.
“It was the first live show we’d done together after practices and sending ideas back and forth,” Deal recalls. “I thought it went great.”
Deal met Protomartyr years ago at SXSW and connected with them instantly. “They’re just really nice guys,” she says. “Not an asshole in the lot.” It would be years before they’d find time to actually work together—and 2020 was supposed to be a jumping off point in that regard. Though the outing never came to fruition, Deal had already started practicing the Ultimate Success Today material—as well as some songs from Protomartyr’s previous albums—before that lone show.
“It seemed harder for me to get way deep in—it was harder to listen to at first,” she says of the band’s recordings. “I started to learn the songs and understand how they were built—they are so fantastic with tension and release. They keep it right on the edge—they let them build again, and then release. And it doesn’t go down to zero, which is really hard to do. They’re a four-piece, guitar-based rock band. How many times can you find new ways of expressing yourself in that? But they’re so good at it.”
For Casey, the band and most other musicians, live music is now on pause, which has impacted the release of Ultimate Success Today.
“When we talk about touring, it’s always pretty depressing,” Casey says. “We’re going to have to see the true effect of it. It’s only a matter of time until the venues we play will be unable to survive. I worry that touring next year will turn into a luxury item.”
But perhaps the timing is OK for Protomartyr in a weird way. After all, their bleak outlook is something everyone’s grappling with these days. The tension they create through Ahee’s swirling guitars could come across as cathartic, in this time of need—a release of the anger and confusion. A hot Michigan summer without air conditioning could be a metaphor for everything in 2020—sweltering and uncomfortable, with seemingly no end in sight.
“This is the longest break between albums that we have ever had,” Casey says. “In that time, we rereleased our first album because a lot of people hadn’t heard it. Listening to the first album again, I was like, ‘Wow, we really put it on the floor.’ In a weird way, our first record felt like our last record. You’re not expecting a career in music. You’re just trying to do your best.