Protomartyr Is Post-Punk’s Most Surprising Success Story

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Photo: Courtesy of Protomartyr/Daniel Topete

From time to time, the eardrums of certain Detroit residents, and people in nearby Windsor, Ontario, are assaulted by a curious phenomenon: the low-frequency thrum of an inexplicable noise called the Windsor Hum. Thought to emanate from a factory on nearby Zug Island, the hum is only audible to certain people. Joe Casey, the front man of Detroit post-punk outfit Protomartyr, is not one of them. But that hasn’t stopped him from being fascinated with it. “It’s supposed to be very low, and sound like your refrigerator running very, very loudly or something,” Casey says, over the phone. “Especially now with [all these] national disasters happening, the fact that there’s this very low and ominous tone is almost like a warning or something.” The hum informed an eponymous song on the quartet’s new album, Relatives in Descent, their fourth. As is often the case, Casey’s lyrics on “Windsor Hum” shiver with intelligence undercutting anxiety: “The sound that you’re hearing across the river / Saying ‘everything’s fine,’ he sings cautiously, his words imbued within the band’s nervy, taut instrumentation.

Protomartyr often plumbs the depths of doom, gloom, and conspiracy in their music, yet an exceedingly normal group of human beings comprise this band. When Casey and I first start chatting, there’s hardly an indication that he’s been on tour for weeks with the band, comprised of Greg Ahee on guitars, Alex Leonard drumming, and Scott Davidson on bass. Or that the band recently signed to the indie powerhouse Domino Records. Or that he’s about to play a live-wire riverboat show in Detroit to kick off the album’s release. Instead, he’s talking about being back home in Detroit and catching mice. Not quite what you’d expect from a front man whose band has been given the contemporary post-punk torch to carry. But then again, at one point during our conversation, Casey remarks of his hometown that “the city could be quite fine without a post-punk band.”

The thing is, Protomartyr — so named for the first figure to die for a cause, usually in religion or politics — is unlike any arty, intelligent post-punk band that’s ever become a reference point in musical history, such as Wire, Pere Ubu and the Fall. There is no posturing, and they don’t take themselves too seriously. “Male Plague,” a song on their latest, features them taking the piss out of themselves, and of men today. Yet look no further than a salient line from “Bad Advice,” a number from their 2014 breakout Under Color of Official Right, for what might be Protomartyr’s unofficial mission statement: In it, Casey decrees: “Overconfidence is a parasite!”

Yet it’s that groundedness (coupled with a healthy sense of dread and a commitment to “inscrutable questioning”) that’s led Protomartyr to cultivate a reputation as one of rock music’s tightest and best live bands since they started out in 2010, playing live around the Detroit area on the heels of just two seven-inch singles. Ironically, the band’s biggest quirk lies in that they are not outwardly charismatic. “People are often disappointed when they hear us and think, ‘oh, this is post-punk,’ and when they see us it’s four different guys and — I’ll be the first to say — not very cool-looking,” says Ahee. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It also gives them the opportunity to constantly surprise their audiences. “That kind of subverts the idea of post-punk, that you’re supposed to look cool and European almost,” he adds. “Or the narrative that we’re from Detroit and supposed to be super gritty and represent it in a certain way. So we try and subvert that too.”

The Detroit area, where all four members of Protomartyr grew up, inevitably creeps into their songs. These references range from rollicking odes to a bar named “Jumbo’s” (from their 2013 debut No Passion All Technique) to the emergence of what Casey calls “altruistic capitalism” coming to the city in “Here Is the Thing.” It’s something that’s evolved in real time since Protomartyr formed, he says: “What happened when we first started this band, there was a national article about Detroit saying, ‘Oh it’s a symbol of the American dream dying, the worst city,’ and in the lifetime of the band, it’s become ‘Detroit’s the coolest!’” It’s not like he’s running for mayor of Detroit anytime soon, though. “We’re the voices of ourselves,” Casey says. “We grew up in the city, in this area, so we speak to it, but it’s not like I have any answers on how to fix it or what’s ultimately great about it. Detroit’s story is like that of any other midwestern city. It’s a universal thing. If there’s one thing I want to put across is that the struggle that Detroit is having is the struggle that a lot of people are having all over the place.”

It’s fitting that, on their latest offering, Protomartyr imagine a universe devoid of people sharing a kind of understanding with one another — not unlike the one we live in now. While Ahee gushes about the Raincoats and Mica Levi’s compositions helping shape the dynamic of Relatives in Descent, and Casey cites Robert Burton’s 1600s-era The Anatomy of Melancholy, its biggest undeniable influence is how it feels to live today. “I’m glad some of it was figured out before the election,” Casey says. “It was important to kind of, instead of thinking of the specific things that have happened day after day and day, more tapping into how it makes you feel, the emotional state that you’re in in this period. Where it feels weird to laugh or have a good time. It feels weird to talk about an album when heavy shit is going on. But there’s also the feeling that you have to kind of live your life as well.” Don’t look to them for the solution, though. As Casey puts it: “We’re not geniuses, but we’re really good at second-guessing ourselves.”

Protomartyr Is Post-Punk’s Most Surprising Success Story