Some people start bands because of an overwhelming passion for music. Some strap on a guitar because of the conventional wisdom that being in a band creates an irresistible appeal to the opposite sex. When asked why he got into music, Protomartyr vocalist Joe Casey attributes it to one simple thing: "Boredom."
"In Detroit, there's not much to do," Casey tells CityBeat. "So, you go to a couple shithole bars and see what band is playing."
It seems oddly fitting to hear Casey describe the group's origins in such unglamorous terms. To outsiders, Detroit is famous for three things: the auto industry, music and dysfunction. The city has seen a continuous decline in population since the 1950s, as well as diminished economic vitality—highlighted by the U.S. government bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. Detroit has been insolvent since 2007 and, last year, became the largest U.S. city in history to go bankrupt.
Yet, since the 1960s, Detroit has also been one of the most important cities in the country in terms of musical exports. It's famous for giving birth to Motown, the legendary R&B and soul label that rose to prominence in the '60s, as well as for artists ranging from Parliament to Alice Cooper to Ted Nugent. More relevant to the music that Protomartyr makes are noisier acts like The Stooges and MC5, whose meaty guitar riffs essentially created the template for punk rock.
Still, as Casey tells it, very little of Detroit's musical heritage has consciously entered Protomartyr's sonic makeup.
"Growing up, you'd always hear Motown stuff everywhere, but it got to a point where it's really annoying," he says. "If you're in a waiting room [at] a doctor's office, it's Motown. But I remember the radio in the early '80s being really amazing— they'd mix new-wave stuff with electro.
"For other people, [Detroit] has an immediate connotation, a certain sound," he continues. "There's definitely more bands in Detroit that are more Detroit than we are."
Casey, guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson certainly play a style of music that's informed by punk rock, but more akin to the sort that was born in Manchester, England (Joy Division), or Cleveland (Pere Ubu). There's a dark and eerie streak that runs through their unique brand of post-punk on their second album, Under Color of Official Right (released in April via Hardly Art). A propulsive standout like "Scum, Rise!" carries a touch of horror-film atmosphere in its chilling riffs, while "Maidenhead"—inspired by a story about a person who slowly drifts into insanity—carries a quiet tension before exploding into a noisy and raucous chorus.
There's a drive and momentum to the recordings that feels both intense and effortless, and with good reason: The album was recorded in a single weekend at Keyclub in Benton Harbor, Michigan. That's nothing, though, compared with their debut, No Passion All Technique, which was tracked in a scant four hours. Protomartyr works fast.
"We do [work quickly], and that's a good thing, because I'm worried that one day it's going to stop and [we] wouldn't know what to do," Casey says. "We already have enough songs for the next album."
The band's combination of abrasive distortion and reverb-laden post-punk riffs is complemented by Casey's vocals, which range from a deadpan sing-speak to a more dramatic, melancholy croon. And his lyrics tend toward the darkly absurd, whether it's the horrific imagery of "Scum, Rise!" or the laundry list of items to be thrown off a giant rock on "Tarpeian Rock."
Detroit itself is a principal character in Protomartyr's songs. Under Color of Official Right takes its title from the Hobbs Act, a federal corruption and extortion law. That phrase reappears in "Bad Advice," which is about former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who pleaded guilty to felony obstruction-of-justice charges in 2008. More scathing is "Come and See," which begins with the line, "Have you heard the bad news / We're being saved by both coasts." Casey's tone is satirical, but it comes from a very real place.
"It's an interesting time to be in Detroit," Casey says. "We're being run by an emergency manager, and we're bankrupt, and the city's falling apart—has been falling apart for 50, 60 years. Meanwhile, there's also the other side where there's people parachuting in to write op-ed pieces for East Coast magazines. There was a big story a couple years ago where people did a Kickstarter where they're, like, Gonna move to Detroit and fix it up.'
"It's the idea that the future's out of your hands, and you're up to the whims of outside forces."
Protomartyr plays Sunday, May 25, at The Hideout
Protomartyr may not necessarily be a product of any particular Detroit sound, but they're not ones to shy away from their hometown's troubled or sordid past. Yet, amid the darkness or cynicism that permeates many of their songs, Casey shrugs off the idea that they're an overly dark or serious band.
"I'm not necessarily a dark person," he says. "Even at my most depressed or thinking about the most disturbing things, there's a vein of humor running through it. It's a good way to deal with things—to kind of lighten it.
"Nothing's more annoying than listening to an album with 14 dark, depressing songs."