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Second Impressions of Protomartyr

With the release of 'The Agent Intelligent' earlier this year, the Detroit band's experienced the most success of their career. After 2015, what is next?

Joe Casey. Photo by Kevin Shea Adams

Protomartyr, the great white (and one half Lebanese) hope that everyone knows is from Detroit, standing on stage at Santos Party House during the College Music Journal festival, looking suitably unimpressed. Singer Joe Casey looks at the crowd of badge holders, and deadpans, "This is what dreams are made of," but can’t maintain the flat affect. He grimaces and shakes his head as soon as the joke leaves his mouth. (I’m standing next to a Rolling Stone writer off to the side so I too know what it means to have truly made it.) The venue is full enough for a festival that caters to those who tastes are—cough—ephemeral, and even if where I’m standing there’s a 20-something couple making out and another two young bucks with back packs talking louder than the music, it’s still 100 percent less depressing than most CMJ shows I’ve attended. It’s comforting to know that this time around, Protomartyr are getting paid for the majority of their shows. When, a few days later, I ask Greg, guitarist, why, with all the great responses they’ve gotten, they’re even playing CMJ he’ll tell me, “Label wanted us to do it. Great press hasn’t translated to great ticket sales. We’re definitely not above it.”


The word “unassuming” gets used way too much in the Protomartyr press kit—especially for a band that makes music that is so brash, almost vigorous in its contempt—but they are, as people, unassuming. Even if they’re wrong.

I spent time with Protomartyr on the road to promote their third album The Agent Intellect, which would later get accolades from all our friendly and less so competitors and end up on multiple End of Year lists, the week they were in town for the email-exchanging extravaganza. I saw them a couple times, from the sprightly and surly first show at Santos to their last show, at a car wash made vacant by the financial forces we were all complicit in, where the band was in full sunglasses-inside-till-we-can-get-in-the-van-and-get-the-fuck-out mode. Both shows were great for different reasons. Protomartyr, like all the great thinkers of our times, were saying let me out of here before they were born, so “emotionally exhausted” works as well as “burn the place down.”

In between the shows, I went to their hotel, where they shared Sub Pop sponsored beer and floor space with Detroit luminaries like Tweens, Terrible Twos, and Turn to Crime. All the bands knew what reviews each other got. It was off the record and members of Protomartyr asked me about specific critics. (FYI I turned on my peers like the fucking tide. Having a rock band pretend to like me at 5 AM versus defending the practice of music writing? Not even a contest.) We also met for lunch near the Times building because, at this point in Protomartyr’s career, critics give them tours of The New York Times. The rest of the conversations were done over phone, with the final talks done as their remaining dates were canceled on account of Scott Davidson’s father’s sudden death.


It is a small miracle that in 2008 Protomartyr didn’t opt to stick with Greg and Alex’s first band name, Butt Babies. The band shared all the same members (along with Kevin Boyer of Tyvek who stayed in Protomartyr briefly and left amicably) but the songs that were being written with Joe Casey singing and Scott Davidson playing bass were apparently closer cousins to St. Augustine’s predecessors than infants born from the ass. Praise be to Yahweh that we don’t have to wear such embarrassing band shirts to the bar.

It is not a miracle that Protomartyr is successful. Or at least successful by the standards of the bubble of garage rock. Their expectations were low and they surpassed them. And as much as we might like to cheer a band of regular guys making good, it’s not like that’s unheard of. Protomartyr, as a collective, is objectively better looking than Billy Joel. And I’m not trying to hurt the band’s feelings. They look like me, possibly you, but their “everyman” appeal has been part of the narrative. What separates them from perfectly ordinary looking artists, from Joel to Title Fight or Joyce Manor, is that they succeeded without songs telling the Everyman that he is alright, jack, and the past was good and potentially so is the future. Pump your fist, fellow uggos, at your own peril. Joe Casey’s idea of inspirational is “When I say ‘there’s no hope’ I think that’s kind of nice because why worry about it.”


I don't have the numbers handy but I'd be willing to bet that there are more dead people who like rock music than living so I don't know that you can really call it a young person’s game. It's for the old or prematurely old people, men and woman still willing to hold a corpse in their mouth like a cigarette, hoping it still looks cool to someone. But myths are handy so if one wants to pretend that the singer of Protomartyr, at 38, ten years senior his band mates, is the anomaly in the band, that’s fine. But the stories so far have focused on Joe Casey and his lyrics to the detriment of the, fuck it I’m a fan, dynamo, that backs him.

It’s understandable why people focus on Casey. He’s the singer. The locus. The Karen O. And his lyrics, in a time of lyrics written for diaries or memes, are good. His mini-narratives of the denizens of Jumbo’s bar in Detroit have led to families making pilgrimages to the bar where the delighted staff shows them “where Joe Sits!” Whether it’s the “Sharp mind, eternal youth / I’ll be the first to never die / Nice thought / And I’m never gonna lose it” of Why Does It Shake?, wry existentialism pronounced by Casey like he’s just gone through a particularly bad break-up with his philosophy professor or the more specific Jumbo’s Bar narrative of "Pontiac 87," that now (somewhat) famously ends with the mantra/affirmation: “There’s no use being sad about it / What’s the point of crying about it?” Casey has a talent for drawing the listener in, introducing them around, leaving them to fend for themselves.


Greg Ahee. Photo by Kevin Shea Adams

And writing about music is hard so when Greg complains (while berating himself for being ungrateful) that, “Sometimes when people do talk about music, they could just be talking about a book. You don’t even know it’s music. I like when they give it sort context but sometime s when people talk about Joe they don’t even talk about his voice, just lyrics and that’s it. So why not just review the lyrics” And Joe adds that “it’s like reviewing a movie and only talking about the script;” it’s easy to get defensive. But they’re correct. Because he’s the singer and because he has an interesting story (working the door at a comedy club in Detroit, moving in with his ailing born-on-a-kitchen-table-in-Detroit mother after the death of his beloved father, joining band to save his own life), Joe Casey is often interchangeable with the band and it’s music.

We’re living in time of emotionalism in the arts being held in the highest regard. Punks recite diary or Springsteen-esque we’re-all-fucking-on-this-tilt-a-whirl-together pablum. Pleasant journeymen like Father John Misty are actually considered arch and witty for having a couple Nilsson albums in their closet. There are essays (that I haven’t and won’t read) talking about what a great time it is for music about our feelings. First person, and I’m as guilty as the rest in this regard, is king/queen. We all got stories now and we sure as shit are going to tell them. I’m not a scientist so I don’t know why legions of writers, born comparatively wealthy at the tail end of Empire, their sneakers firmly on the throat of the rest of the world, feel the need to be told by rock bands that they’re underdogs who deserve happiness. I don’t know that we do. So while writers and fans alike seem intent on making the Protomartyr story a redemption tale of either Joe Casey or Detroit or both, the band, while maintaining fierce Detroit pride, reject both narratives.


On Detroit: “The Detroit crutch is one thing. People always want to get your opinion about Detroit, ask about Detroit, treat Detroit like this rare object that must be dissected by the band. But we also realize that a lot of people wouldn’t give a shit about us if we weren’t from Detroit.” On advantages of being late to the game: “I totally missed that period where I really thought that I needed to be cool. I would have chased a sound specifically or really tried to write lyrics where I’m such a bad ass or I get so much pussy. Avoiding all that, I feel like I’m more honest now. Maybe that’s why people think it so depressing. I’m not very great. And I’m not a cool guy. I think it’s great that I missed that…I’m not saying I recommend not starting a band till you’re in your thirties.” On whether Joe Casey likes books: “Do I like books? Yes I do.”

So everyone will just have to save himself or herself. The appeal of the lyrics of Protomartyr to me is that they sing a song, without self-conscious flagellation, that attempts to describe the world as it is; dark, mean, rich in temporary pleasures that are perhaps unearned. They are, though avoiding sentimentality, not without hope, or at least (a degree of) sweetness and humor.

Of course, that’s me inflicting my own narrative on the band too.

For many listeners, the emotional high point of The Agent Intellect is “Ellen,” a slow burn where Joe Casey sings, from his father’s point of view, an ode to his mother that ends with “a figure of a comet in the sky/I’ll tear it down for you, babe.” I asked Joe how that weight of feeling works within the rather unsparing worldview of most of his lyrics and if maybe his father’s romantic nature skipped a generation. “My father was neither overly sentimental nor stoic. He was quiet and seemed to enjoy life even though he had some hardships. My mother was always positive, but not in a smarmy way. The romantic tinge to a song like Ellen is only my fictional edition. They were never particularly romantic to each other, but I never questioned that they loved each other. It was unspoken. I'd like to think my dad's worldview was fairly unsparing, but he would have been the kind of guy to fill a child with honest hope. If I ever had kids I would probably do the same.”


Since his DUI arrest a few years back (the resulting probation rituals are dealt with in I Forgive You), Casey has calmed down the drinking considerably. “One or two drinks beforehand helps. I used to have get pretty shitty before I’d get on stage. I don’t have that level of nervousness…but being able to have one or two drinks beforehand is always nice.”

When I ask if he ever gets people who prefer him as a drunk frontman, he says, “The band hated me. I thought it was normal that you don’t remember your own lyrics and it’s normal to come in at the wrong time. It’s great! I love it! Having a great time. The band is like, ‘jeez you can’t do that anymore’ and at first I was like ‘my muse! I’ll lose my muse!’ but…no. The good thing for me is I started so late that I realized off the bat that I can’t writhe around on the floor, I can’t jump around, go into the crowd, that sort of drunkenness. I realized that if I’m still going to be in a band I can’t be known as this crazy frontman ‘cause I’m already feeling tired.”

Before this turns into a rendition of “Joe Casey (38), singer of Protomartyr, has had a sad, sad life,” let’s take a moment to, in the spirit of old Animals and Zombies record covers, look into the young(er) men of Protomartyr. Just some sexy, sexy info to scrawl on the cover of your trapper keeper or jeans.

Alex Leonard. Photo by Kevin Shea Adams.

Alex Leonard (29) is the drummer. He works for Ford. His mother is an interior decorator. His dad is the crime author Peter Leonard. His grandfather is Elmore Leonard (the band jokes that he makes them watch The Big Bounce whenever it’s on). He started playing drums when his grandma gave him a little money and he spent it on a drum kit. “My parents were yelling at me like get a job, it was the recession and I was like ‘I’m applying! Get off my back!’ and then it makes no sense but we started making music in the basement, loud drums and guitar, and my parents didn’t yell at me more they were like ‘sounds pretty good.’ So it somehow got them off my back. They were weirdly supportive.” When asked who his favorite drummer is, he begged off any obvious classic rock luminaries and instead said the drummer of Wild Beasts, whose name he didn’t know (it’s Chris Talbot) but who still changed the way he saw and played the instrument. “He plays in this crazy way. I saw him [in 2010] and I realized that you can do whatever you want.”


This is indicative of what makes Protomartyr special. They are playing a genre where they could easily thrive purely as revivalists but choose to actively engage with their contemporaries.

That’s driven home by guitarist, Greg Ahee (29 and the half-Lebanese element mentioned before), who sites Johnny Marr and Isaac Brock as early influences on his guitar playing but is effusive on the merits of peers Spraypaint. “I am constantly trying to rip them off. I liked punk growing up because it was easy to play and I wasn’t good. Then you try to push it as far as it will go. I like guitarists that, maybe without great dexterity or knowing a traditional way of playing guitar, can push the limits and make interesting sounds.” His love of Swans is also a huge influence. His father, like his father before him, is a jeweler who started their business in a Detroit bowling alley (the more press the band gets, the easier it is for Greg to get time off). Greg worked as a janitor in the family business until a position opened up, designing 3D printing of wax models of jewelry that is then cast, that excited him because it “involved not talking to people and just having my headphones on all day.” He would listen to The Best Show and…The Seer by Swans. “They make menial work feel more epic. Which is exciting. The Seer changed everything. Every time I listen to them they blow me the fuck away…I would love it if I could pull that off. Those moments in small doses.


When I ask how offended the band would be if I compared them to The Strokes first album, the band tells me that Alex once made a version of First Impressions of Earth that cut out all the filler. He inverted the colors on the cover and called it Second Impressions of Earth. What might be a small joke also ties into the band’s motif. Like trying to take Swans’ grandiosity and condense it into three minutes and removing the filler and leaving the killer of an under appreciated Strokes album, Greg says, “That’s what we try to do with our own music…what’s boring? What can we cut? What doesn’t need to be here and let’s get it the fuck out of here.” What’s left is the short sharp propulsion that all three of their albums share. Pere Ubu without the Musique Concrete, just the street waves.

The band is rounded out by Scott Davidson (28) on bass. His playing, odd and oddly fluid for a post-punk/garage/whatever band, is so integral to the band that it’s hard to believe that he didn’t start playing till he joined the band. “I bought a bass for 100 dollars when I was 18. Thinking, ‘It should be easy.’ It is very easy. These guys asked if I had a bass. They had shows in my basement, when they had a two-piece. They asked, ‘Do You have a bass? We have a bass amp at our practice space. If you can bring over a bass and you can bring Mario Tennis for Nintendo 64. You have Mario Tennis and a bass? You’re good, dude!’” When I asked what he’d be doing if not for the band, he alternated between “working in an Amazon warehouse” and “if you asked my dad, probably five to ten.” He calls the band his saviors and seems to be less than half-kidding.


It should perhaps be noted here that Protomartyr are not nearly as successful as Billy Joel or Title Fight (or Joyce Manor). Or any other band that will try to sell you a bill of sales other than, as Casey sings on “Pontiac 87,” “What’s the point of being said about it/what’s the point of crying about it?”

The world of modern rock loves warm baths and hand jobs. But us critics sure do love them. Even if we seem to contort ourselves to fit the sentimental narratives of our times. The band does OK. When I asked them about sales the members variously say, “I’m surprised by how many people actually buy our records. I think it’s because they’re older. They don’t want to just get on Spotify.” The label send us emails with all these numbers.” “We’re into art not the commerce.” “We would be into commerce if we understood it.” Joe says, “We have broken even. Which is good. Any money we make goes back into the band can afford a better van, a driver. I cashed one check from the label for like 500 bucks and that’s the only money I’m made from the band. People don’t grasp it. We’re going to tour and come back with no money. We knew it going in. This is not going to be big money maker. Hopefully we get to the point where we can quit our day jobs for a year or two.”

Scott Davidson. Photo by Kevin Shea Adams

I checked with Hardly Art, the label that put out the last two Protomartyr records, and independently with a pal with soundscan access. The combined sales for the last two records are, at this point, a bit over double digit thousands. The danger is of being a rock Carly Rae Jepsen, a roomful of critics trying to convince themselves and the world that this is happening, but these are, by garage rock standards, impressive. (Mind you they're still doing well, well, well below Jepson numbers so maybe we’re all willfully optimistic dopes.) On the possibilities of real money, only possible through syncing their music to an ad or movie or TV show, while Joe has been told that the band is “unsyncable” Greg says, “We have not crossed that bridge. We have not been asked to do ads.” Joe had previously told me, on the same question of what’s they’ll do if approached to sell…anything, “I have no idea what we’re going to do. Old punk rock Joe would be ‘never not in a million years’ but I guess it would depend on how hard up I am. You want to maintain some integrity. The good thing is that we haven’t really been asked. I have no problem being used in a movie or TV show. Shoe commercial probably not?” Greg says at lunch, “Maybe for coffins.”

Protomartyr is perhaps, outside of hoping for a meager living, not financially ambitious. But their dreams, musically, are far larger than most their peers. Being ambitious musically in the spheres of “underground” for lack of a better all-encompassing term, rock, is not a paradox. Besides the aping of The Cynics of many garage bands and the self help arena anthems of many pop-punk and indie bands, lies a third path. And a fourth and a fifth. Most limits on rock are self imposed, often for good reason; it’s fun to fuck around within set confines and I don’t care what they tell you, most prog is boring as shit. But Protomartyr is determined to not be willfully small. Greg talks about switching up how they record with the next record and Joe says, “We want to make big records. I love the garage rock scene, part of it, I think it’s better than most scenes about being accepting of new sounds and not being so orthodox but a lot of those bands make very small records. It’s all one sound and the stakes are pretty low in terms of what they’re writing about…in my mind I still want to make a big record. While being humble about it…maybe it’s an impossible task.”

There are more bands than there are songs. As many terrible bands as there are terrible bartenders, mining the same dead earth and being satisfied with the “good enough.” Without a need to be large, emotionally, philosophically, sonically, it’s maybe a matter of time before an Everyman rock outfit becomes Hold Steady-Ian self parody, the long descent down the staircase of paunch, rawk, and Jesus. Certainly a number of their fans and those who cover the band would be perfectly content with that. It’s hard to stay good in this world. The numbers are against them. The allure of flannel punk nostalgia is everywhere. Better beers, better years, etc.

Like St. Augustine says, remove the fire from thine eyes please, but not yet. So I chose to take the band at their word that the future remains wonderfully unstable, that they remain elbows out, probably kinder than I want them to be but clear eyed all the same, weird enough to fail with dignity but direct enough to survive, and, until mediocrity or death, committed to the impossible task.

Zachary Lipez is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.

Kevin Shea Adams is a photographer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.