Frank Sinatra has a cold, and Protomartyr eats brunch. Sometimes the Detroit four piece might even wait two hours for the privilege, as they did during a recent visit to New York.
Unlike the straight dope on sick Ol’ Blue Eyes, this detail isn’t supposed to reveal a destabilizing vulnerability in the band’s sound or image. But can you picture the guys responsible for opening a “can of post-punk whoop-ass,” on your “positive outlook on life…scalding you” with their “merciless guitar,” setting down their sonic scythes to sip bloody marys and nibble cheese biscuits? Could it be that in our rush to anoint the soundtrack to our crumbling empire we have mistaken bathos for bleakness? Is it possible that we are taking the snarling, feral face of Under Color of Official Right a little too seriously? Ring-a-Ding-Ding!
Yet it is not an accident that Protomartyr’s second LP fits our country’s dire mood. Corporations are too good at their jobs and our public servants aren’t doing theirs. The band’s hometown considered liquidating its stock of fine art to pay for street lights and ambulances, a metaphor for capitalism’s triumph over the human spirit that would be hilarious if it wasn’t true.
So when singer Joe Casey and his drab blue blazer and guidance counselor slacks amble over to the mic, you are transfixed. He can drone the words “Lawyers, and murders,” with equal amounts of modulated meter and Budweiser breath that imbue a type of raw credibility typically reserved for real poets and raving prophets.
But prophets buy into their own bullshit, and Protomartyr thankfully does not. Far from being a cog in the Indie Inevitability Machine, they look uncomfortable performing in car commercials. They are genuinely surprised when more than a dozen people want to buy their album after a show. They are at the peak of their power and on the cusp of deeper acclaim but remain gracious and humble and funny.
I’m not sure what I expected when I asked them what they had done on a warm spring day in New York before their show at Cake Shop (hang an effigy in front of the Stock Exchange?) but this is how I learned of their brunch outing in Williamsburg. I joked that the entire interview was going to be about brunch.
Scott Davidson, the band’s bass player who makes a living flipping records on ebay and seems genuinely thrilled to be alive, was ready: “I’m the over medium guy, this is scrambled Greg, we’ve got over-easy Alex, and hard-boiled Joe.”
All the reviewers seems to think this album is great but also a huge bummer.
Joe Casey: We talked about this in the van, because we read the reviews. It’s very hard to articulate. I’ve got a very bleak world view, but I’m happy about it. Bad things happen and that’s just life. Instead of being depressed, you can write songs and make jokes about it.
Greg Ahee: That’s not really a bleak world view though.
Joe: No it’s not.
Scott: It’s just a story he happens to know because things happen to him.
Joe: Some people read it as bleak but there’s a lot of jokes on the album, a lot of goofy shit on it.
Greg: I think people like to make the connection with Detroit and Detroit’s bleak, and so some of the lyrical content’s bleak, so altogether we’re a really bleak band. But that’s not the case.
Alex Leonard: If were were from some other city–
Greg: If we were from LA I don’t think people would be saying that.
Joe: “The beach tunes of Protomartyr.”
How much of Detroit informs your sound? Would you really have made this album if you were from LA?
Joe: I think we’d make this album if we’d lived anywhere in the Midwest. I’ve been to a lot of places there and they’re all very similar to Detroit. Detroit’s got a pretty good—I wouldn’t even call it a punk scene, it’s more of a cheap rock scene in a sense. Rent is cheap, bars are cheap, drinks are cheap, and that allows you to make the sound.
Greg: I think musically it doesn’t matter, we would have made this no matter where we’re from because what we’re doing is not informed by any regional sound. It’s just stuff we like. I don’t think Detroit really plays a part in it.
Joe: Maybe it has a Midwest temperament.
What is the Midwest Temperament?
Joe: Yeah, frustration, but trying to escape boredom. Not thinking too highly of yourself, in a good way, not like, ‘I’m a piece of shit,’ but–
Joe: Yeah, we’re the most modest people in the world!
There are lots of literary and historical references on this album. It has an academic feel to it, especially the title. It sounds like a treatise from the Enlightenment.
Joe: I like weird phrases that exist in the world. So when Kwame Kilpatrick, our mayor, was indicted for corruption, that’s the phrase they used. That’s the law. He committed “crimes under color of official right” because he was the mayor. So people on the news would use that kind of weird phrase. And they repeated it every time they read off all the charges, they repeated it over and over. “Under Color Of Official Right.” So I said, 'I like that phrase.'
Alex: That’s Detroit specific for sure. It’s also like a kind of riddle, which is something Joe likes to do.
Joe: Yeah I like little riddles and weird turns of phrase.
Alex: There’s not one way to listen to it. I think it’s cool that there’s different layers or influences and references. But if you just like the song, that’s obviously fine too.
Joe: If you do what you’re doing and if people don’t understand it, that’s fine. You should never write music that you have to read references in order to “get it.” Music is primarily in the ear, and that’s completely separate from a certain part of your brain. I like adding a little extra meat to it, but if you don’t give a shit, that’s fine.
Greg: I like stuff where something about it can be immediately accessible, but that you can always dig deeper over multiple listens, or multiple viewings, or whatever kind of art you’re talking about. With us, since we have multiple songwriters, so we hope that it gives it more density than just one simpler vision. There’s just a little more going on.
Joe: These guys are writing music that is so, I think, catchy and memorable, that allows me to come up with weirder lyrics to go on top of it, and it’s not off-putting.
Tarpian Rock is a pun, but it’s also real place.
Joe: That’s the thing. I read about it, and I thought, I’m pissed off, there’s people I’d like to punish. [Laughs] As you’re writing the lyrics the music comes together—to be serious about that would be ridiculous. That kind of anger you can’t be serious about.
Greg: Well, you can be serious. “Credit card users” should die.
Alex: Ants in the bathtub! Throw them off the fucking rock.
Greg: Murder them.
Scott: Recent memories!
Greg: Shot counters. Those things deserve to fucking die.
Joe: Yeah, I hate shot counters. Terrible bartenders.
Greg: That’s about as literal as you can get.
What are shot counters?
Scott: They stop the alcohol from being poured after a shot comes out. They’re at a lot of corporate restaurants, like Applebee’s.
Oh, like those plastic ones you see on bottles in Europe. I’ve never seen one in New York.
Joe: There’s the cheap plastic ones, but there’s also really a scientific one that actually has an electronic sensor that delivers information to a computer. It records how much profit is made or lost, how much alcohol leaves the bottle. It’s a crime against humanity.
[Nearly in unison]
Alex: Throw that from the rock.
Scott: Throw that from the fucking rock.
Greg: Throw that fuckin’ piece of shit from the fuckin’ rock.
Joe, when you write the lyrics, do you subject them to a democratic process with the rest of the band?
Greg: Not with the lyrics.
Joe: These guys handle the music completely. I can try to give input but I have no musical knowledge. So it’s always like, “Try and make it more, blah blah blah.”
Scott: Sometimes you’ll say, “That part, I like that part.”
Greg: He’s all lyrics. He might have some input on the melody, but generally we handle that, and he handles the words.
Are you hearing Joe’s voice while you’re writing? Or do you guys write completely independently of one another.
Greg: Yeah, I do. Well, I kind of do.
Alex: If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
Greg: Early on I learned the sort of melodies that I like and that I can write. So most of the time I know I can try something, and think that Joe might be able to come up with something cool to match it, and a lot of times he will. Sometimes he won’t, and sometimes he’ll tell me, “Stop this right now.”
Joe: He challenges me sometimes, but he knows—and that’s what I love about it, he knows what I can do and what I can’t do.
There are a lot of interesting shifts in rhythm and tone in this album.
Greg: I get bored of songs that are too repetitive. Don’t get me wrong there are plenty of good songs that are repetitive. But yeah, when I’m writing, I like to change it up. If I’m not engaged in it then I wouldn’t expect anyone else to be.
Alex: Yeah we gotta play these songs hundreds of times. The weirder and more complex they are, the better.
What are you guys reading right now?
Joe: I got a book called The Bad Popes which is a history of all the Bad Popes. And Austin [Brown] from Parquet Courts also gave me The Universal Baseball Association, by Robert Coover. It’s pretty awesome.
Scott: Oh, and Fordlandia. That book is great.
Alex: I’m reading Cuba Libre by Elmore Leonard.
Greg: I’m reading 52-Pickup, also by Elmore Leonard, and just starting James Joyce’s first novel. [Laughs] Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.
What do you make of Joyce?
Greg: I literally just started it, but I know that this one is more accessible than some of his other works. I don’t know if I’m going to dig into Ulysses just yet. It’s early enough to where I’m still reserving judgement.
Alex: I’ve read enough of Finnegans Wake, I hate that book. It’s too much work.
Joe: I give him credit for writing that piece of shit, but. [Shakes head]
That’s how I feel about Joyce. For me, it’s too much intellectual masturbation.
Joe: The fact that he got people to feel that that was great-—he knew, deep down as an Irishman, he knew that was a pisstake. And the fact that he got away with it, that’s great.
Greg: You’re gonna be eating your words when we make our Finnegans Wake.
Joe: Yeah the next album’s gonna be, “Hbahbhbahbhbhbahbah hyup hyup hyup hyup hyup.” Gibberish.
Alex: It’s gonna be all the Germanic languages, combined.
Joe: They just released James Joyce’s love letters to his wife, they’re the filthiest things. They’re terrible.
Greg: He uses the c-word a lot too. He talks about eating her shit.
Joe: He was a filthy, filthy old man. Congratulations.
Greg: Well, now that I’ve said I’m reserving judgement…
Who’s your favorite TV judge? Is it really Judge Mathis? And why?
Joe: Yep. He’s from Detroit. If you listen to his preamble, he’s a kid from the streets, and now he’s a judge—
Scott: That could be a manufactured persona, but.
Joe: No no no.
Joe: He got his law degree from, I believe it was the U of D law school,
Scott: Did he really? Holy shit.
Joe: Yep. And he loves going to parties, if you look online on Ebony magazine, you’ll see him on there. He’s at every single party. Arethra Franklin’s birthday party? He’s there. He goes to every single thing.
Have you guys seriously considered leaving Detroit?
Greg: Yeah. Usually the people who say, ‘I’m staying in Detroit ‘til I die,’ usually for one, aren’t from there, didn’t grow up there. And number two they’re usually really unhappy, because they feel like they’re in prison. Just saying that makes me feel trapped. It almost makes the city worse. I love being there, it’s a great place to be, it will always be home. But I’m definitely down to live somewhere else.
Scott: I moved away from Detroit for two years when I was 18, and I could see moving away again. But I really like it, so I don’t know.
Joe: Well it’s D for life, for me. I’m stuck there. I tell these guys to move away.
Protomartyr's Under Color of Official Light is out now on Hardly Art.