Protomartyr tour promo pic 2022

A decade ago, Protomartyr emerged from Detroit's underground — three friends in their 20s thrashing out taut, fast, melodic songs, fronted by a stoic, slightly older gentleman, recruited from the neighborhood bar, with an uncannily strong voice and presence. Now, frontman Joe Casey and his colleagues Greg Ahee (guitar), Scott Davidson (bass) and Alex Leonard (drums) are an American post-punk institution. 

In early 2020, the foursome had just wrapped their fifth album Ultimate Success Today and played a triumphant set at a Bernie Sanders rally in their hometown. Casey & Co. drew a huge crowd — and got an amazing soundbite (scan to about 0:58) to remember the experience by. Unbeknownst to them, that would be their last performance for over a year. Domino, the band's label, delayed the record's release for as long as reasonably possible before putting it out into the world that July.

Protomartyr's previous LP, 2017's bracing Relatives in Descent, had been its first consensus classic. Ultimate Success isn't an attempt at a reprise. The songs are longer and weirder, with Casey pushing his customary baritone into higher registers and chief songsmith and free-jazz fanatic Ahee arranging tunes to include howling brass instruments. At the same time, the 10-track collection also includes “Processed by the Boys,” the group's single most straightforward, stadium-worthy cut to date. 

Protomartyr’s current 11-date run’s aim is twofold: to give Ultimate Success the dignity of a proper tour, and to tease its follow-up, recently tracked at Sonic Ranch near El Paso, Texas, and slated to hit stores in May. Protomartyr’s core four will be joined by a ringer on keys and backup vocals for these shows: The Breeders’ Kelley Deal. Ahead of Monday’s gig at The Basement East, which gets local support from rockers The Sewing Club, the Scene caught up with the always-candid Casey via phone from his Northwest Detroit home base.

How are you feeling about tour?

It's not like riding a bike. You have to re-learn how to do it. But it should be fun, especially with Kelley coming with us.

What's the nature of that partnership?

Writing songs with her is so easy and fun, but The Breeders always comes first. Whenever she wants to [join us], she's welcome. She adds a lot to the old songs, too.

I imagine there's sort of a Dayton-Detroit exchange.

If you're from Michigan, you hate Ohio. [Laughs] When you're from this part of America, there's a lot more similarities than differences.

Protomartyr has never had a member change.

Knock on wood. Our first record No Passion All Technique turned 10 a couple weeks ago. I was in my mid-30s then. Now my bandmates are that age. I’d expected them to have wanted families, careers, prospects by now. [Laughs]

This'll be Protomartyr’s first show here since touring Relatives in Descent in 2018. 

We've only played Nashville twice, but seem to bring a curse there. First time: Stone Fox. Second: High Watt. Both gone now. And didn't the place we're playing this time get hit by a tornado?

Basement East — correct. Rebuilt, thankfully. Does that High Watt show feel like four years ago? More? Less?

A lot more, especially with Ultimate Success Today coming out at the height of the pandemic. It might as well have not existed, which is frustrating. It was depressing. People didn't want to hear that at that time. And we couldn't tour it. We'd toured Relatives in Descent a lot, took ’19 off, and had anticipated touring nonstop in 2020. That hurt. 

How did y'all keep busy during 2020? Virtual release shows?

Some bands can pull off Zoom concerts. Not us. Charging people for that was never going to fly. The Bernie rally was a high point of our career. Then we found out that career was fucked, the very same day. [Laughs] 

What was your quarantine experience like?

Miserable. Barely listened to anything. Barely read anything, or wrote anything. Ate too much. Drank too much. For all of us in the band, it wasn't a very creative time. And bands we know being all “Hey, we made an experimental jazz record!” — that got to me. Like, go fuck yourself. [Laughs]

No covers albums for you?

We covered The Stooges early on, and on our split with Preoccupations we covered each other. Beyond that, we've had a longstanding no-covers policy. But we got asked to do something for a French TV series, to play a song from a movie. “Don't Let Go” by En Vogue, from Set It Off, was our pick. Didn't want to cover anything remotely post-punk. Figured it out on the road, and recorded it in Paris. Haven't listened back yet. Hope it turned out OK.

What's Sonic Ranch like?

Right on the border. Interesting place to record. Our pals Cloud Nothings and Parquet Courts both recorded there and liked it. We were there for two weeks, which seems to be our limit. 

Is the vibe of this album as dark as the last one?

A happy Protomartyr record, just as we slide into nuclear war? I'm the king of bad timing. We shall see. [Laughs]

Will we get to hear anything from it on Monday?

We might throw one or two in. Before the last record though, someone recorded a version of a song we hadn't recorded, it got out there, and I hated it so much we never ended up recording it. “Spectators,” it's called. Super-fans claim it's our best song, probably only because it's never come out. 

How's the music community in Detroit doing?

Most venues have survived. Some bands have broken up. Others have reformed. It can be hard to tell. But there's a new crop of young bands playing house shows. Toeheads and Day Residue come to mind. That's exciting to me. Propping up old, tired bands is the death of any scene.

As a baseball fan, got any playoff opinions or predictions?

I'm rooting for the Padres. I like that they're the underdogs. Otherwise? Anybody but the Yankees.

If you're GM of the Detroit Tigers, who finished almost dead last this year, what do you do?

It's been hard. [Late owner] Mike Illitch was a terrible person, but poured a ton of money into gathering talent. Since he died, they've pulled back the budget and raised ticket prices. You can't even smoke anywhere in the stadium, and considering it's named after a fucking bank — Comerica Park — the cashless [policy] pisses me off. Some people do not have smartphones. Detroit is a baseball town. People will come out and see a game if it's affordable and anything close to being a good product. But it hasn't been in at least three or four years. 

Is there anything Tigers-related in Protomartyr's songbook?

On the new album, actually. I'd been curious about the number of living, wild tigers in the world, and learned it hovers around 3,800. Then, I wondered what a baseball team — the Tigers, specifically — might look like in the year 3800. It's a song that really makes you think. [Laughs]

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