2014 was a pinnacle year for Protomartyr. The band released its sophomore album and Hardly Art debut, Under Color Of Official Right, in the spring, which launched them out of the insular Detroit scene in which they’d made themselves a home and into the national gaze. Protomartyr have spoken at length about the uncomfortable reaction they get on tour when people find out they come from a place once considered a hopeless cause and now thought of as an “up-and-comer.” In an earlier interview, vocalist Joe Casey expressed concern that Protomartyr’s song “Jumbo’s,” which he wrote about his favorite bar and released on the band’s debut album, No Passion All Technique, did its own small part to help gentrify the space once the band became more popular. In a segment filmed for MOCAD’s Detroit Stages, the band mentioned hoping that no one would ever ask them “what they think” about Detroit ever again. Detroit is home, and everyone has a complicated relationship with “home.” But Protomartyr’s narrative epicenter doesn’t hover over home anymore; their post-punk clangor is an accumulation of bits and pieces of inspiration picked out of the subconscious and put on display, and their influences are as boundless as their ambition. Under Color Of Official Right was a dark record with a dim, snide light shining through its murk. That light came in the form of Casey’s inimitable slurring, a voice that charred fateful contemplations with his unabashed, winking sense of humor. Today, Protomartyr announce their third album, The Agent Intellect, coming out this fall. Listen to the first single “Why Does It Shake?” and read a Q&A with singer Joe Casey, guitarist Greg Ahee, and drummer Alex Leonard about the making of the new record below.
STEREOGUM: Joe, when you spoke to Chris DeVille last year for a Band To Watch profile, you said the following about your influences:
“I like British post-punk, and stuff like Pere Ubu and things like that, but since I have no musical skills whatsoever, I can’t push that sound because the band is gonna sound like whatever, they have their own influences.”
It’s been just a little over a year since Under Color Of Official Right dropped. Have you found yourself pushing a particular sound now that you’ve had a more accelerated experience working in music?
CASEY: People are still saying a record “dropped” eh? I don’t work in music. The band does the music and I do the yelling. What I said then probably applies more now than ever. I’m a tick and the band is the dog. I’m just holding on and sucking. I can moan that I can’t find anything to rant over the music they come up with, but I’d be worried they’d sack me… or shake me off, in keeping with the tick/dog analogy. There hasn’t been a goofy bit of tune they’ve come up with that I can’t mumble over yet – even though they keep trying. I say, “good luck” to them.
STEREOGUM: In what ways has your collective songwriting process changed since last year? Where did you work out most of the album?
CASEY: For me it’s just a case of shaking the wheat from the chaff. That, or trying to sell the chaff as profound bits of thought. I get the feeling the band is getting better (against my better judgment), so I just try and apply “better” lyrics to their “better” music. They don’t want to be bored and I don’t either. It ends up being a weird combination of doing what I know I can do and trying something new and possibly awful. I never thought I’d sing a song with the word “babe” in it. I have now and I’m surprisingly unabashed.
AHEE: Up until last year, all of our songs were written in our practice space. I only owned one guitar and, unless we were recording or playing live, I only played it in that one room. When we left that space I started composing at home. I guess that I wanted more time to try to hash out song structures and melodies. Turns out, without the pressure of writing everything in a communal setting, most of the stuff that I wrote was still absolute shit. So I wrote hundreds of fragments and skeletons of songs and only brought a small fraction of those to the band to develop. I learned to accept that most of what I write will be unusable and – to stumble Joe’s point home – that the most essential component of songwriting is identifying and eliminating the dregs.
LEONARD: All of our other songs were written in a reverb-drenched practice space. Our new practice room is much more dead, so I think it’s easier to tell when a song doesn’t work. Or maybe it makes it more difficult. Either way it’s different. That, and our busy 2014 tour schedule made us much better at playing our instruments. That for sure contributed to our practice and writing sessions.
STEREOGUM: Who did you record The Agent Intellect with and where?
CASEY: Same place as last time. The Key Club in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
STEREOGUM: Was it a good experience?
CASEY: Well, we felt comfortable, which is a mixed blessing. This time we had roughly seven days to record at Key Club. Last time it was three days. Funnily enough, I feel we put almost the exact amount of work in as we did last time. We knew there would be downtime and scheduled for it. This time, during recording, we only ate La Pita delivery for dinner. That sort of regimented, mundane choice made sense to us at the time.
LEONARD: We knew what to expect this time; how the studio worked, what gear we could count on. And we recorded the new record in the winter, which made our studio time a bit more remote.
STEREOGUM: Can you speak a bit about that recent Kelley Deal collaboration?
CASEY: Both her and her band mate, Mike Montgomery, were a joy to work with. We polished off that song, “Blues Festival” quickly. No fuss, no muss. She’s really funny. She has names and personalities for all her different singing styles.
LEONARD: Yeah, she’s great and so is Mike. His studio was in the back of a dog day care center (it’s moved since). There was a door at the far end of this giant room, and within that door, and another door, was a fully stocked studio setup hidden way back there.
STEREOGUM: Do you have plans to work with her again in the future?
CASEY: If the opportunity arises again, I wouldn’t be against it. My voice can hit the ears like a fog horn, so having her singing on there sweetens it, I feel.
STEREOGUM: When Under Color was getting loads of attention in 2014 there was a lot of talk about Joe feeling too old to be just starting out as the front person in a rock band. Not a lot of time has passed but Protomartyr is a recognizable name now. Do you still feel like an outsider looking in or has reception been so good that age has become a much smaller part of the band’s narrative?
CASEY: I have no idea what this band’s narrative is. I’m hoping it’s one of those boring stories where success keeps falling in the laps of a bunch of morons… like Entourage. I am old. Probably too old for this shit. But what else am I gonna do? I don’t have kids and I don’t have a future. It’s either this or spend my time on the internet logging my opinions on food, politics, and television shows. I’d take being in a barely-known band from Detroit over that fresh hell any day.
AHEE: I’m hoping that the band’s narrative is closer to Ballers. A lot slower-paced and less eventful than Entourage.
LEONARD: Or Entourage: The Movie, a drawn-out, past-its-prime slog that no one asked for. That’s how I think of us.
STEREOGUM: It might seem stale to ask about the effects that the band’s success has had on your personal lives, but something I notice about your earlier interviews is the intense focus placed on your past, particularly Joe’s. There’s a certain level of self-deprecation in some of those responses from a year ago, but I’m curious whether or not success has encouraged a newfound level of confidence.
CASEY: Well, pride is a sin, isn’t it? Having said that, being overly self-deprecating — if not a venal sin, is also a kind of jerk move. But success is an illusion, I think. Failure is a hard fact. So the best thing to do is stay hungry and humble. The only reason there was any focus placed on my past is that’s the only part of my life that I know about. Besides knowing tomorrow is coming, I have no idea what the future will bring, so why bother about it?
AHEE: I was probably more confident in myself before we started this band. Writing and releasing music puts you in a vulnerable position, and vulnerability has an icy way of depleting my self-confidence. I think that my faith in the band has grown, but it’s hard to say. I’ll save the reflections on our “success” and career trajectory for when it bottoms out. Right now, all I can say is that my life is very similar to how it was last year… just with a lot more stress and a lot less sleep.
LEONARD: Confidence, no. I still have the feeling that no one is really paying attention, and that we have to work harder to make it all happen. Like, no matter how much work I’ve put into something that there’s still so much more to do. I kind of feel that way about everything, though.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned in a radio interview that Under Color Of Official Right was named in the wake of Kwame Kilpatrick’s trial. Why did you choose to name its successor The Agent Intellect? Have you been digging into a lot of philosophy lately?
CASEY: No, I have a handful of friends that actually paid good money to study philosophy in college and I can just bug them when I feel the weight of existence pushing my fontanelle in. That was just something I robbed from a book I was reading. Most of the songs seemed to be about the impermanence of self and ideas and etc. So that seemed like a nice blanket name to cover them with. To be honest, I know the deep and lame reasons why each album has the title they do and I’d rather keep it a secret. Maybe someday, someone will figure it all out and they’ll get the special Protomartyr Prize we’ve been keeping for them. So get cracking, fans of lost causes!
STEREOGUM: If you had to reduce this new record to a collection of themes, what would you say inspired its lyrics?
CASEY: Again, it’s all over the map: evil, false pride, lawyer billboards, dust, Matt Ziolkowski, Detroit, mountains, money, Alzheimer’s, death, laughs, eyes, internet bullshit, whatever psychological affliction people have that leads one to act like Samson and pull the walls down on themselves, hatred of babies, drinking, old folks trying to be young, the loss of self, etc. We chucked all that under the title “The Agent Intellect” and hope people get us out of debt by buying it.
STEREOGUM: There’s a deadpan streak of humor in Under Color’s lyricism that I’m hearing less of on The Agent Intellect. Granted, I’ve had way less time with this new album. Am I totally wrong in thinking that this record sounds darker?
CASEY: Humor is a tough thing to put in a song. There’s gotta be a fine balance or you’re tipping over into extra stupid territory. I maybe went a little drier, but the yucks are supposedly still in there. Any song that references a national movie theater chain bar’s regulars or refers to local magnate Mike Illitch as the “pizza king” should probably not be taken 100% straight-faced. I also don’t hate babies as much as it seems on “Feast of Stephen”. Or do I?
STEREOGUM: What thoughts in particular spurned “Why Does It Shake?”
CASEY: That was something my mom said one day out of the blue. I think she was asking about the tremors in her hand. It seemed like a valid question that really didn’t have an easy answer.
STEREOGUM: I know that “Ellen” is named after your mom, that it’s a song about your parents. Does family weave itself in and out of the album on a grand scale naturally?
CASEY: Well, there’s been songs about family on the previous two albums. With “Why Does It Shake?,” I mostly just got the title from mom’s situation. Although I suppose her dealing with a self-destroying disease informed the tone for other songs. With “Ellen,” yeah, I pointedly wanted to write something personal. That came down to the fellas coming up with what I think is an epic piece of music. I could’ve gone two ways with it. I was contemplating going really wordy, to fill up that space with something mundane and left field in counter-point to this beautiful music. Or I could have gone full faux-arena rock, waving digital lighters, bland pomposity to try and supersede the music. Someday I hope to try it! I decided in the end, to go a third way and write a love song, which I swore up and down I would never do so explicitly. It was an interesting bargain (at least to me) to try and make what was a very small and quiet relationship into something that could transcend the passage of time and death. I just hope I did the music a solid.
The Agent Intellect is out 10/9 via Hardly Art.