Protomartyr relies on authenticity and stage fright

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

Protomartyr is one of the best bands in Detroit, and now the world is taking notice. The post-punk quartet’s third album, 2015’s “The Agent Intellect,” earned rankings on year-end lists in Spin, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, and the band has seen its crowds grow exponentially since it formed in a bar one boozy night four years ago.

Why is it, then, that music writers still have a hard time describing what makes the band stand out from the crowd?

On the surface, the band seems pretty straightforward. Singer Joe Casey — usually clad in a loose-fitting gray suit and looking slightly disheveled — bellows his sardonic doomsday poetry into the mic while the band (guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson, all roughly 10 years younger than Casey) stirs up a fuzzy, darkly melodic torrent.

To Casey’s puzzlement, he’s been likened by the press to “an inverse Bono,” “a substitute English teacher hungover from a wine and cheese night,” and “the guy who’s always hanging out in any office building’s copy room.” One writer said the group looks like “three scared teens who started a band with their alcoholic uncle.”

“It’s a little weird, but it’s sadly all true. I do look like a ‘Belgian lorry driver,’ ” Casey laughs. “It really surprises me that people can’t get their head around the fact that Scott’s got long hair and Alex has short hair, and they’re in the same band. Like somehow bands have to have uniforms.”

Much has been made of Casey’s apparent nervousness in front of a crowd. He paces the stage with the intensity of a frightened zoo animal, strangling the mic and avoiding eye contact. But here’s the thing: It’s not really an act.

“I still don’t really like doing it, and it still fills me with dread,” Casey says of performing. “I think that’s kind of what keeps me fresh with it, because I’m still struggling with how to sing, and stage fright. I think that translates to people when I’m on stage, that I’m actually caring what I’m doing.”

That kind of authenticity is just as important for Casey as his desire to keep the band pushing forward into new territory. Two adjacent songs on “The Agent Intellect,” “Why Does it Shake?” and “Ellen,” perfectly symbolize the way the band builds on its history with one eye on the future. Both tracks are inspired by Casey’s mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, but while the former trucks in the band’s usual nervy darkness, the latter is the equivalent of a romantic ballad, something they’d never attempted before.

Casey’s vocals and lyrics are more confident than ever on “Ellen.” His rich voice glides gently over the track’s churning rhythm as Casey promises his mother he’ll return her lost memories to her when he meets her in the afterlife.

Casey says he was reluctant to include “Ellen” on the record, but as someone who came to rock ‘n’ roll at an age some musicians start to think about retirement, he knows the value of taking an artistic risk.

“I knew I wanted to sing a song about my mom, but am I going to do that on the fifth or sixth record when people know what we are? No, if I can fit it in, I gotta fit it in,” he says. “You want to make sure you push yourself a little bit and make things different. In the back of your mind you never know how many records you have in you as a band.”

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.


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