Odds are a pretty decent size of the population doesn't know much about the genre known as post-punk. Essentially, it's punk's avant-garde cousin, characterized by dark and melodic undertones and best known through the songs of epic bands like Wire, The Fall, Public Image Ltd. and Gang of Four. In modern times, Detroit's Protomartyr embodies so much of what those bands have done, as their intense songwriting has begun ushering in a new appreciation for the genre.
The opening drums of "A Private Understanding," the first track on Protomartyr's new album and third overall, Relatives In Descent, offer a clue what awaits. The cluster of beats and reverb-soaked guitar are illuminated by singer Joe Casey's laid-back vocal style, hallmarks of the band's unmistakable sound. Their last release, the acclaimed The Agent Intellect, rose to No. 3 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart, solid proof Protomartyr has found their place in a crowded music world, standing out as one of the better new bands in a genre still dominated by big names from more than 20 years ago. The Houston Press was more than happy to chat with Casey about the band's past, the scene in Detroit, and what we can expect from Protomartyr's show on Sunday at The Secret Group (2101 Polk).
Nerding out with a musician over albums you both adore is a wonderful thing. Informed that his band reminds me of the Wire album 154, in that everyone who gets what they're doing is in for the long haul, he replies, "Cool, I love that record. I'll take it." If you're in a post punk band to begin with, there's a pretty good chance that you're a fan of such bands; the strangest thing about Protomartyr is that Casey is known in many circles as a shy and reserved guy. When I ask if it's the ultimate irony that a guy who was known as shy in his twenties would front a band in his thirties, he says "I don't know if it's the ultimate irony, but it definitely wasn't the plan. I suppose it's better than doing nothing."
Fans definitely can't say the four-piece does nothing. In fact for a band that's not super-political, Protomartyr isn't apolitical by any means. Their new record is rife with songs about the election, the water crisis in Flint, and where our country stands today. "Well, you want to speak truthfully about yourself," he says. "You wonder, 'Who am I to speak out?', but the emotions are universal and it's more than a one-emotion issue. Every record we've done has been different, but I just try to keep the message as universal as possible."
The first thing many people notice upon hearing Protomartyr is how much Casey's vocals resemble Mark E. Smith of The Fall. Asked if the band have had any direct influence on him, he replies "super directly."
"I was introduced to them at some point and was a fan for sure, but I was really influenced by local bands like Tyvek," the singer explains. "Tyvek is never by the book. They're loud, kind of like punk with this art element, and because there's always new members they're like a different band with different sounds at their shows.
"Other locals and what they were doing, bands like Human Eye and Frustrations were heavy influences on me too," Casey adds. "But influence can be a weird thing too and sometimes what someone is influenced by doesn't add up. For us, the local scene in Detroit was what influenced us."
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Darker than its predecessors, thematically Relatives In Descent explores the loss of shared truths, certainly an intriguing way to approach making a record. "I think Greg [Ahee], our bandleader, had been listening to The Raincoats' album Odyshape, so that's what he wanted to bring to it," Casey explains. "We've always been called a dark band. You don't want to be known as one type of band, but the election helped me fit the words to the music."
The tension as the group takes its time to gain steam lifts songs like "A Private Understanding," "My Children" and Male Plague" all take the band's sound to a new place compared to previous records. "It's just what comes out," Casey insists. "Greg had mentioned that he wanted violins on it, which I'd think would make most people wonder, 'What the fuck?' But I kinda saw it after some things I had listened to. The game plan when we record is to always get better and experiment a bit, while knowing our strengths as a band. I think [creating] things [that] are really just happy accidents is the best part."
And whether you see what the band does on their records as happy accidents or not, their live shows have garnered them plenty of praise from their expanding fan base. The energy that builds alongside Casey's chill and relaxed demeanor on stage is definitely something to witness. "That chill in me is really just me focusing on not screwing up mixed with an incredible stage fright. I've never been the guy who jumps around and when I went to shows when I was younger, I always stood in the back. Getting a start in a band later in life, I figured I wouldn't have a long period where I could jump around, plus it's best for my onstage demeanor to match who I really am. Guys like Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices) can still do those high kicks but that's not me."
Relatives In Descent is streaming in the usual places, and is available directly from Domino Records. Protomartyr and special guests Flasher and Houston's LaCE perform an all-ages show Sunday, October 22 at The Secret Group. Doors at 8 p.m.; tickets $12 to $15.