While the Detroit-based rock band Protomartyr has not yet gathered the next-big-thing kind of hype that can be a blessing or a curse, its 2014 sophomore effort Under Color of Official Right was afforded the imprimatur of media as diverse as NPR, Pitchfork, AllMusic, SPIN, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and The Onion’s A.V. Club. (Its 2012 debut All Passion and No Technique was no slouch in the critical realm either.)
An inspired but by no means derivative musical unit, Protomartyr lead singer Joe Casey delivers the quartet’s lyrics in a somewhat unclear timbre in the spirit (though not sound) of Michael Stipe on early R.E.M. records. Also like those first few albums by Athens, Georgia’s finest, learning what the words are does not always make the meaning of the song much more obvious unless – in the case of Protomartyr – one understands the assorted references to ancient Rome.
Musically, however, the band’s point of departure is far less 1980s American alternative than the frosty soundscapes of Mancunian post-punk. I communicated with Joe Casey via email in advance of Protomartyr’s gig on Sunday April 12 at Club Bohemia, the downstairs section of the Cantab Lounge in Central Square.
Have you played Boston before? If so, do you recall any details of the visit?
Let’s see… I guess it’s been twice now. We played Cambridge last year when we were on tour with Spray Paint. It was some college radio festival in a really old building. There was some spiel about the “politicization of the body” or something after one of the sets so, you know, it was very collegiate. The second time we opened for Parquet Courts at T.T The Bear’s.
Would you say that artists from Detroit were a specifically significant influence on the band, or were they just one among many?
One among many. I think with us, it was less what we wanted to sound like and more what we definitely didn’t want to sound like. Nothing brings a band together better than shit-talking other bands. Having said that, Tyvek was a local band we all liked from the start and were a touchstone for us. I know I wouldn’t be anywhere near a microphone if it wasn’t for my friendship with and my appreciation for that band.
As with The Strokes in the early aughts, critics love to play “Spot the Influence” with your music. Have there been mentions of any specific bands that have surprised you?
A kid at a basement show in Iowa City said we were good because we sounded like “Cake, if they were drunk”. Thanks a lot, you little weasel! Critics, for the most part, stick to the bands that are listed on the one-sheet because they are lazy and unimaginative by nature. I’d rather hear what a kid with zero musical taste thinks we sound like.
Many musicians will say that the words of critics will never hurt them or that they do not care either way. Admit it, though: seeing Under Color of Official Right on so-far and year-end best-of lists by The A.V. Club, Pitchfork, and the Chicago Tribune felt good, right?
It was definitely a surprise. But you learn pretty quickly to take it all with a grain of salt. For instance, some website said I was a “great lyricist”. Okay, wow. I’m feeling pretty full of myself. Then he quotes some of my brilliance: “Shit goes up, shit goes down. What am I? A dead moose?” Well, those are not even close to the lyrics as written and maybe if this guy thinks that’s an example of my beautiful poesy, maybe I shouldn’t walk around with a big head- at least a head that’s no bigger than the one I’ve already been cursed with through genetics.
A former English professor of mine recently expresses his outrage (via Facebook) over Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” being used in a Christian Dior commercial. Would you ever allow—or do you ever expect—a Protomartyr song to play during breaks in one’s favorite television show?
Sure, everybody needs to eat. Those Catheter Cowboy commercials could use some of our flair.
I imagine that seeing Protomartyr at Club Bohemia will be sort of an “I knew them when…” moment. How important is it for you to work your way up to playing venues that are larger but not too large?
A packed small venue will always be better than a half full large venue. Unfortunately a tour has to be financially viable and sometimes those larger, more sterile places can offer more money upfront. A band has to at least break even. Then from there, you need to figure out if you can actually get in the black. If you can do that, you can tour some more. It’s a bum’s game, but I’d rather hustle for a few dollars than leave touring to the rich punk hobbyists.
Who are some of your favorite musicians from Boston?
Well the brothers from Mission of Burma are from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Besides, I’ve always been more of a Sproton Layer boy myself. Ha ha, has anybody ever said that last sentence before? Maybe Jonathan Richman? He’s from Natick, so that’s got to count right? I’ll just say Sean Yeaton from Parquet Courts, because he obsessively Googles himself and he’ll be happy to see his name mentioned in article that doesn’t focus on his stunning lack of hygiene.
The Detroit Tigers have a fearsome line-up at the plate and on the mound again this year. Will they win, or at least make it to the World Series?
In my old age, I just let a Tigers’ season wash over me without expectation. I don’t ever want to become one of those mouth breathers who call into the local sports radio station and hack at the coach for the smallest screw-up. I’ve come close before though, so I have to keep that flabby beast in check. Since we’re touring with Pittsburgh’s finest, The Gotobeds, I’ll say I’m confident that The Pirates will have a good season. They’re my favorite team in the National League. If they can knock around Max Scherzer in Washington D.C., I’ll be happy.
PROTOMARTYR W/ GOTOBEDS AND PHANTOM BRIDGES. SUN 4.12. CLUB BOHEMIA @ CANTAB LOUNGE, 738 MASS AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 617-354-2685. 8PM/$10/21+. FACEBOOK.COM/PROTOMARTYR