Greg Ahee, guitarist for the post-punk band Protomartyr, tells me a quick story. He doesn’t remember exactly when — it was either after the release of the group’s debut album, 2012’s No Passion All Technique, or after their first 7-inch single came out — but he remembers being at a bar with Joe Casey, the foursome’s lead singer and lyricist.
“[Joe] was like, ‘Ah, well, the wheels are in motion now,'” Ahee says over the phone. “He’s like, ‘We’re doing this and we’re doing this till it crashes, basically.’ And I kind of took that to heart. Ever since that moment I’ve been like, ‘What can we do next?’ And I think we’re going to keep doing that until we either get exhausted or we just run out of ideas.”
Right now, Ahee and his bandmates (Casey, bassist Scott Davidson, and drummer Alex Leonard) don’t appear to be on the verge of wearing themselves out — though not for a lack of trying. On October 9, the Detroit outfit will release The Agent Intellect, their third studio album and second for label Hardly Art, following 2014’s (relative) breakout effort, Under Color of Official Right. Coming almost exactly a year and a half after its predecessor, the new LP stands as Protomartyr’s most ambitious and sophisticated full-length to date — the work of a band on the rise, eager to outgrow and outpace itself.
Like Under Color, The Agent Intellect was recorded at the Keyclub Recording Studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan and produced by Bill Skibbe (whose other credits include work with Fucked Up and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion). The upcoming 12-track set plays to Protomartyr’s strengths — their gallows humor and sly way with melody hasn’t dulled — but also tests their limits. Arena rock it’s not, but the new album is by far the biggest record they’ve made to date.
“A lot of times when a punk band wants to make a massive-sounding record, it ends up just sounding like Bruce Springsteen,” Ahee says. “I like a lot of that but that’s not what we were trying to do. We wanted to make a different type of record. Instead of having it be uplifting anthems, [have it] be huge but still disorienting.”
When asked what kinds of influences they were chasing, Ahee — who took the lead on writing the music this time around — mentions that he had the work of no-wave immortals Swans and the discordant strings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey banging around his head. The 29-year-old adds that he enjoys records wherein the songs change shape and melt into one another, and that’s reflected on The Agent Intellect. On a casual listen, it’s easy to lose track of just how deep into the album you are; the lead single, “Why Does It Shake?,” begins as a chest-beating, foot-stomping protest against mortality (“I’ll be the first to never die,” Casey declares) but decays into a dizzying rant on human frailty (“Why does it shake? / The body, the body… / Why does it move? / The fear, the fear…”).
Another track, “Boyce or Boice,” trades its teeth-gritting sneer for a nightclub-groomed croon two-thirds of the way through. “That one,” Ahee says, “I wanted to turn from an aggressive punk song into Bobby Darin after having a few too many drinks and maybe falling down a well.”
But if there’s any one piece that speaks to the band’s significant growth in the past three years, it’s the penultimate number, “Ellen.” At nearly six-and-a-half minutes, it’s the longest track they’ve recorded so far; and with its deeply personal perspective — “Ellen” is named after Casey’s mother, who’s afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and sung from the perspective of his late father, who’s waiting for his wife to join him in the afterlife — it’s an idiosyncratic take on a musical tradition, the love song filtered through Protomartyr’s worldview: tragic but not maudlin, romantic but not saccharine. “We worked on the music for that for maybe a couple months [and] Joe didn’t have a melody for it,” Ahee says. “Forty-five minutes later, we weren’t paying attention and then we hear this melody [from the vocal booth] and we’re like, ‘Oh shit, now it’s a song’… If ‘Ellen’ didn’t connect the way it did, the album would be a lot shorter and I don’t think it would have been as strong overall.”
And as Protomartyr’s repertoire has grown, their audience has as well. “We played Boise, Idaho in 2013 to literally two people,” Ahee says, in another story. “This guy who lived in the house we were playing at and some other guy who, I think, ended up there by accident. When we played there for Under Color there was maybe 75 people and it was like a massive success… anything more than five people and we’re gonna pop champagne.”
Meanwhile, the plan that Ahee mentioned earlier — to keep pushing forward till they crash, or notice diminishing returns — remains intact. “Once we hit that point where we’re going downhill and less and less people show up that’s going to get depressing,” he says. “So hopefully we just keep moving incrementally up, very slowly and it takes ten years till we peak. That is the dream scenario for me. In ten years, when we have 150 people stroll through our show in Boise, Idaho, and then in eleven years, when we have 140? That’s when it’s time to pack it in.”