Greg Ahee, shaggy and affable guitarist of the Detroit post-punk band Protomartyr, suggested that headline up there. We were drinking beers and bloody marys at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, in the backyard of a Brooklyn bar whose recent history doubles as a parable of gentrification and failed aspirations—one that could have been pulled from a Protomartyr song. First it was a cheap place to eat, serving no-nonsense Caribbean food to a community of locals. Next it became a critically acclaimed dinner spot, with a beloved young chef running the kitchen. Then, when it became clear that even recent transplants to the area couldn’t afford to eat there regularly, the place shut down and yet another new owner swept in, remaking it as a scrappy dive where domestic lagers flow freely, albeit with one hipstery affectation: they kept the original facade of the first restaurant and most of the name of the second, summoning ghosts of good taste and working-class grit that had long since fled to other neighborhoods.
Wary of the media coverage that has steadily increased with each record since their raw 2012 debut No Passion All Technique, Protomartyr (that’s singer Joe Casey, bassist Scott Davidson, drummer Alex Leonard, and Ahee) were bantering about their ideal title for the article they were half-begrudgingly subjecting themselves to with this interview. They knew that a nonexistent line of branded fetish equipment was an unlikely angle for a story about their band, which released Relatives in Descent, its fourth album of boozily intellectual rock songs, last Friday, Sept. 29. But they were fixated on sex as an antidote to another sort of headline that they’re sick of reading about themselves: “Protomartyr: Doesn’t Like Trump,” as paraphrased by Casey.
Protomartyr come from the city that is the capital of Rust Belt deindustrialization and decline in the American imagination. They have a strong opinionated streak, and occasionally political lyrics. “The Devil in His Youth,” a song from their last album, which describes a privileged suburban boy who loves “simulated games” and grows into a violently imperious adult, has been retrofitted by fans and fellow musicians alike as a kind of preemptive strike on Trumpism. Thanks to all that, like plenty of other artists, Protomartyr are learning to navigate standing against the president without succumbing to meaningless posturing or allowing their entire existence to be reduced to a #Resistance hashtag. “Eminem at a concert in Europe was like ‘Fuck Trump,’ and people are like ‘Yeah! Eminem is my hero,’” Casey said at one point, sounding dejected. “But no, the whole idea is entertainers shouldn’t be your heroes. Same goes with us.”
Relatives in Descent is largely about the precarious nature of truth and reality, a subject that should not be unfamiliar to anyone who paid attention to the 2016 presidential race. But the album doesn’t feel shallow or polemical, in part because Casey is interested in personal as well as political distortions of the world’s fabric, avoiding the obvious condemnations of fake news and alternative facts. Musically, Relatives does not represent a grand departure from Protomartyr’s alternately rowdy and brooding established sound, but an incremental increase in scope, the product of a patient and hardworking band that would rather refine its craft slowly than blow it all up and start over. Songs build to searing climaxes rather than showing their hands right away, and many feature violin parts written by Ahee, who was inspired by the string arrangements on the Raincoats’ 1981 art-punk classic Odyshape, as well as Mica Levi’s original score for the 2013 film Under the Skin.
On opener “A Private Understanding,” Protomartyr sound like the National’s angry black sheep cousins from the Midwest, ranting to a disinterested audience at a sophisticated wine party. Leonard propels the song forward with a slightly off-kilter beat while Casey tells a surreal-but-true story from Elvis Presley’s final days: the rock’n’roll legend drives through the Arizona desert in a camper van and sees the face of Joseph Stalin in the clouds, then smiles as the wind blows and it slowly changes into an image of “his smiling lord,” Jesus Christ.
“The Chuckler”’s warped perceptions aren’t quite so hallucinatory. “You say your name is Laszlo; I don’t think that is true / Because I know a Laszlo, and he doesn’t sound half as smart as you,” Casey deadpans in the second verse.
“Someone in conversation can say ‘All Laszlos are dumb,’” he explained at the bar. “Where did you get that idea? ‘Well, it’s my personal belief, and I go through life believing that.’ Everybody does some version of that.” He went on: “That was a lyric that we had to change, because I was initially making fun of Alex [Leonard]. But it’s too common of a name. Now we can’t play Hungary, because hundreds of Laszlos in the audience will get angry.”
Protomartyr’s songs are often wordy and discursive, suffused with bleak humor and compassion for their down-and-out characters. Their conversational style is similar, though the jokes tend to be a little goofier. At one point, the new album’s lyrical focus on specious claims to objectivity got us talking about the frightening state of the music and news industries. The band momentarily assumed the identities of petulant wannabe rock stars, complaining to their label about a lack of recognition for plainly pathetic sales numbers. “I was looking through Billboard and I didn’t see any congratulatory ads about us,” Leonard muttered in character. “We sold five hundred records, man.” Davidson observed that Rolling Stone no longer includes data about sales and radio play in the back of each issue, as it used to for years. “The fuck triangle pillow: that’s still there, but you can’t figure out what’s top 10 on college radio,” he said. He was referencing Liberator, a line of “adult adventure gear” that credits regular ads in the magazine for the success of its business. This prompted Ahee to suggest the winning headline: “Official Protomartyr Sex Pillows!” Everyone cackled.
Protomartyr has good reason to be skeptical of the media. Thanks to Casey, they’re a band with a strangely compelling hook. At 40, he’s a decade older than every other member. He doesn’t play any instruments, and had never played in a band before meeting Ahee while working as a doorman at a local nightclub. If you were describing Protomartyr to a friend who hadn’t heard them before, you’d probably start with the magnetism he exudes as a sort of pugnacious everyman, both onstage and on-record. But at times, writers treat his presence like a gimmick that threatens to swallow the rest of the band whole. As Stereogum noted in a recent profile, there is a wickedly funny Tumblr devoted entirely to chronicling journalists’ pained attempts to translate Casey’s “unique brand of anti-charisma” into written word. (“One hand in pocket, singing out of side of mouth,” I scribbled in my notes while watching them perform about a week after our interview. “He picks up his drink and looks at it like an old friend he doesn’t quite recognize.”)
There was also the time, before the 2016 election, that Ahee offhandedly opined in a Guardian interview that a potential Trump presidency could “‘give America a kick up the ass. Like, ‘Holy shit, what did we just do?’” The band spent the next few months feeling like they had to answer for his comment.
“Let me be clear, I was talking about how it would be terrible if he got elected, but maybe people would realize we fucked up, and come together,” Ahee explained in our interview. “But since, people have taken it out of context. And just really in interviews with Joe–they’ve never really brought it up with me–people keep asking ‘So Greg has said maybe some good will happen if Trump gets elected.’ And it’s like, fuck, man. I didn’t…,” he trailed off.
“It was like, searching for a silver lining, last summer,” Leonard offered. “It’s a hard thing to stand by.”
“It felt like I’m fake news,” Ahee said. “Fuck.”
After our meeting, Protomartyr would spend hours fielding press requests and meeting with their label before their show at a modest club that night. (A small consolation after an opening slot for their heroes The Fall was canceled due to 60-year-old frontman Mark E. Smith’s medical issues.) Not long ago, they said, they didn’t have a tour manager or publicist, and would have skipped the show’s soundcheck, instead spending the afternoon at the movies, watching It. Though they relish their success, it’s clear that some part of them yearns for their days as Detroit punk lifers, before journalists and listeners treated them like soothsayers about the president, before there was the threat of a conversational misstep turning into a minor controversy. It was around this time that Davidson offered up an even more innocuous headline: “Protomartyr Loves Movies.” Considering the bumper crop of Trump-referencing coverage that has already sprung up around Relatives in Descent, it seemed only fair to give it to him. But we’ve got a business to run here, and even we wouldn’t click on that.