A Conversation About Detroit With Protomartyr

Evan Minsker

By Evan Minsker

on 04.03.14 in Features

Wayne County, Michigan, is etched deep into the musical DNA of acid-tongued post-punk quartet Protomartyr. Their 2013 debut album No Passion, All Technique (released by Detroit’s Urinal Cake Records) featured a song called “Jumbo’s,” named after a local bar; “Ypsilanti,” inspired by a book that takes place in a town one county over; and “Feral Cats,” which had lyrics about the city’s abundant broken streetlights. Detroit looms just as large on their new album, Under Color of Official Right. The album’s title, in fact, was inspired by a phrase repeated several times during the 2013 trial of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for extortion and bribery. Their lyrics are as menacing as they are abstract, and their dark wit and tendency toward nihilism is well-suited to the band’s full-bodied, cut-throat attack.

Evan Minsker joined the band for dinner at El Rancho in Detroit’s Mexicantown, where they talked about their hometown, its artistic community and the challenges it’s facing.

You guys used to have a practice space in Russell Industrial Center which used to be a factory that manufactured parts for cars and fighter planes.

Greg Ahee: We had to get rid of it. I miss it, but thank god we got out of there before this winter. We didn’t have any insulation, so it got really, really hot in the summer and really, really cold in the winter. And this winter, I think we would’ve literally died. We wrote short songs because we’d be really cold or really hot, and we just wanted to get the hell out of there. And it was filthy — there would just be beer cans and cigarette butts everywhere. Across the hall, there was this place that was about a million different businesses. At one point, it was a brothel, and that was insane. It couldn’t get any seedier at that point.

Scott Davidson: Dudes would come up on the elevator with crotch-rocket motorcycles and rev ‘em up. It was pretty insane.

Ahee: Now we practice in Scott’s basement, and there’s no brothel in there. Not yet. There’s still time.

Davidson: I’ve got to license it, make it legit.

Ahee: But the vast majority of the new album was definitely written at Russell.

How much of the violence in your lyrics is related to the violence in Detroit?

Joe Casey: A little bit. It’s funny, the song “Violent” really has nothing to do with Detroit. I had some violent things happen to me in Detroit. Mostly what I like is seeing news reports, and noticing how that information’s been filtered, and then filtering it again by writing lyrics about it. It becomes almost like a bedtime story. But it seems like the idea of Detroit, of always having to look over your shoulder and being aware of your surroundings, infects the album.

‘“I don’t think any of us take any direct inspiration from the landscape of the city. I’m not like, ‘That’s very moving. I’m going to channel that into my art.’”’

At the end of “Pagans,” you namedrop Greg Baise (“and from the balcony/ the sound of Greg Baise laughing”), who’s a pretty omnipresent figure at Detroit shows. I don’t know him personally, but I see him everywhere.

Casey: That’s one of the reasons why I namedrop him—he’s always a presence. Alex [Leonard] and Scott go to the film theater downtown — the DFT — and Greg’s always there. You’ll be watching a comedy from the 1930s that isn’t necessarily hilarious —

Davidson: It’s not laugh-out-loud funny.

Casey: — but you’ll still hear Greg in the balcony, laughing. It became this thing where his laugh is very recognizable, on top of which he actually looks kind of like a religious figure or something. So, the idea of Greg being up in the balcony laughing is almost like God looking down on you and laughing.

Is “Scum, Rise!” about a specific incident?

Casey: It’s about bad dads — people our age and younger who are having kids, but you still see them out at the bars. They seem more concerned about themselves than their kids. In the future, when we’re playing some sports bar downtown and our friends come, that’s where their kids will seek revenge on them for being such shitty dads. Originally, I had that title — I had an idea for a song that’s a lot more like, [optimistically] “Hey! Everybody, let’s rise!”

Ahee: Joe has these ideas a lot of times that he just sticks with. When we did that song originally, I was like, “Eh, I don’t like this song.” I just didn’t like the music or whatever. So then we’ll stop it, but Joe likes the concept enough that he’ll write a different song and be like, “This [concept] works for this.”

There are a bunch of bands here that seem to run in the same circles — Tyvek, Timmy Vulgar, all the bands on Urinal Cake Records. Do you feel like you’re a part of a community of artists?

Ahee: Yes and no. It’s probably more complicated than that. All those people are awesome and are good friends of ours. They make incredible music, and I’m happy that there’s diversity in that scene. But because of that, there’s not a clear Detroit sound coming out — at least not one that I can decipher. We’re definitely very supportive of each other. And if you go to a show around here that one of the bands is playing, it’s packed, but it’s always packed with the same group of people. We always go to see each other’s shows — and it’s not even necessarily out of obligation, I don’t think. We enjoy it and we enjoy hanging out. So in that way, yeah, it is a community.

Casey: I think what makes it interesting is that there really is no audience. It seems like a “scene” needs a big audience, and it’s basically just bands communicating with each other. It gives you a lot of freedom where you don’t have to sound exactly like the next band, and that’s good. But yeah, there’s not a lot of people, so you’re really only entertaining yourself in a lot of ways. I’ll talk to “my normal friends,” and I’ll say, “Yeah, I’m going to see Timmy Vulgar.” Nobody in Detroit — these normies — don’t know about Timmy. But you’ll go to Austin or some other place and they all know Timmy Vulgar.

Davidson: Go to Memphis for Gonerfest and Timmy’s on a poster.

Casey: He’s a hero. And that’s not the case in Detroit.

Do you wonder if you’ll cross over to the point where you’ll start playing bigger rooms in Detroit?

Casey: No matter how much people talk about us, at the end of the day, we have kind of an abrasive sound. But I remember — here’s an old fogie story — I remember when the White Stripes were playing the [now-defunct] Gold Dollar and things like that. And then internationally they got huge, so then they got big in Detroit. They played the Masonic Temple, and we got a job as ushers so we could go for free. But seeing your regular rock fan going to that show, you realize, “Oh shit, now they’re big.” I remember a guy with a Kid Rock shirt on at the show. It’s like “Oh, OK.” I don’t think we’re ever gonna have the Kid Rock guy come to our show.

Still, there are a lot of good bands and fine artists working in Detroit. Why do you think people find this area conducive to creative thought?

Casey: Space. There’s lots of room, so you can get a Russell Industrial [practice] situation or someplace else for pretty cheap if you want to.

Ahee: It’s a different perspective for artists that move here, because if you grew up here or grew up in the area, you don’t view your surroundings as “shocking.” I don’t think any of us take any direct inspiration from the landscape of the city. I’m not like, “That’s very moving. I’m going to channel that into my art.”

Would you guys ever consider moving out of Detroit?

Ahee: Yeah, I would.

Davidson: I would.

Ahee: I think Detroit’s always going to be home, but I’m definitely not like, “Oh, I’m staying ’til the end!” I like other cities a lot. I’m sure I’d always come back here. My family still lives in the area.

Casey: I’m kind of wondering, for me, if the window’s closing on whether I could pick up and leave. You guys are still young, you can still do it. But we’re not homers, like “Detroit ’til I die.”

Ahee: Those people are miserable.

Casey: That’s a little bit of what “Son of Dis” is about. I wanted to make fun of people that were moving here and had dumb ideas. But I also wanted to skewer the guy who’s like, “I’ve been here longer,” the know-it-all person who lives here that thinks he’s trapped here or something. Those guys are just as insufferable as people who are like, [cheerful voice] “Hey, we’re gonna do a kickball league!” Which I also hate.

You guys are friends with Parquet Courts, right?

Ahee: Yeah, they’re good friends. Scott’s known them for a while.

Davidson: Yeah, Andrew’s old band Teenage Cool Kids played in my basement many years ago — I used to have shows there.

You guys get lumped in with them and a couple other bands as “literary.” Does that word feel appropriate, or does it read as bullshit to you?

Casey: Well, I’m worried about it, because a lot of times when people describe a band as being literary, they’re kind of insufferable. You’ve got to have stupid in rock ‘n’ roll. People used to say, “Oh yeah, I listen to the Decemberists. They’re so literary.” And I’d be like, “Uh, no thank you.” You can’t just be like, “I’ve read some books, and here’s a weird word that no one knows.” It’s kind of a difficult thing, the balance between stupid and clever.

And you guys and Parquet Courts have a sense of humor, which you don’t get from bands like the Decemberists.

Casey: There are some songs that are about some pretty depressing shit, but if it’s just 14 songs about suicide and murder, I hate that. There’s gotta be some humor. You’ve gotta not take yourself so seriously.

What do you guys do for work?

Casey: I work at a comedy club in Ferndale.

Davidson: I sell records and video games and various shit on eBay.

Ahee: Alex, the drummer, he works for Ford and does graphic design. I work doing design at a jewelry store, and every time we go on tour, I hope they’ll let me come back afterwards. I won’t have very much money.

What do you think of the narrative that Detroit’s “on the rise”?

Casey: Who knows. There’s no way to say. I don’t mind talking about Detroit, but I’m no expert on it.

Ahee: Yeah, we don’t know anything. Whatever direction [the city's] going in, it’s not moving fast. So I don’t know what changes we’ll see in our lifetime. It’s complicated. Detroit’s not as extreme — in terms of being an incredible artist haven versus a complete shithole — as everyone from the outside would probably make you believe. There’s just so much complexity in how it got to where it is, and how it’s gonna move forward. It annoys me when people try to give simple answers.