Writing Gallery


Enormous Echo: An Interview with Protomartyr

For a band whose name brings to mind lofty philosophical ideas and whose music seems to suggest life is an existential void, Protomartyr are a surprisingly modest and friendly group of guys. When they took the stage Saturday, each member incidentally wore only black and singer Joe Casey stubbornly stuck with his trademark rumpled suit on a brutally hot July day, I could understand why they are typically presented as a “dark” group. Their hopeless lyrics and churning music can be as menacing as that of a black metal band, but joy is the greatest emotion to arise out of listening to a band this original and talented. Their music is buried in the rhythm section of Alex Leonard’s drums and Scott Davidson’s bass, which is as overpowering as (and even competitive with) Greg Ahee’s guitar riffs, but their songs contain a certain perverse beauty, peppered with gorgeous pop melodies lost in—and enhanced by—the guitar’s enormous echo. Joe Casey’s quasi-melodic snarl can be both vicious and comic; his lyrics concern the distrust and fear of modern technology and authority, and the feelings of alienation and disappointment that have been prevalent in art since it first began.

Categorized as “post-punk,” a genre that’s been handily applied to British bands from the ’80s onwards, I can hear a great deal of British influence in Joe Casey’s near-cockney grunts, which are reminiscent of those of The Fall singer Mark E. Smith (whom Casey considers an influence). I hear less of the influence of The Stooges and other bands that have made their hometown Detroit one of the great cities for rock n’ roll, but the tough attitude of the Motor City remains in their music.

826 CHICAGO: To start off, can you each tell us what’s your name and what do you play in the band?

JOE CASEY: Sure, I’m Joe and I sing.

ALEX LEONARD: I’m Alex and I play drums.

GREG AHEE: I’m Greg, I play guitar.

SCOTT DAVIDSON: I’m Scott, I play bass.

826 CHICAGO: So, um, what’s the story behind your name, Protomartyr?

J. CASEY: I saw it in a book once and I thought that sounded really cool. So I thought if I ever had a band it would be one of the names I would use.

826 CHICAGO: Does it mean anything?

J. CASEY: It’s whoever’s the first person to die for a cause. Whether it’s religion or politics or something, they call them a protomartyr.

826 CHICAGO: So you guys are from Detroit, so I wanted to ask how the influences of the big Detroit bands from the 60s and 70s, like the Stooges, and the MC5, and the White Stripes...kind of... if they’ve affected your music at all?

G. AHEE: I would say the Stooges for sure, especially like Iggy Pop when he started making solo records. He made a few phenomenal records. That’s definitely a big influence. Not so much, some of the more garage-y stuff. Maybe, at least not directly in sound, but maybe the spirit of it might’ve influenced us.

826 CHICAGO: Yea, there’s kind of a biting aspect to your music that’s kind of there too. And also, a lot of people compare your work to the British post-punk artists, you know. Kind of Joy Division, such and such, and can I ask you guys how you feel about those comparisons?

J. CASEY: Um, some of them are good, some of them are okay, and some of them are more bad, but I understand why people will say “you sound like this.” It’s just to understand it better. Like, I like The Fall, I don’t think we sound like Joy Division but maybe we do, I don’t know.

826 CHICAGO: So what genre would you place yourself in?

J. CASEY: Um, people say post-punk. We don’t, we don’t really think of it at all. We don’t really think of that.

826 CHICAGO: So is there a reason behind you all wearing black onstage, even though it’s very hot outside?

J. CASEY: Well we heard if you sweat, if you’re wearing a white shirt or gray it comes through. If you wear black you can’t see.

A. LEONARD: I don’t think we’ve ever all worn black before today.

J. CASEY: Yea, its weird. But I think we all knew that we were going to sweat a lot, so we don’t usually all dress in black but— we’re a dark band!

826 CHICAGO: You sure you guys don’t want to take your music in a more peppier direction? You think that might earn you a couple more points on P-Fork?

G. AHEE: Thats what its all about, getting more points on Pitchfork, it’s why we do this.

A. LEONARD: Yeah, next time we’ll be in tie dye and like, headbands, and be like, really peppy.

826 CHICAGO: Yeah, how do you feel, like in that vein, how do you feel your music clashes with, like, these summer festivals where a lot of the music is very pop-y and fun and you guys are very, you know, angry.

J. CASEY: Well, I’m not angry, but, uh, it’s funny. You know like, I feel kind of bad for people when we’re bumming them out sometimes. But, I think some of it’s nice, right?

A. LEONARD: Yeah I mean it’s not all angry, I think it's nice.

G. AHEE: Yeah, uh, maybe we’re just so angry we can’t see how angry it is.

S. DAVIDSON: Agreed.

826 CHICAGO: So Joe, why the suit? And do you wear that all the time for your shows?

J. CASEY: Uh, I used to, I wasn’t going to wear it today but then it seemed not as hot as I thought it was. I don’t know why I wear it. Because it’s got pockets, I like putting my hands in my pockets.

826 CHICAGO: So how do you feel about the crowd and Pitchfork compared to other venues you’ve played at?

A. LEONARD: I think it’s been good, everyone’s been liking—

G. AHEE: Yeah, the crowd has been nice. We shy away from crowds, but, uh, the crowds here have been nice.

J. CASEY: It was nice to look out and see smiling faces, always good.

G. AHEE: See, we’re not that angry!

S. DAVIDSON: I love the crowd.

826 CHICAGO: What are your favorite kind of venues to play at?

J. CASEY: Well, we used to like playing small places because then they’d get packed up. Um, we used to play at a place in Detroit, but then it got too crowded, so thats kind of sad. So we like bigger places. Not like, when it’s so big it's a little overwhelming.

G. AHEE: I’m excited to play Schubas tonight, thats where we’re playing aftershow. I’ve never played there; hear its great. Uh, we tend to like club shows. Mid-level club shows where people don't...I tend to get claustrophobic, so when there’s a lot of people around I get uncomfortable, so if there’s a little bit of space.

826 CHICAGO: Are you guys planning on taking your sound in any new direction anytime soon? Or are you sticking with...kind of...what exactly is going on with Protomartyr in that regard?

G. AHEE: I don’t know if we consciously try to, like I think we’re doing... our next record that is going to come out is going to do a lot of new stuff. Because our first and second records are pretty different, the new one is going to, we like to try new things and be a little bit uncomfortable sometimes. Because otherwise it gets boring, so. I think we’ll continue to add in different things to the sound, and maybe just change it up completely.

826 CHICAGO: Ok, this is Elliot signing off—any last comments about the festival?

G. AHEE: Uh, it’s raining, pouring!

J. CASEY: Bring a poncho to Pitchfork.

826 CHICAGO: There you have it!

On the Block

I remember the time my friend was shot in the back of his shoulder. It was a beautiful day. The sun was out and we had just finished getting out of school. I waited for my friends in the foyer, like every other day. It usually took five to ten minutes for all of us to get together. We all greeted each other with high fives and shook up with each other. We were also talking about where we were going to go and what we wanted to do that day. We discussed it while we walked outside the school. It didn't take long for us to decide to go to our friend Joaquin's house first to drop off our book bags and get some money for food.

My friend Joaquin lived two blocks away from school, in a primarily Mexican neighborhood. It was a very dangerous area with a lot of gang violence. Well, it just so happens that Joaquin's house and our school are on a borderline between two rival gangs. If you belonged on one side of the boulevard you were considred part of one gang,but if you lived on the other side of the boulevard you were considered part of the other gang.  Well, I guess one of my friends, Victor, had problems with a kid from the other side of the boulevard.

So, this kid from the other side was yelling at the top of his lungs, telling us we were going to get caught lacking, shouting about his gang, and swearing at us all at the same time. We were not paying attention to him because he had a reputation of being someone who only talked but did not act. Well, this day his reputation and our thoughts about him were surely going to change.

We had just gotten pizza and were walking down the boulevard, talking about the food, girls, and if the kid really meant what he said. We watched our backs as we approached Joaquin's house. We were on the corner of his block (his house was on the corner) when we saw a group of maybe fifteen to twenty people wearing black and gold yelling about their gang and swearing at us.

We saw them moving towards us but we did not hesitate to respond. While my boys Jose and Sebastian were getting nervous and telling the squad to leave them alone. But the squad did not listen. I was in the middle of this trying to control my anger but trying to make sure they were safe. I looked at the other side of the street, and a young man pulled out a gun.

We all knew we were screwed. We ran towards Joaquin’s house when out of nowhere BAM, BAM, BAM! Shots were fired towards us. We all dropped to the ground and tried to get some type of shielding at Joaquin’s house ­—but it was too late. My friend has been shot in the back of his shoulder. We turned to the group, but they were gone—no one in sight. So we picked my friend up off the sidewalk and into the grassy area. He was crying and telling us the pain he was going through at that moment. We called the ambulance and they arrived shortly after the call. They checked all of us to make sure we were okay and took our friend in the ambulance. We did not see him until the very next day. He came to school with a shoulder­-type cast and told us he was okay. We went on as if nothing had ever happened.

Ever since this happened, we started to experience more terrifying moments that it got to the point where it became common to the gang members. Yet, I chose not get involved in anything that had to do with gang-related activity. When I graduated, I chose to move away from the area for a better and safer life. Now I barely talk to my friends and we have gone our separate ways.

The Very Evil Rat

THE VERY EVIL RAT was near the garage in his VERY EVIL LAIR (which was a bush). The rat was as big as a stuffed up pencil case. The rat was brownish­whitish (like an oak tree).

What I remembered the most about the scene was that I met the VERY EVIL RAT when I was leaving the front door going to school in fifth grade in LORCA SCHOOL (which is my old school now).  But I only appeared to see just the head of the VERY EVIL RAT, so that meant that I really didn’t get to see the whole body (I estimated the size) of the VERY EVIL RAT. The VERY EVIL RAT was hiding behind his VERY EVIL LAIR (which was a bush) right next to the garage door watching me.

The VERY EVIL RAT SCARED me so I had to throw my backpack to the concrete floor so I could run inside the house way FASTER and look if it was still there. Then I waited for my family to go first. So I could survive.


Once upon a time it was a Tuesday and the earth started to shake—and morse specifically, my land broke in half. I felt like I had a very upset hole in my heart. I was worried about everyone! But, it wasn't going to be like that anymore: I fixed it with my best buds. It was so hard because we had to fix streets, buildings, and houses. So it was like we were building a new Zuniguga. It looke so big; it looked like it was a whole world. It was as big as a gigantic mall!

Construction buddies, I hope you are all happy now because I had to save my land from the people here. Now that we are safe in our land, I am going to have a president in charge or maybe the owner of Zuniguga, which is me! Isn't that amazing? It's like someone coming to protect a town. OK, now that we have a White House, I'm going to hire some people to do a job. But the conflict is who in the world is going to be my boyfriend? So how about let me pick him—I know a friend of mine, Rafael. I'm going to be the president. Yes!

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