Protomartyr on “Ultimate Success Today”
Balking at Redundancy
Mar 02, 2021
Photography by Trevor Naud Issue #67 – Phoebe Bridgers and Moses Sumney
Be it the hell’s gate clang of their post-punk musicianship, or frontman Joe Casey’s apocalyptic PSA speak-singing, the sound of Detroit’s Protomartyr has always been nothing short of singular. Given that, why did the band invite a handful of varied collaborators to join the sessions for their latest LP, Ultimate Success Today, and alter the sound that helped them crack so many year-end best-of lists with their previous LP, 2017’s Relatives in Descent?
“Repeating yourself is very easy and fun, leading you to think: ‘Let’s keep on doing what we’re good at!’” says the slyly wry Casey. He’s hyperbolically recalling the temptation dangling over Protomartyr prior to recording Ultimate Success Today at a reconfigured 19th century Upstate New York church. Thankfully, they didn’t give in to that urge. Instead, Casey upped his lyrical ante to drolly describe the dystopic despair of our day, needling everything from facial recognition to soulless consumerism on the new LP. That won’t surprise fans of the bleakly novelistic delivery he’s gotten down pat with the band over the course of five albums. Those listeners will likely be taken aback, however, to hear Casey’s gruff voice paired with the soothing lilt of singer Nandi Rose (aka Half Waif) on the thrummingly propulsive album standout “June 21.” Among the other offbeat collaborators rounding the new album out: renowned jazz alto saxophonist
Jemeel Moondoc; multi-instrumentalist Izaak Mills on bass clarinet, sax, and flute; and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm.
“You want to push yourself because it’s more exciting that way,” Casey explains. “You actually want to try to change the sound as much as possible, but not so much that it becomes ridiculous.”
Casey isn’t being fanciful with that description. Prime examples of such scrapped zaniness include sessions shortly after the band formed in 2010, where Casey says he “was closer to rapping than singing. That was a dumb idea.” Worse still: “One time I thought I should try to sing in a falsetto. Falsetto rap? Who wants to hear that?”
Thankfully the band’s experiments proved far more fruitful on Ultimate Success Today. Guitarist Greg Ahee—who Casey dubs Protomartyr’s “musical director” because he helms the overall sonic direction of each album—was in the midst of a jazz fixation. So Ahee was delighted to have Moondoc, a jazz legend for his improvisational prowess, accept Protomartyr’s invitation. Casey says the ensuing positive pressure “to make sure we were good enough to not waste his time” led to some of Protomartyr’s best music yet.
After seeing his bandmates (who also include drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson) push their boundaries with Moondoc and the deftly eclectic Mills (whose melody line gives “Processed By the Boys” an unexpected, otherworldly eeriness), Casey wanted in on that action. “I was like the little brother that sees the older brother get everything, so I said, ‘I want a collaborator too!’” says Casey, who was pleasantly surprised by his chemistry with Rose. “Our producer decided on a professional vocalist who would complement my lack of singing ability,” he jokes.
Teaming with longtime musician friends like Kelley Deal of The Breeders on their 2018 EP Consolation had paid dividends. Yet, linking up with artists they admired, but never met prior, proved to be a new challenge for Protomartyr while recording Ultimate Success Today. To say Casey is pleased with the more varied and unpredictable results would be an understatement. As he puts it: “They’re still Protomartyr songs, but now they have an extra oomph than before.”
[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 67 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online.]
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