INTERVIEW: Protomartyr | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Roads and streetlights still criss-cross the flat wasteland where houses once stood; as trees funnel the deserted suburb towards the cityscape in the distance, an occasional drunk stumbles by or a dog barks in the distance, the only echoes of life. An old factory remains defiant but it has long since closed its doors; a ghost sign for an oil company echoes a crumbling sadness and a dead Christmas tree bristles in the wind against the occasional mesh fence that still remains. Teessiders may draw some similarities from the past. Nissan employees would do well to heed the warning.

There is a track on Protomartyr’s new album, Relatives In Descent, which seemingly addresses a fictional alternative version of their hometown. “[Don’t Go To] Anacita is about a town that is a wealthy enclave which shields itself from the churning injustices of the world. I see it as a kind of place where progressive or spiritual belief is all just surface level. Anacita citizens are only interested in thoughts that support their own navel-gazing self-interest.”

Anacita taken as Detroit, the hometown Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey knows nowadays, is slowly recovering from a classic post-industrial apocalypse or modern day Steinbeckian status quo of poverty and cultural stagnation. Even the term ‘white flight’, applied to the mass emigration and shrinking tax base that bankrupted the municipality as the big corporations left, leaves a bad taste in the mouth, the racial connotations abhorrent to a city steeped in American history. That’s not to say the band are anti-capitalist per se… “I’m anti a lot of things. My life isn’t a perpetual bummer though. The struggle for some light and betterment is a good enough reason to put your socks on in the morning or sing songs in a band, I suppose. Is it fair? Is anything?”

If ‘it’ is being in a seminal post-punk band blending all the best bits of the UK scene and the vintage rawness of the American sound (think Ian Curtis fronting Pere Ubu and you would be somewhere close) then, yes it is. But to return to a theme, Joe’s wilful anti-charisma and ‘style as no-style’ only adds to the overall dystopian concoction that has left many people so perplexed (the singer even has his own Tumblr fan page, Descriptions of Joe Casey) as the band flirt with cult status.

Joe’s wilful anti-charisma and ‘style as no-style’ only adds to the overall dystopian concoction that has left many people so perplexed as the band flirt with cult status

The first track on the new record, A Private Understanding, references Elvis; a searingly real version of Elvis refined in just one verse. I asked Joe what the track is about, “A Private Understanding is about trying to search for meaning when it seems like life is nothing but a con job. I read a book about Elvis and an incident stood out to me as a bizarre anecdote that was also very human.” Certainly the singer’s trademark spoken word delivery enhances a detailed, and at times catastrophic, but matter of fact narrative (“he died on the bathroom floor”), with the subject matter often abstract. I asked Joe at what stage of the creative process the lyrics are written, “The lyrics are always written as a response to the music the band creates. I have a limited range so I try not to screw up the songs with useless singing. The fact is I do try to sing, it just sounds like a drunk slurring. I guess that’s my sound. Some people can sing like a meadowlark. I cannot.”

Musically the sound is evolving too, hints of strings and synths throughout Relatives In Descent give the songs an eerie yet brighter feel like fireflies in the night. Was that a conscious decision to be bolder as musicians? “We’ve had synths on every album since the first one, Greg [Ahee, guitarist] is actually pretty adept at piano. I am continually jealous of his talent. The strings were, again, Greg’s idea. He could hear them in the songs long before we could. It was a joy to hear them applied to the songs and work so well. A fella named Tyler Karmen [Alvvays, Richard Edwards, Los Angeles Police Department] recorded the violin parts. Being bolder as a band is no different than waking up as a person and thinking that life should be a series of attempts at improvement.” 

Album highlight Night Blooming Cereus is almost like a beacon of hope in the second half of the record as it builds towards a series of beatific peaks and vanquishing lows, it’s a perfectly paced recording. Did a lot of thought go into the running order? “I guess we might be kind of old-fashioned in that regard. We always put thought into the flow of the album, down to the construction of the two sides of a record. Thinking of that framework helps us decide which songs fit on an album and which ones don’t. I’d like to think every song can stand on their own, but they derive extra meaning in their placement on the album – both musically and lyrically.”

There have been a number of albums this year by American indie bands known for their dystopian melodrama and Relatives In Descent is certainly up there with the most recent efforts by Algiers and Manchester Orchestra, for example. But it’s Protomartyr’s almost poetic way with a metaphor that sets them apart and a line from Night Blooming Cereus encapsulates that, “amid the death of all things/Not under the scornful eye or the corporation’s hand/Only in darkness does the flower take hold/It blooms at night”. The dark rebirth sums up Protomartyr’s parallel reality perfectly.

Protomartyr play The Cluny, Newcastle on Thursday 16th November.

 

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