Concert preview: Detroit post-punk quartet Protomartyr paints a bleak picture of the future

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From the April 24, 2014 edition

It’s tempting to overstate the influence of Protomartyr’s Detroit home on the quartet’s bleak, post-punk scrawl.

After all, the title of the band’s sophomore album, Under Color of Official Right, was inspired by a phrase repeated during the 2013 trial of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was brought up on charges of bribery and extortion, and the crew’s songs are dotted with city-specific references justifiably foreign to outsiders unfamiliar with local characters like music promoter Greg Baise, whom singer Joe Casey name-drops on “Pagans.” Not to mention the band’s hollow, desperate sound, which echoes an urban landscape dotted with abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses.

In a mid-March phone interview, however, Casey, who was born in Detroit to a city worker father and a homemaker mother, was hesitant to draw a straight line from the city’s well-documented struggles to the quartet’s prickly sound, which can be similarly depressed and prone to violent outbursts.

“We’re always a little wary to get that comparison,” said Casey, 37, who joins his bandmates for a concert at Café Bourbon Street on Saturday, April 26. “Let me give you an example: Right behind the Lager House, where we played a lot of our early shows, there’s this [gym] called Detroit Tough, and my brother joked, ‘Oh, I bet they lift giant tires in there instead of having workout equipment.’ Later I found out that’s exactly what it is. I mean, Detroit tough? The idea of people trying to make a buck off that mindset seems a little silly.”

Unlike various watchmakers and car companies, who have embraced Detroit’s blue-collar reputation as a thinly veiled marketing ploy, the bandmates have resisted the urge to hype the connection, and Casey said the ways the city has influenced the group’s development are generally more practical than philosophical.

“The kind of bars we started playing in don't have the best sound systems, so you had to shout,” he said. “So there’s kind of a rawer sound because of that.”

Prior to launching Protomartyr in 2010, Casey, who had never been in a band previously, held down a series of part-time gigs that offered plenty of freedom (“They were the kinds of jobs where you could stay out all night if you wanted to,” he said), but little in the way of actual satisfaction.

“Not to be too depressing, but I was living a pretty meaningless life,” said the singer, who met guitarist and bandmate Greg Ahee when the two were working as doormen at the Gem Theatre, a historic playhouse where patrons took in shows like the long-running “Menopause, The Musical.” “I had a crappy job, and I was getting pretty old, and I didn't have much to show for anything. I had all the rock ’n’ roll jobs without actually having the rock ’n’ roll life.”

While Casey is now living the rock ’n’ roll life, he’s still unable to place too high a stake in the band’s future, which seems like a uniquely Detroit (or at least Midwestern) characteristic — even if the singer would be loath to admit as much.

“Optimism is kind of a strong word,” he said. “So am I optimistic about the future? No. I'm happy with how things are going now, but being realistic is the best approach to life. That way if good things happen, you can still be pleasantly surprised.”

Angel Ceballos photo