Processed By The Band
Protomartyr’s singer and primary lyricist Joe Casey has been fascinated by mules since he was a kid, so it’s no surprise that his predilection for the pack animal appears as the latest captivating portrait of a human or animal for the Detroit rock band’s apocalyptic fifth record, Ultimate Success Today.
The band’s previous album and EP covers include portraits of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a snarling dog, a bust of Constantine I, American silent film actress Maude Fealy, and a ski-masked rioter; and as Casey has created all the cover art for previous Protomartyr records, himself, he alludes to the fact that the image of a mule on the cover of Ultimate Success Today has some secrets yet to be discovered.
“The [marks] in the background is a secret code that I've painstakingly had to scratch out. I think it took so long for me to do it and I was worried about making mistakes that I just doubled it on the cover, where it's just split," he says. "I was able to do half of it and then I was like, ‘Okay, that's good enough. The mule's in the way, no one's gonna give a shit, Joe.”
Joe does give a shit about horses and mules, though, which is demonstrated case-in-point when Casey lobs a joke at my feet on that topic as we start our Skype chat: “I guess you would call me a horse girl.” It’s a direct hit to the funny bone and Casey is known for that. There’s even a Tumblr page that is a compilation of journalists trying to describe him in various awkward ways.
Casey goes on to explain some more about his background with the beasts of burden: “When I was growing up, I worked at a summer camp with a corral of horses,” he recounts.
“That was a dream come true for a kid growing up in the city to go to a summer camp in the country and ride horses and stuff. People are like, ‘Oh, you love horses? When's the last time you rode?’ The last time I rode was the day that camp closed and I've never ridden a horse since. I've always liked horses. But the mules, I just love the way the mules work and look and the fact that they're sterile and they can't have kids. That's interesting to me, that they're the symbol of the army and they've been used.”
That ties into some of the other themes Casey mentions for the new album such as his sudden illness last summer as he creeped into his forties, the general states of decay he saw around him in the world, and a system that favours the rich and powerful working through beasts of burden, whether they be mules or humans. It’s always fascinating to piece together the patchwork of inspirations for any new Protomartyr record. It’s rarely just mules, or urban decay, or some bit of history through an acerbic lens. There’s always a snippet of info to unearth just under the surface of sinuous bass lines, growling electric guitars, and pounding drums.
The drumming in particular on this record from Alex Leonard is some of his most striking work yet. Leonard has long been a fan of the now-defunct band Wild Beasts and their drummer, Chris Talbot. “Seeing Wild Beasts play in 2011 changed how I approached drums,” he says.
“I saw Chris Talbot play such diverse parts and they all served the songs perfectly. Having the percussion drive the song, but also act as its own melody is something I’m preoccupied with and that happens frequently on those Wild Beasts records.” You can definitely hear the influence of Talbot at work on several of Leonard’s beats, especially the more propulsive drumming on songs, such as “Day Without End” and “Processed By the Boys” for Ultimate Success Today.
Leonard works closely with bassist Scott Davidson and guitarist Greg Ahee before any vocals get involved. Protomartyr’s process has remained fairly intact since the early days. Ahee notes over email that it typically starts when they “have either a section of a song or an entire song written and record it on a phone and send it to the band email.”
“That’s generally how Joe hears it first. We don’t tend to send him something unless we are fairly certain we’ll end up using it,” he notes.
The musical framework for Ultimate Success Today is certainly more ambitious this time around, as it points backwards as much as it's a capstone to the band’s career thus far. As they recorded in Hurley, New York’s Dreamland Recording Studios, the Protomartyr quartet added new instruments and musical ideas from contributors such as vocalist Nandi “Rose” Plunkett of Half Waif, Jemeel Moondoc (alto sax), Izaak Mills (bass clarinet, sax, flute), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), and co-producer David Tolomei (Dirty Projectors, Girlpool, Half Waif).
“I was already set up to record vocals for [my fourth album] The Caretaker at my house, having borrowed some gear from David Tolomei, so it was good timing to work on the Protomartyr songs remotely,” Plunkett remembers.
“I’ve learned over the years that I really need to record vocals on my own, sacrificing some of the technical perfection that would come from being in a proper studio with a proper engineer in order to get the kind of performance I want. I need to feel free to experiment vocally, to sound really bad so I can get to the good stuff. I'm super hard on myself and get in my head too much if I make mistakes in front of other people. So I've learned what works for me. As far as what I wanted to achieve, with these songs I was especially trying to tow that line between a classically ‘correct’ take pitch-wise and something more free and ragged and full of personality, which their music inspires.”
The Half Waif singer/songwriter preferred the remote approach for her vocals on “June 21”, Casey’s dreaded summer anthem. He hates the season. Interestingly enough, Rose loves the summertime, as she reflects back on her own album: “Oh no, Joe! We have to talk,” she laughs. “My last album was all about how summer is my favorite season, so I definitely disagree. I guess it depends on where you live (I remember not loving elements of the hot-trash summers of New York City), but where I am in the Hudson Valley, summer is a paradise of long days, warm nights, wildflowers, farm stands, swimming holes, overgrown meadows. I feel like I become my best self in the summer, softer and freer.”
Casey on the other hand has a decidedly different memory attached to the slow burning punk track. “June 21st, that weekend last year is when I wrote that song,” Casey remembers. “That was one meaning for it. I was dealing with being in Detroit in the summer. That's my ‘I hate summer song.’ The fears that run through the album are in there. It was only later on that I realized, I believe that might be, on some years that's Father's Day. The beginning of summer is June. The official beginning of summer, I believe, is that weekend as well. It seems like it was the weekend that I wrote the song, but then it was like, oh, there's a lot of these other double meanings and things for that track.”
At Dreamland during the summer recording sessions, bassist Scott Davidson noted that the whole band tried something different to get in sync for the recordings. “To make sure we were playing and recording as a complete unit, a few months before recording we moved in together and started keeping the same sleep schedule and diet. This evolved into brushing teeth together, bathing together, you name it. Was it successful? That is for the listener to decide.”
"I just love the way the mules work and look and the fact that they're sterile and they can't have kids. That's interesting to me, that they're the symbol of the army and they've been used.” - Joe Casey
There’s certainly a pronounced sense of momentum and gravity to the rhythm section for the group this time, which is a return to the sounds on their first release—2012’s No Passion All Technique. That LP was originally released through Urinal Cake Records. The LP went quickly out of print and subsequently became a "collector's item.” In May 2019, the band reissued the album on their current label, Domino Records, with bonus tracks. It was a move the band wanted to do since it had been a while between making records as they toured 2017’s Relatives in Descent.
Casey thinks a lot about that sense of urgency on that first record. “‘How He Lived After He Died’ is about my dad dying,” he remembers. “The themes that have run through these five albums were there from the beginning. I was like, ‘If I'm going to be writing about things ending and the end of things [for Ultimate Success Today], is there a way to tie it together so it is like a five-act play and you reach a conclusion?’ Because we do that with each album, except for the first one. The first one was just like, ‘Let's record 22 songs in four hours’, and we weren't really expecting it to be an album. But since that point, we spent a lot of time thinking about ‘this is the first song; this is the last song of side A; this is the first song of side B.’ Now we reach the conclusion, so that each one was like a chapter. Because the themes are similar throughout, I wanted to say ‘now it's the final chapter.’”
Naturally, Domino Records, Protomartyr’s record label since 2017, wasn’t too keen on that phrasing, but Casey knows that is more of a closing of a chapter in his life as he looks back at what happened to his family in 2008.
In March of 2008, Casey was on a trip in Texas with his friends in Tyvek, a Detroit punk band. The group was a mixture of high-school buds and close friends surrounding his hometown. While travelling, Casey got a call about his dad. After a routine hernia surgery caused severe internal bleeding, Casey’s father had an unexpected heart attack at 72. Joe hopped on the next flight to be with him, his two older brothers, and mother. Casey’s dad was barely conscious and unable to communicate when he got to the hospital. His blood pressure dropped precipitously during the night and affected all activity in his brain. The Casey family chose to let him go after he was put on life support.
“I mentioned my dad passing away,” Casey says. “Again, I realized that I'd been in this band for a while now. We started the band in 2010, even though Wikipedia says 2008. It started after my dad died and that was a great motivator for me to stick with it and do it. I've been singing about my response to that for 10 years. It still affects me and I was like, ‘I've got to move beyond this.’ The beginning of a decade and ending of a decade gets more and more profound the older you get because you realize how few of those you actually have; a decade. What's really weird is when I didn't even realize a decade ago had passed since 2010. Didn't see any much had changed, even though I'd been in the band and a lot had changed, but you still feel like the same person. I wanted to close the book on some topics.”
Guitarist Greg Ahee says he tends to look at each new record through slightly different lenses than Casey. “I often live with these songs for a year or more before I even know what Joe is going to do. To me this record is our ‘nature’ record.” Ahee was also inspired by Bennie Maupin’s jazz-fusion debut album, Jewel in the Lotus. That's a very unique touchstone for a punk or rock record where sometimes one or two elements can really take over a song/album. Ahee had good experiences. It wasn’t hard at all, actually. “Everyone we worked with was incredibly in tune with what we were doing. Literally couldn’t have asked for a better group! I’m glad [the music] flows harmoniously, but that’s how the process felt.”
I’ve always chuckled at Casey and the band’s dark sense of humor, something one or two of them have attributed to Catholic upbringings. (After all, Protomartyr is a reference to Saint Stephen.) Our Skype chat draws that humour out, but also Casey and the band’s multifarious influences. The discussion veers all over the place, just like Protomartyr records. The new album ticks off Nazca geoglyphs, “quick Hermes and his winged hat,” Casey’s summer 2019 illness, space worms, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and, naturally, military mules as just some of the allusions in the dense liner notes. It’s an album that stands up to repeat listens.
As with many albums in 2020, Ultimate Success Today was delayed from its original 29 May release date due to COVID-19, but Casey, Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard, and bassist Scott Davidson were empowered to experiment on this release and work through plenty of new lyrical and instrumental ideas. The band’s recent collaborations with The Breeders’ Kelley Deal for 2018’s Consolation EP seemed to have set off a new age for deeper collaborations with a wide variety of musicians in and outside of the Midwest.
The email conversations with the rest of the band and collaborators convey a real sense of pride for the new record. Izaak Mills, who contributed bass clarinet, sax, and flute to almost all of the tracks on the record, loved working with Casey and the band. “They kept my bass clarinet ‘jazz lick’ on "Processed By The Boys," he says. “It was amazing the transformation the songs took when vocals got dubbed on. I loved seeing the singer, Joe, who had struck me as a mellow dude, come out of the booth after knocking out six songs in two hours. He looked like he'd been in a fight! And he wrote them lyrics on the spot!”
The group’s penchant for improvisation is something that Tolomei caught on to when he jumped at the chance to record with the band after being linked up via Domino. He didn’t meet the four Midwest guys in-person until the first day of recording, but it was a fairly smooth process overall. “When we got into the studio, the songs hadn’t been demoed, so as things went down, I was hearing everything for the first time,” Tolomei recounts.
“When we got to Joe’s parts, hearing all the lyrics, there were a lot of ‘oh wow’ moments for me. I wanted to give the listener a chance to have that same experience, so my goal was to make sure every word was heard, and that nothing he’d written would be lost,” he remembers.
“As for processing, it’s always a bit of a challenge to get vocals to sit well with lots of guitars and distortion. For each take, I took a clean signal and a super compressed and distorted signal on two separate tracks. The compressed vocal ran through a very rare compressor called a Bluestripe 1176, with the input turned all the way up, and a console fader feeding the input so I could adjust on the fly while we cut vocals. Transformers from the 1960’s have a very specific sound when saturated like that; a sound that can’t really be replicated digitally. This gave me flexibility in the mix to blend two distinctly different sounds, one that was crisp and clean and intelligible and one that sounded really rich and intense and wild, and the blend between the two would change from song to song, as well as within the arrangement of each song.”
Tolomei notes that the guys were a “total pleasure in the studio” and there were a lot of late-night discussions with the band that occurred on the wrap-around porch at the studio: “Plus, Dreamland itself is a pretty interesting place to record for any band since the main tracking room is just the main room of a church, where all the pews would be. “There isn’t any treatment at all,” notes Tolomei on the Ultimate Success Today recording space. “It's just a giant space with 120 years old wood and stained glass everywhere. At times it can feel a bit like trying to tame a wild beast, but you learn to lean into it, which can lend an album to feel really real.”
Protomartyr’s music is often associated with the post-punk or art-punk subgenres where lyrical allusions and artistic song movements slam into a rockish bombast. Casey shrugs for most press cycles at this point in the band’s career for both terms since “everything gets a name and defined now.”
"At times it can feel a bit like trying to tame a wild beast, but you learn to lean into it, which can lend an album to feel really real.” - David Tolomei
There’s a feeling of considerate workmanship and Rust Belt ingenuity surrounding the group that has always been appealing, so Casey’s mention of hardworking mules earlier in the conversation about Ultimate Success Today isn’t as esoteric as it seems at first blush. It feels like the type of offhand remark that you file away as ephemera at best, but it kept etching its way into my brain, like a worm in heaven or a Nazca line in the desert (other visually captivating references in new Protomartyr tracks on this record).
Casey explained a bone-dry history book he was reading last year called Shavetails & Bell Sharps: The History of the U.S. Army Mule with the typical acerbic wit he’s known for: “It’s a book that dads would have on the toilet or something,” he jokes. “It’s the history of America told through how we used mules in the army, which I thought was interesting.”
During my own skim readings of Shavetails & Bell Sharps I stumbled upon an interesting tradition for the military mules and beasts of burden that influenced part of the album, and it got me thinking about Casey’s need to close this chapter or decade of the band’s career and lay down that burden. The book mentions that new mule arrivals in the army have their tails shaved and after that event they’re called “shavetails.” As they learn new skills and their tails grew longer, a bell was cut into the tail to show the mastered skills in the following manner: The first bell was added when the animal could pack; Second bell was added when the animal could pack and drive; Finally, when it could pack, drive, and ride it received its third bell.
The system easily communicated each animal’s skill level at a quick glance to others when they were transferred to different army command units. A bell sharp was an experienced mule that knew where to line up in the train of animals and could pick out its own pack. After five albums, the members of Protomartyr are definitely bonafide bell sharps and the new decade looks to bring fresh musical burdens to drive them forward.