The Rates: Protomartyr pick their underrated artists

Each month we ask an artist or group to share three musicians they think have gone under-appreciated and three new names who they hope will avoid a similar fate. Joe Casey and Greg Ahee from Protomartyr discuss theirs

Ahead of the release of Detroit art-rock group Protomartyr’s sixth full-length record, the excellent Formal Growth in the Desert, I’m sitting down with vocalist Joe Casey and guitarist Greg Ahee to chat about six underrated artists both old and new. The eclectic choices they offer helpfully lay markers as to how the band have arrived at their distinct and densely layered sound.

From starting out on the Detroit house show scene, the band have evolved into a polished touring machine. Whilst his movements are clipped and deliberate there’s a remarkable and seething intensity to Casey’s performance style, while Ahee (along with bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard) is responsible for a sound that deals equally in dread and violence. In person, Casey and Ahee are remarkably approachable, conversational and engaging, and before getting on to their artist choices we touch upon their concerns surrounding the band’s viability. “We got jaded with the grind pre-Covid,” says Casey, “and then sorely missed the grind when everything closed. Now things have opened again, we have to be careful not to get burnt out.”

In spite of this caution, the duo seem adamant that creating their latest offering was the only way to channel the difficulties presented by the last few years. The following selections from them go some way towards showing how they arrived at such a richly textured sound. We start with their three new artists.

Immortal Nightbody

Greg Ahee: Immortal Nightbody is this guy Sim (Jackson Jr.) and it’s entirely his project. I found him because my friend Pascal was playing a show in LA and she posted that it was with Immortal Nightbody; I listened and thought, “Oh, this is interesting and weird”, and then saw that he’d released a ton of albums over the past two or three years. I fell down the rabbit hole really quickly and was listening to this a lot right around when we were finishing writing this new album. He’s awesome.

I love his type of outsider art where he can put out anything he’s feeling and change his direction constantly. He started off as just some weird rap, post-punk thing, but the last two releases have been intense industrial goth. We asked him to open up for us on our last US tour and he was great.

Theo Gorst: Speaking of rap, ‘Fun In Hi Skool’ (off of Formal Growth in the Desert) made me think of Billy Woods. The first two thirds of that song could be the backing track to a sparse and sinister rap track.

GA: That was intentional. I remember when we were finishing writing the album I drove to upstate New York to see a movie, and the hugeness of a couple of the trailers I saw beforehand – which had hip hop songs in – resonated. I thought, “I’m going to try and capture that bass, that heaviness, to see if it works with one of our songs”. That’s how we got ‘Fun In Hi Skool’.

TG: Joe, I was reading that when you started the band your delivery was closer to rapping than singing. On ‘Polacrilex Kid’ (also on Formal Growth in the Desert) you seem to really lean into that.

Joe Casey: Yeah, but I was worried! When we were first working on that song I didn’t want to come across like [in now-clichéd golden-age hip-hop style] “Yo, my name is Joe!”. I’m glad it has the essence of [hip-hop] without aping or trying to copy anything. It has its own thing. There’s often nothing worse than a white guy trying to rap.

TG: The track is about your quitting smoking – has your voice changed since you stopped?

JC: I think it’s gotten softer. For this next US tour I promised my fiancée that I’m going to try and do it without smoking, but maybe by the end that’ll be what ruins my voice. Maybe that was the secret sauce – [cigarettes getting] that rasp going. I’ve never had any problems with losing my voice on tour… maybe that’s all the smoking and drinking.

GA: That’s a nice thought: “Maybe my worst habits are the ones that keep me going.”

Day Residue

JC: Day Residue are a Detroit band. What I like about them is that they are almost an inverse Protomartyr, in that the band members are mostly old fellows – or guys like Greg’s age – and the lead singer is a younger woman. The guys (in Day Residue) started playing shows with us, and still have that same energy. They’re bringing their chops of being in bands forever, and she’s bringing her youthful energy. Her I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude is refreshing; it’s good to see a band like that thriving in Detroit. They’re currently recording and anything I can do to draw attention to them I’m keen to do.


GA: When I first heard about this feature I was like, “I think she’ll qualify!” I honestly know next to nothing about her, except that I love her music. I’ve been obsessed with it since I heard it. I’ve listened to her last two records on repeat. We were just in Berlin a few days ago [where Anadol lives, having moved from Turkey] and when talking to a label rep I was like, “Tell me everything you know about Anadol!” I can’t really find much info other than that the music is incredible, with these Arabesque layers mixed with this electronic sound. It’s beautiful and reminds me of the best techno to have come out of Detroit.

TG: ‘Eciflere Gel’ off Felicita [her second record] is an amazing track. I love the looped groaning that comes in on it.

GA: I know! I’ve no idea how she even created it, I thought it was all found sound and samples and synths and drum machines, but I saw there’s some session musicians playing, and then there’s obviously vocals too. It’s so rare I’ll hear a record and think, “What the fuck?” and be totally blown away by it.

JC: I gotta listen to this.

GA: The angle is to try and make something that has this effect on somebody, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. In the meantime, it’s so enjoyable to listen to this.

TG: Her songs sound like soundtracks, which is something you did before this record right, Greg?

GA: During the worst of the Covid depression – when I didn’t want to touch an instrument and didn’t want to think about music – I got asked to score a couple short films. I really only agreed to it as I needed money, but doing them was really exciting. Listening to music with that ear again and watching films to see how the score can elevate and move the story along was interesting. Then I made some score stuff that Joe can sing over that needn’t even be a Protomartyr album. I took that mentality and folded it into the band’s dynamic. I didn’t know if it changed the songs all that much but scoring soundtracks changed my approach, and made me excited to write again. Hearing a record like Anadol was exciting to me.

Third Power

TG: They seem like the epitome of an under the radar older band. Released one album, then disappeared.

GA: Yeah! I remember hearing Third Power on [legendary New Jersey radio station] WFMU. It was the track ‘Lost in a Daydream’ and I thought, “Oh shoot, this song is amazing.” I didn’t know anything about them but got the record and was blown away.

I still don’t know how this happened, but around that time I got a Facebook friend request from this random guy. I thought he had a funny name, which was Jem Targal. I didn’t really think about it and left it in my requests and then several months later I was listening to Third Power and decided to look them up. I didn’t know they were from Birmingham, Michigan – which is just outside of Detroit – and then I saw the singer’s name was Jem Targal. I went back to Facebook and realised it was the same guy!

I don’t know if he added me by accident as I had never mentioned Third Power to press at that point. During Covid I was listening to Believe [their only album, from 1970] again and again, and was probably drinking a lot. So with liquid Covid courage I messaged him and when he wrote me back he was super nice and gracious. He sent me some unreleased stuff and we kept talking back and forth. It really meant a lot to me, but sadly he passed away a few months later. During Covid that was one of the only times I reached out to anyone, and I’m so happy I did.

Thin White Rope

JC: It shocked me that I didn’t know about Thin White Rope. They should be bigger and deserve a reappraisal. I found out about them when somebody posted a fanzine interview with Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices which had his top 50 best records ever. There was the first Thin White Rope album there [1985’s Exploring the Axis]. I’d never heard this band, so I wondered why they were on this list. I went and listened to it, and discovered the history of them, and realised it’s a weird pocket of music that doesn’t have that cache of other kinds of genres or periods of music.

Davis, California, where they’re from, is way different from what people think of as California. It’s up in the top of the central valley, kinda near Sacramento – it’s completely different from Southern California. [Thin White Rope] is desert music but not in that cliché style. I only found out about them after we had recorded the record, when we were trying to make a kind of a high desert sound. Listening to this I think Thin White Rope nailed it, they nailed that sound and feel. The frontman [Guy Kyser] has a gruff voice but is very melodic, it seems as time went on he got a little Tom Waits-esque, but I appreciate that melodicism for someone with such a low voice. It was exciting to discover a new band that I enjoyed so much.

Nash The Slash

JC: What really drew me to this guy is that I feel this kind of character or personality no longer has a place in the modern music industry. This eccentric fellow was in a prog band, wore bandages, didn’t play guitars but played mandolin or violin, made proto-dance music, and was able to tour with Gary Numan and with Iggy Pop. He had his moment in the sun before fading back into obscurity. He’s actually beloved in Toronto, there are murals of him there.

His covers of classic rock songs sound so modern and ahead of time; they use really interesting drum machines and the sound he gets from his violin and mandolin is really, really fresh. He made a dance song that was super popular in Poland, it was called ‘Dance After Curfew’, and at the time they had a curfew so it was tailor-made. I’ve watched a ton of YouTube interviews with him and it’s funny to hear such a rational voice coming out of such a strange-looking character.

It’s been said that I have no charisma on stage and I can definitely feel it. A lot of the time I feel like I’m doing the most extravagant gesture and I’ll see a video of it later and it’s the opposite. I get the feeling he had the same issue: “I’m not going to be doing much but if I look weird that’ll help.” He had practical reasons for being wrapped in bandages as he did a lot of soundtracks to silent films which he’d then project behind him. He didn’t want to get in the way of the film so [with the bandages] he became the screen.

Gary Numan saw him in Toronto and said; “Right, you’re going to be the opening act on my tour.” Not many outsider artists get that bite of the apple. When I heard about that I thought, “These are exactly the sort of opening acts we want!”

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Joe Casey: This version of ‘How He Lived After He Died’ was recorded on a hot July night at the Sugarhill Supper Club in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn in 2014. We were at the end of a little tour opening for Parquet Courts and this was a “triumphant homecoming” for them about a week after their album Sunbathing Animal came out. I don’t remember too many particulars from the night. There was a security guard named Shadow that looked like Blade. There were chicken sandwiches with the bones left in. It was sweltering, therefore it was one of the handful of shows where I removed my jacket. From the pictures of that evening, the jacket in question was my original tuxedo coat I purchased from a Goodwill for 10 dollars so I could work as a doorman at the Gem Theatre. That’s where I met Greg and where we first drunkenly discussed starting Protomartyr. That jacket should be in some very cheap museum. Sadly I sweated that poor thing into oblivion years ago.

As far as this song goes, I can’t believe we bummed the crowd, ostensibly there to celebrate, with such a morose song. In retrospect, it was (and some say is) one of the “early not terrible” songs we had, so I suppose it was chosen for this reason. As much as I love the song, it is about my dear old dad dying, so I don’t like playing it too much nowadays. I hope you enjoy the song. I am confident that it just might magically transport you back to 2014 Brooklyn in the waning days of the American music business.

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Photography by Trevor Naud