Defining ‘success’ can be tricky at the best of times. Luckily, post-punk-industrial whatchamacallit genre-benders Protomartyr are equally hard to pin down, at least sonically speaking, so perhaps, who better to take on the murky, blurry definition of what it means to success in the current zeitgeist.
A glance at the group, who’ve carved out a unique but impressive career with their canvass of punk-flavoured sound, would suggest that Protomartyr have either achieved in abundance, or are well on the way to attaining the experience referred to by the title of their new LP Ultimate Success Today.
Indeed, as frontman Joe Casey points out, being mindful of the present has been crucial for the band to take stock of the fact that they’ve been successful enough to even create this, their fith record, after ten years on the musical grind.
“Just being able to create records is a good example of success to us - success can be such a toxic word, because how can you measure success?,” he muses on the phone to us.
“So much of the way we measure success today is via comparison, and if we think too much about ourselves... I mean we’re never going to be that big of a band really - we certainly embody a bit of a niche as far as our sound goes. So I guess for us it’s success that we’re even able to still do this after multiple records and that we’re still expanding on the sounds that we produce.”
A listen to Ultimate Success Today certainly proves that the band have earnt the accolades that they’ve been receiving from the online world over the past few years. In parts crushingly heavy, and others ambient and spacious, Ultimate Success Today sounds like the anxiety of the current world compressed into a melting pot of dark pop, rock and even the occasional jazz influence - courtesy of a number of new collaborators including famed jazz saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc.
“Jemeel was such an incredible and surreal musician to work with - I certainly felt like we were trying to call him down to our level,” laughs Casey when asked about the collaboration.
“I wasn’t too sure what to expect from working with him - but he was in and out really quickly, one of those guys who just came into the studio, smashed it out and thanks very much - he was on the way home.”
While Casey makes the recording process sound simple, he’s also quick to point out that the band left no stone unturned when it came to pushing the envelope on Ultimate Success Today.
“There were some areas sonically that I never expected to go - there’s stuff that I never expected that I would even like that we’re doing this time around,” he notes.
"However, when you put us guys in a studio together - at the end of the day we’re gonna make something that sounds like Protomartyr. I think because we’ve always been quite dynamic, that affords us more room to try new things and still sound intrinsically ‘us’. We just have to roll with that instinct that we’ve developed over the past 10 years.
“What also helps is that we’ve developed more of a cult following - and I guess that’s a really valuable thing, because it means that people maybe dig a bit deeper when they listen to us, and are naturally more open to our own experiments.”
In the past Protomartyr have made no secret of the political influence on their lyrical themes- indeed, 2017’s acclaimed Relatives In Descent explored what Pitchfork coined ‘Trumpisms’. However, despite the political world being arguably more divided than ever before, Casey acknowledges that this time around he’s drawn inspiration from a broader church of ideas... mostly.
“Of course I’m influenced by things that are happening here in the US - all you have to do is log onto the internet and you get this sense that things are totally out of control,” he says.
“But this music can be interpreted differently, and I really wanted to challenge the conventions of what it means to write a political record - what is it that we look for in authority, what is it that we look for in ourselves or in other people? There’s this constant urgency that seems to tick beneath the fabric of everything, so that’s really what I was keen to try and tap into.
“I mean, a lot of artists can only really process the world around them as it changes - at least that’s what I do. I think people want to look to alternatives, so I can totally feel why there’s that temptation to look towards people that create other types of content - but it’s certainly not a responsibility I feel at all.”
Ultimate Success Today doesn’t just make its mark as an enjoyable and adventurous record in the bloated alternative rock landscape of 2020 - it also signifies a decade for Protomartyr, with the added downtime of the Covid pandemic giving the band a chance to reflect on where they’ve found themselves as they hit double digits.
“It’s been very strange to have an entire record written, about to come out but then not be able to go out and do any shows off the back of it - but I think having this time away from touring and the album cycle makes us really value how much we get to do what we love - but it’s an uncertain time, and uncertainty is kind of what we thrive off,” laughs Casey.
“I’ve always been one to be thinking forward into the future all the time - that’s something that quarantine has actually taught me not to do - just really be focused on what’s happening now and be present with those around me - I think in that sense I was challenged by writing this record, being ready to release it and now just having to take things day by day you know?”
With their decade-marking release containing such a broad pallet of sound and texture, it makes sense to close the interview by asking if Ultimate Success Today is a culmination of ten years of writing, touring and growing together, or rather the start of a new chapter for the band?
As can be expected from Casey, the answer is darkly humorous and down-to-earth.
“For sure there was a sense of a chapter ending when we turned ten as a band - and in a way I actually wanted to musically wrap some things up here - really take some of the sounds that we’ve explored in the past to their absolute limits,” he says.
“But when we started this band it felt like the other guys were young and I was the old one - but now they’re just older and I’m really old.”
Ultimate Success Today is out now via Domino Recording Company.