Post-punk band Protomartyr was nearly wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we couldn’t go back touring, we wouldn’t have been making any money off of this,” said vocalist Joe Casey during a recent phone interview. “We make very little money off this band, so to make even less would have not been feasible. The band would’ve ended.”
Thankfully, shorter-form touring became possible just in time, as the entertainment industry slowly built its way back to how things were pre-pandemic. Now, Protomartyr is on its longest run yet, including a stop at the Holland Project on Saturday, March 25.
The band is touring in support of 2020 release Ultimate Success Today. Finally being able to do a full tour cycle for a nearly 3-year-old album has been nothing short of “weird,” Casey said.
“It was late 2021 when we went out for the first time, over a year after it came out,” Casey said. “It was weird, because we started touring right in the window between lots of people getting sick with COVID, so that was, like, a victory. … We were lucky to get away scot-free on that little tour. Each tour has kind of been like that, where they get a little bit longer, but it’s always in the back of your head, like, ‘OK, this is gonna come back and get us.’
“It’s great to be back on the road and be able to play some of the songs from the album, because I think we were all pretty proud of it, and we just didn’t feel like it got a fair shake.”
Casey said the shorter tours were like being able to “dip your toe back in the pool.”
“If we would have done a month-long, coast-to-coast tour, we probably would have all got COVID. It would have been taxing after more than a year of just sitting on your ass, going and doing that,” he said. “We’d be like, ‘Why are we doing this? This is killing us!’ These little two-, three-week tours are bite-size, so you don’t choke on it. … I do feel like we’ve had our sea legs back, and that’s great.”
Ultimate Success Today featured some notable collaborators, and the first tour for the album featured help from Kelley Deal, lead guitarist of the Breeders.
“If we’re working on a new song, I like playing it in a live setting, because it helps me figure out a good cadence to sing it in,” Casey said. “You get a good gauge of whether it’s dead on arrival or not. … With Ultimate Success Today, we had a lot of different collaborators, and there’s no way we were going to re-create some of the jazz musicians and what they brought to the songs. A benefit was Kelley Deal being like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll go on tour with you guys; I like touring.’ That changed the songs immensely with her additions. She’s not going to be able to go out on this tour, because—unfortunately for us, but fortunately for her—the Breeders have some shows. When you can’t re-create the songs exactly how they are recorded, you just hope that you can inject them with some energy that maybe will carry over to a live setting.
“We always end up playing the song slightly faster. I don’t know if that’s because we’re bad at our job, or we just want to add some energy to it.”
Protomartyr’s approach to songwriting has changed as the band members have aged—and become more realistic about their live-show capabilities.
“I’m sure Greg (Ahee), our guitar player, often thinks about what can be done in a live setting, and he kind of keeps his ambitions locked up a little bit, because he can probably picture, like, ‘Oh, it’d be great to have a string section here, or 55 guitar overdubs,’” Casey said. “I think every person like Greg who composes songs probably has that desire, but he keeps it (to himself) and is like, ‘I’ve got to make sure that we can do it live.’ The band in general has gotten very good at figuring out what I can and cannot do. They can write songs to what I can sing. … I’ve tried to simplify my writing style a little bit, and not make it so wordy all the time, because I have to remember all those damn words, and that’s no good.”
The band has enjoyed pulling from their back catalog on the recent tours.
“I always like songs from our first album (2012’s No Passion All Technique), just because the older I get, and the longer we’re a band, the more impressed I am that we were able to throw those together with such little talent,” said Casey. “I’m impressed with the songwriting and all that, because I don’t remember doing it, and I don’t remember it being very good at the time—but some of them hold up. One I always like singing is ‘3 Swallows’ from the first record, because that one came effortlessly out of me at the time, and I was pretty surprised. Some of them I appreciate, but I do not ever want to sing again.”
The pandemic caused Casey to experience a lot of existential feelings about the band—and he is trying to shake off those feelings.
“I’ve always tried to maintain that the future is not given, and to be appreciative of your current state,” Casey said. “When this band started, I was the old guy at 35 or 36, and now 10 years later, the other band members have finally caught up to that age. I remember it seemed very odd to be in a band when I was that old. I thought I was old then; now I definitely am. You realize that you’re lucky to be here. You’re lucky to be able to play places like Reno and have people actually show up. There’ve been many times where I’ve been at a bar to grab a drink, and a band is playing to nobody … and you feel really bad for them. That could easily have been us, or be us in the future, so we have to appreciate what we’ve got going on, and that gives me hope for the future.”
This tour will be one of the last outings in support of Ultimate Success Today. Moving forward, the band intends to shake things up.
“After five records, you want to be able to not be stuck; you want the future to be wide open,” Casey said. “… Getting back together in the room and working on new stuff, it felt good. Sometimes it can feel bad, and you feel like you’re trying to force it. The minute you’re like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to write a Protomartyr-esque song,’ then you’re fucked. We’re getting through that and leaving the future open to whatever we sound like after this—and we’re lucky to be back together and enjoying each other’s company and playing together. … To get back touring and recording again was not a given, but I’m glad it’s there.”
Protomartyr will perform with DEFEM and Spitting Image at 7 p.m., Saturday, March 25, at the Holland Project, 140 Vesta St., in Reno. Advance tickets are $18. For more information, call 775-448-6500, or visit hollandreno.org.