An Interview with Protomartyr’s Alex Leonard

Protomartyr recently re-issued their debut LP “No Passion All Technique” on Domino

I always tell people that assume I love music that they are sadly mistaken. I dislike, or just don’t care at all about, the majority of music. It’s very tacky. Even when it’s almost good it’s too effete and hackneyed for me to fully commit.

In order to see how bad music is you have to hear how great music can be.

Protomartyr have truly annihilated my standard of what is good by completely shattering and transcending it. They exist in a place where notions like good and terrible aren’t of any use. They are spectators. They overlay events in history, covering our own like some sort of time transparency projector. There’s more doom here than any metal act you can imagine. And the reason it’s way more real and terrifying is because of its not-so-subtle literary presentation and casualness. Greek philosophy and tragedy collide with modern day tensions boiling ominously beneath our feet. Things were tense then. Things are tense now. Go figure. Protomartyr are a artistic study in anthropology. I feel closer to understanding what man is after I take one of their records off the turntable. Whether I like that understanding or not is irrelevant. It feels genuine. I don’t get that sentiment from most Indie Rock these days.

And though the subject matter alone, called out from the mountain-top by our seemingly unconcerned doomsayer, Joe Casey, is in itself a thing to marvel over for page upon rambling page, we are here to discuss an equally, if not more so, impressive component in the Protomartyr machine; The rhythm section.

These grayish pictures are painted on a canvas of strong, beautifully erratic, driving drum beats by the very talented Alex Leonard. If you have ever actually heard Protomartyr you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. When you put on their newest full-length, Relatives in Descent, it begins with Alex, alone, delivering a madman roll that perfectly sets the tone for the record. Its unforgettable. And there are many similar moments across their discography that simply give me chill-bumps. He attacks the kit with a machine-like precision, be it a simple or complex pattern, that brings to mind the drummer from The National if he shot speed. He’s as solid as the stone visage on the cover of The Agent Intellect.

There are no show stealers in Protomartyr. Each contributes his own personalized element, capable of stealing the show in themselves, to the greater sound. Without any one of them the effect would be drastically changed. Let’s hope these guys stick together for a while and lean further into the momentum they’ve generated.

I got the chance to ask a few questions of Alex Leonard. Observe;

Some of your drumming is completely baffling, particularly in songs like “A Private Understanding” and “Wait”. Where does this style come from? Do these rhythms start in your head or do they just happen as you’re practicing?

For “A Private Understanding” Greg, the guitarist, recorded a few seconds of a longer complicated drum part I was playing, and looped it to work on the guitar progression outside of practice. When he came back I actually preferred the snipped version he made so I relearned the drum part and that’s that. For “Wait” I wanted to do a whole song that was pounding, rolling drums instead of just a chorus or verse here and there. It was maybe a bit too much so we inserted a pause in the middle to alleviate some of the tension. Back to your original question, the drum parts come from all over.  It varies song to song. Frequently I think of a drum part in my head and figure out how to play it. But other times at practice we’ll just come up with something on the spot and that’s the song.

How did the band start?

Me and Greg had been playing together for a year or so when we met Joe. He’d wanted to be in a band but had never done it so we invited him to jam. We had some beers, hung out, and played music for a few hours. The next day we listened to a couple phone recordings we had made, and thought some of it was pretty good. At least better than expected. From there me and Greg, and eventually Scott on bass, would be playing shows for our old band Butt Babies, and Joe would be sitting off to the side, or at the bar, and would eventually stalk onstage for two songs in the middle of our set, sing, then promptly leave. The songs with Joe would sound completely different than what came before or after but we’d move on and finish the set. Eventually we dropped our other band and just did Protomartyr full time.

What does the name “Protomartyr” mean?

Protomartyr means literally the first martyr, or first person to die for a cause. Joe saw the name in a book when he was younger referring to the protomartyr of the Christian faith, Saint Stephen.

Biggest influences as a drummer?

My biggest influences are probably Stuart Elliott, and Chris Talbot. Stuart Elliott, a session drummer for Kate Bush and many others, has played whole records without hi-hat or cymbals. Chris Talbot is the drummer for the band Wild Beasts, who broke up not too long ago. I saw them play a while back and he did an interesting and vital part on every song. It’s exactly the kind of drummer i want to be.

At what age did you begin playing the drums?

I was 22 when I bought a drum set. I’d played a little before that, but I’d say I really began when I bought my first kit at 22.

What have you been listening to lately?

The last U.S. Girls record, “In A Poem Unlimited” mostly. And a lot of Richard Dawson.

You guys are considered, by many, the smartest band around right now. Thoughts?

Hahahah. I’m not sure why. We’re pretty normal. Joe sometimes transcribes his wikipedia history as song lyrics so maybe that’s why. I’m joking. I think a lot of it might have to do with delivery. On our last record Joe had a part about a talking horse but it sounded like a prophecy or folk tale in the song, and not, you know, a talking horse.

Detroit is, in a way, the real birthplace of punk rock. Do you take pride in this? Why or why not.

Sure. We all love the Stooges and Iggy’s solo records even more. When Protomartyr started The Gories were playing some reunion shows and we all went to see them. They’re great. They’re not originators, more like torch bearers but they make very interesting songs with seemingly simple parts. But, I think beyond birthing Punk, Detroit is also the birthplace of Techno. Of J Dilla. Of countless jazz musicians. Motown. Which is to say, there’s a lot of different musical things happening in one city. If anything, Detroit admires diversity of sound.

What have you been reading?

I’m reading a book about the Oakland County Child Killer. Apparently some members of my family knew one of the victims, and lived near one of the prime suspects. Pretty disturbing stuff. I’m also reading “The Professional,” a book about a boxer. It was one of Hemingway’s favorites.

What do you enjoy doing, the obvious aside, in your free time?

Oh typical stuff, reading (see above), drawing (we just re-launched our webstore with a couple new shirts that I drew), watching movies and tv (last week I saw “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a Chinese film that ends with an hour long single take in 3-D), and cooking maybe most of all. Whenever I get back from a long tour I just want to cook long, elaborate meals after eating out for every meal, every day, for however long the tour is: 5 weeks, 2 months, most of a year.  

Anything happening in the way of a new release any time soon?

We’re always working on stuff when we’re not touring, and we happen to be not touring right now. It’ll be a while before any news though.

Why is the first album just now being widely circulated?

People have been asking about a reissue for about 5 years now. The original run was sold out within months and it’s never properly been on  streaming sites, besides a youtube rip. We’ve wanted to do it but we’ve always had something new to put out first. As a band we try to always look forward. Now that it’s been a while since the last record, and the EP from last summer, and before we’re gearing up for the next record, it’s the perfect time to reissue that old dog. Plus, we’ve played songs from our first record at every show we’ve ever played.

Any plans for an extensive tour any time soon?

Nothing at the moment. Perhaps in the fall. We’ve almost been going for 6 years straight. I don’t wanna say we’re taking a rest, but maybe a little nap. We’ll be out again before you know it.

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