Ariel & Zoey & Eli, Too is a syndicated children's television series produced in Ann Arbor, Mich. It stars tween twin girls Ariel and Zoey and their younger brother Eli. Presumably, they get up to the shenanigans that young people get into on syndicated children's television series (confession: never seen it). They also sing, and the show's theme song is "Sweet Company," a jaunty little ray of sunshine that opens, "I've got a good thing going/ Yes, it makes me happy knowing/ I'm around my sweet company."
About 45 miles east of Ann Arbor, the show airs on WTVS (Detroit Public Television), which is probably where Protomartyr vocalist Joe Casey and his bandmates saw it and heard the theme number. When the quartet was working on song ideas for its just-released album, Under Color of Official Right (Hardly Art), "Sweet Company" came up.
"Anyone can bring a song in, and sometimes we might listen to a song that we like [for ideas]," Casey says by phone from Detroit about a week prior to the band's extensive U.S. tour. "We joke that we're trying to cover [a song] but we're really bad at it. What we really do is take one aspect of it and completely change it and get a song out of it."
Under Color's "Violent" is what Protomartyr got out of "Sweet Company." It's an under-two-minutes stumble of drummer Alex Leonard's and bassist Scott Davidson's galloping rhythm riding Greg Ahee's surf guitar washes, over which Casey sing-speaks about stories from a book, one about two sailors and a smuggler's boat, and a story within that story about a husband slowly poisoning his wife. Its chorus is a jaunty little ray of sunshine that begins, "'Cause if it's violent, good/ 'cause if it's violent, it's understood."
"'Violent' was a kids' show song that I saw on TV, but it doesn't sound anything like this kids' show TV song," Casey says. He's right: If you listen to "Sweet Company" over and over for about 30 minutes before cueing up "Violent," you can kinda/sorta make out a faint resemblance, but it's circumspect, like your lifelong bachelor uncle pulling out an old photo of a fabled old girlfriend to show you that she looked like Angie Dickinson. And if you squint your eyes real hard and make believe, she does. Sure.
"It's actually kind of a decent kids' show," Casey says of Ariel & Zoey & Eli, Too. "It's a local thing where two twin sisters sing their own songs, and all the songs are about eating candy or something. But I just liked the way the song sounded, and we just kind of took a little bit of it."
The journey from kids' show to "Violent" captures the indelible beauty of Protomartyr in a nutshell, a band that debuted in 2012 with the 7-inch Dreads 85 84 seemingly with an entire worldview fully formed. Musically, it skates from post-punk bob and throb to garage-rock rush and surge, from punk's passion and insistence to 1980s indie-rock chime and melody, but never just one of those things at a time-and never simply for the sake of recalling a previous era.
It sounds like guitarist Ahee is part-Dr. Moreau mutant-creator and part-molecular gastronomist, combining odd ideas but using only enough to suggest their essence. Under Color's "Pagans" erupts with a sneering bite that recalls the opening salvo of "What's This Shit Called Love?" by Cleveland's proto-punk outfit of same name, but instead of the guitar chugging through the song's entire one minute and 11 seconds, Ahee sparingly carves a forward lurch out of distorted notes and sustained chord growls. Behind the rhythms is similarly conflicted, with Leonard's jerking slaps colliding with Davidson's somewhat pointillist bass line to yield momentum that feels just this side of falling apart.
Over it Casey spins a tale of two people meeting, who "talked of philosophical things, of transcending/ and the opposite of suffering." It's an ordinary, everyday, almost romantic scene, but not elevated to the grand, epic scale of pop's manufactured emotions. Casey allows the ordinary to look, feel, and smell ordinary, and in the song's musical settings, they accrue the majesty of the lived-in, the intimate, and the familiar that gives them a potent emotional punch.
"I've lived my whole life in Detroit, it's kind of where I draw the stories" that he sings about, Casey says. "Trying to write a song about 'America' or trying to be too universal isn't good. I think if you're specific and that person doesn't necessarily know the story, then they can kind of draw their own conclusions from it."
The obvious comparison here is the Fall's Mark E. Smith, and Casey shares Smith's gift for poetic, declarative repetition. Under Color's "Bad Advice" is a skeletally menacing mood at which Casey repeatedly throws phrases-"Set me up for combat, son," "pass the box filled with money up," "overconfidence is a parasite"-that become examples of the title. No idea what inspired this song, but it feels like a mural of conversations you overhear riding the bus, walking down the street, or waiting at the DMV.
"I just like local stories better," Casey says. "And local stories are often weirder or have a weird element to them, strange deaths or something like that."
This narrative poignancy has been present from the band's start. The debut 7-inch included songs named after King Boots, the Birmingham, Mich. sheep dog who was neutered and defanged in 1985 after killing an 87-year-old woman, and Kenneth "Bubba" Helms, who was 17 in 1984, when he became the unwitting symbol for Detroit's decline thanks to a newspaper photo taken of him during of the party-qua-riots that broke out after the Tigers won the World Series. In 2001, Helms overdosed on painkillers-meds he was prescribed after failing to kill himself with a shotgun.
You don't have to know these stories to appreciate the songs; the band captures the mood swings from passion to apathy, sarcasm to earnestness, acceptance to defiance familiar to anybody who lives in areas hard hit by the seismic socioeconomic change. Protomartyr makes sincere music inspired by a place about which we mostly hear regurgitated stereotypes. There's Detroit, that dangerous ruin-porn capital of America, and Detroit, the creative-class playground. Neither, of course, is entirely accurate.
"If someone says, 'Oh, I hear it's scary and violent,' my first instinct is to say, 'No, it's not,'" Casey says. "But then when somebody goes, 'I hear it's great for artists and you can have your own garden and buy a mansion for $500,' then I might respond, 'No, it's scary, you're going to get shot in the face if you come.'"
This attitude makes sense to anybody who, well, lives in a place that might have a derogatory nickname like "Bodymore, Murdaland." It's easier to believe what's constantly fed to you rather than to put effort into clawing past the surfaces. Perhaps that's one reason why Detroit has so consistently churned out ass-flattening music since the 1960s: They're fighting an inaccurate portrayal of who they are, shaped on where they live. That'd be an interesting study-the relationship between the economic impact of the decline of automotive industry and the rise of generations of Detroit's innovative musicians.
Until that happens, though, Detroit bands like Protomartyr can spread their own particular snapshots of their home through venues around the country-as long as they can get there. During the interview, Casey admits that, at the time, the band didn't have a van yet. And the tour starts in a week.
"The fact that we don't have a van right now is . . . worrisome," Casey says and laughs quickly. "That's another stereotype about Detroit, that everybody knows everything about cars. We don't know anything about cars. So we were really putting off getting a van because we didn't want to get screwed over. On Craigslist we finally found this really great, impossible-to-believe van, and this morning found out it was sold. So we're going to plan B. We'll make it to Baltimore, I assure you. We might have to walk it."
Protomartyr plays the Gold Bar April 16 with Spray Paint, Big Christ, and CP/M.