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After a year of extensive touring in support of 2015’s The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr returned to their practice space in a former optician’s office in Southwest Detroit. Guitarist Greg Ahee—inspired by The Raincoats’ Odyshape, Mica Levi’s orchestral compositions, and Protomartyr’s recent collaboration with post-punk legends The Pop Group, for Rough Trade’s 40th anniversary—began writing new music that artfully expanded on everything they’d recorded up until that point. The result is Relatives In Descent, their fourth full-length and Domino debut. Though not a concept album, it presents twelve variations on a theme: the unknowable nature of truth, and the existential dread that often accompanies that unknowing. This, at a moment when disinformation and garbled newspeak have become a daily reality.
“I used to think that truth was something that existed, that there were certain shared truths, like beauty,” says singer Joe Casey. “Now that’s being eroded. People have never been more skeptical, and there’s no shared reality. Maybe there never was.”
Relatives In Descent offers new layers and new insights, without sanding any of the edges born from their days as a Detroit bar band. Ahee’s guitar still crackles and spits electricity. Casey’s voice continues to shift naturally between dead-eyed croon and fevered bark. Drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson remain sharp and propulsive, a rhythm section that’s as agile as it is adventurous. But this is also Protomartyr at their most impressive. After months of rehearsal, the band decamped to Los Angeles, California for two weeks in March of 2017, to record at 64Sound in Highland Park. Co-produced and recorded with Sonny DiPerri (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors), who helped capture the band’s long-simmering vision for something more complex, but no less visceral, Relatives In Descent also features contributions from violinist Tyler Karmen and additional synths by Cheveu’s Olivier Demeaux.
It all begins with “A Private Understanding,” pegged as the album’s opening statement the second it was finished, and a wellspring from which the following eleven songs flow. At once beautiful and brutal, it mutates from drum-led oddity to unlikely anthem, with some of Casey’s most potent lyrical work at its center: “Sorrow’s the wind blowing through/Truth is hiding in the wire.” He’d originally approached the writing on this album as an opportunity to move away from the anger and personal despair that defined much of Protomartyr’s previous three albums. But a lot has happened in the past two years. Disturbed by happenings both local (the ongoing, man-made tragedy of the Flint water crisis) and national (just about everything), Casey drew influence from the songwriting of Ben Wallers, the recently translated stories of Irish writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain, and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy , a sprawling, 17th century masterwork that provided both solace and confirmation.
One can hear these influences throughout , be it in the wary reportage of “Here Is The Thing” or the uncanny menace of “Windsor Hum”, the shining city of “Don’t Go To Anacita” or the triptych of delusions both “good” and “bad” that is “Up The Tower”, “Night-Blooming Cereus”, and “Male Plague”. In the end, Relatives In Descent offers a small light in the darkness, while never denying that we are all just standing in the dark.
Since starting out as school boys, this five-piece band has become notorious for stealing every stage with the outrageous, jaw-dropping performances that have become the Shame signature. Their riotous two-year journey has included gate-crashing a Glastonbury stage, supporting The Fat White Family, Warpaint and Slaves, performances in Europe, Austin Texas, a nomination for best new artists at the prestigious Anchor awards, headlining their own UK tour and releasing the double A-side single, Gold Hole/The Lick and follow-up, Tasteless.
Formed in the playgrounds of South London, Steen met guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith at primary school. They got together with guitarists Josh Finerty and Eddie Green at secondary school. Charlie Forbes –the drummer – was at nursery school with Green. Bonded by their precocious taste in music (one of their first gigs was supporting their hero Mark E Smith of The Fall) during their A level years they were hanging out at Stockwell’ s Queen’ s Head – unofficial home to The Fat White Family.
“We were sucked into this alternative world which just crystallised everything we thought about” says Steen. “There were drag queens and jobseekers; people who’ d been in bands, like Alabama3, The Ruts, and the bassist from Stiff Little Fingers – this older generation of people and they saw a kindred spirit in this little group of schoolkid runts.”Along with the Queen’ s head crew, The Fat Whites inspired and mentored them. “In a sea of mundanity the Fat Whites were exciting and dangerous,” says Steen. “It was like watching chaos explode in front of you.”As their foothold in the South London scene grew, Shame instigated the daredevil club night, Chimney Shitters and creating a politically outspoken, DIY ethos reflecting a punk spirit in today’ s world.
“We are not puppets. Everything we do, we do ourselves,” says former Camberwell student, Steen. “From our songs to our clothes to the artwork for the singles, T-shirts, and fanzines. It’ s all us. We are about creating a movement – it’ s all our blood, sweat and tears.”Shame’ s music is controversial, challenging, political and often unprintable. Visa Vulture (written two years ago) is a vicious indictment of Theresa May wrapped up in a happy love song. ‘ Gold Hole’ is a satire of rock narcissism, while ‘ Tasteless’ is about “Living in a world where nobody dares to say anything or do anything different.”.
But to be ‘ Shamed’ you have to see them live. Their appearance at The Great Escape last May so knocked out the editor of French magazine ‘ Les Inrockuptibles’ that he penned a two-page eulogy prompting a wave of Shamemania –a performance at Pitchfork Paris and on Le Grand Journal TV show in the slot usually reserved for the likes of Taylor Swift or Kanye West. A sign of how fast they are steaming their way to the top is this. Last year they gate-crashed Glastonbury (“It was insane, says guitarist Coyle Smith. “We got the directions wrong and ended up walking miles round the perimeter with our instruments before we found the right hole in the fence”) this year they have been invited to play by Billy Bragg on the Leftfield stage.
With a UK headline tour under their belt, 40-odd festivals this summer, their first album is being produced by Local Hero, aka Dan Foat and Nathan Boddy best known for techno music and work with James Blake. “As soon as we met them, it clicked,” says Steen. “They had ideas that a stereotypical person producing a guitar band might not necessarily think of. And we never want to be predictable. We always want to do something unexpected.”