Ultimate Success Today

Ultimate Success Today

For his band’s fifth LP, Protomartyr guitarist Greg Ahee took inspiration from working with DJ/producer (and fellow Michigan native) Matthew Dear. “He comes from a completely different world and has a completely different way of making songs,” Ahee tells Apple Music of Dear, with whom he collaborated on the latter’s 2018 album Bunny. “I thought that it'd be cool to bring other people into Protomartyr to try to get some new perspectives. I wanted to approach things like a jazz record, but one where there's no real lead instrument. Everything blends together and flows in a way I haven't heard very much in rock music—nothing stands above anything else.” Featuring contributions from Nandi Plunkett (vocals), Jemeel Moondoc (alto saxophone), Izaak Mills (bass clarinet, saxophone, flute), and Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Ultimate Success Today finds the Detroit post-punk outfit adding new textures and tones to some of Ahee and frontman Joe Casey’s most urgent and upsetting work to date. “I was sick, and I don't know if that's just because I'm getting old and you get sick when you get old, but you start feeling every ache and pain that you've been putting off,” Casey says. “And if there was anything that I was putting off writing, anything that I was like, ‘Oh, someday I would like to do that,’ I was definitely going to try to push it and make sure it was on this record.” Here, Ahee and Casey take us inside every song. Day Without End Greg Ahee: “We wanted to try something a little bit different and open with this thing that's just a repetitive build. We've always, in my mind, been pretty good at building tension and building it to where it almost releases, but you never really get that satisfaction. The whole idea of this song is building tension and then just stopping it—I feel like that sums up what we like to do as a band.” Joe Casey: “Lyrically, it was just an easy way for me set the tone for the album. When people are describing us, ‘dark and gloomy’ is kind of a go-to, which I think is wrong. And the idea of having a summer album—or an album about light that still had some dark themes to it—was kind of my goal. This song is about a day when the sun never goes down—quite disturbing. I’ve suffered from not being able to go to sleep, and there's nothing more sickening than lying in a bed, being there all night trying to fall asleep, and the sun starts coming up and you hear birds chirping. The world has reset and you have not.” Processed by the Boys JC: “People have—for good reason—been focusing on that line ‘A foreign disease washed up on the beach.’ And I feel kind of bad to then go, ‘Yeah, but the song says all these things that you think are going to be the end of the world—a foreign disease or someone stabbing you—are not really what brings down society.’ What brings down society is corrupt governments or a police force having too much power—the boys running amok. You don't want the annoying guy that you knew in high school to be in charge, but as you get older, you realize that the idiots that you knew in high school are the people that are now in charge, and it becomes a very frightening, frightening thing. ‘Processed’ is also one of those words that institutions use that can mean so many different things. Processed meat. When you get any sort of paperwork, when you're trying to apply for unemployment or you're trying to apply for health insurance, you have to wait till your documents get processed. I don't like how dehumanizing that is.” I Am You Now JC: “The main thing about ‘I Am You Now’ is just how corporations will—or anybody—will take people that are marginalized or suffering, and then draw them into this world and make them feel like they're important by selling things to them. And how the person that is suffering will immediately be turned into a symbol for the status quo: ‘Oh, as long as somebody's selling something to me, I must be included.’ It’s probably one of the more raucous songs on the album. I like songs I have to fight against. Like, ‘Okay, Greg's guitar is fighting for space—I need to fight for my space.’ We're kind of doing a back-and-forth like that. Those are all some of my favorite songs.” GA: “When I write a riff, I’m always conscious that it's going to either be a thing where Joe needs to find a way to sing over it or we're going to have that back-and-forth. And pretty early on with this one, it was clear that it was going to be a back-and-forth. We were playing around with this idea of all of us fighting against each other, but also trying to make a really tight piece of music.” The Aphorist JC: “I don't think the band, on our first record [2012’s No Passion All Technique], would have thought to even consider doing something like this. Now, I feel confident enough, after five albums, that, like, ‘Okay, I'm going to try as best I can to sing it.’ And I'm glad for the opportunity, especially after something like ‘I Am You Now.’ This is definitely one of those songs about writing songs. To me, shouting slogans is stupid. The first verse is a poem my brother wrote that I adjusted a little bit. I always liked my brother Jim; I always like to go to him for writing advice or if I'm stuck on something. That was a song that we were working on for a while where the slight tempo changes would completely alter it, so it was hard to find the tone that would work for it. I was trying lots of different things and Jim was like, ‘Oh, I got this poem,’ and it fit the vibe of the record and what I was going for—the impermanence of things. That helped lock it in.” GA: “That was a really hard one for us to get tight with as a band, because of the time signature, and if we would have played that song even a couple BPMs too fast, I couldn't play that riff. It took a while to just play that song over and over again before we really got it.” June 21 JC: “June 21 is the beginning of summer. It was actually kind of written around that time, too. You know it's summer [in Detroit] when you just hear the cars starting to drive fucking insane on the expressways. Everybody usually thinks that summer is a great time of year, but if you're physically and mentally diminished, summer is rough as any other season.” Michigan Hammers JC: “The song’s about workers, and the line about Veracruz is about mules. Because in the Mexican-American War, the army used lots of them. And off the coast of Veracruz, they couldn't get close enough to shore, so they just threw all the mules off the side of the boat. The ones that could swim to the shore, they used—but over half of them drowned. America won that war, and afterward, Ulysses S. Grant was celebrating the victory, so he went on a camping trip outside of Mexico City and he had a bunch of mules carrying stuff, one of which fell down the side of the mountain. They were like, ‘Well, that mule’s dead,’ and they continued to the top of the mountain. Then, two days later, the mule just showed up. It had climbed back up to the top of the mountain. It shows the reliance of these animals. Musically, it was another kind of rocking song and I wanted to write a rallying song about something fictional so it wouldn't be weighed down with any sort of meaning. I wanted it to be free of specificity.” GA: “A lot of times, Joe will take lyrics and just talk about it and joke about it with us. In the studio’s kitchen, they had magnet fridge poetry, and somebody put together, like, ‘champagne bath, half empty.’ Joe was like, ‘Oh, that's like the saddest four-word short story that I've ever read.’ And then a variation of that ended up in the song.” Tranquilizer GA: “We knew we wanted some fucking freaky jazz saxophone on that one, and we wanted to get someone that really comes from that world, and Jemeel does. That song has almost no guitar. It was kind of supposed to be based around ‘If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go,’ by Curtis Mayfield, where it's just like a distorted, driving bassline that never changes and then all these things kind of float on top of it and then it kicks off in this kind of dramatic way. It was originally combined with ‘Modern Business Hymns’ and we ended up splitting those into separate songs—partially because we thought they were both solid enough on their own, and partially because the moods of them are very different. But I wanted to still have a connection between them, so the bassline that plays throughout ‘Tranquilizer’ is the same as the outro of ‘Modern Business Hymns.’ But in ‘Modern Business Hymns,’ you almost can't tell because it's kind of pretty. ‘Tranquilizer’ is menacing.” JC: “That was definitely one where I had to kind of go back to the idea of not overthinking lyrics. Because I really wanted to try to capture the feeling of when you're in pain. Writing about pain is impossible to do, because it is such an unthinking feeling. You’re not thinking about it. You're not having heady thoughts when you're in pain. You're immediately kind of reduced to very animalistic thoughts and fears, and I wanted to keep it that way. It's less about the words and more about the feeling of saying them almost. Once Greg explained the connection between this and the next song, it was easy to take the idea that you're dealing with pain until you take something to dull it or kill it. Because then on the next song, the first line is ‘Once the tranqs had hit.’ So it's like once you have gotten rid of the pain, then your mind can kind of formulate more thoughts about it.” Modern Business Hymns JC: “I always wanted to write a science fiction song, or a song about the future, but it's easier said than done. You don't want to make it too cheesy. So I wanted to kind of tie it into dreams, where when you're thinking about your future, if things are going well, you can imagine it as very bright. But when things are going very bad, the future can be just as dire as what you're going through. In the past, I've sometimes maybe wanted to double my vocals during the chorus, and this was definitely one that I'm like, this song will work if there's a female vocalist in the song, and I wanted it to be more of a duet. It ended up being maybe less of that, but I'm glad. I think Nandi makes the song. Her voice has a purity to it that I don't think people would expect to be in a Protomartyr song. For some reason, I feel like it elevates it in a way that I would have never imagined before I heard it.” Bridge & Crown JC: “I have a friend who is studying to be a dentist, and she is always trying to throw in different dental ideas. And the thing that she gave me for this song that really sealed it for me was the four different kinds of patients. That's something that you'll learn, I guess, if you study to be a doctor or a dentist or anything, is the different attitudes patients will have. It was a perfect way to get into talking about dealing with mortality, specifically your own mortality. The thing that will survive long after you're gone is your dental work. Out of all the songs, that was the one where the lyrics came the easiest for me.” GA: “I had written it start to finish, just on my phone. I think I was on an airplane and just messing around with how to structure it and trying different things. And it sounded insane. I made some really crazy drumbeats on it where I had just layered three different drum machines on top of each other. I brought it to the band and [drummer] Alex [Leonard] somehow learned how to play it, which he's actually really good at—when we just drum something that seems impossible, he can oftentimes figure out a way to make it work. It ended up being one of the craziest songs, because it wasn't really meant to be played.” Worm in Heaven GA: “When I was writing those chords, I was kind of just trying to write a country song. But it's also one of those things where immediately in writing it, I was like, 'This is the last song on the album.' But unlike that first song, you actually get the tension released by the end. It still cuts off as drastically as the first song does, but not before actually reaching a point where you feel like this tension that's been building the entire album finally has some sort of resolution and the song is able to actually explode.” JC: “It has a certain stillness to it, a confidence to it. The guitar takes a while to really announce itself, which isn’t something we would have necessarily felt comfortable doing before. I didn't have the lyrics until right before we recorded it. I really wanted to have the last thing be very of-the-moment, and I think, with that one, I wrote half of it up in my room at the studio ten minutes before it was time to record the vocals, and finished the second half of the lyrics in the booth as we were recording it. It’s happened a couple times on different albums where I just feel like the music is so beautiful that the lyrics have to kind of rise to the occasion for it. I don't want to get too corny about it, but it was like, ‘All right, no matter what happens to this record, this is kind of the point that we've been building, this moment.’ And it worked for me.”

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