20 Years of The Protomen

Twenty-years ago on Thursday, April 22, 2004 The Protomen played their very first show at The Boro out in Murfreesboro, TN. It’s rare for any band in the Nashville area to exist for two decades, much less one that is embedded in as much mythology as The Protomen are. As the band prepares to play their 20th anniversary show at East Side Bowl this Saturday, April 27th – let’s reflect on what makes them so dang special.

Flyer for the first show for The Protomen, 2004
Flyer for the 20th anniversary show for The Protomen, 2024

For the uninitiated, The Protomen started as a group of friends and students at Middle Tennessee State University; many of which were enrolled in the recording program. Murfreesboro had been a hotbed of a music scene in the late 90’s with a variety of bands like those signed to Spongebath Records (Self, The Features, et al), independent bands doing math-rock (Serotonin, Kill Devil Hills), indie rock (Glossary, The Plane) and all points in between. Famously (and most certainly unfortunately), it was once called a “Music Mecca” by Billboard Magazine. However, by 2001 Spongebath Records had mostly folded and many of the notable acts of the area had moved to Nashville or beyond in search of something more. College towns experiencing matriculation isn’t new or bad, but it did create a chasm for the The Protomen to fill.

The band itself is comprised of upwards of eight members (sometimes more) and none using their real names, only pseudonyms derived from pop culture of the 80s and 90s. Lead vocalist “Raul Panther III”, keyboardist “Commander B. Hawkins,” bassist “Murphy Weller”, vocalist “Gambler Kirkdouglas”, “K.I.L.R.O.Y.” on hype, “Reanimator” on drums, “Sir Dr. Robert Bakker” and “Shock Magnum” on guitar. The list of members across 20 years is long but there’s never been an exception to the rule, everyone participating in The Protomen has an alias. The reason for this is to embrace the mythology that the band has been building since day one, a mythology superficially built on the video game series Mega Man but evolving into a more critical introspection on technology, power dynamics, fascism and intolerance.

The self-titled debut, parenthetically referred to as Act I, was released in 2005 and adheres the most literally to the Capcom video game series Mega Man, although it takes plenty of liberties with the story. The Wikipedia entry and Fandom writeups about the record will provide you with all the nitty gritty details but the album’s story is that of an oppressed society that technology attempts to liberate and, ultimately, turns against them. Musically, it’s a high energy, theatrical presentation filled with soaring guitars, dramatic piano fills and expressive drums. To put it lightly, it’s a Shakespearean drama about a sci-fi conflict that just so happens to be inspired by an 8-bit sidescroller.

Act I is an enjoyable and immersive listen but the band’s live show is what cemented them as a cult favorite. The band members all wear silver & black face paint while wearing black outfits accented with red. K.I.L.R.O.Y. and Panther wear masks and helmets respectively, taking the story of the album from being just words and music to being an experience. These are not just members of a band but both the cast of the story and part of the revolution, uprising against the oppressive forces.

In 2007, a few years after the release of Act I, fellow MTSU student Makeup and Vanity Set released a remix album entitled Makeup and Vanity Set Presents: The Protomen. The release reimagines the songs of Act I in chiptune style, akin to how it would be played through an actual Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s noteworthy not just for the musical style (chiptune is rare in the Nashville area) but because it’s evidence of the real world community that The Protomen have been a part of and cultivating since the beginning.

In 2009, the band released their anticipated sophomore album, Act II: The Father of Death. The story contained within the album is actually a prequel to the events of Act I, explaining the back story of why the conflict exists in the first place. The band toured more extensively at this time, growing a dedicated fanbase and embracing their theatrical stage show.

In 2011, the band provided the score to Terminator the Second, a live performance that retold the plot of James Cameron’s Terminator II: Judgment Day using only lines and phrases written by William Shakespeare (seriously, you must watch the trailer). There were only a handful of actual performances of the stage show but The Protomen’s score helped to expose the creation to a wider audience. The recordings of the score would not be released until 2013, along with a filmed recording of the show.

In 2012, The Protomen played the farewell show for experimental metal band Evil Bebos at Exit/In. Bebos played a set comprised entirely of Black Sabbath songs and The Protomen performed an entire set of Queen covers. The show was recorded and released as A Night of Queen.

A few years later, in 2015, the band released The Cover Up: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, an album of cover songs paying tribute to many of their favorite bands of the 70s and 80s. While The Cover Up is not actually a soundtrack to any real movie, many of the song selections fit within the mythology of the band. Robert Tepper’s “No Easy Way Out” is taken from the Rocky IV soundtrack, a classic underdog story. Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” is a narrative about futile heroism during wartime. “Mr. Roboto” from Styx is a no-brainer, a piece of a narrative concept album about an imprisoned robot named Kilroy. The band continues to world build even when they’re covering songs written before the band (or Mega Man) ever existed.

In 2016, the band unveiled a 16-minute short film and music video for “Light Up the Night“, the tenth track from Act II. The album had been released in 2009, seven years prior. In our modern times, it seems like a mis-step to wait so long to release some marketing content for your album but I would argue this is one of the strengths of The Protomen. While seven years is an awfully long time between events, it’s a testament that the band is invested in making art that they are proud of, regardless of the timing. To further this point, they also released an ultra deluxe vinyl version of Act II nine years after its release. That’s an absurdly long time but the vinyl is also a pop-up book, not exactly a common piece of merchandise.

In 2020, the band released a 94-minute live album simply titled Live in Nashville. The performance was actually captured in 2011 at 12th and Porter but not released for nine years (again, the band is not interested in speed – to their testament). The setlist includes all songs from Act I and the majority of songs from Act II – many of which have new arrangements thanks to the years of being played live. It’s an excellent testament to their performance prowess and theatricality – even without being able to see the band, you can absolutely appreciate the energy they put forth. It’s also quite amusing to hear Panther thank the audience for “making this possible for seven years.” That’s certainly an accomplishment but hearing that sentiment from 20 years out is worth a smirk.

As the twenty year anniversary of Act I is on the horizon, fans clamor for the next installment in the bands original storyline – sensibly referred to as Act III. Over the years, The Protomen have released three songs from the forthcoming finale of their story – “This City Made Us“, “Hold Back the Night” and, as recently as 2022, “The Fight.” It’s not unlike the band to release singles and previews of larger bodies of work but Act III will presumably be a narrative piece of work – so these nuggets are as mysterious of the band members real names.

If you were to describe The Protomen to someone – an operatic rock band writing songs about the downfall of mankind at the hands of battling mechanoid mega men that are also brothers – they may feel bewildered that such a band could possibly exist, much less exist successfully for two decades. However, simply listening to any song across their twenty years, it’s clear that their longevity is due to their commitment to the craft. They are writing an original sci-fi story, setting that to music, making it memorable and somehow keeping the internal message poignant and meaningful. The real people behind the band are clearly enormous fans of cinema and world building. They’re also keenly aware of the traps that both can fall into (see: unnecessary sequels, shallow relationships, bad plotlines) and doing their damndest to avoid those pitfalls. Their body of work is literally remarkable – “worthy of attention; striking.” Conceptually they may be shocking but the reality is, they’re an incredibly talented group of people approaching music from an admirably unique angle.

Even if the band never released Act III and simply played a few shows here and there for the remainder of our days, what they have created would be worth a chapter in the History of Nashville Music.™ Personally, I don’t think that will be the case. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that the band has a lengthy list of creations still to come. Chips all on the table, I’m hoping for at least another twenty years.