Photo: Angel Ceballos

Rage Against the Mundane: An Interview with Protomartyr

PopMatters talks to Protomartyr's frontman Joe Casey about his band's working class roots, the pros and cons of making music in Detroit and his fascination with spinning cultural flotsam into surreal narratives.
Under Color of Official Right
Hardly Art

“I had some warts, so I was using a wart remover, which is just a tube of gas that freezes out the wart,” says Joe Casey, the singer and main lyricist for Protomartyr, when asked about the ferociously propulsive “Want Remover,” from the band’s second album Under Color of Official Right. “So from that, I started thinking, ‘What would a want remover do?’ That’s how it spun out. I like the idea of taking a dumb, mundane idea and trying to take it somewhere interesting.”

The song, which runs for just under two and a half minutes, is an adrenaline jacked blur of guitar and drums whose nattering lyrics worry at everything from courtroom TV shows to consumerism to apathy to the declining quality of bar room arguments.

Says Casey, “It used to be, in bars, you’d have arguments and discussions about things. You’d have to bring your knowledge and that’s it.” Today, though, with smart phones, “People kind of carry their brains around in their pockets these days. It seemed like technology is removing a lot of people’s drive to do things. You remove the want that you have, if there’s an app for that, what would that be like?”

The Doorman’s Revenge

Casey was working as a doorman at Detroit’s Gem Theater when he met Greg Ahee, then the guitarist in the Butt Babies (a band that also featured drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson, who are now also in Protomartyr). “Yeah, we were dressed in black suits and white shirts and black ties and opening doors all day at these shows,” says Casey, noting that the Gem was a mecca for Red Hat Lady outings, and its longest running show ever was Menopause: The Musical. “At that time, I was worried that the rest of my life was going to be opening doors at this theater. And I thought it would be fun to sing along with these guys and at that point, I had never been in a band before.”

Casey is still a doorman, now at a Detroit improv club, but it’s more palatable now. “I just figured if I was going to have a dead end job, I should at least have a creative endeavor that made it seem like ‘Oh that’s why you’re doing it,'” he says.

Protomartyr started playing around Detroit and, in 2012, headed to a Detroit studio to record No Passion All Technique. “We tried to get as much done as possible,” says Casey. “So we recorded 22 songs in one day.”

The second time around, with Hardly Art’s backing, Protomartyr went to the Key Club in Benton Harbor, Michigan and recorded with Bill Skibbe. The band had three days this time, not enough to go off the deep end, Abbey Road style, but sufficient for a more polished approach.

“Alex wasn’t happy with the sound of the drums. He wanted more force. And Greg wanted a cleaner guitar sound. We also wanted to hear the bass … recording fast punk songs, sometimes you lose the bass,” Casey recalls. “A lot of it was … let’s make sure that everything is represented here. I love the way the first album was recorded and everything, but we wanted to do something a little different. Reach out.”

The new album captures both sides of band that simultaneously strives for amateur enthusiasm and instrumental precision. “I like things that sound like they have mistakes in them. They sound real,” says Casey. “That’s a nice push and pull in the band. The guys in the band are like, well, my drums have to sound perfect, or my guitar, and there can’t be a bum note. They were upset because there were some bum notes in the first album. I like bum notes.”

Clarity and Variety

The second album is noticeably clearer sounding than the first one, with more white space and greater variety in the songs. “Tarpeian Rock” is a grinding, bass-driven Fall-like, post-punk song, while “Scum, Rise!” has a spooky, trebly New Wave vibe. And “What the Wall Said” is almost a ballad at first, stretched out and plaintive, and completely different from anything on the first album.

“It’s funny because sometime I will say, ‘Hey, this song could use an acoustic guitar.’ And Greg’s like, ‘No, I’m not playing an acoustic guitar,'” Casey admits. “That song is probably as close as we’re going to get.”

“I like albums that have a little bit of variety to them. I kind of like albums that are like, here’s a fast one, here’s one that’s a little slower, you know. Some variation,” Casey muses. “Nowadays, to get traction as a band, you really have to hoe the same row. ‘You can only sound like this.’ The descriptors they have for bands now are so micro-specific.”

So, Under Color of Official Right encompasses the mad, layered, stream of consciousness energy of “Tarpeian Rock,” a song whose lyrics change from performance to performance because as Casey admits ” for the life of me, I try to remember …” But it also has the anthemic “Scum, Rise!” which sounds like a call for revolution — until you actually listen to it, that is.

“I originally had an idea that I wanted this song to be almost a rallying cry for the dispossessed, but then the song changed and there were different parts that came into it,” says Casey. “It seemed like when I was growing up, the big thing was like deadbeat dads, dads who were in Vietnam. It’s interesting to see my generation — they might be cool guys with tattoos and eating kale or whatever — but they’re still crappy dads. It’s interesting to see people being deadbeat dads, because the cycle repeats.”

The song has lyrics about a seven-year-old abandoned by his dad, and the refrain, “Nothing you can do, nothing you can do.” It’s a bleak topic, yet musically the song still has a hint of triumph to it.

“I kind of hate anthems. I’m not very good at them. And I think the world’s got enough of them,” says Casey. “So the song became more about the idea of the kid whose dad ups and leaves him, and now this kid is grown up and gets his revenge on this piece of shit dad.”

Motor City Madness

If Casey’s lyrics have a proletarian slant, fixing on absent dads, daytime TV and other quotidian subjects, it may because of what he comes from. He and the other three members of the band are lifelong Detroiters, a city which is has both advantages and disadvantages for working musicians.

On the positive side, there’s a low-key but supportive scene. “There’s a tradition of going out to see bands. It’s one of the main things we do in Detroit,” says Casey. “This is a working class town. Shows are cheap. There’s not a separation between, ‘Oh we’re the musicians on the stage, and we’re going to give you a show.’ All we’ve got is a corner of a bar and maybe you’ve paid $5 to see us but you probably snuck in the back. The audience might be 15 people, but they’ll tell you if you stink or not.”

It’s also a lot easier to find rehearsal space than in high-cost cities like New York and San Francisco. “That’s one of the good things about being in a city that’s economically depressed. Space is cheap. Everyone has a practice space. So the bands have an opportunity to get good, to practice,” says Casey.

“Still definitely what’s going on in Detroit affects you, whether you want it to or not. Everybody’s touched by crime. I don’t know anybody in Detroit that hasn’t had their car broken into or stolen multiple times,” he says. Protomartyr bass player Scott Davison was loading his Chevy Trailblazer for a tour with Tyvek, when he left the car outside the drummer’s house. The van had a club on the wheel and a girlfriend keeping an eye on it, but it disappeared anyway.

“You get used to it,” says Casey. “You play a show and the other band’s gear got stolen and three cars got stolen, that kind of thing. That’s kind of minor. When people come to Detroit, they’re always like ‘I can’t believe it.’ But they’ve come to a place where this stuff is acceptable almost.”

And in any case, Casey’s connections to the city are deep enough and strong enough that he’s not in any hurry to leave. He lives in the same home that he grew up in, alone but surrounded by the past. A clip from a cassette tape he found in his house is spliced into the closing song “I’ll Take that Applause”. The voices on it include Casey’s grandmother, who passed away in 1991, his father who is also gone, and his mother who is in failing health and living with Casey’s brother.

“I’m in the old family home, and everything’s falling apart, but I’m finding all kinds of things. I found that tape. At that point, my grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and now my mom has got it,” he says. “It’s sad, but it’s nice to hear them now. My dad’s voice is on there. For some reason, I thought that would be perfect to go on this song.”

The odd juxtaposition that absolutely works is part of Casey’s art. It’s what makes his rattling spews of ordinary, real-life imagery seem so mysterious and menacing. And if you don’t quite get what he’s saying, that’s okay, too.

“I’m kind of a lyrics guy, even though I don’t think that necessarily lyrics should be understood,” says Casey. “I like when I don’t know how the song could be the way it is or where it came from. I like songs that don’t sound like other songs.”