“He’s not very exuberant” – said our contact in Domino Records that gave us the possibility to do this interview. Hearing that wasn’t surprising. Joe Casey – lead singer of Protomartyr seems like a nice guy, but also gives you this vibe of a person that doesn’t like speaking to journalists. Well, once again – that’s where we’re all wrong. Maybe that’s because he can’t tour to promote his new album and he has to do a lot of interviews instead. Or maybe making assumptions regarding someone’s character based on his stage antics and appearance is 100% wrong. Anyway, Joe is a very nice guy and yes – he’s exuberant enough. And here’s a proof.
What’s the definition of success for you?
Umm, I don’t have a definition for it. One of the reasons that we named our album “Ultimate Success Today” is that it’s hard to define. Is one of those words that could mean anything. I don’t know – putting out five albums in a band – that can be a success, I suppose.
So you consider Protomartyr as a successful band, right?
We could be more successful! (laughs)
We could be making more money, but we’re not. (laughs) No, we’re successful in the fact, that we’re still together and still putting out music that I think is interesting, so that’s a success, I guess.
That’s ten years as a band already, right?
Yeah, we started in 2010, but the first couple of years it was like a hobby.
This year is probably your hardest. Releasing an album amidst the coronavirus outbreak seems very hard. You had to postpone it and you can’t tour, obviously. How do you feel about it?
It’s awful. You work, you take off a year to record it – we’ve recorded it last year – you prepare for touring and getting it out there and to have that taken away from you makes it feel like you’ve killed a baby before it was even born. And touring is a way to make being in a band financially worth it so you can devote your time to it, full time. And to have that taken away immediately makes you question being in a band. “Why are you in a band if you’re not making any money out of it?”
Did you get any financial help?
Not really. There’s one thing I’ve signed up for and I’ve got thousand bucks, which was nice, but it was three months ago. And that Bandcamp Fridays thing is nice and all, but people don’t really buy mp3s anymore and if they’re buying a record from the site like that, it’s good, but that money goes to the label, so… To get any sort of interest, you have to record new music and recording new music during the pandemic, unless you have a home studio, is a little bit more difficult. That’s not really a moneymaker.
Are you planning to tour with this album after the pandemic or will you go on with the next one? What are your next steps?
What’s happening right now is nobody knows when this is going to be over. Last week we checked with touring people and now they’re saying that it will be possible in the fall of 2021 at best. That’s kinda terrifying – it’s going to be more than a year away from touring. And the truth is people have already moved on. New records are supposed to be coming out all the time. People’s attention is drawn somewhere else. The only thing that we could do is to, hopefully, get back together at some point and start working on new things, I guess.
You’re from Detroit. This city got hit hard with nearly every tragedy of this century, starting with the economic crisis. How do you cope with it?
It didn’t really hit Detroit any different than any place else. We just handle it in different ways. There are protests in Detroit, but as opposed to other places even in Michigan, which is the state that Detroit is in, they were a lot more peaceful.
Let’s get to “Ultimate Success Today” but first I have to ask you one more question – are you a fan of conspiracy theories?
It depends. Unfortunately, right now in America our president brings these conspiracy theories into the mainstream and it can be very destructive because idiots believe them, you know? There’s not a big conspiracy against you – the world is just a rough place. So, while I used to find them very entertaining, I now see how destructive they can be, so I’m down on conspiracy theories at the moment.
I had to ask about that, because the lyrics on your new album could spark some theories. You’re either from the future or you’re a good prophet. There’s even a verse in “Processed By The Boys” that speaks about “a foreign disease”. Did you expect the world to fall apart this quick when you wrote it?
No. I mean, this record was written more than a year ago and, to be honest with you, when our last record came out – “Relatives In Descent” – I was generally confused that people are writing albums about how great things were, when things were going so bad for people. I mean, you can write a love song – it’s ok. But when people are so surprised about what we’re writing about, I have to question if they were sheltered or been ignoring what’s been going on. I’m still amazed – especially bands that label themselves as punk or post-punk – when they’re putting out albums about being too popular or the trouble of success. (laughs) I kinda wonder what the fuck their day to day life must be like. I wish I could write a love song or a happy song but the world is affecting me too much at this point and I can’t ignore it.
But there’s a lot of personal stuff in your lyrics as well.
Yeah, that’s the selfish aspect of it. I’m writing about how it’s affecting me, because I think nothing could be more boring than writing a song that’s like reading a newspaper or reading a book about, let’s say, police brutality. You can write about how it affects you mentally and then: one – it’s relatable to other people and two – you’re just writing about how you’re feeling. In that way, you don’t necessarily have to be smart or clever or sing well. You just have to be as true to yourself as possible. It’s a very selfish thing to do, but a great thing about being in a band is that’s your job to be performative, so it’s ok.
What’s easier – writing about personal or, let’s say, social stuff? Don’t you feel exposed when you speak about yourself in your songs?
Yeah, you want to avoid self-aggrandizement, you don’t want to make yourself bigger than you are, but… what else are you going to write about? You can write observational songs, but you’re still the observer in it. Any sort of creative act is by definition selfish. I’ve worried in the past about putting aspects of my loved ones in songs and that I’m trying to avoid or be very careful about that, because it’s ok for me to spill my guts in my songs, but when I’m spilling my family’s guts – that’s an extra burden.
Are your albums lyrically connected? There are a lot of references to “Relatives in Descent” on this new album.
Yeah, I was just thinking: “You’ve been in a band for ten years, you put out five records… And there were some really great bands that didn’t last that long and didn’t put out this many records…”, so I’ve kinda looked back. The tone is very similar between these five records, even though the sound has been drastically different, I think. There is a connecting theme and it does seem to have rising and falling in action. First record sounds like a young mens album and it should, because the band was young at the time. And this one feels like the fifth act of the play, where the major action happened in the previous record and this is kind of the fallout to that. What’s great about it is that it ties everything together, which is wonderful and then it also allows you to move forward with possibility to do something different or unburdened by the ways you did things in the past.
So, do you have any ideas about your next album then?
No, because everything is so uncertain that I’ve learned this year not to make plans. I know that I’m excited to work on new stuff, but what shape will it take, I have no idea. Usually, what we did in the past was to put out our records, tour it and explore it through live shows. And not having that, we will be confused how to move forward right now.
As you said earlier, your music changes through albums. It’s getting more and more complex. Are you putting more work on it or are you just getting better as musicians?
We’re getting better! (laughs) You know, when we started, Greg [Ahee – guitarist] was the only one that’ve been in a band or played music and so the first couple albums it was the band learning how to play together. The great thing about getting better and better at something is that eventually when you run out of ideas, you can do what every band does – the “back to basics” record (laughs). Just go back and try to sound like you did in the beginning. Luckily I don’t feel like we’ve had the need to do that yet. Maybe the next record will be us trying to sound like a shitty punk band again (laughs). I do like the way that it has developed because I feel that it has been gradual enough. All the songs that we’ve recorded can be played live back to back and it wouldn’t be completely jarring. I’m looking forward to seeing what form it will take next if we keep on putting new stuff.
There’s also more and more guests on your albums. What’s the best part of working with other people?
Well, it’s back to the observer thing. When you’re working with somebody else, you kinda see yourself and your music in a new angle. When you’ve been in a band for ten years, you kinda know what the drummer thinks, you know what the guitar player thinks and how they work. So when you bring somebody new, everyone has to respond in a new and fresh way. It can be invigorating and so far it’s been a great thing. We’ll continue to have guests because it works well. If anything made us – or at least made me – appreciate the four parts of the band is that our basic Protomartyr sound is good, and then it’s getting really good if we know how to add these extra elements, which I’m happy about.
As we’re getting to the end of our interview, I have to tell you about the first Protomartyr concert that I saw. That was at the OFF Festival in Katowice. I guess you remember that show well.
Yeah! That was our first show in Europe! The first show we’ve ever played overseas, so it’s very special for us. We played right before Wolf Eyes, who are friends of ours and that was great. What is unfortunate though, is that the OFF Festival is so great, that we’ve been kinda chasing that high – like a drug – ever since. We’ve been trying to find something like that, which is keeping us going. It’s interesting that our first ever european show was that amazing. Amazing experience.
It was amazing. I didn’t know you then. I just thought: “Oh, their name sounds cool, let’s check them out”.
Yeah! Nobody knew. Nobody should have known us back then. We had like one and a half records at the time so it was exciting being a new band and to play on a festival like that, that’s introducing people to new sounds and the audience is excited to hear new stuff. You know, festivals can be very terrible. Festivals can destroy your soul, because they can be very bad, very corporate… The audience isn’t there to see you, but that crowd is exciting and musically smart crowd.
I ended up in the first row and was amazed by two things – your music, and that specific charisma or rather anti-charisma. I thought: “Woah, they don’t even look like a band”. You got well known for that. Is this something you somehow cultivate in you?
There’s a funny thing – a couple years ago we went to Hollywood to be at the TV show called “The OA” – that was on Netflix. We played a band, you know – we played live on the show and… it got cut out (laughs). We’re not in the episode, but they filmed it. Between takes, all the extras that pretended to be fans of the band were like: “Wow, you guys got this gig good. You guys don’t look like a band!” The actors could not believe they cast us to be a band, because we didn’t look like a band. They were probably pissed off, like: “I could be a better lead singer than this guy” (laughs). It was a funny experience. And that’s kinda been our thing. I think that’s one of our charms. We weren’t made in the school or in a lab. We definitely look like four different guys from four different bands.
Speaking of which, I found that Tumblr page with funny descriptions of you. Are you aware of that?
Yeah, I was very upset about it. Nobody likes to be called unattractive, but yeah, it’s funny.
phot. Trevor Naud
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