Protomartyr’s Joe Casey on Why He’s Obsessed with Decay

Protomartyr’s Joe Casey on Why He’s Obsessed with Decay

Protomartyr’s music is something of a sentient force. The humanity in Joe Casey’s lyrics is ever-present and it can bruise the soul to hear, but it is never a burden.

Casey takes no side or agenda in his lyrics. His priority is to provide a distinct image to the listener, let them understand the circumstances of the setting and draw some sort of conclusion themselves. The narrative-driven quality of the band’s music stems from Casey’s love of film and literature. He also started making music and performing a little later than most, which gave him more of a macro view of life and its inner-workings. Casey’s knack for studding cutting, intricate details into his lyrics is supported by the band’s minimal, yet forceful melodies.

Protomartyr removes the headphones and gives a hearty shove to the back, making the listener confront a society we must find a way, any way, to live within.

Casey spoke to TIDAL about perception of the band’s music, recording their new album, Relatives in Descent, and decay.

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What is the process of creation for Protomartyr?

The band does a lot of the heavy lifting with the music and they leave me alone to write the lyrics. When we’re in the studio, I don’t like to write down all of the lyrics; there is some stream-of-consciousness present. Each take will be very different and [drummer] Alex [Leonard] is pretty great at picking out which take is the one that is good. That way, I can go back and write down what I said and so that becomes the final lyrics. It’s great to have a reliable pair of ears in the studio that can say, ‘No, that one’s better,’ especially if I make fun of someone I shouldn’t make fun of.

You’ve said you wanted to ‘make stuff up’ lyrically on this record. How do you mask truths on this album?

Well, you want to be able to suggest something resembling a universal feeling, but you don’t want to hit people over the head with it. What works for me is to skew things a little bit. It’s what I am attracted to. I like weird tales and I think it fits the sonics for it to be be plainspoken and contain these little mistruths.

I never really wanted lyrics available, but people start getting the words so wrong because I’m mumbling them, so I had to write them down and that made me cognizant of what I wrote down. When lyrics are written down, they work differently than something like poetry. They read terribly. With your own lyrics, the words tend to look stupid on the page.

Did working with producer Sonny DiPerri and the new environment distinctly reflect on the new record, in your opinion? There seems to be a lot more space in the music on this record. I know he has worked with Animal Collective and other groups with a slightly more poppy sound.

We knew we wanted to go someplace different to record than the previous two records, so we wouldn’t get in a rut. We also wanted to see if our sound could survive different locations and different people producing it. It was important to not have anyone with too heavy of a hand. What was so great about Sonny was that he was very locked in to what we wanted.

We wanted to record somewhere warm and we went to California. Usually, we are recording in Michigan and it is characteristically cold.

Greg [Ahee], our guitarist, was kind of enthralled with a certain kind of violin sound we heard. There was a violin part on a Raincoats record called Odyshape and then he wanted violin on the record. At first we heard it, and we all just thought, ‘Ah shit, I don’t know if that’s going to work or not.’

We had all the songs before we went to the studio, so we’d have all of this done on keyboard and just figure out on there where the string parts would go and what they would sound like. Sonny had no problem capturing that sound and making it work for us.

With such a distinct sonic approach, how was that sound conceptualized and brought together?

I didn’t come from a background of being well-versed in music. I think the development of the sound came from wanting to keep things simple, rudimentary and sparse just to get to the point. It was definitely a sound we had heard with other Detroit bands.

It also helps that when we were first getting started, we were practicing in a very dingy warehouse room, where in the summertime it would get unbearably hot and in the winter intensely cold. That kind of prevented us from writing these complicated songs. It is definitely the simpler, the better.  We don’t want to keep on repeating the same thing, but it’s working for us, so we shouldn’t change it that much.

What was the source of the album’s direction? 

For this record, we had just come off the road after doing a lot of touring. There were a lot of aches and pains so there was a lot of references to guts and generally feeling unwell. After the tour, my house also flooded. Before then, it had this smell of smoke and dust. Now I’ve got this mildew smell on top of that and the combination of these sensations and smell kind of infected the record.

Was there any crystallizing moment where you knew what the record would sound like?

There’s a song on the record called ‘Night-Blooming Cereus’ and it’s one of the more different-sounding songs on the album. It’s the kind of thing where the lyrics are sort of beautiful and I got worried I was going to make the song too sappy or too rote. You don’t want to ruin a song with terrible words. For this album, though, I always felt capable of getting the music to match the tone of the lyrics every time. It was a challenge because you don’t always nail it, but with that song, I feel like I can sing that every night and not get embarrassed.

How do you feel being associated commonly with existential dread?

Well, unfortunately, on this record, there is a little bit of existential dread. I get it. People have to put a ribbon around it and describe it in some way. Over the course of the album, I do make an effort to address different emotional states, but then the reviews come out and it always seems to be ‘ANOTHER DOWNER RECORD FROM PROTOMARTYR.’

You try to find some light and shade. You say ‘post-punk’ and people picture pale guys in raincoats. That image gets stuck in their head and that’s all they hear. I’m hoping we are changing in digestible increments.

I suspect from the group some adherence to structure in the music, is there any deliberate approach to how the group makes their music?

What we do and what has worked for us so far is that we set deadlines for ourselves. We set a pretty rigid deadline and compose a lot of music. Then, we chip away at things that don’t seem to stick to the wall. For this record, we knew that there would be twelve songs on the record and made that work. For the most part, we make a record with a heightened awareness it’s a record. There’s an ‘A’ side and a ‘B’ side. We are conscious of how we arrange our records around the opening and closing songs.

I’ve always recognized a physical, brutal nature to your music. Does that resonate at all?

Well, I’ve heard people say we ‘build up all of this tension and there is no release.’ I think that’s because we shy away from big choruses. Some sing-along or melody is really the physical release, or melodic resolve. As far as the lyrics and singing go, when we were getting started, I was just finding space to fit in this noisy practice space. I don’t have much of a singing voice, so I just have to bark these words out. My voice is low and I tend to mumble a lot.

What I am concerned with lyrically is a lot of things concerning the mind and the body. I obsess over things falling apart and decay. I’m also trying, in all of that, to find some positive way to look at that. So that it’s not a bummer when life falls apart, it is just a fact of life. A lot of the lyrics are talking through it and trying to get over it.

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