Joe Casey is the vocalist and lyricist behind modern post-punk legends Protomartyr. The band have released four albums since 2012, with 2017’s Relatives in Descent receiving universal acclaim and a spot on several year-end best-of lists. Playing a combination of 70s-styled art punk and Detroit garage, the band have been cited as an influence by punk peers such as Shame, Idles, Parquet Courts and Fontaines DC. They are now returning with their fifth album, Ultimate Success Today, out tomorrow (July 17). MATIJA ZIVKOVIC sat down with Casey to discuss the personal inspirations behind the album, his thoughts on capitalism, and mules.
Where in the US are you at the moment, and how’s the COVID situation going over there?
It’s currently 8:30 at night in Detroit. So I’ve done nothing since March 14 but get fat – I’ve felt like I’ve done a good job [in] not going out, I’m wearing a mask when grocery shopping, and all that. And now I feel like all that’s been blown to shit and we’re back to square one now. It feels like we’re never going to get out of it. Before I was thinking “Let’s just get through this, the album will come out, and then we can look forward to touring next year.” Now I’m not looking forward to anything! Leave it to America to figure out how to fuck up wearing masks.
We’re facing a similar situation now. We had ‘flattened the curve’ but now our second biggest state, Victoria, has another outbreak, so it feels like back to square one over there…
Yeah I knew it was going to be hard – we don’t even know how airborne it is. But the fact that people are actively screwing it up – I didn’t know it would be like this.
You grew up in Detroit. What were some of your earliest exposures to music? Do you feel like Detroit with its musical heritage rubbed off on you?
When I was very young Motown was everywhere – you’d hear it everywhere you went. I didn’t have great musical taste in high school (laughs), I came back around after college. When I was finally able to go to bars, the Detroit garage rock and art punk was always very exciting. I remember I got to see the White Stripes at one of their early shows. And you had techno and all that – you’d go to where the party was.
How did Protomartyr itself come about? How did you join the band?
Through extreme boredom! I tell people – the way I live now during COVID is how I lived before the band. I didn’t leave the house, and if I did it would be to go get something to drink. The band allowed us to hang out in bars and drink beers for a purpose. It was a way to hang out with friends – as you get older it’s very hard to just hang out, you need to have a reason. We could’ve been at home watching movies or drinking beers but instead we were writing songs.
One of the biggest elements of Protomartyr are your lyrics. I’m a big fan – they’re very poetic and abstract. What is your approach to lyric writing – do you plan it out or is it a more stream-of-consciousness approach?
The great thing about writing a song is there’s no set way to do it. What usually works for us is I hear the what the band is writing first. That music gives me a feeling, usually a very vague one. There’s a song on the new album that’s now called Bridge & Crown. When I first heard it I pictured being on a train or a subway. None of that ended up in the song necessarily – but once I had that image in my head, it was the spark and I was able to write lyrics. Sometimes I like to write a stream-of-consciousness down, then edit and clean it up. Stream of consciousness doesn’t always work though – there’s a reason why it’s a stream! But you can fish from that stream and dip your cup in to take some greatness out of it.
With your previous album Relatives in Descent you’d said you wanted to write a happy album but then the Trump election happened. For your upcoming album Ultimate Success Today, what are some of the topics influencing you as a whole?
Well again I was hoping to write another happy album but it didn’t work out that way. What was really affecting me was my own physical health, which was effecting my mental health and the way I was seeing the world. I could’ve tried to look past it, but I decided to have that as my mindset and write about it. I was also concerned with the plight of the working person in America and the world. They’re getting shit on more and more, and that was a theme I wanted to sing about.
Have you been diagnosed with something, if you don’t mind me asking?
The problem is I’m terribly afraid of doctors – that’s my own crux. When you’re young it’s ok, but I’m in my 40s now. Your body is slowly falling apart and you can try to mitigate that, but if you’ve lived like shit for the last 40 years like I have then you can’t expect it to be a brand new car anymore – the wheels are going to start coming off! And there’s the aspect of my stewing in my own fear of the unknown. I don’t trust doctors and that’s my own thing. Hopefully I’m getting over it – I went to get a COVID test so that’s a start. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac.
Seems like two conflicting interests! I can relate, my father is getting older and he’s recently had to face his age with a few hospital visits. These things happen more and more often as you get older.
That’s right – your parents go through it, but you never think about yourself going through that. The previous few records were dealing with issues about how it’s sad when people you know die. But it’s really sad when YOU die. It’s hard to grapple with losing loved ones, but when you start getting those gut and chest pains – your mind will race. And then when you look it up online, the internet will say you’ve got the worst thing. The internet is its own type of cancer!
Throughout the album from the opening track there’s this feeling of apocalyptic doom, like something’s around the corner. I can see how that’s both personal and addressing the world as a whole.
Yeah, and [opening track] Day Without End comes from the feeling of writing a song in the summer time, with the sun blazing through your window, and you can’t to sleep cos you’ve been up all night worried about the state of the world and your health. And then the sun comes up – another day, great! You just want one bit of respite and it never comes – that’s the “day without end”.
The album title Ultimate Success Today is a phrase you repeat a few times throughout the album. What are you trying to get at with those words?
It jumps around in meaning, but it’s mainly about the current moment in time. I only have control over what I’m saying to you at this very second – I can’t control what the album sounds like anymore, what the lyrics are about, the cover… that’s all in the past. And I don’t have any control over tomorrow. You only have control of the present. So it’s taking that cheesy ‘get rich quick’ idea – “Get rich fast, today, seize the day!” But really you’re only in the present, and that is frightening and very worrisome. Bridge & Crown and Worm in Heaven are about coming to terms with your existence being finite, that it will be gone and that means nothing in the grand scheme of things. That can be a very sad and depressing notion, but once you come to terms with it, it can be very freeing to realise that time is finite, and hopefully you will appreciate the moments you have now.
You talked earlier about the working class in America, and you have tracks on this album like Modern Business Hymns. What are you trying to say about the situation in America?
This is a bloviating theory but… I find that as the world is suffering from global warming and environmental collapse, in the future the rich man will always be in control. Once the coastline is destroyed, living in a place like Michigan – with tonnes of fresh water – will be a luxury item. Michigan is surrounded the so-called Great Lakes, and they’re full of this evasive species called Zebra Mussels. Because the water’s getting too hot, these mussels can survive and they’re destroying the wildlife in the water. But I can see some day in the future, when the food crisis hits, where the rich are eating Zebra Mussels – they’ll be a high quality item. Or for instance how Palenta used to be food for the peasants, but now it’s elevated and expensive. Street tacos should always be $2-3. I know in Detroit there’s now fancy restaurants next to these Mom-and-Pop places. Capitalism will find a way to ruin everything. As a kid I thought it would be cool to fly to Mars. Now I know it’d be a brutal experience that my body probably couldn’t take, and then when I got there I’d have to go to Starbucks to get food.
That’s right. I was born in Eastern Europe and it reminds me of where I’m from – it attracts rich tourists going there on holiday to experience the ‘simple life’, but it’s simple because it’s not surrounded by wealth…
Exactly. It happens a lot in America – people love going down to Mexico and staying in luxury. The Sex Pistols already wrote the perfect song about this with Holidays in the Sun. The rich come down and live off the backs off these people. It’s funny because I always wanted to write a science fiction song – it’d be a nice challenge to write a song about space ships and not make it corny. But when you sit down and think about it, it’s going to be just like my songs about Detroit, except it’ll be Detroit in Space.
Michigan Hammers was one of your singles and is on the album. What were you trying to get at with that, and how did you make the video clip?
This is another example of the music inspiring the whole song. I was trying to get the guys to write this big, energetic song, and they did. And then I wanted to write about industry and the history of work in Michigan. But I didn’t want to write an anthem, I don’t like the idea of sloganeering. I added a lot to the song to give it extra weight rather than just being a ‘let’s stick together and fight the power’ type of song. I don’t think I’m able to write such a song – to me it’s overly simplistic.
When it came time to do the video, because of COVID the ideas we had for our videos had to change. We had an amazing director [Anna Rose Holmer] who was meant to direct our video for Worm in Heaven, but her whole budget had to be scrapped. So we did a video just using still photography.
When it came time to do Michigan Hammers, we went to our friend Luna Park and asked if he can make a video with no actors, no cameramen, nothing. He was able to make a version of RoboCop completely out of stock footage. He just went online to footage libraries and constructed this. Just our bad timing about releasing an album about sickness during a pandemic, we also released a video about cops right when all the protests started happening. We have very bad luck.
Or you’re prescient some would say…
It’s funny – with [first single] Processed by the Boys, we were told if we edited down, then it could be used for radio play by the BBC. So we created a special version of the BBC – but then we found out that the BBC banned it because it mentioned foreign disease in the lyrics! Just our luck.
Then Processed by the Boys you based on a bizarre viral clip from Brazilian public access TV and it’s great – the way you captured the sense of confusion was perfect. You also have a lot of new sounds on the record – alto sax, cello, flutes, really reverbed guitar. What made you want to go in that direction?
That’s 100% Greg Ahee the guitar player. He always has a musical vision on how to make the newest record different, a spark at the beginning. In the past he used a lot of reverb, over-dubbed guitars and some synths. This time he wanted a really clean-sounding guitar and have all the other instrumentation fill in the space where we used to rely on effects.
He’s the musical genius of the band – he could see [the final sound] long before I could. It wasn’t until we got in the studio and the sounds came together that I realised “holy shit Greg was right, this works really well.”
You’re right. I heard very reverbed guitar through the album but the effect was from it being overlaid against the sax and other instruments…
Yep – there’s songs where there’s clean guitar and then there’s cello put through weird effects. And Nandi Rose from Half Waif [did a lot of] backing vocals that sound almost like keyboard patches – just her voice hitting all these crazy notes. He just figured out a new way to layer these sounds and it was exciting.
You design the album covers yourself. What was behind this one?
I like bands that have unified images. Black Flag always had a unified aesthetic with the [Raymond] Pettibon art until they got rid of that (and now they have some of the worst album covers of all time). I like visual clarity because then the images only have meaning when they’re applied to the music.
This was the fifth album and we’d had a dog before, and I wanted another animal. I really like mules, I’m obsessed with them and I find them interesting animals. If I had more time I would’ve gone out and found a mule, or had a photographer take a photo of one, but as with Michigan Hammers I had to get a stock photo and use that. I think it fits the theme of the album in a strange way.
With COVID, who knows when you’ll be in Australia next. But you toured Australia for the first time in 2019. How was that experience and what were your impressions?
It was an amazing time and to finally get to Australia was the culmination of our tour. We only played Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. It was only five days and not enough time to experience a country as big and vast as yours. It felt rushed – we got off the plane and went to see some koalas. They were my favourite animal growing up so I fought the jet lag and went to see these koalas. The feeling was “this is our first time, can’t wait to come back”, and the plan was to come back this year, or early next year. This is why you never make plans! Our hope is to come back, play more, and explore even more!
We’d love to have you back!
Yeah, maybe we’ll quarantine in New Zealand for two weeks and then come over to you guys. I’m sorry America is screwing up so badly – we’ll try harder!