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Protomartyr’s Joe Casey talks water, success and genius

Dan Webb
Protomartyr are a four piece post-punk outfit from Detroit, Michigan led by vocalist and lyricist Joe Casey. The band’s fifth studio album, Ultimate Success Today was released in July via Domino Recording Company.

Congratulations on the new album. It’s called Ultimate Success Today, which begs the obvious question, what do you consider to be ultimate success? What does that look like for you, and have you actually achieved what you set out to do?
Well, no, I wouldn’t say that I’ve, uh, I don’t know if there is such a thing as ultimate success, for myself. I can safely say I know I haven’t achieved it. I guess I’m proud of things that I’ve done, but ultimate obviously is the pinnacle or the end, and success, you know, seems to be another word for ultimate. And those things – I think life is about trying to, uh, it’s gonna sound – this is really corny. It’s about the journey, not the destination (laughs). Trying to accomplish small goals has been what’s made me feel good… they’re small successes, if they’re successes at all. Putting out five records I think is a thing that a lot of bands don’t do. They don’t last that long, so that’s a small accomplishment.

The main thing you’re going to accomplish in life is passing away…

Review: Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today

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So in that case, would you say that it’s an ironic title?
Uh, irony is a little bit overused. ‘Ultimate success today’, in the album it’s used at least on three songs, if I can remember, and in each one it’s used differently. And sometimes it can be, I think it’s kind of a positive almost phrase at the end of “Modern Business Hymns” cos it’s kind of about focusing on today and, you know, if you focus on the only thing that you could actually have any sort of demonstrable change on, that’s like the present. And that can be daunting and frightening, but it can be a positive statement. So that’s the most positive use of ‘ultimate success today’. The version on “Bridge & Crown” and “Day Without End” is a little bit more about finality and kind of how hollow that is. The main thing you’re going to accomplish in life is passing away. So those are a little bit more I guess irony-tinged definitions for it.

There’s been a push for drive-in shows recently by some in the industry, as a proposed solution to putting on safe shows during the COVID pandemic. I’m just curious what your personal opinion is on that? Is that a viable option for you guys or something that you’re keen to avoid entirely?
I mean, what do you think, do you think that drive-ins are going to be the future of anything? No, I don’t think so. We have a drive-in movie theatre in Detroit. It’s one of the longest running drive-in movie theatres. And it currently is making the most money out of any theatre in America. It’s got the most screens. But the money it’s making is not enough for that business to survive on. It’s not like it’s having a boom period because it’s the only place to see a movie. So what’s happening is like things that we used to take for granted are possibly destroyed forever. So would I like to do a drive-in theatre show? No, because we wouldn’t be paid enough and it’s not a sustainable idea, it’s a novelty.

Would I like to do a drive-in theatre show? No, because we wouldn’t be paid enough and it’s not a sustainable idea, it’s a novelty.

Last month you released a visual version of the album for one day only. What the reasoning was behind that, and was it difficult to assemble given the current situation?
Well, the reason we did it was because we won’t be able to tour this album and there’s really no way to promote an album that you can’t tour. Everybody is trying to do these Instagram live shows and things. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of them, but the majority of them sound like shit and they look like shit. If you want a downgraded experience of what the live experience is like, watch something on YouTube live or something. So instead of trying to recreate something that’s been destroyed, you try to do something different and you know, the next suggestion is videos for each song, which yes, it was very difficult to do because the directors couldn’t have a crew or a cast. A lot of these were made during the worst possible time of the crisis. A lot of them had to be clever and they enjoyed the challenge. I don’t know if we would necessarily want to do that again with the time constraints and the health constraints we had on it, but I’m happy with the way it turned out. And I’m glad to do some something to make the album different than the other ones we’ve done in the past, and hopefully will do in the future.

Everybody is trying to do these Instagram live shows and things. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of them, but the majority of them sound like shit and they look like shit.

How you approach the actual act of songwriting? Do you start with perhaps an intention of what you’d like to say, or does that sort of come later in the process once you’ve sort of worked out other elements of the song, like a melody, etc.?
There might be a general intention of what my mood is. Like right now, I’m not writing anything, but I am taking in feelings on my mood and maybe turns of phrases or I read something and I find it interesting, I might remember it for later. But when it comes to songwriting, at least in our situation, the music comes first, and then I respond to what the music is telling me to do. Now, if the music is being written during a period of let’s say, a global pandemic and crushing poverty, then maybe the lyrics more reflect that ahead of time. I will know going in that this will be on my mind, but usually I like to wait to hear what the music sounds like… I’ll give you an example. On the last record is a song that sounded like people living upstairs. And so I knew that the lyrics had to have something about people running upstairs, and this one, “Michigan Hammers” sounded like the hammering of sheet metal or something. And so I knew that I had to have a literal hammer in the song. Those are kind of examples, broad examples, but like, yeah, the music comes first, the melodies and the music comes first and lyrics are a secondary thought.

Review: Miles Davis – Rubberband

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I understand that your guitarist Greg (Ahee) is influenced by jazz. I’m curious, are you a jazz fan yourself? And if so, can you pinpoint a favourite artist or album?
Well, it’s one of those things where, you know, it’s a difference to be like, “Oh, I enjoy listening to jazz music.” Do I want to make jazz music? You know, I think there’s a large gulf there. And so when Greg is like “oh, I’m influenced by jazz”, that can be, “Oh no, he thinks he’s a jazz musician,” but he was more thinking about maybe the structure of jazz and the tools, how they use collaboration and where there is a freedom to, you know, once the general framework of the song’s figured out, then that’s when like improvisation and collaboration come in. I think that’s generally what I took from it. I definitely listened to jazz a lot when I was younger. Lately I haven’t been listening to a lot, but I’ve been keeping up with what’s new. It does feel like we’re at a new age of jazz music, which is good. But, you know, (laughs) I’m not that eclectic. I like some of the Miles Davis electric rock albums, like In A Silent Way (1969), I love. Pharoah Sanders is probably my favourite, but you know, I’m not the biggest jazz person in the world.

I’ve actually been watching a lot of Miles Davis electric period concerts from the ’70s and ’80s, with people like Bob Berg on saxophone the past few days. There’s just some incredible stuff there.
I saw a documentary about him on PBS, and it was a thing where, you know, people kind of gloss over the ’80s as, you know, him past his prime, but it was interesting to see and hear some of that stuff, yeah.

Yeah, I think it’s incredibly underrated. I’m actually curious to hear what you think of the terms ‘genius’ and ‘ahead of their time’. These sort of phrases get brandished around a fair bit in the music industry, especially. Do you believe that there is such a thing as genius?
Well, let’s do ‘ahead of their time’ first. That one always seems like an underhanded way to say unlistenable (laughs). If someone’s like, “They were ahead of their time,” then that’s implying that they’re a genius. If they’re saying, “Oh, they are ahead of their time,” it’s saying that the music is unlistenable. And as far as genius… I definitely consider that there’s bands that are genius and writers that are genius and things. When you’re in it though, it’s really weird. You get this weird sense of your self worth being based on what other people think of you and it’s a weird feeling. And so I don’t see any geniuses in my contemporary circle. Cos if I did, I think it would drive me mad, like, you know, the part of the Amadeus movie (laughs). But I certainly recognise that there’s musical geniuses, just I think you should only get that name after you die.

Sure. Now, there’s been a lot of discussion surrounding you starting the band in your 30s. I’m just curious as to your perspective, do you feel setting out in a music career later in life is an advantage or disadvantage?
Um, well, it’s weird, when we started and I was in my 30s, it felt weird and I felt too old to be starting a band. And now that I’m in my 40s, it really feels weird, but no, the advantages were I didn’t have a period where I was young and hungry and that can trip up a lot of bands. I never had my awkward period where I wrote a song about how some girl broke my heart or something. You know what I mean? Like the teenage angst. I built up years of thinking about things and not singing about them. So I had time for things to develop and I feel like I’m much calmer and more thoughtful than I was back then. Like, I’m sure the songs would have been a lot more like poppy. I’m glad I wasn’t in a band in my 20s, because we try to look cool back then, for instance (laughs). In your 30s, you don’t give a shit anymore. So I’m glad I waited because it obviously worked, I guess, I’m still doing it.

I saw an interview from a couple of years ago where you mentioned that you were reading a book from the 1600s. Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?
Uh, not really at the moment cos I’m finding it extremely difficult to read it all during this pandemic. I’m mostly reading, like kind of biographies of Hollywood actors. I’m reading a book about Peter Lorre, the character actor from like the black and white days… Always reading a book before you have to write lyrics is helpful, because if you’re not directly influenced by what you’re reading, just the act of seeing words put together kind of helps you formulate how to write. So that’s always good. But since I haven’t done much of anything, these last couple of months, I haven’t been reading anything.

Reading a book before you have to write lyrics is helpful, because if you’re not directly influenced by what you’re reading, just the act of seeing words put together kind of helps you formulate how to write.

Are there any literary writers who have had a really profound influence on your songwriting?
I wish it was easy to point to one and say this is my North Star, as far as writing goes. The closest I can say is probably Flann O’Brien, but that one is like, it’s not like I worship at his altar necessarily, it’s just that I enjoyed his books, that I was reading his books around the time that the band started. So it was kind of an influential – I enjoyed the literary quality of his books and also the humour and, you know, it’s realism mixed with surrealism. I thought it was a good mix of different kind of qualities that was inspirational for my lyrics in the early days of the band.

On top of the pandemic, I understand that there’s a major water crisis in Flint, which is an hour’s drive north from where you grew up. Do you know anyone from that area who’s affected? And what effects more broadly has it had on the psyche of people living in the state of Michigan?
Well, what’s interesting about that is that that happened, you know, five years ago and they still – they never really got clean water in Flint. It never was figured out. It was a pretty popular news story for a while, but it just kind of washed away. And what’s relatable about it is that my father, before he passed away, he worked for the Detroit Wastewater and Sewage company, which that job is, you know, they supplied fresh drinking water to the people of Michigan. And since he’s passed away, a regional authority has taken over the water department and they’re trying to get their money back. They left Detroit with just getting money from its citizens for its fresh water. And so Detroit has shut off a lot of water because people can’t pay. It turns out, you know, Detroit’s a poor city and actually, you know, different human rights organisations have declared that what Detroit was doing was almost akin to war crimes, crimes against humanity, denying people water. So that’s currently going on right now in Detroit. And I see that being a countrywide problem where water becomes more and more scarce and people may be denied water. So it’s one of those things where you need to define it as a human right. Especially since in Michigan, we have companies like Nestlé pumping out water to sell, and we’re charging poor people for fresh water. It’s kind of a crime going on now. So the Flint story has never really gone away.

Different human rights organisations have declared that what Detroit was doing was almost akin to war crimes, crimes against humanity, denying people water.

I can imagine it’d be incredibly stressful living in the area.
Um, well, it’s one of those things where it’s, you know, if you can pay for your water, you don’t even notice it. It’s one of those things where the people that are living in poverty are kept out of sight and you don’t really know about water shut-off. It’s not one of those things that is well known, but every now and again a news story will bubble up about, you know, especially during the winter, like a house burning down because someone had like an illegal hookup of electricity cos their electricity was shut off. It’s those kind of things. You don’t realize who’s living without water until it’s too late.

Thanks for shining a light on it for this article.
Yeah, no problem.

Motown’s obviously huge in your hometown. Do you have a favourite song, album or artist from the label?
So I guess Stevie Wonder, just because he’s one that I’ve actually seen around town and I’ve seen him perform and uh, you know, if you’re going to get your money’s worth, then Songs in the Key of Life (1976) is, you know, (laughs) certainly long enough. When anybody asks the inevitable question, “What’s your desert island disc?” you can say, Songs in the Key of Life and you’ll be set because it’s so long (laughs)… I’m impressed with the amount of albums he put out. And I kind of wish he’d continue to put out new music, but it seems like he’s kind of stopped recently cos he did kind of all his stuff in his 20s and kinda like stopped releasing albums in his like 30s, kind of when I started, so it’s kind of weird. I wish that he’d do more.

Yeah, I guess he started very early in life, he obviously rose to fame as a kid. Okay, well I’ve got one final question for you. If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
Any artist, any medium? Um, probably like, you know, the Swedish producers, like the Max Martins of the world. I would try to collaborate with them on songs because their songs make a lot of money. And if I could get a piece of that, you know, I often say like, yeah, you know, artists can collaborate with anybody, it’s, you know, the actual creation is the best – yeah, Max Martin. He makes a ton of money. I would love to write a song with him or produce a song with him to get some of that rich Swedish songwriting money.