On the surface, Joe Casey’s life seems ordinary. He lives in the same house he grew up in and mans the door at the same comedy club where he’s always worked. But there’s nothing middling about his career as the frontman of Detroit punk band Protomartyr. It all starts with his songwriting, which hints at a courage that’s neither conditional nor apathetic. It’s not the kind of courage that lets you flip a middle finger after you’ve been crushed by life, nor is it the kind that only comes with the promise of a reward. His courage is born of the realization that accepting loss only reinforces growth. Our mortality and our resistance to it is a subject Casey unravels frequently, but in a world where almost everything comes with air quotes and ambiguous images, Protomartyr’s third album, The Agent Intellect, depicts a life in the mind of a furiously complex and psychologically unbent humanist. It deals in shameless symphonic poems that prove punk rock has life in it still.
Protomartyr creates potent, self-contained atmospheres that leave you feeling a sense of enlightened loss, a paradox only a band like them could get away with. Under the new album’s hood is unironic wit and soul-baring sincerity. Rhythms punch, choruses resonate, and there’s a nifty little undercarriage of optimism. “Fighting against everything,” Casey says, “is not — well this isn’t a very punk thing to say — it’s not always the right way. Eventually you have to let go of things, and there’s no shame in that.” Our minds are little attics hoarding things we treasure but might never feel again, and sometimes you can’t get past loss until you pull it from the depths of your internal puddle, face it heart-first, and reflect. The Agent Intellect helps us befriend our mortality and become more alive.
The ever-friendly Casey chatted to Consequence of Sound about Detroit’s lack of celebrity fixation, loss of self, and how one day he could go full Bowie on us all.
When you’re nearing an album release, is there any way you can let go of that weird, in-limbo feeling?
It’s always a little stressful, but what’s odd about it is that for me, and I think the band feels the same way, it feels like we recorded these songs a long time ago. It was back in February. Some of the songs we had already after we recorded our second album [2014’s Under Color of Official Right], like “Cowards Starve”. The songs in our minds are already old and established, but people are just finding out about it now, so you have to put yourself back into that mind space.
Is it safe to say that inspiration isn’t a problem for you these days? You’ve released three albums in four years.
There was a point where it was bad. We had just moved the practice space from a warehouse to our bass player’s basement, and it’s a very dead basement. It doesn’t sound that good down there. For a while, we were all frustrated. We were like, “Boy, this doesn’t sound right.” Then Greg [Ahee], our guitar player who comes up with the general idea for the music, solved the problem by taking his guitar home and coming up with stuff there and then bringing it back. For a while, we were like, “Is this what writer’s block is?”
Isn’t that in some way conducive to being creative? If everything worked out, you’d be on one straight line, and I suppose having a little bit of concern can fuel the fire.
The funny thing is, when something is easy and comfortable, I feel the music is the opposite.
Do you think that because it’s essentially your third time “lucky,” you felt creatively freer?
Oh, yeah. When you do the second record, people always say, “Oh, it doesn’t sound as good as the first one.” Now it’s, “Oh, these guys sound like they haven’t changed enough.” We were interviewed by a high schooler, and he asked why we haven’t changed our sound, and I realized for a high school student, he expects things to happen right now.
In a terrifying, culture-defining way, it makes sense that a high schooler would ask that question. Society demands instant change.
He probably thinks that a record coming out every year isn’t that great, too, and wants one every few months.
Has cramming that musical lifetime into a few years contributed to your writing?
I know that the band feels more confident playing their instruments now than they did a year ago. The touring definitely helped, as the band’s better and sharper. I’ve also gotten more used to singing in the studio because it’s the third time around. The first record was all recorded live, practically. The second was the first time I had ever done multiple takes, so this time I was like, “Ah, yeah, now I get it!”
There must be a sense of aspiration there, too. I know it can be difficult admitting there’s ambition in taking the band to the next level.
The thing with bands is that it’s definitely not cool to say you’re trying. It should be effortless and just kind of ooze out of you. But you want to try something different, and you take that as a challenge, so I hope that’s going to sustain us moving forward. The way Greg puts it: He just wants to make an album that wouldn’t bore him. The general idea is not to repeat ourselves, or if you’re going to, try to cover it up [laughs].
There’s a humanness and compassion to your music that’s rare in punk rock. How did you deal with all the attention, then? Was it deeply weird?
One of the benefits of living in Detroit is Detroit doesn’t give a shit about celebrity, especially not internet celebrity. If you’re not Bob Seger or Kid Rock, they don’t give two shits. We’re definitely not famous. I mean, look at my day job. They didn’t even know I was in a band until a couple of months after the second record was out. They were like, “Oh, Joe, you’re in a band!” And I was like, “Yeah, I’ve been putting up fliers for all of our shows at work.”
Do you still have a day job working the door at a comedy club?
I still work, and that’s another great thing about this kind of fame: It doesn’t pay.
It does emotionally!
Right, that’s the thing. It keeps you humble.
Do you find that you have to check in repeatedly with yourself about the type of persona you’re projecting?
What we do is not a universal genre, so you have expectations for it, and when success or some sort of goal is reached, you feel good about it. I guess that’s the thing with the last record. I was like, “Oh boy, people are really talking about us on the internet!” but that’s because I was searching for our name. I was actively looking it up. Of course you do that — you want to see what people say. If you Google your name, it looks like everyone’s talking about you.
On your press release, it says the title The Agent Intellect was taken from “an ancient philosophical questioning of how the mind operates in relation to the self” and how one side receives information while the other makes it intellectual. Was that your idea?
I got it out of a book that didn’t quite explain it. Usually with album titles I try to take a line from one of the songs, but I liked the idea that — and I’m no philosophy expert — these phrases that are in lectures, no one knows what [Aristotle] was talking about.
Isn’t the creative process an altered state in itself?
That’s what the mind is to people — it’s the unknown. I liked that it was Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars all trying to figure out what it meant, and nobody knows. The not knowing is what I like about it.
Is it safe to assume you don’t want people to look into the lyrics literally?
I have no rules set for the lyrics, but I know from writing them that some of them make sense, some of them are linear, and then some of them are a mishmash of things I mumbled. I like music that’s got a mystery to it, lyrics that don’t completely make sense, but there’s got to be a balance.
The themes are all over the map: money, death, the internet, psychological issues, loss of self. It feels like a bold step forward, and deeper inside, but still with a guarded coating around the edges.
One of the things that the label [Hardly Art] wanted me to do so they could send it out to critics was a track-by-track explanation. I had done that before, but no one ever really used or referenced it, so when I sat down to write this one, I just thought it was so stupid. Me trying to explain the song is dumber than somebody taking a guess. Revealing the magic trick was just stupid, so I told them I couldn’t do it. I can’t — I can’t do it. It’s not that there’s some deep, dark secret to these lyrics; it’s that some things are ruined when explained.
Sometimes you don’t want to see how the rabbit comes out of the hat. I think a song like “Ellen” is such a beautifully written song that complements its lyrical matter. Then, four minutes in, it changes shape and melts into itself.
That one sounds different from stuff we’ve done in the past. I write lyrics to fit the music. Music comes first, so when we practice jamming downstairs, I’m mumbling and it’s usually gibberish, and then when we record it, I listen to it, but the subject matter doesn’t come in until the sound has been established. The guys had come up with a very beautiful piece of music, and that weird drop-off you’re talking about was an accident. Once I had this beautiful melody I could either write to the sound or go against it and do the typical punk thing. I decided to write something that fit the music, and I hope it worked.
Your voice is full of conviction, too, like you believe in what you’re singing. I understand it’s about your mom who has Alzheimer’s, but this isn’t the first time you’ve brought her illness up.
With this one, I was definitely like, I gotta be confident because this music demands it. I had been making oblique references to my mom’s situation. On this album, a lot of themes are about losing your mind, which is what my mom is going through, so I gave myself a little bit of a comfort zone by having it be from my dad’s point of view. Using metaphors about the afterlife allowed me to protect myself.
Do you feel like the life of the song sits separate from the subject? You’re going to be singing this on tour, so is there a way you can step out of it?
I already had this experience on our first record [No Passion All Technique]. There’s a song about my dad dying, and I would do that every night, and sometimes I would sing it and sometimes I would feel it. One night it really bummed the crowd out. The show was going great and I was like, “Oh, this next song is about my dad dying.” People think I don’t emote at all when I sing. They say I’ve got a really — it’s fine — I’ve got a pretty shitty voice, but this one I want people to know: Joe’s gonna get emotional. If my mom knew what was going on, I think she’d be embarrassed about it. She started showing signs just after my dad died, and first we thought it was about him, so it’s a nice, poetical way of thinking about it, that her memories are going because Dad took them with him. I figured because we’re known as doom merchants singing about grim things, if you can make it through this album, there’s a nice sentiment near the end.
Would you mind if I ask you why you think your voice is “shitty?”
I only started singing for the band. I was drunk enough to be like, “Oh yeah, oh sure, I’ll do it.” I would love to be able to hit notes, but I like singers who can’t sing. I’m one of those people that think being nervous and self-conscious is a pretty good thing.
There’s some tongue-in-cheek ranting here, like on “Feast of Stephen”: “How many babies born this year? And can we all send them right back? Fight them off and plan an attack.”
Killing all the babies! That’s why we have that one at the end, like starting a new day. The whole album is about lost self, so it’s funny that the circle of life continues when you hear this new baby being born is gonna replace you.
That kind of humor extends during “I Forgive You”, because the concept of forgiveness is not tackled as often in songs. It’s always “You did this to me!”
Fighting against everything is not — well, this isn’t a very punk thing to say — it’s not always the right way. In fact, eventually, you have to let go of things, and there’s no shame in that.
Is there a lyric from an earlier album that you’ve written and look back at now and say, “Nope, I regret that.”
Yeah! [laughs] One of our early songs was called “The Milk Drinkers”, and I thought it was pretty funny to stop the song in the middle and say, “His father collected beanie babies.” We knew a guy whose dad collected beanie babies who [whispers] is also maybe a serial killer and thought it was funny to throw it in there. Now it sounds juvenile, but I’m glad we did it.
Over the week, I listened to all of your records in a row, and it was fascinating to map your progression.
That’s the thing: It’s not false modesty. It’s good to look back at what you’ve done before and go, “You know what? I can do better.” You never reach that goal; you have to keep moving until you stop.
Is there any musical trend that you feel should die out?
I think it might be dying out already. I don’t know who started it, maybe it was Mumford & Sons, but those bands where people dress up like they’re from the 1920s and have songs that go “HEY!” Some advertisers have decided that’s the sound for everything. I think that’s waning. As far as music criticism and the way people take in music goes, it’s funny how people assign what your band sounds like. We’ve had Joy Division, and then they attack us and say, “Yeah, you don’t really do a good job at sounding like Joy Division.” Sorry we don’t live up to the expectations you set.
Do you feel like you fit into any genre?
What I hate about it is you have to come up with signifiers. No one is going to give a shit about you if you’re a band that sounds like everything. We don’t want to be trapped in some weird genre ghetto being painted as the most post-punk album of the year, either.
I suppose it’s horrible to make music in response to people’s assessments of you.
The thing is, there might be some bands who want to sound like their influences, but I’m older than the rest of the band and I don’t want to sound like The Fall. That’s the most ridiculous thing you can do, because what the fuck do The Fall sound like? People assume the band wants to try something and nail it. When we started out, the band was trying to play their instruments competently, and that’s how the sound developed.
When do you think music will become full-time for you?
The weird thing about being older is knowing bands usually have a certain amount of time to make their mark. I’m less worried about quitting my job than asking how long this is going to last. I’d hate to quit my job and then have the drummer say he wants to get married and focus on something else. Which happens to every band, so I guess it’s tentative. I like keeping one foot in the real world at all times, because it could end tomorrow.
There’s the gloomy guy I know!
Yeah! [laughs] There’s no point on this earth!
I hear you and appreciate you saying that. Humility stretches far beyond and above everything else.
Greg said something once, and I think it’s perfect. What we try to do is demystify ourselves, because it’s weird that people assume just because we make music we’re somehow more interesting than everybody else in the world: “Your opinions matter, and you’re probably a weird guy, and let’s find out about your weird personality.” We’re pretty average people, so demystify us and we’ll try to mystify the music a little bit — which sounds cheesy. I love David Bowie and theatrical bands. Maybe someday you’ll see me like that.
As the Thin White Duke?
More like the Fat Short Dude.