Protomartyr Q&A: 'The Only Reason I Threw Myself Into A Band At 37 Was Because I Made Terrible Life Decisions'
Protomartyr's second record 'Under Color of Official Right' was released earlier this year, and is already a strong contender for the title of album of the year. On it, the Detroit punk band tell tales of dodgy low-life's and the inner city turmoil that's rife in their poverty-stricken home, all with reference points that range from The Fall to James Joyce. I caught up with frontman Joe Casey recently, as he arrived in Baltimore for a live show on the band's last US tour. Taking time out from his job as a doorman (more meet & greet than hired muscle), Protomartyr are Joe's first ever band and, as I learned, maybe the one to save his life.
NME: Tell me about your life as a doorman...
Joe Casey: I’ve worked as a doorman at a couple of different places. Now I’m working in a comedy club taking tickets for the shows that they have. When I met Greg [Ahee, guitar], I was working at The Gem Theatre as a doorman, like, holding open the door for people. That’s how I met him and the other guys in the band - they were in a group called Butt Babies.
NME: And how did you come to be involved and start a band with them, because you’ve not been in a band before, right?
JC: I’d never been in a band before. But I’d toured around with the band Tyvek. I went to Europe with them once. I guess I was supposed to be a roadie. I just kind of hung out much to the chagrin of the band. I’d never been in a band, but it’s funny, because Alex [Leonard, drums] reminded me the other day that even though I didn’t have a band, one of the dumb ideas I had with Butt Babies was like “Oh, maybe I can do a split with you guys where I just kind of throw something together”. I had no musical ability, so I hoped to start doing stuff with a band that actually had some talent.
NME: What was it that convinced you to take that step and become a frontman?
JC: Well at the time, it was pretty much being drunk. And kind of seeing how Tyvek did it, and seeing how easy it was. Not necessarily easy but how worthwhile it was. Booze and boredom - it can make you do anything.
NME: What kind of things inspire you to write?
JC: It depends on the song, but I like kind of weird news stories, if they’re local the better. That usually inspires me. Also lots of different things. Personal stuff sometimes. I don’t like doing the straight up, naked 'here’s-the-personal song'. I might throw in some personal elements. I like books. I kind of like classical allusions sometimes thrown in a song. It’s all gotta be all mixed in together because it can’t be just one. I don’t think I’m ever gonna write a love song, not because I’ve never been loved, just because that’s kind of one single thought. I like a song with two or three thoughts in it or sometimes a contradictory thought to the first half of the song. You know, first half’s a lie, second half’s the truth. That sort of thing.
NME: Is there anything that’s caught your eye recently for new material?
JC: There’s a new hockey stadium coming to Detroit. They’re doing a lot construction, building new things in the city, which is kind of a weird time because they’re kicking some people out. So, I might have to study up. We have three or four really rich guys in Detroit that kind of own everything downtown which I think is kind of odd, and so I might wanna study up on their back story. For some reason we have a lot of people that own pizza companies, pizza restaurant chains in Detroit, so that might have to be a topic. Then there’s also the salt mines, there’s always a lot of weird rumours about that, gonna have to write a song about that too.
NME: One of the other things that I read you say about your lyrics is that you like to take mundane ideas and turn them into something interesting…
JC: You know, ‘Want Remover’ is kind of a science fiction idea. I was actually removing some warts on my feet, freezing them off and I was like “Oh, wart removal was that simple”. ‘I Stare At Floors’ has a little thing about watching Law And Order, I don’t know if it’s the same over in the UK, but over here there’s a cable channel that is just nothing but Law And Order shows repeated over and over again. And I’ve got aunt who’s getting on in age and she’s getting a little dementia, but you can put on Law And Order in the morning and she’ll watch one after another. And I do too sometimes. Those are pretty mundane.
NME: In terms of recording your first album (2012's 'No Passion, All Technique'), I read that you recorded 22 songs in one day. Is that right?
JC: Yes, that’s right. In fact Greg has reminded me that it wasn’t just one day, it was four hours. We went in with the idea that we were going to record a single for Urinal Cake, and we had a bunch of songs. So then we were like, wait a minute, lets just get as many down as we can.
NME: So how long did the new album take to record?
JC: We worked high-on-the-hog for that one, we had three days. But at the studio there’s rooms upstairs, so we would get up in the morning, eat breakfast and then start right away. It’s a real nice studio.
NME: And I understand that there’s a ban on acoustic guitars in the band, is that true?
JC: Yeah. It’s more to do with the fact that since I had no musical knowledge really, I don’t know any chords or anything like that, I had loads of dumb suggestions like, 'Maybe we should have an acoustic guitar?' and Greg was like, 'No. There’s no way we’re gonna do that'. And that mostly comes down to the fact that he likes it when a band does an album where they can recreate it live. So it’s just one guitar.
NME: I’d like to go into some specific songs on the album. The first I’d like to talk about is 'Maidenhead'. I wondered if you could tell me the story behind it and where the lyrics come from?
JC: Well, I had read the book Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton who was an English writer and I guess he wrote some screenplays and a couple books, but Maidenhead is in the book Hangover Square, about a drunk that lives in a crappy part of London, and always thinks ‘If I lived in Maidenhead then that would be perfect, if I could only get to Maidenhead’. And after blacking out and murdering somebody at the end of the book he finally gets to Maidenhead and it’s just as depressing as everywhere else he’s ever been and it’s kind of a downer. But I like the way he describes the periods of dead moods this guy has, and I kind of latched onto that in a good way. I think in Detroit a lot of people think, ‘If I didn’t live in Detroit my whole life would be so much better’, and after travelling around a little bit I can see that no matter where I am I’m still the same guy – so there’s no Maidenhead out there for me.
NME: Maybe basing all of his hopes and dreams on Maidenhead was the problem to begin with.
JC: Well, I actually looked it up on Wikipedia to see if it’s some sort of idyll, but it doesn’t seem that great.
NME: Another one I wanted to mention next was 'Tarpeian Rock'.
JC: That one, I was reading a book about Roman history, and how they would chuck people off the rock. And I saw a picture of the place nowadays and think it’s funny that it’s just like a parking lot now, and it used to be where they executed all of these people all of those years ago. And an easy way to write a song is to just rant. I can do that pretty easily with a list of gripes. The song started serious I think, and I was being serious with my gripes. But then with singing it, it comes off more funny I think. So I started putting in more day-to-day things that disillusion you. Like a display for ants in my bath tub - every summer I get ants which is a gripe. So I'd try to throw in like real things that bother me.
NME: What else is on the list?
JC: It changes from time to time. Like being on tour and the bathrooms, and guys that piss on the seats – that’s a big gripe for me. Lots of people wearing flip-flops. And some things that are weird, like the fact that there are some people older than me that dress like skateboarders and teenagers - that’s a gripe for me because some people say to me, 'Oh you dress so old'. I say, 'Well, no. I’m 37-years-old so I think I’m dressed like an adult. At least I’m not wearing tracker shorts and something goofy.' So there’s some real gripes mixed in with some comical ones.
NME: The album ends with a cassette recording of some of your family members talking. Why, and was it a tough decision?
JC: It was a little bit because it’s kind of a personal thing. My grandmother’s on there who’s just passed away. And my dad who’s passed away. And my mom’s voice is on there and she’s got Alzheimer’s. So it was more like finding it and just remembering the good old days. I think instead of singing about personal things, it’s kind of a way just to have a small moment in there. And I thought that mom would like to hear it.
NME: Have you played her the album?
JC: I have. Usually I play it and within halfway through she’s like, 'Who is it?' and I’m like, 'It’s me singing, mom'. She still doesn’t know exactly what I’m doing on tour, but right now my older brothers are watching her, so that’s good.
NME: The original name for Protomartyr was Idiot Manchild. Are you aware of this state of arrested development that a lot of people live in at the moment?
JC: Yeah, and I’m just as guilty as anybody else. The only reason I threw myself into a band at 37 was because I made terrible life decisions as far as not having a career, and I still live in the family house. Now I’m the only one living there but y’know, I drive a crappy car. So being in a band was like, 'Ah, the reason why I have all this crap stuff is because I’m in a band'. So I’m just as much a deadbeat as anybody else, but luckily for me I don’t have any kids.
NME: I saw when I was looking up online earlier that Greg Dulli from Afghan Whigs (below) is a fan of the band. Have you had any other instances of that?
JC: Well I do know Kelley Deal from The Breeders has expressed that she likes our band a lot and she wants to, in her other band, I know she wants to do a split with us. She said she could do backing vocals whenever we want backing vocals, which is exciting. That kind of came out of the blue. That’s all exciting but there are kind of peers who are more on our level, like the guys from Parquet Courts. We got to chill with them and they liked the record, so that was a nice affirmation. And the guys from Cloud Nothings who got to tour with us, they like it. So to hear bigger names… we’re over the moon excited, but when your contemporaries say they like it too, that’s awesome.
NME: Obviously you’ve got some quite serious points in there and one of the recurring themes to me that stands out is the images of violence in the songs…
JC: Well there’s two things. Detroit is a fairly violent place and luckily that hasn’t affected me directly but you do have a feeling when you’re in Detroit that you’ve got to always be aware of your surroundings, watching over your shoulder and not going to certain parts of town, and you don’t walk anywhere. I live in one of the nicer parts of town, so that kind of permeates. But then I start thinking about more because on the news it’s all violence, it seems like. And the song 'Violence' is more of an abstract take on violence in that it permeates everything. So kind of accepting it. I think the main serious thing that runs through our songs is resignation, which I think is kind of, or at least I thought, a thing you don’t really hear in songs much. There’s mostly songs about fighting and never giving up. So it’s actually realising that giving up is not always a bad thing, that time or life is finite and you have to kind of let go sometimes.
NME: Oh really? Because the thing that I’ve gathered from talking to you a couple of times it seems like this isn’t something that's a frivolous kind of fun, like some bands are. It's almost like it's something you have to do even, though it might not be the wisest idea, and you’re pursuing it regardless. Do those things clash at all?
JC: No, I think if you have low expectations and then you achieve anything, then it’s automatically better than you thought it was going to be. That’s kind of where I’ve taken it so far, and it hasn’t hurt me yet. I’m doing it in a sense because I realised that it’s now or never. Whether it’s nervousness or shyness or laziness, I spent too many years just [doing nothing]. All these excuses I have for not doing something, anything really, but to be able to do that I couldn’t write about being the champion of the world or beating up somebody - it had to come from the mind-set that kept me from doing nothing for so many years. So I had to talk about that as opposed to something else, so it’s not resignation in a depressing way, but more accepting things, which I think is an important thing to do. We kind of accepted where we were when we started the band, so we’re going to be the sort of band that play for beer money pretty much. I think we got to the point where we got comfortable enough though, where we started getting bigger things. So I think it’s an important step to resign yourself to what you’ve got and be happy with it, and then if anything else comes from that then it's good.
NME: How did you find touring with Parquet Courts?
JC: Good, I think it was beneficial for us just to see, because they’re definitely a couple rungs up on the ladder. Like, we don’t do encores because we don’t think anybody wants them, but I noticed in some shows they’d a play a very long, solid set and people got pissed off that they didn’t do an encore. And it’s kind of like well, they played for a very long time and played all their songs, and seeing people turn like that, like – 'Oh you didn’t play us an encore so fuck you!' – is interesting. I think they’re handling it pretty good and definitely it’s always fun being an opening band because you see that people might like you. It’s nice to win over new people.
NME: I was wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about Detroit and what it’s like to be in a band there in 2014?
JC: Not really luxurious. But there’s a lot of people who are in bands in Detroit. The reason why is because you can live fairly cheaply in Detroit. Bands can live in houses, not in apartments, and every house has a basement. So it’s easy to practice. It’s easy to get shows, there are a lot of bars. Because it’s such a poor, impoverished place, if you can bring five people to the bar they’re happy, and you can play a show. That doesn’t mean there’s that many good bands though. There’s a small handful of what I consider really good bands. There’s a lot of crap. And people are cheap too. If you try to charge more than $5 for a show, people won’t come or your friends will stop showing up. So you’re not playing to too many people.
NME: Does the fact that you can afford to rehearse quite cheaply mean that bands get better?
JC: Yeah, I think so. I’ve been to New York and seen bands play and some of them are good. But we wouldn’t have been a band if we had been in New York City, because getting equipment around, paying for a practice space and all that kind of stuff, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. But the problem is, because it’s so cheap and really good jobs are kind of hard to come by in Detroit, you can kind of get stuck there, playing Detroit all the time. I wish more Detroit bands would tour.
NME: Do you think you will leave?
JC: I would move away. The reason is because, again, it’s cheap and I have family obligations. When I was younger, I really wanted to move away. I told my brother I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be like James Joyce, moving away from Dublin and then writing about betrayal. But again going back to the bad life decisions, and, you know, taking care of my mum and dad there, I kind of got stuck here. And Detroit’s okay. There are people who are real big homers like, 'Oh we don’t live here'. They are the type of people that insult us for stupid reasons.
NME: I heard that one of the places you used to rehearse had no insulation so it was either very hot or very cold, and that it affected the way you were writing songs?
JC: Yeah. When it's winter and you're playing a little room in a factory that’s got its windows blown out, you don’t wanna play a 20 minute prog-epic. You’d rather down a minute and a half song. And you wanna go through six minute and a half songs in a row and just get it done. We had a TV in there and a couch. It was nice. But then as we went through the winter, which just gets too cold, you throw your empty beer can on the floor and you stub your cigarette out, and it just got more and more junky. It affected our mental state.
NME: And there are rumours that it was also a brothel?
JC: That’s what I assume. It was definitely weird. Because there’s lots of different rooms that lead out, and one of them one time there were naked girls dancing and they were like, 'Come back to this backroom'. That was bizarre. There were lots of these different rooms. They’d have after hour parties, and like a techno dance party one night. And somewhere else there’d be wood worker shops in there and other bands practicing. It was pretty eclectic. There was one night when it was full of strippers, and then they were gone.
NME: What were your expectations of touring the UK for the first time?
JC: I heard that it was kind of hard to get around as far as like finding parking and places to stay. Unfortunately when you’re on a tour these are the things you think about. Where can I use the bathroom? Where can we spend the night? Where can I park the car and not get it broken in to? It sucks because when you’re thinking about it you think, oh man when I’m on the road we’re gonna party every night, we’re gonna talk to loads of girls. No, really all you’re thinking about is work, and where to take a crap. But no, one of my goals was to tour Europe and I’ve always liked British music, and so accomplishing one of the goals and having these opportunities is pretty cool.
NME: I guess that might be the thing that this year has brought, and people are paying more attention to you. How have you dealt with that newfound attention?
JC: Well, it’s a little bit disconcerting like in the last couple of shows we’ve actually noticed a couple of people singing along which I’m not used to at all so that’s a little disconcerting but it’s nice and it’s definitely our first tour of America. Last year we played to some pretty empty rooms so this time people are turning up with expectations or a kind of familiarity of the band. But again, if they’re shouting out songs we haven’t played, it’s like how do you even know about that song?
NME: What British bands have influenced you as a writer/singer?
JC: I've always collected DIY post-punk from England and that was the music that I really loved. There was like some rudimentary crappiness about bands like The Fall too which, y’know, was good for me. But trying to get the band to like it, it was impossible. They like their own things. And at first I was like, oh that’s terrible that we don’t like the same music but now I’m realising that it’s a great thing I don’t have complete control over what the band sounds like. Nobody really does.