“So it’s time to say goodbye,” Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey sings mournfully on ‘Worm In Heaven’, the band’s funeral march of a closing song from their new album ‘Ultimate Success Today’. “I was never too keen on last words, hope I said something good.” The Detroit rock band have always written apocalyptic songs, but they’ve never sounded quite this wounded, sombre or blunt.
Endings are splashed all across the band’s fifth album. On ‘Processed By The Boys’, Casey sings of the end of the world fast approaching like “a wide-eyed animal” or through “a foreign disease, washed up on the beach” – yes, there are a few more-than-unnerving lines to draw with the pandemic that’s currently sweeping the globe across this savage album – and as well as devastating predictions and doomsday visions, the album serves as a closing of a chapter for Casey personally, and the band too.
“My health is suffering from doing nothing,” Casey tells NME of his time in lockdown at home in Detroit so far. “But it does remind me of my life before I was in Protomartyr. I’ve done this before: not doing anything, watching too many movies and eating and drinking myself into a stupor.”
Starting the band in 2010, fuelled by the recent death of his father and a desire for expression having ground himself down working as a doorman at a comedy club, Protomartyr’s music – spiky, booming post-punk set below Mark E Smith-esque ramblings and pure fury from Casey – has slowly, steadily blossomed from being endearingly rough around the edges into something gigantic, making them one of the most respected and forward-thinking cult rock bands in the US.
With fifth album ‘Ultimate Success Today’ – an album the frontman refers to as the last act in a five-part play – out this week, Casey talks to NME about needing to “move beyond” writing about the grief of losing his father, creating a blank slate from which to launch the second decade of the band’s career, and writing his own funeral song ahead of time.
Your new album seems defined by endings – what made you feel like this was the end of a chapter?
“I was feeling ill. It was the first time in my life that I had unexplained and lingering pain and illness. I figured it was a combination of coming off tour and having my body fall apart, and that was colouring my world view. I can say now that it was probably just a mid-life crisis, or just having to deal with aches and pains as you get older, but it had been ten years since we started the band, so you do unfortunately get nostalgic and look back and think, ‘What have we accomplished?’ and ‘What’s next?’.
“I wanted the album to sound like a final statement, merely to clear the decks, so whatever comes next – if anything comes next – can have a fresh approach, and not be bogged down by these obsessions I’ve had in lyrics for the last ten years.”
Did you ever think that, in order to reach some of these endings, that you’d have to leave the band behind altogether?
“I’ve been thinking about how long bands can last. Especially bands our size that aren’t living in fancy houses and driving about in sports cars. The guys in the band are now as old as I was when we started the band, so I know that I felt I was too old to be in a band when we started when I was 33.
“You never want to hold somebody hostage. It’s only worth carrying on if it’s exciting. That was the nice thing about recording the album – we had a really nice experience of realising that we still had things to say and things to do. But then we can’t go on tour, and the world’s falling apart, so… I wasn’t planning for it to sound like such a final statement, but now that we can’t tour the album, and that the future of music is such a big question mark, it adds an extra layer of irony to it – the world may decide that, actually, this is our last album.”
‘Ultimate Success Today’ is a title that feels at odds with the album’s outlook – what made you choose it?
“I would be at home, trying to write the lyrics in the middle of the night, and I’d have the TV on. I don’t have cable or streaming services or anything, so I’d be watching basic old American television. At night, it’s all infomercials, and they’re all really depressing because… it’s really depressing to be up in the middle of the night and watching television. Though I didn’t get it directly from a commercial, ‘Ultimate Success Today’ was definitely inspired by the ‘get rich quick’ commercial. ‘You’ve gotta listen to this guy talk about how to sell houses, and then you can get rich today!'”
You’ve spoken openly about the effect the death of your father has had on your lyrics, and about wanting to move away from that after this new album – what made you come to that decision?
“One of the spurs of starting the band was my dad dying. It happened right before I started even thinking about being in a band. One minute this amazing, vibrant person is here, and you think you have all the time in the world with them. Then they’re just gone. I’m worried that the processing of that can stay with you for your whole life.
“People say it gets less hurtful or frightening or sad, but that’s not really true – it just changes colour and form. I also feel like, if I live long enough, I’m going to have other loved ones die, and it’s something that I have to move beyond, at least in writing about it, because it’s been going on ten years now. I feel like I’ve talked about it from different angles across these first five albums, these chapters. Those can be about that, and then I can move on.
‘Worm In Heaven’ feels like a funeral march of a closing song, and a strikingly vulnerable way to close the album – was that a scary process to lay yourself so bare?
“I didn’t write the lyrics until right before we recorded it. I heard the music, and the music sounded so beautiful, but it sounded like a funeral almost, the ending of something. You can write a great love song, or a great party song, or a great political song, and there’s also a tradition of artists writing their farewell song, or farewell album. David Bowie wrote a whole album while he was on his way out. For me, I thought that because I was feeling really doomsday and scared and frightened, why not write it now and get it out of the way, so I don’t have to worry about writing my goodbye song? It’s done.
“If I deserve to have a clip on some newsprint saying, ‘Oh by the way, the guy from Protomartyr died’, then they can play ‘Worm In Heaven’, and for however many years I have left, I can write other songs now. I don’t have to have that hanging over my head.”
Earlier you spoke about the “blank slate” you’ve given yourself for the second decade of the band – do you have any ideas yet of what you want the next era of Protomartyr to sound or look like?
“It’s very dependent on the band. Greg [Ahee, guitarist] comes up with the first sparks and the musical ideas, and that’s what drives me. Our friends in Cloud Nothings just released a record made entirely in quarantine, and I’m extremely jealous of that. We’re not really like that as a band. It’s a longer process. But, if anything, I’m excited for the future, whatever it will be. I’m excited to go back and do it again.”
‘Ultimate Success Today’ is out on July 17 via Domino.