FEATURES Protomartyr’s Joe Casey Isn’t Making Art in Quarantine By JJ Skolnik · July 30, 2020

The day I spoke to Protomartyr’s Joe Casey in early June also happened to be Kim and Kelley Deal’s birthday. The post-punk frontman made sure to call that out. Kelley—known, of course, for her guitar work alongside her twin in The Breeders and The Amps, as well as for her solo work—had joined the touring version of Protomartyr, performing with them at their last show before lockdown, and Casey was thrilled to talk about how much her addition to the band had truly made him feel like they were opening up a new chapter. Then, the world shut down.

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Protomartyr’s new album, Ultimate Success Today, got pushed back, too. For Casey, who intends this record to be the closing of one door and the opening of another, this was a special kind of frustration. Ultimate Success Today purposefully returns to the rawness and urgency of the Detroit band’s first record, 2012’s No Passion All Technique, to chronicle exactly how much has changed for them since then. It’s also a bold new step into the future; with features like the legendary avant-garde jazz alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, who adds tense blurts and elegant curlicues across the album, Ultimate Success Today sizzles in a particularly ferocious way. Protomartyr have always been a taut band, but here, making space for an honored guest, they sound particularly natural, bones and sinews working together. Casey’s lyrics derive, as always, from a combination of eccentric literary sources and deeply personal observations; it is a testament to his careful, long-term attention to the decaying conditions of U.S. society that the whole thing feels so timely. The darkly psychedelic “Processed by the Boys” feels particularly prescient: “A cosmic grief beyond all comprehension/ All good lay low by outside evil/ Against belief, a riot in the street/ A giant beast turning mountains into black holes,” Casey intones in his rich baritone, as if he was peeking directly into the near future during recording. You said it, buddy.

Read on for a significant excerpt of our conversation, in which two 40+ punk frontpeople talk to one another about sick bodies, repudiating the narrative of cathartic performance, working with legendary artists, the energy (or, in some aspects, lack thereof) of the present moment, and the selfish joy of making music with your friends. Oh, and the history of mules in the U.S. Army. We’re very fun, I promise.

I feel like talking about the world and how you are doing right now is a good way to start, because your music has always felt really reflective to me of the history of decay and the history that’s brought us here.

It has been weird doing interviews about an album when it seems like there’s more important shit going on, you know? I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Synecdoche, New York, a movie where [Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is] trying to do this big play and it’s going on for years and years, and at the end it’s all falling apart, and they’re like, ‘When’s the play going to open?’ So it does feel bizarre. What is interesting about this is—it’s a reminder that you never know what the future is going to hold. I had 2020 planned out in my head, ‘Oh we’re going to go back to touring.’ I was looking forward to that, and it’s just completely been wiped away. I don’t know what it’s going to look like in 2021, as far as, like, will bands be able to exist? Or will there be places to play? That sort of thing. Interesting time.

I was reading in the press materials, you were returning to the urgency of the first record and trying to balance that with where you are currently, and sort of pushing that into a new place. I love the fact that it feels like you’re pushing it more towards—there’s jazz all over the record—more towards a place animated by the spirit of free jazz, if I’m not reading that incorrectly. You can tell me if I’m wrong, obviously.

I’m so happy to be in a band that wants to keep pushing themselves to places where maybe it’s uncomfortable, or they have to learn. Greg [Ahee, guitarist] is kind of like the bandleader as far as the music goes. His push to like—we’ve worked with collaborators in the past, but they’ve been friends; [Ahee’s idea now was] let’s really do a thing where we bring in other musicians and give them the framework to do whatever they want, to change the sound. That’s frightening for two reasons because one, when the guitar player is like ‘Oh I want to start doing the jazz record,’ that can go very, very bad. Especially when the band’s like ‘Oh, I’ve listened to a jazz record, now I can do jazz.’ It’s like [laughs]—you can’t do that. So that’s always frightening. The second thing is, if you’re bringing in Jemeel Moondoc, you don’t front on shit, you know? Like, you have to be pretty confident in your abilities. It’s a weird sort of thing, where I’m glad that the band is now confident, but I wanted to bring in that sense of anarchy that came from the first record, where it is—at least the writing—I wanted it to be a little more roughshod and urgent, and I was very happy to see the band kind of rise to the challenge. I was not embarrassed when these people came in and did wonderful things to the music and Protomartyr could withstand it.

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I have been a fan of Jemeel Moondoc’s since forever, so I was really excited to see him show up on this record. And I think he fits in perfectly, which is really a compliment to you guys, you know? 

And to him. He came in, I definitely wanted to stay out of his way, because I’m like—I don’t need to be talking his ear off, I’ll let him [just be]. He came in [to the studio], was watching some baseball on TV, and when it was his time to go in he went in and laid down three or four versions of one song and three or four versions for this next song. Hearing him work was an amazing thing because he just came in, did it, and was done. It was very very wonderful to experience it.

That’s incredibly cool. What are some of the other things that went into this record for you? What were you reading? What were you observing? What were you watching? And how did that end up impacting what the record sounds like or the themes that are on it?

I would say this is just, as far as what I drew from from literature and music, [it’s] a lot more scattershot than it has been in the past. There wasn’t, like, one book that really spurred me. It’s funny, I did read [A Short History of Decay] by, I’m going to mispronounce his last name, [Emil] Cioran. That’s kind of where I got the idea of aphorisms for ‘The Aphorist.’ I read a book about the history of mules in the U.S. army from the Mexican American war to WWII [laughs] and that found its way in there. And then just a lot of, for me, it was just kind of just pulling little things from lots of different sources. Like the title of the album was… I think a late-night infomercial that was on when I was trying to fall asleep at four in the morning, about flipping houses and how that can lead to success. So it’s all over the map as far as the influences. But the two biggest ones are just having to go back and listen to the first record, and then trying to capture my emotional state of recently being kind of sick and being scared about that, the weird feeling of mortality that hit me right when we were working on the record, and then instead of avoiding it, going through that and being like, ‘Okay, I’m going to write about it. I’m going to embrace it,’ as opposed to pretending it’s not affecting every thought that’s going through my head at the moment.

Totally. I’m somebody who’s chronically ill and I’m also a person in their 40’s who’s a frontperson for a punk band, so I feel you. I wrote a song about something that happened to me directly—not because of my illness but within the medical world. You can’t sort of shy that away, because when you’re a musician all that is embodied, right? How do you separate the body that performs and the body that makes music from the body who writes?

It really was just me realizing… because I think I’ve been fairly lucky up to this point—I have not been treating my body very well. I’m not a very healthy person in general. This was the first time in my life where I was like—the illness that I had was affecting the way my brain was working, and you realize how that’s tied together, you can’t think about your own mortality in a rational way when you’re in pain, you know? It’s very hard to even think about and try to embody that. In the past people always said, ‘Oh, you write about these things, do you do it for catharsis?’ and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. I don’t think I’ve ever achieved that. But on this album, it did feel like—I’m going to at least try to attempt to see if I can write my way out of it, in a sense. And I don’t know if it worked, but I think it was a good experiment for me.

That makes a whole lot of sense. The whole idea of catharsis is a weird one. It’s something that I have encountered a whole lot, because I write about difficult shit that has happened to me sometimes, and I don’t know if catharsis is the end point but that’s where everyone wants to point you to. 

It’s not like you’re working on an album and you record, you’re in the booth, and that’s the last take, and you step out like ‘Holy shit I did it!’ But I guess there is some sort of mechanism where if I keep on doing this, this will be of some good for me. The catharsis being the end goal is one of those weird things that I think just kind of caught on—’Oh, that ‘s what you’re obviously doing when you’re talking about your emotions on stage, it must be so cathartic for you.’ It can be frightening and make things worse [laughs].

Right, whenever I’ve been performing the songs that are the most personal to me I feel the most like vomiting, because it’s such an incredibly vulnerable space to be in. That’s not cathartic at all, it’s really anxiety inducing.

I’m sure this is in the press release—I kind of wanted to write this album as if it were the last because, I was noticing as I was writing, there were references to my dad dying, and on the first album there are references to my dad dying, and I’m like—that emotion has been with me for 10 years. Not so much that I want to be done with it, but I want to… I need to move beyond that now, in a sense. So there’s a lot of wrapping up of things. I’m forcing myself to kind of wrap it up, because I want to approach the next album, or the next stage, kind of clearing the decks. So it’s like, I’ll write ‘Worm in Heaven,’ that way I won’t have to write a farewell song; it’s already been written. I can occupy my mind with other things. That’s kind of another thought going into how to approach this record.

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Yeah that makes a whole lot of sense. What else has been on your mind; what do you want to write about and move forward to?

Well, I felt very inspired right before all this hit, and it really was frustrating to me, because—and I know why people were doing this,  but there was a lot of ‘Oh, tell us how’re you getting through quarantine, what creative endeavor are you doing?’ And I haven’t done shit. I’ve barely read anything. It’s brought me back almost to before I was in a band, where I did nothing, you know [laughs]. And so really it hasn’t been good for me creatively at all. I’m hoping this is a kind of clearing of the decks in that I’ll have some more perspective as time moves on. But I got very frustrated where it was just assumed that ‘Oh, now that you’re not touring you must be really writing a lot and having this artistic reawakening.’ It just sapped the energy out of me, personally…the one [article I wrote that was like] ‘Oh, here are the movies and books I’ve been reading’—that was like from the first week of quarantine [laughs]. After that it was kind of downhill from there. I haven’t been reading or making art. And now I’m pissed off, and people act like it’s completely gone where I have a feeling it’s gonna be all year, going back into quarantine, going out, going in.

No, absolutely. I had the exact same experience as you where at first I got a bunch of books out of the library the first week of quarantine. I mean, I was still working, and I work from home anyway so it didn’t really disrupt my routine. But I was going out less, wasn’t going to band practice, et cetera. So I zoomed through two books and then I haven’t read anything since because my brain just hasn’t been able to focus. 

Yeah, can’t focus.

I can’t write. I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll get some work done on my book proposal!’ And [my brain] was like ‘No, no you’re not going to do that, I’m real sorry.’ So yeah, in the exact same space. I understand that as a writer you want to put an easy, hooky framework on something so that people will read it, but I think it forces musicians into a really frustrating place where you’re forced to respond to current circumstances in this really narrow way.

It’s an easy thing to pitch but I do hate that the default for a lot of articles is like, musician as consumer. What are you consuming right now? It’s like, nothing! [laughs] What music? I ain’t listening to shit right now. And I understand you can’t really pitch that, Here’s 400 words about how Joe Casey isn’t doing anything, is staring at walls. [laughs] That’s not very pleasant. So I get it, you do want to be inspiring to people, but I think the message I would say is—’It’s okay to not feel inspired. This year is an earth-changing year, you don’t have to be competing with anybody, you just have to kind of get through it.’

Absolutely! What would you like to say if you had total control of that narrative, about this record and how you’re feeling about putting it out right now, and the space you were in and the space that music is in?  It feels like right now, for me, from my job here music is such a powerful tool to fundraise. I come from punk, so it always has been. It’s a really powerful tool to rally around. But at the same time, how do you make music when stuff like this is going on? Like, you can’t be at band practice, you can’t be in the same room as people.

It’s interesting, and especially since the activism that’s happened just with Black Lives Matter just in the last couple weeks, I think, has given—most of my friends who were in bands were pretty down because we were having to lean into trying to sell stuff online, trying to convince people that us doing a streaming live concert is the right thing to do. Trying to sell yourselves in ways that seemed a little bit—trying to ask people for money for yourself when you know all your friends are out of jobs and everybody’s got other things on their mind. It was a really weird place to be in.

I think what’s good about being in a band is now you can use that energy that seemed weird before like, please, basically begging for money, you can now say—well we’re raising money for something else. It’s funny how quickly and how easily it was for people to pivot that way, so i’m glad. It’s kind of freeing in a way to put out a record, when it’s like, ‘Here’s this record, I hope it does something for you, but I know for a fact that it’s not the most important thing in the world. It’s very low on the list.’ So it can just exist on its own. I was very upset at first when the label wanted to push back the release, because I thought it was going to be a conversation. I thought it should come out when people were really quarantining on its original date. But the label was like ‘No, we’re going to push it back because you guys actually sell records. You are very shitty, nobody streams you, but they buy your records.’ And so I realized that they’re actually trying to be optimistic that record stores will be open in July as opposed to May, when the record was supposed to come out. So you know that’s good I guess. All I think you can say is—I hope people can enjoy the music. So far people have responded well, it seems like. I was worried that—who wants to listen to an album to a guy moaning about being sick when the whole world is sick, you know? But maybe in a way it can help people? Who knows. You don’t know until it’s out there if it will have any effect. That’s kind of where I’m at now.

That makes a lot of sense. I think maybe people will find resonance in it especially because you write so beautifully and also abstractly. I know I did immediately. 

Thanks, yeah. It’s weird being in a band because it is a very inward, almost selfish act. I don’t trust people who are like ‘No, I’m doing it for the people, I’m doing it for the fans.’ I always kind of looked askance at them because I do think it’s mostly for yourself. And so it is nice when it can be a thing thats for yourself, and the residue from that kind of self-aggrandizement actually helps people or actually brings people joy. That’s kind of a byproduct [laughs]. It’s nice when what you’re making can help people. It’s surprising. When we wrote the first record, [we] never expected that anybody would like it. Anybody finding joy from it has been a wonder.

That’s the best feeling, for sure, because being in a band for me is being able to do something that is fun with my friends [laughs]. There’s really no—nobody knows or cares about us outside of our friends, and that’s fine. But if it brings joy to other people outside the band who know or cares about us, that’s sick. That’s really cool. That makes me really happy. And it’s a total unexpected by product because I’m just going in there to hang out with people I care about and do something that’s fun. 

Yeah, and that should always be the goal. Everything else is a nice bonus.

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