“A Proper Cynic”: An Interview with Protomartyr’s Joe Casey




NAMED AFTER Saint Stephen, who in 34 AD, we’re told, fell asleep as an angry mob stoned him to death, the band Protomartyr has always veered between stoicism and ferocity. The band’s 2012 debut album, No Passion All Technique, was 30-plus minutes of scorched punk earth, admittedly more mob than somnolent acceptance, but on Under Color of Official Right (2014) and The Agent Intellect (2015) the band found its musical voice. Drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson never played what you expected to hear. Guitarist Greg Ahee’s pointed riffs and spacious textures gave the band a wider vocabulary. That sound only expanded in 2017 with the band’s most recent full-length, Relatives in Descent, an album that’s more structurally complex and emotionally sprawling without ever losing the grip on the punk sensibility that brought the band to the dance.

In the center of all this, though I suspect he would shrug at the suggestion, is singer and lyricist Joe Casey. The most precise musicological way in which I can describe Casey’s vocal delivery is the classical style of recitative, the operation of the voice somewhere between singing and speaking, but suitably roughed-up and percussive for a rock band. Think Lou Reed but with a broader expressive range. Then there’re the lyrics. Scan any article about Protomartyr and, aside from copious references to the band’s Detroit heritage, you’ll spot the adjective “literary.” That’ll happen when you name-drop Heraclitus the Obscure and allude to novels like Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille. But instead of being assertions of wise thoughts or observations, Casey’s lyrics come across as the process of thinking itself, and in this mode, the “literary” is neither privileged nor secured as anything other than language. 

While Protomartyr’s front man proudly wears a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, he does seem reticent about the tag applied to his numerous allusions to literature, history, and philosophy. For one thing, as he has often pointed out, the band writes the music first and then Casey figures out the words. “To have the inspiration of the music,” he told me during our conversation, “is like, ‘Okay, now I have to come up with something that fits this.’ That’s what gets my mind working and actually gets me to write stuff down.” But Casey is also admirably unimpressed by his own reading habits. “What I don’t like about talking about reading all the time,” he said, “is that, of course you should be a reader.” 

I caught Protomartyr’s December 2 show at The Basement in Columbus, Ohio, which featured openers Rattle (from Nottingham, United Kingdom) and co-headliners Preoccupations. Their set was typical of the tour, beginning with “My Children” into the powerhouse “Wheel of Fortune” from this past summer’s EP, Consolation. Onstage, Casey grimaced, barked into the mic, and pulled a seemingly endless supply of Miller Lite cans from the pockets of his suit jacket. When I met him the following afternoon at The Roosevelt coffeehouse downtown, Casey was soft-spoken, affable, and fed crumbs from his bagel to a sparrow that landed on our table.

Protomartyr’s North American tour concludes December 19 at The Regent in Los Angeles.

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ROBERT LOSS: One of the things that’s been fascinating to me is that you have all these literary and historical allusions in your songs, specifically ancient and medieval and pre-Enlightenment sources. Have you always found that kind of literature appealing?

JOE CASEY: No, it’s pretty recent that I’ve looked into it, but very, you know, surface level. It was mostly just because my dad was a fan of history, and I want to be a fan of history. I like how things change, but then also don’t change at all. It was really that one Anatomy of Melancholy book where I was like, “Okay, this is a guy that’s writing in English, but a version I can barely understand, and he’s bringing up all these allusions to other things.” It was a good heavy bathroom read, thousands of pages about “What makes a person sad?” And then he’s got all these quotes from the ancients. In the beginning of the band I remember thinking, “Okay, I’ve never read the Bible.” And so I decided to get the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible, which is like extra annoying and difficult, which I like because it has a kind of stilted language. Because a lot of times singing stuff can be the worst thing you could do, and everything sounds cheesy, so, sometimes I bring in an old word. As long as it’s not too pretentious, it can sound different to the ear.

Yeah, it draws the listener into a different kind of response. You mentioned your dad being into history. Were you always a reader when you were growing up? A heavy reader?

I’m the youngest of three boys, and I would say that I’m the least of the readers in the family, but that just means my brother Jim is just a terrible reader. So early on it was like, “Okay, I gotta learn, I gotta read.” When I first started reading as a kid it was a competition almost to see who could read the most. On the road now, my eyes are going so it takes longer to read in the van. I used to be a car reader; I used to laugh at people who couldn’t read in the car, now my eyes go fuzzy pretty quick. What I used to do is bring tons of books and then I’d get more on the road, so now I kind of keep one or two books and hope that we hit a used book shop before I run out of stuff to read. But, in the band I’m actually not the biggest reader, Alex the drummer is. He’s read all the heavyweights. He’s reading a book about Mao right now.

I want to ask about school just a little bit. Were you a good student?

In grade school I was really good, in high school I was pretty good, in college I was pretty bad. It was one of those things where I was, you know, I didn’t know how to study. So I think I was blessed with being naturally a little smart so I could think, but when actual studying was involved I was really bad at it. You think that you’re hot shit and then you … I have to say that my highest moment of education was nursery school. I was the coolest kid in nursery school and it was all downhill from there. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] What were the first books that shook your world when you were younger? When you got into high school or college was there a certain book or kind of book that spoke to you, like, “Oh, I could do this.”

Well, super early was Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl, and then later on I read Watership Down way too early, and I was very proud of that, it was a thick book. I was like, “This book about rabbits is really interesting.” I mean, I read a lot of trash, too. But Watership Down was probably the one where I was like, “Oh, I can read, and I can also understand it.”

I went to an all boy’s school and we read a lot of like, The Red Badge of Courage, and lots of war books. But I remember the first thing that was actually interesting was we got to pick a book from a list and write about it, and I read As I Lay Dying by Faulkner. And that was the first book I read I’m like, “This is really — I can’t figure this out.” I guess in my paper I tried to act like I knew what was going on, and my teacher was like, “Joe, did you understand this book at all?” And I was like, “No, it’s kind of not good.” And she was like, “You’re right,” and she gave me an A. That was the first time I was like, “Oh yeah, some of these lauded authors are kind of shit.”

One of the things I admire about Faulkner and Joyce is that they succeed at their bullshit.

It’s interesting that you bring up As I Lay Dying, because when I found out about “Caitriona” being inspired by the Ó Cadhain book Cré na Cille, it reminded me of As I Lay Dying, what with Addie Bundren talking from her coffin and everything. So I did want to ask, what drew you to Ó Cadhain’s book? How’d you find out about it, why was it interesting to you?

I like Irish writers, but I also feel like at that point I hadn’t dipped my toe outside of the “big ones.” And, what was interesting about this was that it was written in Irish, and two translations came out at almost the exact same time after years of not being translated — and so I was like, “Okay, here’s an author that is considered by the Irish one of the best writers, and it’s the first time that I’ll be able to read it.” And I like the fact that both translations are completely different. I don’t know which this one is … [Reaches for copy on table translated as Graveyard Clay by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson.] This is actually the good one. Well, I mean, they’re both good, but the other one is very stilted.

Listening to Protomartyr, what resonates with me is what I think of as a very Irish and Scottish mindset that’s filled with dark humor. Life is absurd, but there’s the courage to go on. Even though you’re hopping around from Hangover Square to Graveyard Clay, there are a few common denominators at work. Is that something you’re aware of?

Yeah, well, I think as far as what we’re talking about, the Russians probably did it the best. I’m kind of fascinated now about “What makes me Irish?” Nothing, really. My family was from there a long time ago. But I do feel that with literature and this kind of stuff, I’m building connections whether they exist or not. I don’t believe they’re necessarily true, but I see myself in these books and that experience.

What appealed to you about the Patrick Hamilton novel Hangover Square [which inspired “Maidenhead” on Under Color of Official Right]?

I knew that he was a screenwriter. He wrote Gaslight, oddly enough, which is a big term now. I got it in a used bookstore. I liked the tone. That was when I was trying to establish that fact that, okay, I’m going to write things where I’m not the narrator. I’m singing about something, it’s in a voice. So this is a perfect one where he’s like, “Okay, here’s the voice of this guy who’s boring.” I kind of like those books where the narrator is unreliable. You slowly learn that he’s crazy, but it’s very tastefully done. I like a good drink, and it talks about alcoholism in an interesting way, but also makes it fun to read. [Laughs.]

Alex and I both like reading pulpy books from the last century because you can read 20 of them … I was addicted to [Georges] Simenon for a long time because all his books were almost exactly the same, and once you get into the flow of it … His claim to fame was that he would write the plot on an envelope, get his plot together, and write the book in two days. All his books were the same. They were always very dark, about human nature, failing. I like the fact that he was like pulp entertainment and … depressing.

I also wanted to ask about Fritz Leiber, whose novel Our Lady of Darkness you’ve said informed “Corpses in Regalia.” What fascinates me about him is that he wrote in so many genres, but he was the guy who coined the term “sword and sorcery.”

Yeah. He kind of combined the Conan/Tarzan thing before Dungeons & Dragons existed. That’s why I like genre writers, I like the fact that all these people approach writing as a job. They’ll write 12 barbarian books, but they’ll also have their personal stories. And it’s like, “Oh, this is how you become a good writer, you kind of churn out the product.” You don’t sit and think about it.

It’s not precious.

Yeah. Our drummer’s grandfather is Elmore Leonard —  

Really.

I never got to meet him, but in the band’s early days, I was like, “Alex, we gotta get your grandfather to write the liner notes for our album.” So Alex played it for him and he said, “It’s a lot of noise for four guys.” And, “Protomartyr: You should change your name to The Steves.” [Laughs.]

And he was another fellow who was like, “What’s selling? Cowboy books? Okay, I’ll write a bunch of cowboy books.” And he got really good at writing cowboy books. “Oh, cowboy books aren’t selling anymore? Okay, crime novels.” And then he wrote some of the best ones. He wasn’t like, “Oh, I love crime, I love cowboys.” It was, “What sells?”

Do you read much philosophy?

No. I have two friends that are philosophy professors. With “agent intellect,” I saw that and just thought it was cool. And I was like, “Can you explain to me what the agent intellect is?” And my philosopher friend was like, “No, that’s the whole point. No one knows what the hell he was talking about.” And it’s like, “Okay, good.” [Laughs.]

The references to history in your lyrics usually bring out the brutality of life, like “Tarpeian Rock” —

Which is now a parking lot. When we were in Rome, I was like, “We have to see where this is.” And it’s just a parking lot now. But it’s a place where, you know, many people were murdered.

And there’s also a sense that you can’t escape history. But as we’ve talked, it seems to me that you don’t think we should escape it, you don’t want to, or you think it’s impossible.

When I was younger I’d think the history was the past and we’re living in the future. And now I realize everything’s happening at the exact same time. History is happening right now. The idea of the past is kind of weird. I always hate those historical movies or books where they kind of give it a modern context. You don’t have to do that because these things exist all at the same time. Brutality’s always going on.

Some of the questions in your songs also have long histories, like how should we be good to each other, how should we be ethical. Have you thought about your songs as being concerned with power — what you do with it, how you get it, how it hurts people?

I don’t think I’ll ever have any power, but yeah, they’re about living in a world where outside forces are affecting you. It made a lot of sense on the first record because I didn’t know what to write about. I just wanna make sure we avoid anthems. I don’t want the next album to be like, “Here’s an update on the state of the world.” I don’t wanna get into “state of the world”–type shit.

“Here’s a dispatch from Joe…”

Yeah … “Hey, everybody! Who’s woke here? Everybody raise your hand if you’re woke!”

The result of that attitude, though, seems like you have a different kind of commitment to thinking through these ethical questions. One of the reasons I wanted to ask about philosophy is that you seem like a very philosophical person in the sense that you’re skeptical. The philosopher’s job is not to answer and provide knowledge but to ask questions. That’s what Socrates’s first move was, to walk around and ask questions. To say, “What do you think?” and then, “I don’t agree with that, let me tell you why.” I feel like that’s what your songs do.

Oh yeah. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a smart thing, but it seems like the right thing — not to have answers — because I don’t have answers in my day-to-day life. So why would I write a song where’s it’s A + B = C or something? 

But your songs are very aware of class and economics. Is that something you’ve always been attuned to, or has that changed as you’ve gotten older?

Definitely as I’ve gotten older. Maybe it has something to do with where I’m from. I don’t know why it’s not more of an issue in the world. The class struggle — and I don’t really know anything about it — but it fascinates me. It affects a lot of what goes on. Where you start. How people keep you in your spot. That’s a thing you can go back and read books from the Roman days and people were struggling with that. When you’re a kid, you think, “Eventually the dickheads will stop winning.” But, no. The dickheads are still winning.

I wanted to ask about “You Always Win,” on the Consolation EP, which seems like the closest you’ve come to doing a ballad —

I try to do one on each album. “Three Swallows” on No Passion is me trying to do a ballad.

With “You Always Win” I couldn’t help but think of Hank Williams since you sing “You win again” so often. So in the song, death or age become this lover that’s kicking your ass.

And you gotta submit to it. You can try to fight it but it’s gonna win. With both that and “Wheel of Fortune,” I had heard that music is something that can reach people with Alzheimer’s and I was looking for songs that were popular when my mom was in high school. She came of age pre–rock ’n’ roll, so there were a lot of crooners, but it was the middle period in the 1950s where it was like Johnny Mathis and things like that. But one of the songs was “Wheel of Fortune.” It’s an old rockabilly woman singer who sings the original. It’s been covered a lot. It’s like, “Smile on me, please let it be now.” The idea of the wheel of life and all that. Another old-timey concept that applies today.

But it’s rigged now.

But ultimately it’s rigged against everybody, so it doesn’t bum me out too much.

All these guys that are hoarding wealth, I wonder what they think their wealth will do when the world is burning, the world is dead, when they’re dead. You don’t take it with you.

But I think we’re almost trained to keep on trying to win until we lose. As much as I hate these guys, I understand why they’re like, “I gotta keep on winning.” It’s kind of like dealing with death: you don’t want to deal with it until it actually happens. Why worry about tomorrow while there’s today?

So I’m guessing you’re skeptical of capitalism.

Yeah. But I wonder, is it because I was not lucky? If I had a bunch of money would I worry so much? Probably not. If I was born rich, I think I’d be a lot happier. I hate when people say money can’t buy you happiness. It can come pretty damn close. It can make you not worry about things that everyone else worries about.

Rock ’n’ roll books came up last night, and you’ve mentioned the Elvis story in “A Private Understanding” coming from Peter Guralnick’s book. These are books that help create our perception of rock ’n’ roll and its lifestyle and artistry. Did you read those kinds of books when you were younger, or more recently?

Not when I was younger, it was mostly just recently. I was like, I don’t know, I’ve never been a fan of Elvis, but is there a good book about Elvis? And those were the two books suggested, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. And I actually read the second book first because I wanted to skip to the good parts. Because I hate that, you know in any biography, it’s like, I don’t care about when you were a kid unless it was fascinating — and Elvis was.

In Philly, we played at the Fillmore Philly, a chain of concert venues, and they have all this rock ’n’ roll art on the wall, like Jimi Hendrix, but on top of it, it’s very corporate. And I think that’s what rock ’n’ roll stories have been reduced to is this salable concept, with individuality in a sense, but this weird salable thing. Like the venue next to where we played last night [Express Live! next to The Basement], there’s all these big posters of models having a good time. But then there’s a list of things you can’t bring in. You can’t have studded belts, can’t have a phone.

Enjoy … but not too much.

Yeah. So that’s why the myth of the rock ’n’ roll star fascinates me a little, even if I think it’s gone. Some of the books are really good. My favorite book is by Steve Hanley, the bass player from the Fall, called The Big Midweek. He was the member of the Fall for the longest time. It’s such a mundane, realistic book. I’m sure if I wasn’t into the band I might think it was boring, but I like that it’s just “we did this, we did that.”

Strips away the glamour.

Yeah. Which, with a band like the Fall, is kind of the point.

Do you think music can change people’s minds about things?

I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t think about it.

We live in a cynical time about art and art’s impact. Do you feel that way about music?

Yeah. With the last album, what it was about, it really pissed me off that I felt I had to sing about stuff like that. I like being a cynic, sitting in the corner, not doing things. I don’t wanna be forced to do it. Why isn’t there somebody better doing it? I’m cynical by nature, and I wish the world would allow me to be a proper cynic.

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Robert Loss is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Philosophy at Columbus College of Art and Design. He is the author of Nothing Has Been Done Before: Seeking the New in 21st-Century American Popular Music (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).


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