As our national discourse continues to sink ever lower, a new generation of dissident musical artists is emerging to give voice to a growing mood of discontent. One of the more compelling of these dissenting soundtracks comes from Detroit’s Protomartyr, a four-piece post-punk combo with a complex, industrial-strength, guitar-centric sound. Debuting in 2012 with their No Passion All Technique, a fairly generic, if imposing, garage punk effort reminiscent of hometown legends The Stooges, their sound has grown increasingly sophisticated with each album, reaching a high point with 2017’s Relatives In Descent, their fourth full album, and their first for the London-based indie label Domino.
The first thing you notice about Protomartyr is the unconventional, often deadpan delivery of frontman Joe Casey. To call him a singer would overstate his musicality, while dismissing his lack of musicality would underestimate his power to communicate. His unique style of vocalizing is mostly a mix of talking and shouting, with the occasional effort at tuneful melody, and though he might initially come off merely as someone’s drunk uncle, as others have observed, his delivery perfectly matches his insightful, socially charged lyrics. When combined with guitarist and primary songwriter Greg Ahee’s searing sound and the high-level rhythm section of bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard, the result is a barely contained ball of highly articulate, melancholic rage.
I had a chance to speak with Casey in Williamsburg in late October before the final show of a twenty-eight-date US tour. I asked him about Detroit, politics, the band’s ultimate goals, and about the ceaseless comparisons with early British post-punk, among other things. Here are some of the highlights:
Dan Joseph (Rail): Do you identify with that? Are you a post-punk band, is that all a lot of baloney?
Casey: We never really set out to figure out what our sound was gonna be when we started. At first, we got compared to punks a lot because we played in loud bars, and I yelled a lot. But we like a lot of post-punk bands. I’m a fan of The Fall, and everybody in the band likes Wire….getting compared to good bands is fine—better than getting compared to terrible bands.
Rail: So this is sort of by accident?
Casey: I think so. I think the band we were influenced by locally in Detroit was one called Tyvek, which was very influenced by kind of the do-it-yourself period that came after punk—so like post-punk. But they were influenced by the Desperate Bicycles and bands that put out one single and that was it. There are compilations like Hyped To Death that collected regional English bands...but you see the variety in it. So that was influential to me, but since I don’t play any instruments, it’s not like I could convince them to play a certain way. But there are lots of different tastes in the band.
Rail: How much do you identify as a Detroit band, and how much does the city and environment shape your music?
Casey: Well, I think it helped that we were from Detroit, as a band. I think people’s ears prick up, especially in Europe, when they hear it’s a Detroit band.
Rail: In the sense of the city having a kind of tough reputation?
Casey: No, more to do with the musical history of it, like Motown started in a house, and you can visit the house—which is a museum—you start in the front door, and by the end you’re back in the garage, and that’s where they recorded all the songs—that sort of feeling of very workman-like bands is kind of a Detroit thing. Techno is a similar thing. You don’t really realize where you’re from until you go someplace else and people want to talk to you about it. But the basic thing is that it used to be very cheap to live in Detroit. It’s getting more and more expensive, but you can still have a practice space. You can play in your basement or garage. There’s bars you can play in, and it’s cheap.
Rail: But how about the legacy of bands like The Stooges, or punk bands like Negative Approach, or even The White Stripes? How much connection do you have with that kind of legacy?
Casey: It goes in waves. When I was younger I would go see The White Stripes. The first time I saw them was at the Gold Dollar, which was like the shitty punk club in town. To see them get international success was exciting, I remember at the time. And then there were a lot of great bands that were lumped into the garage rock sound—maybe too many bands—and that kind of scene sort of folded in on itself. The scene I gravitated towards afterwards was more like an art punk kind of thing—Tyvek, Human Eye, that sort of thing—more experimental.
Rail: How about Iggy Pop? I know he doesn’t live in Detroit anymore, but does he have any connection with you guys? I listen to his radio show on BBC—you probably know it—he plays you guys all the time and talks very highly of you…
Casey: He says very nice things [laughing]…
Rail: Does he come check you out when you go through his Florida town?
Casey: He lives down in Miami, and one time we were down there. I guess he was out getting ready to go on tour; he was not home. And then one time he came to Detroit when The Stooges documentary came out, but we were on tour. So it’s always been a missed connection. But I would like to meet him.
Rail: I want to ask you about the cover art. At one point I think I learned, just by writing to you guys on Facebook, that you do the artwork—is that right?
Rail: Although it’s uncredited, it seems. Am I missing the credit? Is it in there, somewhere?
Casey: No, I like to keep the information in the artwork limited and sometimes obscured. Occasionally I may put my initials someplace.
Rail: I really like the artwork. It seems to connect with collaging and a culture of rock-band flyers—it seems to have a deep lineage to that…
Casey: Oh yeah…
Rail: So is that something you do just in the context of the band, or do you have other visual art practices?
Casey: It was on one of the reasons I wanted to be in a band, ‘cause I thought okay, if you’re in a band you can control what your flyers look like. So, because I’m not a musician, I could do some singing, and I could do the artwork. And in our band, actually, Alex, the drummer, is also a very good artist himself, so he does all the t-shirt designs.
Rail: Well, more specifically, about the new cover—I’ve been meditating on what is it really saying, or is it saying anything? My read on it is that it’s kind of a mashup of a Catholic nun with an Arabic Muslim woman. And then the pink background…what are you trying to convey with that?
Casey: Well, I got the photos of an actress named Maude Fealy who was around at the turn of the 20th century and was a silent film and stage actress. She was considered one of the great beauties of her time; they would sell these postcards of her. And that is of her playing a role as a nun. Writing the lyrics, there seemed to be a lot of feminine aspects to it—“Half Sister” is a song on it—so I wanted to find a face you couldn’t really read too well. Somebody I talked to said it reminded her of the Sphinx, which was kind of what I was going for, without even knowing it. And I like that she’s just staring straight out, and you can’t tell if it’s with contempt…people can read it however. But I try to keep the cover simple, and maybe not too on the nose with what’s inside…
Rail: How much do you think about yourself as a political band, political in the sense of some of our punk bands in America over the years, like Fugazi and stuff like that?
Casey: I try to write about how the world is affecting me, and I think the reason I don’t want to say that we’re a political band is because Fugazi were actually very active and very knowledgeable of things, and I don’t feel I have enough knowledge of things to say, “I know this and I know that.” So it’s mostly just a selfish thing in that I react more to how it’s affecting me. So, I think that’s one way to talk about politics.
Rail: What are your aspirations with Protomartyr at this point, or even as a rock musician at all?
Casey: That’s an interesting question…I think you just hope that the crowds are there and people like your records, and you’re able to tour and go places you’ve never been, and live sort of comfortably. Right now we’re kind of all taking a pay cut—it seems more a devotion than a career.
Rail: But you’ve all, as I read recently, quit your day jobs, as of this year?
Rail: So you guys are all in at this point?
Casey: Yes, at least until it stops!
Dan Joseph is a New York-based composer, performer, curator, and writer. His Twitter handle is @dcomposer.