- Interview by
- Owen Schalk
Detroit-based rock band Protomartyr has carved out a dedicated cult following over the past ten years. The group — comprising guitarist Greg Ahee, bassist Scott Davidson, drummer Alex Leonard, and singer and lyricist Joe Casey — has released six albums and one EP, all of which have enjoyed widespread critical praise for their intense, melodic, ever-evolving post-punk style.
Casey in particular has received attention for his onstage presence (which reviewers have likened to “a badass middle-school English teacher” and “a frustrated family man back from his fifth failed job interview of the week”), vocal delivery (which can quickly bounce between screaming anger and restrained rumination), and the allusive, socially conscious nature of his lyrics. Matching the band’s socially conscious lyrics, Protomartyr played a Bernie Sanders rally in Detroit in 2020 — a “high point,” Casey says, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jacobin contributor Owen Schalk recently spoke to Joe Casey about US politics, his creative process, the state of the music industry, and more.
In many ways the lyrics of Protomartyr’s new album, Formal Growth in the Desert, feel quite topical. For instance, “Let’s Tip the Creator” critically references Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and the kind of technologies these figures promote. Right now, we’re living through a proliferation of such technologies into the realm of art: AI-generated art, algorithms narrowing the kind of art that people are exposed to, and so on.
On previous Protomartyr albums, I’ve also noticed a skepticism toward the role that technology plays in modern society. Is that skepticism, or suspicion, something you’ve felt for a long time?
Yes. It took us a long time in my family to have a computer in our house, because we couldn’t afford one. You go over to other people’s houses, and they have a computer — it’s fascinating. Everybody’s talking about video games and all that.
When I went to school, I foolishly studied film and video studies, and English too — two foolish degrees. But I was right on the cusp of when they were like, “Here’s how you tape film together” and “Here’s how you shoot on film.” And then they were like, “Oh yeah, by the way, at some point you’ll be able to do this kind of stuff on a computer.” So I didn’t learn any of that. I remember when the University of Michigan was opening up their DVD library and we were like, “Oh, DVDs? These are new and exciting.” Computers were getting big at the time. I remember my friend saying “I’m gonna go work at Google,” and I was like “Haha, good luck with that.” She’s very well-off now.
So, I had kind of a personal grudge against technology. Nowadays, especially with AI and all that — you can see it happening with the writers’ strike — it feels like technology is always used to ask, “How do we impress people? We’ll show that it can create beautiful art!” when maybe AI should be used to take the middle manager’s job or the CEO’s. They always use it to razzle-dazzle people by using it to [create art]. “Oh, it can make music!”
For a lot of people that aren’t musical or aren’t creative or aren’t artistic, the idea of creating art seems either like something a child would do or something that they can’t comprehend how somebody does it. So having a computer come in and do it, [they’d say], “Oh, that makes sense; I just like beautiful things.” Which is fine and all, but I feel the people that try to have a life in the arts are always getting screwed. [Laughs.] I don’t want to come across like a Luddite or anything, but as we’re continually ground down by these technologies, I’m beginning to think that maybe I was right to complain all those years ago.
Do you consciously write to oppose this reality, which seems to be increasingly cynical and demeaning toward the artistic process, or do you just write and let the critique emerge?
I’m writing from a place of limited or no power. A lot of the things that are in opposition to me are bigger than me, like the way that the governments are run. I think that’s relatable to a majority of people. You know: “Here are the gripes that you go through on a daily basis. You’re not paid enough. You feel like the world is sliding into environmental collapse, and nobody’s doing anything. You’re surrounded by morons.”
I hate to compare [my work] to blues writers’, but it’s folk writers, or anybody that is not writing from a place of power, or the top of the heap . . . you have to combat these issues because they will affect your life. I can’t sing about lovely evenings in Martha’s Vineyard or something because I can’t live there. So you write about what you know.
The main thing when you’re writing about these kinds of issues is, you want to make sure you’re not being pedantic and [you’re clear that] you don’t have all the answers. Because you have to realize — at least, I have to realize — that I’m stupid and I don’t know everything. It becomes inauthentic when you’re trying to relate your story to other people, but you already know the answer. For me, writing lyrics is half exploration — trying to figure out what I’m thinking — and the other half is trying to put it into an interesting form that won’t bore people.
Your songs refer the state of US health care, the Flint water crisis, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention camps, Amazon fulfillment centers, and more. Do you feel that you have a responsibility to interrogate these social and economic issues?
There’s two forms I like writing in. I like writing the surreal and inexplicable in lyrics — I do like writing about these things — but I also feel like I can’t just write about [that]. When we started the band, there were a lot of bands — and God bless them, no offense to them — that only sung about pizza. You know, “good time” bands. It seemed kind of vacuous to me . . . like people were whistling through the graveyard, avoiding what was going on around them.
It was easy for me to write about [those issues], growing up in Detroit, living in Detroit. The Flint water crisis in particular seemed like a terrible canary in the coal mine, and everyone chose to ignore it. They were like, “It’s Flint, it’s a poor place, it’s far away.” But for us in Detroit, Flint was not that far away. My dad worked in Detroit wastewater and sewage. For me, personally, it was close to home; the idea of clean water was like a family business for a while. So I was like, “I feel comfortable enough to talk about this, because I feel like nobody is doing it.”
It’s the same sort of thing when, in the past, I really wished a better band would write more interesting songs about what I feel like I have to sing about, because then I wouldn’t have to. But you look around, and it seems like, [to use] this blanket term, “indie rock” right now — or whatever the fuck we’re in — avoids talking about issues. Which I understand, because sometimes if you write about issues, it immediately dates a song. It’s almost like it’s not a song, it’s a newspaper article.
I do wish there were more protest bands and more bands that were actually talking about what’s going on. But it seems like lately there have been a lot more bands that are at least talking about their lives more realistically. We lived through a period of music where everybody was like, “The perfect pop song — let’s write pop songs.” And pop songs, especially now, have been all about personal depression, which is a valid thing to write about, but it avoids the economic reality that a lot of these songwriters are living. Which I understand.
There’s two different things you can do. Let’s say it’s a rainy day: you can write about a rainy day, or you can write about the sunny day that you’re hoping for tomorrow. And a lot of people choose to be aspirational in their music. I’m not that confident of a person, so I’ll stick to singing about the rainy day.
Some people may not know that Protomartyr played a Bernie Sanders rally in Detroit in 2020. What are your views on the current state of US politics?
I can’t tell if it’s because I’m getting old or if things are getting worse, but there’s always that eternal thing where you’re like, “Has it always been this bad, but [back then] I was just young and full of hope?” As you get older, it slowly kind of grinds you down, and you realize there are always morons in charge and nothing will change.
The Bernie rally — it’s funny, because the high point of our band was playing that rally. And as we were waiting to go on, we found out that the NBA had canceled its season due to COVID. It was like the last good thing we had before years of things not working out for us.
Am I hopeful? I really liked Bernie Sanders, and I wish there were more people to carry [his movement forward]. A lot of times people are like, “He’s just this old kook up in Vermont,” and I feel like once he goes off the stage . . . I wish there were people who had a similar agenda to fill that void. And that’s always the case — who’s gonna come up? The choices are always very bad. [Laughs.] The Democratic Party: this is the best we’ve got? It’s always very disappointing. You wish for more, for better candidates.
But I do feel like as you get older, and you get grumpier, and you think there’s no hope in the future, it does seem like the younger generation is motivated more than my generation was. My generation was Generation X, and we were like “Welp, it’s over” — a very cynical view of the world in general. It’s disappointing to see that now, people my age are the people running the country, and they’re just as terrible as anybody else. But it does seem like the younger generation is a little bit more motivated, a little bit more aware of unions and strikes and being [in favor of] them. So that’s good.
In an interview for the Guardian in 2017, you said that overt political critique ages poorly; in that case, you were speaking about writing politically trenchant material in Donald Trump’s America. You said that it’s more important to “establish the mood” of the given moment. Is that still your approach?
I believe so. Like I said earlier, [overt critique] ages a song. With somebody like Trump, people were like “Trump is out of office, isn’t that great?” And I’m like, “No, what he represented still exists in America and is still a grave issue.” It reminds me of when George W. Bush was in office and there was Rock Against Bush. Immediately, those songs become dated. If you’re talking about the issues that are constantly happening, maybe they have more legs.
The feeling of the time when Trump was in office is still here. It lingers every time you go out into a crowd, especially in the Midwest. Touring around, we still see tons of Trump signs. It’s because he’s a populist at the end of the day, and he’s speaking to people that haven’t been spoken to by either of the two parties in a long time. That kind of entrancing voice will exist long after he’s gone. So you can talk about that. But to have a song about “He’s an orange guy,” that’s just a waste of time.
As many have pointed out, Protomartyr is from Detroit, and previous albums have explored topics like city corruption, pollution, and general economic decay. Are you more interested in a local rather than a national critique?
Touring around, you realize what a giant country this is, and how regional it is. I’m not the person to write “This is what America feels like.” I do know from my experiences growing up and living in Detroit that I can speak to that. Then you tour around, you’ll go to some place in England — the north of England, to their industrial cities — and they’ll be like “I really like this song; I can relate to this song.” “It’s about Detroit.” “Oh, it reminds me of where I’m from. This reminds me of Birmingham.”
So you travel around, and you realize that it’s important [to] get the specificity and have the knowledge to write about what you know. When you move into “I’m gonna write about the state of America,” then maybe the brush is getting too broad, and you’re starting to water it down.
But by talking about Detroit, I am talking about America — you know, the human condition. [Laughs.] It’s not like Detroit is this bizarre place [whose specifics] don’t apply to anyplace else in the world. There’s the old saying, “If the auto companies go, so goes America.” I feel like, if Detroit goes, so America will go. It’s a way to get in the backdoor to talk about those things without being pretentious enough to think you can speak to a whole nation or the world or anything like that.
“If Detroit goes, so America will go” — can you expand on that?
The health of the auto industry was always a sign of how well the American economy was doing. Early on when the band was first starting out, in the early 2000s, there were a lot of people almost parachuting into Detroit to be like, “Look at this fucked-up place.” There were all these documentaries, like, “Can you believe how messed up Detroit is?” And it feels like that sort of thing applies [across the United States]. You drive anywhere on tour, you’re gonna see poverty, a lot of towns hollowed out by no jobs and corruption. It’s not just these urban cities — it’s whole states, it’s whole areas, it’s middle America, it’s small towns.
With the Flint water crisis, for example, people were like, “That’ll never happen here.” It will, because the pipes will get old, and the government does not want to spend the money to replace the pipes and will say it’s not worth it. It seems like a lot of the things Detroit went through, America can go through or is going through. Public schools in Detroit — the fact that we went bankrupt and had an emergency manager come in and call the shots for a while . . . these things will constantly be happening in America, because it seems like that’s the way it goes.
So where do you see the country heading? And how will that affect your creative process and that of the band?
I can only speak to what I’ve seen. The touring industry has probably never been worse. But it’s funny, because it’s probably good for the people who work at these venues. Because these venues are all getting bought up by Live Nation and these big corporations, and so they’re all getting “streamlined.” It might be good for your Taylor Swifts or your Foo Fighters or your big entities, but for a band that’s trying to start out, it’s not a good sign. You have to work with these companies everywhere you go, the price of everything has gone up, and there are streaming services. There’s a whole writers’ strike; I’m feeling like “Why isn’t there a musicians’ strike?” It’s very disheartening that the musicians’ unions are pretty powerless.
Your streams of income are being stamped on and cut up. For instance, on this [latest North America] tour, I was surprised that we played a couple venues where they take a cut of your merch. You can sell your T-shirts and records, but the venue’s gonna take 20 percent of it, and they’re not even gonna sell it. You’re gonna sell it, and they’re just gonna take the money off the top. It was interesting going to lots of venues, because some of them got money during COVID and actually improved and survived, but a lot of them got bought up by these corporations. A lot of independent venues closed. So I don’t have a rosy outlook for music, for bands, and for younger bands starting out.
You go online, and the places where you used to find out about music are being bought out. I saw that the company that owns the A.V. Club, which used to be the place for movie reviews and record reviews — and they’d write about new bands — has started using AI to make lists like “Here’s All the Marvel Movies.” [Laughs.] Every aspect of the music industry — and the arts in general — has been gutted and sold off for parts.
Music will still exist, and it will be more regional, I hope, and smaller. But it’s hard to combat [the view] that “You’re in a band — you must be living the rockstar life.” That’s not the truth. You’re counting pennies.
A major theme of this new album is “tomorrow” — moving through one phase of life and into a new one, which could be better or could be worse. This interests me given the almost dystopian view of the future in your previous album, Ultimate Success Today, including on songs like “Processed by the Boys” and “Modern Business Hymns.” Have your views on the future changed since then?
No, they haven’t. But I think personally, as I’ve lived my life in the last ten years — and maybe my whole life — I’m a person that refuses change. I will stick my head in the sand and not realize time moves on without you — you know, “Maybe if I stay here, time will pass me by, or I will not have to suffer the indignity of living. If I just stay here and close my eyes, I’ll be fine.” Which I think is a very common response to anything.
What happened in the last couple years is, I realized that tomorrow is gonna come whether you want it to or not, and although I’m a pessimist in a lot of ways, I have to embrace it. There’s nothing worse than a person that’s constantly complaining. I love complaining, but if you’re not there to help, then get out of the way. That’s the way I see it. You can still think that nothing’s gonna work and life is meaningless and all this kind of stuff, but you have to get up in the morning and you have to put your socks on. You have to try to fight the “good fight” if you can, because what else are you gonna do? I tried hiding for years, and it didn’t work.