It’s impossible to have a conversation with Joe Casey, vocalist of Detroit heroes Protomartyr, without feeling a sense of deep gratitude that this man is occupying space in the current cultural realm. A smart, funny and genuinely friendly presence, Casey is as open to discuss the structural problems within the American political system as he is to talk about films or his private life. And in the bright glow of his deep voice, there’s a sense of genuine optimism – even at his most sarcastic.
When we talked last, both of us were confined inside by the raging lockdown, but since, things have changed for the better: we met in person after a local Protomartyr show, with Casey teasing that a new album would be coming up soon. And with new album Formal Growth in the Desert, there’s for the first time a genuine sense of hope that intruded his usually gloomy lyricism.
As our conversation unfolds – where we touch upon such esoteric topics as the Western The Great Silence, the most romantic moment of Casey’s life and Billy Corgan’s podcast – it becomes clear that things can, indeed, get better.
This transformation starts with the outside: usually, Casey is in charge of designing the iconic covers of the band’s releases. But Formal Growth in the Desert is represented by an impressive black and white photo, which longtime collaborator and good friend of the group Trevor Naud had taken.
Casey: Usually I have an idea that I try to get for a cover by looking through old magazines in a bookstore here in town in an old warehouse, which is just five floors of old books, floor to ceiling. I go there and try to find a book or magazine that has an image that fits the idea I had at the time. So this time, the idea I had was of a woman embracing a statue. And I knew I wanted two faces on the cover this time, as opposed to just one.
I went “I know this photographer friend of mine, instead of just finding an image and cut something out and doing it this way, I might just ask him to do it – (laughs) he’s really good at taking photos – and see what he comes up with”. So I gave him this very vague idea, and he found the models and made all the masks. He made about five different ones. So each day I’d get a text, “How about this mask – which one do you want?” It was a really interesting process, just impressive. I’m definitely going to continue to use him in the future if he wants to. I loved it because it was a very crispy collaboration: he took my very vague idea and made it something interesting.
The mask is kind of like a Janus-head, as it has two faces, isn’t it?
Yes! That was kind of a theme with all of them he was making. He made them by hand and they have one side slightly different from the other. I like that a lot because he was putting a lot into it too. You can read into it that the person with the mask was wearing it to hide themselves from the woman… I like that it brought forward all these questions and deeper meanings to it as opposed to “I don’t know, let’s have her hug a statue”. (laughs) He really put a lot more thought into it, so two heads are better than one, in this case.
There’s a lost German silent film by Murnau called Der Januskopf (The Janus Head). It’s a loose Jekyll and Hyde adaptation, which is sort of speculated to have been influenced by the schizophrenic two-sidedness within the Weimarer Republic’s political shifts. So I immediately read the image as a political metaphor.
Well, you mention the lost Murnau, and film is definitely something I’m interested in. With the cover image… I never want to be fully explicit with the meaning, which is why I’m glad Trevor came in and added some of his own ideas to it. I always like the image to be striking, but I want the music to give the image a meaning. So when you ask me if there’s a political meaning behind it… The lyrics to the songs are obviously very political, so it’s working. “Maybe the image is political?” Well, not necessarily, but the contents of the album give the image meaning and not the other way around. You never want to be so on the nose. Every part of my record, I try to avoid the big issues, because I can only relate to them on a personal level. I lack political power in a lot of ways, so it’s always personal… The idea of somebody hiding the truth behind a mask is obviously relevant to politics as well.
This approach, of the unconscious in aesthetic representation, was very important to the music video for “Worm in Heaven”. The last time we talked, we extensively discussed its odd parallels to the lockdown experience, this weird experiment of a frozen afterlife-like state. And now, the music video for “Make Way” continues this story: the experiment has grown, like a dream that passes over into the waking realm.
Yeah. And again, it’s one of the things that was planned, but not meticulous enough. So afterwards you realise “Ah, I can’t believe how clever I am…” (laughter) “Worm in Heaven” is very – “Well, I am dead now!” It’s the end of something. When we were writing “Make Way” and it started to become clear it’s the first song on the album, it had kind of a similar feeling to “Worm in Heaven”. That last song on our previous record was about dying basically, and in-between these two records the world was shut down. We are coming back and the first song is explaining this lost term, and thus I wanted to connect it to “Worm in Heaven” lyrically, as sonically it is disconnected.
Trevor, who also took the cover photo, directed the “Worm in Heaven” video, so I commissioned him for the “Make Way” video. And he could have come in and done any idea – “Hey, I want to film dancing monkeys!”, OK great, go for it – but his first thought after listening to it was “Do you mind if I make a reference to ‘Worm in Heaven’?” Oh yeah, go ahead! I like what you’re saying that it does feel like “Worm in Heaven” is very insular and done in someone’s house. And now we’re in a test-phase and the experiment is being done in a larger environment with more subjects. I like that the story that he tries to tell is able to continue between the two songs of two albums with two music videos. It looks like we sat down and said “This must happen this way!” – it just kind of happened naturally. I find the benefits from that it wasn’t forced but just a natural artistic progression for both of us. That’s what you call dumb luck, but it’s great that it was. (laughs)
I remember how, in 2020, we talked about being isolated and speculated what the future might look like. Now, over here, everybody just moved on, with clubs and concerts packed again. I don’t know how that’s in the States, but it feels like we exited this experiment and that’s just the natural progression.
100% what “Make Way” is about: “We got through it!” There’s a positive to it, where the human spirit is able to thrive and move on. But there’s also a darkness to it: we went through this period where we were trying to mitigate loss and try to keep people from dying, and we didn’t do very good with that, at least in America we didn’t. And then we nearly just choose to forget it. It’s almost like a human failing – “That didn’t happen.”
I don’t know if we learnt any lessons from the Covid period. For us as a band, our livelihoods were taken away from us – for a lot of people, their future was taken away from them! But: “Don’t worry about that, it’s OK, forget about that.” You go to these clubs and they’re packed – and for us, it’s great that people come to our shows. But then you see these remnants of the Covid years – where you might see a sign saying “Please wear a mask”, or an old forgotten disinfectant station – they’re like these remnants of this past that we haven’t reckoned with and just decided to forget about.
I didn’t want the whole album to be about that – it probably could have been a very fascinating concept, of coming out of that and living through that. But I wanted to just set the scene that this is “post-this”: it’s about ‘the worst thing can happen to you and you can either die or you can live.’ Those are the two options. And it might not feel good, because so many people suffered and now you’re acting like it didn’t happen, but this might be the mechanism of the human mind that allows you to keep going.
I saw that a lot of people in their early 20s move here in the last year, slowly developing new circles, creating venues and starting bands. Everybody is very fashionable and extremely kind. It’s exciting!
I see that too. People will ask me “Is there still a music scene in Detroit?” And as an old man, I’d be like “Nope, all the bands are gone.” But that’s not true. It’s just that the bands when I was around… You know, people my age aren’t in fucking bands anymore. So there is a vibrant, younger scene. And it’s very interesting if you think about it: these kids are very stylish and doing their own thing – I went through two, three years of Covid, and I was in my 40s, so it was a bummer when I got out of it and was balder and sadder. But these kids, they were in High School, the most important part in your life, when you need to be out and around people and that was taken away from them. And the response to that is this crowd: very vibrant and bold with these new ideas. So that’s exciting to me, when I see the news coming out with new bands and all this vitality, as if it was all locked up for so long it had to come out in some way.
I see older people say “Oh the kids are on their phone too much, they’re only on the internet”… it’s not true! It was like that during this period, and now they’re out and doing things that are very important. You need to acknowledge that as an older person.
It reminds me a little of Walter Benjamin’s essay on “The Angel of History”; this idea that there’s this angel, which is propelled forward by the wind of progress through time, away from the catastrophe of the past and towards the future. In a way, that’s aligned with your repeated mantra of “Make Way! Make Way! For Tomorrow”. But with Benjamin, his back is to the future and he’s facing the past, while you seem to turn the back to it and gaze into the future. There’s an optimism to that.
Yes. That’s what I looked into with “Fun in Hi Skool”: the wonderful thing about being young is that you don’t know how finite your life is. You don’t realize that the future is bright because it is bright for you. The older you get, you have to avoid falling into that trap. When you’re young, the future is in front of you, and you can see the world changing to your needs and wants: “I’m here in the world and I’m going to change the world!” And when you get older, you start realising you’re only here for a little time and the systems keep repeating. Things don’t change. The clothes might change and the slogans might change, but it’s the same sort of thing where we all get ground down to meal, and that’s it.
Both are true, but it’s very important to not, as you get older, succumb to it completely. “Fun in Hi Skool” is about looking back and feeling that you were only good when you were young, or that things were better, and the newness that is coming is frightening and not good. It happens all the time.
What’s funny to me is that my generation, which is on the tail end of the Gen X – the coolest and most laid back generation… we might still think that of ourselves, but the shittiest leaders in America right now are Gen X people. It’s not like everybody’s like “Oh yeah, we all listened to grunge, cool!” (laughs) No. That’s not how it works. “Fun in Hi Skool” is an anti-nostalgia song. As you said: the back is turned to the past, the past doesn’t exist! You can’t live in it. You probably think of it as a glorious time, but it wasn’t.
It came out of talking to the other guys in the band – we all went to the same High School since we were 10 years old – and I told them “You know, I didn’t have such a terrible time in High School, I certainly didn’t have fun, but…” and Greg [Ahee, guitarist of Protomartyr] was like “I had the most miserable time! I fucking hated that school!” Oh yeah, it actually was kinda depressing. (laughs). You look at pictures when you were young and you go “Boy, I sure was good looking, I had a full head of hair…” But at the time you didn’t see that, you were riddled with insecurities. It’s good to see the youth now be more bold and confident, because I certainly wasn’t when I was young.
I think none of us was, which is why we are now!
Your delivery here has an immensely acidic, almost violent tone to it. And the lyrics almost have an accusatory tone – “Yeah you made a friend that was attacked by his heart and died / He had kids that loved him, you got none / You ain’t got shit: no kids, no love, no brain”. I don’t always want to be so political (He does – Ed.), but I always have to think of this idiotic defiant tone Brett Kavanaugh put in during his hearing – “I liked beer! I still like beer!” We were just partying…
Right! I just went to a baseball game with my brother. You go there and there’s a lot of kids and people enjoying the game, and then you see a group of old men… And there’s two things that scare me when I go out at night to a bar: one is cool young people – they scare me because it’s like I’m an old man and they think I’m a loser…
… but the other thing that scares me is drunk old people! They’re the worst! I was down in Nashville not too long ago, where there was four of them. They act like the jocks and bullies you remember from High School when they were 16 years old, and they’re drunk and aggressive. You see that a lot in American politics right now, where you see the populist ideal was “Can’t you speak for the white man?” Now it no longer is. “So who’s taken that away from us? It’s trans people and immigrants!” That seems to be the whole point of the Republican party right now, that the poor sad white man has had taken his politics away from him. It’s a perfect analogy for when you get older and go “I have to take viagra, I have to get hair clogs.” It’s this male, self-pitying thing that’s going on.
That to me is the subject of the song. “Wasn’t it better when I was young? All these new people I don’t understand.” I did want that aggression in it. Also, for that song and “3800 Tigers” I recorded the vocals very late at night, after a few beers and drinks, I wanted to get that. I always worry in the studio that we’re not capturing the live sound enough. Greg is very good at being a producer and figuring out the architecture of a song, and my kind of daily that I’m always trying to get across was that “I want to be more aggressive, I want to be loud, it’s got to be fast!” It’s not just performative anger, it’s actually me being a little boozed up.
I was curious about “3800 Tigers” title – it’s actually the number of the last remaining tigers in the wild.
Well, what’s interesting about that number is that it’s constantly changing, and it was lower when we first came up with the song, and then it jumped up – I think first it was “3600 Tigers”. Just recently, while we were doing interviews, somebody brought up that they looked it up, and it said in India, there’s now so many tigers that they started moving into the villages and attacking villagers. Oh boy, well, OK. (laughter) Sorry. I googled up the number of how many tigers there were and I liked that the number was constantly changing. But it was on a downward slope, and I hated that. It’s somebody nobody in the world knows, how many tigers there are. But to think there’s so few of them… There’s Protomartyr shows we played on festivals where there’s more people than tigers are in the wild.
That caught me at first, this idea of how finite something is.
It’s horrifying to think about that. I was actually wondering if, also with “Elimination Dances”, there’s a theme of extinction to the album.
“Elimination Dances” is more of just me having to realise the finite nature of things. It’s a counterpart to “Make Way”, where – as horrible and self involved as it is – you have to move on with life no matter what’s happened to you, because you already lived through it. It’s a symbol of life, but also inspired by the movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, where you have this dance competition during the Great Depression. You’re dancing and dancing and dancing, and somebody comes along and pushes you and you’re taken out. It’s like any sort of competition: you race the run and then you’re done! I like the idea of dancing as a metaphor for self impression. It’s not like you’re shovelling shit until you die. (laughs) You dig a hole and once the hole is done you fall into it. Another way to look at life. But dancing is a little bit more elegant, because even in the most miserable life there’s some sort of joy and levity. Love, or whatever.
That’s an interesting American image to me: there’s so many pop-cultural adaptations of this dance competition! There’s the Gilmore Girls episode that picks the image up, and this fantastic episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Dancing becomes the grind that you can no longer stop, and there’s all these people trying to take out each other with a performance on top of the dance. It’s a beautiful analogy to how the ‘American Dream’ works.
Yeah, that’s 100% how America works. We take something like art or dance and figure out a way that it has to be commodified somehow. I constantly go back to this right now, how we’re trying to figure out how to use modern technology to strip any sort of human expression out. “Oh look at this AI, isn’t it amazing?” No, it’s not the same as someone doing it themselves out here. (laughs) We’re pushing AI so much that people want to make a buck out of it.
Uh, yeah, I don’t. Old Billy I don’t agree with too much…
I would love to have that Siamese Dream money to be able to bloviate about how we don’t need music anymore. I think that was Grimes who said “Oh yeah, please, do AI versions of my music. I don’t need to exist anymore. I just want to be an avatar in my computer…” Yeah, that’s easy enough for you to say that. You’ve got more money, you’re set for life. Some of us are trying to make a living off of this. (laughter)
Have you heard Corgan’s podcast?
Our drummer [Alex Leonard] was listening to it as a joke, and it was funny cause that was during our tour, and he was almost like telling us how bad it was. “Billy said this today, and he talked about the plot of his album…” and we all went “Ah, we don’t really want to listen to it…” (laughter) And recently I asked him “Are you still listening to Billy’s podcast?” And you could tell it was like a torture to him. At first he had fun listening to it, and then it went into him going “I can’t believe I’m still doing this.” BUT, I would ALSO like to have a podcast where the co-hosts and guests are like “You’re BRILLIANT!” – I heard that people basically disagree with everything that Billy says about any topic, so…
Your drummer reminds me of myself: I listened to it every week and bothered everybody with the contents. It’s also aligning itself with what you said about Gen X. I love Billy, but he’s also got this weird grindset: he’s talking about how fantastic capitalism is and how he succeeded because of it, but five minutes later he is angry about the gatekeepers in the music industry and record labels, how their structure ruined his band and drained his finances. But wait a second: that’s the direct byproduct of capitalism and its commodification of you as an artist. Yet here you are still defending it, contradicting yourself.
I love it when people that have already gone through the system, had tons of money and don’t really need to make more, are so well known thanks to that system, then start to argue they no longer need a record label to sell music, saying that they’re outside of it, and that everybody should do that. Well, it’s easy to say for you, because you’re already rich and famous and people know you. As a band that’s starting out, there’s no way they’re going to have their own record label! You’re basically climbing the system and kicking the ladder away, because you’ve already climbed up it.
That’s a big thing of Generation X right now. “We had a deal and I struggled, and kids now don’t know the struggle!” Well, why not make it easier for the people behind you as opposed to harder? And a lot of people then talk about how technology advances and how we don’t need music anymore, we don’t need labels anymore. It’s the ultimate rich person brain-rot! And then it’s also this caustic Generation X attitude of “Everything is stupid.”
Billy Corgan is the bad example, because he’s gotten more reactionary and set in his ways and arguing he’s a genius. Somebody like Steve Albini develops as he’s gotten older. He opens up to other things and realises he’s made mistakes. With him you can trace how it works like that. There’s ways to go about learning from your past, admit your mistakes and grow as you get older, or you can be like “You know, I am a genius. I am smart. We know I made so much money because I’m a genius.”
I mean, I haven’t listened to his podcast, but here we are, touring, driving through America, and the drive is six hours long, and Alex is trying to explain the plot of the album, “And now Shiny is gone away with…” well, fuck it… (laughter) And I’m like “Wha- what’s happening?” “Oh, it’s this character that’s Zero…” I remember Alex at one point told us Billy said that he shaved his head to be this character that he was playing. “Oh, I didn’t go bald, I shaved my head for this character…” – no, you didn’t, Billy. (laughter) If Billy Corgan was on his deathbed and going “Oh, I was pretending to be that guy.” then I’d have to tip my head to him, that would actually be pretty funny.
Let’s go back to what you said about Steve Albini: the way time changes us. I love this character you introduce in “Polacrilex Kid”, kind of stuck in this uneasy state between becoming a better and healthier person but also losing what makes them tick. “No more smoke / just gum / in my jaws / or smoke / When I’m raw / or alone / need the tar”. Polacrilex is a condiment in nictotine gum, right?
It started with the band composing the music, which had this groove and driving beat to it. It was a little weird when the first reviews came in and writers went: “Oh, Joe is rapping!” (laughs) I’m NOT trying to rap! I’m trying to stay on that beat as best I can.
The new album feels a little bit like a comeback record. We haven’t been doing anything since Covid, so I said “I want to lay down an “I’M BACK”-song. At the time I was trying to go hiking in the woods. It was after Covid and I thought I had to get out of the house and get to the woods and walking around. By that time I was trying to figure out the chorus and I was chewing nicotine gum. So it started with this sentiment of “I’m back and better than EVER”, but – that’s not a Protomartyr song. (laughter) I’m trying to quit smoking, it doesn’t work, I can’t stand chewing this gum, but if I’m not I’m feeling like shit. It gives me hiccups, and I just can’t go out to town, chewing this gum and drink, and then immediately you want a cigarette… BUT: this is the new me and I’m worried about the future, I no longer have a house and I got to keep on chewing! I always wanted to sit down and just write a “Big Dick”-song: “I am the best!” (laughter) We joke about this all the time, how if we wrote this kind of music, the positive “You can do whatever you want to be and follow your dreams.” we probably would be playing to stadiums. But we write very depressing songs and wonder “Why don’t we make money off of this?” People don’t want to spend a lot money on this. (laughter) So I always sit down, trying to write a song like, but I can’t – I always go “I’ve got to be more honest.” So “Keep chewing!” is the best I got. And then in the second part it enters another thesis of the album – actually that sounds very pretentious, “the thesis of the album” (laughter) – self hatred: a lot of people hate themselves too much, I’m certainly one of them, where I feel so inwardly disgusted that I feel like I’m not deserving. During this period there was an opportunity to get out of that and let myself be open to love and see if it exists in the world. There is the first inkling of that in this song as well.
I know that line – “Can you hate yourself and still deserve love?” – rang true with some of BPM’s staff, and to a lot of the listeners as well from what I’ve seen
Yeah, I was wondering if, when I came up with it, “Is that too obvious? Is that too on the nose? Should I try a metaphor?” But the song is “Polacrilex Kid”, nobody knows what Polacrilex is. You have to google it, unless you’re chewing gum that day and look on the back of the silver package. So it’s even better to have a line that is so clear, in the middle of the song, because the beginning is all about “I’m back, and I worry about my health and I worry about money…” But it really comes down to the fact of, well, can you hate yourself and still deserve love? So of course it has to be that line and as simple as that!
It’s also this dichotomy you find in drugs. I’ve seen the negative effects of them on a lot of people, so I feel uncomfortable with this romantic notion that drugs enhance the quality of art or charisma in a positive way. However, the drugs that people choose are often their unique embodiment of this dichotomy between their self hatred and love, and allow them to navigate this threshold.
The point of any drug is just to make life a little easier. If you have yourself medicated it is because you want to alter the reality of what you’re going through. And I’ve definitely dealt in periods where I drank too much and I know exactly why I have: I find that when I drink I exist in the very moment. That helps me – when you’re in this haze of booze, your mind wanders to the past and future, and it’s less frightened than when you’re lying in bed cold sober and worrying “What the fuck am I going to do tomorrow?” When you’re in the stupor, you go to sleep – and then you wake up with regret of “I can’t believe I drank so much!”
But I honestly feel, knowing people that are alcoholics, that it’s much different for them than for a person like me, where for them it’s this “Oh god, I really need a drink.” I’ve never been this kind of person! I’ve definitely been the kind of person to go “Oh god, I need a cigarette.” Now I need to chew this gum. The first thing I did this morning was to put this shitty piece of gum in my mouth, because I am addicted to cigarettes. Everybody’s got their own thing.
I’m glad that I don’t use drugs – except for drinking, which brings me to your incredible stage presence. I finally saw Protomartyr live after the lockdown, and was impressed by your presence. You walk onto the stage with the pockets of your suit filled with all these beer bottles, which you just open and drink one by one. It has this aura of an armour, becoming part of a performance.
It definitely started with me bringing my own beers out. I used to put them on the ground, and had to bend over, realising “I don’t want to bend over while I’m singing!” (laughter) For a while we used a table, telling the staff “if you could put a table on stage, that would be great”, but the places we were playing had subwoofers, so when you put a bottle of beer on there it would shake off! There were so many instances where I was singing a song and just staring on this bottle which would slowly shake off the table, going “FUCK, I need to get the beer now!”
At one point we got a tour manager, and they would ask me how many beers I’d want on stage, and I’d just tell them “Thank you so much, but I’m going to bring my own out”. Because it does feels like by now, it’s moved from a practicality or necessity to an artistic gesture: “I will only bring out what I can carry!” – what I’m going to drink until the end of the show. I like what you’re saying: “Here is my tools, here’s my armour that I have on!” and as the show goes on, I get looser and looser and less concerned. I still suffer from stage fright, but I don’t feel like I need a drink. I will say that the stage is the only place where I perform without drinking, or only have water – that’s fine – but I do love to have alcohol for that specific moment.
Let’s turn to the other side of the dichotomy we discussed. There’s this overwhelming, sweeping gesture of love that infiltrates most of the album. “Make way for tomorrow” from the opening track turns into “Make way for my love!” on the closer “Rain Garden”, with this sweeping, almost The Smiths type romanticism – a first for Protomartyr. I recall how you discussed the song “My Children”, saying you’ve been alone for so long you’ve given up on the prospect of love. Has something changed?
I definitely said for years – and I’m glad I did this – that I don’t want to write a love song! The reason for that was because I wasn’t in love or dating anybody. The closest I came was writing a song about my mom. [Casey likely refers to the heartbreaking “Ellen”, written from the perspective of Casey’s deceased father. Ed.] I just felt it was an emotion that had been done to death and there was really nothing that could be done to bring it forward.
I also feel like there’s a lot of bands that feel like they need to write a romantic song, and it ends up so generic it could as well be about nothing. I’m as surprised as anybody that I did! Albums are always about the period during which they are written. The themes, at least for me, I stick to what’s happened to me – what I consumed, what I’ve read, what have I experienced. And so, obviously, during this period I’ve been able to have a stable relationship. We do kinda wonder now, was it because of Covid? All that we had was each other? That’s what brought us together, so that’s an interesting thing.
Talking about the album, to hold on to one thing: it starts in the desert and it ends in the garden! It moves from this echoey space to the last song, where Greg throws the kitchen sink in. There’s the sandstorms of this big, dramatic song and he had that rough outline really early on – that helps me. His biggest swing always launches ahead of time, and gives us time to process it. On previous records, such as with “A Private Understanding”, I hadn’t heard him write a song like this. I remember thinking it’s weird as fuck, but by the time we had to record something we went “A PRIVATE UNDERSTANDING! A PRIVATE UNDERSTANDING!” (laughter)
It was a similar thing with “Rain Garden”. He had a demo of it that him and Alex worked on for a while, which shaped up to be something really big. The way I approached it in this really literal, mundane way. So the song starts with me and my fiancee at this point – now my wife – went to get some Taco Bell…
Thank you! It just happened a week and a half ago.
So: we are sitting in the parking lot – in America there’s always service parking lots, strip malls, all this kinda stuff. But they had built a rain garden in the parking lot which, basically is just meant to soak up water that pours off water from the parking lot. It’s not like a beautiful garden – this actual sign that said “please don’t throw trash in the rain garden” lay knocked down by somebody. (laughs) So, I’m sitting there next to my now wife, and I had this very profound moment: sitting here with the person I love, in a parking lot, eating Taco Bell, staring at this thing which is not necessarily beautiful, but something placed here to just have a little bit of green here in this wasteland of a strip mall parking lot. And this is the most romantic moment of my life. (laughter)
So the song builds up and as the music becomes bigger and bigger, it becomes this revelry of being in love and more big romantic things. And as I wondered how I can write about love to this big music, I’ve always heard that the Song of Solomon in the Bible is one of the horniest things you can read in the Bible! (laughter) It’s always funny when they’re trying to say “He’s talking about god!” (laughs) There’s no way this guy wants to fuck god as much as you want me to believe this. Obviously it’s a love poem that’s got into the Bible somehow. So I was drawing from this mythic and biblical imagery. It’s interesting how the mind works – you can be in a moment in a parking lot, eating Taco Bell and then have these big profound ideas and you kind of forget the location you were in when you had these thoughts.
Earlier in the album we were in the desert – “Oh god, I feel so small in this world. I’m nothing compared to this rock.” But for this song I’m just in the parking lot. I like this dichotomy between the very mundane and the very profound. I feel like throughout the album and our career we – or I – deserve to write a love song.
As a filmmaker, I always return to point out to people that want to tell me their great story ideas that it’s more important how you depict an image, and not that you have the raw image itself. Disney makes these superhero movies that are very grey and bland, while Zack Snyder has created these somewhat chromatic, mythical epics. Eating Taco Bell can be the most cinematic experience you can imagine.
Exactly! Superhero movies are a perfect analogy. We now have the capabilities – by crunching the life out of effects people – to have a thousand people fighting at once on screen with a billion explosions, but that has become meaningless at this point! It no longer inspires awe – nobody gives a shit about them at this point. That is so far from any sort of feeling you want to relate to, and then you have smaller movies where the emotions are the most important thing, and they’re much more profound and beautiful. But I see a lot of people online doing this thing, where they use AI to do “the Wes Anderson version of Star Wars!” They completely miss that while Wes Anderson has an aesthetic you can easily copy, they’re missing the point of it! And they’re also missing what the composition means in light of the story and the emotions. They completely misread how a movie and cinema works.
To bring it back to songwriting, I think oftentimes that’s lost. Early on with the band, I said I never want to yell or shout unless the music is as loud as I am. Because around that time, there was a lot of this mainstream rock where everything was all big, and I felt we were not there yet. I don’t want to try to do a voice to fit in, if it would get loud it would have to for a reason. It can’t just have a big chorus just like that. I feel you have to earn the emotion.
Yeah, you can’t just be like Shiny, who just returned to Earth and everybody is amazed by him!
YES, exactly! We all can’t be Shiny! (laughs)
Speaking of big emotions, the record has this wide, cinematic quality to it, this representation of the wide American expanse. The way the guitars sound, especially the pedal steel, but also a return to your favoured imagery of horses in the lyrics bring a somewhat ‘Western’ tone to it. But I’ve seen you discuss in other interviews how you’ve become a bit apprehensive that the album is deemed your ‘desert record’, as you were mostly in the studio.
I feel bad about that! That’s what I get for calling it “Formal Growth in the Desert” and having pedal steel on it. We recorded in Texas near the Mexican boarder, so we set ourselves up. It was funny when people said “So this is your desert record?” Umh, NO! (laughs) So many people go down to that place, Sonic Ranch, and usually stay there for months, explore this a bit more. We wanted to just stay there for two weeks – we gotta work, we don’t have that much money. To me, the desert is part of touring – in a week and a half now, we start a month long tour. And that to me is where, maybe, the influence of the desert affected me the most.
And that’s where the metaphor comes in: You have to drive through the deserts in the midwest to get to the next show; the desert in the east coast, where there’s nothing and all the towns look the same and have the exact same restaurants, because corporate America has stamped any sort of personality out of American life now. So to me, the desert is the void of life, but obviously there’s a lot of voids in the desert that come through later on in the album: the song “Fulfilment Center”, that song is about traveling across the desert, even though specifically it is about driving around the Midwest.
But completely separate from me writing about and going to the desert, there’s the pedal steel. Greg wrote parts for the instrument without even knowing how to play it – the pedal steel is a very intriguing thing. If people hear it, they think it works like a guitar, but it’s a sort of tabletop-thing, but you also play it with your knees at the same time to adjust it. It’s a really complicated thing to play. So Greg write various parts for the pedal steel, and we’d bring somebody in and they would say “This is impossible to play!” (laughs) That kind of back and forth of ‘how close can we get to it’, or ‘what could we do that’s similar to this’ is where something interesting came in. There’s some songs where Greg would tell the musician to play a certain part, and then he would feed it through an effects pedal and live adjust it to capture what he wanted. So yeah, if it’s a desert record it’s because there’s much more openness to it, and more space to many of the songs, whereas on older albums we would have filled it up with more overdubs. And then there’s got to be a horse!
I was listening to a lot of Ennio Morricone soundtracks – especially of his work for short films. Greg and I were talking a lot about how we wanted the pedal steel, but not have it become like our Western or country album. A lot of bands do that, where we’d have to start wearing cowboy hats…
And I was like “Goddamn Greg, I’ve got to get a horse reference in there!” And I had just watched a Western where they’re trying to sell a horse and go “That horse is spavined!” So of course I had to look up what spavined was [it’s a type of arthritis. Ed.], and it’s a good metaphor for a horse that death would ride.
The album indeed doesn’t feel like an American Western – I’d rather liken it to Paris, Texas
which is, of course, a German’s perspective on Texas.
That’s a perfect example. What’s great is that it’s an outsider’s view of something. Especially with us being from Detroit, you hate people trying to encapsulate something without knowing it. But what’s great about an outsider coming in, is that they might get something wrong, but they also see something that regulars don’t see. I don’t think people that live out in the desert constantly go “Oh my god: I live in a desert!” They just get used to it, just like I’m used to live in Detroit.
People constantly ask me how it is to live here – I don’t know, I don’t understand why it’s so bizarre… Every time somebody comes to town and I offer them to drive around they go “My god, I can’t believe how great this is!” Really? (laughs)
Back to Ennio Morricone, it’s interesting that this Italian guy made this music that, when you hear it, makes you go “Oh, that’s a Western! This is Western music!” It’s bizarre as shit! (laughs) Just from the sound. It has nothing to do with the cultural music of the time. It’s like psychedelic space music, but you put it over the image of a guy riding a horse, and people identify it with a Western! The outsider looking in is sometimes the best thing.
In European Westerns it’s especially funny: they’re all shot in Italy or maybe central Europe. Of course there’s not many Native Americans here, so oftentimes the producers cast Romanians, or whoever represented their ideal of what a Native American looks like. And then in German Westerns, it was all about the friendship between the White protagonist and the Natives…
(laughs) Yeah and the Native American goes like: “You know what? You’re a COOL white guy! You’re one of the good ones!” I was just watching The Great Silence…
My GOD, that movie is heartbreaking!
YES! But what’s interesting about that is the subversion of it! It’s shot somewhere in the Alps, it’s covered in snow, it’s got the Morricone soundtrack that’s very sad and sounds more like all the dramatic stuff he did. It’s not jaunty at all! I like that subversion in it, but yeah, what a bummer of an ending!
It is so fantastic though, with this idea of capitalism as a pseudo-religious force.
There’s this Christ-like quality to Trintignan’s silent character, and we learn justice comes to Kinski’s villain, but only at the price of this horrible act! In a way, Corbucci nailed what the American spirit is: America only learns from disaster!
Oh yeah! Growing up, I didn’t think much of the Westerns, but now, going back and watching some of the great Westerns, I realise that there’s a lot more on their mind than just a guy in a black hat and a guy in a white hat doing what you think is in Westerns. It definitely was a period, especially in America, where they wondered ‘how can we talk about what’s currently going on?’ ‘Oh, if we address it as a Western, we can talk about racism and all these issues.’ Even as far back as the 50s, it was a sneaky way to get around censors: ‘It’s just a Western!’
Speaking about politics, there are four songs we haven’t discussed that I’m very curious about. It’s almost like they’re two pairs with a strange relation: “Let’s Tip the Creator” / ”Graft Vs. Host” and “We Know the Rats” / ”The Author”. Both sort of at the tail end of their respective A- and B-sides.
Well, yeah. “Let’s Tip the Creator” and “We Know the Rats” are both taking shots at larger systems and organisations. “Let’s Tip the Creator” is a hundred percent taking aim at your Mark Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks, that tech person that we elevated to genius and godlike statuses, and they’re just the dumbest pieces of shit you’ve ever met in your life. Their ideas are terrible and they’re actually doing damage to society. And you see people say “I’d never thought I’d live in a time where there’s actual Bonds.” Oh yeah, but Elon Musk is totally the guy where James Bond would have to come and blow up his secret base! They’re obviously so stupid, but people still treat them like they’re a genius. No, he was born into wealth and is incredibly backwards and has no talent! It’s about being trapped into their system – especially as a band, you have to post something on social media.
You feel kinda disgusted when you need to post something on Twitter and that platform is a garbage chute now! That’s where some of my friends are, and I follow certain people, but when I venture outside of my small bubble on Twitter, it’s disgusting! I want to take a shower afterwards!
“We Know the Rats” is about my house being broken into a couple of times, and me being very angry at the thieves. But then the Detroit police didn’t come, and they accused me of deserving to have my house broken into because I didn’t have a security system. And then realising that houses are so expansive now, because they’re all being bought up by these corporations that are flipping them, whereas Detroit is going through this period of gentrification, inflation hitting is hitting us hard… I went from really hating the thieves to then realising that thieves are just existing in the system that I’m also living in. The threats are much bigger – the rats are the bigger forces. Although your house was broken into you have to – again, another thing of – dust yourself off and move forward, because there’s bigger fish to fry!
“Graft Vs. Host” and “The Author” are connected because they’re both about my mom. Specifically, “Graft Vs. Host” is about the period right when my brother called me and said “I think mom’s dead.” I went over to the house and she had died right on his shoulder while watching TV. And then the ambulance and the morgue and all that… It was my immediate feelings, right when she died, what I was going through. We’ve been preparing for it for a long time, she had Alzheimer’s and she was suffering through that… It was kind of bad, but also I was asking “can I allow happiness into my life?” I can certainly try, but it’s going to be a “Graft Vs. Host” situation. It’s a thing that happens medically when you get a heart transplant and your body rejects it. It happens a lot, the body rejecting the graft and they start killing each other.
And then “The Author“ is later, me realising, that this is a moment to be celebrating: she doesn’t need a song about sadness. You need to appreciate when happiness and goodness come into your life – like my mother. She was the one who taught me that. And so I need to celebrate that as opposed to… and Greg was surprised, I think because it’s kind of an upbeat song, I chose this one for my mom. In the past, we had talked about my dad dying [Casey discussed his father’s passing during the last conversation with BPM, Ed.], and those are usually sadder songs. But this is the sentiment – you have to move beyond that. So that’s how those two are connected. I always like that they’re on either side of the record, so that we put some space between things and let songs flow into each other.
There’s always a realisation period with these emotional moments – as we discussed earlier with Benjamin’s “Angel of History”. We can be stuck with the past or move forward and see there’s a strangely transformative quality in time that allows for certain chances. I initially read “The Author” as a sort of transformation of the character in “The Aphorist”, where the figure develops from somebody who recounts a line to somebody with a whole body of work.
Well, my mother is the author of me, and so now the next step is to create yourself and take the lessons of your mother. But I do like the idea that ‘The Aphorist’ is this person that writes two or three lines and ‘The Author’ has a much bigger work.
It also takes me back to “Ellen”. We didn’t discuss this song the last time, but I returned to it a lot since our conversation, and it means a lot to me now. It’s very universal in how we choose to deal with absence, loss, inevitability… Probably my spiritual side: giving a voice to the people that are absent.
I’m glad that, when we did “Ellen”, we were still a rough around the edges band. It was an experiment, and a kind of a pinnacle for us that we were able to write a longer song. So now with this album, with “Rain Garden” it was a similar thing: we kind of took a chance with writing a song as big as it is. So going forward we have another option of songwriting, where we don’t just have to write about this thing – we can write about something more emotional.
That’s interesting to the man in me: societally, we are not really “allowed” to have certain emotions, but every time we open up to expressing them, interesting things come out.
I realise now that the biggest thing I write about is acceptance. And a lot of time, for men especially, acceptance can feel like failure or capitulation. “Stand your ground” – this sort of thing! And I feel like often the theme of my songs is “sometimes you don’t stand your ground, you accept the loss, or you are humble enough to.” I feel like one of the main themes of Protomartyr is to be humble. (laughs) It’s a weird thing for a rock band to have as a main theme, but that’s just the way it turned out!
Protomartyr’s new album Formal Growth in the Desert is out now on Domino (stream/buy).