You’d be forgiven for thinking the themes present on Ultimate Success Today – Protomartyr’s fifth album – is a description of 2020’s all new status quo. In an era where societal anxiety morphed into a collective battle of survival, the record feels like a prophetic rallying cry for upheaval and public disobedience. Its brevity has made it into a favourite of ours – not to mention the visual album companion piece.
With all this in mind, I spoke to the Detroit band’s lead singer Joe Casey about death, mules, corporate ignorance, police violence and hope for the working class.
There’s a few things different this time around. For one, Ultimate Success Today has got the fewest songs of any Protomartyr album…
There was no real reason behind it. I think there was talk about making sure it was only 40 minutes, because a lot of times you feel like an album can start to drag, but it was more to make sure each of the songs fit together.
I think that idea of distillation is what gives your songs something very special and unique.
I always appreciate that and I always worry about going over the four minute mark; there’s a reason why the perfect pop song is three minutes long. You don’t want to overwhelm it. Maybe in the future we’ll do a 20 minute song, but Greg [Ahee, guitarist] doesn’t like to do solos and nobody likes to take the lead or spotlight, so that stuff gets edited out first thing.
I was also surprised to find that Ultimate Success Today is – thematically – your most political album yet.
All of them have been political, I think it’s just that I’m confident enough with what we’re doing. It’s not good to have to solve poetic language; if you use allegories and people don’t get it, you can’t be mad at people to not getting it, so you’ve got to be very clear and direct – and I don’t like being clear and direct. So maybe this time, I let the mask slip and go “This is about that”: “The Aphorist” is about being so obscure that no one catches your references.
Speaking of “The Aphorist”, you make a reference to narcissism here, which is a word often found in your lyrics. Who’s that directed at?
It’s being directed at myself, usually. It’s a song about creation and what a weird experience it is, what a kind of self-aggrandizement it is to create. You’re constantly bouncing back and forth between self-doubt, self-hatred and narcissism. The lines about “shouted slogans of leapers” addresses the young bands I feel are attacking us and doing a shitty job at it, or a watered down version of us. But then the next line is “Why didn’t I smash the copier when I was through?” Because, when we started, people accused us of copying bands and not being original. So who am I complaining about those shitty bands when once I was a copier?
Are you still being unfavourably compared to older post-punk bands?
A lot of times people just use it in shorthand – it just seems uneducated. You look up on Wikipedia what post-punk is and see Joy Division and people go ‘Oh, A equals B.’ We got that a lot. But then Joy Division is a good band – I’d hate to be compared to a shitty band. But this is our fifth record and people still say ‘Protomartyr sound like Joy Division’, and we respond ‘Well, we put out more records than Joy Division, you can stop to comparing us.’ It just reduces that we’ve been around for 10 years!
Looking at the lyrics, it seems almost as if the album is prophetic in anticipating much of what we collectively face in 2020. Ironically, it’s something Deerhunter also did in their last album; it’s almost like a collective subconscious of tectonic shifts in our world.
It’s interesting you mention Deerhunter. I wonder if that’s because we’re art-rock bands, who trade in honesty and what you’re feeling. Rock music is kind of past its prime, much like America. The art itself can’t be imperial or full of itself. We can’t make songs about being the richest bastards in the world and driving fancy cars, because that would be a lie. The idea of being a rock star doesn’t exist anymore. To create honest music, it has to be elegiac. You’re able to capture something because it’s past its prime, much like our country.
Interesting you mentioning that, I know many people who are saying that rap just crossed the Rubicon and that rock is coming back.
The problem with rap was it became so popular the American capital system took it on as ‘OK, this is the language we’re going to speak now.’ Pop music becomes very watered down and safe. Hip hop used to be the music of rebellion; I feel like rap is going through its 70s, bloated phase. And maybe the reason why rock music can sound fresh is because the spotlight of money isn’t being shown on us. So we’re free to talk about current issues. Who cares about alienating our audience if we don’t have one? So maybe right now, we’re having freedoms hip-hop doesn’t have – and of course, that’s going to change over time, too.
I’m generally always impressed with how elaborate the conceptual design aspects of your releases are, especially with the posters and mags included in the vinyl versions.
Maybe it’s because I’m old, but to me, the presentation is just as important as the music – I’m sure the band disagrees *laughs*. But it doesn’t matter how beautiful a gift you have if you’ve got it in a shitty box, so you should put the effort in the artwork. And it’s something that I know that I can do in the band. I don’t know anything about writing a song, necessarily, so I let the band do that, but I do know how to put in the work on the artwork aspect. And when we record, we always think about what the first song is, what the last song is, what the end of side A and beginning of side B sounds like. It’s kind of the old way of doing things, but that makes us think about an album as a larger piece.
Regarding the politics of Ultimate Success Today, I latched on to the theme on the donkey, which is all over the artwork.
Well, it’s not a donkey: it’s a mule. So, half a horse and half a donkey.
Yet horses feature prominently in the videos that make up the visual album.
Yeah, and I think that came down to us not being able to find a mule in the limited time that we had. *laughs*
Let’s talk about the visual album. As a filmmaker, I’ve had to hear how nobody cares about music videos anymore, so I was excited Protomartyr committed to the concept.
When the record got delayed, we decided we had to do a visual album. Luckily it seems to have slowed down a little bit, but three months ago the pandemic mode was everyone doing live streams on Instagram or Facebook. We didn’t want to do that, the sound in all we saw wasn’t good and in a way, the medium is the message. Social media is already a corporatized base. It’s not what we wanted to do. So the idea to make a video of each song came and we had a month and a half to execute it. Only “Processed by the Boys” was made before, so the challenge lay in finding what works during a quarantine. We tried to do something when nothing was possible, and I felt like it was going to fail up until the last minute. Videos weren’t fully done and it was close to falling apart, but we managed in the end.
I’m really impressed how many of them are standing out from what you usually encounter. The “Worm in Heaven” one is my favourite, but I also love the one for “Bridge & Crown”.
Making a music video is always difficult: You always have the listener’s idea and you want a different visualization. You also don’t want a 1:1 representation of what the song is about, but unfortunately people will take the video as ‘Oh, that’s the song about the old guy riding a horse,’ because that’s what the image is.
Speaking of the “Bridge & Crown” video, that one was done in two days. I talked to the director and said: ‘If you know where to get a mule that’d be great.’ He knew this old man in Detroit, where he runs a stable in this park in the middle of the city and dresses up as a Civil War guy. He went the next day and made a video out of that. I’m very impressed with the directors and how they confronted the question ‘What’s an idea you can make without a crew?’ For the “June 21st” video, the director was able to find a mother and daughter to work with.
That video is outstanding!
Yeah, and we hadn’t met the director before this. We had seen her work, but didn’t know how it would work out for us, and then it ended up being one of the best. We were very lucky to get everything done on time and on budget, during a quarantine.
Back to the mule: it’s a metaphor for the American working class…
Yes, this mule imagery definitely relates to a working animal. I read a book about how mules were used during the Mexican-American war up until the Korean War. It was an interesting way to read about America’s war industry through how they used these animals. And I feel weird harping on it, as a person whose job is to be in a band, but I feel like the worker has never been more used and abused than in the last 50 years. If you read history books, you read all about the child labour in the slums of New York and you read all about how bad working conditions were; I feel like we’re getting back to that. Workers are getting demoted. People don’t think much about what people in China do in factories, but you hear stories of people who work for Amazon that have to piss in jars, because they don’t have time to use the bathroom. I feel like the plight of the American worker is a thing that’s been ignored for a long time, just like the mule has been and is now forgotten about. And I try to do that in the lyrics a bit, but other themes kind of took that over.
There definitely is a pattern in that. A friend of mine from the States, who is now in his mid-50s and also a journalist, always keeps on asking ‘Where is that working class people tout?’, arguing there isn’t even such thing as the American left.
We call them the left in America even though the Democrats are more like the center-right party. Everybody has kind of discarded the worker in America, and the worker oddly enough seems to want to prop up the billionaires. I believe it’s a time where the workers can become an actual political force again. They might as well, because they’re getting shit on pretty badly. I wish a party would reach out to them a little bit more concretely than both parties are doing. And I think the Democratic party especially have been ignoring these people that have been their own base for a long time, at their own peril.
There’s also the album’s title, Ultimate Success Today, which seems to take jabs at the corporate, neoliberal notion that financial success and financial acquisitions make us happy. Yet these corporations control our thinking patterns, as the recent hearings of Silicon Valley CEOs bear witness to.
The big one for musicians is the guy from Spotify; ‘Oh, musicians just gotta make more product.’ Everybody bought into the neo-liberal idea of technology saving us from our shackles, but we got brand new ones we didn’t even knew existed. “I Am You Now” is definitely about that. Corporations water down actual dissent until it becomes meaningless. It’s a very effective way to control people, saying you’re standing with them when secretly you don’t.
That’s also something you addressed on the last album with “Night-Blooming Cereus“: the idea that real culture blossoms outside of corporate reach.
The idea here was that actual art and culture exists outside of these structures. We can use these structures but they’re using us much more than we’re using them. Facebook especially. I noticed about a year ago, we had a spike in likes, but every single one of those people were fake profiles. And I was wondering if that was how Facebook was maintaining itself. A lot of people left, so maybe they invented a bunch of fake people to make itself more relevant than it actually is. I feel bad we need to have a presence there to reach our audience.
We’ve been a band for ten years, and it’s gone from how many Last FM users you had or how many Facebook likes you have, to how many Instagram followers you have. I hate how the music industry takes very corporatized structures and uses it to measure the worth of bands. I hate a lot of things, but especially that.
The quarantine almost seems to have accelerated this corporate idea of the individual as consumer, with grocery stores addressing their workers and shoppers via audio messages. ‘Thank you for working for us. Thank you for shopping.‘
‘We love you!’ *laughs* Yeah. That was the joke in Idiocracy. It seemed silly at the time when in the scene you go into a store and the message is ‘Thank you, we love you.’ And now you get these personalized messages.
And we’re the first generation to see our whole life being archived by social media corporations. My grandfather passed away last year, and, after he passed, I was sitting by him, and it struck me how he’s the last generation that won’t have this virtual footprint of their life. In a way, everything that made him up is now gone. Which reminds me a lot of “Worm in Heaven”.
That’s it, in a nutshell. This whole album is spurred by midlife crisis and me thinking about death – and my own death – in a really serious way. You start thinking about existence and what the purpose of existing is and what keeps you going. I would love to believe that love lasts forever and transcends life.
My dad had all of those great stories, and I loved to hear them. And in the back of my mind, I thought, one of these days we’re going to write all those stories down because I can’t wait to remember them. And then he died. We never got those stories down. So now me and my brother are trying to remember them, and we’re remembering them wrong. You realize that after one or two generations, you’re completely gone from the earth – and you’re already gone.
It’s about trying to come to terms with that and not see it as the horror show that it very well might be, to realize that your existence is meaningless, but then from that you can find true peace. I’ve heard that it’s a very Buddhist philosophy. I never studied much Buddhism, but the idea of nothingness doesn’t have to be nihilism or this depressing notion. But I had to root out all the way down through some pretty nihilistic and depressing shit to get to that realization and… I wanted to write that kind of song now because I’d hate to have to write that song again later. So now when I get sick or I’m on my way out, that’s the song they can use, I’ve done it, you know.
Hopefully you’ve got a lot of time left.
Well, you never know… *laughs*
The last few weeks definitely speak for your sense of upheaval, with the largest protests and wildest riots since the 60s. Back when that happened in Europe, Pasolini argued the policemen are the real working class. But that was Italy and definitely not applicable in the USA.
I always worry about, because I read too much Roman history… it’s not really comparable, but it’s kind of a nice thought experiment. One of the reasons why Rome fell was because people who were in their armies were people that they’ve conquered. When I grew up I didn’t know anybody – except one guy who was from Westpoint, which is an Officer class and doesn’t really count – that joined the army. The army is made up of people who are very poor and look for a way to get out of the conditions they live in, and the army is offering them the only way out. And then, after the army, they start a job as a police officer, as it’s a job where you don’t need a lot of qualifications.
One of the reasons why the cops in America are so bad is because their union is so powerful. And for me, a person who believes in the working class and the power of unions, it’s really weird to be like ‘Oh, the problem is that the union here is too powerful.’ And I think understanding the police in America isn’t a right or left issue, but a ‘Wow, we gave these people too much power, we should be able to take it away without it completely destroying our republic,’ but who knows…
These times are very exciting and dramatic – in a removed way. But it’s affecting people very seriously. I know somebody with a mental issue and all these news are affecting them in a terrible way.
Funny you mention the power aspect. I have a friend here, who is black, who used to be in the army. He came to Berlin, started a band, did a lot of drugs and had a lot of girlfriends. He went back to Detroit for a break a few months ago, and now his Instagram is packed with videos of him shooting all these guns he bought there…
But that’s one of those things, the American dream of buying a lot of guns *chuckles*. But he’s got to leave those guns in America, he can’t bring them back to Berlin…
Oh, we have no idea what he’s going to do about that, there’s nothing you can do with them here!
It is amazing how the amount of things that are very difficult to get in America, guns are very easy to get. It is something that we’ve often wondered: if more black people would do the open carry thing, like a lot of white people in America, maybe gun laws would become stricter overnight. But the news just today came out that they’re trying to go and dissolve the NRA, so…
I’m actually friends with a lot of black people who argue that open carry is an effective way to peacefully oppose violence against them.
I understand that perspective more than a lot of my friends. Growing up in Detroit, the idea of owning a gun was not as bizarre as I’m sure it seems to some. But I do hate open carry just because I know how stupid many people are. That’s the problem with the police, that they have these guns, and they’re just itching to use them. I hate the notion of ‘What stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with the gun.’ The problem is everybody thinks they’re the good guy. It takes more to get a license to drive a car than it takes to shoot a gun in America. There’s a lot of people who don’t know how to use them, and that’s very frightening.
It seems like the future is uncertain. Personally, I’m more worried about the politicians that Trump inspires, who now feel empowered.
Trump is really good at making everything about himself and making people believe in him. He is, in the end, a narcissist who’s been given way too much power. It’s the people around him who tell him to lock the kids in cages that are the worst. And yes, down the line somebody worse than him will come in. ‘Boy, I want to do that, but be smart and a better version of Trump.’ There’s people out in the wings that are like that.
And now we’re all in the same situation: a worldwide quarantine, with no end in sight.
I’ve had people die from this. I think what’s weird about this record… I know we wrote it last year and we knew this would be a weird record with a lot of themes that people might not like listening to. Maybe it’s not for everybody, with themes of worrying about death, dying, and this idea of ‘Don’t make plans because it might be taken away from you.’ And then everybody in the world had to go through this! This year was all planned out for us, I was looking forward to it so much. Oh, we’re gonna go back on tour, new record coming out, oh this amazing thing… And this is a very superficial perspective: the life of a band is not the most important thing. But then, all of a sudden, it seems like the themes of the record – people can relate to it. I still don’t know if people really want to listen to this or maybe not, maybe they want to listen to something happier, but it’s weird how it all worked out that way.