An Interview with Joe Casey of Protomartyr

Max Gowan, Tessa Dolt

Joe Casey at Rock and Roll Hotel//Photo:Tessa Dolt

After Protomartyr’s soundcheck at Rock and Roll Hotel on Thursday, frontman Joe Casey sat down with us to talk about Protomartyr’s latest album release off Domino Records, Relatives in Descent. 

Max: Besides being on a new label, what would you say makes Relatives In Descent a different record than Agent Intellect?

Joe: With this record, we had the most time to work on the songs than we ever had since the first record. And the only reason we had a lot of time for this record is we never thought we‰’d put a record out, so we just had a bunch of songs. Since Agent Intellect we toured for over a year and we all quit our jobs, so we came back from tour and had nothing to do but work on the record. So Alex the drummer and Greg the guitar player just spent hours working on parts and luckily I didn‰’t have to be there for that. I got to come in later when the songs were closer to being done. But yeah, we just put a lot more work into it [Relatives in Descent] than previous ones I think.

Tessa: Within the first couple listens of the new record, I noticed a lot of imagery of rivers. Do you see your album as making a statement about the ongoing water crisis in Flint?

Joe: Not necessarily a statement, but it‰’s to remind people that it‰’s still going on. People like to think that it‰’s over. Bad stuff happens in the news all the time and so old bad stuff gets forgotten about, but people still have to have filters on their taps. A lot of people that are guilty of poisoning the water are not in jail so it‰’s just to remind people that it‰’s still happening.

Tessa: Even though there‰’s no objective truth, your lyrics seem really purposeful. Do you want people to derive particular themes from your music?

Joe: I want them—boy, I don‰’t know—nothing’s real, man. I‰’ve heard from reviews from previous records that were a very ‰down‰’ band and I want to try to avoid that depressing stuff. And so what you do is you start talking about your day-to-day life and things going on in the news, and it‰’s naturally very depressing, so then I try to find some moments of beauty or some sort of truth that maybe people can share. But it‰’s hard to find, so yeah.

Max: Has someone ever interpreted your music in a way that made you feel differently about a song that you made?

Joe: Funny thing happened early-on where people would say, ‰Oh your lyrics are very good.‰’ And I had an interview once and they said the song about the dead moose is just so beautiful. And I thought, ‰I don‰’t have a song about a dead moose.‰’ So it made me realize that lyrics aren‰’t maybe as important as people believe. You can hear the wrong thing and still derive meaning from it, so I‰’ve learned that.

joe casey feat.JPG

Photo by Tessa Dolt

Max: What‰’s the music-making process like for your albums?

Joe: The music always comes first. Greg, the guitar player, is kind of the band leader in the sense that he often comes up with the first riff or idea and then him and Alex, the drummer, work on it for awhile. Then Scott comes in. Sometimes Greg will have a bass-line idea and sometimes Scott will just come up with his own. And then when they‰’re still working out the parts, that‰’s when I show up and kind of mumble a bit and yell in the practice space, and we record those on the phone and then I go back and listen to it and go, ‰Eh, sounds like I could be saying this‰’ or ‰Can I fit this in?‰’ so the lyrics always come last.

Tessa: Who is the album cover of?

Joe: It‰’s an actress called Maude Fealy from the late 1800s. She was a silent film star and at one point she was considered one of the most beautiful women on Earth. So they would sell her postcards for her different acting roles and that one is from, I don‰’t know, maybe she was dressing up in different outfits for these postcards, but she‰’s dressed up as a nun and I just like the way that she looked. There‰’s two pictures [on the album]: there‰’s one on the inside for the same photoshoot where she had a lot more of an angelic face, like looking up. I just like the fact that she‰’s staring right out in a kind of inexplicable look. You can‰’t really tell if she‰’s happy or she‰’s sad or what she‰’s thinking and I like that.

Relatives In Descent album cover, which Joe Casey designed. Credit: Protomartyr’s Bandcamp

Tessa: Does it [the album cover] have any relevance to the half-sister?

Joe: Because there‰’s so many references to female characters and the sister, I was like ‰Okay that would be a good cover to have a woman‰’s face just to tie it all together.‰’

Max: Who are the ‘Relatives In Descent’? Is it purposeful that “descent‰” sounds a lot like “dissent?‰”

Joe: Yeah, that was me being clever. ‰Relatives in descent‰’ is a term that just means your nieces and nephews and your sons and your grandsons. Or relatives of ascent, like your grandparents. So the descending line of a thing. A lot of songs are about families and relatives and then truth is relative, right? And you know, descent and dissent.

Tessa: Was “Male Plague” written tongue-in-cheek or is it intended to be more self-aware?

Joe: It‰’s self-aware. I definitely wanted to talk about the idea of men‰’s rights activists. A lot of the scum that you see on the internet and then these news stories coming out now and just being in the music industry as much as we are, you do see the boy‰’s club that seems to exist. But then you [men] also can‰’t be like, ‰Yeah, those men are stupid.‰’ You kinda gotta make fun of yourself too, and I‰’m probably the sad sack in the pickle jar.

Max: Which artist(s) or band(s) inspired you that people typically wouldn‰’t guess?

Joe: People ask that a lot and inspiration is a weird thing cause you don‰’t really necessarily, I don‰’t think we say, ‰Oh, we like David Bowie so I want to be like David Bowie.‰’ It‰’s weird how you draw influences. But early on, I will admit to this–hopefully no one will hear this—when I was a kid the first big band I was into was U2. I wanna say that it was back when they were maybe cooler but they were never cool. Back before they were kind of irrelevant I remember going—and this will show you how old I am—I remember my freshman year of high school being excited and bringing in the Achtung Baby album on tape. And my friend was like, ‰Oh I have this tape by the band Nirvana‰’ and I was like, ‰Yeah yeah yeah, that‰’ll never last.‰’ So I think because I was an obsessive U2 fan maybe that sparked something, but I can‰’t say that I‰’ve been called the inverse-Bono. So I don‰’t think that it‰’s affected me as much. That‰’s a little thing that I will admit to you but if anyone else asked me, I‰’ll deny it.

Tessa: This is our only question about Detroit: who in Detroit should we be listening to?

Joe: Right now, you should be listening to Double Winter, it‰’s very good. There‰’s a band called bonny doon that‰’s pretty good; there‰’s a band called PRC that‰’s pretty good. Some of the older bands, Tyvek is still going. A band called ADULT. is still going, they‰’re great.

Max: What would you see yourself doing if not being in Protomartyr?

Joe: Oh boy, I‰’d be at home probably watching old episodes of Family Feud on TV and wondering what went wrong in my life. That‰’s what I was doing before I was in this band, so I‰’d only assume that I‰’d be doing that now. So I‰’m glad that I‰’m in the band.

Photo by Tessa Dolt

Listen to the full album here: