A New Dark Age: Protomartyr On Relatives In Descent
Someone hands Joe Casey another drink. He leans back, a smile breaking his reddened face as he observes it, his fingers now cradling an empty whiskey glass and a new apple juice/whiskey concoction, which looks pretty much just like whiskey. An unlit cigarette — the who-knows-which installment in a seriously endless lineage of pre-show smokes — rests in his other hand. He grunt-laughs as he looks down at the drink. “Wow, the great thing about that is you can’t tell how much whiskey is in there,” he cracks.
Casey is killing time backstage with his Protomartyr bandmates — guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard, and bassist Scott Davidson — at Basilica Hudson, the site of the annual experimental-leaning mini-festival Basilica SoundScape. Sitting right near the banks of the Hudson River, Basilica appears as a decrepit old factory from afar, but has been a reclaimed arts space for years now. Backstage, the band mills around an old car, parked amongst overgrown grass and, for whatever reason, a shipping container. Tonight is one of many shows in the lead-up to the release of Protomartyr’s new album, Relatives In Descent, their fourth record in five years and their first for Domino.
As Protomartyr have accrued more attention and a cult following in recent years, much has been made of the curious case of their frontman, Casey. Yes, he is 40, making him seem out of place next to his bandmates, who are 10 or more years younger. Yes, he had no prior musical or writing background and decided they should form a band out of nowhere, bored in his early 30s at a dead-end job. Yes, he walks around in a perpetually dressed-up but disheveled outfit: baseball cap, blazer, suit pants, untucked shirt. There is a Tumblr dedicated to descriptions music journalists have applied to Casey, and, sure enough, it isn’t uncommon for him to show up in the early evening looking like it’s already closing time at the local bar. He’s the “drunk uncle” of Protomartyr, with a pre-show ritual in which he is never without a drink in his hand and in which he must smoke, like, an entire pack of cigarettes. Then he gets onstage and mumbles and barks with the ferocity of a younger, hungrier singer.
Protomartyr’s become known and loved for their angular and bleak post-punk, but they’re often a bunch of goofballs in person. Without meeting the guys, there’s a temptation to reduce the band to certain very unique qualities: the fact that they’re from Detroit, and yes, the curious case of their frontman in today’s music landscape. Those reductions can teeter dangerously close into simple punchlines.
But Casey is an intriguing figure beyond the biographical fact of his age, some balance of “normal” and idiosyncratic that gives him a kind of gravitational pull. When he sits down to discuss Protomartyr’s music and career, it’s a blend of matter-of-fact humility, blunt self-awareness, and deep thoughtfulness on some of the heady, abstract themes he writes about in their music.
After releasing The Agent Intellect in late 2015, Protomartyr hit the road aggressively but still found time to start writing its follow-up, demoing and shaping songs destined for Relatives In Descent all through last year up to a more focused period in November and December. That means the music dates from both pre- and post-election and feels steeped in the anxiety, confusion, and anger of the times. Because Protomartyr’s music has a simmering violence to it and because Casey often wrote about his experience in a particular strain of mundane Detroit daily life, they’ve often been characterized as a political band. It hangs over the new record, even though Protomartyr are reticent to go too deep into politics and willfully push back at the idea that Relatives In Descent is an anti-Trump album. “I don’t think this album is any more political than our previous records, but people are picking up on it more because it’s a constant bombardment,” Casey asserts.
Rather, the new album takes stock of the world, Casey communicating his frayed emotional state within the current climate — which is both what makes his writing relatable and what gets them pegged as a politically minded band. The ideas defining the album are more abstract, broader than a specific current event. “A lot of the songs are about truth and this idea that truth can be relative,” Casey explains, citing a narrative that, at least, feels native to these last two years. It’s what informed the album title, which, unlike past Protomartyr albums, did not come from existing lyrics. He was thinking about our notions of how the world is falling away, a descent into something darker. He was thinking about descendants and what they might inherit from this. And, of course, “descent” sounds a lot like “dissent,” and he liked the idea of being against something. With a sardonic grin, he characterizes it as a “very clever play on words.”
As for grappling with the current American affliction, Casey’s been there already. “I hate to say I’m a psychic, but I was kind of warning…” he begins. “I didn’t realize it was going to go this way, at all, but I was talking about a lot of the same things.” He was writing about “forgotten people, and the fact that you can work an extremely unfulfilling job just to scrape by.” Even if a certain post-industrial collapse in Detroit wasn’t as inherent to Protomartyr’s identity as people make it out to be, Casey was right there in the midst of the 21st century’s small-town, mid-American wasteland. “Meanwhile there are other parts of America and everything is high-tech, and tech is going to be our future, and by the way robots are going to replace your jobs, but don’t worry,” he says with a dried-out sarcasm.
Yet he’s also quick to qualify the degree to which he can empathize with what brought us to Trump’s America: “I think someone could’ve taken that frustration and channeled it into something positive, but someone else came in and corrupted it and stoked it in a weird way.” He’s fed up with seeing op-eds about the remorseful Trump voter. People knew full well what they were buying, in his estimation; they weren’t hoodwinked, they let emotions get the best of them. “It’s always good to be reminded that, even as a country, we’re not as smart as we think we are,” he says. “It’s a new dark age.”
Aside from being loathe to describe Relatives In Descent as a political record, Casey is also, at times, resistant to focusing on his lyrical contributions to Protomartyr. “Lyrics are mostly there to be touchstones: ‘Yes, these are humans making this music,’” he says. Earlier on, Casey would be uncomfortable seeing his words written out; as much as forming Protomartyr came from his own “What is there to lose?” impulse, he’s still a reluctant frontman in some ways. Part of the attention on Protomartyr has been on those exact same lyrics. “I have to be happy with that,” he says. “It’s better than ‘Boy, these lyrics fucking suck.’”
As the non-musical frontman of the band, he’s always quick to emphasize what the remaining trio bring to the table. It’s almost like different departments of an office, Casey responsible for the lyrics and imagery while the other three write the songs. “[Ahee] obviously has the musical talent, and I can offer some suggestions,” Casey says. “But since I don’t know anything about music, I have to trust what they’re doing.” The genesis of Relatives Of Descent began with Ahee, who had demoed opener and lead single “A Private Understanding” early on in the process. They knew immediately it’d make a good opener, and it wound up serving as an overture paired with “Here Is The Thing,” a song that repeats some of the same ideas in a more “surreal” tone.
The tendency toward reiteration runs through Relatives In Descent. Though the band didn’t set out to write a concept record, it revealed itself, in retrospect, to have certain thematic movements. Two songs about family, two songs about the world. An idea appearing here, then reappearing turned under a new light. That’s all conveyed with the band’s trademark ragged rush. It’s some mixture of pissed-off catharsis and disorientation, both an antidote and a reflection of the circumstances that influenced it. Protomartyr may not have set out to make that kind of record. They may not have wanted to have to say these things. In the end, they couldn’t help but capture the atmosphere that hung over them.
Almost a week after Basilica, Protomartyr throw an album-release show in Detroit. That would seem normal enough. But they’re really throwing a show. It comes with a stacked lineup of like-minded artists including Metz and Preoccupations, alongside Tyvek and Adult. And, oh yeah, it takes place on a weird cruise boat called The Detroit Princess.
Cheekily referred to as “Boatomartyr” by the band’s label, you’d be hard-pressed to find a stranger setting for a record-release party full of gnarly bands indebted to post-punk. The boat looks like it hosts senior citizen events or wedding receptions otherwise. There’s a hard-to-identify musty smell throughout its three floors and, before the bands start, the incongruous presence of blaring club music. Each floor has mirrored pillars and ceilings, cashier cages, a faded leafy print carpet; the second floor has a screen playing boat and/or water-themed movies while people eat at banquet tables. (At one point I caught a scene from everyone’s favorite Kevin Costner film, Waterworld.) There’s a perceivable uphill slope to the floor of the bottom deck’s main hall, where the performances are. The entire situation is bizarre.
It’s a homecoming celebration, too. Before the show starts in earnest, the members of Protomartyr mill around talking to friends and fans on the various outside decks, Casey already at it with his customary chain-smoking as he hugs dudes who are his age or older. These become semi-recurring sights, Midwestern punks hanging on the outside decks to have a smoke or take in the dual views of Detroit and Windsor, Canada right across the water, which means the sights are dominated by the glow of towering Caesar’s casinos across the border and a towering, dystopian GM complex on the Michigan side. Throughout the night, members of the other bands mill about, too, a guy from Preoccupations or Metz always hanging around shooting the shit as the boat cruises around before docking for the show.
“Hey, welcome to Detroit,” Casey deadpans when I find him in the green room — which, in this instance, is the hall on the third floor, set up as if for a massive dinner party.
“Congrats,” I respond. “This is pretty crazy, a big homecoming release party on a boat.”
“Whoa-oh,” he cautions in a kind of anxious but jokey bluster. “Don’t say that just yet, this could be a fucking disaster.”
This is a common attitude when talking to Casey or taking in Protomartyr. None of this should have gone half as well as it has, a bunch of non-rockstar Detroit dudes gaining some degree of prominence for their snarling, queasy music. So on one hand it’s like, “Hang on, when’s the floor going to finally fall out from under this thing?” and on the other, there’s a bit of mild shock that they’re able to pull all this shit off. Relatives In Descent might have a modest rollout compared to a major pop act, but it’s the most elaborate and visible the band’s experienced just yet: Boatomartyr, a big old billboard in their hometown, a bit of guerilla streaming via early placement in Brooklyn and Detroit dive bar jukeboxes.
Since Detroit has been so core to Protomartyr’s narrative and identity, the band has often pushed back against it to some extent. “The early interviews, I think people thought we built cars all day and then wiped the grime off our faces,” Casey explains with some bemused exasperation. “I understand that because everything needs to be stereotyped or boiled down, but Detroit’s not really much different than anyplace else in the Midwest.” Yet there are certain things that did define them there, and that they’ll own. Casey’s on edge on their big night, because there’s a sense this whole thing is, say, some weird excessive endeavor that could go horribly wrong in his mind. At the same time, they have a workmanlike attitude, coming from a place where it’s cheap to operate as artists.
“We approach it like a job, but obviously it’s a wonderfully exciting artistic thing,” Casey explains. “We approach it as clocking in and clocking out. We have to eat off this.” Something about those Michigan roots keeps them humble. “I’m constantly waking up and like, ‘What the fuck am I doing, I’m the singer in a band,’” Casey reflects. “Which is not what I thought I was going to do with my life.” But until they made it out of town and got outside recognition, nobody cared about Protomartyr at home. “That’s the Midwest thing,” he says, “No one’s better than anyone else. Hero worship would disturb me.” Without stumbling forward into Protomartyr, Casey figures he would’ve been just sitting around in a bar drinking; now, as he jokes, he has a band and therefore a legitimate excuse to be sitting around in a bar drinking, even in the late afternoon.
It all feels like downplaying — even if Protomartyr aren’t the kind of band that’s going to wind up headlining theaters or arenas, who would’ve thought they could take it this far? But all that acerbic hand-wringing or self-deprecation doesn’t register when you see them play.
A Protomartyr show comes across like a traumatic ritual. It’s heavier and more aggressive live, or at least these songs feel that way once they’re being played very loud and very primally in contained spaces, especially if said contained space happens to be an ungodly hot banquet hall on a boat drenched in red lights. The curious frontman becomes a whole different extension, no longer the guy traipsing around pre-show, alternating between grinning and chatting over smokes then giving off the vibe that he’d very much like to be left alone. It’s still the same messy, blazered dude, but Casey presents a intensifying apoplexy onstage. He starts of murmuring, muttering, and the band coaxes him into moments of higher energy, before he’s roaring downward into the microphone. The crowd responds accordingly, treating The Detroit Princess like a roughened DIY space suitable for wild punk shows.
Towards the end, Casey addresses the audience. “I’m a fearful person. I saw a tragedy, so it’s very nice to see everyone being nice to each other,” he says. “This could’ve gone terribly wrong. I’ve heard it’s gone good.” After a bit of earnestness, an acknowledgment of how weird it is that Protomartyr got to pull off the big homecoming boat gig, he lets his jocular, acidic side to the fore: “This is the last song, and after it you gotta grab your shit and get the fuck off, I’m serious.” (Given, they were right up against a curfew.)
Protomartyr, whether because of their wizened and middle-aged frontman or their Midwestern qualities, aren’t a band that seems to indulge victory laps. And while the release show seems like a new stepping stone, as does reaching a fourth album, they aren’t the types to rest on that; Casey talks about the cohesive body of work at the end, with connected themes and imagery, “if the band goes well” and they can 10 more albums. (He jokes that if that kinda thing doesn’t happen, big deal, but if it does then you look like a genius.) The goals are, as ever, modest: From here, they want to maintain the level they’re at, and keep changing incrementally. “But you also hope that you recognize if the ship is sinking,” Casey says. “If you put out a record and the crowds are getting smaller and smaller, that you have to call it a day.”
That’s not where Protomartyr are right now. In their corner of the world, they’re on a bit of a roll — making enough cash to be full-time musicians, on the road, enjoying themselves, cranking out material at a steady and creatively fulfilling pace. As Casey sums it up: “We are solidly in the camp of, ‘Let’s tour the shit out of this record and let’s do it again,’ because bands do not have much time on earth. If you’re creatively firing, keep firing until the gun is empty.”
Relatives In Descent is out 9/29 via Domino. Pre-order it here.