Formal Growth In The Midwest: An Interview With Protomartyr
Joe Casey and Greg Ahee on ancient rocks, disgusting AI tech barons, and "the first real Protomartyr 'headphone album.'"
“We liked stopping songs before we had to answer anything,” Joe Casey muses about Protomartyr’s past. The reflection comes right at the end of our conversation, one largely dedicated to what time means for the post-punk band — in terms of age, family, and how life in their native Detroit has shifted in recent years. We’re discussing a once-elusive beast for the Protomartyr: codas, appearing at the end of new songs “Graft Vs. Host” and “The Author” to give these tracks a graceful exit. “For the first time in a long time,” Casey continues, “there’s a release at the end, or something that at least gets you an answer.”
So, what changed? “I was finding joy in writing again, and that’s how it came out,” guitarist Greg Ahee succinctly explains. The road to Formal Growth In The Desert — the sixth album from the venerable Detroit group, out this Friday — was their rockiest yet, sometimes literally. There was the pandemic, sure, but also the passing of Casey’s mother, a presence in Protomartyr’s music from early on, from Alzheimer’s. Through this exceptionally rough period came a humbling of self and place in time. Casey recounts a trip to Sedona with his fiancée, awed by rock formations and “realizing my worries and concerns are meaningless next to these rocks that have been here for thousands of years.”
Now in their second decade as a band, Protomartyr maintain their own unique relationship to time, especially when their history is placed within the current post-punk landscape. After garnering attention during the scene’s mid-2010s boom, the quartet — made up of Casey, Ahee, Scott Davidson on bass, and Alex Leonard on drums — became stalwarts in the genre. They haven’t shown any sign of flagging yet, even as new groups come up and fade away. Casey chalks it up to the fact that Protomartyr’s lyrics on capitalism and death never seem to lose currency, or that the band is so resistant to blindly hopping onto new bandwagons.
Instead, the group found newfound artistic fulfillment in taking their tried-and-true fixations into unfamiliar territory. Stepping beyond Protomartyr’s commonly pigeonholed status as a “Detroit band,” Casey and Ahee share insights on the Midwest as a whole in recent years. “There’s an ethos that a lot of Midwestern artists have: doing as much as you can with these minimal resources,” Ahee says. Casey zeroes in on that last part especially; dreaming of a better world out here, he says, fails by design because it has to be done “through the rules and rigors of capitalism.” It’s only fitting that Casey then adds, “Failure is a common theme in Protomartyr songs.”
There’s an instrumental shift from prior Protomartyr records too. Their music now crawls with minimalist howls of guitar, pedal steel, and synths that gradually encroach as the album progresses. The source is Ahee’s work in scoring short films during the pandemic, which refreshed his creative energy in the band, drawing from sources like Ennio Morricone’s compositions for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and Mica Levi’s haunting work for Under The Skin. “I tried to worry less about what guitar was doing,” he explains, “approaching it more like a producer,” alongside Jake Aron, who has worked with L’Rain, Snail Mail, Yumi Zouma, and many others. The change was healing for Ahee, who started work on the album “probably at the darkest place mentally” he can ever remember. “It feels like a reset,” he continues. “Just learning to find joy and happiness in things I maybe took for granted is really important for me, as I get older.”
Like the spans of time we discuss, our interview bounces between reference points across decades at a moment’s notice. Casey mentions the ties between 1950s dance manuals and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in rapid succession. When I bring up Depression-era dance marathons and the capitalist pressure to obliterate our own bodies for profit, Casey compares it to the pursuit of YouTube fame without missing a beat. “Now we live in a world where Mr. Beast will recreate Squid Game and you might win a million dollars!” he proclaims with sardonic disdain. That’s Protomartyr for you: able to find the common social thread, no matter how disparate the blips in history. Or, as Casey puts it: “It’s a weird time, but I’m sure things were weird at all times.”
More discussion of weird times — past and present — can be found below in our conversation with Casey and Ahee, condensed and edited for clarity.
There’s a few more baseball references on this album than usual. What’s been your relationship to baseball over time?
JOE CASEY: The last time the Detroit Tigers won the World Series was 1984, and I was born in ’77, so I was the perfect age to be like, “Baseball is the greatest thing ever.” But from then on, the Tigers haven’t been that great, so my interest in the sport has ebbed and flowed depending on what I’m doing. But I always pick one or two underdogs on the team that I root for.
GREG AHEE: I like basketball, and the motto of the Pistons team that won the championship in 2004 was “Goin’ To Work.” It was about, “We don’t have any superstars on this team, but we’re going to work harder than everyone else. We’re going to play better defense.” And I think that’s a throughline through so much of Midwestern culture that absolutely plays into what we do.
CASEY: I’m always a little worried as we go on that Protomartyr albums become too heavy and portentous. I always try to put lighter subjects or even comedy into these albums, but I’m beginning to suspect nobody gets any of the jokes I write. I’m not a very funny person. Even the last album, which was almost completely about death, still had what I thought were some funny songs.
I definitely picked up on that in a few places on this album, like the Dmitri Young reference on “We Know The Rats.”
CASEY: That’s just the reality of the situation where my house was getting broken into. I couldn’t be mad at the guy [breaking in], because the cops are no help, and houses in Detroit of all places are too expensive for anyone to buy, and jobs aren’t too good here. I’d call the cops and they’d be like, “Do you have a gun? Do you have a security system?” And I was like, “No, I don’t.” Then they pretty much said I deserved it. So all I had was an old autographed Dmitri Young baseball bat, and that would be my one bit of security—sleeping in a chair, wrapped up with it. I don’t know what I would’ve done with it — I don’t think I could’ve gotten a full swing in my living room. But Dmitri Young is a guy that I like. When he came to the Tigers, he was in the downslope of his career. I kind of like older, out-of-shape guys. I relate to them.
There’s a lot of rumination on this album about the future and what it means to carry things from the past through time. How did you find yourselves reckoning with that when making this record?
CASEY: The older I get, the more I think about time, which I think is inevitable. Baseball is an example — when you’re younger, you think baseball’s been around forever and it doesn’t really change much. Maybe the haircuts change, but it seems like it’s set in stone. And then when you get older, you realize, “My dad was born in the ’30s and baseball was very different then, and his dad was probably born before baseball was around.” In the span of three generations, baseball went from nothing, to this sport that’s America’s pastime, to now being whatever corporate thing it is. You see that changing, and you see the compression of history, where things that you thought were important get squeezed out of the historical record.
Time frequently links into place on this album too — shifts in relationships to Detroit and your family home over time are at the forefront of these songs.
CASEY: I’m the kind of person who stays with things long after they’ve passed their time. I had been living in the family home where we all grew up in Detroit that still had my dad’s smoking pipes on the table and my mom’s clothes in the closet—this museum from the past, full of all our toys and junk from 60 years. My fiancée was moving from Arizona to Detroit, and the plan was we would probably live in this house, but we’d have to fix it up and clean it out. And the week that she came, the house got broken into for the first time ever. And then, over the span of two weeks, it got broken into four more times, and it really forced my hand to be like, “Well, this is not gonna be the house where I can move my newly Detroiter fiancée.” That house had become very important to me, but now that we cleaned it out of all the stuff and sold it, I realized it was kind of a weight around my neck. The past was pulling me down.
Then there’s “Fun In Hi Skool,” which is about the past pulling down people driven by nostalgia. What went into making high school reminiscence sound so harrowing?
AHEE: Joe explained the idea of someone peaking in high school — how sad it is for that to be the best time of your life, when you’re just barely past puberty — before he fully laid down the vocals. I hated high school.
CASEY: I had a fairly miserable time in high school, but Greg had the worst time.
AHEE: It was an all-boys Catholic school where you have to wear a tie. I had an absolutely horrible experience there. I despise that place. I wanted to bring a darkness to that and a menacing feel, because those are the memories high school conjures up for me.
CASEY: The older you get, you can get trapped in this thing where you feel like youth is wasted on the young. But that’s just you being jealous of the march of time and being further along on the dial. I’ve seen it eat up people my age a bit, especially people trying to stay relevant in the music business. It becomes harder for the people that used to be cool, the older they get. You think youth is coming to kill you when you get older, but it’s a miserable time when you’re young. It’s exciting because the future is ahead of you, but you don’t even realize it until it’s too late.
I feel like nostalgia for that point in life especially feels like a trap. It feels like that’s an easy way to get bogged down in something along the way to being a fully-formed adult.
CASEY: And for me, I thought I was a fat, ugly piece of shit, and I looked back at these photos of when I was in high school and it’s so obvious I wasn’t. But that does nothing but hurt you now, now that you’re fatter and slower. You didn’t realize it at the time, obviously, so it doesn’t matter that you thought you looked so much better when you were younger. For me, that’s the negative draw of nostalgia: you start thinking, “Maybe I did have it better when I was younger.” Who cares. Those days are gone. You can’t return to them. You gotta focus on today, because that’s the only time that really matters.
With the instrumentation on this album, you’re bringing things like pedal steel into the fold more. What compelled you about that kind of instrumentation?
AHEE: When I decided to bring some of these Morricone and Gian Piero Reverberi sad, weird, bizarre Western influences, it seemed like pedal steel was an obvious instrument to bring in. One of my favorite songs ever is “Farewell Transmission” by Songs: Ohia, and that song has lap steel. When I wrote a bunch of pedal steel parts, I really liked how, when you do just a single note and drift with it, it sounds desolate and sad and beautiful, but then you can bring in the warmest chords. I ended up writing a bunch of these pedal steel parts on my computer and then — not knowing anything about pedal steel — brought it to the guy who played on the record, and he was like, “What the fuck. I can’t play this. This is physically impossible.” I don’t think I knew how hard pedal steel is to play. We had to reformat some of the stuff after that, but that helped some of the songs take a different direction than I originally planned.
Greg, can you talk a bit more about how your work in film scores during the pandemic affected how you wrote your parts on this album?
AHEE: With any Protomartyr record we make, I want to think of a different way to approach it. It doesn’t always lead to a drastically different sound, but when I come in with a fresh mentality, it always makes it exciting. When writing a record stops being exciting, I want to stop playing in this band. I never want to do it just to do it. What we did differently in the recording process was that we had Joe start singing on these songs early in the process. He’d start singing in Day Two or Three, before the songs were finished. Pretty much every other record we made up until that point, he’d done vocals as the very last thing. But having his vocals on these tracks early on helped me approach it like, “I can build everything around this. What’s going to take these vocals and lyrics to a different place that they weren’t before?”
It sounds like the pandemic made the prospect of making art especially hard for you guys. “Let’s Tip The Creator” gets into the fraught economic reality of that, but how have you been reckoning with that in the last few years?
AHEE: That’s a good question, because it does feel more and more bleak. I literally have no answers in terms of how to make it better, besides the same answer I have toward everything in regards to capitalism: We need to stop getting mad at each other and start focusing on the power structures oppressing everyone. I always feel like we’re always writing from a place of struggle, but I don’t think we need that. I would like to write from a better place. I think that can actually make more interesting art.
CASEY: I’d give interviews where people would be like, “How are you doing?” And I’d be like, “We’re doing awful!” I thought it was a universal thing. We needed to think, “What the hell are we going to do if this isn’t viable?” I’m mostly talking about the finances, but also creatively, we were at zero.
AHEE: The grind was just wearing on me. Maybe one of the only positives of COVID for me was using it as a reset—we got to break the grind and reestablish why we started this [band] and what we enjoy about this process.
CASEY: You wonder every day when you’re working on lyrics or you’re working on tour, “What exactly is the point of all this?” You’re wondering who you’re doing it for. Are you doing it for yourself? Somewhat. Are you doing it for an audience? You hope so. But everything is so commodified. And the newest thing is the stupidest tech people being like, “AI is going to replace art!” And it’s because they have a hatred for human expression — they don’t understand it. It disgusts me.
I don’t wanna be an old man railing against modern technology, but lately, it’s gone from embettering human society to sucking any joy out of it. “Let’s Tip The Creator” is specifically from Mark Zuckerberg’s big introduction video to the Metaverse where he’s hanging out with sycophants and they’re all talking about how you can look at street art and tip the artists. And I just thought that was a perfect example of how these people do not understand art — they do not understand the importance of it, or the need for it, or why it’s there. “Wouldn’t it be great if we can reduce art down to something that you tip like getting a cup of coffee?” It’s disheartening, but if anything, it gives me things to sing about.
It’s really felt like there’s been a lot more devaluation of artists in the last couple years. And it always produces this art of questionable merit without any human element whatsoever.
CASEY: We’ve all been gleefully walking towards that! I hate the whole mood playlist thing. I understand that sometimes you just want a chill playlist or whatever, but people no longer care what they’re listening to as long as it evokes a certain mood. That kind of thing has always been there — in the ’50s, you’d get timpani music or elevator music. These things have always existed, but the fact that it seems to be the major driving force for the music industry is bizarre. I’m fascinated by it, but it is a little scary.
Even the algorithmic nature of playlists has gotten really bizarre lately. Spotify made a bunch of auto-generated mood playlists this year that don’t make any sense, like “Evil Clown Mix.”
CASEY: Well, maybe we can land on that. [Laughs] I’m worried that it’s maybe changing the minds of people who consume music. We’ll get online reviews where they’ll be like, “This new Protomartyr record isn’t post-punk enough.” And, to that, I have to say, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I have no idea what things we have to change. [It feels like] everything needs to be put in a box. I used to not mind being called post-punk because it reminded me of the period after punk when things got really experimental and weird, and one thing could sound completely different from another. But they’re basically saying, “How close does this sound to Joy Division or the two other albums I know are post-punk?” To me, that’s the most frustrating thing. In Protomartyr headquarters, we’re not sitting around a table and thinking, “How post-punk can we make this record?” It doesn’t even cross our minds.
As for what does come into play with your process, how do you shape an album around the overarching threads? There’s the resurrection angle — in a reference to “Talitha cumi” and the Rose of Jericho seeds you sent out to fans — but also the way your album closers sometimes invoke callbacks.
CASEY: I like putting biblical or mythological references in songs only because it’s a way to plumb the past. Even if you apply a very antiquated visual or idea to nowadays, it’s more to show the timelessness of struggles and issues. But they always come in weird ways. Like, with “Talitha cumi,” I came across that because I was sitting on my ass watching television for hours on end during COVID, and it was the title of an episode of The X-Files. I didn’t really think about the themes too much until the album was done, but then it’s all there, because you’re writing things all around the same time. It’s never a straight line — I never want to write a concept album where every single song has exactly something to do with an overarching plot. But, looking back at it once the songs were in place, it did kind of have this arc.
AHEE: When writing songs, we’re always discussing where they’re going to fall in the sequencing. It’s always really important to us how an album is sequenced. I always find it funny when bands have a collection of 10 or 12 songs and have no idea what the sequencing is, because I’ve never thought like that. Because Joe did the vocals so early on this, it became clear it was moving from a desert in the first track to a garden in the final track. So the first track starts with pretty sparse pedal steel and acoustic guitar — no synths or anything like that. And then the final track is like a symphony of different sounds and 12 different synths going, trying to weave them in and out and make them flow in the song.
CASEY: I think Greg adds more things in the background — he says this is the first real Protomartyr “headphone album,” and I have to agree with him.
AHEE: Once I was finally able to be creative and find joy in songwriting again, all of a sudden, I wanted these explosions. I wanted these moments where everything breaks free and it’s not just tightly wound to a point that it breaks. I wanted more color at that point, because that’s where I was at mentally.
CASEY: [With the callbacks,] what’s interesting this time is that I was like, “I don’t want to do that again. I’m not gonna be so on-the-nose on this one.” But I was in the booth doing different versions of [“Rain Garden”] and I didn’t have lyrics until the very end, so I was tinkering with it the whole time we were recording. And Alex, who’s probably my favorite person to get notes from, was like, “Joe, you should say ‘make way for my love’ here.” And I was like, “I was trying to avoid that,” but he thought it would really work. Because of [Alex], it immediately changed the song and made me rethink things. I don’t always do it, but in this case, the drummer insisted, so…
Formal Growth In The Desert is out 6/2 via Domino.