Protomartyr’s novel approach
Joe Casey’s lyrics and philosophical musings paint a portrait of the indie rocker as a middle-aged man
Making Pitchfork’s and the New York Times’ year-end “best of” lists doesn’t always translate into bringing a crowd in Sacramento. In fact, Detroit band Protomartyr’s last show here—in 2014 with G. Green at the now-shuttered Luigi’s Fun Garden—was hardly packed.
Frontman and singer Joe Casey, reached by phone the night before his band embarked on an epic months-long tour, laughed while recalling that night’s sparse crowd.
“I hope this one’s a little bit better than that one, but we still had fun,” he says.
Protomartyr returns to Sacramento this Saturday, March 5, at Blue Lamp.
A lot of the ink spilled about Protomartyr mentions Casey’s late start as a frontman and the fact that as someone in his late 30s, he has 10 years on the rest of the band, which includes Greg Ahee on guitar, Alex Leonard on drums and Scott Davidson on bass.
Still, Casey says the generation gap is not too acute. “Mostly now it comes down to musical tastes. It seems like young people are a little less tribal in their tastes, a little more catholic,” he says.
Casey got his taste for life in a small, independent rock band when he was a “shiftless roadie” on U.S. and European tours for Tyvek, another critically acclaimed Detroit band. He said he found the experience inspiring.
“When I got back to Detroit I wanted to get a band together myself. … I picked vocalist because that’s the only thing I could do,” he says.
Protomartyr’s bleak, churning and hypnotic sound has been solid since the beginning, as evidenced on its first full-length album, 2013’s No Passion All Technique. The band members’ collective work ethic and drive, however, has led them closer to a sneaky catchiness on each release. Listeners can hear it in Casey’s sing-speak, atonal vocals that edge closer to ragged crooning, particularly on “I Forgive You,” on the band’s latest album, 2015’s The Agent Intellect.
The song is based on the real-life case of a priest at the Jesuit high school that all the Protomartyr members attended, who was convicted of molesting a student. A particular detail about the behavior of the priest captured Casey’s imagination.
“I thought it was interesting he approached these criminal acts from a scientific point of view. He took these meticulous notes,” Casey says.
Casey incorporated the priest’s crimes into “I Forgive You” with storytelling precision: “Caught him in the locker room / running tapes—taking notes / on where the boys fall on the spectrum / scientific method.”
Local band G. Green’s singer-guitarist Andrew Henderson points to Casey’s evocative, slice-of-life lyrics as one of the reasons his band is coming out of hiatus to play its last show with Protomartyr.
“They’re just, like, no bullshit, which is rare,” Henderson says.
This novelistic theme and oblique approach is typical: his mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease (“why does it shake? / the body / why does it move? / the fear”), and the sometimes crushing boredom of middle-aged parties (“old folks party / take care / mind the décor”).
These days Casey takes on those parties with a philosophical approach. “You see people raging as much as when they were young and you think ’This is pitiful!’” he says. “But then there are some people who can do it with class. … There are still lifers. I’d like to be a part-time lifer if I can.”