Interview: Protomartyr’s Joe Casey on the band’s highly anticipated Australian tour

Joe Casey, frontman of Detroit post-punks Protomartyr, is surprised the band has never ventured Down Under.

“It seems like we should’ve gone over earlier,” he says. “Bands from Detroit have toured Australia, so we thought if they can do it, we can do it.”

The band has worked hard over the last five years, touring worldwide and releasing four excellent albums within that time. It was their fourth album, 2017’s Relatives In Descent, which increased their profile, leading to finally touring Australia.

“Getting to Australia was an early goal we set when we started to tour; it was one of the places at the top of our list for places we wanted to go to. The fact that we’re able to finally achieve that after a long time is great for us.”

Protomartyr started under casual circumstances. Casey’s musical ambitions were as non-existent as Detroit’s automotive industry now is. He worked at a theatre alongside guitarist Greg Ahee, whom he bonded with having attended the same high school, albeit a decade apart. It was with Ahee he decided to give music a try.

“It was ok for him to have that job because it was for younger people; he was in his mid-20s and I was in my mid-30s. It was the kind of job where you work it for three hours then you go out to the bar afterwards – he was a good drinking buddy.  I felt like my job wasn’t very fulfilling, so for fulfilment I tried to start a band, and Greg was stupid enough to agree,” he laughs.

Upon forming Protomartyr, Casey had what he described as realistic goals for the band – “Put out a seven-inch, and I know some people out of town so maybe we can tour, maybe play Chicago or New York on a weekend.” The band released their debut album in 2012, titled No Passion All Technique – a title showing their self-deprecating humour. Their latest was released through Domino Records, home of Animal Collective and Arctic Monkeys, leading to changes and more opportunities.

“The two main things were since the last record were we toured so much for that one we all had to quit our jobs. Well, our jobs pretty much quit us because we were on tour for so long. When we came back from that tour we had more time to devote to writing new material and songs. It was the first time it wasn’t just a hobby or something to do in our spare time when we weren’t working, and kind of the only thing we had to do.

“The second thing was our last two records were with our friend Bill Skibbe in Benton Harbour, Michigan. For this new one we decided we could listen to Domino’s advice on who they thought would be good producers and try something different, so this record was recorded out in Los Angeles. It’s the first time we’ve ever recorded outside of Michigan. It kind of felt like an event to go someplace to record, as exotic as Los Angeles can be compared to Detroit. We didn’t bring back any great celebrity stories, no souvenirs, and no tan.”

Protormartyr’s records are filled with bleak and angular post-punk, fitting perfectly with the paranoid poetics of Casey. Casey’s lyrics are incredibly dense, featuring references to literature and Detroit. Even the band’s name is an esoteric reference to St Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, and he liking of the prefix ‘proto’. Throughout our conversation he lists books which have influenced his writing, including The Three Christs Of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach (about a mental hospital near his home), The Anatomy Of Melancholy by Robert Burton, and his current reading, a three volume study of Connemara by cartographer Tim Robinson. “The van is usually full of books by the end of the tour,” he laughs.

“A lot of my process is taking what I’ve read or what I’ve watched on TV or how I felt and trying to stick them all together and hope that it makes sense,” he says. “Just two nights ago a meteorite crashed over Michigan and lit up the sky. People had conspiracy theories, and it’s a story you hear. Some aspect of that could be a good Protomartyr song, so I’m hoping to remember that.”

Protomartyr’s live shows are intense experiences, and Australian fans can expect the same nervy energy of their records. “There’s not a lot of small talk,” he says. “We usually just get down to business.” Casey’s voracious reading hasn’t included anything on Australia, so he’s unsure of what to expect. He’s heard good things from friends who have toured, but one fact has proven a sweetener for him.

“I did find out I can only bring three packs of cigarettes into the country. I saw that dumb Johnny Depp tried to bring a dog in and he got in trouble for that. I’m not going to bring any dogs or fruit in, but if I can bring a pack of cigarettes I’ll be happy.”

RELATIVES IN DESCENT is out now. Follow the band online here.

PROTOMARTYR TOUR DATES 2018

February 15th | The Foundry, BRISBANE
with Mere Women, Goon Sax

February 16th | Oxford Art Factory, SYDNEY
with Mere Women, Angie

February 17th | The Curtin, MELBOURNE
with Mere Women, Spiritual Mafia

 

Photo: Daniel Topete.