Protomartyr's music—bleak, funny, searing, sincere, usually very loud—has always leaned toward contemporary commentary than noisy punk throwbacks. But the Detroit band's fourth LP, Relatives In Descent, released last month on Domino, can't help but feel like a timely and vital companion to the daily whiplash of America, 2017.
"Early on I decided I didn't really want to write love songs, and that takes a lot of things off the table," lead singer Joe Casey told us. The words and stories Casey snarls, sneers, croons, and barks, are serious without taking themselves too seriously. It's a difficult thing to do, and the skill with which the band wears them is thrilling to behold, much sweeter than the faces they wear in their press images.
We spoke to Casey over the phone before the band plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday night.
A friend who has never heard Protomartyr before listened to Relatives in Descent and said it was “kind of sexy sad.” How would you describe the kind of music on this record? That’s the first I’ve ever heard the term “sexy” applied to us [laughs]. I don’t know. It’s kind of an outcropping of the music we made before. When we first got started we were called “punk,” just because we were bad at our instruments and play punk clubs and stuff. But now that we’re better at our instruments I don’t know what to call it.
The songs feel like a direct response to the 2016 presidential election and the subsequent chaos that’s in the news on a daily basis. When did you start writing them? We started working on the music right after we got done touring, more than a year ago, definitely before the election. And we went on a little tour that happened during the election, and by then we had maybe three songs and some lyrics and we were working on the other ones.
Then we were in Las Vegas for the first time on the night of the election, and from then on it was just like, the tone changed, the lyrics kinda took a darker turn from what they were going to be before. I would say that it is more than half informed by America, post-election.
The song “Male Plague” seems particularly timely now. Because of the election cycle was so long, the Trump Access Hollywood stuff, it’s not like sexual harassment just started cropping up in the news today. That stuff was on my mind. Especially being in the, I guess they call it the “music industry,” you can kind of see that weird toxic male attitude a lot.
We tour with bands with women in them and a lot of times they show up in a place and the sound guy treats the female band differently than the male band, he assumes the male band knows how to use the instruments and he’ll talk down to the female band. Not all the time, but it definitely does happen.
And that song is also kind of my own feelings as a human too, as a male. I have to include myself in there.
In the first song on the record you sing this vignette about Elvis seeing the face of Joseph Stalin in a cloud in the desert. This actually happened! How did you come to learn about it and why do you think it’s significant? It was during one of our tours. Alex [Leonard], the drummer, and I like to stop at used bookstores. Scott [Davidson], the bassist, likes record stores, and Greg [Ahee], the guitarist, likes sleeping in the van. You just want to read something in the van to pass the time, so I saw Peter Guralnick’s two books about Elvis. One is about pre-him going into the army, and the other is about his downfall. I got both books, and I read the downfall book first, just because I wanted to get to the juicy parts.
Elvis was a truck driver at one point, and he was at the height of his fame, driving his buddies around and it was at the time when he was trying to search for spiritual meaning in his life, and he sees this cloud and, you know, show me a vision, and he sees Joseph Stalin, and he’s bummed out. Like, is this the meaning? What are you trying to tell me, God? Then it becomes the face of Jesus Christ and he’s very elated, and stops and pulls the van over and wanders out into the desert for a bit. I thought it made Elvis seem very human.
Back then, seeing Joseph Stalin must have been like seeing the devil. Right. It was the height of the Cold War, so maybe he was worried about nuclear annihilation, which of course we don’t need to worry about anymore [laughs].
Could you also explain what the “Windsor Hum” is? There’s a couple of “hums” all over the world, but what’s interesting about the Windsor one, is Windsor, Canada is south of Detroit, across the river and it really only hits the Canadian side of the river. It’s a very low frequency hum, and I’ve heard it described as a massive refrigerator running. It’s constant, so if you do hear it, you can’t get it out of your head and it can drive you crazy.
They assume that it’s coming from this place called Zug Island, this industrial, man-made island out in the Detroit River that I believe was owned by U.S. Steel and then they sold it. When I was a kid my dad worked down there, and we used to drive past it and it looks like a very scary island where mind-control zombies come from.
Because of international treaties, there’s nothing that Canada can really do to get it to stop. I see it as a metaphor for the signal that America is sending out to the world. It’s destructive.
My dad, who worked at the wastewater plant, was explaining that they made the smokestacks for the new plant extra high, so that they’re high enough that when the cloud came down it’d be well into Canada. People do that all the time on the borders, even the borders of states, that’s where you put all your industrial waste so it’ll go into the next state and you won’t have to worry about it. That’s kind of the American way I guess.
You’ve said that “the Thing” in the song “Here Is The Thing” is “unfettered capitalism at the expense of humanity.” Are you ever tempted to make your lyrics more overtly political? No, because the selfish reason is that those songs don’t age well. The artsy-fartsy person in you wants to make something timeless. I try and keep things general, because once you take a stance on one issue, then you can’t really turn off the tap once it’s been turned on. You’ll always be known as “the political person” unless you go hide in a cabin somewhere. So all our records have had politics in them, and I think it’d be weird not to have politics in them. Early on I decided I didn’t really want to write love songs, and that takes a lot of things off the table.
At first I was more concerned with my neighborhood, and each album gets bigger and bigger, but I don’t think it can get much bigger, I can’t talk about galactic politics, so, I’ll stick to what’s going on.
I’ve said this a lot, but I was really hoping to challenge myself and write about more uplifting things, or maybe less misery, but it didn’t work out that way. I just don’t want us to get trapped into being the misery band. But for right now we are. What can you do?
Do you still work the door at a comedy club? Nope, we all quit our jobs to tour for the last record. While it’s been very creatively fulfilling, financially we’re scraping by.
You don’t want to complain that now you’re basically a traveling salesman, but the freedom that you have and the fact that you can approach it as, your creative life is your whole life, those are the positives.
The negatives are just trying to find a bathroom, and always being tired and homesick. And realizing that basically I’m a garment salesman now, because people don’t buy music anymore, the only way you’re gonna get any money is if they buy any t-shirts. So you’re more worried about t-shirt sales than you probably should be [laughs].
This interview has been edited and condensed.