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Tune Glue 017: Protomartyr
An interview with Joe Casey of American post-punk band Protomartyr
Joe Casey is the lead singer, lyricist, and designer of Detroit post-punk band Protomartyr. Across six studio albums, Casey’s lyricism explores the archaic and the abstruse, thematically focusing on death, decay, and endings. But Formal Growth in the Desert, Protomartyr’s sixth full-length release, explores what comes afterwards—after life, after a pandemic that almost shuttered the band, after the loss of a loved one, after learning to accept new love. The apocalyptic horns of 2020’s Ultimate Success Today are replaced with a tapestry of nimble pedal steel, and the record ends with a lush, uncharacteristic ode to love and self-acceptance. Zhenzhen Yu spoke with Joe Casey on July 24, 2023 via Zoom, in a very long discussion about Russian list poems, Samuel Beckett, and Tim Robinson.
Zhenzhen Yu: You referred to Ultimate Success Today as the end of a five-act play, where you could close the book on certain themes that have characterized the initial era of Protomartyr. What made you feel like that was necessary? And how do you think that lyrically affected Formal Growth in the Desert?
Joe Casey: I felt it was necessary because you could tell the band was starting to get a little tired of doing the same things, touring especially. Getting the band to come up with music that they’re happy with can sometimes—not all the time—be like pulling teeth. So that record was gestating for kind of a long time, and I was worried that I was starting to repeat myself lyrically. There were two things going on: 1) it’d been ten years of being a band, and I thought it would be good to point out how important [Ultimate Success Today] was, and it’d be good to say we’re closing the chapter on something, and 2) to kind of free up [guitarist] Greg and the band—that they didn’t have to keep coming up with the Protomartyr song, or keep trying to top themselves. For me it was like, “Okay, maybe I can force myself to sing about something new.” And then just from a marketing standpoint, it’s like, you gotta hear this, this could be the end, you know? (laughs).
But it almost was the end because of the pandemic, right?
Yeah. I mean… (laughs) I didn’t plan on that. But it started to bite us in the ass a little bit because when we did have interviews, it was when we were in lockdown, and we didn’t know when it was going to end or when anybody was going to be able to tour again. People kind of forget now, but it really seemed like, “Well, maybe that’s it.” And being in a band is not the most financially lucrative thing, so it was like, “Okay, well, we’re gonna have to try to make money if this goes on forever.”
So I thought I was just being very honest—I thought most bands were probably going through the same thing that we were going through. But for some reason, it got locked in like, oh no, Protomartyr is poor and they’re dying (laughs). It seemed like it was the tone, which was okay. But I was surprised that it came across more as “these guys are done, they have no money and they’re toast” instead of like “wait to see what we have coming up next!” We always joke that the best way to improve our career would be to break up and then reform in a couple of years. It’s the cycle of: after every record, say we’re broken up, and then come back together.
For the [Formal Growth] cover, you mentioned that you initially had the visual idea of a woman hugging a statue, in a “reverse Pygmalion” situation. Can you expand on the symbolism of that?
I don’t remember where the bookstore was, but I was in some town that had a bunch of bookstores, so I’m gonna say it was maybe Northampton? There was a book and I’m blanking on the name of it now, but it was something like The Art of the Perverse. It had turn-of-the-century paintings [that were] scandalous at the time, where it’d be like a woman draped over a bed—all very romantic. Nowadays, we think, “Oh, it’s beautiful,” but back then it was salacious. And there’s one of a woman hugging a statue, and I was like, “Oh, that’s an interesting image,” and then you lock it in the back of your brain.
I always have that happen, where I have an image and I really push it: “That’s what the cover is gonna be.” And then I couldn’t remember the title of the book, and I tried looking it up, and I was like, “Well, I guess we’re gonna have to go to John King Books in Detroit and try to find something that looks like it.” I wanted the next cover, definitely, to look different than the previous one—slightly. I think it still looks pretty much exactly the same as the other ones. From there, it was just knowing Trevor [Naud], and knowing that he’s a great photographer. Maybe if I can give him this very vague idea, he can come up with something. So that’s what he came up with, and it was just like, “Okay, this is better than my original idea.”
I did print out a bunch of the photos and Xerox them. There’s one where I use colored pencils, and I did the whole Joe Casey thing to it. [Editor’s Note: He’s referring to his characteristic style of drawing dotted lines across a portrait.] And it just didn’t seem… it seemed to lessen the image. I thought, “Okay, this is good [as is].” Since the last record was so dark, musically and lyrically, and [the cover] was white and blue and purple, and it was a very bright cover, I was like, “I’m gonna make this cover dark, even though I think the music will sound pretty lightened up, and I’m going to try to write lightened-up lyrics.” So it was a flip. In retrospect, maybe the covers should have been switched, because it would have fit better. And I just thought it’d be good to have two faces on it.
My vague idea now is, the next one—if there is a next one—I’d like to have two faces on it again, just do that for a while until that gets boring and say, “It’s the end of a chapter!” and then do something different after that.
Three faces next time.
Yeah, three faces (laughter). It keeps getting more and more…
Is the male figure being masked on the Formal Growth cover a reference to your being masked on the Consolation E.P. cover?
No, it wasn’t. I didn’t even really think about that until after it was already in process. And people were saying this is a grand departure from our previous records. No, the masked figure on Consolation E.P.’s there. The look that she’s giving him on the cover of this new record—that’s similar to the look of Maude Fealy on Relatives in Descent’s cover. To me it seems to be tying it all together to the past stuff but without saying it. And again, originally, it was a statue, and that’s exactly what The Agent Intellect is. So maybe I’m just out of ideas (laughs).
That was totally him. With the “Worm in Heaven” video, that’s the kind of stuff he likes—weird tech, that sort of thing. And then with “Make Way” he was like, “Is it okay to bring back references to ‘Worm in Heaven’?” And I was like, “Oh, please do, because there’s lyrical references to ‘Worm in Heaven’ in it, so that’d be kind of a nice little handshake.” I don’t know if he had figured that out and then suggested it, but those kinds of moments it’s like, “Oh, you’re very smart, because that’s exactly what I would like to have happened without asking.”
You also mentioned being obsessed with daytime TV on previous records—the title of Ultimate Success Today sounding like something you’d hear on an infomercial—and you made a public access telethon with LA’s Highland Park TV to promote this record. What attracted you to the idea of that format?
It’s funny—it feels like it’s a dying thing. In the old days, you’d be able to talk to anybody. I’d stay up late and be like, “Oh, did you see this commercial?”, and of course they had seen it. Everybody watched TV; I don’t think anybody watches TV anymore. With Highland Park, they’re the people that did “Processed by the Boys.” They already had that kind of setup. And it didn’t quite work this way, but the original idea was to film the show and just have it play on some public access station—there’s one in Detroit. They still exist. I don’t think many people watch them, but the idea was to put it on there, but Domino couldn’t figure out how to do that.
So the other thing was—okay, well, what’s the modern equivalent of bad television? These free streaming services like Tubi, where every bit of junk is on there. And I’ve seen a lot of unknown bands, they put up their movies and stuff like that. I was like, “Well, let’s just throw it on Tubi and not mention that as any connection, then maybe somebody will discover it.” But the problem is we just kind of ran outta time. That’s always the case. We didn’t have enough time to kind of let it come out, and then be like, “Oh, by the way, three months earlier, this thing came out, you know, with us playing these songs.” [We’d be] revealing it much later.
But I like how, when you watch any clips of old punk bands or old weird bands, they usually got their start on public access. I know in Detroit, a lot of the hardcore bands… one kid went to a school where they had a public access television show, and then all the early hardcore bands were on there. So it’s kind of a throwback, but I appreciate it. And we still haven’t been on TV (laughs) besides Alabama Public Television. That’s it. So that’s the best we can do—public access.
I also enjoyed the telethon hotline dialogue lines. Did you write those?
Yeah, again, that was rushed (laughs). I was like, “Oh, I have to do all these things.” I should check to see if the phone line is still working. [Editor’s Note: It is.] But yeah, I just rattled them off really quick. Actually, I bought this microphone for one of these purposes (taps microphone). That’s why I can Zoom now, because I didn’t have any of this stuff before. But yeah, it was just a spur of the moment type thing. That’s another one where the Highland Park people know what they’re doing, and they have their own ideas; it’s a matter of just getting out of their way, and appreciating what they come up with.
I’ve also seen that Formal Growth is being praised especially for your vocal performance—there are a lot of things you do with your voice that I’ve never heard you do before. Like, you mentioned being inspired by Pere Ubu for your yelping on “Elimination Dances.” What was your thought process behind the vocal delivery on “Polacrilex Kid”?
You always try to push yourself. I mean, “Polacrilex Kid” is kind of a weird example because it is very rhythmic. I was immediately drawn to doing it that way; it just seemed natural. The main thing—and I hate to say it, because I do feel like I try to push myself on each record—but really, I got very sick of people saying, “Oh, this guy just talks over the songs.” (laughter). I feel like I’ve been trying to sing since the very first record! And then there’s the proliferation of other bands where that’s kind of the main selling point—“Holy shit, this guy talks over it.” I kind of wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t be leveled at this record, like, “Okay, Joe’s trying to sing.”
Being a limited singer, it’s like, “Well, I can’t hit these notes, but maybe I could yelp here.” It’s always trying to think of new ways to sing. I’m hoping to pull a Bob Dylan or something where, all of a sudden, I start really singing. One whole album with just me singing a bunch, in a completely different voice. But we’ll see. The music has to fit.
Your typical writing style has always been kind of unusual to me because the music is totally completed first, and then you come in at the end and improvise most of the lyrics over it. You mentioned that Greg Ahee was surprised you picked the fairly upbeat-sounding “The Author” to be a second song about the passing of your mother. Does the band ever disagree with you about what they want a song to be about? Like, “I don’t want that one to be about a talking horse,” or…
I mean, early on we used to get into fights all the time about stuff. “Who’s going to drive the van?” and “You suck.” (laughs). We’ve calmed down in our old age. They’re usually pretty good. Alex is pretty good at giving suggestions. “Oh, change this,” or “That line doesn’t quite hit right.” It is a process of whittling stuff down, every song.
He gave the idea for the line “make way for my love” on “Rain Garden.” Right?
Right, he did, because I specifically didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want it to be a thing like, “Oh, yeah, Protomartyr will always make reference to the first song.” You know, I really like Ultimate Success Today. I think the one thing I fail on in that record is that I was insistent that I’d say (laughs) “ultimate success today” many times during the record because it reminded me of how a slogan is repeated constantly in different contexts. So for this one, I was like, “I ain’t gonna say the title of the record. I’m not gonna make references, I’m not gonna have a repeating thing.” Because unfortunately for us, I feel like “A Private Understanding” and “Half Sister,” right out of the gate, were the best versions of that. And you don’t want to repeat yourself because it’ll be negatively compared to two songs that I think we agree, as a band, are probably some of our best. You don’t want to have the slight comparison.
But sometimes you can get too much in your head and be too precious about things, and Alex just being like, “You know, you should bring it back…” because I was really pushing to just jazz it up on “Rain Garden,” I was just going to make stuff up. They were kind of like, “Okay, now, this take was good. You accidentally said ‘Make way,’ focus on that and build that up.” That always helps. When you’re recording, it always helps to have somebody telling you, “Okay, that sounds good.” Because if you’re just throwing a bunch of stuff out there, you start losing what you think is good and what is bad. You can explore good things if somebody actually says, “Focus on that.” So Alex saying, “Make way”—okay, I’ll do that.
Am I also understanding that you sort of changed up your usual strategy, and you wrote some of the lyrics ahead of time?
Well, I always try to. The change-up on this one was, unfortunately, in the past, [I would write them] the last two days we’re in the studio. So we’ve been sitting in a studio for two weeks, and then I’ve just been sitting there, waiting until it’s five o’clock so I can have a drink, doing nothing—except maybe trying to write lyrics as the song is coming together. And then in the last few days, we’d have to do all the vocals. I didn’t want to do that this time, and Greg didn’t want to do it this time. The difference was I had to have lyrics ready to go for some of the songs to lay down, and then they could keep working on others. Like, Greg’s gotta layer two thousand keyboard bits…
So it was refreshing for me. “3800 Tigers,” I had the lyrics for that since we were playing it on the road. So bam, that one’s done. “Elimination Dances,” I did that one, done. So I could focus on the ones that I didn’t have lyrics for yet and give them more time, and I didn’t feel so rushed. I always get a little grumpy at the end, where I’m like, (self-mockingly) “Well, the vocals, what about the vocals?” I’d always feel like they got short shrift in the past, especially back when we used to record albums over a weekend. It’d be really pushing it on Sunday.
I just found out that No Passion All Technique was done in one take—I knew it was fast, but I didn’t know it was one take. That was actually crazy to me.
Right. It’s always funny because I’ll see a review where they’ll be like, “The first two EPs show a growth from No Passion, it shows them moving in this direction.” (laughs). We recorded all those at the exact same time! We recorded twenty-two songs.
Wait, No Passion was recorded at the same time as Colpi Proibiti?
Colpi and Dreads 85 84—they’re all the same session.
Colpi sounds so different from No Passion. That’s crazy.
Yeah, that’s because we were like, “Okay, those don’t seem like they fit, we’re gonna pull those out.” They might have been mastered by somebody different. Because Colpi was X! Records. Right?
So that would make sense. Maybe they had a different master on that one. But yeah, they were all done the same day. I remember showing up, we did a bunch, then Kevin [Boyer] from Tyvek came and did his part, like, okay now we do “Jumbo’s,” boom boom boom boom boom. I mean, there’s a couple overdubs for Greg, and there’s a couple times where I had to go in, but again—I complain about being forced to do my lyrics at the end. Alex on that one had to go boom boom boom boom, okay, you’re done (laughs). No more drums! So it was done very, very fast; we pretty much did it live. Twenty two songs. Twenty… thr…? Because we did “Whatever Happened to the Saturn Boys?” too, and the one song… it was a lot of songs during a four-hour period.
Was “Sweeney Ashtray” one of them?
No… was it? I don’t—no, I think we came back to [Hi-Bias Recordings] and did that later.
Scott Davidson, Greg Ahee, Joe Casey, and Alex Leonard of Protomartyr.
Ten years ago, you wrote “How He Lived After He Died”—which was also off No Passion—about your father’s passing, and on this record, we have “Graft V. Host,” about your mother’s. They both begin very similarly: “I’m gonna tell you a story” vs. “Now I’m gonna tell you.” Was that a deliberate parallel?
No, it wasn’t. But again, it shows how my brain works, where a lot of times when I say, “Let me tell you a story,” or “Welcome,” or anything like that, I’m trying to put the song in brackets to prepare it. I can’t just come out and start singing about my mom—I’d be like, “Okay, this is a story about my mom, and now I’m going to tell the story. This is a story about my dad, and I’m gonna…” That must be some sort of—what do you call it?—some sort of pastiche that pops in my head where I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna write about something personal. I need to do an introduction to it or something.” That’s interesting. That’s the first time that… yeah, I didn’t even realize it.
It’s like the opposite of what you did at the beginning of “A Private Understanding,” when you also bracketed the lyrics—but that time, it was like, “Oh, this one’s not about me.”
Right. At the time I was worried about writing stuff that was too personal. It’s funny now, because I don’t think The Agent Intellect is super personal—well, I guess “Ellen.” Definitely coming off of “Ellen” I was like, “Okay, I can’t keep doing that kind of stuff. I gotta try to write lyrics that are not just about things that have happened to me.” So that was probably what spurred that. But I kind of pendulum back and forth between, “Well, you know, the only true lyrics come from pain” and “No, it doesn’t, you can write about anything. You don’t have to mine your own life for everything.”
“Let’s Tip the Creator” is a song about the subjugation of art under gentrification and technocracy; it almost reads like an inverse “Night-Blooming Cereus,” from Relatives in Descent. I’m therefore curious about this line: “Just to know that in theory, you can hear me / though, in fact, you don’t / is all I need.” Did you intone that more optimistically or sarcastically?
Well, that line specifically is from a Samuel Beckett play—Happy Days. In that play, there’s just two characters, but it’s just a woman up to her waist [in a mound] and her husband is behind her. It’s one of those Samuel Beckett-type stage designs. The whole time it’s basically her monologuing; I think maybe he just grunts through the whole thing, but she says that about him because she’s stuck in the ground, and by the end, it’s just her head. She can’t see him. She just knows vaguely that he’s there, and she says that line.
And that’s kind of what the Internet or modern life is like. You’re throwing all this stuff—personality, or music, or whatever the hell—into the Internet, and you have no way of really knowing if anybody’s reacting to it. A lot of times you’re just throwing it down a well, or you’re hoping that someone’s hearing you. It’s kind of like people praying to God; it’s the hope that somebody can hear you, but they probably don’t. You especially see it now on Twitter, or X, or whatever the fuck it’s called, you know—the people really kissing the ass of billionaires. (mockingly) “Please, please, look at me!” It’s not a very original thought. But it is weird that people are basically praying to these billionaires now. “Notice me!” That sort of thing.
Something that’s always struck me deeply about listening to your interviews is how you describe having always had this innate, powerful desire to create. I was also really struck by how you describe feeling like you’d immediately regressed to a creative state before Protomartyr during the pandemic. If the band were to come to an end, do you think you would continue to work in music specifically, or find a different creative outlet?
Well, I’m always thinking about that because the band will take time to come up with new music, and Greg will, hopefully, someday have production jobs or things that actually pay him, and I’m always like, “Oh, maybe I’ll do a solo record.” And then I’m immediately struck by the fact that I… do not know how to make music (laughs). I don’t know how to convince people like, “Oh, can you play a guitar?” The way that [Protomartyr] happened was so natural. It didn’t take a lot of forcing. It’s the difference between building a dam, which would be like me trying to make a solo record, or just getting in a boat and floating down the river, which is Protomartyr. It just kind of happened.
I worry that life in music post-Protomartyr, or outside of Protomartyr, will be very difficult for me. Because I do like the fact that I’m working with three other people, and we all kind of have an equal say, and it’s all back-and-forth. If I had to write a song with somebody [else], I wouldn’t know how to do it. So I always wondered, what would a Joe Casey solo record sound like? I don’t know. Maybe I can become a PR guy or something (laughter). I think in the music industry I’m pretty limited to what I can do, and I’m not a very good convincer of people. “Oh, we got to start a band, you know?” It only worked once. I don’t think it can work multiple times.
No, it felt exactly the same. In both those cases they said to me, “Here’s the song, what do you want to do over it?” And I said, “Okay, I’ll do this.” I just did my little bit over it, each time. [“The Light at Night”] was basically like, “Here, we want you to do the Joe Casey thing from this minute to this minute.” (laughs). And I said, “Okay, I can go do that.” And that took a day. I don’t know if I’m insane, but the funny thing about that one—I recorded it with Derek Stanton from Turn to Crime, we recorded a bunch of our early demos and stuff—[is that] we sent it over across the ocean, and somehow, it feels like I’m slightly sped up. I can’t tell if it’s just because I had a cold that day or something, but I sound (affected adenoidal voice) a little higher than I usually do (laughter).
When I was listening to that, I fully thought it wasn’t you. I listened to it like, “Where’s Joe on this?”
Right, yeah. We were in contact with TRAAMS, like, “Is there a way this file got sped up?” And again, this is why I can’t be in the music industry, because I was trying to explain why my voice sounded different. “It doesn’t really sound like me. Is it compressed weird?” And they’re like, “Nope, nope, everything’s fine.” They’re explaining the science behind music and sound to me, and I was like, “Okay, well… sounds good.” (laughs). So, I don’t know. I mean, I like that song a lot.
Did you improvise all the lyrics on that?
I mean, not improv—but I wrote them all down. I have my notes that I keep between records of interesting, funny things. Then they contacted me during the pandemic, and I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll crack open my book.” A lot of that stuff probably would have ended up in Protomartyr songs. So it was just like, oh, yeah, somebody called me, and so I was able to do that. I don’t mind doing the talk-singy, ranty, ravey thing on other people’s stuff. But on Protomartyr stuff, I have to be careful (laughs) because I don’t want to overdo it.
Thank you. That’s actually a question I’ve had for years, because I’ve never known for sure that was you. It just doesn’t sound like you, for whatever reason.
Yeah, it’s me. But I think that somehow, crossing the Atlantic, something happened to it. It’s like two different electronic systems—American systems, British systems. It’s bizarre. I don’t get it.
Writing-wise, I really enjoy your column for Creem, and I know people constantly ask you about the possibility of a novel or poetry book. Do you think you would go into more longform writing in the future?
I wish I had the stamina to do it because I’ve often thought about like, “Well, that’s what I should do when I’m not touring—I should just write stuff.” And then I joke like, “Oh, if I could just come up with a cheesy, young adult science fiction thing, then I’ll be rich.” (laughs). But the actual art of sitting down and writing every day is, I’m sure, harder than it looks. And I’m always very envious of the people that actually… ’cause this Creem thing is always funny, because it always happens right when I’m very busy. My next deadline is the end of August. So right when I get back from tour, it’s due. I will be in a European hotel room, typing on my phone at three o’clock in the morning, trying to get it done in time.
I’m envious of actual… I don’t feel like I’m a real writer in the sense that I can’t sit down and just start writing. And I feel bad about it, because I feel like my skill has atrophied over time, where just writing a 500-word article or something, I’m like, “How do paragraphs work again?” (laughter). Structure-wise—that time that I spent in college where I learned structuring things—it’s slowly dissipating. And writing online and stuff has kind of ruined my ability to write. But now that I’m married, and I have to try to make money, I maybe will force myself to write something. I don’t think I’d try it with a novel first because I think the problem with the novel is you can write a whole novel and then finish it and be like, “Well, this is bad.” Whereas with a short story or something, you can be like, “Oh, this one’s a good one, and this one’s a bad one.” So maybe a short story collection or something. Poetry is obviously the easiest thing to do. But who buys poetry books nowadays?
I know Reid Bateh from Bambara finished a novel years ago, and he just doesn’t know what to do with it. I would be very bummed if you finished one and you were just like, “I don’t know what to do with this now.”
Right. I mean, when I was in college, I definitely tried to start—I’m sure every writer has many novels they started to write—but then it’s just like, “Wait a minute, this is harder than it looks!” (laughter). It would be frustrating to go through all that and not… and I wouldn’t know what to write. I like the fact that Alex [Leonard’s] grandfather’s is Elmore Leonard, because there’s a guy that wrote completely different from the style of, “Oh, I have to mean something and write deeply.” He’s just like, “I’m gonna write an interesting adventure story that starts here and ends there.” I think that would be a talent to learn, as opposed to, “I’m going to write a novel about being a 40-year-old guy in a band in the Midwest.” To learn that kind of writing, I think, would be interesting.
You mention Georges Simenon a lot as one of your favorite writers—is that the quality that attracts you to his books?
Yeah. The fact that there’s hundreds of his books I decided I wouldn’t read, because they’re Inspector Maigret stories, and my dad used to read those. I was gonna read his other ones—which, he’s got hundreds of those—and they’re all about the same length, and they’re all basically kind of the same thing of, you’re in somebody’s head as they go through some sort of tragic event, and then it’s done (laughs). He would write the plots out on an envelope (holds up an envelope from his desk) and then write the book over three days and be done. That sort of thing—boy, that’d be great, to be able to do that. Just to have more of a sense of plotting. Not to get too flowery with your writing, I think.
Scott Davidson, Joe Casey, Greg Ahee, and Alex Leonard of Protomartyr.
It’s funny because for a while, there were two things I was gonna have on every record. One was “the something.” So the “Machinist Man” was kind of like that on the first one. And then “The Hermit.” And then people were like, “Oh, ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and ‘The Hermit,’ these are all tarot cards.” And I’m like, “What?” (laughter). I didn’t realize.
Wait, so “The Hermit” wasn’t named after the tarot card? I always assumed that.
No, no. It was just named after, like… “I am a hermit,” you know? (laughter). It’s just a guy who doesn’t leave his house and he’s a hermit. No, it wasn’t a tarot card, and “Wheel of Fortune” wasn’t a tarot card. I did like the idea of having something like “the something” on every album. The other thing I wanted to do was have a place name on every album, but that kind of fell apart. Like “Ypsilanti” on the first one. And “Anacita,” right? I don’t know (laughs). I don’t know my own songs. But that’s another thing that kind of fell by the wayside. But it’s one of the things I do—I come up with the album and song titles first, a lot of the time. I like thinking about how they’d look in a row—that sort of thing. “The something” is always good.
I wasn’t planning on asking this, but you just reminded me—I go through your art blog a lot to look at old Protomartyr posters or whatever, and I noticed one of your very early posts [containing a list of song titles] is called “The Six-Winged Seraph.” And I was like, “Wait, that’s a lyric from Under Color of Official Right.” And then I saw the list had “Pontiac 87,” and the talking horse from “Half Sister,” but the post was from, like, 2011. Were these all ideas you just had gestating?
Right. Let me see if I can look it up right now… I took a Russian literature class in college, and there was this Russian writer who did this book of—sort of like poetry, but it was basically just lists…
[Casey tries to Google what he’s talking about; he can’t find them during the interview, but emails the titles to me afterwards. The book is The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing: Russia’s Fleurs du Mal, and the writer is Lev Rubinstein.]
“The Six-Winged Seraph,” is that a book?
It’s a book. [Rubinstein] just had lists; I liked the fact that it was just lists. I would do that for album titles and for song titles. I had notebooks of that kind of stuff—just lists and names and things. And so when Protomartyr started, I went to that, like: “Oh, Pontiac,” you know. And I was gonna keep doing that, but… this is how annoying being in a band is. I was like, “People are gonna look that up and steal my titles!” (laughs). So I stopped doing that. But I thought it was profound; it’s like a list poem. I’m sure there’s tons of people who do it, but at the time, I was just like, “This is cool.”
On the last topic, I just thought of something you’ve mentioned before, which is that you had “The Chuckler” as a song title for a long time. Do you remember any other songs that you tried to apply that on to?
No, it was just a title I had from working as a doorman at improv comedy clubs. There’s one song title that I’ve tried to use, early on—“Tecumseh’s Bones”—on several songs. And each time I did, the song would die. Immediate death. That was the cursed title, where if I call something “Tecumseh’s Bones” that song will not make it on the album (laughs). I haven’t done it in, you know, the last eight or nine years, but maybe it’s time to bring that out when I don’t like a song. Band comes up, like, “Ah, what’s this gonna be called?” “Tecumseh’s Bones.”
You mentioned when you worked at these improv comedy clubs, that’s how you met Tim Robinson?
Yeah, I worked at two different ones. One in Ann Arbor called the Improv Inferno. It was 2006, 2007 around then, and [I worked there] because it was my cousin’s improv place. Tim Robinson was there, and Sam Richardson—they weren’t part of the main cast, but they would come up and perform—and that’s where I met him. And then he moved to Chicago after that. But it was one of those things where it’s like, “Oh, this guy is one of the good ones.” Because if you’ve ever been to see improv comedy, people are just terrible at it. They’re using it more like a motivational thing to help them in their… job or something, you know (laughs). I remember when he got the writing job on Saturday Night Live thinking, “Ah, now the world is going to know that this guy’s a genius, and I called it.” But he lasted a year. And I was like, “Oh. Ooh, that’s so depressing.” (laughs). So I’m glad that he has had his renaissance, and now he’s so big.
You mentioned thinking about doing a cameo on Detroiters, or you thought it might happen.
Well, I was thinking if it was around for five or six seasons that eventually they’d have to, because it seemed like they were getting close. I mean, there’s an episode where they’re in Jumbo’s, and I got really excited, like, “Oh, they’re in Jumbo’s! Jumbo’s has tons of Protomartyr shit all over the wall.” But then in the episode, you can tell the prop person built a fake wall to cover up all the stuff they had, because it’s also beer posters and stuff—I’m sure it was just to cover up copyrighted things. So I was like, “Damn it.” But yeah, it’d be nice. Like, Turnstile’s on the new season. (jokingly whiny) They could have asked us to write a song! But nah, it’s fine. He’s a busy guy.
With “Rain Garden,” you’ve now written two-ish love songs in the whole Protomartyr discography—“Ellen” being the only other example—and they both seem to stretch out into these very grand, cosmic, abstract landscapes at the end. I want to ask about the callback to the “night-blooming cereus” motif when you invoke the “queen of the night”—was that intentional?
It wasn’t intentional. My wife is from Arizona and she loves cactuses and desert life, and I took her to shitty Michigan (laughs), but we had been someplace where they had the queen of the night, and I was like, “Even though I’ve already mentioned these kinds of things, I want to make sure I mention that, because that will evoke the desert and an experience that I had with my wife.” So that’s why that one made it. It’s funny that I wrote “Night-Blooming Cereus”—I mean, I had already known her by that time but it had no connection. It’s funny that now I could write a song called “Night-Blooming Cereus” about her but then it would be too late. Already done it, you know?
I’m also curious why—with the song presumably being about your wife—you use the singular “they” to describe the subject at the end.
Just to kind of give it a universality. I didn’t want to… I think the main thing is, I was worried about being too—this is gonna sound—I’m sorry, but I was worried about being too horny. Some singers can get away with being very erotic and I was like, “I don’t know if I can do it.” And the way I got out of it—I mean, I would have done it—but I liked the fact that it was universal. “They” could apply to anybody. If you experience love, you know, this song’s for you.
I was also using a lot of the Song of Solomon from the Bible. I love that one because they’re like, “Oh, the author is obviously talking about God.” And it’s the horniest stuff in the Bible. And he’s not talking about God, he’s talking about… you know. But they kind of use ‘they’ and ‘my lord’— (laughs) they really try to clean it up in the Bible. So I was like, “Okay, I’ll just use Bible-y terms to make sure I don’t get too horny on this.” I didn’t want it to be a heavy breather song. Not to say we’ll never do a song like that, because I think that’s also an interesting song to write, but in this case I was like “nah” right off the bat (laughs). Let’s keep it a little bit… you know? Not too horny.
I also want to ask you about a possible reference to an earlier record again. On Twitter, you said that the titular rain garden—the place you had that “seismic realization that you were deserving of love”—was behind a Tim Hortons. On Relatives in Descent’s “My Children,” you have that lyric, “vomit and rage spewing forth in the drive-thru,” also about a Tim Hortons. Is that the same location?
No, that’s a different one, because the rain garden’s actually pretty close to where we live now, in my brother’s old house. Before, when I lived in Detroit, I would drive here to see mom, or I’d drive up to my other brother’s house in Clawson and I’d stop at any Tim Hortons on the way. That Tim Hortons specifically is on Grand River, the one where the guy [on “My Children”] yelled. I think it’s Grand River? Or is it…? But either one, it’s on the way to my brother’s house—one of my brother’s houses. The rain garden where we go now is on Eight Mile, right nearby, so that’s where I go to get my Tim Hortons. Brittany hates Tim Hortons, so I have to go to Dunkin’ to get her Dunkin’. It’s got a Taco Bell, it’s got a Coney Island, and it’s got a Jimmy John’s. In fact, I’m probably gonna get some Jimmy John’s after this. It’s convenient now (laughs).
It’s funny now, because when I wrote that song—when we had that experience in the rain garden—we weren’t certain that we were going to be living in the house. It wasn’t like I was going there every day like I do now. And so it is funny. I’m glad it almost poetically works out—that I go there so often to pick up shitty food. And I see the rain garden every time like, “Ope, there it is.” And if Brittany goes, she’s like, “Oh, it’s blooming right now,” or “The grass is really high.” And it really is just kind of a waste area behind a parking lot where things are growing. There used to be signs saying “This is a rain garden” and explaining it, but people have knocked them down. So it just looks like a green area behind the parking lot now.
I was also going to come in here and say, oh, it’s genius that on “Rain Garden” you deliberately call back to three lyrical ideas in your very first song, “In My Sphere,” specifically the lines “outside desert, inside fallow,” “precious silver and gold,” and the idea of being unwilling to discuss love. But then I hear from other interviews that that was completely unintentional?
Yeah, it definitely wasn’t like, “I’m gonna sit down and write it.” It was more afterwards. Greg and I specifically were really shaking in our boots, like, “Aw, man, people are gonna be like, ‘This is their country album.’ They’re gonna say, ‘Oh, they recorded in the desert. The album’s called Desert.’ We gotta be really careful with this.” And then I was like, “Well, wait a minute. I’ve been singing about the desert on the first record, right?”
You’ve been singing about it on almost all the records.
Yeah! But when we went back to “In My Sphere” on the last tour without Kelley [Deal] I was like, yeah, it is funny that that song is all about being so insular and so trapped in where you are that the outside world doesn’t exist, and you’re going through all these things… and now “Rain Garden” is supposedly—hopefully—an expansion. Like, “Okay, the outside world exists, love exists, and I’m not trapped in this hermetic world of my own making.” So that was not planned—but again, you find the more you write that you have certain things that you write about, or you have certain things that your brain immediately goes to. And you need to choose when you embrace that, or when you go, “Okay, I gotta come up with a better metaphor, or a different image, or something.”
You and Greg Ahee had the idea for Formal Growth where it was going to start in the desert and end in the garden. But in a very real sense, you’re starting in the desert on the very first song in your discography. I was struck by how “Outside desert, inside fallow” now sounds like you’re fulfilling the promise you made there, twelve years earlier.
Yeah, I mean—thanks! I mean, fallow fields, to me, is also a very good [image]. When I used to work at a summer camp, we would ride these horses into the neighbor’s property, and one year it would be corn, it’d be like, “Oh, it’s so great.” And then the next year it would be nothing, you know? That sucks. And then next year, it’d be soybeans or whatever. So it’s like—the field is fallow, but it has the possibility of growing, but right now there’s nothing growing. And that definitely was my thought in 2010, or whenever we wrote the song (laughs).
It’s funny that my brain—the good thing about me is that every single time I come up with something, I’m like, “Wow, I’m very smart for coming up with this,” and then later on realizing like, “Oh, I’m going to use a plant growing as a metaphor.” You know, it helps to be dumb enough to think that that’s an original idea—because then you go through with it, and then you write a song about a plant, and that’s a good thing. If you’re constantly like, “Well, that’s been done before,” then you can kind of get stuck. It’s not like I’m good at growing plants, or particularly love plants, but I do find that they are a good metaphor to lean on.
Thank you for reading the seventeenth issue of Tune Glue.
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