Protomartyr's Joe Casey on Drinking, Feeling Sick, and What Could Disappear

And more music I've been listening to. It's gonna be a regular thing.

Protomartyr's Joe Casey on Drinking, Feeling Sick, and What Could Disappear
Protomartyr by Trevor Naud

I like Protomartyr’s music a lot! It took me a few years to get on their wavelength, but I’m there now and that’s really all that matters. (That’s the best thing about music—when in doubt, you can keep listening to it.) The Detroit band’s new album Ultimate Success Today is out tomorrow, and it’s quite good. There’s some ragers, as is to be expected from these guys, but also some intriguing new textures to their sound. You can hear the commitment, and it sounds pretty sweet too.

I hopped on the phone with frontman Joe Casey last week, and the first question I asked him was about what he’s been up to during the pandemic. “I’ve been telling people that it reminds me of my life before the band, when I didn’t do much of anything but stay at home, watch TV, and drink beers,” he laughed. “I’m envious of people who have learned new hobbies, expanded their vocabulary, or done anything besides getting fat, because that’s all I’ve done. But I’m still alive, so I guess I’m doing something right.”

You had a kind of health scare while making this new album.

We’d been touring for two years. Coming home to Detroit and sitting on your ass after going 100 miles an hour, you start to notice everything that’s wrong with you. I’m 43 now, and my body is certain to naturally fall apart. I’m not the healthiest guy, and I treat my body particularly wrong as far as what I put in it. I’m scared of going to the doctor, so I’d just stew in my own pain and wonder if this was going to be the big one.

I wonder how much of it was psychosomatic. I feel slightly better now, but I’m one of those people where, every ache and pain, you assume it’s the worst—and if you look it up online, you know it’s the worst. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll be watching a movie and I’ll see an actor and say, “I wonder what happened to him.” Then I’ll look it up and see what he died of and think, “Could I have that?”

Being afraid of going to the doctor is relatable to me. I’d almost rather not know if I’m going to die from something, which sounds irrational when you say it out loud.

I’d rather think that I had cancer and am dying constantly than have it verified. The brain that’s scared of doctors is the same brain that says, “If you go in there, they’re gonna tell you that you have cancer and you’re gonna die next week in horrible pain. If you walk around with whatever ache or pain you have, you’ll live forever.”

For years, my dad had all sorts of pains that he just lived through. But when he had a hernia, we told him to get the operation. After years of being frightened of doctors, he went in, and two days later he died of a heart attack from bleeding internally. I was scared of doctors before that, and I’m definitely scared of them now.

When’s the last time you got a checkup?

Definitely before the band [started]. My late twenties, maybe? I’m 43 now.

What’s your healthcare situation like?

I’m paying for health insurance. I probably should’ve gotten Obamacare, but I have Blue Cross/Blue Shield. I don’t want to use it because I don’t want to know how shitty it is. I know that my deductible is insanely high. It feels like a parachute with tons of holes in it, but it’s still a parachute.

My therapist told me that a lot of men have a fear of going to the doctor. Why do you think that is?

It’s about not being able to comprehend or show pain. You want to be the strong, silent type. It’s the reason why all football players have brain damage. You don’t want to admit you’re frightened. I don’t think you should go through life like myself, and I don’t think you should ignore every ache and pain—but I do believe you have to learn to live with some of it. It’s about striking a balance. But when you’re in pain, you’re not thinking about it rationally at all. It’s amazing how quickly a human can turn into an animal after getting a sharp pain in your side.

Have you ever seen a therapist?

The only time I ever saw a therapist was when I was arrested for drunk driving. That was part of probation. It definitely helped me figure out why I was drinking so much at the time. It’s a male-slash-Catholic thing, though—if I got a problem, I’ll talk to a priest. Otherwise, all my thoughts inside will burn me up.

But it was productive. It was a weird time for me, and I told the therapist that when you’re in a band, you believe you’re gonna be a drunken poet like Jim Morrison or something, even though reality’s not like that. The therapist was like, “Do you enjoy singing?” I said that I didn’t think I was a very good singer, and she said, “One of my favorite singers is Keith Sweat. No one would say he’s a good singer, but they would say he’s the most Keith Sweat there ever was. You have to be like that.” I was like, “Hot damn, that’s good advice.” It helped me get over my insecurities onstage, and it was well worth getting arrested for drunk driving to get that little nugget.

When were you arrested for drunk driving?

The early days of the band, when we had absolutely zero success. I don’t know why I thought I was a rock star. I’m glad I learned that lesson without hurting anybody. My one excuse was that, at the time, in Detroit you’d drive from bar to bar—you’re not walking around. Detroit’s not designed for that. But once Lyft came along? Hot damn, I was back in business. Those things are good for idiots like me.

Tell me about how bar culture in Detroit was.

I didn’t go to the bars as much after getting arrested. What am I gonna do—go to the bar, get one beer, and leave? Bars are for serious drinking. The bars I tend to be drawn to, there’s no credit card machine, there’s no beers on tap, there’s no mixed drinks. Jumbo’s is my favorite bar. It’s a place to get drunk for cheap. What’s great about places like Jumbo’s is that they’re melting pots. Anyone can be in that bar. You might be scared the first time you go in, but there’s judges and criminals drinking there.

When I first started going there, it was a cross-dressers bar—from the ‘70s and ‘80s, serious drinkers. I think they’ve all died off since then. It’s a place where you could see anybody and everybody, and that’s where the music scene in Detroit came out of. The lack of hierarchy is what I appreciated. There’s too many cocktail bars now, and fake dive bars. I worry that the thing that was quintessentially Detroit is about to be washed away, but it’s happening everywhere.

How’s the band doing financially?

It’s dire. From the beginning, we’ve put money in a joint account, but by the end of this year, that account might dry up. We’re not making any money other than T-shirts we sell online. We occasionally get a check from Sub Pop, because those old records were done so cheaply that we’re finally in the black on them. But when publishing comes in, it’s always piddling, especially when split up between four people. You make money from touring, so [no touring] really cut our legs off. But we put a lot of money into the band and didn’t take much out, so we’ll survive for this year. But if it lasts longer, we might be done as a band. We might have to get real jobs to earn money.

I don’t think people realize that, when it comes to indie rock bands, you have to come from money. It’s a rich persons’ hobby. We were only able to quit our jobs before recording [Relatives in Descent], because we knew we were gonna tour so much. But there are bands where you’re like, “How are they able to build their own studio?” Then you realize they’re all independently wealthy. Which is perfectly fine. Also, Canadian bands get money from the government. That’s how they’re able to come here and tour all the time.

How are you able to financially survive?

I live in my family’s house, so I don’t pay rent. I don’t have a family. If I had a kid I had to scrape money together for, I wouldn’t do this. Being in a band is selfish. The other guys in the band are now the same age I was when we started and we were like, “Oh, Joe’s too old to be in a band.” I wonder if they’re like, “Geez, I wanna get married to my girlfriend.” They might not want to be as selfish as I was at that age.

“Male Plague,” from Relatives in Descent, was a fairly prescient song when it comes to some of the ideas that are being mainstreamed now in terms of social reform. You’ve written about themes and ideas like that throughout the band’s career. How does it feel to see the topics you’ve sung about taking hold in society?

It would be great if it made me feel happy. [Laughs] “I was right!” But it’s not a good feeling. A great way to predict the future is to look around at what’s happening now and say, “This is gonna happen again, but worse.” And you’ll be right. “Male Plague” was a response to [the 2016 election], and you see it now in people not being able to handle the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It’s like mens’ rights activists being upset—a concept I don’t quite get.

Something that white people are finally realizing is that not being racist isn’t enough. Have you reflected on what you can do when it comes to the space that you take up in the world?

We’re four white guys. The easiest thing we can do is shut up and let other people speak. Whether we want it or not, as a band we have a public forum—a voice—and I don’t want our band to become “woke,” because that could be disingenuous. “I Am You Now” is about that sort of thing—taking someone else’s suffering as a cloak that you wear to protect yourself from criticism.

The best thing we can do is shut up and listen, because if we start talking I’m worried about tokenism, or taking oxygen away from places that matter. The protestors—especially in Detroit—have made it very clear what they’re fighting for. You have to focus on that and treat anything else as noise. When people are like, “We need to tear down statues,” that’s all well and good, but it’s muddying the waters. People on the extreme right presenting measures like defunding the police as something that they’re not, as well as centrists saying “We need to calm down here”—that also waters down the message.

If you’re gonna march, march behind the people whose voices need to be heard. If you have money to give, give it to the organizations that are gonna help on the ground. That’s the best I can offer, because anything more would be me pontificating and applying my voice to a struggle that’s mine to support, but not to lead on.

Last week, this section of the newsletter was a throat-clearing of sorts when it comes to what I’ve been enjoying this year—and I’m gonna keep doing that here every Thursday, riffing a bit on music I’ve been hearing that’s caught my ear for reasons both good and bad. No Spotify playlist this week, but on weeks where there’s enough songs (that I actually like) to necessitate one, one will be made.

Dua Saleh, “windhymn”

Lot of interesting things going on in this new Dua Saleh EP, this one stood out to me because it reminded me of CocoRosie. CocoRosie! Not every day you find something that sounds like them.

G-Eazy, “Lazarus”

I know that a lot is going on right now, but I do find myself extremely surprised that there wasn’t any sort of discussion about how G-Eazy covered a song off of David Bowie’s Blackstar—one of the best and most devastating albums of the last decade—like it was absolutely nothing. This is not good! And neither is the album it’s attached to, in which G-Eazy seems to be sifting for gold in the muddy footprints of Post Malone and Halsey, grabbing onto the increasingly pop-trending brass ring of alternative rock with such desperation that he samples the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” like he’s the player piano from Westworld. Weird how pop can be so weird while also sounding so boring these days.

Childish Gambino, “12.38” [ft. 21 Savage, Ink, and Kadhja Bonet]

Donald Glover skated big-time by having this album drop right around the beginning of the pandemic, a time in which the last thing anyone cared about was a promotional cycle. 3.15.20 is certainly not the type of release you’d expect from an artist who was nominated for a boatload of Grammys because he decided to trace the lines of Maggot Brain, nor is it something you’d think could emerge from a multi-year promo cycle that included a Coachella headlining set, an Amazon film with Rihanna that no one watched without getting paid to do so, and a shiny major-label contract doubling as a “retirement” guarantee. It’s a mess, but an interesting (if not quite “good”) one. Half of this song is dull, then it goes in a completely different direction in the last minute that’s quite intriguing. Like his transparently obvious idols Kid Cudi and Kanye West, he’s someone who seems to force eccentricity when it doesn’t emerge naturally, but 3.15.20 might end up being the most fascinating failure of the year regardless.

Japandroids, “Sovereignty” (Live)

As someone who both loves Japandroids and this song specifically, this live take—and the album it’s attached to—doesn’t quite do this band justice when it comes to how it felt to see them live around Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock. (Missed the last album’s tour.) By the time they’re able to tour again, they’ll have a devoted and dedicated Hold Steady-level following regardless, and that’s really all you can hope for as a rock band in 2020.

Speaker Music, “African American Disillusionment With Northern Democracy Continues to Smolder in Every Negro Who Has Settled Up North After Knowing Life in the South”

Hard to pick a song to highlight from what is such a visceral and brilliant work of art, but this one stood out to me. DeForrest Brown, Jr.’s improvisational percussion collides so satisfyingly with the audio recording, accentuating every beat of the language contained in the latter element. I’ll probably be letting this album rattle around in my head for a good long while.

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Jamie Larson