Protomartyr's Joe Casey on Getting Robbed, Confronting Grief, and the Poison of Nostalgia

Protomartyr's Joe Casey on Getting Robbed, Confronting Grief, and the Poison of Nostalgia

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A little bit of Last Donut lore: Joe Casey of Detroit indie rock greats Protomartyr was actually the first person to do an interview for this little newsletter! It's true—we spoke around the release of 2020's excellent Ultimate Success Today, and now we're checking in again around the release of the excellent new Protomartyr album Formal Growth in the Desert. I forgot to tell Joe that my wife is a huge fan of his band, but we did have a great conversation regardless.

Since we last spoke, you moved out of your family home.
Yeah, it was kind of a shocker, but in retrospect, it's what had to happen.

Tell me what led to that.
During the pandemic, I mostly stayed at my older brother's house out in Clawson because the house was falling apart, and it was full of 60 years of stuff I'd never cleaned up. My fiancé was moving to Detroit, and I'd shown her the house before. As a place to live, it was definitely the cheapest option, so we were considering moving in there. The week she was here, the house got broken into four times in the span of two weeks. That was the first time we'd ever had some sort of home invasion or burglary—usually in Detroit, you get your car broken into. So that was bad timing. It was very confounding to call the cops and have them say, "You don't have a security system or a gun, so you almost deserve what's happening to you." [Laughs]

Nobody came out. Four different times, the police never came. I had to go get a police report, and they assigned a different "detective" every time the house was broken into, even though it was the same guys breaking into the house every time. Very clever fellows, our group of guys. The first time they broke in, they must've walked in and said, "This seems more messy than usual." [Laughs] They must've came in through the back window. Each time they came, they left their crowbars—they must have a whole garage full of crowbars that they use every single time they break in.

The first time, they just robbed the first floor and put chairs against the upstairs and downstairs doors. Each time they'd come back, they'd hit a new part of the house. I lost my computer the first robbery and some of mom's old jewelry that was mostly just costume jewelry. The first robbery was hard, but the last one was comical, though. There was a trombone sitting by the door that they found somewhere and they were like, "Nah, let's just leave it here." They were finding stuff in the house that we didn't even know existed. My parents were children of the Depression, so they kept everything.

The first robbery, you board up the windows, and then they crawl through the one window you didn't board up because you didn't think they could reach it. You don't have the money to afford security cameras, so you know someone that has a fake sign, and you put up one of those, but they break in anyway. You sit up all night with a baseball bat on the nights that they don't end up coming by. At the end, it was time to move out of the house and clean it out. We were able to sell it to the people who lived next door, so we didn't just dump it to some corporation—it stayed in the neighborhood, so it ended up OK in the end.

The first time you're a victim of a home invasion, what's your mindset? How scared are you?
You're not scared, but you definitely feel violated. I'm in the space that I grew up in my entire life, and someone's going through my dead mom's drawers that you never cleaned out. You don't feel protected. But I was never worried. My brother John is a prosecutor, and he was like, "I'll give you a gun," and I was like, "What am I gonna do—shoot somebody?" [Laughs] These guys are burglars, they're not criminals. They'd scoped the house out for a while and saw that I was there once or twice a week, so I had that coming in the sense that I wasn't living there.

You also start finding out that there's been a rash of break-ins because there's a lot more abandoned houses—and they're not abandoned-abandoned like the old days, they're abandoned because the corporations are buying up all these houses that used to be very affordable, and they're putting on some sort of shitty kitchen renovation and tripling the price, and it's still cheaper than some places in America, but those sit empty for a long time, some company in New York owning all these houses. So that's why the break-ins are happening, and you start getting out of the "I'm scared for myself" mindset and start realizing why these things are actually happening.

Tell me about how your relationship to Detroit has changed over the years.
I feel like I'm not as much on the pulse of what's happening as much as I used to. There's two factors, one of which is positive, which is that I'm on tour and away from the city for a long period of time. So I come back and haven't been to certain parts of town, and I'm like, "Oh wow, this really has changed." The other aspect of it is that you just get old. You don't go out as much and see the city the way you did in your 20s and 30s. The biggest change is seeing that there is an influx of new people, whereas in Detroit everyone who'd be in certain parts of town would all be cool, from Detroit, and know the rules. Now there's a lot of tech bros or something—people who are not so cool, going to not-so-cool places.

It's a weird thing where it's like, there's a lot more young people around, and I wish there were more young people around when I was young. There's parts that have been gentrified and have changed a lot, which is surprising. There's parts that are the same. One thing I feel a little disconnected to and am trying to be more engaged with is the music scene as it exists now. I saw a flyer the other day for a birthday party with, like, twelve bands, and I was like, "Well, maybe these bands suck," and then I was looking them up and there were some good young bands that I didn't even hear about.

You can get fossilized by following the old douchebags you hang out with, but you realize that there's a new crowd coming up with new sounds. The music scene actually seems to be thriving, which was a question mark during COVID. It's an interesting time for the city in terms of the changes that are happening. Some of it's good, some of it's bad.

When you guys announced the new album and I saw you were touring, I was relieved—because the last time we spoke, you sounded uncertain about the future of the band.
That specific interview I did with you somehow got some legs where enough people saw it and it made it seem like, "Protomartyr is done and really needs your help." That was sort of a benefit because people were like, "Maybe I should buy a T-shirt from them, the guy sounds like he's starving." [Laughs]

What confused me was that I didn't understand why the majority of bands weren't as down about the future as I was. You don't know when we're going to be able to tour again. Is this the future you want? Where you're doing Zoom concerts for nobody and you're putting out records but you can't tour, and you're hearing about venues and bars shuttering because they can't survive? Why am I the only one pointing out the obvious—that no one's making any money?

I can't figure out whether it's because we're stuck in mid-tier indie, where we've quit our jobs to focus on Protomartyr full-time—the majority of bands can't do that, and we probably shouldn't have done that. We should probably have other jobs. But we're trying to make a living off of the band, but we're also not getting tons of Spotify plays or whatever, so we can't live off that sort of income where a bigger band than us could be like, "Well, we're still getting a check every couple of months from publishing." We're right in the middle, and there's tons of bands like us—in that weird spot where we need money and we need to sell T-shirts. It's the worst spot to be in, to become a garment salesman, but that's what you need to do.

What's interesting about all of that, besides the financial stuff, is that we as a band did not handle quarantine well. We did not get together or practice via Zoom, I was severely depressed, [Guitarist Greg Ahee] didn't pick up a guitar for at least a year. He moved to Chicago for a while, and I was like, "Good for him," but I guess it was a miserable time. He didn't think about music, I didn't think about music. Creatively, we were in a hole. We didn't know if we wanted to continue, and if we were to continue, what it was gonna look like. It took us a long time to get around on that.

For Greg specifically, he was asked to soundtrack a few short films, and he was listening to music more and realized, "Oh, I can write something that isn't a Protomartyr song." So that got him out of it. When Kelley Deal was gonna join us on tour, COVID hit, and we were like, "Well, that sucks," but when things started opening up a bit, she was like, "Well, Breeders aren't doing shit, I'd still like to tour," so we did a smaller tour on the East Coast, and we lucked out on that one because it was right before the Omicron surge. We were able to tour for a month, and then things closed back down. We were like, "We should probably have a song or two to work out on that tour," and the new album came along from there.

Even when we went in to record this record, it wasn't like, "This has to be the next Protomartyr record." It was more like, "Let's just see what we have, and if it isn't an album, maybe it could be a single or EP." Then we were like, "This is actually working." But it took us a long time.

The record's really good, so it was worth it.
[Laughs] Yeah, COVID was worth it. It got our creativity back.

You don't know how many people have said to me in the last few years, "I don't know if I should admit this, but COVID was really good for my creativity." I'm always like, "At this point, you can admit whatever you want."
[Laughs] If thousands of people die and I can write a song, that's a benefit. No, but, here's where I will admit that, definitely for us, we'd taken all of 2019 off after recording the previous record, and we were like, "Get ready, because we're gonna tour all year in 2020." After ten years, "Here we go again" started setting in. To have all that taken away—"No, you're not a band anymore, go find a job because you're not gonna be making money off of this, you're not gonna be able to get together and be creative"—I appreciate, right now, sitting in a van for eight hours to get to a show. I'm sitting in a van, and I'm remembering what I was doing when I wasn't in a van—eating and drinking too much and watching movies—and that was depressing. So I do not mind touring. It did renew a spark, and I wish there was an easier way to do that, like just taking a break, but having it ripped so forcefully from your hands makes you appreciate things a little bit more.

You really were one of the first people who talked to me about how hard it was going to be for bands to get back into the swing of things. Now, a lot of people agree that touring sucks more than ever.
Not to be an eternal grump, but yeah, the touring industry sucks right now. That part is bad, because a lot of independent venues closed or got bought up by these big corporations that I want to kiss up to [Laughs] because they're calling the terms now. Gas is more expensive, trying to get a van—those prices have doubled. On top of all that, there's such a logjam of bands trying to tour at the same time, because they realize that the money tap was turned off, and now that it's turned on everyone's underneath the tap trying to put water into their mouth. To get to the trough is harder.

I'd hate to be a band that's starting out now. Maybe a benefit is that you can go back to playing house shows and punk clubs, and hopefully that has not been fucked up by all this. We haven't really noticed it too much, but I have heard people say that audiences don't know what to do now. [Laughs] People are being fuckin' rude, and not to knock other bands, but that might just be their fanbase. If your fanbase is TikTok kids, and they all come out to hear eight seconds of your TikTok song, then that's...but with all these bands touring, it's harder to get the festival gigs you need to support a tour, because someone who put out a record before the pandemic is trying to reap the rewards now.

You thought you'd be at a certain level during COVID, but it's actually a reset. You didn't build any goodwill. As much as I liked the last record, it's almost like it doesn't exist. There's one song that took off because Brazilians referenced it in a meme, but that's it. I don't want to do a "Woe is me," because we did get to put out a record, and people liked it. But it does put you on the back when you're trying to start again. But we had to do it! And we're happy to.

Which song became a meme?
"Processed by the Boys." I saw a clip on YouTube of a guy fighting a puppet, and I said, "This would be a great video," and then we made the video, and then Brazilians were quick to point out that the clip we were inspired by was a famous clip from a Brazilian TV show with a crazy history of murders. I had to figure out how to Google Translate Portuguese really fast, because all the YouTube comments were from Brazil.

To put out an album about sickness, death, and dying around this time was extremely bad timing. Every interview was like, "You predicted COVID!" And I was like, "No I didn't. Please don't say that." It ended up helping us later on, but I wanted to identify that record as a closing of the piece that was those first five albums. I wanted to open ourselves up more for the following record. Having everything taken away was more, "Did I just predict COVID and the death of the band?" I got very worried. I thought that maybe I should write about winning the lottery or finding a box of money for the new album, because I did not like to feel like being right in that specific instance.

Your mother passed in between the last record and the new one. What's your journey with grief been like?
One of the reasons why Protomartyr started was because my dad died in 2008 and I was like, "Oh shit, I'm not doing anything with my life. Instead of going to a shitty job and doing nothing, I should go to a shitty job and be in a band for fun." My dad dying was really sudden and unexpected, and it changed our family. My mom was obviously dealing with some really heavy grief, and I was living with her, but then she immediately started showing signs of dementia and lessened capacity. Her mom had Alzheimer's, so I was like, "OK, this might be happening."

It was ten years of her slowly getting worse and worse, and my brother moving back from Virginia so she could move into her house and so he could take care of her. He had the heaviest burden and was taking care of her for some time, but I'd come over and help out as well. After dealing with that sudden grief, I'd been grieving my mom for almost a decade. "Why would this happen to somebody?"

Someone dying of dementia or Alzheimer's is a very slow process. You think you see the end in sight, and it gets worse and worse. By the end, it was a combination of being very sad to lose her, but because we'd been grieving her for such a long time, it was also a relief that she was able to die at home with my brother beside her. It was as peaceful of a death as you could hope. It was a weird combination of carrying this grief and depression for ten years, and now that she's gone, she wouldn't want me to be like, "Continue to carry it for the rest of your life." I no longer need to have this grief around me. So it was much different from when my dad died, and I think that led me to thinking a little more positively. I can't just wade around in this pool any longer.

What was it like to channel that vulnerability into your songwriting?
Greg always writes the music first, and he was like, "I knew what kind of music I could write to fit in with what Joe was going through." He knew I was gonna write about my mom before I could even say, "I gotta write about my mom now" or "Here's a mom song." They knew it was coming before I even knew it was coming. That's always how it's been in the past with every album—here's what I'm going through, in album form.

There's two songs about my mom on the album, and one is "Graft Vs. Host." Right when I came over to the house when my mom died, she was with my brother, lying on the couch. The ambulance was coming, and I was thinking, "Try to remember as much about what's happening and what you're feeling as possible, because you're gonna want to remember this." It's such a bizarre thing, when that happens—almost indescribable. So that song is what I was thinking right around that time.

Your mom is gone, you've been living under this cloud, but she was not a depressing person—she was full of life and a very loving person, and she taught you how to love. If you want to honor her, you better open yourself up—but is it going to work? Are you too much of an asshole or a depressive to let it happen? It's one of those songs where they give me this chunk of music, and it changes a bit when I start writing to the lyrics, but I listen to it and I think, "Holy shit, they've got the second half of this song, and I'm not gonna say anything over this, because it fits how I'm feeling better than I can say."

"Fun in Hi Skool" really stood out to me hook-wise. What was high school like for you?
Any person I've ever gotten along with was not the king of their high school. Most people I know probably had a miserable time. I can look back at it and realize that it wasn't just me, it's just what you go through mentally during that time period. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, and back when I was there it was a very dark place. It reminded me of when you hear about English boarding schools, that dark castle vibe—or that Harry Potter town, whatever the fuck. I had some good teachers and good friends that I unfortunately stuck with when we all went to the same college, so I didn't really meet new people or grow too much as a person.

"Fun in Hi Skool" is all about that nostalgia of "Things were so much better when I was young." To me, that's an easy trap, especially as you get older and things start changing. You have to realize that happens to everybody. You perceive it as things being golden in the olden days, but they are not. It's funny when you see old pictures of yourself and think, "Boy, I remember thinking that I was a fat and ugly piece of shit when this picture was taken," and when you're the age I am now, you're like, "I wish I told that fat piece of shit that it's as handsome as he's gonna get. You better hang on to it." "You look like you had fun in high school" is meant to be an insult. If that was the high point of your life, that's a sad indictment of your existence.

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Jamie Larson