The night before I was due to interview Joe Casey, the vocalist in Detroit quartet Protomartyr, I was walking through my front yard and almost stepped on a sleeping college student.
I woke him up and — although he was clearly inebriated — he was able to tell me he actually just lived down the block, and that he needed to go home to go to sleep. He was going to see the Colts game tomorrow.
The next morning the only record I wanted to listen to was Protomartyr's new record, The Agent Intellect. Maybe, if I knew where his house down the block was, I'd give it to that kid who passed out on my lawn.
I'd tell him, kid, there is something about Joe Casey's mumbles and melodies that allows you to navigate the world around you. Maybe it's the way his voice melds with the snarling haze of Greg Ahee's guitar. Or the way the pound of Alex Leonard's drums and Scott Davidson's bass somehow make you want to dance, even if you are a little afraid.
Or maybe it's just that Protomartyr reminds you (or, at least, me) that it doesn't matter how many books you read, or how many Colts games you go to: nothing is going to stop you from dying eventually. They know it. And you know it. And it's nice to have music we really like in the meantime.
Protomartyr plays the Blockhouse with Amanda X and Daguerreotype on Friday in Bloomington.
NUVO: You used to work the door at a comedy club right?
Joe Casey: I still do! Still do.
NUVO: What comedy club?
Casey: It's an improv theater in Ferndale called Go! Comedy. A buddy that I actually went to grade school with and later on high school opened it, and he was kind enough to give me a job.
NUVO: Do you have much of a relationship with comedy or comedians?
Casey: You know, no. It's weird, 'cause the job I had maybe 10 years ago, was [because] my cousin was also into improv and had an improv theater in Michigan, and he was kind enough to give me a job. So I've worked in comedy clubs now for something going on 12 years and I don't really have any desire to do comedy. When I'm working in the box office people are always like, "Oh are you a comedian?" and the answer is always firmly no. I figure there's gotta be one person at a comedy club who is not funny and that's me?
NUVO: [I laughed for a bit at this] Ok, well, you are a big reader, yes?
Casey: I wouldn't say I'm the biggest in the world but yeah, I like to read.
NUVO: What are you reading currently?
Casey: Currently right now I'm reading George Simenon, who is a Belgian writer and he's most famous for writing a series of detective novels called Inspector Maigret and he wrote like hundreds of those books. But he also wrote hundreds of other books that are called romans durs which I guess is French for "hard novel" and they are all psychological. They are easy and quick exciting reads but he wrote hundreds and hundreds of them but I'm slowly working my way trying to read all of them. But I've read about 10 of them so I've a hundred or three hundred more, maybe.
NUVO: So are you a big fan of detective hard-boiled noir stuff?
Casey: I was when I was younger. When I was in college I read a lot of, like, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Before Simenon I read a bunch of Patricia Highsmith's books. But I like them just because sometimes, you know, I don't like reading super trashy stuff, but they're nice and they don't tax the brain too much. They aren't full of big words, there's a plot. Sometimes I like reading experimental fiction but if it's got a good story I'll read it.
NUVO: A lot of your lyrics read like poems to me. I really appreciated that they came in a booklet with your last record. Do you ever see yourself writing things specifically for the page? Or to read without music?
Casey: You know, not really. The reason why I include the books is 'cause I know people wanna hear stuff and I don't sing very clearly so sometimes things can get misheard. But it definitely helps to have. Like, I never write the lyrics ahead of time like before the song is made. Usually the song is made and then I write the lyrics to fit the music. So I haven't set out to write stuff ahead of time recently.
NUVO: So you don't consciously collect things beforehand — you just dig from whatever is in your brain during recording.
Casey: Well I'll give you an example. Like right now I'm actually at a friend's house and he's got a studio and we're working on stuff with this band Spray Paint. They sent us just an instrumental track and we're going to send them an instrumental track and they're going to put vocals over our, Protomartyr's, thing and we're going to put vocals over theirs. And I was just doing that today just before you called. And I didn't have any lyrics for it but I did have the thought in my head, "This one is going to be called Corinthian Leather." Because when I was younger there used to be car commercials where Ricardo Montalbán would tout these cars that had Corinthian leather and that stuck in my head. And I looked it up online recently and I found out that Corinthian leather wasn't even from Corinth; it was from New Jersey. They just called it that to make it sound luxurious so I had that, "Corinthian Leather is a good name for a song" [thought in my head.] And then today is me figuring out lyrics that go along with that idea that fit the music. So I'm kind of making them up on the spot. Sometimes with the the band songs I'll put in more references or things that I've been thinking about. But the main thing with writing lyrics is it has to fit the music.NUVO: I went to Catholic school for 12 years, so a lot of your allusions in some of your lyrics — or at least the undertones of your records — strike me because I have this upbringing of Catholicism and this tight lexicon of Catholicism. Did you have a religious upbringing yourself?
Casey: Yeah. I grew up next to a monastery. I still live next to a monastery in Detroit of Benedictine monks. I really like those guys and actually worked at the monastery. It was my first job, answering phones at the monastery. And I was an altar boy. And I went to an all boys Catholic High School. So that definitely influences me, I would say.
NUVO: Yeah I always joke that I can tell Catholic people, even later, 'cause there is a vibe there.
Casey: It's a weird thing yeah. I wouldn't say I'm particularly religious now. But the influence of the way of looking at the world and also applying the old arcane history that you learn in Catholic school. Those kind of things stick with you and so they're rattling around in my brain.
NUVO: My grandpa died of Alzheimer's and my mom recently passed away from cancer. Personally, writing and performing helps me remember it and deal with it. In writing songs that have even a flutter of your personal experience with grief, do you find it healing at all to repeat them on stage for long periods of time while you are on tour?
Casey: You know I don't know exactly why I do it. Especially, I think, writing lyrics and not being completely raw but writing lyrics and singing are two kind of distancing techniques, 'cause they are artistic and you have to follow the music. So it's a nice buffer to have. So on the first record I talk about my dad dying and sometimes when I'm singing I can really lock into that emotion and it helps me, I'd say but sometimes it doesn't.
There was one show I was doing that song about my dad and there's this guy and he didn't — he was in the front row singing along, and it kind of threw me off a little bit. So it's a weird balancing act between the performative thing and then also thinking about what they are about. We haven't played "Ellen" from the new record out too much so it'll be interesting to see how that develops...doing it live. I mean I'm glad I did it. Because I just felt like with the music the guys came up with, before it was on, I was like, "Okay, I gotta do something a little bit more heartfelt or a little bit more emotional to fit the music. And it allowed me the opportunity to do it."
NUVO: Do you ever catch yourself not wanting to play a song because you don't want to visit that mental space in a night?
Casey: No. Usually it's 'cause I don't want to sing a song. Some of them are harder to sing than others and I'm kind of a lazy guy. No. [The song] becomes something different once it's out there. For me, it was pretty personal. If I would have just recorded a song just to listen to myself that would have been one thing. That would have been just for me. But now it's kind of for everybody. So however it develops from there is kind of out of my hands. I think it's okay. I like the song a lot so I'm looking forward to singing, I think.