Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Interview with Joe of Protomartyr

Genre names are kind of silly, but we still do them. There are more genre names with "post" in the definition than you can shake a stick at, and trust me, depending on size, you can shake your stick at a lot. Protomartyr often gets lumped in with post punk, somewhat due to Joe Casey's intense yet effortless vocal delivery, but also a lead guitar that often does away with common chordal ideology. On their upcoming release Under Color of Official Right, riffs mix with chord changes. It's a cool way to show technical chops while demonstrating rhythmic excellence. Joe's voice has gotten more confident, which only adds to outstanding lyrical transference.

I got to see Protomartyr play Hopscotch Festival at King's Barcade in Raleigh. The band had been recommended to me from several fans in the area and I was not disappointed. I picked up their debut full-length album No Passion All Technique from Urinal Cake Records at the show. No Passion All Technique came with an insert that had the lyrics written down, which is something more bands should do in my opinion. I was really impressed with what I read and heard.

Now Protomartyr has a second full-length coming out on Sub Pop imprint Hardly Art, and it's currently streaming on NPR, which baffles me as it's not a very NPR-esque record. It's more abrasive and sinister than the typical indie pop that you would hear on their First Listen program, which is a step in the right direction. The album has been gaining a lot of momentum, and rightfully so, as it's sure to push Protomartyr over the edge in listenership.

In addition, the band has an ambitious tour schedule coming up with great bands like Tyvek, Ryley Walker, Cloud Nothings, Whatever Brains, and more. Be sure to check these guys out while they're on the road. You can keep up with the band by liking their Facebook Page and picking up their new record from Hardly Art. I believe that their first LP No Passion All Technique has already sold out of its second pressing on Urinal Cake, so you may have better luck discogs-ing it.

Jordan: Protomartyr suggests being one of the first deaths on behalf of religious beliefs. In modernity, a martyr seems to die for reasons beyond simply religion. What is the significance of the name for you? How did you decide on it?

Under Color of Official Right
Joe Casey: Before Protomartyr I thought a band called "Idiot Man Child" would be great. I now realize that would be too on the nose, reality-wise. The others guys were in a band called Butt Babies, so you can see we weren't coming from a tradition of serviceable names. I like Protomartyr because it's a full service name. It is perhaps too many letters and easy to misspell and I can't think of a time where I've said it to somebody where I didn't have to repeat it. So maybe it's not the best? It has no significance beyond the fact that martyrs from the olden days usually died picaresque deaths - Stephen and Thecla and the rest. 

J: You guys come from Detroit, a city that is often inextricably linked to both garage rock and punk, as well as the home of Timmy Vulgar. Do you feel that Detroit has a personality of any specific nature? Does the city inform or influence your music? How? 

JC: I like to think of Detroit as "The Home of Timmy Vulgar". Although Hamtramck can lay claim to his current whereabouts. At the end of the day, Detroit probably doesn't have that unique of a character compared to anywhere else on the map. We eat coneys instead of hoagies, drive everywhere, endure cold winters and humid summers. Things are cheap but are getting more expensive. Crowds are hard to come by and that can be a good thing unless you want one. People probably drink too much and worry about their shit getting stolen. It's easy to get a show but hard to get anybody to come out. If you do get people out, you better entertain them. The price of a show hasn't followed inflation since the first Reagan administration and there's old flyers on the wall of The Painted Lady that bear it out.

J: You put out your first releases on Detroit's fantastic Urinal Cake records. How did you decide to put out records "Dreads 85 84" and "No Passion All Technique" on Urinal Cake?

JC: EZ, who is the one guy behind Urinal Cake, confused me at first. For some reason I had heard, or had gotten into my head that he was from Philadelphia. The idea of someone moving to Detroit on purpose still confounds me. So when he offered to put out records, after we recorded them obviously, I was reticent. I think we all needed to see if he was the real deal or another of those quiet types that say they have a "label" and all they really have is a webpage and a drug habit.

JC: So he put out the SROS Lords single and The Johnny Ill Band LP without any hiccups and we got to know him enough to parse that he might be swell after all. And to this day, his track record has been close to sterling. I've heard some of the stuff he's turned down, and I can vouch that he has a decent sort of taste. The truth of it is, if he didn't put our record out, it would've existed as a sad bandcamp page somewhere, which is a depressing thought. So thanks, EZ! I'm still not crazy about the logo, but what can you do?

J: Who are some of your favorite bands to play with in Detroit?

JC: Ah, the shorter list. Well besides anything Timmy has his hand in or the Urinal Cake roster (Feelings, Growwing Pains, K9 Sniffies, etc.) we're usually the happiest to play with Tyvek or one of their affiliated groups (The Intended, Mountains & Rainbows, Isles of ESP). Whatever Shelley Salant is doing is usually worth standing next to on a bill. PRC is a newer band that I wouldn't hate to have on a show. 

J: I'm consistently floored by your lyrics. There seems to be a bit of world weariness tied with nightmarish backgrounds. Your new song "Scum, Rise" particularly resonates with me, with the mentions of Santa, War, and Children all tightly woven together. How do you put all of these things together? What do you try to say with your lyrics?

JC: Oops, those lyrics from the internet are wrong. As much as I'd like it to be true, I don't sing about Santa or War on "Scum, Rise!" Each song is different. Some are about events that have happen to me or somebody I know. Some are local news. Some are things I read in books or are secretly heartfelt but masked with mumbles and slurs. Personally I prefer half-meanings, specificity, unreliable narrators, and the mundane slightly blurred or discolored. I hate songs that are full of empty happiness or rote sadness.

J: How important is visualization in your lyrics? Do lyrics need to paint a picture? What role does the sound of words have versus the content of the words?

JC: No matter how clever I think I'm getting with the words, if they don't fit the song they have to go. The sound of the words have supremacy over the content. But I work hard to make sure there's some meaning in there. I like to focus on emotions or states that haven't been ground into a fine dust by centuries of songwriting. There's usually a "point" to each one, although I'm quite happy when somebody gets it "wrong". They're not puzzles to be solved.

J: How do you guys write a song? Do people have certain roles in the songweaving?

JC: Each one is different. All in all, the music part is left to the actual musicians and I chew on dirt until they're done. 

J: Your new album Under Color of Official Right is coming out on Hardly Art. It sounds cleaner at one level, but it also contains the visceral venom of previous Protomartyr songs. What changed in the writing and recording of this album?

JC: Different studio and more time. We're happy with the first record, but in our haste the guitar and the vocals kind of dominated. It was, out of expediency, all one "tone" (to use a musical term I have no business invoking). This one, we wanted each instrument to have an airing in their corner. A little more "space" (again). They're never perfect, records. But the forward momentum you get from them pushes you into the next one. 

J: Were there any particular moments that stood out to you in the creation of this album?

No Passion All Technique
JC: The couple that run the studio had a new baby- which, I know, sounds disgusting. Just kidding, babies are beautiful gifts. Like a fine watch. Especially this one. She was a real nice lady to have around. Down to just hang out and she offered up some pretty good notes in the mixing process. That sort of amazing baby and being saddened that my nickname "One Take Joe" was revoked are things I will remember from our time in Benton Harbor. 

J: You have a lot of tour dates set up as both headlining act and as an opener for Cloud Nothings, as well as dates with other great bands like Whatever Brains, Tyvek, and more. Are there any dates that you are looking forward to in particular? Any artists that you are interested in seeing that perhaps you haven't seen before?

JC: It'll be weird to bump into Tyvek "out on the road." I expect some choreographed knife fight. Spray Paint wants us to play baseball and those guys are so cool we just might have to. We're playing L.A. with The Intelligence and (hopefully) Lamps, so that's a good one. Whatever Brains through the hazy Southland will be interesting. Cloud Nothings are some solid midwestern boys so we'll be able to swap stories about how meaningless life is and the minute differences in regional grocery store chains. It's all looking good from this angle. The above bands will probably blow us off the stage on the regular, but I think we have a outside chance of impressing people. Ask me after it's over and I'll drop dimes on which ones are full of suckers.

J: You also eventually make your way over to Europe. Is this the first time you guys will play Europe? Are you excited for that?

JC: First time. Very excited.

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