Joe Casey and Co. prep new, Trump-inspired album
Since forming in Detroit in 2008, the bandmates in Protomartyr have taken to documenting their hometown on record.
Past songs have wrestled with local issues of political corruption (“Bad Advice,” off the 2014 album Under Color of Official Right, takes inspiration from the downfall of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick) and gentrification. “Remembering a Jumbo's night … weird faces filled up the bar,” frontman Joe Casey drawls in his blunt sing-speak, recalling a favored dive made more popular, oddly enough, by a 2012 Protomartyr song, “Jumbo's.” “All new white/With new money and false friends/I don't like it.”
So it wasn't surprising that Casey, reached at home the week before the Detroit Red Wings played a final home game in Joe Louis Arena, which is set to be demolished and replaced with Little Caesars Arena, had a few thoughts about the development.
“I will say I'm disappointed because, again, the fact that it was called Joe Louis Arena was significant. It represented a great Detroit figure. And the new stadium they're moving into is Little Caesars Arena. It's like how the Tigers now play in Comerica Park, which is named after a bank. It's sad to see buildings that used to be named after important people being cast aside for buildings named after corporations,” said Casey, who joins his bandmates for an Ace of Cups concert on Thursday, April 13, going on to recount seeing a live showing of “Muppets on Ice” at the arena as a child. “Those are the changes I don't like. Like when a new restaurant opens up and it's like, ‘Oh, this guy moved here from Portland.' And then right next door is a restaurant that's been there for years and doesn't get any of this shine because it's not new.”
More recently, however, U.S. political currents have forced Casey to adopt a wider lens in his songwriting, which wasn't the initial plan when the post-punk quartet started considering the follow-up to The Agent Intellect, from 2015.
“Originally, I was retreating from personal lyric writing because I was worried that can become a crutch where you just put your diary or thoughts to music,” said Casey, who has penned songs about his father's death and his mother's struggles with Alzheimer's. “Then Trump got elected and things changed. You realize you have to write about what's happening in the world. … It was kind of a challenge this time because I went from thinking, ‘I'm just going to write fictional or even nonsensical things on this record,' to feeling like I have to talk about how the world is right now.”
Going into the election season, Casey and bandmates Greg Ahee (guitar), Alex Leonard (drums) and Scott Davidson (bass) didn't put much stock in Donald Trump's candidacy, with Ahee telling a Guardian reporter, “Maybe there would be a positive if Trump was elected,” during an interview published in the U.K. paper in May. (In the same feature, Ahee described the prospects of a Trump presidency as “terrifying.”) Reality started to take hold on election night, however, as the band prepared to take the stage for a Las Vegas concert.
“We were setting for the show like, ‘Boy, wouldn't it be weird if Trump wins? Ha, ha, ha.' Then for it to actually happen and have to play a show, it was like reality was…” Casey said, trailing off. “Afterwards, it was like, ‘How could I be so stupid? Of course Trump had a good possibility of winning.' The mood of the country, I ignored it or didn't even realize it.”
In the months since, the band has contributed an older song, “Sweeney Ashtray,” which was originally recorded for a planned-and-scrapped split-single with Parquet Courts, to Our First 100 Days, an ongoing compilation designed to benefit organizations fighting Trump administration policies, as well as spending two weeks in Los Angeles recording a new album, which is tentatively slated to see release sometime later this year.
“It's the first time we've recorded an album out of state. The recording process can be mind-numbing, so we're always looking for new locations to shake it up,” said Casey, adding, “LA didn't corrupt us, but it was a good time.”
Still, don't expect the California sunshine to bleed into Protomartyr's music, which is generally caustic, and bruising, built on gnashing, propulsive guitars that remain in pitched battle with vocals that frequently reach towards the surface like a drowning man desperate to stay afloat in a storm-churned sea (“I would hope my vocals are properly buried on each album because I think it just works better that way when the vocals are fighting with the music to be heard — and not in a yell-y, scream-y way,” Casey said) — a trend that continued as the bandmates surveyed the current cultural landscape.
“[The election] really was a shock to the system for a lot of people,” Casey said. “It's a weird time. I'm generally a coward and would love to sit back and let other people take care of the world's problems. But this is one of those times where it's like, ‘Oh, boy, maybe the cowards actually have to stand up for something now.'”