Joe Casey talks like the smartest guy at happy hour. He watches the news playing above the bar, breaking down the bullshit story by story for other patrons. Casey is the vocalist of Detroit rock act Protomartyr, and a lot of those observations spawned lyrics for Under Color of Official Right, the band's sophomore album, named for legal jargon about former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's corruption charges. Wrapped up in wordplay and rolled out in a flat, sometimes caustic monotone, Casey's delivery rides atop the skittish grooves and taut riffs of a band chiseled by frigid weather in a weary city. In this discussion, Casey explains why Protomartyr is not the sound of Detroit, commends the allegorical accuracy of the film Brick Mansions, and exposes the politics behind city's near-sale of its modern art collection. Protomartyr performs Friday, May 23, at the Hemlock Tavern with Synthetic ID, Life Stinks, and Meercaz.
Your latest record is full of references to recent news from Detroit, most of which is about corruption or tragedy. What would Protomartyr sound like if Detroit returned to its glory as a prideful and profitable metropolis?
Us and other bands in Detroit have a similarly cheap, raw edge, partly because we're not spending a shitload of money on equipment. We've had a couple sound guys kind of laugh at our lack of equipment, but why spend much money on shit that won't make you sound any better? Another guy in Whatever Brains, who used to live in Detroit, says that Detroit is full of heartbreak, because, when you break up with somebody, you've still got to feed them every day. The dating pool is so small. If there were more people and more prosperity we'd have better love lives and make happier music.
That budget rock sound is especially present on the first album, No Passion All Technique, which felt more like a band just playing in a room, all claustrophobic and urgent.
Yeah, and that's pretty much how it was done. We thought we were going to record four songs for some singles. But, while everything was still mic'ed and set up, the guy who was recording asked if we had another one, and we said why not. We ended up with 22 songs in about four hours of recording. I still like the first record but I feel like there are not enough drums, not enough bass. People have seen us live and said they never realized how good the drummer is from the record, so we wanted him in the forefront. Still, we only had three days this time. The first record we paid for ourselves, this one we were given about four grand for everything.
Last year Detroit was considering selling its modern art collection to alleviate debt. Does Protomartyr feel more or less appreciated by the city than that?
Yeah, they were going to sell the DIA [Detroit Institute of Art.] The reason that the DIA had so much art was because of donations from all of the old auto barons in Detroit's heyday. They were using that to scare the suburbs a bit, hoping that the suburbs would start some sort of foundation to save the art. Really, what they were doing was making the focus on art, rather than -- my dad was a pensioner -- the fact that they were going to cut the pensions. For me, it would have been really sad if we sold the art, but at the end of the day it would've been sold to the Ford Foundation or something, and it would still be there but the city wouldn't own it. Of course I'd be more upset if they got rid of the pensions for city employees.
As far as Detroit accepting us as a whole, nobody here really gives a shit about us, or Tyvek, Human Eye, The Frustrations -- all of these bands that we really like. No one cares here until you're famous somewhere else.
How do you feel about people using clichéd comparisons to Detroit's machinery and factories to describe Protomartyr's sound?
If it's in an interview, we try to dispel it. None of us know anything about cars. In record reviews, it's just shorthand. They say we're from Detroit and the next line is something about cars or desolation. I mean, it is a desolate place and everybody drives everywhere but we don't present ourselves as the sound of Detroit, mostly because Detroit is an 85 percent African-American city. What we're doing is a small niche, so we're definitely not the sound of Detroit.
We've been seeing a lot of movies on tour and we just saw that movie Brick Mansions, which is a remake of a French action movie, only set in Detroit. The politics of it aren't very subtle. There's an evil mayor who's trying to set off a nuclear bomb in the poor part of the city, so now when people ask about Detroit we just say, "Watch Brick Mansions, it's exactly like that." It's a pretty shitty movie but I think we're going to go see it again.
I saw Patti Smith speak to promote her memoir and at one point she said that all artists should move to Detroit right now. What do you think of that?
Well the last time toured out to San Francisco a lot of the questions were about whether Detroit is as bad as people say it is, and this time people are saying they heard it's great for artists. Artists, people who want to create stuff that's a little different, they need somewhere cheap and Detroit is pretty cheap.
There's a parallel to where I'm at in Oakland, where it was not long ago appealing for its cheap, empty spaces, but now certain neighborhoods are suddenly becoming very expensive.
I remember the first time I went to Oakland a few years ago, I thought it was like a sunny Detroit. I knew people moving there from San Francisco to save money at that time. They're trying to gentrify Detroit, but it's such a big place that it'll take a long time. They fixed it up downtown so that suburbanites can come watch their sporting events without fear of crime, but rent is still cheap and there's still plenty of places to live. But the lights might not work.
On the latest album, the song "Want Remover" seems partly about this device that discards desire, which intrigued me. Can you tell me more about it?
It's a mish-mash of different things. I like it when a song has three or four ideas that might not be fully formed. It's partly about seeing people on their phones. I don't have a smartphone. I've got a flip phone. At bars now every conversation ends with looking something up on a phone, but before you'd have to have a big brain to back everything up. Also, I was unemployed for two years and watched a lot of judge shows. Recently I watched a judge show that was completely fake, with actors and everything, so I jammed that in the song, too. Originally, the idea for "Want Remover" came from wart removers, though.
Under Color of Official Right, No Passion All Technique -- those are great album titles. Do you write titles before content or the other way around?
What I do is have a long list of song titles and phrases that I draw from. With the album titles I always want them to be a line from one of the song lyrics. It's funny, people tend to get the titles in reverse. Sometimes people are like "All Passion No Technique," or "Under Lights of Official Color," and I like that they don't roll off the tongue and tend to confuse people.