Photo by Zak Bratto
The whole of our experience, the idea of the self as its own entity and the reaction to society. Our beliefs and ideas are based mainly in trudging through years of breathing and continuing to breathe amidst the duties of the day and its responsibilities, we start there, and then there is love and occupation and children and health; “Social pressures exist and if you think about them all of the time you gonna find your head’s been kicked in, you’re gonna do it all for the grind.” (Protomartyr, “Cowards Starve”).
This is possibly one interpretation of the world inside of the Detroit band Protomartyr’s universe. It is a land not of cynicism, but belief and reality, the world as it happens and what is happening to you. The characters’ lives are created, but are also the result of “the world” as it is defined individually and collectively; the ideas that are accepted and rejected, the faith in having faith, the hope for something amongst evidence that possibly there is nothing better, but we all need some thing to believe in, right?
“It’s something I think about a lot, why I do things, throughout the day, I’ve thought of certain things my whole life and then you find out what you thought was wrong, it could be a very small thing like an actor’s name — specifically, like we talk about in the song ‘Dope Cloud,’ it’s kind of about, you can spend your whole life thinking that somethings going to come (‘The halls of gold are theirs / You’re only renting space’) that’s gonna be better — you can bank on a future that might never come. In some ways that’s a good way to go through life because if you’re too concerned about the daily tribulations that can do your head in. Depending on the song, I’ll fall on either side of belief, belief in something is a good thing some of the time,” notes Joe Casey, who along with Greg Ahee, Alex Leonard, and Scott Davison form the band.
The something, whatever it may be, creates and forms our world. In the opener of their latest album, The Agent Intellect (Hardly Art), for instance, “The Devil In His Youth” paints the picture of Satan, the young version. Like all children provided for and molded and prepared to inherit the world, but the betrayals and cruelties of the world, that often happen during childhood, have scarred him, the experiences that tarnished the angel, and created Satan — the man, and you will all pay, you will all feel the wrath “I will make you feel the way I do, I’ll corrupt them til they feel the way I do.” And in a way, isn’t this all children, one aspect of evil is based in the idea of being slighted, dismissed. Revenge is at times the best motivation. But it is the care, the compassion with which Casey deals with the characters, never in condescension or ridicule. Our world (ideologically) is all we have, who we believe ourselves to be is our super-power, our flag, so to speak.
“I like the idea of, you mentioned compassion — a lot of people who maybe have backwards thoughts or — they have considered that this is the way the world is, this is the only way they can conceive of the world being, and if someone tries to take that away from them, that’s when they get angry, because their conception of the world is not necessarily the truth, and that’s the thing with most people, even a ‘good’ person, it’s very hard to hear that you’re wrong. It’s not that they’re questioning your beliefs, people can change their beliefs, but they’re questioning you — I feel a lot of racists or homophobes or people like that, it’s not so much you, it’s them, because by challenging them on something, then that becomes the front to their whole persona or pursuit and I find it fascinating because you can relate to that because it can happen to you, you can not know about something and then kind of stumble into it-‘The Devil In His Youth” is just kind of about the idea evil. A lot of times, there is evil in this world, but a lot of evil just comes from a lot of mundane things, the idea that somebody felt wronged; the girl that was going to the Supreme Court because of affirmative action because she wasn’t able to go to University of Texas, because she feels wronged, she doesn’t realize that everybody isn’t stacked against her and she’s thinking that the world is stacked against her, and that’s kind of where it comes out.”
Casey’s vocal style is more oratory than, say, sing-y. The band gives Casey a canvas so to speak, sparsely colored, some thrashes of color, eruptions for tension but spacious, allowing him to insert the setting and the scenes, allowing the listener to see the character, sometimes fully formed, other times in that moment, and to watch an unfolding, a transition, a conclusion reached possibly during or before the song’s beginning, and to be in that moment. But as this style seems free form, there is a science to it, sort of…
“What happens is Greg, the guitar player, I call him the musical director, he’s the one with most musical skill. What happens is we go to the bass player’s basement and kind of jam on ideas on songs. They start on working on riffs or sometimes it’s just drum beats, very simple stuff, and the song kinda builds, and I’m sitting down there as they’re doing this, I got a microphone and I just start going off the top of my head, just to try to get like what vocally works and what doesn’t, and then afterwards we record the practice and I go back and listen to it and I listen to my mumblings, and I say ‘OK, that sounds like a word’ or that sounds like a phrase, I’ll use that and what’s most depressing, for me, is that usually, these songs are like 10 minutes or 20 minutes or something, working through every permutation, I will come up with lyrics for the whole 20 minutes, I get really excited, thinking about ideas and then it really depresses me when they cut out a part, they kind of have to, and we boil down the songs, that’s this, the part where it repeats, and this is the part, you know…and that’s how we write the songs”
February 25 the band will play Walter’s Downtown and you will be able to watch the magic and mysteries unfold. I anticipate this to be a wondrous experience that I will only need to be slightly inebriated (my choice, not of necessity) to witness. Walter’s is a wide open room, Agee’s guitar lines will fill this room in the most splendid fashion and we will all be better for it. But there is the idea of the night out, night in process. The loading and unloading the process of getting ready for the show bearing its weight on the show. Casey recognizes the dilemma but the means seem to never surpass the ends.
“It can be disappointing if you think that being in a band should be fun 100% of the time, or only an expression of your particular artistic bearing, but if you approach it as, ‘This is my job’ – the drive is always tedious, and now, unfortunately, now we’re getting to the point where we have to show up and soundcheck- we used to be a punk band that just showed and threw our stuff on stage and played — and now we have to show up early so they can ‘mic stuff,’ that sort adds another level of tedium, because you’re kind of are forced to stay around the club until it opens…but the secret is to know it’s a job, and it’s a great job in that you do get to meet people who are excited to see you and that’s rare in Detroit. But as far as getting into the mind space, what helps me is that I have a kind of stage fright, I don’t like being in front of a crowd, so that kind of nervousness and fear allows me to…I’m just trying to get through the song, I’m just trying to sing it and not screw up and try to make sure that I come in at the right point, but because I am so intensely aware of this, it can come across as being an intense performance. I would hate it if I was like ‘Oh yeah, la di da another stage, here’s a song about losing your mind’ that would be the worst, and what happens is you play so many shows that you start doing the same thing every single time, and that’s a thing to sort of fight against. Unfortunately, I don’t have any kind prepared stage banter, so sometimes it can go terribly wrong, but you kind of want that uncertainty in the show, that’s really the only point of the night that can be surprising, because it does become like ‘Here’s the drive, here’s the setup, here’s the show…’ but these are good problems to have to deal with.”