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Protomartyr make art-punk for the masses

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Protomartyr rockets upward from small clubs to international stages.
  • Protomartyr rockets upward from small clubs to international stages.

Joe Casey has described himself as "dumb" just once in our half-hour interview, which may be a record for the self-deprecating frontman whose band is being hailed as one of the most literate and intriguing of the past decade. Casey was a doorman with an English degree when he first hooked up with his future bandmates, who'd been performing under the unfortunate name Butt Babies. Today, six years after the release of Protomartyr's debut album, the Detroit band has progressed from small club act to international headliners, enabling the four musicians to give up their day jobs along the way.

A good deal of that momentum can be attributed to last year's Relatives in Descent album, as well as this past June's Consolation EP, the latter featuring prominent contributions from The Breeders' Kim Deal. With their diatonic dissonance and post-punk poetics, Protomartyr are routinely, and not unjustifiably, compared to The Fall, Nick Cave, Mission of Burma and Pere Ubu.

Through it all, Casey continues to deliver his arcane historical and political observations in a dryly declamatory vocal style, while guitarist Greg Ahee segues from distorted arpeggios to window-shattering power chords. Together with bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard, they create driving, droning songs with enough hooks to echo in your head for days. We recently caught up with Casey to contemplate the meaning behind it all.

Indy: Your lyrics tend to be very evocative, and your vocals sometimes veer toward spoken word. But you don't seem like the kind of person who would ever hang out at a poetry slam. Am I wrong about that?

Joe Casey: No, not really. I don't really appreciate poetry enough. And I think that's probably on me for being dumb. But mostly we have a really great used book store in Detroit called John King Books, which is an old glove factory. It's huge, it's like five stories, all full of used books. And I'll just go in there and grab some things and try to understand them, good toilet reads.

When you're trying to write about something that's maybe abstract, or you're trying to put your feelings into a song, sometimes you're like, "Well, I'm sure somebody else said it better." I don't really know anything about philosophers that much, but when something catches your fancy, it's like, "Oh, this philosopher seems to agree with what I'm saying, and he's older than dirt, so maybe it's a universal truth or something." And so you throw it into the song.

In the song "A Private Understanding," you have that verse about Elvis staring into the clouds and hallucinating the faces of Joseph Stalin and Jesus. Is that one of the more literal, linear verses you've written?

Yes and no. I mean, that definitely did happen, Elvis really did see Stalin and Jesus in a cloud. [Editor's note: See Peter Guralnicks' biography Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.] But back on our first album, I wrote a song called "Ypsilanti." It's based on the three schizophrenic characters in a book I had just read called The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, which is a town in Michigan. I like it when people ask about one of those lyrics. You can tell them about the book that inspired it and then, if they want to, they can go read it.

You once referred to genres as necessary straitjackets. Which of those straitjackets would you say fits you best?

Well, when I'm feeling pretentious, I think art-punk is the best. We get lumped into post-punk, and I think that people assume that's a very specific thing, which is basically that it sounds like Joy Division. But it actually just means a period after punk where music became very experimental. I guess, in the broadest terms, it's really just rock 'n' roll.

You're about to go out on tour with Preoccupations, who took a lot of heat for their original name, Viet Cong. So which is the worse name: Viet Cong or Butt Babies?

Boy, well, with Viet Cong, their argument was just that band names are dumb. I don't think they'd even really thought about it. But I'm glad they changed it, and I'm glad they were able to strive and to continue on afterwards. But with Butt Babies, it's just, oh boy, I'm glad I wasn't in that band, that's all I can say.

So you made them change it after you hooked up with them?

No, no, no. Butt Babies and Protomartyr are two separate things. Greg and Alex, they were Butt Babies, and I was like, "Hey, can we do a band where I'm the singer and we call it Protomartyr?" So I would come in halfway through their sets and sing some Protomartyr songs that we were working on. And so Butt Babies, I guess, isn't dead. It could rise from the grave at any moment.

Hopefully, you'll all stay busy enough that we won't have to hear from them.

Yeah, that's another reason to come to a Protomartyr show and buy all our records. The longer we can stay around, the better chance that Butt Babies will not come back.

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