Joe Casey has a reputation for being a little surly and fatalistic. This tends to be the focus of articles about his band, Protomartyr—there’s even a Tumblr dedicated to “Descriptions of Joe Casey.” (One entry: “He’s like an inverse Bono.”) To be fair, Protomartyr hails from the gritty rock ’n’ roll capital of Detroit, and Casey’s lyrics can be as direct and raw as a fresh knife wound.
Maybe I’ve caught him on a good day, but when we speak, Casey’s in good spirits and seems genuinely satisfied with the band’s success. Unsurprisingly, his approach to touring is still very workmanlike: “When you’re on the road, you’re essentially a traveling salesman,” he explains matter-of-factly.
Protomartyr just released its fourth LP, Relatives in Descent, which builds heavily on the tangled bark-and-bite of the band’s previous work. The production is bigger but not overblown, and the songs snake together as one unified piece of music. Casey points to guitarist Greg Ahee’s current obsession with soundtracks, particularly the score of the 2013 sci-fi film Under the Skin. That influence is evident on the tense and eerie “Windsor Hum” and the slow-burning “A Private Understanding.”
From the country’s current political slump to toxic water in Flint, Michigan, there’s inspiration for Casey’s lyrics at every turn. It’s always been that way—he started playing with guitarist Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard, and Tyvek bassist Kevin Boyer (who was soon replaced by Scott Davidson) shortly after the death of Casey’s father.
“After my dad died, I began thinking more about how life is fleeting,” Casey says. “Once you’re gone, you’re gone.”
His worldview creeps into his lyrics, but he doesn’t think he’s cynical—just realistic. “What confuses people is that I’m writing from a point of resignation,” he explains. “I have no control over this world. I just want to scrape by.”
Seems reasonable. That’s how a lot of people in this country are feeling.
“What I don’t like is constantly saying that we’re negative, like we’re a doom band,” Casey says with a chuckle. “It might be a Midwest thing, or maybe because I’m from Detroit or was raised Catholic, that I write about downer topics.”
Or maybe it comes from his love of Scottish band Country Teasers and its frontman Ben Wallers, whose sardonic and sometimes crude lyrics have been raising eyebrows for two decades. Casey says that prior to recording Relatives in Descent, he was also listening to a lot of Johnny Mathis, which he played for his mother to help ease her Alzheimer’s.
Even as the world seems to be crumbling around him, Casey’s more thankful than bitter for the hand he’s been dealt. “I’m not continually bummed out with how the world works—I’ve come to terms with that,” he says. “[Protomartyr] started as a group of people who wanted to have a good time. It’s kept our egos in check. We’re lucky to be playing together.”