Protomartyr interview: "It's very easy to be angry at mankind, and what's great about it is you have to attack yourself."
This Friday sees the release of Relatives In Descent, the fourth album from Detroit punks Protomartyr, and first for Domino. On the surface it might seem somewhat surprising that this gritty, underappreciated American band would be signed to renowned British label, but on listening to the album it becomes instantly clear that Protomartyr have just as much ambition, originality and raw talent to stand toe to toe with any other act on the roster.
Relatives In Descent is a labyrinthine rock album, full of lyrical asides and musical twists and turns; one whose inhospitable form becomes a thrilling ride of untold dives and sprints the more you repeatedly listen to it. And it demands repeated, obsessive re-listens.
To aid in getting to the bottom of the mind-boggling puzzle that is Relatives In Descent we spoke to Protomartyr singer Joe Casey, whose lyrics and voice are one of the main attractions of the band, and on the new album are more sprawling, diverse and haunting than ever. Speaking to him over the phone from Detroit, ahead of a rehearsal with the band, we discussed the lyrical inspirations for Relatives In Descent, and how they fit into the overall sound of Protomartyr’s monumental fourth album.
It seems like the band's sound has developed since the last album, does it feel that way to you?
Yeah. After the last record we toured for almost two years - the most we've ever toured before - and that just makes a band tighter and better. I kind of figured out what I can sing and what I can't sing. So I think we were able to come off all that touring and know where are strengths are, and apply it to the new record.
Did it change the way you write songs?
For this one, ince we toured for so long [after The Agent Intellect] none of us had jobs when we came back. So we worked at it like it was a full-time job. Especially Greg our guitar player and Alex the drummer. They would go in the practice space every day and work out bits and bobs for four or five hours a day. There was a lot more work put into this record than any since our first one, because for that one we had all the songs we'd written up to that point. For this one we had nothing better to do than write songs.
Is it always the case that they write the music first and you write the lyrics to match, or does it sometimes happen that the lyrics come first?
No, it's always the music first. There's no me sitting and writing poetry out or anything like that.
A song like 'Up The Tower' just feels so symbiotic the way the music works with the lyrics, it's hard to believe that they were written separately.
With that one what happened was Alex kinda had this weird drum beat, and Greg had this rising and falling guitar thing, and I thought “well that sounds like people running up the stairs and knocking at a door, so I should probably write some lyrics that mention people running up stairs and knocking at doors.” Yeah, I write to the way the music sounds, in a sense. Because if I try to force my own feelings on to the song and it doesn't fit then it becomes pretty average pretty quick.
That might explain why there's so many diverse things going on in the lyrics on this album. Is it usually something that is in your head at the moment, or does the music itself inspire something?
Well, I'm always thinking! There's always something going on! I like songs that just don't have one meaning or only have one theme or one visual image. I try to pack as many in as I can without putting too many in - but sometimes I put too many in and we have to edit some out. Usually the way it's done is in the studio, or in the practice space before we go to record; the guys are honing the music and I come in and try to sing on top of it and then I record it on phone and listen back and think “OK that's a place where I can sing and this is a place where I can sit back." From that point on I kind of over-write, I write way too many lyrics, and I try to jam them all in, and then I have to edit and figure out what can fit and what doesn't.
I like the extensive lyrics, it makes for great reading even on its own. Do you see something or read something and think "I'm gonna put that in a song" or does it come up naturally?
It's a kind of a weird process because I don't really write things down. I did some the other day in my house, I have a piece of paper by my computer and sometimes I'll scribble stuff down that I read, but a lot of times it's done at night after a few drinks so I have to look at it and try to figure out what the hell I was saying. But for the most part if I can remember something, if something sticks out in my head that I can remember, when it comes to write lyrics I can go "Aha! Here's a weird phrase." And sometimes I'll remember where I got it from and sometimes I won't. I'll give you an example, there's one song on a previous record where there's a line about a glass screwed into somebody's fist and it seemed very poetic, but that was just a line from the TV show Columbo; I was watching Columbo and someone said that and that line stuck in my head, I buried it for a while, but when the song came up and I needed somebody to hold a glass it became a glass screwed into someone's fist. Not that I rip off everything, but I take these little bits and pieces and try to connect them with my own words and see if I can get a feeling from it.
I've been doing a lot of Googling of the references in the lyrics and there's loads of fascinating stuff. I feel like we could just talk about 'A Private Understanding' for 20 minutes, there's so much going on in it. Did you always know that was going to be the first track?
Yeah! That was one that Greg did a demo at home for, a very rough thing, and he played that for me right before we even started working on new stuff. I heard it and thought "OK this sounds like the first song of the album." And then from that point on, we had that song - I didn't have any lyrics for it, but that kind of made it easier to come up with other stuff knowing that we already had the first song on the record, from there it's just a matter of coming up with 11 or 12 other ones. So the whole time I'm writing lyrics for other songs, but thinking about that one, and that was the last one that I wrote lyrics for. So things that didn't fit into other songs I threw them into that song; it's kind of a store house for a lot of lyrics I had for a long time.
The opening couplet "not by my own hand, automatic writing by phantom limb/ Not by my own voice, pleurisy made to stand on two legs"; that's such a great introduction. Did you think that when you were writing it, about the introduction to the album?
Yeah, I was making an apology for myself right off the bat. Like "Anything I'm saying or singing from this point on, it's not me! Don't blame me!" So that just allowed me on the rest of the album rant and be mad about things and be funny about things, but if the joke falls flat that's not me it's just the character in the song. It was kind of way to set up the brackets around the album; “from this point on it's not me singing, it's not my words.” It's a good way to get away with stuff.
Where did you come across Heraclitus the Obscure?
Oh, doesn't everybody know? [Laughs] No, I was reading a book called The Anatomy Of Melancholy, which is an old book from the 1600s, and it's just this one guy's collection of all the world's knowledge about why people are sad - all the knowledge that was around in the 1600s, so a lot of old Greek and Roman philosophy. It's best to take into the toilet and read it while you sit there, because you feel smart while you read it but it's kinda just little nuggets of information. He talked about Heraclitus being 'The Weeping Philosopher'; he's known as being sad because of the way that the world is. It gets heavy from there, with things I don't quite understand, but one of his ideas was that knowledge is like a river, and the water flowing through it is always changing. What he meant by that who knows, but I liked that idea - the image of it - and the idea of the weeping philosopher, because you know when you look at all the injustices of the world all you can do is weep.
What do the "vile trumpets" in ‘A Private Understanding’ signify?
There's a couple of different meanings in that. In the Bible at the end times there's the sound of trumpets. And I was reading something about up in Canada there's these moments where they get these weird sounds that almost sounded like trumpets, and they didn't know what it was from - the scientific explanation of it is kind of the Earth creaking in the way an old house does - and it sounds like these very ghastly trumpets. And it's also influenced by the current political situation, there's lots of people blaring trumpets; trumpets of war, trumpets of “look at me.”
I wanted to ask if you consider this to be a political album?
No more than all the other ones. I'm not looking forward to this interview cycle just because every single time I get asked "what do you think about politics?"; "what do you think about Trump?", and then if I answer the question that's always underneath the headline: 'Interview with Protomartyr: They Don't Like Trump!' Then our band gets tied in with all this stuff.
But every album is political, and this one is also political, because things are kind of shit right now. I didn't want to write three records that said "hey, there's some bad stuff going on in the world" and then put out a record this year where it's like "no, everything's great, don't worry about it." Well, I kind of wanted to. I don't want to keep writing the same record over again, where it's like "life is miserable but we have to soldier on," but it seemed like there's so much stuff going on this year that we're going through it again - we just have to find new ways to talk about it.
Is there anything specific to Detroit and the politics there?
On the second song 'Here Is The Thing' there are some references to Detroit, and on 'A Private Understanding' there's some references to Flint, Michigan, which is nearby here, where - I don't know if the news got out over there - but two years ago they basically poisoned the people with the water. They tried to cut corners and save money and they ended up lead poisoning a bunch of people, so now there are kids growing up with birth defects and developmental defects - people died. And it was just because of the government blundering and trying to save a buck on the backs of poor people. So that was something local that really upset me.
I hadn't heard about it. I'm sure it was in the news but I missed it...
Yeah that's the thing with news. Something will come and rise to the top of your news feed or what your friends are talking about online, and then it'll go down as new news comes up. But people in Flint still can't drink the water; they still have to put filters on all their taps and it's still going on years afterwards. It wasn't a natural disaster or a hurricane, it was a man-made disaster, and the people that suffered the most were poor people. That happens all over the world all the time, and it's just the kind of thing we forget about or lose interest in after a while.
Let's turn to 'My Children', which plays into those themes. You don't have any actual children, right?
No! No, but that's where the song kind of came from. I'm old enough where I probably should. I had the title of that song for a long time, because I wanted to write a song where I make fun of these fictional children and say how terrible they are and imply that I'm a terrible father. But then the song came along and from that title it became about other stuff, it became about... when you're in a band and you're doing any sort of creative thing, part of the reason why you're doing it is this very primal thing of trying to leave something behind. Life is finite, so you want to leave something, whether it's a statue of yourself or some sort of memory of yourself, and I think a lot of people do that through their children; they pass down their lessons whether they're good or bad. I don't have any children, I had to invent them for the song and say how terrible they'd be, because I'd be their dad. So that's the general gist of the song.
I want to ask about 'The Chuckler', where you sing about "war, and rumours of war"; is it set before World War II, or is that just my imagination?
Erm, no. I always like it when people's takes on the songs are sometimes way better than what I would come up with. But no, it's current day. I figure since there's references to telemarketers from Bangalore it has to be present day.
Oh yeah, I should've looked closer!
Yeah, you dumbass! [laughs]
I just know that one of your previous songs, 'Maidenhead', was inspired by the Patrick Hamilton novel Hangover Square, which is set in the pre-war 30s, and The Chuckler seems like another character that could have existed in that time.
It's another sad, sad character. When we were approaching this record I was thinking "I write lyrics, I can write about anything, I can write about my love life or the mundane day today." But then world news comes and it's much darker and much more serious than your day to day existence, and you're just trying to get through the day - I think most people don't really have many deep political thoughts other than "I just want to get through this day and wake up tomorrow." So that song was kind of just about when you laugh about existence or what's going on in the world; it can kind of be a howl laugh or an ironic self-deprecating laugh.
'The Windsor Hum'; I Googled this and it's fascinating. Have you experienced it first hand?
I have not. I think there's a sound out in New Mexico, which is the famous one, but it seems like it's a global phenomenon and I just thought it was interesting. I've always loved since I was a kid the name of the island that the sound is supposed to be coming from, Zug Island, it's just a perfect name for an evil island. It's like Skull Island - Zug Island. And that's just in the Detroit River there. The song is about the idea of a weird sound effecting you, and if you're in a band you kind of have to take that to heart, you're trying to protect your hearing but you hear about weird frequencies that can screw you up.
How come 'Don't Go To Anacita' hasn't been released as a single? This is the obvious choice; it's half Ramones, half R.E.M., it's catchy - I'm surprised it hasn't been put out yet.
Yeah, it's got a chorus! We usually don't have choruses and verses and things like that. We have some say over what gets released as a single, but this is what a record company is supposed to be good at, and they definitely wanted this one, but for us we really wanted to put out 'A Private Understanding' first. It's a bizarre choice, but we felt that one represents the rest of the album, so you hear that and you get an idea of what awaits you on the rest of the album; it's long, it's weird. I jokingly told Greg our guitar player "we have to put it out; it's our ‘Paranoid Android’! It's the 20th anniversary of 'Paranoid Android' coming out!" But I'm glad that we can still write songs that are just simple, structured very simply like ‘Don’t Go To Anacita’. It's got a power. I like it, I think it's going to be fun to play live. People can understand it, because it's a verse and a chorus.
I think it'll kick ass live! Is Anacita a real place?
No. I made it up on a song that we did last year for the Adult Swim Singles Program called 'Born To Be Wine', where I had a character in the song that was a washed up rock star - back when rock stars could make money - and I had him living in this town Anacita that I kind of pictured as this fancy town in America. Then when I was thinking about making up another fake town for this song I thought I'd just continue using Anacita and building on it.
There's so much bile in the song. Is that the character in the song, or do you have these kinds of feelings about these kinds of places?
It's the character. But the great thing about inventing a fictional place is that you can really get out a lot of built-up anger about real places, and people can hear it and it doesn't seem like I'm just picking on some place, I'm not insulting Toledo or Detroit or any other place. It's a fictional place, but it's also many places I'm thinking of, and it allows the bile to flow freely.
We talked about 'Up The Tower' a little bit, but I wanted to mention the narrative within the narrative; you're talking to a guy on the street then he opens up his head and we go somewhere else...
It's just a fun thing to do is to have different parts from different points of view or different places. It's just a guy that bummed a cigarette from me on the street, that's now gonna tell about a vision or a dream that he had, and then the song becomes very real and very visceral, and then it ends on "oh what a lovely dream" - it certainly wasn't a lovely dream, but that's the character. I like how the music kind of slowly enters this very loud spot and then expertly gets out of it; and once they had that music done in some form it was down to me to write the lyrics. They're going on a journey musically, and I can write that way too - it's fun.
The way that the serene 'Night Blooming Cereus' suddenly segues into the vicious 'Male Plague' is excellent, was it always conceived that way, almost as one song?
Yeah! 'Up The Tower' ties into 'Night Blooming Cereus' and then into 'Male Plague'. I believe that we were trying to connect 'Night Blooming Cereus' and 'Up The Tower', and so we had kind of like a beautiful slow part that builds and then we had a very punk rock part. And then those grew into those separate songs, and then we thought we'd tie all three together into one big piece. I don't know anything about chords and structures and things like that, but I think there are similarities between them. I believe 'Male Plague' is the same chords as 'Night Blooming Cereus'.
Why did you choose the cactus 'Night Blooming Cereus' to sing about?
I had an image in my head about a flower that blooms at night, not during the day, and I just looked up to see if there were any flowers that do that, and the night blooming cereus is one of them. And it grows on a cactus in the middle of the desert – perfect! I thought it was a good image.
And what's really fascinating about it is that I'd written the song and then I looked up night blooming cereus again, just to refresh my memory, and it turned out there was a poet laureate from Detroit that I didn't know about that wrote a poem called 'Night Blooming Cereus' about an African-American neighbourhood of Detroit that was knocked down to make way for a freeway, and the poem was lamenting this destruction. It had kind of similar themes that I was trying to explore with the song I was writing, and I thought it was bizarre that we'd both used the metaphor of the flower blooming at night to mean something about community and existing on the fringes. It was a weird coincidence.
'Male Plague' is so vicious, were you feeling angry, did you have something in mind when you wrote it?
It's very easy to be angry at mankind, and what's great about it is you have to attack yourself - you have to include yourself in the lot. There are so many people who think they're above it, they think "I'm smarter than this person" or "I'm more evolved than this person," but in the grand scheme of things when you spread the net out wide you have to include yourself in that boat. The anger's directed at lots of different targets, but I'm in there a couple of times too. That was a pretty easy one to write.
'Corpses In Regalia', is it about war or is it disparaging people who want war?
I don't know what it means. I've got some ideas, but with a lot of these songs when I'm piecing them together I try to fit a general theme, but - this is going to sound really artsy fartsy - but the songs write themselves. The images that I was drawing on were a couple of different things and some was just weird dream imagery that I had. I put them all together and tried to think "well what's the emotional response from this?" It can mean a lot of things. I've got some ideas but I'm not quite sure.
Then the album finishes with 'Half Sister' which ties together some of the underlying themes and concepts of the album.
Yeah, but in the press release I wanted to emphasise that this isn't a concept album, because I picture a concept album as you're trying to write to fit a theme, but it really wasn't until we recorded stuff and looked back and tried to figure out the overarching themes. 'Half Sister' was one of the last songs that we wrote, and it wasn't necessarily going to be the last song on the album, we just needed another song. But I had words as placeholders, and I was using that line that I hadn't quite applied to the first song 'A Private Standing': "she's just trying to reach you." And I was kind of filling in the lyrics and vocals and it fit in 'Half Sister' and it fit in the first song, so I was like "ho ho ho I can tie these two songs together" and kind of have it be the conclusion of the story to the first song, and throw in a bunch of other stuff. It was really nice, and I'm very happy that it came together. I think it's a perfect last song on the album.
Yeah I absolutely love it when it comes back around to the "she's just trying to reach you" refrain at the end of the album. But it must be annoying if that makes people assume it's a concept album because it's in the first song and the last song.
Well no. It's one of those things where you try to look for meaning - and I try to inject some meaning into stuff - but it's fun to listen and try to see if there is actually a through story in the songs that you write. And there usually is, I would think, because they all come from the same period in your life and what's going on in the world. So the mood is never going to be drastically different from song to song because you are who you are writing words during this time. And it seemed like truth was a thing that kept popping up in my head.
And why Relatives In Descent for the album title? There's a lot of mentions of family members through the songs...
That's basically it. Usually we just take a line from a song that seems to encapsulate the album. Thinking about your family line, your relatives in ascent are your grandparents and great grandparents, so relatives in descent are your children and your nieces and nephews, so it's kind of what comes after. And also truth is relative term - and that seems to be in descent. It was like a multi-use phrase that seemed to apply.
If people want to delve deeper into the lyrics is there any recommended reading you have?
Not really. The Anatomy Of Melancholy is a good book, but it's the size of a brick or something, it's very big. The influences come and go out of the album; read whatever you like.
Protomartyr’s Relatives In Descent comes out this Friday through Domino.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 27th September 2017.