Detroit post-punk outfit Protomartyr are in town this Saturday, November 24, supporting Calgary’s Preoccupations at The 27 Club. Protomartyr are fresh off the release of their latest four-track EP, Consolation, which features Kelley Deal of The Breeders on two songs and is an extension of the politicized direction of their 2017 LP Relatives in Descent. They kick off their tour with Preoccupations in Toronto on Friday, and end it in LA after a whooping 18 shows. Ev Osmanovic sat down with Protomartyr’s Joe Casey to discuss their EP Consolations and the potential future endeavours. You can also stream the interview aired on CHUO via the player below.
Ev: Within the past year you had released your EP Consolationsand it sounded heavier both lyrically and instrumentally than Relatives In Descent did. Do you feel the same way, and was it deliberate?
Joe: Yeah I agree with you, I think what happened was those were songs that kind of came up at the same time we were writing the last record but they didn’t quite fit. I think if we would have put them on the album they probably would have sounded more like the songs on that album—more atmosphere. But we liked the songs a lot so we said, “Let’s just go down to Kentucky with our friend Mike and Kelley fromR. Ring and bang em out over two days.” I think that’s where the kind of rawness comes from. We just turned them around fast because after we recorded the last record, there was a lot of down time and we decided it’s better to use that time than sitting on our asses.
Ev: Is there anyone or anything that you drew inspiration from for the EP, or did it kind of all just come to you?
Joe: Basically with ‘Wheel of Fortune’ it was kind of a collection of lyrics that didn’t fit with other songs in a sense, or things that upset me. Originally I tried to fit all of that into ‘A Private Understanding’ from the last album. It was packed full of words and then I, you know, kind of took everything out. I was like, “Oh I really like this stuff,” but it would fit in this other song that’s definitely got the space for it and kind of threw ’em in there. So it was not like it was leftovers, but it was definitely orphans looking for a home and it kind of ended up in that song.
The biggest challenge when you’re writing lyrics is trying to fit the mood of what you’re saying to what the music sounds like. And that was the case where it was like, “Okay these words are kind of sinking the flow of ‘A Private Understanding’ but they work really well with these abrupt changes and more force. And just kind of finding what the tone of the song is, is kind of the challenge.
Ev: You used to just shout out lyrics to the music without them necessarily having meaning or structure, whereas now there’s a very clear socio-political message to your recent songs. Why has that changed?
Well, unfortunately people can hear me now. The lyrics always, when I thought about them, had… I won’t say a message… I definitely approached it as “this song is gonna mean this, this song is gonna mean that,” or “this song’s going to mean anything.” We’re just now working on putting out our first record again, re-releasing it. I have to go back and try to figure out what I was singing because I never wrote the lyrics down. It was all stream of consciousness stuff, and a lot of it I’m like, “I have no idea what I’m saying.” And while it made a lot of sense then, now it does less so just because the sound. Our sound has gotten cleaner, we’re in bigger studios, and so people are going to hear what I’m saying.
It’s more like the kind of political dent that was always sort of there. Especially in these last couple years it was like, I write lyrics about how I’m feeling (as cheesy as that sounds), and I was feeling pretty bad these last couple years so… that’s gonna be what the lyrics are going to be about. I would feel like a fraud if I was singing about something that wasn’t in some sense real to me. That’s why there’s not too many love songs in Protomartyr canon.
Ev:That being said, do you feel a greater responsibility coming along with Protomartyr’s expanded reach as a band?
Joe: You do because you don’t. Because nowadays when you say something stupid, immediately you’re going to be chastised for it and so you gotta be careful. I find that when you have some sort of platform you just learn to say less or you don’t try to engage with things that you don’t know about. You could blabber on about you opinions, but it’s best to just let the music speak for it. And also, I don’t wanna fall into the trap of becoming the kind of political band that stands on a soap box and tells people what to do. I think it’s a trap. Any sort of creative thing can happen if you’re like, “I have to talk about what’s happening in the world.” Then you start saying, “well here’s what we should do.” Then you start prescribing solutions, then people are wondering if you’re a scummy singer in a punk band. So I can only talk about how the world affects me and then I try to avoid opining things I know nothing about. Or at least admitting that I know nothing.
Ev: In one interview, I think you said that you tried to make your lyrics a kind of neutral ground so that people can interpret it in their own way. Is that right?
Joe: Well no, cause that sounds pretty close to both sides have an opinion and there’s definitely issues with where that’s 100% not true where there’s one side that’s completely wrong and one side that’s right. And I want to make sure that the lyrics are true to myself or if I’m writing in a character that this is a character speaking because a lot of people would be confused by that. You can write a song that’s not in your voice. A lot of times it’s not your voice. You’re almost writing in the third person, and people just don’t get that. They assume that if you’re standing on stage and you’re singing that, you know…
Ev: That it’s coming directly from you?
Joe: Yeah, that Freddy Mercury believes we are all the champions. It’s the worst thing and I don’t know why, and I don’t want to say that people are dumb, but I don’t know why people don’t get that. So you have to be clear and say that even though it’s coming from a personal space, this is being filtered through poetics and trying to fit into the song. It’s not a clear message. I don’t think music can ever be super clear. It’s more the subconscious coming out than bullet points.
Ev: Now to step away from the heavier topics, you have a very particular and striking stage presence. People have described you as a “drunk uncle” and then when you climb on stage, that demeanor just changes completely. So what do you think shifts between being off stage and then climbing into the spotlight?
Joe: Uh well, I have stage fright, and… well number one, I will cop to not looking like a front man for a band. And so I think that throws people off. I don’t have any leather jackets, I [laughs] don’t lhave, like, my shirt completely unbuttoned so that’s odd. People are used to image and music kind of matching. All the post-punk bands are all gonna be dressed in very artsy black, and they’re all gonna be thin as a rail and look like supermodels. Like Dracula, you know? And that’s definitely not us. So that’s kind of awkward and then on top of it I don’t feel like there’s a lot.
Every day we go up on stage and I’m like, “What am I doing?” That’s the thought going through my head—”Joe, you’re not a singer, you don’t have the kind of charisma.” Then having people look at you… I don’t handle it very well. So it’s a combination of trying to combat that and trying to get out what you’re trying to do. That immediately changes me when I get up on stage. And I’m glad because I think that having stage fright actually helps me. If I walked up there and did back flips and jumped around I think people would think it was ridiculous. I think what I’m doing is true to who I am and anything else.
Ev: That’s definitely the most important thing. To wrap this up, while you’ve been on tour, were there places Protomartyr wasn’t well received or was there something completely absurd that has happened?
Joe: I mean, there’s been some weird, weird things. We’re not universally loved that’s for sure. This is kind of a weird story but I’ll tell it.
We played in Italy and the place was packed full of people, and this drunk Italian kid came up to me and he’s all “Oh you’re my favourite band,” and you know, “I can’t wait to see ya.” We have to get through the crowd to go up on stage. We go up on stage and play the first song, I don’t even have my glasses while I’m on stage and I can’t really see, but it was almost was like there was a spotlight on that kid jumping around and being pretty aggressive. And not in a good way, and I was like “Oh, well that’s annoying” and then you know, the second song starts up and he starts punching people and it’s like “Okay, we gotta calm this down.
So I try to calm the kid down while I’m trying to sing and then he goes up to the front of the stage. And these girls have put their purses up on stage and he grabs a purse and a girl tries to stop him and he punches the girl in the face. So then immediately Greg stops the music—our guitar player—and he says “Okay, get the hell out of here.” This kid is screaming “I’m your biggest fan.” And later on, he has the gall to send us a message via Facebook or something saying: “I thought you guys were real post-punk. You proved when you kicked me out of your show that you’re not real punks. I was like, your biggest fan.”
Yeah, so it’s one of those ones that if we don’t fit your definition, then thank God because your definition is terrible. Sometimes that happens, especially when people assume that you’re one way and they’ll say, “Oh, no one was… there wasn’t a big pit at the show. I’m so sorry.” Well actually when I was young and went to go see shows I really hated the pit. I was really far in the back so I kind of like it. It doesn’t always have to be aggression, you know?
Ev: Yeah, recently there was one pit that I witnessed and it was just absolutely terrifying. Someone just pulled out a steel chair and I was just having any part of that.
Joe: No thank you! I’m not a pit expert, but I don’t remember people using so many elbows. The kids are having fun. Especially when they’re young kids. I’ve seen really great pits, I’ve seen pits where everybody is working together and they all had smiles on their faces. You can tell they’re having a good time and you can tell when somethings not good and when people aren’t having fun. You can sense when the crowd is not loving it. That’s one of those things.
That was definitely the weirdest interaction we’ve ever had with somebody with just like going from “Oh, this kid is great!” to “Oh, this kid is a monster”. So…