Joe Casey has entered a new stage of life. After a decade as the self-consciously “miserable” frontman and lyricist of the Detroit post-punk institution Protomartyr, culminating in 2020’s Ultimate Success Today, he’s trying out a new, warily hopeful mode of existence. Protomartyr’s new project, Formal Growth in the Desert, is no stroll in the park, but it’s easily the most optimistic entry into their emphatically cynical body of work.
Part of Casey’s thematic pivot has been circumstantial. He got engaged (and, in May, married), which inspired a move from the crumbling family home on 6 Mile where he’s lived out the vast majority of his 46 years on earth to the more suburban 9 Mile — making him, in his own words, “one mile less cool than Eminem.” The love in his life, as well as the global pause brought on by the pandemic, also gave him the push he needed to work on himself after decades of neglect. It was, he told me last month, a way out during dark times.
Still, it would be a ridiculous stretch to say Casey now sees the world through rose-tinted lenses. The main factors that prompted his move out of the neighborhood he grew up in were not only new love, but also his mother’s death after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and a series of break-ins that occurred the same week his then-girlfriend, now-wife moved to his home city. The robberies, to which Detroit police responded with complete indifference, are the subject of “We Know the Rats,” a standout track near the end of the new album.
Elsewhere, Formal Growth works in pairs: On “Graft Versus Host,” Casey plumbs the gulf between the “happiness in a cloudless sky” he knows his mother wishes for him and the “Vantablack in a starless sky” he actually feels in her absence. But later, on “The Author,” he celebrates her life from a much more accepting perspective. On “Polacrilex Kid,” he asks the question, “Can you hate yourself and still deserve love?” And on the album’s closer, “Rain Garden,” he answers it. “I am deserving of love,” he sings as Greg Ahee’s dense guitar chords and Alex Leonard’s heavy drum fills crash around him, radiating a serenity unprecedented in his earlier work.
Our conversation touched on Casey’s newfound confidence, as well as wild tigers, the Detroit Tigers, love, late capitalism, and grief.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
The FADER: In interviews surrounding Ultimate Success Today, you talked about that album as the end of a decade of Protomartyr. Did making Formal Growth in the Desert feel like the start of something new?
Joe Casey: I was setting myself up. I didn’t realize there was gonna be COVID, so it seemed like I was saying, “We’re done.” And then COVID hit, and it felt like, “Well, maybe we are done.” We didn’t know when we were gonna tour; money wasn’t rolling in; and creatively, we were completely sapped. I didn’t think about songs. Greg didn’t pick up a guitar for a year.
So when we started working on this record, it was kind of a benefit that during all those interviews, I was saying that was the end of a chapter. We didn’t have to be like, “We’ve gotta work on a new Protomartyr record.” We could just work on music. That gave us an out where we could start afresh, and it released the pressure of coming off a year of not doing shit and then being forced to recapture the magic.
I think this period after what we all hope is the darkest part of the pandemic feels like a new chapter for a lot of people. And I know you recently got engaged. Have you been feeling more hopeful lately?
That’s an underlying theme of this record: Whereas before, our Protomartyr [pandemic] record might’ve just pointed out how miserable and pointless life was, this album is like, “Okay, that’s a valid feeling. How do you get out of it without being too ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ about it? What are realistic ways to continue living after something like that? Obviously, getting engaged is a great thing. And the album ends on an upbeat note, whereas we usually like to pull the rug at the end.
“You have to come to terms with the fact that the past is dying, and what’s coming behind you is coming, and you can be against it or you can accept it.”
You’ve been known to connect the closer of one album to the opener of the next one. In this case, do you feel like the open existentialism of “Worm In Heaven” was the precursor to the more future-oriented “Make Way?”
“Worm In Heaven” is a funeral song; it’s to be played at my funeral. It was pretty obvious early on that “Make Way” was gonna be the first song on the new one. And I learned from Greg that it’s in the same key. I just figured that after the years of COVID where millions of people died and everybody was face to face with mortality, the living still have to exist, in a non-religious sort of rapture way. Everybody’s gone, and now the people that remain have to continue on.
“Make Way” is an especially anthemic opener for a Protomartyr album. The statement at the end, “Make way for tomorrow,” is a much more direct call to action than you usually write.
The most interesting thing about going through COVID was when everybody was like, “It’s over. Stop wearing masks.” Everyone had a collective delusion that it was back to business. That’s also the thing as you get older: My parents’ generation, they’re all dying off. I’ve been to too many funerals, and it’s not because of COVID; it’s just because they’re old and they’re dying off. Then my generation’s gonna start dying off. You have to come to terms with the fact that the past is dying, and what’s coming behind you is coming, and you can be against it or you can accept it.
On the next track, “For Tomorrow,” you hint at both Detroit’s industrial past and its gentrifying present.
I’m a very lazy person. I’m like, “I’ll put it off till tomorrow. Tomorrow is when I’m gonna start really working.” And then, immediately after I wake up, I’m like, “Time to go back to bed.” I was capturing that mental state. And then, in Detroit, you could either go to the liquor store — we call them party stores here — get some booze, and go back, and that’ll be your day, or [you could go to one of these] new art galleries popping up. “For Tomorrow” is a lazy, depressed person’s anthem.
You moved out of your family home recently. What was the move like, where are you living now, and how has it changed the lens through which you view your city, if at all?
I got engaged, and I convinced somebody to move to Detroit, which is a point for me. The week she moved, we were staying at an Airbnb, and I was like, “I can’t wait to show you the house. It needs a lot of work, but we can live there for a while, because trying to buy a house now is impossible.” And that week, for the first time in my existence, the house was broken into — not only once, but four times in the span of two weeks. I was like, “This doesn’t usually happen!”
I called the cops, and the cops said, “Do you have a security system?” “No, I don’t have a security system.” “Do you have a gun?” “No.” “Well, it’s gonna keep happening.” It was the cop equivalent of “you had it coming.” They said they’d send a detective. Nobody ever came. As it’s developing, you hate the thief because he’s taking away your sense of safety and your things. But then you start wondering, “Why is this guy breaking into my house?” There really wasn’t much. He went through everything — 60 years of accumulated junk, mementos, important things to us — to not find much. The most important thing I lost was a laptop that had all the Protomartyr demos on it.
After a while, you’re like, “The guy’s breaking into my house because he needs the money.” “Why does he need the money?” “Well, in Detroit right now, there’s not a lot of jobs. Housing is ridiculous; people are buying cheap houses, slapping some shitty paint on them, and raising the price to where no one can afford them.” I slowly stopped being mad at the thief, and then I was mad at the cops for ignoring me, and then I was mad at the systems that made it so. It went from, “I’m scared of being broken into,” to, “I’m scared of a system that makes you scared of your neighbor, that makes you worry about the immigrant stealing your job.” It went from being something very specific to something very abstract. That’s “We Know the Rats.”
“I slowly stopped being mad at the thief, and then I was mad at the cops for ignoring me, and then I was mad at the systems that made it so.”
You wrote this album in the wake of your mother’s passing from Alzheimer’s. On “Graft Versus Host,” you contrast “happiness in a cloudless sky” (what you imagine your mom wants for you), and Vantablack in a starless sky (how you actually feel). How do you find a balance between those two poles?
My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s, so we brought her into the family house, and we got to see her going through it first hand. But that’s your grandma. That’s an old lady that’s been old since you were a child. Alzheimer’s goes down the family line, so my mom was like, “I don’t want to be a burden to you boys if I ever get it.” After my dad died, thought, it was almost immediate. I think the grief of my dad dying exacerbated it. She kind of quickly started losing her memory and being able to do things. It was a decade-long spiral to the end. It’s impossible to explain, watching someone you love slowly drain away. So her death was very sad, but I had almost a decade to grieve her.
“Graft Versus Host” was one we wrote early. I remember when they came to take [my mother’s] body out of the house — my brother’s house at the time — I tried to really think about what I was feeling and seeing, rather than just sitting there blankly. Immediately, there was that feeling of, “That light is now out. What would she want me to do?” She wouldn’t want me to be sad about this, because it was a relief, and she was a very happy person. But that’s easier said than done. The music that the band had written had this amazing coda to it, and I was like, “This is expressing more emotion than anything I could say. I don’t want to gum it up with words.”
With “The Author,” Greg had a fairly upbeat song. I was like, “This is gonna be another mom song, but it’s gonna be more about celebrating her and getting through it.” Again, that song has a coda that expresses more than words could. I didn’t even realize until we started doing interviews about this record that both those songs have a part where I’m not singing and the music kind of takes over. I’m really happy with those two because they sum up going from grief and depression to hopefulness. The narrative arc on those two songs is — if I can say so — pretty well done.
“The Author” ends with a simple, poignant message: “Kiss the ones that love you for the song you sing.” Do you think that revelation was possible for you because you’re in a serious romantic relationship now?
I think it would be a lot harder if I was lonely and had nobody. That’s why “Rain Garden” is the first love song I’ve ever written. We got engaged during COVID, so during these darkest times, it was a way out: “I think I’m a piece of shit, but this person cares about me. I need to clean myself up and try to find the good in life, because this person is willing to be there for me, and I need to be there for them.”
In the past, maybe I’d be like, “Well, they love me for who I am. I guess I can be a miserable bastard.” This was more, “You’ve gotta at least attempt to try to make the world you wanna live in.” I would hope we get there in an interesting way that’s not just, “You know what the answer is? Love.” I think it’s a little more complicated than that. But with the music [the band] wrote, I had to follow the way it was making me feel emotionally, and it was giving me hope.
“Polacrilex Kid” asks the question, “Can you hate yourself and still deserve love?” And Rain Garden answers it: “I Am deserving of love.” Tell me more about that process of discovering your worthiness to be loved.
The interesting thing is when you’re in Protomartyr, your fans like the fact that you’re depressed, or at least that you’re able to capture that feeling. I’m a pretty miserable person, which makes it easier to write about that stuff.
The trick is to try to write a good workout song, and then people will play you on Spotify. But the problem is then you have to write the lyrics, and you’re not a “you can do it guy,” you’re not an “achieve your dreams” fella. So you have to talk about, “I’m back, but I still have to pay bills,” and nobody applauds you for that. On the road, it can be very miserable. This reality creeps into [“Polacrilex Kid”], the reality of being myself: “Do I have enough to offer?” “I don’t think so.” So, “Am I deserving of love?”
“Rain Garden” is interesting, because in the first half I wanted to talk about very mundane things. It’s about me and my fiancé going to get Taco Bell, sitting in the parking lot and seeing this rain garden, and being like, “I’m sitting next to the person that I love, and we’re both chowing down on Taco Bell. This is a beautiful moment.” Then the second half kind of becomes very cosmic, almost biblical in its love, because that’s the way it works: The day-to-day is very beautiful, and then you can have flights of fancy about how much you love somebody.
“Baseball in the future… It’s gonna be a cloud where you can’t even see through it, and somewhere inside there’s some violence happening, and the crowds are screaming.”
“3800 Tigers” is at once fatalist regarding tiger extinction, nostalgic for the Lou Whitaker days of the Detroit Tigers, and futurist: dreaming of the brutal statistics that will arise by the year 3800. Beyond the word tiger, how do all these things connect in your head?
My favorite songs to write are the songs where I have no idea what I’m writing about, and I’m just trying to stay on the back of a very busy rocking song. What can I shout that will be interesting to me, as opposed to, “Rock and roll,” or, “I love to rock?” I was thinking about the number of tigers [in the world], which fluctuates — you Google it and it changes. Just last week in an interview, someone told me, “Actually, there’s been an explosion of the amount of tigers, and they’re starting to become a problem, going into villages and attacking people.” I guess that’s good news, that there’s more tigers.
But I always like talking about the Tigers. There’s two things specifically: ’84 was the last time we won the World Series. Those days are gone. We’ve come close once… 2007, 2008. So for longer than we’ve been a band, the Tigers have sucked. It was nostalgia for that period, and then, I was like, “Baseball in the future…” It’s gonna be a cloud where you can’t even see through it, and somewhere inside there’s some violence happening, and the crowds are screaming.
Speaking of puns, there are some good ones about capitalism on this record. There’s “Fulfillment Center,” “Let’s Tip the Creator,” and “Elimination Dances,” which you’ve called a metaphor for life but also feels relevant to the corporate rat race. Having spent half a lifetime in Detroit, which a lot of people consider the microcosm of American capitalist decline, what parts of our current stage of late capitalism feel like the most surreal?
What’s happening right now with all this AI stuff… I find it so amazing that these tech people, the first thing they go after is art: “Oh, my AI can replicate paintings and songs.” That, to me, shows you the hubris of these people. Art is an expression of the human soul. What’s not an expression of the human soul is being a CEO of a fucking company. AI could probably do that — pay bills, give out paychecks to workers, figure out where to cut costs — much better. It’s so funny that these soulless people always go after the thing with the most soul.