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Protomartyr’s Joe Casey on the angst and infirmity of Ultimate Success Today

The frontman goes through his band’s eloquent, paranoid, and thrilling new album one song at a time.

July 17, 2020
Protomartyr’s Joe Casey on the angst and infirmity of <i>Ultimate Success Today</i> Trevor Naud / Pitch Perfect

A lot will likely be made of “Processed by the Boys,” the second song from Protomartyr’s fifth full-length album, Ultimate Success Today. There, over anxious guitars and a squirming saxophone, lead singer Joe Casey wonders what form the apocalypse might take: “When the ending comes, is it gonna run at us like a wild-eyed animal? / A foreign disease washed up on the beach? A dagger plunged from out of the shadows?” When he’s done wrestling with Armageddon, his voice dripping with disdain and a clarinet wheezing at his back, he howls about a police state as defined by over-surveillance as it is by sheer brutality. “Everybody's hunted with a smile / Being processed by the boys.”

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With the record coming out during a global revolution against discriminatory state-sanctioned violence, and with a deadly disease clearly exposing the thin tendrils society has clung to, “Processed by the Boys” sounds eerily prescient. But, Casey reminds me over the phone from his home in Detroit, none of this is new. “I often say that if you want to be a psychic, just write about what's happening today,” he says. “When it happens again, people will say, ‘Oh my, how did you know?’”

Ultimate Success Today, out now via Domino, is an eloquent, paranoid, and ultimately thrilling record from a band who have spent a decade processing death and decay in all its forms. This is, Casey says, a “mile-marker,” an attempt to tie up their first 10 years together, but that process was immediately thrown into chaos by the singer’s own bouts of anxiety. While writing the record, he feared for his health in ways that he hadn’t before, and a fear of doctors stopped him from receiving what might have been a simple diagnosis for his pain. It drove him to distraction, and you can hear that as the funereal woodwind fights for space in the mix here, turning what might have been a rebirth into an opportunity for Casey to spit out his last words.

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Casey is so straightforward in conversation that he often seems too harsh on himself and the lyrics he’s written for Protomartyr through the years. But it should come as no surprise that the frontman of a band that so consistently resists easy answers, both lyrically and musically, would question himself mid-sentence. As we went through the album one song at a time, Casey was happy to discuss his physical health, his affection for obscurity, and his disdain for simple slogans in lyrics. He was also bleakly funny and, eventually, almost hopeful — even if that hope only came after accepting the inevitability of death.

“Day Without End”

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The FADER: The lyrics here call back to “Half Sister,” the last song on [Protomartyr's fourth album] Relatives in Descent. Why did you want to draw that line from the last record to this one?

Joe Casey: Unfortunately, I think the last record ends on a note of hope, and the beginning of this one immediately casts it back down into the darkness. That was my mindset at that time. I was plagued by nostalgia, because I knew the record was going to come out in 2020. I thought 2020 was going to be a big year for music. I was wrong. I wanted to make reference to past records and to tie it all up, to end telling the story of these five records. To do that, you have to go back and talk about the themes from the last four. It wasn't a good kind of nostalgia. Health-wise I was scared, and I didn't know if I had much of a future at that point. I now realize that I'm probably a hypochondriac.

This is the first time the album title shows up. What does it mean in the context of this song?

The idea of a day that never ends is quite disturbing to me, especially if you're suffering where you can't go to sleep, and the sunlight coming in through your window is just the worst thing on Earth. I'm more frightened of a forever day than a forever night. It's trying to place all the events in the present, whereas in the past and on previous records, it has been a lot of looking back nostalgically, but sometimes bitterly.

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“Processed By The Boys”

“Processed By The Boys” really is tackling issues that have been forced into mainstream consciousness very recently: state surveillance, police overreach.

I don't think America will ever be defeated by an evil outside entity, it will be destroyed from within. Around that time, Trump was using ICE to go into cities and arrest people. All of a sudden, ICE went from being this kind of bizarre pseudo-army to being a full-fledged army. Who were they hiring? They're not hiring the best and brightest. The brutality of the police is going to be covered up by patriotism: “The boys are just doing their best.”

There's been a groundswell of support for this movement against police brutality and racism now though. It has sustained. Have you found yourself feeling at all optimistic?

Well, I'm very optimistic for two reasons. One is that it's a very youthful protest. And the primary goals are very simple and easy to understand. But I'm worried about two things. One, the response to these protests, the more fascist or more right-leaning side, is trying to denigrate it and define the protests in a way that will lessen its impact. Then there’s the corporate-left idea of watering the message down. You see that a lot, where corporations would love to make money off of the Black Lives Matter protest by using a hashtag or selling T-shirts.

I hope that it still is able to regenerate and stay the course, because it's pretty rough when you're getting it from both sides and trying to take you down.

“I Am You Now”

That carries into “I Am You Now,” where you seem to be adopting a pernicious voice.

I always like songs where I can rant and rave and spit and be angry.

You can be angry about things, but at the same time you're taking on a voice, you're becoming the evil character, absorbing people's hate. I think Protomartyr has done it a lot, and it's a tactic that I've always wondered about.

It's important to me to avoid the anthem, the empty slogan. There's nothing easier than repeating an empty slogan 20 times in a song, throwing out the platitudes, and feeling like you've done a job. Because I don't have the answers for things, it's often easier to take on the voice of the opposite force. I enjoy writing that way better, where you get to be more poetic about an issue. “The Devil In His Youth” [from 2015’s The Agent Intellect] was probably one of the early ones, but I'd done something similar to this on each album. It’s a writing challenge. If you can get into the head of a character, it's more fulfilling. It's fun to sing too. Since I'm not much of a singer, it can be more like character work. You end up being more of an actor than a singer.

“The Aphorist”

“The Aphorist” is so difficult to parse, it seems to be full of anti-slogans.

I do like writing songs about the creative process, because if you're stuck and you feel like you've got writer's block, you can write about that. The maybe pretentious thing on this one came about in a backwards way. I never knew there was an Italian poet whose last name was Quasimodo. Looking him up, I realized that he was a Hermetic poet.

Hermeticism was a movement that especially came up in Italy during the rise of fascism, where language was being assaulted along with basic human rights. That's always the case with fascism — language and truth are corrupted. The state can tell you what you know to be true is a lie. The Hermetic poets reverted with very obscure meanings and allegories. Fascism goes for very simple, direct thought. The Hermetic poets were going to where a word had meaning and the meaning could, when placed next to another word, have a different meaning. I thought that was an interesting way to creatively or artistically respond to fascism. I was struggling with that after the last record, and the time since, dealing with the current state of America, how to write about that without falling into slogans.

The other way to do it is to fall into obscurity. I've always been someone who maybe leans too heavily on obscurity, hoping that protects me. “The Aphorist” is about meaning. How clear do you want to be with it?

“June 21”

Why did you want Nandi Rose [of Half Waif] singing at the top of this song?

In general, the idea of this album was doing a lot of collaborations with people we don't even know. We've worked with friends before, but this was the first time we're collaborating with outside entities and all that entails. I knew originally it was more of a duet. It just seemed like, you get five songs into this album, it's almost a breath of fresh air, her coming in at the beginning and then being so prominent on this song. Especially since it's kind of a bummer of a song [about] a sadness that can hit you during the summer. To have her voice doesn't make it happier, but it makes it more buoyant and it's less one-note, literally, because she's on the song.

How much do you talk about the meaning of a song with outside collaborators? Are you happy to let them take it for what it is?

I don't even really tell the band members, unless they are curious and want to know. Lyrics are often so influenced by what the music is doing that it seems unnecessary. It seems like it would be putting the cart before the horse. The original spark all comes from hearing the music and what the music makes me feel.

“I can’t even think about the future, flying in a spaceship, because I realize it would be just as miserable as it is now — except there would be spaceships.”
“Michigan Hammers”

Lyrically this feels like kitchen sink realism.

I love kitchen sink. I wanted to talk about the labor movement in Michigan, but in a way that wasn't an anthem. I wasn't going to rewrite “The Internationale,” but I wanted to capture that feeling of Michigan when I was growing up, the vague memory of it being not a worker's utopia, but a place where the working man was at least given lip service, and had unions to bolster him. That's been degraded over time.

I wanted to capture that feeling of Michigan today. I still think it has the power of the working man, but without being an ode to the working man. It's trying to talk about something complicated. There used to be the Hammer9 building in Detroit, the Carpenter’s Union building. It used to have this great big neon sign that was a hammer coming down and hitting a nail. You used it as a landmark in Detroit. That was always an image that really inspired me. It’s no longer there, but that was the impetus for that. What are the Michigan Hammers? I don't know. Since then I've found out that it's a soccer fan club on Facebook for fans of West Ham United. There you go. Now they have an anthem.

“Tranquilizer”

“Tranquilizer” is a difficult listen, and very clearly about your physical condition. What was happening to you physically at this time, and how did that impact you mentally?

We had pretty much toured non-stop for two years, which was great and exciting, but mentally and physically you become a different person when you're on the road. A lot of people say it grinds you down, and you fall apart. Actually, I feel like I eat better on the road. Maybe I drink a little bit too much on the road, but it's offset by having to move amps every day and getting exercise, waking up early. I feel like after two years of that I had time to be alone with my body, and it just kind of fell apart.

I'm now in my 40s, and you have to start thinking, I've been mistreating this sack-of-shit body. Is this chickens coming home to roost? Is this part and parcel getting old, and you just have to get used to arthritis? There's so many things racing through your head. People start dying of things when you get into your 40s, and it's not necessarily like they died too young, it’s just the way life works. I like to hope that this is my mid-life crisis, because I realize how finite life is and I'm now into the second half of my life. The first half is gone.

When you're in physical pain you're not thinking about anything else. I wanted to capture that in “Tranquilizer,” because I thought it was a very nasty sounding song and I was glad that these lyrics can't be thought of too deeply. You're not thinking about rhyme, you're not thinking about poetic imagery. It's a scream or a shout, that's what I wanted to capture. “Please, get this pain away from me.” That's the only thought that you have.

Was there a diagnosis that helped you, or were you just left to stew with the pain?

I was left to stew with it. I'm terribly frightened of doctors, I’ve never liked going. And the driving force of me wanting to be in a band was my dad dying in 2008. He was 72, so he was old, but he had a hernia that he lived with for years and it was really bothering him, but he was scared of doctors and he would never go. Finally, we were like, "Dad, you're going to go on this trip with mom, you should get this hernia operation, it's painless, you'll be in and out of the hospital.” He finally went in to get his hernia operation and they sent him home. I was in Texas at South By Southwest with friends.

He started bleeding internally and died. He died from the doctors, pretty much. The last thing I remember, I talked to him on the phone and he said, "The doctor was older than I was.” He didn't feel like the operation went well. The operation killed him. If I was scared of doctors before, I'm more scared of doctors now. Yes, I would have been put at ease if I would have found out that I just had a gallbladder, but I just feel like sometimes the doctors are going to be guessing anyway too, so I try to avoid them as much as possible. I know that it leads to this hypochondria, these bad thoughts, but I'm very frightened.

“Modern Business Hymns”

The almost nihilistic hopelessness that comes at the end of that feedback loop is really reflected in “Modern Business Hymns,” which sounds like the painkillers kicking in. You come out of the physical pain, and you start howling: “The past is full of dead men / The future is a cruelty / Resign yourself.”

Yes, the first line of “Modern Business Hymns” is when the tranqs hit, when I would be in bed. Finally when you're in bed and you're thinking about tomorrow, you're thinking about all the stuff you've got to do. You get depressed.

You try to think up some fantastical story that will make you go to sleep. Now I can’t even think about the future, flying in a spaceship, because I realize it would be just as miserable as it is now — except there would be spaceships. We can think about spaceships, but the spaceships are going to be owned by billionaires. Capitalism will exist in space. It's not going to be the Star Trek world, where only the Ferengis care about money and nobody else does.

“Bridge and Crown”

“Bridge and Crown” has that capitalist disaster sewn into it as well — destroying your body for work.

In a weird way, even though there's still one more song, I see “Bridge and Crown” as the culmination of five albums worth of music and story. It talks about reaching the end of the line, the little dreams that keep us going, the contract we have with ourselves and the contract we have with others. Again, to go back to a high school existential notion, if you really thought about what existence is, you'd pull your head off.

I make reference to my dad in this song again, and I made reference to him on the first record. I don't want to continue to have that be a focus in my life, where I'm contemplating and thinking about my dad's death. He has a life. You have to move on from that, eventually. A lot of this is moving on, I hope. It's written with the idea of moving on beyond the obsessions I've had over the last five records. It’s looking forward to maybe having a new angle or a new opinion on life, because I think that can happen as you get older. You can still develop past 40.

"Worm in Heaven"

You end with “Worm in Heaven” Why leave it lingering on a slightly less positive note than you might have done with “Bridge and Crown”?

“Worm in Heaven” always sounded like a last song. It always felt to me like the frame of a house with wind blowing through it. Then when they recorded it, Izaak Mills added all this woodwind. The human breath is blowing through that song. It did sound like the wind leaving a body, so it's going to be a little bit funereal and a little bit valedictory.

One of the issues I’ve been dealing with on this album is making your mark or doing anything of worth. At the end of this, the last lines are: “I did exist, I did.” You carve what you can out of life and you set up your stones and you have your children to pass things onto. You write and you exist and you connect with other people. I was here, but life at the end of it says: you are no longer here. You no longer exist. Your existence is gone in a heartbeat, and that's it.

There's a way to look at it where it's not completely depressing. It can be freeing in a sense. As long as you know that your existence is fleeting, you have a limited time to do whatever you think you need to do, and the only thing that's going to remain of you is the way you treat other people and what you plant or what you leave in this world. That can be a positive. I would like that to be a message that I take for myself when we're working on new music. Less worry, less holding your gut and wondering if you're going to die from it. Knowing I'm going to die from something so I need to stop being so worried. I hope that's the thing that comes out of it. Is my existence meaningless? Yes. But I can see that as a good thing.

Protomartyr’s Joe Casey on the angst and infirmity of Ultimate Success Today