“A Proper Cynic”: An Interview with Protomartyr’s Joe Casey

Probably not. So early on it was like, “Okay, I gotta learn, I gotta read.” When I first started reading as a kid it was a competition almost to see who could read the most. Not when I was younger, it was mostly just recently. JOE CASEY: No, it’s pretty recent that I’ve looked into it, but very, you know, surface level. A heavy reader? I want to ask about school just a little bit. Fox by Roald Dahl, and then later on I read Watership Down way too early, and I was very proud of that, it was a thick book. Protomartyr’s North American tour concludes December 19 at The Regent in Los Angeles. History is happening right now. I hate when people say money can’t buy you happiness. He wrote Gaslight, oddly enough, which is a big term now. What appealed to you about the Patrick Hamilton novel Hangover Square [which inspired “Maidenhead” on Under Color of Official Right]? With the last album, what it was about, it really pissed me off that I felt I had to sing about stuff like that. Because a lot of times singing stuff can be the worst thing you could do, and everything sounds cheesy, so, sometimes I bring in an old word. I don’t want the next album to be like, “Here’s an update on the state of the world.” I don’t wanna get into “state of the world”–type shit. Think Lou Reed but with a broader expressive range. I wanted to ask about “You Always Win,” on the Consolation EP, which seems like the closest you’ve come to doing a ballad —
I try to do one on each album. It affects a lot of what goes on. If I was born rich, I think I’d be a lot happier. What I used to do is bring tons of books and then I’d get more on the road, so now I kind of keep one or two books and hope that we hit a used book shop before I run out of stuff to read. “To have the inspiration of the music,” he told me during our conversation, “is like, ‘Okay, now I have to come up with something that fits this.’ That’s what gets my mind working and actually gets me to write stuff down.” But Casey is also admirably unimpressed by his own reading habits. And I was like, “Can you explain to me what the agent intellect is?” And my philosopher friend was like, “No, that’s the whole point. But ultimately it’s rigged against everybody, so it doesn’t bum me out too much. And those were the two books suggested, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. Yeah, well, I think as far as what we’re talking about, the Russians probably did it the best. Were you a good student? My family was from there a long time ago. I also wanted to ask about Fritz Leiber, whose novel Our Lady of Darkness you’ve said informed “Corpses in Regalia.” What fascinates me about him is that he wrote in so many genres, but he was the guy who coined the term “sword and sorcery.”
Yeah. Do you think music can change people’s minds about things? You can try to fight it but it’s gonna win. The idea of the past is kind of weird. “Three Swallows” on No Passion is me trying to do a ballad. Is that something you’re aware of? Yeah. Then there’re the lyrics. How’d you find out about it, why was it interesting to you? Because I hate that, you know in any biography, it’s like, I don’t care about when you were a kid unless it was fascinating — and Elvis was. It was mostly just because my dad was a fan of history, and I want to be a fan of history. As much as I hate these guys, I understand why they’re like, “I gotta keep on winning.” It’s kind of like dealing with death: you don’t want to deal with it until it actually happens. Where you start. You can’t have studded belts, can’t have a phone. He’s read all the heavyweights. I was like, I don’t know, I’ve never been a fan of Elvis, but is there a good book about Elvis? But as we’ve talked, it seems to me that you don’t think we should escape it, you don’t want to, or you think it’s impossible. I’m kind of fascinated now about “What makes me Irish?” Nothing, really. Did you read those kinds of books when you were younger, or more recently? I used to be a car reader; I used to laugh at people who couldn’t read in the car, now my eyes go fuzzy pretty quick. He was the member of the Fall for the longest time. I don’t know which this one is … [Reaches for copy on table translated as Graveyard Clay by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson.] This is actually the good one. You don’t have to do that because these things exist all at the same time. I got it in a used bookstore. It’s interesting that you bring up As I Lay Dying, because when I found out about “Caitriona” being inspired by the Ó Cadhain book Cré na Cille, it reminded me of As I Lay Dying, what with Addie Bundren talking from her coffin and everything. But I think we’re almost trained to keep on trying to win until we lose. I was like, “This book about rabbits is really interesting.” I mean, I read a lot of trash, too. But one of the songs was “Wheel of Fortune.” It’s an old rockabilly woman singer who sings the original. ¤
ROBERT LOSS: One of the things that’s been fascinating to me is that you have all these literary and historical allusions in your songs, specifically ancient and medieval and pre-Enlightenment sources. They were always very dark, about human nature, failing. Even though you’re hopping around from Hangover Square to Graveyard Clay, there are a few common denominators at work. I’m cynical by nature, and I wish the world would allow me to be a proper cynic. You slowly learn that he’s crazy, but it’s very tastefully done. Yeah. Yeah, it draws the listener into a different kind of response. And it’s like, “Oh, this is how you become a good writer, you kind of churn out the product.” You don’t sit and think about it. It’s like, “Smile on me, please let it be now.” The idea of the wheel of life and all that. I like a good drink, and it talks about alcoholism in an interesting way, but also makes it fun to read. It can come pretty damn close. You don’t take it with you. Enjoy … but not too much. When you’re a kid, you think, “Eventually the dickheads will stop winning.” But, no. But, in the band I’m actually not the biggest reader, Alex the drummer is. But it’s a place where, you know, many people were murdered. But I do feel that with literature and this kind of stuff, I’m building connections whether they exist or not. Yeah. Rock ’n’ roll books came up last night, and you’ve mentioned the Elvis story in “A Private Understanding” coming from Peter Guralnick’s book. Drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson never played what you expected to hear. And there’s also a sense that you can’t escape history. The most precise musicological way in which I can describe Casey’s vocal delivery is the classical style of recitative, the operation of the voice somewhere between singing and speaking, but suitably roughed-up and percussive for a rock band. Some of the questions in your songs also have long histories, like how should we be good to each other, how should we be ethical. I’m the youngest of three boys, and I would say that I’m the least of the readers in the family, but that just means my brother Jim is just a terrible reader. With both that and “Wheel of Fortune,” I had heard that music is something that can reach people with Alzheimer’s and I was looking for songs that were popular when my mom was in high school. She came of age pre–rock ’n’ roll, so there were a lot of crooners, but it was the middle period in the 1950s where it was like Johnny Mathis and things like that. And I actually read the second book first because I wanted to skip to the good parts. Guitarist Greg Ahee’s pointed riffs and spacious textures gave the band a wider vocabulary. Yeah. I always hate those historical movies or books where they kind of give it a modern context. You mentioned your dad being into history. For one thing, as he has often pointed out, the band writes the music first and then Casey figures out the words. But instead of being assertions of wise thoughts or observations, Casey’s lyrics come across as the process of thinking itself, and in this mode, the “literary” is neither privileged nor secured as anything other than language. 
While Protomartyr’s front man proudly wears a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, he does seem reticent about the tag applied to his numerous allusions to literature, history, and philosophy. He kind of combined the Conan/Tarzan thing before Dungeons & Dragons existed. Oh yeah. But I wonder, is it because I was not lucky? I don’t know. The philosopher’s job is not to answer and provide knowledge but to ask questions. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a smart thing, but it seems like the right thing — not to have answers — because I don’t have answers in my day-to-day life. He’s reading a book about Mao right now. In Philly, we played at the Fillmore Philly, a chain of concert venues, and they have all this rock ’n’ roll art on the wall, like Jimi Hendrix, but on top of it, it’s very corporate. I don’t think about it. It’s been covered a lot. But I remember the first thing that was actually interesting was we got to pick a book from a list and write about it, and I read As I Lay Dying by Faulkner. I never got to meet him, but in the band’s early days, I was like, “Alex, we gotta get your grandfather to write the liner notes for our album.” So Alex played it for him and he said, “It’s a lot of noise for four guys.” And, “Protomartyr: You should change your name to The Steves.” [Laughs.]
And he was another fellow who was like, “What’s selling? “Here’s a dispatch from Joe…”
Yeah … “Hey, everybody! The dickheads are still winning. Okay, I’ll write a bunch of cowboy books.” And he got really good at writing cowboy books. And I think that’s what rock ’n’ roll stories have been reduced to is this salable concept, with individuality in a sense, but this weird salable thing. So this is a perfect one where he’s like, “Okay, here’s the voice of this guy who’s boring.” I kind of like those books where the narrator is unreliable. Everybody raise your hand if you’re woke!”
The result of that attitude, though, seems like you have a different kind of commitment to thinking through these ethical questions. That was when I was trying to establish that fact that, okay, I’m going to write things where I’m not the narrator. Why isn’t there somebody better doing it? Okay, crime novels.” And then he wrote some of the best ones. That was the first time I was like, “Oh yeah, some of these lauded authors are kind of shit.”
One of the things I admire about Faulkner and Joyce is that they succeed at their bullshit. I liked the tone. DECEMBER 17, 2018

NAMED AFTER Saint Stephen, who in 34 AD, we’re told, fell asleep as an angry mob stoned him to death, the band Protomartyr has always veered between stoicism and ferocity. In the center of all this, though I suspect he would shrug at the suggestion, is singer and lyricist Joe Casey. The class struggle — and I don’t really know anything about it — but it fascinates me. Is that something you’ve always been attuned to, or has that changed as you’ve gotten older? They’ll write 12 barbarian books, but they’ll also have their personal stories. And you gotta submit to it. You think that you’re hot shit and then you … I have to say that my highest moment of education was nursery school. So in the song, death or age become this lover that’s kicking your ass. But it’s rigged now. No. It’s such a mundane, realistic book. Cowboy books? next to The Basement], there’s all these big posters of models having a good time. I like the fact that he was like pulp entertainment and … depressing. On the road now, my eyes are going so it takes longer to read in the van. I’m sure if I wasn’t into the band I might think it was boring, but I like that it’s just “we did this, we did that.”
Strips away the glamour. It made a lot of sense on the first record because I didn’t know what to write about. As long as it’s not too pretentious, it can sound different to the ear. All his books were the same. The band’s 2012 debut album, No Passion All Technique, was 30-plus minutes of scorched punk earth, admittedly more mob than somnolent acceptance, but on Under Color of Official Right (2014) and The Agent Intellect (2015) the band found its musical voice. Well, I mean, they’re both good, but the other one is very stilted. It was really that one Anatomy of Melancholy book where I was like, “Okay, this is a guy that’s writing in English, but a version I can barely understand, and he’s bringing up all these allusions to other things.” It was a good heavy bathroom read, thousands of pages about “What makes a person sad?” And then he’s got all these quotes from the ancients. So that’s why the myth of the rock ’n’ roll star fascinates me a little, even if I think it’s gone. And now I realize everything’s happening at the exact same time. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] What were the first books that shook your world when you were younger? Listening to Protomartyr, what resonates with me is what I think of as a very Irish and Scottish mindset that’s filled with dark humor. Were you always a reader when you were growing up? No one knows what the hell he was talking about.” And it’s like, “Okay, good.” [Laughs.]
The references to history in your lyrics usually bring out the brutality of life, like “Tarpeian Rock” —
Which is now a parking lot. I don’t wanna be forced to do it. Life is absurd, but there’s the courage to go on. How people keep you in your spot. It was one of those things where I was, you know, I didn’t know how to study. Maybe. ¤
Robert Loss is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Philosophy at Columbus College of Art and Design. When you got into high school or college was there a certain book or kind of book that spoke to you, like, “Oh, I could do this.”
Well, super early was Fantastic Mr. So I did want to ask, what drew you to Ó Cadhain’s book? Yeah. But then there’s a list of things you can’t bring in. Another old-timey concept that applies today. That sound only expanded in 2017 with the band’s most recent full-length, Relatives in Descent, an album that’s more structurally complex and emotionally sprawling without ever losing the grip on the punk sensibility that brought the band to the dance. “What I don’t like about talking about reading all the time,” he said, “is that, of course you should be a reader.” 
I caught Protomartyr’s December 2 show at The Basement in Columbus, Ohio, which featured openers Rattle (from Nottingham, United Kingdom) and co-headliners Preoccupations. Some of the books are really good. I’m singing about something, it’s in a voice. All these guys that are hoarding wealth, I wonder what they think their wealth will do when the world is burning, the world is dead, when they’re dead. I just wanna make sure we avoid anthems. Scan any article about Protomartyr and, aside from copious references to the band’s Detroit heritage, you’ll spot the adjective “literary.” That’ll happen when you name-drop Heraclitus the Obscure and allude to novels like Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille. Onstage, Casey grimaced, barked into the mic, and pulled a seemingly endless supply of Miller Lite cans from the pockets of his suit jacket. With “You Always Win” I couldn’t help but think of Hank Williams since you sing “You win again” so often. Who’s woke here? I knew that he was a screenwriter. I don’t believe they’re necessarily true, but I see myself in these books and that experience. When I was younger I’d think the history was the past and we’re living in the future. That’s a thing you can go back and read books from the Roman days and people were struggling with that. I like being a cynic, sitting in the corner, not doing things. He wasn’t like, “Oh, I love crime, I love cowboys.” It was, “What sells?”
Do you read much philosophy? Like the venue next to where we played last night [Express Live! “Oh, cowboy books aren’t selling anymore? Maybe it has something to do with where I’m from. Definitely as I’ve gotten older. With “agent intellect,” I saw that and just thought it was cool. I like how things change, but then also don’t change at all. Brutality’s always going on. These are books that help create our perception of rock ’n’ roll and its lifestyle and artistry. If I had a bunch of money would I worry so much? That’s what Socrates’s first move was, to walk around and ask questions. He is the author of Nothing Has Been Done Before: Seeking the New in 21st-Century American Popular Music (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). But Watership Down was probably the one where I was like, “Oh, I can read, and I can also understand it.”
I went to an all boy’s school and we read a lot of like, The Red Badge of Courage, and lots of war books. When we were in Rome, I was like, “We have to see where this is.” And it’s just a parking lot now. It’s not precious. That’s why I like genre writers, I like the fact that all these people approach writing as a job. I have two friends that are philosophy professors. When I met him the following afternoon at The Roosevelt coffeehouse downtown, Casey was soft-spoken, affable, and fed crumbs from his bagel to a sparrow that landed on our table. My favorite book is by Steve Hanley, the bass player from the Fall, called The Big Midweek. [Laughs.]
Alex and I both like reading pulpy books from the last century because you can read 20 of them … I was addicted to [Georges] Simenon for a long time because all his books were almost exactly the same, and once you get into the flow of it … His claim to fame was that he would write the plot on an envelope, get his plot together, and write the book in two days. Do you feel that way about music? So I’m guessing you’re skeptical of capitalism. I like Irish writers, but I also feel like at that point I hadn’t dipped my toe outside of the “big ones.” And, what was interesting about this was that it was written in Irish, and two translations came out at almost the exact same time after years of not being translated — and so I was like, “Okay, here’s an author that is considered by the Irish one of the best writers, and it’s the first time that I’ll be able to read it.” And I like the fact that both translations are completely different. To say, “What do you think?” and then, “I don’t agree with that, let me tell you why.” I feel like that’s what your songs do. Our drummer’s grandfather is Elmore Leonard —  
Really. Have you always found that kind of literature appealing? I don’t think I’ll ever have any power, but yeah, they’re about living in a world where outside forces are affecting you. And that was the first book I read I’m like, “This is really — I can’t figure this out.” I guess in my paper I tried to act like I knew what was going on, and my teacher was like, “Joe, did you understand this book at all?” And I was like, “No, it’s kind of not good.” And she was like, “You’re right,” and she gave me an A. Their set was typical of the tour, beginning with “My Children” into the powerhouse “Wheel of Fortune” from this past summer’s EP, Consolation. So I think I was blessed with being naturally a little smart so I could think, but when actual studying was involved I was really bad at it. Have you thought about your songs as being concerned with power — what you do with it, how you get it, how it hurts people? Why worry about tomorrow while there’s today? It can make you not worry about things that everyone else worries about. We live in a cynical time about art and art’s impact. So why would I write a song where’s it’s A + B = C or something? 
But your songs are very aware of class and economics. In the beginning of the band I remember thinking, “Okay, I’ve never read the Bible.” And so I decided to get the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible, which is like extra annoying and difficult, which I like because it has a kind of stilted language. One of the reasons I wanted to ask about philosophy is that you seem like a very philosophical person in the sense that you’re skeptical. In grade school I was really good, in high school I was pretty good, in college I was pretty bad. Which, with a band like the Fall, is kind of the point. I was the coolest kid in nursery school and it was all downhill from there. I don’t know why it’s not more of an issue in the world.