Protomartyr’s Joe Casey is something of an enigma.
During the Detroit band’s show in Phoenix back in 2017, Casey proceeded to come out on stage and slam a copious amount of cheap beer while delivering a mesmerizing performance. On that October night, this reporter overhead several audience members question the ability of anyone, let alone Casey, who resembles someone working as an extra in the background of the TV show, Mad Men, to perform at such a high level after downing that much brew, but he pulled it off.
“Yeah. The numbers (of beers) have gone down over time, but that's how you deal with the nervousness,” says Casey.
Nervousness goes hand in hand with getting on stage for just about anyone, but for Casey, it's been a bit of a struggle since Protomartyr started playing shows in the early 2010s. Luckily, he's found a way to harness the extra energy created by his discomfort on stage.
“I’m not much of a stage presence to begin with, so if I wasn’t amped up on fear, I would be a dead fish on stage,” adds Casey, before continuing:
“It's always a little bit of a struggle for me with stage fright. I've just gotten used to that feeling, you know. It’s there and it's been so many shows where I have had it that if it wasn't there, I'd be very worried. I like the fact that no matter where we're playing, whether it's some sort of amazing place in Europe or some small club someplace, that feeling is there. I don't often feel joy, so I had to take my feelings where I can get them. The slight panic is an old friend now."
That anxiousness may or may not show up when Protomartyr play The Rebel Lounge on Monday, March 20.
As might be expected, Casey is certainly soft-spoken on the phone but on stage, it's an entirely different story. The middle-aged Detroit native is the least likely of rock personalities but, arguably, way more interesting than his more extroverted peers. As a singer, Casey’s vocal work is something of a cross between the late Mark E. Smith of the Fall and Mike Hard of God Bullies, but he exudes a thoughtful calmness as we talk on an early winter morning about topics that are less than comfortable.
Over the past decade, Protomartyr have quietly made a name for themselves as one of the premier American post-punk bands who are still active at the moment. Joining Casey are guitarist Greg Ahee, bassist Scott Davidson, and drummer Alex Leonard. The foursome have been together since before the first record, No Passion All Technique, came out in 2012.
Casey appreciates the longevity and closeness the decade-plus of making music together provides.
“When we started the band, the big hook for it was, ‘Joe is mid to late 30s. It's too late to start a band.’ Now that we've been a band for a little bit more than 10 years, now the guys are all the age I was when we started. So, I think they're starting to realize that yes, it's kind of insane, you know, being in a band in your late 30s. The call of domesticity starts calling out to you and all that sort of thing,” he says.
Listening to Protomartyr’s music, it doesn't seem like age differences or even Casey’s firm grip on being what some would call middle-aged has imparted anything other than a sense of obligated urgency on the band. The first single off of their forthcoming album, Formal Growth in the Desert, “Make Way” is a triumphant romp of rock 'n' roll angst. Don’t let the mellow beginning fool you, even when Casey sort of talk/sing/whispers the line “No one owes anyone” over some well-placed pedal steel guitar.
Growth in the desert indeed.
“'(Make Way)' is the first single and first song off the new record. [Ahee] had an idea for it, a sketch of the song, really, and he kept saying he wanted to do something cinematic, something big. It's one of those songs where you hope that it's the first song on the record, because you start thinking of it that way. That can always change at the last minute, but I was writing lyrics to it as if it was the first song. I figured it's a good introduction to, kind of like when you watch an episode of television, to what came before. In a way, it's kind of about what has happened over the last couple of years," Casey says.
According to Casey, he and his bandmates like to start each Protomartyr album off a little bit differently, but they also realize that there is no need for some huge departure from their established sound.
"You can innovate for innovation's sake, and that's no good. Innovation used to be a very great word when was first coined, but it doesn't necessarily mean better, you know? Just changing something for no reason could be a bad idea. So you always want to thread the needle where you're like, 'Well, we got to make sure that we try something new, but not so new that we sound like dogshit,'" Casey says.
If "Make Way" is any indication, there is zero chance Formal Growth In The Desert sounds like dogshit. Casey says the band is excited to be able to support the new record properly and will be heading to Phoenix after a whirlwind of shows at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.
"This tour is the long death march that leads to South by Southwest. We are going there because the last record [Ultimate Success Today] kind of got fucked [by the COVID-19 pandemic]. We were really proud of that record and it kind of died on the vine, so we are ready to do whatever it takes to promote this new one. It's a grind, though, and definitely a young man's game. This time our schedule is much better," says Casey.
Protomartyr. With The Father Figures. 7 p.m. doors, 8 p.m. show, Monday, March 20. The Rebel Lounge, 2303 East Indian School Road. Cost is $18 in advance and $20 at the door. Tickets are available here.
Editor's note: Tom Reardon is a member of The Father Figures, but the band had not been added to the show at the time this interview took place.