Protomartyr singer Joe Casey is one of rock's greatest unhinged bookworms.
A ranting talk-singer, he sounds like a saner version of Pere Ubu's David Thomas. Casey's ability to spin captivating and strange yarns is enviable. Whether he's telling the story about a riot breaking out between old people after the Pope appears at a stadium or talking about the King of Rock 'n' Roll spotting the face of Joseph Stalin in the sky, Casey brings these narratives to life with a level of concision and detail that puts most poets to shame.
Phoenix New Times talked with Casey shortly before Protomartyr embarked on a tour in support of their stunning new album, Relatives in Descent.
New Times: I wanted to start off by asking you about a story you mention in “A Private Understanding”: Elvis in Flagstaff seeing a vision of Joseph Stalin in the sky. What inspired that?
Joe Casey: It was from a book I was reading – a two-book series on Elvis by Peter Guralnick. It's in the second book. The first book is his rise, and the second is his fall. I wasn't particularly a big fan of Elvis, but on the road you read whatever's in front of ya. So I was reading a lot of music bios for some weird reason and that stuck out to me. It seemed like a weird thing to have in Elvis' story. It stuck out as an important moment for him even though it was so bizarre in its happenings.
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I was curious how the band's songwriting process works. Because your lyrics are so novelistic and detailed, I was wondering if you wrote them independently of the music? Or do you sit down and put them together after listening to the music? How deeply do each of those halves of the songwriting process inform each other?
The music comes first – that's always been the case. In the past, we kind of jammed stuff out and I'd be over in the corner mumbling things. Luckily for this time, because we had more time on our hands, Greg and Alex would go in and work on stuff and put together demos. And then I'd listen to the demos and mumble over them, trying to come up with words that fit the music.
In past interviews, you've emphasized that Protomartyr isn't a political band. What strikes me about Relatives In Descent is how timely the album feels. It really feels like it reflects and captures the mood of impending doom that's in the air in Trump's America.
Every album we've done has some sort of politics in it. It's just a matter of course – if you're going to write about what's happening around you, it's going to have political elements. I just didn't want to be saddled with the term "political band" because I think that can turn some people off, like it forms this picture of sloganeering.
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Every song on the album was written during the last year, so what was going on in the world and locally seeped into the writing process.
One lyric that resonated with me is from “Don't Go To Anacita”: “The liberal-minded here, they close their eyes and dream of technology and kombucha.” Some of your songs touch on themes of gentrification, and that's something we're seeing a lot of Phoenix right now. We even have bars that boast about having kombucha on tap. I was wondering if that was something you're seeing on your local level? Is Detroit in danger of being gentrified?
Detroit is getting gentrified. It's happening all over. I wish it wasn't so cookie-cutter, but that's the way it is. I'm all for Detroit making a wonderful comeback, and people are certainly trying to help the city out and make things better. But it's disappointing when you're driving around America and see the same sort of thing no matter where you go. You'd like to think that if you go to New Orleans or Phoenix or any place, it would have the flavor of the people that lived there. And that's what I'm worried about Detroit: there are new developments, they just built a giant new stadium ... I just wish it would reflect the people that live in the city more than it does. I like nice restaurants, but I don't know if all we need is fancy restaurants. We don't need condos, we need affordable housing for people who live in the city.
As a writer, who do you turn to for inspiration when you're working on songs?
I try not to focus on any one person, because that's a quick way to devolving into a parrot of that style. What I do like reading is this book by Robert Burton called The Anatomy of Melancholy that was written in the 1600s. What was interesting about it is that he was pulling from all these different sources to describe why sadness Affects humanity. That's what I like to do. I like to pull things from all over the place. Because a lot of times people say things better than you can say them, but you can put it into context.
Protomartyr are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, October 17, at The Rebel Lounge. Tickets are $12 to $14.