Protomartyr’s Joe Casey walks us through the literary interests and supernatural curiosities which informed the Detroit band’s third album, The Agent Intellect
Protomartyr make music out of curiosity: to ask questions, find connections. The Detroit band took a turn for the literary on their recently released third album, The Agent Intellect, and The Skinny calls frontman Joe Casey to investigate how their bone-rattling post-punk hits some really raw nerves. Using their characteristically bruising, metallic sound to query the relationship between mind and body, and the strange, cyclical nature of human existence, Protomartyr will scratch your deepest anxieties and leave you feeling all the better for it.
Some ten years senior to the rest of the band, Casey met guitarist Greg Ahee and drummer Alex Leonard when they were playing local gigs as a two piece titled Butt Babies, and found drummer Scott Davidson by chance, after attending a house show held in his basement. That same basement later became Protomartyr’s rehearsal space and dubbed, not without irony, the No Bummer Zone. The band’s first two full-length records, No Passion All Technique (2012) and Under Color of Official Right (2014) established a formula of sorts; cloudy, gut-punching post-punk spiked with Casey’s slurred, incisive baritone poetry. But it’s in Protomartyr’s most recent release – 2015’s late arrival The Agent Intellect – that the four-piece tentatively start to trust their muscles with the full weight of their imagination.
Casey describes the group’s evolution with dry self-deprecation, taking pains to emphasise a lack of professionalism. “It is all lot of dumb luck,” he states, matter-of-factly. “You gotta be thankful for it, but don’t think that you’re gunna keep on shitting gold. I still don’t have confidence in it. But it doesn’t bother me that I don’t have confidence, because I’ve never had it… and it’s been going pretty good so far.”
“We think that we’re living in the future and we know what’s going on, but we really don’t” – Joe Casey
He talks, jokingly, of a “quote unquote… artistic routine” which has developed out of necessity. Protomartyr spend a lot of time on the road, so when the band get down to writing and recording, they move fast. “I’m getting better at throwing out ideas. I don’t know if what I pick is good, but I do know that what I discarded was definitely bad,” Casey explains. The ideas he “picked” this time circle around his current curiosities; The Agent Intellect feels like a novel, as scenes and characters float in and out of a nightmarish, familiar landscape. Quick to stress that “you don’t want it to be a concept album, because that would be terrible,” he admits “but I do look for connections. The songs are about not knowing things, not knowing the answer.”
The investigative tone of the record starts with the title: it’s an obtuse Aristotelian concept that Casey discovered in a book called The Classical Tradition. “It’s just a good bathroom read,” he laughs. “And the Agent Intellect was in there. Now, what I like about it is that I don’t know what it is. Aristotle probably did explain it but it got lost in time, or burnt up… and now it’s become the thing that different philosophers throughout history have applied different meanings to. The fact that there’s no set meaning? I love that in reference to the mind. It seems the mind is pretty unknowable. And it was a spark that got me reading more, just trying to figure out what the hell it is.” So – with an album title based on a concept they don’t understand, Protomartyr embarked on making a record that asks more questions than it answers, exploring faith and frustration through eerie anecdotes and natural phenomena.
For the next stop on our literary tour, Casey explains the spoken word intro/outro to mid-record track The Hermit. “It’s from a book called Of Monsters and Marvels, and he’s a medical doctor, but back in the 1500s. He gives these ‘scientific’ reasons for ‘monsters’, which I guess just means deformities, and they’re, uh… they’re kind of funny. You know, a monster might be born because God is great, and a monster might be born because God hates you. That’s his scientific reason.”
“When you read the Bible it’s like, ‘Boy, sure was a lot of miracles back in the Bible times, how come there’s not so many nowadays?’ and if you read this book from the 1500s, it’s like, ‘Oh, there sure were a lot of people walking around with heads in their stomachs.’ You know, it’s just the way they perceived reality at the time.”
The Skinny confesses to not having personally seen many miracles, and Casey laughs. “Yeah, but I don’t know how the internet works, you know? If you explained it to me, it would sound almost as ridiculous as that ‘monster’ did to that author. That’s the thing: we’re just as confused. We think that we’re living in the future and we know what’s going on, but we really don’t.”
Another track, Boyce or Boice, tackles head-on this idea of a modern, more technical kind of blind faith. The song’s title refers to a strain of Christianity which believes in a duo of technologically proficient demons capable of corrupting your hardware. Casey suggests exploring a very serious website called Demon Busters, which should be examined with caution: expect sinister music on autoplay and all-caps, end-of-days rhetoric.
“And what’s really great about it,” he enthuses, “is that it’s kind of old for the internet – it’s kind of like an old text, an early website. And it’s interesting that you could believe in demons that are out to corrupt you. If you had a computer and the printer wasn’t working, you could say, ‘Oh, there’s a demon in my computer. Get out, demon.’ People go through life thinking that, and it’s just as valid as ‘Why does my computer not work? Oh I have no idea. I have to take it to the Genius store and have a Genius fix it.’” Through a Protomartyr lens, modern day mysteries start to feel really unnerving. How does the internet work? No, really?
Casey, although “not particularly religious,” spent his childhood working as an altar boy in a monastery next door to his home and finds a certain weight, a specific type of poetry, in quasi-religious language. “When you’re talking about unknown things, if you talk about faith and the fact that we go through life not really knowing a lot, then you kind of have to bring up religion,” he says.
Although the band’s moniker refers to the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, and the 26 December – the Feast of St Stephen – holds a special sway for the band, it’s mainly because “everyone’s home for the holidays, so it’s a big bar night in Detroit,” Casey laughs. More significant is the placement of the apocalyptic Feast of Stephen as the album’s closing track. “We wrote that song very very fast, and I made the lyrics up on the spot. We knew it had to be the last song.”
“You know, I think the real reason [the record] seems novelistic is more to do with the music [than the lyrics],” he continues. “The music came first. Greg, the guitar player, really wanted the songs to all bleed into each other. I don’t know much about music, but Greg, he’s explained it to me that the… I guess it’s a ‘note’? One of those things. It returns to the beginning of [album opener] The Devil in His Youth at the end of Feast of Stephen. It rises back… The beginning is kind of the end.”
That blow-out first/final note of The Agent Intellect echoes like a wheezing organ, a fateful, inevitable acknowledgement of the circle of life. Feast of Stephen prods at a Herod-like distrust of incoming generations, essentially blaming newborns for rendering the elderly irrelevant. “Nobody wants to hear an old guy complain about young people. So if you go back further and say, ‘Oh these stupid babies, let’s get rid of them,’ then that’s still the idea. It’s the fear you’re being pushed out, but accepting it.”
The Devil in His Youth flips these anxieties of aging, painting Satan himself as a gawky suburban teen driven to evil by the “mundane frustration” that life hasn’t provided everything he feels he deserves. Swapping between bedroom introspection and broad, scenic sketches of modern day Detroit, Protomartyr capture the anxieties of disaffected “youths” in all stages of life – from birth to death, via everything in between. Referencing pizza kings and DUI lawyers, dive bars and Pope visits, Protomartyr thumb through snapshot narratives to prove that fear of the unknown is a universally shared emotion.
Punk bands are so easily stereotyped as angry, or inflammatory. Protomartyr aren’t either of those things. In confronting life’s ugliness, from inequality to Alzheimers, with a record that lifts you up as much as it pricks at your skin, Protomartyr prove that there’s comfort in admitting that you just don’t know why things happen, or how the world works. Being honest doesn’t have to bum you out. The band are currently back on the road, due to hold these conversations on hundreds of stages over the next few months.
Restarting the cyclical process of touring, writing, recording and releasing will see Protomartyr return to Detroit in the summer, ready to shake up their old processes. “We’ll need to find another practice space. Trying something new would be a good thing to do,” Casey affirms. So you’re leaving behind the No Bummer Zone? “Yeah, we’re gunna have to throw ourselves into new stuff… Besides, there are a lot of new bands in Detroit full of babies that we gotta destroy.” Well, that’s the spirit!
Written for The Skinny, March 2016