The nervous momentum that has propelled Protomartyr since its 2012 debut, No Passion All Technique, owes much to the disconnect between the band’s rousing, jagged instrumental choices and the unassuming vocal delivery of singer Joe Casey. It often feels like the components of the Detroit-based post-punk outfit are competing instead of coalescing. Amid that tension, as the guitar jangles into parts unknown, Casey holds to a tighter territory, vacillating between a bark and a croon.
In conversation, one gets the impression that Casey is the type of artist who’s ill at ease in the spotlight, and even more so in explaining himself.
“I think I have a hard enough time calling myself an artist … but an artist can do whatever the hell they want. For me, I have to write about it, how I feel about it, and what I try to avoid is absolutes, because I’m not an expert in anything. I’m not a political expert,” he says. “But I am an expert in the way I emotionally respond to things, and the way I emotionally respond to things is complicated and vague sometimes and hard to explain, and I try to get that mood in the lyrics as best I can.”
This self-awareness is evident in Casey’s lyrics. They tell stories that don’t feel universal, exactly, but the band’s urgency and Casey’s narrative technique and economy of detail make them seem familiar, like remembering snippets of a dream. The lyrics on Protomartyr’s upcoming album, Relatives in Descent, explore the nature of truth in the current political moment. They were born of Casey’s experiences not just living, but performing.
“It’s mostly just where you’re coming from, and that’s what I try to focus on in the lyrics, because I can’t speak for anybody but myself. I think, in America, you experience a disconnect from your social class. We don’t like talking about social classes in America, because we think they don’t exist. We think that they’re very fluid, and a person can move very easily from one to another, but from my experience, I know that not to be true,” he says
And while artists may have license to go to strange places in pursuit of their expression, Casey argues that not everyone can take such liberties. When those beholden to objective reality act in bad faith, especially from a position of power, society suffers.
“You really can plumb your own personal stories for lyrics. But then you have to go and perform them every night when you’re on tour, and you feel kind of weird about it. It’s bizarre to sing about very personal things. So, on this new album, I said, ‘I’m going to just make shit up that I can sing every night and not feel bad about it,’” Casey says. “Then the election happened, and this whole concept of what is true and what is not. … It’s one thing for singers and songwriters to be liars. It’s another when a president is a bald-faced liar.”