A funny thing happens toward the end of “Cowards Starve,” the second song on Detroit post-punk quartet Protomartyr’s third album, The Agent Intellect. Singer Joe Casey delivers a weird, cutting line, as a synth buzzes in the distance: “I’m gonna tear that mountain down/I’m gonna turn it out/and go out in style.” And then guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard, and bassist Scott Davidson lock into a tight, surging break, not unlike the silvery sound of early U2 or New Order, and the song shifts from a bleak rumination on “a weed-sick man in the throes of a bummer” to something cresting and furiously righteous. “I’m going out in style,” Casey repeats, deadpan. “I’m going out in style.”
The gnarled rock of The Agent Intellect covers a lot of ground. The Pope shows up, visiting the Silverdome in 1987. The devil’s there too, along with digital demons, racist gangs, and kings (of France and of pizza). Casey writes scenes filled with Detroit specifics – the eyes of “the queen of legal ads” Joumana Kayrouz, nights at his go-to bar Jumbo’s, Outer Dr. and 6 – but he also writes about universal themes. In these tightly coiled songs, the internet makes things weird, old bodies deteriorate, and salvation eludes desperate seekers. But it’s not all bleak. Love lives on even after lovers die. Scales fall from eyes. With his bandmates churning elegiac riffs behind him, Casey sings/speaks/shouts dour lines like “There’s no use being sad about it,” until he twists them into resonate and cautiously hopeful sentiments.
In advance of the album’s release Friday, October 9th, we phoned Casey to discuss Tinder, white privilege, religion, and emoting “a little bit.”
Aquarium Drunkard: I want to ask you about “Boyce or Boice.” In light of recent internet news, I couldn’t read the lyrics “your secret lovers/exist as numbers” without thinking of the Ashley Madison hack.
Joe Casey: I like to say that I predicted that through song. I saw an episode of 20/20 or something about a catfish that ended with murder. You just kind of realize that the internet is this big, vast thing, and everybody’s on it, just nerds talking about music or lonely people looking for love. I had some friends getting into Tinder, and it was weird seeing potentially life changing events reduced down to swiping left or right, reduced down to ones and zeroes.
AD: I don’t want to get completely hung up on the Ashley Madison thing –
JC: You got caught, right? Is that what you’re trying to say? [laughs]
AD: Yeah, it’s really ruined my life. [Laughs] As more information about that hack has come out, it’s become clear most people trying to cheat on their partners weren’t interacting with other people. It was already shitty, sad, and pathetic, and it just got more so. It points to the root loneliness at the root of everything, which is illuminated and made clearer by the internet.
JC: It reminds me of almost a science fiction notion. Like Minority Report, where you’re guilty of this crime before you’ve done it. Like this is a honeypot that was designed and you fell in it. Your basest desires have been revealed to be a sham.
If you search for “Boyce or Boice,” there’s a website about how to get demons out of your computer. It’s a cheesy, early ‘90s kind of website…it says something like, “The demons in your computer are called Boyce or Boice, and if your computer isn’t working or your printer isn’t working, just say ‘Get out Boice, get out of my computer.’”
I was like, holy shit, what is this? I don’t know how the fuck the internet works, and I think most people that use it don’t know how it works, so it becomes this mythical thing that’s taken over your life in a sense. It has this old-timey religious vibe to it.
AD: “Dope Cloud” has that religious feel to it, too – the idea of seeking salvation. I’m sensing some latent Catholicism.
JC: I grew up next to a monastery. I worked there, I had to answer calls; I was an altar boy and went to a Catholic high school. I still think religion can have a place in people’s lives. That’s another thing about the internet: if you want to find people that think their religion is exactly right and are fucking lunatics about it, it’s right there in your face. And then you also see people who’re like, “Oh, anyone who believes in wacky sky god is a moron.” They’re also in your face. I’m somewhere in the middle, and so I like singing about not having a stance.
That song is more about the idea of being saved…in the end you’re going to die. People read the line “You dedicated your life to prayer/you suffered in silence there,” and say, “You’re attacking religion.” I actually ripped that line out of the end of a movie called The Song of Bernadette. The nun in the movie is busting Bernadette’s balls for not being religious enough, in this scene the nun is realizing that Bernadette’s had cancer this whole time, and she’s been quiet. The nun says, “Why you? Why did God choose you?”
It’s a religious movie, but I like that they pointed out that you can pray all you want, but God probably isn’t going to come to you in the way you want Him to. I liked that line; I was sitting here drinking and that line jumped out. The song’s also about Detroit, people getting so excited that they’re building a hockey arena downtown, but that’s not going to save Detroit. They’ve ripped out a neighborhood to build it, you know, so that’s not our salvation, and people are acting like it is. The song is mostly [saying] “Stop looking for this moment of divine intervention when we know that if there is a God, that’s not how He works.”
AD: If you’re looking for one single moment of transcendence, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
That’s why I liked the idea of “the agent intellect.” Basically, Aristotle said, “Maybe the mind has this agent intellect and I’ll talk about it later.” And he never did. Philosophers have been trying to figure out what he meant. For me, that’s kind of about how little we know about how our minds work. What makes us “us” is very confusing and unknown and unknowable. I thought, “Oh shit, that’s a great title for an album.” Your mind isn’t going to save you; eventually it’s going to crap out on you. I don’t mean that in a depressing way. “Oh shit, we’re all fucked.” But, I think you have to acknowledge it. The end game is the end game.
AD: In “The Devil In His Youth,” you humanize the villain, you give him motives. You sketch someone who does bad things, but came from a recognizable place. Where did that idea come from?
JC: That started from thinking about how bad, oppressive, evil things usually come from a very mundane point. My original thought was about growing up in Detroit, which is 80% or more an African American city. I was a minority, but I was never discriminated against or felt like I was an oppressed minority. When I was a kid, I’d watch Sanford and Son and think, “Oh, this is what life is like.” It was only later on when I grew and developed that I knew that America’s got this [system of] white power. It came from thinking about the idea of the “white devil” and white privilege, in the sense that if you’re born into this idea that you’re the best and everything is going to go your way. And then life hits you – that’s where I think a lot of racism is born: “I’m white, I shouldn’t have to fight for this job. Those black guys are getting a free ride while I have to work.”
The idea that this character grew up in the suburbs and was coddled and everything is going great, but once he gets out into the world the women don’t love him, and the races don’t listen to him, and that’s when he gets angry. It’s that kind of [about that] idea: the angry white man that’s kind of the bugaboo.
AD: You see that everywhere, that evil born from really basic, banal circumstances.
JC: It’s not getting your way. Most people are very nice people until things don’t go their way. I see a very specific thing in culture were people assume things are supposed to go their way. If anybody works in services where you’re dealing with customers, you see it on a day to day basis. People [demand] “Why is my coffee cold?” Shitty things happen all the time, but if you think that it’s an affront to you because you don’t deserve it, that’s kind of where the idea of corruption comes from.
AD: Do you still work a day job or has Protomartyr become the full-time gig?
JC: No, we’re rolling in so much money. [Laughs] We all still have our day jobs. I’m lucky I have one where I can leave and come back. The other guys have slightly more serious jobs where it’s a bigger risk to leave. But there are so many great bands in Detroit, for instance, who don’t tour because they don’t have the money to tour. We decided we’re gonna do this band and be in the red for awhile, and if we make any money we’re going to put it back into the band.
We bought a van so we could tour more. I don’t want touring to be a rich man’s game, I don’t want music to be a hobby for people that have money. I want to see if I can make this small business survive. Bands have a limited shelf life, they’re only good for a couple years – at least the fire’s only there for a couple years – unless it grows. You have to put all in if you’re going to do it. We’re no longer in the red, we’re in the black. But we’re not making any money off it, and because we’re away from our jobs, in some ways we’re losing money. But it seems worth it now. If we had kids and houses to pay mortgages on, we couldn’t support that. That’s why we’re really kind of burning now.
AD: A lot of attention is paid to the fact that you’re older than the other guys, but it does seem like you’re all throwing this into as much as you can, that you feel like you need to do this.
JC: The great thing about the band is that there’s no leader. Everyone kind of does their own thing, but the one thing I bring to the band is the reminder that I’m 10 years older than them and what I’m doing is very bizarre and weird to be starting now. They’re getting into their late 20s, almost 30 now, so they’re going to start feeling the pinch of, “What am I still doing in this young man’s game?” So I’m kind of reminding them, this is the time. If you want to be in a band and tour the world, now’s the time to do it. I’m the whip in that.
AD: I think “Ellen,” inspired by your parents is a really special song on this record. There’s a lot of beauty in what Protomartyr does, a sort of elegance, but that one is overwhelmingly so. You’ve sung about your family before, but does it feel different singing that one to you?
JC: Previously we had a song, “How He Lived After He Died” on the first album, No Passion All Technique, that was kind of about my dad dying. It was about other stuff, but it was in there, and some nights when I’m singing it, I’m just singing it. And some nights I start thinking about what it’s about, and I get really into it. With “Ellen,” I’m looking forward to seeing how that’s done live, what we get across. It was new for us. The guys wrote this great piece of music and I said, “Okay, I gotta rise to the challenge a little bit.” I’ve gotta throw down and not be super obscure as usual or hide things in metaphor. Even though I do end up using a lot of metaphors and shit, I had to shit or get off the pot, to at least try and sing and emote a little bit. I’m usually very much against it.
AD: It’s different from what you do, but it works.
JC: That was kind of the idea. On the last album I was talking about outside things: violence and corruption. I said in interviews that I hate an album that’s all one mood and oppressive. It’s gotta have moments that are funny, because that’s life. Even in the most depressing moments there’s something kind of funny about it. For this one, I thought “Ellen” could fit on the album. It can’t be an album of heart-on-your-sleeve moments, because that gets tiring too. But where it’s sequenced, at the end, I think it’s earned. You have to get through the album to get to that emotional moment at the end. And then you go right into “Feast of Stephen” where it’s like, okay, another day, here we go again.
AD: “How many babies born this year/and can we send them right back?” It’s one of the more morbid lyrics on the album.
JC: We have reached the end of time on that one, have gone beyond where the sun is exploded and life itself is over. We’ve crossed that, and now the sun comes up and another day starts. words / j woodbury
Previously: Protomartyr :: Under Color Of Official Right