No one wants to be here less than Joe Casey.

And by “here,” I mean the Blue Moon-sponsored room at Comerica Park stadium, where 45 people are drinking $13 draft beers and carrying around greasy paper plates topped with Little Caesars pizza, about to listen to Protomartyr’s latest record via someone’s iPhone—an album about loss, extinction, nicotine gum, the occasional Baja Blast, and the belief that love is to be earned and not served freely like, well, shitty complimentary pizza.

While there may be no crying in baseball or Protomartyr’s brand of post-punk—at least not from what I can tell—on this sunny Saturday afternoon in Detroit, I quickly learn that there is plenty of squirming, self-loathing, and, worst of all, small talk in broad daylight.

“The great thing about performing is you’re in a dark room, you can take your glasses off, you can’t see anybody, it’s loud. Here it’s kind of quiet and we’re...just listening to the album,” Casey says as if he is just now realizing what a listening party actually is. “I guess I like that people can ignore it if they want to.”

But Formal Growth in the Desert, Protomartyr’s triumphant sixth record, is hard to ignore, which has nothing to do with the volume at which it’s currently being played. (I should note that when listening to Protomartyr, louder is almost always better.)

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To Casey’s discomfort, I had unintentionally foiled the lead singer’s premeditated plans of slipping away to take a prolonged shit and/or stare at his phone somewhere outside the confines of the Blue Moon room. He admits to having already stepped outside to kill time, but when he returned, he realized he had only been gone for the length of one song. Sorry, Joe. You’re stuck in pizza purgatory with the rest of us, at least for the next 38 minutes.

“Well, I think a lot of people are here because they got free baseball tickets, which is good,” he tells me with a shrug. “I’d be here for free baseball tickets.”

Casey’s personal aesthetic, anti-charismatic aura, and odd charm have fascinated music journalists and fans for years. His enigmatic approach to style has even led to a Tumblr account called “Descriptions of Joe Casey,” dedicated to unboxing Protomartyr’s look—or lack thereof.

“Protomartyr are awesome but they look like 3 scared teens who started a band with their alcoholic uncle,” one Tumblr quote reads, the “teens” of course being guitarist Greg Ahee, bassist Scott Davidson, and New York-based drummer Alex Leonard, who is notably absent on listening-party day. “Joe Casey is like an inverse Bono,” another post reads.

If I were to take a stab at it, I would suggest that Casey resembles a lazily created Sims character whose enthusiasm for being in the Blue Moon room (sorry, it’s just too much fun to say) is assigned by an invisible, mouse-clicking overlord. He also conjures up a reluctant new stepdad at his shitbag of a stepson’s graduation party; red-faced and distant, dressed in his trademark blazer, button-up, dress shoes, a Tigers hat, and a pair of uninviting sunglasses.

“I was obsessed with the Tigers in 1984, you know, when I was a kid,” he says. “And my dad always wore this hat, so I started wearing it. And then unfortunately, as you go bald, then you have to wear a hat.”

So let me get this straight: This whole listening party was inspired old hat? Is this like when Animal Collective premiered 2016’s Painting With via the Baltimore-Washington International Airport PA system (because who doesn’t love listening to experimental pop music at an airport)? Or like that time U2 hijacked our iTunes libraries with an impossible-to-delete sonic turd in 2014? Typically, gimmicky rollouts are an orchestrated distraction for records that will be less memorable than the PR stuntery. But this is far from the case with Formal Growth in the Desert, because the album is actually quite good. Then again, this event pales in comparison to the band’s 2017 album release party for Relatives in Descent, at which Protomartyr—or as Pitchfork ingeniously nicknamed them, “Boatomartyr”—chartered the Detroit Princess Riverboat as their stage.

Casey tells me the whole Detroit Tigers listening-party thing was simply inspired by his affection for the baseball cats. They also inspired “3800 Tigers,” an abrasive mid-album palate cleanser that references the “brutal statistics” of just how few tigers are estimated to be alive in the wild, while also pitching a vision of what the Detroit Tigers might look like in the year 3800. Casey predicts a futuristic World Series sweep against the White Sox, whom the Tigers just happen to be playing today (Tigers win, 7–3).

Joe Casey, Jerilyn Jordan
Joe demonstrates to a CREEM reporter how “walking like an Egyptian really starts with the hand.” Photo by Rose Hohl

“The label was like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great, because you have a song about tigers, that you play it at the game?’ They were like, ‘Maybe you can throw the first pitch.’ As you can see, we’re not playing it at the game and I’m not throwing out the first pitch,” Casey says. “But we are having an uncomfortable pizza party while people stare at you.”

“Would that have been a dream for you?” I ask. “Throwing the first pitch?”

“No,” he says. “That would have scared the shit out of me.”

“I think a lot of people are here because they got free baseball tickets.” —Joe Casey

At some point, most of us, if not all of us—should we live long enough—become orphans. I realize this segue has little to no chill, but I can tell Casey is still plotting his escape when I ask about the recent-ish passing of his mother. Now I can’t blame him for wanting to leave. Nothing makes me want to disappear faster than when a smiling stranger waving a recording device in my face asks about my dead mom, especially when I’m surrounded by people in the Blue Moon room (sorry, last one, I promise).

“Welcome to the haunted earth/The living afterlife,” Casey intones on album opener “Make Way,” a song that introduces Protomartyr as if they were Midwestern cowboys sauntering into town on horseback, kicking up dust and preparing the townsfolk for life’s inevitable barrage of letdowns and the doom and decay that await us. While this may not seem atypical of the amorphic apocalypse toured by many a Protomartyr song, Formal Growth in the Desert is grounded in perseverance and an appreciation for the time we have left, rather than bemoaning the time we’ve already spent. “You can grieve if you wanna,” he permits. “But please don’t ruin the day/Make way for tomorrow.”

Casey’s mother died in 2021 from Alzheimer’s, a disease he says she endured for the life span of Protomartyr and that may have worsened after the unexpected passing of his father in 2008. “When my dad died, it was very sudden,” he says. “It really affected me deeply. Her death was different because she had Alzheimer’s for 10 years. So when she finally went, it was kind of, in a way, a relief ’cause she was suffering for so long.”

Back in...[whispers] the Blue Moon room, we are nearing the song he wrote in the wake of his mother’s death, “Graft vs. Host.” Casey had said earlier he might dip out when it starts to play. As someone who listened to the song prior to the party, I know it doesn’t belong here or now. Like good drugs, it’s all about setting, and Casey’s lyrical reckoning is too painful a score for people chatting about the weather while licking beer-foam mustaches and pizza grease from their fingertips all while wearing identical green bucket hats, distributed for free courtesy of Comerica Park.

“I’ve been kind of grieving her for 10 years, and so it was almost like a release,” he says. “That’s why I approached it like, ‘Oh, this is a typical Protomartyr song like, life sucks, this is terrible.’ But I was also trying to think about it in a new way. My mom was a happy person, so why not write a happy song about her? She doesn’t deserve a sad song.”

“Sadness running through my mind/She wouldn’t want to see me live this way,” Casey melodically sings.

“I can be very focused on dying and worrying about life, and that comes through in the lyrics, which I think a lot of people can relate to and understand,” Casey explains during a far-less-awkward Zoom interview a few days after the listening party. “But I also feel like, if the only lesson I got from my mother’s life was that life is short and we’re all going to die slow, painful deaths, then that would be mocking my mom’s life in a lot of ways. She was such a happy person and could talk to anybody, you know? If you’re going to try to honor the person, you have to try and live with what they taught you.”

Wait, so is this the same guy who has built a career scream-singing about corrupt government systems, police brutality, the suffering of marginalized populations at the hands of corporations, deadly warehouse fires, toxic masculinity, hermeticism, and disgruntled Tim Hortons customers? Amid his commentary about this dying rock hurtling through space and all the troubled souls that occupy it, he talks about his mother’s life and death with a Zen-like softness reserved only for subjects rooted in love, as if he has finally allowed wounds to heal after spending years picking scabs and making scars.

“Every album’s always about the time it was made,” Casey says of Protomartyr’s discography. “And this one was made during a weird time, but one where there was some love, so why not write about it?”

This is when Casey casually drops, mid-sentence, the fact that exactly one week ago, he got married. As in married married! He points to his wife, who is seated across from us and admits that saying the word “wife” out loud is a trip.

“When I hit my 20s, I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna get married.’ And then in my 30s, I was like, ‘Nope, not happening,’” Casey says. “Then luckily, it happened. I guess I’m more worried about...I guess I have to stick around longer now. I think that the plan is to try to be around longer. Whereas before I didn’t give a shit,” he says. “Now I’m living for somebody else.”

“We’ve already agreed that if I die, she’s just gonna move back to Arizona,” Casey says of his wife. “She’s not sticking around Detroit if I die.”

This perspective shift seems most alive on the pulsing album closer, “Rain Garden,” which finds Casey romanticizing a Coney Island parking lot and a “half-full Baja Blast” while proclaiming that he is deserving of love and that love has found him.

“It’s like when they always say there’s someone out there for everybody. That’s sadly not true,” Casey says on the topic of deserving love. “I think if you hate yourself, which a lot of people do—I certainly do—then I think it’s harder to be willing to accept that someone might like you or might love you,” he says. “If the next record is a divorce record, then you know what happened.”

Joe Casey
Joe is caught trying to escape the listening party for the 28th time. Photo by Rose Hohl

As is true of every Protomartyr record, Detroit is always a main character, often quietly or in ways that only folks from Detroit can relate to.

“Don’t go to the BP after dark,” Casey sings on 2020’s Ultimate Success Today,an album that received little fanfare largely due to its pandemic-timed release. The lyrics, from the song “June 21,” are about how summer brings an increase in crime to the city, with nods to Detroit’s problematic and cost-prohibitive “safety” initiative Project Greenlight. “Don’t be caught dead at the Short Stop/Green lights are flashing/No love for outer ring/All the cops are working traffic for the stadiums downtown.” The song trails off into a symphony of cricket chirps, reminding us of just how desolate the outskirts of the city can feel; yet life persists, even if the streetlights are out in that part of town.

With its panicked punches of saxophone and defiant dissonance, Ultimate Success Today could be called Protomartyr’s “jazz record.” Formal Growth in the Desert is thus the band’s “country album.” Okay, not really, but Protomartyr guitarist Ahee, whom Casey refers to as the bandleader, pulled from film scores and spaghetti Westerns to fill the space around Casey’s declarations and warnings. When coming up with compositions, Ahee says he always takes into account what Casey is going through, whether it be marriage, death, or frequent break-ins to his childhood home.

“I always feel bad trying to put lyrics on it,” Casey says about the band’s instrumentation. “I’m worried I’m gonna mess it up.”

As is true of every Protomartyr record, Detroit is always a main character

During the pandemic, in lieu of touring and making coin off of Ultimate Success Today, Ahee agreed to compose the scores to a pair of short films. The gigs also led to a collection of song fragments that he wasn’t ready to discard. “It got me back into a zone of writing again,” Ahee says. “And I really wanted to make this record sound like a film score—at least that’s how I initially envisioned it.”

He had always intended to introduce a warm pedal steel into the sonic landscape, which can be heard prominently during the opening of “Elimination Dances,” but ultimately, the film-score approach needed tweaking as it didn’t fully make sense when all the components came together. “Instead,” says Ahee, “I still approached it like a film score, but more in the sense of elevating Joe’s narrative and playing with the lyrics more.”

On the aforementioned “Elimination Dances,” Casey ruminates on the realizations he had while recording the record at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, where he found himself marveling at rock formations.

“In the desert I was humbled/Seeing what a thousand years of ice did/But I’m not coldhearted,” Casey sings. “Little dogs still lick my hands/That’s how elimination dances/Through this life of mine.”

It might come as a shock that Casey has only ever tried therapy once. It was years ago and was court-mandated. And no, I didn’t ask.

“I explained to the therapist, ‘I’m a singer in a band and I don’t think I’m very good.’ And she was like, ‘That reminds me of a story of Keith Sweat.’ Do you know Keith Sweat?” he asks me.

I nod and refrain from telling him about the time my ex-boyfriend used a Keith Sweat CD to scrape ice off my car and the case got stuck in the crack where the windshield wipers were, so I drove around for a few days with a copy of his self-titled album plastered to my car like a parking ticket.

“And she was like, ‘People are always saying that Keith Sweat can’t sing.’ And how he said in an interview, ‘I know I can’t sing, but I’m the most Keith Sweat person there is,’” Casey recalls. “And I was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s profound.’ There’s only one of me.”

Thanks for reading CREEM. This article originally appeared in our Fall 2023 issue. Explore the full mag in our archive, buy a copy here, and subscribe for more.




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