.Michigan Malcontents

Big life changes fuel Protomartyr’s sixth album, Formal Growth in the Desert.

For frontman Joe Casey of Detroit’s Protomartyr, one of the most exhilarating rock bands today, the years between the band’s last release, 2020’s Ultimate Success Today, and the recently released Formal Growth in the Desert saw seismic shifts in his life. 

Within those three years, he weathered the death of his mother, celebrated love by becoming married, and moved out of his longtime home after a series of break-ins. 

Speaking to Good Times the day before the acclaimed post-punk band embarks on an American tour—which features Kelley Deal of the Breeders joining the band on keyboards, backing vocals, and guitar—Casey admits that transformations don’t come easy for him. “I’m a person that doesn’t like change,” he says. “I see change as a symbol of time moving forward. When I was a kid, I didn’t quit Boy Scouts. Our troop disbanded. I stayed in Little League Baseball far longer than you are supposed to stay in Little League Baseball.”

A few moments later, Casey comes to a conclusion. “Having the amount of different things happen to me over the last year, I decided to embrace change more,” he says. 

What has stayed the same for Protomartyr on the new album is that Casey still speak-sings fascinating lyrics over music conjured up from the band that can range from atmospheric noise to pummeling riffs.

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 One new wrinkle in Protomartyr’s sound on Formal Growth in the Desert is a slight western twang on opener “Make Way” and later song “Polacrilex Kid.” 

“Greg [Ahee] always has a general musical idea that he wants to explore because he is a guitar player that secretly hates the guitar,” Casey says. “So, he is always trying to think of different ways to introduce different sounds so it is just not all guitar.”

Before recording the most recent album, Ahee was in Chicago, where he wrote some scores for some short films. “He was listening to a lot of Ennio Morricone, a lot of western soundtracks, so he locked into wanting pedal steel,” Casey says. 

Always an intriguing lyricist, Casey takes aim at life’s biggest concerns on the album—death, love, grief—though he notes that the music always comes first. “When I listen to the music—I hear it in its raw form—and that sparks certain emotional responses or reminds me of something,” he says. “I think, ‘OK I can do a chorus here.’”

One of the heaviest songs on the album is “Graft Vs. Host.” About the passing of Casey’s mother, he sings “She’d want me to try and find happiness in a cloudless sky.” 

“These people that we love, they don’t want you to forever wear the funeral shawl and be down and full of sadness over their loss,” Casey says. “They want you to be happy.”

Less personal but no less successful, “Fulfillment Center” is a two-minute tale of two characters—or “two conceits” as Casey puts it—that drive around the country hoping to locate a shipping warehouse where their wildest dreams can come true. It’s clearly a swipe against Amazon’s stranglehold on American culture. “The big metaphor in that song is that we have these mega-rich people that don’t pay any taxes and control our politics and control the way that we live,” Casey says. “They offer us the idea that you can get anything that you want from Amazon—and that’s kind of amazing—but you are basically feeding the beast. So, you are actually trapped in their dream.”

Not all songs deal with such weighty matters. Coming on like Protomartyr’s take on Radiohead’s “Idioteque,” “Fun in Hi Skool” is essentially a diss track where Casey bellows over a skittering drumbeat. Records release party that happened at a Detroit Tigers game.

The biggest surprise on the album is the stately closer, “Rain Garden.”  Casey sings about newfound love. It ends with a couple of words never uttered before on a Protomartyr album: kiss me. “I feel like I had to write about my life and obviously one of the ways I got out of this deep sadness was love and getting married,” Casey says. “But I want to be careful with it because if that becomes too big a focus on albums then I’m just worried that someday they’ll be like, ‘well here comes Joe’s divorce record.’”

Protomartyr and Immortal Nightbody perform Sunday, July 2nd, 830pm. $22/advance, $25/day of the show. Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz.




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