PROTOMARTYR'S MUSIC is a slow burn, the musical equivalent of paint peeling off walls and vines overtaking manmade structures.
Fittingly, the noise-rock band formed in Detroit, a city mythologized for its golden age and subsequent decay. Protomartyr came together in 2008 after the death of frontman Joe Casey's father, as his mother's Alzheimer's began to worsen. "I just talk about death and decay through things I know," says Casey. "I grew up Irish Catholic, so a lot of religious imagery ends up in there."
As a musician, Casey isn't impervious to the influence of his Irish Catholic upbringing—Protomartyr is named after Saint Stephen, a biblical figure who was supposedly Christianity's first martyr.
"One good thing about the Catholic Church is that they don't really shy away from talking about death," Casey says. "The church that I lived next door to had a stained glass window with Saint Timothy shot full of arrows and, you know... people getting burnt at the stake, things like that. Our high school library was dedicated to the North American Jesuit Martyrs, so there were all these stained glass pictures of Indians murdering Jesuits. That kind of thing was just permeating."
He suggests that these relentless reminders of mortality are Catholicism's bread-and-butter. "The selling point is that they're offering you a world beyond this world, where things fall apart and things decay," he says, "and they constantly remind you that you're only here for a limited time, and that they can get you into a world where things don't rot."
On "Why Does It Shake," off last year's sophomore full-length, The Agent Intellect, Casey addresses these efforts to earn salvation. "Sharp mind, eternal youth/I'll be the first to never die/Nice thought, and I'm never gonna lose it," he sings.
"I see that kind of thing happening," he says, "not just with religion. I think it causes some people to fill that void with new electronic devices, or they think that being famous on the internet will keep them here for eternity." But on "Dope Cloud" he warns, "That's not gonna save you, man."
This message could be interpreted as hopeless; a cursory listen to The Agent Intellect belies intricately harsh, industrial soundscapes with Casey's somewhat detached, muted vocals, which he recently described to Consequence of Sound as "shitty." While his vocals aren't shitty, they admittedly aren't very melodic, either. But it's hard to imagine a voice better suited for Protomartyr's music—Casey's words spill out in calm, enunciated mumbling against fat, bleak basslines, relentless percussion, and cutting, sour guitar riffs that sting like lemon juice in a paper cut. Still, he's quick to downplay the importance of his lyrics. "They have to service the song," he says.
An unexpected vein of contentment runs through Protomartyr's chaotic, multilayered rock like a light shining through Casey's seemingly nihilistic worldview.
"I don't like songs that tell you that anything you put your mind to, you can do," he says, "that if you really want something, and you try really, really hard, it will happen. That, to me, seems to be one of the biggest lies, and it's sold in music so often. Capitulation and going with the flow can be some good advice sometimes. Not always—I'm not saying life is meaningless, so give up. But life is meaningless [laughs]." He concedes that hyper-positive music that boosts listeners' moods serves a purpose—"You don't wanna be walking into a grocery store and hear songs about the depressing truth about life"—but this can give people a false sense of agency.
"I don't want to put down anybody that wants to improve their life, or wants to strive for something," says Casey. "Striving is a good quality to have. But don't feel like you're failing at life for not accomplishing these over-the-top goals, or experiencing a true love or something like that. It can happen, but you can go through life and not have that happen, and that's not your fault. Accept failure and loss, the inevitable, but don't be so down about it because everybody goes through it."
Although death and decay are prevalent themes in Protomartyr's music, they are more comforting than disturbing. There comes a release, a surrender to the notion that, as Casey says, "life is meaningless." But this isn't simple pessimism; remembering the transience of life can be a radical act of self-care. Acknowledging that there is no happy ending—only death—can quell some of the mind-rattling anxiety that comes with constantly pushing to achieve grandiose goals. As Casey sings in "Pontiac 87": "There's no use being sad about it/What's the point of crying about it."