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What's The Meaning Of Life? Ask Protomartyr

Cover art for Protomartyr's new album <em>Relatives In Descent </em>
Courtesy of the artist
Cover art for Protomartyr's new album Relatives In Descent

Protomartyr doesn't make music for the casual listener. Over the course of four full-length albums, the Detroit-based band has produced a collection of lyrically dense, deeply philosophical (and usually very loud) songs that grapple with some of life's thorniest questions: What does it mean to be human? What is truth? What is the nature of good and evil?

Protomartyr lead singer and lyricist Joe Casey is, to say the least, a seeker — an existential traveler in search of a higher state of consciousness and meaning in an often callous, senseless world.

When you listen to Protomartyr's latest full-length, Relatives In Descent, it's not clear whether Casey is any closer to finding the answers. It's nearly impossible to catch all the literary, historical and pop cultural references he makes on a single track, let alone across the album. So to help make sense of it all, we asked the normally soft-spoken singer to share some of the stories and thoughts behind these powerful, but mostly pensive, songs, track by track. Casey reflects on the economic blight of his native Detroit, capitalism, the cruelty of others and the thoughts that keep him up at night.

1. "A Private Understanding"

"[Guitarist] Greg [Ahee] had given me a demo of this song at the very beginning of thinking about the next record. Even in that form it sounded like it could be the opening salvo and he was thinking the same thing. After that agreement, we put it aside and it cleared up my anxiety knowing that it was lurking in the background somewhere. Any little inspiration or dumb bit of line I came up with got thrown in there at some point. Pretty early on I had, 'She's just trying to reach you,' but I didn't know who 'she' was or what she was trying to say. I'm still not one hundred percent certain. I also knew I wanted to start the album with an apology or a warning that whatever followed was maybe not completely true. Those two ideas were all I had — the one line and feeling I needed to cover my ass.

"Reading The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton was a big inspiration. It was heartening to read that a guy in the 1700s was wrestling with the sadness of living and the inequities of the world. 'The more things change,' and all that. It's where I found out about Heraclitus, which gave me a roundabout way of singing about the Flint water crisis. I guess that part is about the unceasing wheel of tragedies and how the Flint story has receded from the headlines even though the man-made suffering remains. The Elvis story is from a biography by Peter Guralnick. Al Stewart also wrote a song about the same part in the book, which I didn't know about until recently. I guess that proves it was the most interesting part."

2. "Here Is The Thing"

"So, since I know we're opening with 'A Private Understanding' as almost a worldwide proclamation about the dire state of things (with apocalyptic trumpets even), I figured this song could be a repeat of the same feeling but with a more personal, local take. Since our first record, No Passion All Technique, I've been talk-singing about Detroit, and a lot has changed in the city since then. It's an odd feeling to live in a city that's run by two or three billionaires while our country is being run by a 'billionaire.' I also wanted to point out that I felt like I had slept through how drastically things have changed here. I woke up and it seemed like everybody walking around town was an 'innovator' or a 'creative.' It all feels like something out of science-fiction and I wanted a little bit of that feeling in the song. Whether it's good or bad, I don't know.

"This song was written pretty fast. The fellas seem to have found a very strange 'groove.' I'm worried I might need to dance during the solo/breakdown or whatever you call it. That has me worried. The 'Thing' in the song is unfettered capitalism at the expense of humanity."

3. "My Children"

"I had this title kicking around for a bit. I bet at first I had the idea of writing a song about being childless and getting older. Having children was something I was so sure was going to happen when I was younger and now that I'm on the other side of 40 and in a bizarre profession with no financial security, it's looking less and less like a certainty. It got me thinking about legacy and what we leave behind: offspring, stone monuments, genetics, weird songs that are about only leaving behind weird songs and a couple of t-shirts. I was watching a documentary about David Bowie after he died, so that's why 'don't lean on me, man' is in there.

"The bit about 'spewing forth in the drive-thru' came from waiting in a Tim Horton's drive-thru on the way to my brother's house. The guy in the pick-up truck in front of me was chewing out the cashier – pointing fingers, dropping f-bombs, the whole peeling out thing. I don't usually like to small-talk the put-upon saints at Tim Horton's, but I had to ask them what the deal was. They said he came by at least once a week and did that every time. That was his routine."

4. "Caitriona"

"She's the main character in a 1949 book, Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain. It has only recently been translated from Irish. There's two translations and they are so vastly different, I don't think I can safely say I've read Cré na Cille. That got me thinking about whether somebody can really know Truth. I read the book a little before the last election, so it seemed like truth was getting extra muddy around then. All that kind of bled into the lyric writing across all 12 of these songs. After the last record, I was worried I was being too truthful. I was opening up my life and my loved one's lives a bit too much. I had sung about my Mom's dementia and my dad dying in 'Ellen,' which had a kind of romantic view of the afterlife. While I'm proud of that song it was a joy to read a book, or books in this case, about an afterlife of comically complaining in your coffin about everything, including your stupid son, for all eternity. I'm sure I'll be painfully emotional again in some song in the future, but it was nice to try to capture the morbid wit of the book — or books.

"I also like the placement of this song after 'My Children' because the feeling of familial disappointment carries over. It wasn't really planned that way, but the A-side of this record is composed of three sets of two songs that kind of line up lyrically. I know the music flows and has its own themes because the fellas are smart and they told me so. Also, I believe 'Caitriona' is pronounced like Katrina but with a sort of 'three' sound in the middle. Since I don't speak Irish I'll never know the Truth."

5. "The Chuckler"

"Basically, the band comes up with amazing music and it's my job to not screw it up too much. I had this title since the early days of the band and have been applying it to demo after demo and it never stuck. The main influence on how this song is sung is our friend Stu from Darlington, England. He's been our tour driver a couple of times when we've gone around Europe and he drives some of our friend's bands (Eagulls, Priests). I could waste all of our time with many great Stu stories, but I'll keep it to this: During these long European tours he only listens to two compact discs, the songs of The Smiths and the songs of Morrissey. Okay, sometimes he throws on some Leatherface to keep it interesting. But I tell you, you are not going to survive a van tour of Northern England with Stu and not have the singing style of Steven Patrick Morrissey rotting your brain.

"Lyrically, 'The Chuckler' is about trying to get through the day-to-day grind of living with all its loneliness and frustrations while the shadow of global meltdown darkens your door. I would describe the chuckle of the main character as being very, very hollow."

6. "Windsor Hum"

"South across the river from Detroit is Windsor, Canada. The 'Windsor Hum' is a real thing, although I've never heard it. I have driven past Zug Island, where the hum is thought to emanate from, many times and it looks and smells as hellish as something named Zug should. Again, this is about the lies we tell ourselves just to get through another day. It's also about how flimsy many of the institutions and values of the country can seem nowadays. It was a song that the band had figured out fairly early in the writing process, so we were able to take it out and 'road test' it on a tour we had late last year. Hell, we might have played it on election night in Las Vegas, which certainly helped shape the lyrics and mood."

A random cyclist passes in front of the band during a photo shoot in Los Angeles. (According to the band's publicist, that cyclist turned out to be Hunter Jackson, aka Techno Destructo of the band Gwar).
Daniel Topete / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
A random cyclist passes in front of the band during a photo shoot in Los Angeles. (According to the band's publicist, that cyclist turned out to be Hunter Jackson, aka Techno Destructo of the band Gwar).

7. "Don't Go To Anacita"

"Now on the side B. I had come up with the town of Anacita when I needed a place for a faded performer to live in a previous song called 'Born To Be Wine.' In my head it has become the exurb of the city I build in my imaginings while I'm trying to go to sleep — a weird tic I found my Dad shared. (I sang about this imaginary city in 'Why Does It Shake?' on the last album. The city is bigger now). From touring around America you get to see all sorts of municipalities, and I picture Anacita as an affluent suburb that looks quaint and respectable but maybe has too many cops for the population size. Like, maybe the next town over is a little more down-on-its-heel and the border between the two is stark in its sharpness. Like all great fictional places, whether it's Springfield, Llareggub, Newbridge, or Wessex, I hope to revisit it again."

8. "Up The Tower"

"This song fully came from the sound of Alex [Leonard's] drums. They immediately sounded like people running up stairs and knocking on a door to me. Another influence was Charley Pride's version of 'Crystal Chandeliers.' I love the way he describes gaudy excess while dripping with contempt. I really just wanted to write a nice fantasy folk song about a craven, money-hungry troll that lived at the top of a golden tower and the heroic townspeople that would eventually dethrone him. I pictured the golden tower as the broadcast tower from 'Windsor Hum,' spewing out this garbled distortion and hate-filled messages. The line about unhorsing the marble emperor comes from 'The English Mail-Coach' by Thomas De Quincey. Also, as a terrible smoker, I am often accosted for a cigarette outside of whatever bar I find myself. The exchange in the song did actually happen, but not as damnably poetical as it does here."

9. "Night-Blooming Cereus"

"After the terrible fire at the Ghost Ship collective in Oakland on December 2nd of last year, I spent a long time ruminating on it. Growing up, places like that were important for my development in so many ways. Converted warehouse spaces and artist collectives were a doorway into a creative life. Many of our early shows could only happen in places exactly like that. People that perished in the fire were exactly like my friends. It got me thinking (perhaps too much) about how things existing on the fringe, because of economic or social necessity, are the only true outlets for pure expression (artistic, political, personal) we have in America. I don't know if that's because we don't seem to give a damn about anything here unless it makes a buck or we just can't handle differences. Anyway, this kind of struggle brought about the image of a flower blooming at night. So I googled it and up pops a Night-Blooming Cereus.

"The third verse, or whatever you call it, is more about the 'good delusions' we have to hold onto against the loss of hope and the supremacy of fear. I found out later that Robert Hayden, who was the first African-American U.S. Poet Laureate, wrote a poem entitled 'Night-Blooming Cereus' about the neighborhood Black Bottom in Detroit, where he grew up. That historic all-black neighborhood was bulldozed by the city to put in freeways. So, it was an eerie feeling when I discovered that connection.

"I'd also like to point out that it's the middle song of three that began life as one big song. Taken together, they all musically fit together (or so they tell me). I tried to have a lyrical theme about delusions loosely run through all three without it being too on the nose. This is also a weird one because there's no drums until the halfway mark. I usually need Alex's drums clattering behind me to even attempt to open my mouth, so please bear that in mind."

Daniel Topete / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

10. "Male Plague"

"More delusions, but this time of the masculine variety. I always want to make sure there's one song where I can chant something stupid on every album and here it is. Originally, I had a lot more 'MALE PLAGUES!' in it. I even wanted a mass chorus of me chanting 'Male Plague!.' The band wisely talked me out of it. I don't know when morons started to think that any progress another gender achieved was a heinous assault on masculinity, but I'm sure it's an old idea. I suppose I'm one of the 'sad-sacks pickled in jars.' I can't make fun of idiocy without throwing myself on the pile. It wouldn't be fair."

11. "Corpses In Regalia"

"This one is hard to explain because I don't fully get it either. I rely on a lot of dream imagery and thoughts or goofed-up notions I have after I have tippled. The trick is to go back and try and make sense of it and edit out all the dirty bits. A person being far away, like down a street, but hearing their voice as if they are right next to my ear, is a nightmare I have a lot. I read Fritz Leiber's Our Lady Of Darkness and there is a recurring motif that is similar. The novel was originally published as A Pale Brown Thing, so I felt I had to throw that in. I never knew the different sizes of champagne bottles had biblical names until I watched a quiz show on T.V., so that went in. I also recently walked on a coral beach, which both fascinated and disturbed me in an odd way, so in that goes, too. I just want to say that Scott [Davidson] is playing the hell out of his bass on this song."

12. "Half Sister"

"'A Private Understanding' was the first song that had music, and 'Half Sister' was the last. When in doubt, place songs in roughly the order you wrote them and it will have a semblance of flow. I had the line from 'A Private Understanding' whirling in my head when I was trying to come up with ideas for this song and it just seemed to fit and sum up things. I like the idea of her still trying to reach out to you after ten songs described, in varying detail, how screwed-up things are. There's still some sort of hope, somewhere, with its hand out. The living ghost seems to be an echo of the familial strife in 'My Children' and 'Caitriona.' I see ghosts as a metaphysical way to portray guilt that hasn't been dealt with. Of course, it had to appear in Darlington to haunt one of Stu's relatives to instill a 'pre-vision' of love for The Smiths down the descending family line. The talking horse had to be from Northern Michigan, as it appears to have more horses than people in some spots.

"There's some other themes and ideas in this song that tie into the others, but I bet your interpretations will be better than mine — so I'll stop here."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 1, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the original version of this article, musician Charley Pride's first name was misspelled as Charlie.
Robin Hilton is a producer and co-host of the popular NPR Music show All Songs Considered.