"SOCIAL PRESSURES EXIST," sings Joe Casey on Protomartyr’s 2015 gem of a record, The Agent Intellect. "And if you think about them all the time, you're gonna find that your head's been kicked in. You're gonna do it all for the grind."
Casey would know.
He’s the frontman of one of the most talked-about bands in both 2014 and 2015—a band that’s been around since 2010. It’s his first band, his first musical endeavor, one he joined in his late 30s, breaking out of the social pressures of “normal life” to pursue art.
As casually as Protomartyr seems to have formed—their first rehearsals, Casey says, “Weren’t even really practices so much as an opportunity to drink beers and just kind of drunkenly jam”—the timing was everything. Following the loss of Casey’s father and the beginnings of his mother’s Alzheimer’s, Casey felt a sense of urgency to do something, anything, in this finite existence.
At the time, Greg Ahee and Alex Leonard were playing in a punk band called Butt Babies. Ahee and Casey had bonded over music at work, and decided to jam. Casey began “stumbling onstage” to join Butt Babies on a couple songs in those early moments of being a loosely-constructed band.
From there, the project grew organically. Ahee, Leonard, and bassist Kevin Boyer (also of band Tyvek; he’d later be replaced by Scott Davidson) would write arrangements, and Casey would “mumble” over them, searching for a phrase or something to stick. As the project evolved, Casey grew into the role of frontman.
“First, you have to get over the embarrassment of performing in front of the guys in the band,” he says. “The next step—well, luckily the first couple of shows were either in someone’s basement or at a bar that we would be regulars at, and people in the crowd would be people we knew. Our first show wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re a band now’—we’re some friends that are doing this. The pressure wasn’t there.”
That realization that Protomartyr had evolved from Casey screaming over guitar musings and drum surges to existing as a touring band with a record deal and heaps of praise only came recently.
“When we started realizing we had to rely on your band, dealing with getting paid with paychecks as opposed to beer and cash, having to buy a van together, it was like, ‘Okay, shit, this is a band,’” he says.
The Agent Intellect, which landed on countless Best Of 2015 lists, continued the standard set by 2014’s Under Color of Official Right: spiky, piercing guitar leads and caustic, slabbed-on, staticky chords, drums that waver between spacious, minimal and splashy and quick-witted punk. The buzz and tension gets under the skin and scrapes the bone.
Casey’s referenced The Fall as an early influence; it shows, but there’s something distinctly current about Protomartyr, something that combines the frenzy and obsessiveness of the digital age with the icy darkness of ‘80s U.K. post-punk. There’s a cageyness and nervousness in the arrangements, and Casey’s lyrics bring in true compassion and dry cynicism. The vocalist often refers to his style as screaming or yelling over the instrumentation, but there’s an everyman kind of warmth to his casual tone; while it certainly has its intense moments, there’s an unusual comfort there that few bands have tapped.
The title The Agent Intellect stems from a concept in classical and medieval philosophy that questions the ways in which the mind operates in relation to the self; it was first explored in Aristotle’s De Anima.
“We settled on the name fairly late into coming up with this album,” says Casey. “I had a book that was about the classical tradition throughout history. It’s a good bathroom book, because it’s almost like an encyclopedia. It just has these concepts, and explains classical concepts and how it’s changed over time. I didn’t understand it, didn’t grasp it. I looked it up online, still didn’t grasp it, but I have a friend who went to school for philosophy who had a better understanding.”
Casey’s own difficulty in wrapping his mind around the concept is a part of its appeal.
“I like that there’s not a set understanding of the concept, depending on who’s discussing it,” he observes. “It’s almost like when I’m thinking about what these different songs are going to be about, I’m trying to explain an idea. I don’t know how the mind works; even scientists don’t know how the mind works, or what makes you you, and these songs find this kind of phrase or ancient idea that kind of touches on it.”
It’s quite the undertaking, and one Casey, who didn’t write much up until Protomartyr formed, does with immense grace and sharp observance.
“False happiness is on the rise,” he sings on “Why Does It Shake?” “See the victims piled high in a room without a roof.”
It’s a direct stab at Pharrell Williams’ overplayed pop hit “Happy,” one that slips into grand proclamations of “I’ll be the first to never die. Nice thought, and I’m never gonna lose it.”
It’s headstrong, but intrinsically vulnerable, having taken its title from something Casey’s mother said as she looked down at her own hands.
“Why does it shake? The body,” Casey asks in the build. “Why does it move? The fear.”
From the mind during illness to death to hard looks at gentrification in their hometown of Detroit, The Agent Intellect is a vast lyrical undertaking.
“I’m a lazy writer,” Casey says, “That’s one of the good things about being in a band: it forces you to do things. Sitting down to write was beyond my nature...but the band allows you to do some writing extemporaneously. I never come in with lyrics—I always mumble over a song. It’s kind of an easy way to write for me. It allows me to do things I wouldn’t if I wasn’t forced to do it.”
Protomartyr’s first Savannah appearance marks the one-year anniversary of Dad Joke, the booking entity managed by Crazy Bag Lady’s Josh Sterno and Daniel Lynch and Joe Kapcin of Miquel Moure. Alongside Spray Paint and locals Crazy Bag Lady and Blackrune, there couldn’t be a better way to celebrate the trio’s tireless work bringing top talent to our local scene.