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Saturday, March 2
The Indiana Daily Student


Protomartyr finds non-answers in a cruel world


Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey doesn’t spend all his time wearing black, smoking cigarettes and complaining about the world.

But he said he’d understand why people might think he would.

Since Protomartyr broke out with the release of its second album, 2014’s “Under Color of Official Right,” the Detroit post-punk band has put out tracks with names like “Dope Cloud,” “Scum, Rise!” and “Cowards Starve.”

Two of the bleakly titled songs come from the band’s third album, “The Agent Intellect,” released in October. The band was set to play in Bloomington shortly after the release but canceled its tour after a death in bassist Scott Davidson’s family. It’s set to play a rescheduled show Friday at the Blockhouse.

On “The Agent Intellect,” Protomartyr occasionally pushes hooks through the gloom, and though some of that was intentional, Casey said he wanted to keep any pop edge within the context of Protomartyr’s sound.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to go all-pop, and I don’t think I’m ever going to be like, ‘Everything is totally great. This next song is called “Just Dance and Forget about Shit,’”” he said. “But I also don’t want to be on the other side, a completely dour band where there’s no hooks and there’s nothing to latch onto and it’s 40 minutes of misery.”

Despite the apparent darkness of his subject matter, Casey said there’s no catharsis in writing for Protomartyr.

Instead, he said, he often approaches subjects from angles that differ from his actual feelings or invents a character to drop into the situation of a song. Here too, he said he wants to avoid descending into total darkness.

“If you’ve got any bit of brains, you know the world can be cruel and dark and depressing, and it’s trying to navigate that without completely ignoring things and being oblivious to the world around them, but also not being mired in them,” he said.

Casey said much of “The Agent Intellect” concerns the unknowable — how the mind works, what lies beyond death, the prospect of eternity.

The album’s title refers to a varyingly interpreted philosophical concept introduced by Aristotle. Casey said he came across the idea while reading and was struck by the lack of a consensual explanation of the philosopher’s 

“He didn’t explain himself too well,” Casey said. “I liked the fact that it was Jewish philosophers, Muslim philosophers, Christian philosophers — everybody was trying to figure it out, and they all came to different conclusions, and nobody knows for certain what he meant.”

Though much of “The Agent Intellect” is thematically unified, Casey said subject matter didn’t precede songwriting — he waited until his bandmates had music written and then decided what to fit to it.

That’s how one of the album’s core tracks — a six-minute ballad called “Ellen” — came together, he said. The song is named for Casey’s mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and is sung from the perspective of his late father.

Casey said he didn’t 
necessarily set out to write a song about Alzheimer’s and the afterlife, but he found the music his bandmates had composed beautiful, and he again aimed for a medium — something between his usual mode and overt optimism.

“You can say, ‘I’m going to do a typical Joe Casey’ and write a bunch of gobbledygook and throw in a couple of references to ancient times and throw in a couple of references to Detroit and be done with it,” 
he said.

“Or you could really go for some sort of Coldplay, really epic, ‘love everybody’ kind of bland sentiment. But I figured there’s something in the middle where you can kind of talk about something that’s real.”

Protomartyr has already started moving toward its next release, Casey said. Though “The Agent Intellect” came out just three months ago, it’s been nearly a year since the band recorded it, and Casey said guitarist Greg Ahee has begun writing new songs.

He said the band may well move to a different studio for the next record, away from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Protomartyr recorded “The Agent Intellect” and “Under Color of Official Right.” Maybe, he said, he and his bandmates will try a different recording process to 
challenge themselves.

How it will end up shaking out, he said, he still doesn’t know. But unlike all those philosophers parsing Aristotle, Joe Casey is more of a fan of non-answers anyway.

“They make for the opposite of a pop song, unfortunately, so they can’t really be readily used in a 
commercial,” he said.

“But that’s the kind of thing that appeals to me — the not-answer, presenting something and telling a story and not having the ending be pat, because that’s not how the real world works.”

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