Trevor Naud

Joe Casey From Protomartyr On ‘Ultimate Success Today,’ Maintaining a Mystery & Touring In the Age of COVID-19

A decade into their career, our favorite Detroit punk rockers expanded their often brutish musical horizons – and fans loved it regardless of whether or not the band’s inspiration came a little bit from cringe-worthy, late night infomercials.

With some albums, the theme writes itself. It doesn’t have to revolve around a specific concept, it could just be about what the songwriter is feeling or going through when the music is being created. For Detroit post-punks Protomartyr, that’s how the process went in making their fifth studio album Ultimate Success Today that came out in July of last year. It’s also their most collaborative release with their amplified sound reaching new boundaries. Folks will be able to witness this new sonic expanse when the band rolls through Underground Arts in Philadelphia on November 17 and at Elsewhere in Brooklyn on the following night. 

I had a talk with frontman Joe Casey ahead of the shows about the making of the band’s latest album, promoting a record in the absence of live music, hating social media, and being glad to be back on tour. 

The underlying theme of Ultimate Success Today centers on you going through a midlife crisis, which can be a difficult thing for anyone to deal with. How did you recognize that you were going through this crisis and what made you want to put it towards the band’s music?

You never really know if it’s a midlife crisis – it could be an end of life crisis and it certainly felt like that. I was feeling pretty sick and we recorded the record the year before the pandemic, during that year I felt pretty useless and out of sorts. Looking back, I think probably the reason why was that we weren’t doing much in 2019. We played maybe five shows total and I felt like I was reverting back to the way I was and who I was before joining the band. I was a person who didn’t do much and if you sit around and do nothing all day you start to focus on the negative and how bad you feel. 

That kind of seeped its way into the songs and when the pandemic rolled around it felt like the songs were talking about that. What most people did last year during the pandemic was sit around and do nothing while feeling bad. The themes of albums are never planned, as you’re writing lyrics to songs it kind of sticks to them and for better or for worse the theme of feeling bad stuck to that album. I joked around the time that the previous Protomartyr albums were about how it’s sad when someone you love dies but this album is about how sad it is when you die. It’s a pretty good record for a pandemic year I think, in retrospect. 

I can see why you’d think that. The title of the album is inspired by infomercials that usually air late at night promising instant wealth, gold, or whatever kind of materialistic prosperity. Would you say that the album title was an idea that was conceived around 3:00 a.m. or in the wee hours of the day while you were bored watching TV?

Again, if you’re not doing anything all day, then you’re up all night while having weird sleeping hours and you’ll see these infomercials. It was more about how depressing it can be to be up alone late at night. Some people are restless and unsettled and they see these commercials, especially during a time a lot of them were about buying real estate, flipping houses, reverse mortgages, and things like that. They would sell these reverse mortgages for old people who can’t afford it, but they own a house and it’s usually some old celebrity talking about it on TV. The phrase “ultimate success today” stuck out to me because I wanted the songs to be of the day, of the moment, whether it’s a character or myself in crisis at that time. 

It’s not about the past and it’s not about the future, but it’s about how those two things have an effect on the present. I used the word “ultimate” because it reminded me of comic books and titles like Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate Iron Man. The best, the peak, and when you’re trying to sell records, you want to make it seem like it’s going to be the best thing anyone is ever going to hear so I like the grouping of those three words.

It makes for good marketing. 

Yeah, exactly. 

Musically there’s some added elements in play with the late improvisational jazz saxophonist Jameel Moondoc and cellist Fred Lonborg-Holm lending their talents to the album. How were you able to get both of them involved?

It was one of those things where I think a lot of times bands will be influenced by a different kind of music than they usually do. There’s the escape of going to a dance club and hearing dance music while being in a band and wanting your next album to be all dance music. There are experts and people who know what they’re doing making dance music so it can be smart to stray from that. Our guitarist Greg Ahee was being influenced by a lot of jazz and he wisely decided the way to implement that into our sound was to actually get jazz musicians and people who knew how to improvise well and put them into our songs. Luckily, we were able to reach out to people, like our friend who runs Tubby’s in Kingston, New York who knew Fred, so we got in touch through him while our manager Joe Price reached out to Jameel who sadly just passed away. 

When our guitar player started listening to a lot of jazz, we were worried that we were going to go down the first path where all of a sudden we’re a jazz band. He really was smart while mostly wanting to write songs that had the space to have collaborators come in, change things up, and be able to improvise. Jameel was there for one day during the recordings for four or five songs and he was able to do it all during the afternoon. Izaak Mills, who is another jazz musician from New York City, was able to come in and he was actually there for a couple days. Out of all the collaborators he was there the most and he left his fingerprints the most on the songs. 

I felt like an experiment and looking back I feel like we dodged a lot of the minefield while changing our sound in any meaningful way. The album really avoided a lot of the pitfalls and things like that. 

Personally, I like how you have the melding of all these different talents involved in the record. It makes for a very intriguing and enjoyable listening experience. How would you describe promoting and marketing the album while in the absence of live music during the COVID-19 pandemic? Did it take a lot of improvising on the band’s part due to the limitations? You can only do so much on social media, so was there a lot of brainstorming and thinking outside the box?

It was a complete shitshow, because number one as a band, we abhor social media. We don’t like the idea that people think they can communicate with you in general – we don’t try to be like the bands that are way too chummy online. We like to have a little bit of mystery… and also we’re just very boring people. We’re a band because we like making music, not because we want to be online all the time and take pictures of what we ate for dinner. We’ve never been good at that aspect before the pandemic and we weren’t going to be that way during it, which was a problem. 

The main thing was right when the pandemic hit we were going to have a friend of ours film what was probably going to be the biggest budget music video we ever did, but she couldn’t film it because all the film sets shut down. We had this money that we were going to put toward this video and we decided to split it up and make a video for each song on the album while finding people who were able to make videos in less than a month for very little money without being able to use sets and actors. That was a challenge but we were able to pull it off with some pretty amazing talents who were able to do two videos for us, so that’s one thing. That was pretty much all we could do. We were told many times by our record label that we’re a very good record-selling band and people like to buy our records on vinyl to have an actual LP, which I think is a nice way of saying that we don’t stream very well. When the record stores were closed, it took away our revenue stream from that, and we couldn’t tour, so it was a challenge but I’m glad we put it out when we did because it was originally supposed to come out in May… and then it got pushed to July.

I was worried that they would push it until they thought the pandemic was over and at the time I knew it was something that would take years to fully work it’s way out of our system or for us to get used to it. I’m glad it was put out when it was because it can be viewed as an album for that period and I’m looking forward to performing some of the songs. It’s nerve-wracking because a lot of these songs we’ve never played live and we wrote them three years ago. Usually when you tour you find out which songs work well and which ones don’t in front of an audience. Now we’re going out and playing super old songs that we’ve never played before plus songs that we’re working on now, so it’s interesting, but I’m glad to be back touring. 

Speaking of touring, what are your thoughts on these upcoming shows at Underground Arts and Elsewhere?

On a personal level, after a while of not singing (or whatever I do) after doing it for a long time, I’m wondering if I still got it. You gotta go out to find out if this is something that you want to still be doing and if you’re going to be good at it or is your voice going to shit out after the first song. There was that sort of anticipation of us still being able to do it, which after the past few shows has shown that we can still do it. Kelly Deal has been back touring with us and that’s been really exciting.

Awesome, I’m happy to hear that. 

Her inclusion has changed the songs a bit – it’s almost like taking the energy we have from the record and bringing it to the show. Having a different collaborator addings something different to the songs makes them new and exciting, so that’s great. As far as touring in the age of COVID-19 goes, it’s bizarre because we have friends who have already gone out and they say it’s weird because it’ll be a sold out show but only half the audience will show up. There’s a whole thing where you want to have people masked up and vaccinated which causes friction depending on where you play, so there’s that aspect. We know people that have had to cancel tours because halfway through somebody tested positive for COVID-19, and even if you’re vaccinated you don’t want to be spreading it around to people.

It really feels like going back out into the trenches but it’s a little more fraught than usual. One bright idea we had when we booked this tour is that we didn’t want to play in large rooms. We wanted to perform in smaller rooms, which was really key for our Brooklyn show as it’s helping us get back into the swing of things while playing these small packed places. Even before the pandemic, every Protomartyr tour has been affected by something, so it’s just par for the course I guess.