In the Old Testament, Jonah (the guy who got swallowed by a big fish) was the only prophet God was forced to call upon twice. Known as the Reluctant Prophet, he not only ignored his creator’s commands, but instead did the exact opposite of what was asked of him. When called upon by the Almighty to have compassion and show mercy for his enemies, his response was, in essence, “Kill me.” A parodic parable meant to teach Vacation Bible School kids to turn the other cheek, in 2020 it’s hard not to shrug and just ride with the guy on that one.
Joe Casey, frontman for Detroit foursome Protomartyr, claims he is not a prophet, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for one. After years of putting out cerebral but also rapturous and cathartic post-punk, Protomartyr found themselves in lockstep with the rest of the world in 2017 with their fourth album Relatives in Descent, which was written in the wake of the 2016 election. While Protomartyr’s Motor City hymns frequently revolve around the downtrodden and forgotten, a jolt of reality seemed to shock Casey’s often cryptic, literary observations.
“People were like, ‘Ho ho! Here’s Protomartyr’s political record!’ Well, it’s always been present. I’ve been talking about the state of Detroit since the first record,” Casey says. “So it’s been there, but by the time we got to writing Relatives In Descent it’s like, well, you can’t come out with a record that’s like, ‘Everything’s fine, everything’s great’ when the world is falling apart.”
When it was time to get started on Protomartyr’s fifth album, not only was the world at large still falling apart, but Casey’s own life began to crumble as he was sidelined by an illness that he himself remains somewhat guarded discussing. “You know when you get sharp pains down your side? I wanted to torture myself further, I went online,” he says of his attempts to self-diagnose. “Since then, I’ve realized that I’m getting older. Touring, being active for almost two years… and then coming back home and doing nothing, alone. You start noticing every ache and pain. Your body starts falling apart.”
Casey has since quit smoking, and his reward is Protomartyr’s most ambitious and human album to date, the squalling Ultimate Success Today. And while it’s largely a personal work, that thing Shakespeare once wrote about holding “the mirror up to nature” decided to rear its head once again. “At the time [of writing the album] I thought, ‘OK, this album’s gonna come out and the articles are going to say: “One Man’s Journey Through Sickness.”‘ But now the whole world is sick. It’s a bit of bad timing with this thing. Or impeccable timing.”
That’s tough to say, but when it comes to songs like “Modern Business Hymns”– a not-so-subtle jab at America’s health care system — it’s not hard to see why listeners would be able to find some something to relate to in Casey’s experience, especially at a time when unprecedented numbers of people are losing their career-dependent healthcare in swaths. “My friend group — and maybe we’re a bunch of losers — but nobody that I know, at least people in the arts, have health insurance,” he says. “You’ve been paying into this thing for your whole life, and then it’s like, ‘Well actually, that’s gonna cost you all this money.’ People are choosing to not go. They don’t have the money to do it, and then it becomes something terrible and awful.”
But as far as backwards systems are concerned, the most prescient thing about Ultimate Success Today might be its lead single, “Processed By the Boys.” “Fill out the form, download the app, submit your face into the scanner/ Everyone’s hunted with a smile,” Casey blurts over the band’s militaristic chug and a lone floating saxophone. “People were saying, when ‘Processed By the Boys’ came out — when all the riots, police brutality stuff came up — people were like, ‘Wow! ‘Processed By the Boys’ is about police brutality! How did you know?’” he says. “It’s not like police brutality just started. And really, what was the spur of that song — which was kinda forgotten about in all of the shuffle — is that it’s mostly written about ICE.”
But as ICE joins federal agents on the streets of some of America’s most outspoken cities every night, “Boys” seems all the more vital. “I hope that the momentum keeps up, because people… these things have a way of flagging sometimes,” he says. “What’s interesting is that it’s a young protest. And that helps keep the momentum going.”
In a typically sweet but acidic manner, Casey jokingly describes Ultimate Success Today as “Pathetic maybe, but not prophetic.” So Billboard naturally wanted to find out a little more about just what inspired it — which Casey helps detail below.
Listening to more jazz
We were listening to a lot of non-rock and roll music. As a band, we really don’t listen to music together very much. It’s kind of silent in the van. Everyone has earbuds in. I was listening to a lot of Curtis Mayfield. ’70s soul, funk. And [guitarist Greg Agee] was like, “OK, I really want to bring in some jazz elements to this.” That’s a scary concept like, “This could go really bad.” These guys think they’re jazz musicians! But he had a good idea, he was like, “Jazz is all about collaboration, and what we’ll do is write songs that are Protomartyr songs — but they’ll have the space for these collaborators to come in and change the songs.”
I was trying to read ‘A Short History of Decay,’ by Emil Cioran. It’s a collection of aphorisms about human decay and human feeling. It’s actually kind of a comforting book to read. When you’re feeling sick, it’s like you constantly… you can’t go to sleep, you can’t think. So there was a lot of watching late-night television. And luckily they have all these free digital channels. So I started watching infomercials. And infomercials can get pretty depressing late at night, they’re mostly for catheters and life insurance.
So the title [of the record], Ultimate Success Today, came from some infomercial late at night when I couldn’t go to sleep, and was probably smoking way too many cigarettes out of worry. [The lyric] ‘I didn’t dare go far/ Saving oxygen’ from ‘Modern Business Hymns’? That’s from an informercial about portable oxygen.
Consider the mule
I read a book about about the history of mules and the U.S. Army from the Mexican-American War until WWII. And the mules did a great job! But they got really f—ked up in all these wars we used them in.
The idea of a mule is fascinating to me. I mention this in ‘Michigan Hammers’ that at the start of the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Army pulls into Vera Cruz, getting ready to invade, but they can’t pull the ship in close enough to unload the mules. So they threw them overboard. Some of them swam to shore but a lot of them just drowned right there. ‘We’ll see how many make it.’ So they didn’t have any mules, the mules didn’t survive that. So they bought a bunch of Mexican mules. So the people of Mexico made a lot of money off this invading country. America! [Chuckles.]