Protomartyr: Comfortable chaos
Joe Casey reconciles 'average-dad' demeanor
During this year's SXSW music conference, Protomartyr played 10 shows in four days. Critics gushed, repeatedly citing the Detroit post-punk quartet's shows as some of the best they'd seen. Many also took the opportunity to comment on singer Joe Casey's curious stage presence. The Los Angeles Times called him "the coolest uncool frontman" at SXSW, noting his "average-dad outfit." The A.V. Club said Casey looked "disinterested or lost in far-away thoughts." And SPIN lauded his "dead-on impersonation of a crazy guy in the bus station walking around talking to himself."
None of those qualities are an affectation for the stage, says Casey, who, at 37, is comfortable in his anti-rock-star skin. "A lot of my stage presence has come out of me being nervous on stage," Casey says. "I don't do it anymore, but I used to get pretty drunk to be able to get up on stage. And I wear glasses normally, but I take those off so I can't see anything. I can't see the crowd. So that probably gives me an angry stare because I can't see anything. I put my hand in my pocket because I don't know what else to do with it. So that comes across on stage like this guy has a very interesting demeanor, but it developed very naturally."
This is the visual centerpiece for one of 2014's rising rock 'n' roll bands that will be on the road for the rest of the year. Last week, Hardly Art released Protomartyr's second album, Under Color of Official Right, a collection of skuzzy, slate-colored garage rock stretched tightly across a rumbling rhythm section, rounded out by drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson, and leavened with Greg Ahee's barbed guitar lines. Once Casey adds his mildly melodic snarl, Protomartyr's sound is dark and tense, with a serrated pop sensibility that shines through in songs such as "Ain't So Simple," "Scum, Rise!" and "Come & See."
Casey is nine years older than his bandmates; he met them while working as a doorman at a theater in Detroit, then began hanging out with them and joining in on vocals with their previous band, the Butt Babies. He had tagged along on tour with his friends in Tyvek, but had never been in a band before, or even performed in front of people. Once his new band began writing songs, Casey's role was to stand "in the corner with a microphone, basically mumbling ... along with 'em and pulling from my brain ideas I have for songs to see if they fit," he says.
More often than not, they do. Snugly. Despite Casey's lack of experience, his chance meeting with a band has become a burgeoning career, even if he sometimes feels out of place at a Protomartyr gig. "A couple times ... I've felt like I was a poorly dressed narc at the show," he says. "I was like, 'I'm the oldest person here, probably.' But I think that benefits the band 'cause it starts off like, 'Oh man, I don't have any idea what this band is gonna sound like by looking at them.' And then we start, and people are usually pleasantly surprised."
Not that the self-effacing Casey credits himself for that reaction. "The band is great. They're really good at what they do," he says. "I'm kind of like, 'I hope I can pull it off tonight and fool a bunch of people.' So far, it's been OK."