Five albums deep into their career, it was already fairly clear what Protomartyr’s MO was—if not made evident through the relatively minimal stylistic changes between each post-punk opus, then through frontman Joe Casey nearly speaking them over the din created by his band on each song. Yet with their sixth LP, Formal Growth in the Desert, the world has changed so drastically since the release of 2020’s Ultimate Success Today that a shift in the band’s outlook seemed mandatory.
In addition to dipping back into the realm of gothic rock explored nearly a decade ago on their breakout record Under Color of Official Right, Formal Growth sees Casey wandering existential terrain for both himself and his band as he struggles to make sense of the past three years. “During quarantine and after, without shows to play or any real reason to get up in the morning, I felt I had reverted to my pre-Protomartyr days—uselessness and self-loathing,” he notes in the track-by-track breakdown of the album’s themes he’s shared with us, highlighting what he later claims is one of the album’s most burning questions: “Can you hate yourself and still deserve love?”
Fortunately for the band this line of heavy self-reflection has long soundtracked some of their strongest instrumentals, Formal Growth being no exception. While Casey finds himself lost in deserts both literal (the LP was recorded at Sonic Ranch in West Texas) and figurative (“I had taken a trip to the desert and felt meaningless next to the ancient rock, but consoled myself with the fact that dogs still liked me,” he quips), the band sounds fully locked in in a way that reflects the 15 years they’ve spent together as a unit crafting the ominously spacious soundscapes that largely define their latest record.
With Formal Growth in the Desert out today, Casey talked us through each track, explaining their origins with the dry and occasionally self-deprecating humor we’ve come to associate with the band. “We had been waylaid by COVID for so long, I was hoping it would be triumphant, but I’ll settle for whatever defeatist litany this ended up as,” he concedes. Check out his write-ups below.
1. “Make Way”
This always seemed to be the opening track, even when we had just a handful of songs. At least, it always sounded like an opening track. I wanted to address the last couple of years in an oblique way, the mass forgetting we all seem to be in agreement on. We often use the first song as a table setter: “Here’s what to expect on this one.” This one feels more like a “previously on Protomartyr” recap.
2. “For Tomorrow”
I like the speed of this one. The trap for a lot of bands as they get older and fatter is to slow down. While I’ve fallen into this trap knowingly in my daily life, it’s good to hear the rhythm section up the tempo. Lyrically, this song touches ever so softly on what I think the “theme” of the record is. During quarantine and after, without shows to play or any real reason to get up in the morning, I felt I had reverted to my pre-Protomartyr days—uselessness and self-loathing. The song’s about seeing that in yourself and others, maybe trying to hide that from the world and loved ones. The “Special Way” is a liquor store near my old house. We call them “party stores” in Detroit. Life is a party, you know.
3. “Elimination Dances”
The second single and possibly a toe-tapper? A toe-dragger, at least. We honed this one on a couple of mini tours we did at the end of 2021 and last year. For me, it’s all about the bassline. I’m realizing, having to write what these songs “mean,” that my overarching lyrical obsession is my opposition to time. The very first song on our very first album had a line, “time’s wrong.” Anyway, I had taken a trip to the desert and felt meaningless next to the ancient rock, but consoled myself with the fact that dogs still liked me.
4. “Fun in Hi-Skool”
When I rail against time, I’m thoughtful and deep. When assholes do it, they are pathetically attacking youth and all they possess. Well, maybe I do it too. I did the vocals and lyrics very late at night after a full day of laying down other tracks. I’m glad it captures the rawer, wilder sound of our live shows while having this weird, alien gloss over it. Basically it’s about obsessing over “the glory days” to your own peril. I think “at least you had fun in hi-skool” could be used as an insult. The title comes from a Marx Brothers vaudeville routine, which is a kind of dumb meta joke. Anybody pining for those “good old days” when the current crop of old peoples’ “good old days” were happening are long dead now.
5. “Let’s Tip the Creator”
Life is hard enough, but what makes it sting for me is this crop of billionaires flopping around, monopolizing culture, our time, and being so utterly stupid about it. The title sort of comes from Mark Zuckerberg’s video about the Metaverse, or whatever dumb name he has for the lamest thing I had ever seen. In the video, you can “tip” artists for their digitized work—just the most boneheaded, dehumanizing way to look at the world. The song goes through a couple “fictionalized” rich assholes and their follies. It would be a comedy song if they didn’t have such a throat-grip on the livelihoods of so many people.
6. “Graft vs. Host”
I suppose I fear time because I witnessed what it did to my mother. After 10 years of suffering with dementia she, thankfully, peacefully passed away. She was so full of love and joy, as most great moms are. The difficulty of having that kind of positive person exit in such a painfully protracted way and trying to look for that joy in the world without them, that’s what this song is about.
7. “3800 Tigers”
It’s a good idea to start side B with a Detroit song, so we did. “Eat ’Em Up Tigers” is a slogan that’s been around since the ’60s here. It was really made famous by James Van Horn, an old fella who would be outside of most Tigers baseball games shouting that and collecting money. He died in a hit and run a couple years back—a tragic loss for the city. The song also has a nod to Lou Whittaker, my favorite Tiger from childhood who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. It would be an all-out celebratory song if not for the references to the low number of wild tigers on the planet and the possible brutal future of sport in the far-flung future.
8. “Polacrilex Kid”
Polacrilex is a generic name for nicotine gum. An annoying habit you pick up after quitting smoking and any time after you pick up smoking again. I wanted to write a realistic comeback song. We had been waylaid by COVID for so long, I was hoping it would be triumphant, but I’ll settle for whatever defeatist litany this ended up as. It does contain what I think is the thesis of the album (if music was boring and not fluid and inexplicable): “Can you hate yourself and still deserve love?”
9. “Fulfillment Center”
Love comes up again in this song. Love in the face of the grindingly hopeless capitalism of the Midwest. You see a lot of the world through touring, go through many states and highways in America, and it’s often the ass-end. This song could probably be longer, with more sad adventures of these two characters. I would love to bore the world with a 15 minute story song someday. But I think brevity is the point. It doesn’t take that long to get disillusioned, even with love by your side.
10. “We Know the Rats”
A weird one in that it came out of my experience having my house burgled four times in the span of two weeks. It’s weird because, while I certainly felt existential despair after dealing with the Detroit Police Department and having my family’s legacy thumbed through and stolen, the song turned out to be somewhat positive. A real “know thy enemy” song. Finding an enemy, no matter how large or amorphous, can give the despairing life purpose. It’s not necessarily a greeting card message, but spite has a place in breaking up the morass.
11. “The Author”
One last song about my mother. Not much to explain here besides a feeling of gratitude, and I love how the song ends and I didn’t want to mess it up with some trite words. I find both this and “Graft vs. Host” to be the most emotionally honest songs on here and the instrumental codas both contain the most truth.
12. “Rain Garden”
A real rain garden behind a real Coney Island (what we call diners that serve a certain kind of hot dog in Detroit) next to a Taco Bell. Again, the music is profound and gigantic and I just wanted to poetically sing (or whatever it is I do) about finding love after a couple of real shit years and do it matter-of-factly. The second half moves in such a musically cosmic way I figured I should evoke a bit of The Song of Solomon just to express how serious I am about love. So there you go: a winding, bitter, sad, and funny road to love. And we got there in less than 40 minutes.