Since their 2012 debut No Passion All Technique, the Detroit post-punk band Protomartyr have mastered the art of evoking place: the grinding Midwest humility of their hometown, as well as the x-rayed elucidation of America that comes with their vantage. Protomartyr—vocalist Joe Casey, guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard, and bassist Scott Davidson—have become synonymous with caustic, impressionistic assemblages of politics and poetry, the literal and oblique.
The group’s sixth album, recorded at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, is called Formal Growth In The Desert. And though frontman Joe Casey did have a humbling experience staring at awe-inspiring Sonoran rock formations and reckoning with his own smallness in the scheme of things – as recounted in the single “Elimination Dances” – the title is not necessarily a nod to the sandy expanses of the southwest. Detroit, too, is like a desert. “The desert is more of a metaphor or symbol,” Casey says, “of emotional deserts, or a place or time that seems to lack life.” The desert brings an existential awareness that is ultimately internal.
The “growth” came from a period of colossal transition for Casey, including the death of his mother. Now 45, Casey had lived in the family home in northwest Detroit all his life until 2021, when a surge of break-ins signaled that it was time to move out. As with all touring artists, the pandemic years also brought on other inner quandaries about the purpose and feasibility of a musician’s life.
But life does go on, and Casey describes the great theme of Formal Growth In The Desert as an embrace and acknowledgment of that fact: a 12-song testament to “getting on with life,” even when it feels impossibly hard. “I was trying to find a way forward after some pretty heavy things, without lyrically resorting to, Oh my god, my life sucks,” Casey says. “I was trying to see what was beyond the trouble.” The titles of the two opening songs—the moody “Make Way” followed by the charging ennui of “For Tomorrow”—complete that thought.
The band’s music—more spacious and dynamic than ever—pulled him up, too. Guitarist Greg Ahee, who co-produced Formal Growth In The Desert alongside Jake Aron (Snail Mail, L’Rain), knew what Casey was going through. Conceptualizing the music, he considered how to make it all “like a narrative film.” Having recently scored a pair of short films, Ahee found himself immersed in the cinematic Spaghetti Western music of Ennio Morricone. “I started to write at home on a piano and on a keyboard and then play along to short films, and watch how you can affect and heighten moods as you play,” Ahee explains.
The filmic sensibility is manifest in Casey’s storytelling, too, whether he’s critiquing ominous techno-capitalism or processing aging, the future, and the possibility of love. Casey calls the centerpiece, “Graft Vs. Host,” written in the immediate wake of his mother’s death, the heaviest song on the record, but it is also among Protomartyr’s most beautiful. It opens with an ominous sprawl before Casey’s sweet, coiling melody buoys the subject matter: “Sadness running through my mind/She wouldn’t want to see me live this way,” he sings, an earnest inquiry into how grief manages to eventually make way for other emotions. “My mom wouldn’t want me to be depressed about her passing for the rest of my life,” Casey explains. “Everybody wants to be happy, but how do you get there? Is it just a surgery that you have, and one day you are allowed? After someone dies, you don’t want to necessarily associate their life with their death.” It was the first Formal Growth In The Desert song that came together for the band in a room—an emblem of “trying to put sadness behind me, to see if I can let love into my life.” It culminates on a pummeling loop, which for Casey felt fitting: “I really like that idea: the band keeps going.”