Everything and Nothing
“Well at the beginning I mention my friend Dante who’s Filipino. He always has, like, off-brand electronics; I don’t know where he gets his electronics from.” Joe Casey hunches over at the picnic table that his band and I have squeezed onto for our interview. We’re sitting outside Brixton DIY venue The Windmill amidst the chattering overspill of the audience within, the dull thud of drums drifting in and out of perception as we speak. The venue’s iconic rooftop guard-dog watches on a few feet above us, its image adorning our bottles of the house-brand ‘Roof Dog’ beer.
Casey directs his gaze to the side as he draws on a cigarette, his body half-turned as if poised to leave; but the apparent aloofness of his demeanour is belied by the ease and lucidity of his conversation. The singer’s tone is that of low-key sincerity, his responses to my questions more considered and succinct than curt. “So I was thinking, like, what if one day you turned up with a device that you could just buy at RadioShack or a cheap electronics store, and it’s something that would just remove want? It’s kind of a science fictiony theme, but [I tried to] make it as realistic as possible.”
We’re discussing the track ‘Want Remover’, a particularly striking point on Protomartyr’s second record, ‘Under Color of Official Right’, released earlier this year on Sub Pop’s Hardly Art imprint. The song’s concept is pervaded by a dystopian air, evoking images of a society controlled by Casey’s fictional device, its individuals acquiescent and apathetic as concepts like progress, change, and freedom fade to little more than half-remembered ideals. So what do you imagine a world with a want remover would look like? I ask. “Kind of like ours,” Casey answers without pause. “I don’t have a smartphone but I see how important they are for people once they have them, and how people are obsessed with devices nowadays. So I think it probably already exists; we just don’t know about it.”
For Casey, then, the contemporary anxiety towards boredom – our overwhelming dread of any time spent without activity, without connection – has led to the development of a new, more deadened way of existence. I relay to the band a remark recently made by the critic Mark Fisher: that the rapid infiltration of digital media into both the public and private spheres has created such a continuous stream of low-level stimuli that the very idea of boredom now seems utopian. “Yeah, I can see that,” Casey nods. But immediately the rest of the group – up to this point content simply to observe – weigh in to disagree, recalling their wi-fi-deprived journey from France earlier in the day. “Well the ferry was especially bad, because I couldn’t read a book or anything, I just had to stare out of the window,” guitarist Greg Ahee says, the conversation now pacing around the table. “I don’t know if it was boredom,” elaborates Alex Leonard, the group’s drummer, “I just felt like we were gonna die. Boredom and terror.”
Ahee: “Yeah: fear. Fear is probably a better word.”
There’s a brief pause of agreement before Ahee says: “But the other side, being like glued to Twitter and Facebook all the time, can be a disease too.”
It’s this fraught relationship to digital media – which finds its most potent embodiment in the perverse allure of the infinite scroll of these social networks – that’s explored with such eloquence on ‘Want Remover’. The track’s protagonist begins by almost gleefully embracing the device: “I’m free free free from want / I’m free free from fear”. But as independent agency quickly deteriorates into what seems like maniacal addiction and dependency, the track ends on a forbidding note: “I’m free free free from thought / and I’m free free from action / as it starts to leak / I worry about the carpet.”