Odd Jobs: a Conversation with Protomartyr and Preoccupations

“I've heard the argument that rock music isn't dangerous anymore, but I think it's just not where the money is.”

Matt Flegal is the vocalist and bassist for the Canadian band Preoccupations; Joe Casey is the frontman of the Detroit-based Protomartyr. The two post-punk artists are currently touring together and recently released a split 7” covering each other’s songs, Telemetry At Howe Bridge. Here, you can read their conversation about intra-band fighting, the economics of being a full-time musician, and the similarities between hardcore sports fans and music nerds.  
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse

Matt Flegal: We’re on tour together.

Joe Casey: We’re currently in a basement of the recordBar in Kansas City.

Matt: Beautiful Kansas City.

Joe: That’s one of the problems of touring is you never really get to see a city very much. You’re mostly sitting in basements like this.

Matt: You go everywhere and you see nothing.

Joe: Yeah. Or as you’re drinking, you forget everything that you saw. So how long have we been on tour now? Two weeks, I think?

Matt: A little bit over two weeks. It’s been pretty solid so far. We had our first band breakdown last night, which I don’t know if you were a witness to.

Joe: I saw it starting to happen and then I was out the door.

Matt: You got out at a good point.

Joe: Is it something that you can talk about?

Matt: Yeah. Absolutely we can talk about it.

Joe: Because band breakdowns, I think, [are] something that every band goes through.

Matt: Do you guys ever fight on tour?

Joe: Since we’ve got a touring manager, it’s been less.

Matt: Sure, and this is the deal: this is one of the first we’ve done in a long time where we haven’t had a tour manager. [With] the tour manager, basically if anything goes wrong, you have someone to lay the blame on that’s not in the band, and it keeps everything kind of level. I feel that was exactly the problem last night. It was miscommunication, everyone got too drunk, no one could drive.

Joe: Right. And that was usually the number one reason we would fight, because when we used to manage ourselves, one person would have to be the sober one. And then immediately they would become the daddy and have to boss everybody around. It never works.

Matt: But it’s good. We had a big sit-down lunch. We sat down, we broke bread, we talked over everything. It’s fine now.

Joe: Yeah. That just happens on the road. I think what’s also keeping both the bands is, we’re on tour with this band Rattle from Nottingham.

Matt: Who are fantastic.

Joe: Who are great.

Matt: Just really nice to be around, and an awesome band.

Joe: It’s a benefit, I think, to tour with bands that you get along with. But also with Rattle, I like it because I think that they’re different than our bands.

Matt: Well, it’s nice to have some ladies around.

Joe: Yeah, because everybody’s on their best behavior.

Matt: A little bit more so. We’re pretty crass still.

Joe: Yeah, we’re still scumbags.

Matt: No, it’s been a pleasure being around those guys.

Joe: Yeah. I think they’re a perfect band to set the tone for the night. Whereas if people were expecting, like, “Oh, here comes three rock bands”—[Rattle] kind of shows more experimental stuff.

Matt: Yeah. And [we’re] two dudes with low voices yelling. I feel like you can only really take so much of that. It’s like a piece of ginger in between the sushi; You need to cleanse the palate a little bit.

Joe: How we used to describe our band in the early days—and I think it’s probably still true—we used to say it was twenty minutes of a fat guy yelling at you. Now it’s a full hour of a fat guy yelling at you. So it’s like, not so good.

Matt: It’s been good, though. It’s funny—GGBB is an expression that we use. Good guys, bad band.

Joe: We were talking about that the other day, that there’s tons of bands that, yeah, the people are great, but maybe you just don’t like their music very much. Like, to find a real asshole is pretty rare.

Matt: Yeah. There’s a few. I think [with] bands it’s always different. I feel like you find the assholes when it’s a dude with a laptop showing up with a 20 person entourage. That gets a little ludicrous. But I don’t know. Do you think rock music is dying?

Joe: Well, who knows? I think it’s changing, probably. I think what we thought rock was is probably different. It seems like there’s still kids going to shows. Maybe it’s not the popular thing right now. Like, I’ve heard the argument that rock music isn’t dangerous anymore, but I think it’s just not where the money is.

Matt: Yeah, I suppose so. This is all you guys do—do you have another day job or anything?

Joe: No. Alex [Leonard, drums] used to. He was the one that had the real job. Greg [Ahee, guitar] and I had kind of part time jobs. I guess it was before the last record is when we finally all quit our jobs.

Matt: Yeah. We haven’t been working day jobs for a few years now. But we live a very meager existence.

Joe: Yeah. I think that’s important to convey, especially when it’s two musicians talking, because I think people think “Oh, I’ve seen their picture in a magazine, they must be loaded.”

Matt: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s like, my grandparents think I’m a rockstar, you know?

Joe: “Where’s your sports car?” No, can’t afford a car, sorry.

Matt: I feel like Detroit’s an easier place to get by on not too much money.

Joe: It is. It’s changing. It’s not like I’m completely impoverished, but I live in the old family house and the pipe burst in it. The cost of repairing the pipe and getting all the water out of the basement was worth more than the house, and was more money than I had made the year prior. It completely set me back. I was like, Wow. What if I try to have kids or a family? It’s impossible.

Matt: I just moved from Montreal to New York, and Montreal is a very easy place to get by on not very much money. It’s still very cheap there, even with an influx of artists and video game companies setting up shop. It’s getting more expensive, but it’s more of a slow burn.

I like [New York]. I don’t want to end up there for the rest of my days or anything. It’s just a different thing. Montreal to New York is completely different—and, like, five times more expensive.

Joe: Yeah. Alex moved to New York recently as well, and he says the same thing. Maybe you guys can do some busking together.

Matt: Yeah, throw the hats out. Well, I gotta think of something. I’m not a citizen, so finding work outside of this is kind of a process. Or I just gotta get paid under the table and wash dishes or something.

Joe: Yeah. I think when people hear that we don’t have jobs, they think it’s because the money coming in allows us not to have jobs. But the secret is, the amount we have to [tour] to make any sort of money, we can’t have a job.

Matt: No, noone is gonna hire someone that’s gone half the year.

Joe: We held onto the jobs as long as we could, and then it’s like, “Well, they want us to do a two month tour.” I can’t really leave a job for two months and come back.

Matt: Yeah. What did you do before, though? This is your first band, right?

Joe: Yeah. Right before this band I was working at a comedy club, and it was the second comedy club I worked at. The only reason I got the job in the first one was because my cousin who was really into improv opened it up, and I needed a job. So that was it. Somehow I found myself being good as a comedy club doorman, selling tickets.

Matt: I’ve done mostly shit labor jobs. I’ve been a musician since I was a teenager, so basically anything to kind of fill in the space.

Joe: Was there music in your house growing up?

Matt: Oh, yeah. Basically every Sunday my dad would get together with his uncles; they’d buy a bottle of booze and sit around with the guitars and play old classics, old Marty Robbins shit. So it was always around.

And the old man was supportive. I mean, he bought me and my brother guitars, I think when I would have been, like, 12 and he would have been 9. He was like, “I’m cutting off the cable, I’m buying the boys guitars.” We bitched and moaned for a while and then eventually, you know, we got into it.

Joe: So he was supportive.

Matt: Yeah, he was. I don’t know, I just can’t imagine being a father and being like, “I want my son to do this.”

Joe: Right. You can appreciate it, but you wouldn’t be like, “Now here’s what you gotta do to make it.”

Matt: “Develop a drinking habit. Go out on the road. Do a terrible job at maintaining every human relationship that you have.”

Joe: Yes, then you’ll make beautiful music. [Laughs.]

Matt: I mean, he’s proud. We’re friends now. We didn’t use to be friends, and now I look forward to spending time with him. He’s just, like, a peer.

Joe: That’s probably usually how it goes. I have no idea how I ended up being in a band. It was never really the plan at all.

Matt: Well, I heard the story that, like, those other boys were playing and then you would be kind of hanging out at the bar that they were playing, and you’d step in every once in a while.

Joe: Greg and I worked at the same job. It was just holding doors for people walking into a theater. It was a really sad job for a guy in this thirties to have. You know, Greg was much younger—it was like, this is a job you have when you’re in college or just out of college, and I so was like, Man, I gotta do something with my life.

And speaking of dads, my dad died ten years ago, and it was like, Oh man, I gotta do something. So that was kind of what kind of drove me to at least approach Greg about being in a band, or singing. But I never before that had any inkling or desire. I didn’t grow up in a musical family.

Matt: Were you a writer before that?

Joe: Sort of. Not really. I went to school for writing.

Matt: That makes sense. I didn’t know that. Never really been so much of a writer until lately, just because really no one else wanted to do it. And I ended up singing. This is the first band that I ever sang in. I played bass and guitar in a bunch of other people’s bands, playing other people’s music.

Joe: And was that just a case of, like, no one else wanted to do it.

Matt: Exactly. And I’m still pretty reluctant with it, to be totally honest.

Joe: Oh no—I don’t know what good singing is, I don’t know what bad singing is, and I don’t know if I do either. It was kind of a similar thing [for me], because in Greg and Alex’s band, they both sang and they both have beautiful voices.

Matt: Really? Those boys can sing?

Joe: Yeah. I’ve always been like, “Well if you guys want to do backing vocals to help maybe anchor some of this ridiculousness…”

Matt: Honestly, it’s nice having some of that too. Monty [aka Scott Munro, guitar] is great at filling it in—like, doing the little harmonies. I always write things with harmonies. Plus, Monty always remembers my words better than I do. I’m just like, “What’s the third verse to that one again?”

Joe: I do think it is a benefit to have someone else backing you up. [It] kind of brings out new stuff.

Matt: Bolsters it, man. So Greg’s spending a bunch of time in Chicago these days, and then Alex is in Brooklyn. Are you guys feeling the weirdness of living in different cities?

Joe: I think we will once this tour is over, just because then [we] need to work on new stuff.

Matt: I feel like our writing process has changed immensely since we started living away from one another. I also feel like it’s kind of more efficient now. It’s less dicking around, it’s less like—

Joe: “We need to explore…”

Matt: Exactly. It’s less jammy, which I don’t know if that means it’s less organic, or less visceral or whatever.

Joe: Yeah. I was worried about [missing] that—when we’re like, “Oh man, we just jammed out a song.” But I think you kind of learn that you can do that sometimes; It’s still a tool to write a song, but if that’s the only way to do it then it would be terrible. It’d be, like, insufferable if you just get in there and jam every single time.

Matt: I like the dicking around though. That’s kind of one of my favorite parts of the process. For us, it’s mostly me and Monty getting together. I write all the skeletons of the songs. I’ve got a melody and I’ve got a guitar part or something—I’m like, “Here’s a guitar part, Monty. Write around that,” and then he helps us arrange it. And Danny [Christiansen, guitar] comes in, he sprinkles his flavor dust. Danny’s kind of the secret weapon. He’s also just the funnest dude to be around.

Joe: I think besides the fights that happen on the road, having a good crew is important.

Matt: Yeah, it’s the most important. We’ve just been doing this stuff for so long that it’s like, we know what makes everyone tick. It’s like, if someone does something disagreeable, I know exactly what to say to set this motherfucker off.

Joe: Oh yeah.

Matt: [Whispers] But it’s always [Mike] Wallace. It’s always the drummer, guys.

Joe: It is. What is it with drummers? I guess because they’re the timekeepers.

Matt: I suppose. Stressed out about it. Shouldn’t be worried about time that much, you know?

Joe: Oh no, take it easy. So I guess we’re both in the same boat that we’re kind of at the end of our album cycles, where now it’s time to work on new stuff.

Matt: Well, kind of. I mean, I think that’s what people tell you. And I think that’s how booking agents see it. But I also think booking agents should just send you to places that you haven’t played yet, because there’s so many places that we haven’t played. I feel like that’s important to get out there.

Joe: Right. I think the music industry thinks people think about the album cycle. But the person going to shows has no idea.

Matt: Sometimes they do, in places like Brooklyn and LA where everyone is based. But then you come to somewhere like Kansas City and it’s like, they don’t care if your record just came out, they’re just happy that people are coming.

Joe: We’ve played Kansas City once opening up for Cloud Nothings, and this was, like, five years ago, four years ago.

Matt: Yeah, we played a couple shows with those guys, they were super sweet dudes. I like the band a lot too, actually.

Joe: Oh yeah. That’s a GGGB. Good guys, good band. But yeah, we used to open up for them. So this is our first time playing here besides that. And so, of course, like, you tour Brooklyn and LA a lot, or Chicago we play a lot. Last night there was guys I think from Sioux Falls that drove three hours, and they’re like, “Hey next time—”

Matt: “Just play there.”

Joe: And it’s like, I would, you know?

Matt: Well, we’re doing it anyways. And honestly being on the road I spend less money than when I’m sitting at home doing fuck-all. It’s good to stay busy.

Joe: Oh no, if I’m sitting at home I’ll probably just be playing video games and staring at the wall. So this feels like this is us doing our job.

Matt: It is. It’s an odd job.

Joe: It’s a combination of being, like, a door to door salesman and a circus performer.

Matt: I think a long distance truck driver. Honestly if we were just driving a big truck and dropping trailers off at loading docks, we’d be making the good dough, you know? We know exactly where we’re gonna be the next day.

Joe: Yeah. But then you wouldn’t have people insulting your job online. And that’s the thing that’s the most important.

Matt: The most important thing is having your soul bared in front of a crowd of people to just dissect on the internet.

Joe: Yeah. Or you release an album that you’ve worked so hard on, and the response is “… Meh.”

Matt: Yeah. You put a writer on the guest list, he gets into the show for free—probably gets drink tickets and stuff—and then he writes, “Eh, they were fine.”

Joe: “It’s alright.” That happens way more than you’d think.

The newest thing to watch out for is on Facebook, I noticed that there’s a lot of fake scammers now trying to scam people on event things. It never happened to our band before. It’s not that we’re getting bigger—I think scammers will do it even for shows that aren’t sold out. They’ll be like, “DM me for tickets.” So watch out for that. That’s my little advice tip for the day.

Matt: I know. Absolutely gonna watch out for that. I’m not on the social media stuff. Wallace does the Instagram. Wallace is into it, but he’s also kind of fed up with it to a point where he’s just staring at the phone all day. He throws it down in frustration, and he’s like, “I’m done with this.” It’s like, “Why am I wasting my life looking at my phone?”

Joe: We have a Twitter where it’s mostly just to retweet someone saying, “Hey, go see Protomartyr…” It’s barely a Twitter. I thought about it—I kind of toss and turn at night, maybe if we had more of an online presence we’d, you know… But then I’m like, Why would I expend so much energy trying to keep that façade going? No one cares what I think about things. I can’t do a Twitter where it’s like, “Today I was …” I’m not funny enough.

But yeah, the idea of an online persona does not work for the band. So I’m glad that we didn’t do that early on. I wouldn’t even really want a Facebook, but I understand that’s one of the only places we could really say “Hey, we have a show coming up.”

Matt: Yeah. Well, you guys have a manager that probably takes care of most of that stuff.

Joe: No, I mean, except for maybe reposting some concert events or something like that. I’m really the only one who does the Facebook. I just try to keep it as bare bones as possible. Don’t have an Instagram.

Matt: What’s your go to app? You got, like, sports apps?

Joe: No.

Matt: Are you a big hardcore Tigers fan?

Joe: I would say I’m middle of the road. It was only kind of later in life I was like, I actually kind of like baseball. I like it in the band, because I’m the baseball guy, Scott’s the hockey guy, Greg’s the football guy, Alex doesn’t really…

Matt: He doesn’t seem like a sporty guy.

Joe: Not a sporty guy. More of a book guy. Are you the hockey guy?

Matt: I’m the only one that cares about any sport at all, and it’s hockey. For better or for worse. It’s one of those things that I’m embarrassed that I care about it.

Joe: Yeah. I honestly think—and I know this is completely prejudiced of me—I think a lot of times sports fans can be insufferable, just like, maybe, super music fans. Or people that write, like, “This band is the fifth best band of all time.” Like, who cares? Get outside, nerd.

Matt: Yeah. That’s the same thing. I know exactly why I like it: it’s because I read the news, and everything I read in the news is extremely depressing, and then I read the sports and it’s just, like, numbers and guys’ names.

Joe: Gives you something else to think about. It’s relaxing.

Matt: It absolutely is relaxing for me. But a lot of people, they go nuts about it.

Joe: Oh yeah. Sports in general, there’s levels to it. You can really study the stats and know every single player’s name, or you can just, you know, enjoy it on a surface level. So we should probably—

Matt: We should wrap this shit up, man. Are we pushing anything right now?

Joe: We have that split single.

Matt: Yeah, Preoccupations covered a Protomartyr song and Protomartyr covered a Preoccupations song.

Joe: Which was very delightful.

Matt: It’s been in the works for a long time. I mean, touring around with you guys has also been something we’ve talked about doing for a couple years.

Joe: I’m glad it’s finally happened.

Matt: Me too, man.

Joe: But yeah. Once this tour’s done, we go back home to work on the next masterpiece that will get a low rating on Pitchfork.

Matt: I’m gonna go try not to hang myself during the holidays.

Joe: Yeah, dark times ahead. That’s why I’ll be playing video games and staring at the wall. [Laughs.]

(Photo Credit: right, Pooneh Ghana)