Photos by Savannah Quental.
My first experience with Priests was a 2013 show at Comet Ping Pong in DC, a bastion of the DC DIY scene and more recently the famed centerpiece of the ‘Pizzagate’ scandal. In a recent Adhoc interview Priests reflected on how terrifying the situation was for the community surrounding it, especially since it lead to a man running into the restaurant with an assault rifle. While the situation surrounding Comet Ping Pong seems to have cooled off, it only adds to what Priests have come to represent: DC’s pièce de résistance to the recent political tide.
The show I saw in 2013 has been blurred by the number of times I’ve seen them since but each show has been remarkable in their steadily rising confidence. They’ve only gotten better, and it shows on their new album, Nothing Feels Natural. It’s a disconcerting orchestration: more layered than previous records, with additional strings & keys, lyrics poetic and brash, and cascading harmonies. It’s one of 2017’s best.
Now that I’ve been listening to the Nothing Feels Natural for a while, it’s become clear that it’s a new standard in punk music. As most good punk, it’s fun and it’s feral. But Priests have something else that happens every generation or so on a notable scale: they’ve distilled down a set of tracks that parallel non-trite human malaise with pertinent irony. The Strokes’ Is This It, The Velvet Underground & Nico’s self-titled album, these are a few that match up to the category. Not only in lyrics but in sound, the album will leave a mark on the conceptual standards of the punk album. On one of the album’s first singles, “Jj,” a simple account of self-branding is sung: “I thought I was a cowboy because I smoked Reds.” It’s critical enough of our simple mindedness when it comes to our invented fantasies based on brand, and it speaks to multiple generations. (Back before my mom quit smoking, she also smoked the Marlboro Red soft-pack, and I distinctly remember thinking it was also the choice of cowboys, likely due to magazine ads.)
With the album already speaking for itself and receiving much of the praise it deserves, we thought it important for the band to get a few words in so I spoke to lead-singer Katie Alice Greer and drummer Daniele Daniele.
Let’s start off light: Current karaoke go-to tracks?
Katie Alice Greer: I have only karaoked twice because it actually makes me more nervous than if I am singing my own songs. Do you know of that Judy Garland quote, about how you can either be a first rate version of “yourself”” or a second-rate version of somebody else? I always think of stuff like this at Karaoke, that I will never be very good at all! I really liked doing “Situation” by Yazoo, that was great. GL is amazing at karaoke, that same night he and I did “Something Stupid” by Frank and Nancy Sinatra. One time Priests was on tour with Parquet Courts and Andrew and I did the Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow duet “Picture,” I think I was the Kid Rock part? I think we were pretty good at it.
Daniele Daniele: I don’t really like karaoke. It always sounds like a good idea in the moment: you think about it for an hour or so, pick what you think is just going to be a killer song, try to quickly memorize the few lyrics you don’t know, and then when the moment comes, it’s always lackluster (for me). I’m never terrible, but also, I’m never great. And I’m definitely one of those, I’d rather finish last than finish third type of people. So afterwards, I always think to myself “I need to prepare more next time”, but am I really going to spend my time prepping for karaoke? NO. And thus the totally mediocre, unfulfilling cycle continues.
Your last album filled a certain void in the increasingly nihilistic world of punk and post punk—it was highly political, fearful of modern media, capitalism, drones, Obama, the lot of it. Nothing Feels Natural comes in a post-Obama America, specifically immediately after the election of Donald Trump. How coincidental was this release? What societal features are you hoping to grapple with this time?
Katie: Okay can I level with you in the spirit of fruitful dialogue: I am so sick of people describing Priests as a “political” band. Don’t get me wrong, I am so delighted and grateful to hear people are listening to our record. Time is limited on this earth and that anybody wants to spend it on something I’ve made fills me with gratitude. But saying that music is “political” to me sounds like “this music has sound to it,” it doesn’t really say anything at all. I would prefer people tell me what is speaking to them or not speaking to them about the music. Or, for them to say “the world is scaring me right now but I am glad to have your record,” or something. To say it is political purports to explain the music, but actually involves the least amount of critical thinking possible. This record took two years to write and record, most of the songs were actually written over a year ago, some of them maybe two years. We weren’t waiting for a new president. We were hoping to get it out in 2016 but it wasn’t in the cards, so January 27th was the earliest we could release in the new year. Thank you for listening to it already, and thank you for being a fan!
Daniele: And the sad truth to it is, we’re grappling with the same stuff we were when the red EP came out, structural inequality and the suppression of creative thought that’s fueled by racism, sexism, cis-heteronormativity, and capitalism to get all macro about it. What’s changed since our last release is the musicality: the subtlety in our playing, the complexity of the arrangements, a new kind of engagement with melody. We have always been and will always be a political because that is the nature of creating art in our context (the early 21st century US), to pretend otherwise is either delusional or dishonest, so “being political” doesn’t feel like an accomplishment to me, ya know? We did, on the other hand, put so much of ourselves into making this album, and it makes me feel weirdly invisible when no one talks about the music itself.
There’s a sort of asphyxiation of the American mind since November, similar to watching a thriller that never lets up, or maybe just The Office. Everything is beginning to feel like an Onion article, and really, nothing feels natural. Can you elaborate on this track & the album title guiding this type of feeling? (The track itself has a much higher level of emotion than I’ve felt on your previous releases—it’s dazzling & pretty.)
Katie: Thank you! The title was the first thing written for the record, before the lyrics to that song, even. I relate to the sentiment on a personal level. “Natural” is another catch-all word that means different things to different people, so essentially it doesn’t mean much of anything. “Act natural” is one of the most confusing commands I’ve ever heard. What one person thinks of as a “natural” way to respond to any situation might be what another person thinks is totally bizarre. After completing the record, I started thinking about the concept of nothingness, so then the title retroactively took on another meaning, then, too.
Daniele: My favorite ‘nothing’ is the opaque one. Then again, maybe they’re all opaque? Maybe nothing is a word that blocks vision, description, control? But what I meant when I started was, sometimes when we use the word nothing, it is a signal to one’s interlocutor that “I do not want to engage this topic”. The classic, “What’s wrong?”, “Nothing”, which really means everything or something very particular but you very well know I am not talking to you about it. That’s a very powerful kind of nothing. I like it.
You guys have always had a touch of surf rock in your sound, and maybe the faintest shadow of Cramps-ish rockabilly (I could just be associating and adding this in myself). ‘JJ’ features a bit of this surfy jangle, but delves into something a bit more emotional as the song progresses—similar to ‘Nothing Feels Natural.’ It calls to mind New Order’s emotive touch on new/no-wave. Are there certain musical influences you looked back on in order to perfect the album’s sound?
Katie: Priests is definitely not a surf band *but* I totally understand that the way GL plays guitar is informed by many things, including some surf sounds. We actually were very influenced by the Portishead record Third while recording these songs. Other reference points include Fiona Apple, Nina Simone, Bjork, Nine Inch Nails, the Stooges, the Raincoats… there are a lot. We like to take just a tiny little bit from a lot of different places, rather than a lot from only a few.
I was at your first show in NYC since Trump’s election, with Pill. Katie spoke a bit on how every little decision is political—even the choice to be at your concert on that Thursday night. Does this political microaggression concept play a role in how you’re approaching music?
Katie: I don’t think of the daily decisions I make as political micro-aggressions, but I do try to be thoughtful with how I expend (and conserve) my resources, and this includes my time and money. I keep saying “everything is political” because we should move beyond using “political” so often as a descriptor. There is an idea that ideally an artist will show something rather than tell it, so with that in mind I prefer the ideology of my work to speak for itself. There was a time when being very topical, direct, and literal about human rights issues was not popular in music or pop culture, but that is less the case right now.
Daniele: Sometimes, I forget I’m changing all the time, LOL. Sometimes, when people think of me or describe me or engage me a certain way, I’m like “Why would you do that?! What made you think that?!”. And sometimes (especially now that we’ve been in a band for five years), someone will be like, “Because before you said this thing” and quote me back to myself or remind me of something I did, and I’m just like “Really? I said that? I did that?”. I think that used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore. I contradict myself. I am both many things and constantly changing.
Katie has spoken before about having a preoccupation with pop stars—when someone like Lady Gaga becomes the mainstream face of LGBTQ in the 2010s, how/where does Priests fit into this map?
Katie: For a long time I was interested in noticing how ideas that are expressed by the most exposed people in the pop landscape. Does anybody remember that in 2009 Lady Gaga said she wasn’t a feminist? That she believed in “beer, bars and muscle cars” and worshipped men, I guess meaning that this is the antithesis of feminism (it isn’t). So what, right? Most people don’t care. It is interesting to me, however, because I’d say that in 2009 this was the way lots of people understood feminism, the conservative right had spent decades branding it as being built on man-hating. Feminism is ‘in’ again right now, but so is bashing it by spreading misinformation: a popular tool of neo-Nazis and conservative sympathizers to co-opt the language of feminism and use it against itself, this is a piece about how feminism is ‘toxic’ to young boys. Anyways, Lady Gaga is a corporation. She doesn’t represent artistry, she kind of represents shareholders. So if she was saying she wasn’t a feminist in 2009, it is because being a “feminist” didn’t sell records in 2009. I am always interested in what is communicated through the language of what is popular, what sells. What does it mean for all of us? (To be fair, Lady Gaga also said a very intelligent thing in that interview, about the double standard of male and female performers– to paraphrase, she says “people say sexuality in my music is “distracting” but if they hear it in a man’s music they just call him a rockstar”). I have no idea how Priests fits into this. That’s not for me to say.
Daniele: I however will ‘just say’ that we make excellent rock stars. Please paypal us at email@example.com with all your money, free clothes, cool apartments, etc. We will ‘rock” them very hard for you ^_~.
Your new tour has you headlining with a number of artists supporting on different dates—Snail Mail, Stef Chura, Olivia Neutron John, Hand Grenade Job, and Flasher. Most of these artists are Sister Polygon affiliates. The art/music collective concept has been on the rise the past few years in all genres—Father of the hip-hop/r&b collective Awful Records in Atlanta even attributed his collective concept to DC punk. Do you consider SPR a collective? How do you think the collective benefits its locale?
Katie: I don’t think of Sister Polygon as a collective, but I hope it feels like a nice spiritual home for our artists, related friends, collaborators, anyone who has a bond with some part of the SPR catalogue. All of the day to day work for Sister Polygon is done by the 4 of us in Priests.
Daniele: Olivia Neutron-John and Stef Chura both put out their music with different labels, but we do like to think of them as part of the SPR family. And we think they’re both amazingly talented artists. Who knows maybe one of these days we will get to put something out by one or both of them.
These collectives often mean artists involved in multiple projects—Taylor has recently released a fantastic album with Flasher. What other projects are you guys working on?
Katie: I record music by myself under my initials ‘KAG’, Daniele’s band Gauche put out an EP on Sister Polygon, and GL has another project called Crypto Jocks. I think all my Priests bandmates make fantastic music 🙂
DC has become a haven for some of the world’s wealthiest elite, pushing many out due to rising rents—a gentrification I witnessed during my time in college. From an urban planning perspective, how could the music/art scene become an integral part when a city focuses on place-making (branding, rejuvenating, etc), rather than something that dissipates?
Katie: Developers can stop forcing people out of their homes, practice spaces, and community meeting grounds. Very simple.
Daniele: Also, “branding”, “rejuvenating”, and “place-making” are code-words for gentrification. Like who are you making a place for? Oh yeah, rich white people. I think the question we must ask ourselves as artists is: what can we do to resist our work being co-opted by more monied interests and contributing to gentrification? Because that is a real thing. Artists are used by developers, and usually allowing themselves to be used. And for what? Such nominal gains. Cheap rent for a year before you get priced out? A studio space for two years before you get priced out? You sell 50 more tickets because you live in a gentrifying neighborhood, but really the person who benefits is the developer who owns the building you play shows in cause his property value just increased. It is especially important for white artists to own their privilege. Like, sure, are we the big winners in this scheme? No, those are the developers. But, are we the dupes who get used by developers meanwhile people of color and indigenous people and populations pay the bigger price? Yes. And it needs to stop. I think of it on two major levels: 1) What can I do now in my own context to make more space and more resources available to those less structurally privileged than myself? By that I mean explicitly people who are not cis, het, white people. And 2) what can I do to assert more ownership over my own work, so it can’t be used to funnel yet more value into the coffers of rich capitalists.
What is the American Dream, besides the cash grab and surface meaning?
Katie: It’s a false concept to me. People romanticize the idea that hard work will lead to great fortune and a better life, but that isn’t gonna happen while we all live under capitalism and it sure as shit isn’t going to happen in the next 4 years. The “american dream” people long for is actually just getting a lucky lottery ticket.