An exclusive interview with the reigning titans of the D.C. punk scene.
"You want something you can write home about?" Katie Alice Greer accusingly asks on "Appropriate," the first track of her band's debut, Nothing Feels Natural. The way Greer accuses, though, it's more of a taunt: world-weary but at home in the voice of one the contemporary D.C. punk scene's biggest names. As a listener, you're invading her space. Since dropping Bodies and Control and Money and Power, a thunderous debut EP of crisp post-punk and political rage, Priests have been the face of smart, political, and always raucous punk rock.
It helps that neither the band nor any of its members are newcomers, Greer previously played with Ian Svenonius, the former Nation of Ulysses frontman, before forming Priests with Taylor Mulitz on bass, G.L. Jaguar wielding guitar and Daniele Daniele behind the drums. All three remain actively busy in other D.C. bands; Mulitz just put out an asskicking EP with his band Flasher late last year.
But all four are adamant about their Priests and they should be. Nothing Feels Natural, which comes out Friday, is one of the most inventive slices of punk you're going to find in any scene. That opener, "Appropriate" is held together by menacing drums and a disjointed sax that might recall the work of the Providence punks, Downtown Boys, a band that Priests had discovered and signed to their own label, Sister Polygon.
Many call Priests a political band, grouping their music alongside the riot girrl anthems of Sleater-Kinney or Gang of Four's Marxist interrogations But the issues that Priests have always been interested in have always been personal; just before the election, Greer authored a brilliant essay, for Spin, on the absence of any discussion of poverty on the campaign trail. Other songs tackle power dynamics and in one, "And Breeding," she confesses feeling betrayed at the hands of the Obama administration by adding: "Barack Obama killed something in me" shortly after yelling the song's incendiary chorus: "Fucking and breeding/fucking and breeding."
Their first full-length is out today and they play Brooklyn's Night Bazaar this Friday. Snatch up tickets while you still can; I had the chance to see them play at Brooklyn's old Night Bazaar a few years ago and conversational placeholders like "raw" or "energetic" do not even begin to do these D.C. punks justice.
Also fortunate: I also had the chance to shoot a few emails to Greer, Daniele and Jaguar about the new record, new politics and what it means when raw delicious punk is made by normal people like you or I.
AK: The album's first two singles ("JJ" and "Pink White House") are political anthems released before the election, an event most people are saying changed everything. Do you agree?
KG: We wrote all the songs for this record before either major party candidate won their primary. I didn't vote in this election because I came to believe in achieving substantive, generative change through electoral politics. I still think our system won't produce the kind of government that will ever support the people who live in this country as a whole. But, I voted because I wanted to vote against Donald Trump, I wanted to do anything I could to prevent him from winning. He won the election but I will still do everything I can to prevent him from winning, do you know what I mean? It is all of our jobs to fight this administration's fascism every step of the way on every level.
"He won the election but I will still do everything I can to prevent him from winning, do you know what I mean?"
Anyone who says we've got to "give him a chance" hasn't studied history enough or doesn't understand how fascism works. The idea is that we do not give fascists a chance. We resist on every level and communicate that neo-Nazis and misogynists are unwelcome in our communities in every way that we can.
"Pink White House" has been described as a song about the illusion of choice. Back in 1980, Mark Mothersbaugh sang "Freedom of choice/ Is what you got/Freedom from choice Is what you want." Do you think most people are actively searching for an escape from choice or the illusion of choice?
The specific illusion of choice I'm referring to in "Pink White House" is about electoral politics and the gender binary. We could have so much more for ourselves if we didn't confine our politics to sports teams or our humanity to rigid, suffocating gender roles.
Others have called you an "obtuse" lyricist. To me, a lot of your lyrics feel straightforward : like "Doctor" from your first EP, tackles the anxiety of power relationships but articulates it in the language of the everyday, sitting in a doctor's chair. How does using those kinds of layered abstraction sit in relation to the more literal nature of pop storytelling?
I think a good story or song narrates through a wide scope. I want to paint a picture that takes into account the room's furniture, so to speak, but also a little dust bunny on the linoleum floor, the lipstick ring around the lip of the mug on the coffee table. Then also maybe we cover the geography, the timeframe, what world does this room exist in? What are the current events happening in "the world"? Are there people?
These are, metaphorically, the kinds of questions I'm asking myself when I'm writing lyrics or stories.
Shortly before the election, you wrote an excellent piece on the absence of the issue of poverty in the presidential debate. Do you feel like a lot those conversations are happening, instead, in the punk scene?
A little bit, because a lot of us are really talking about artists getting paid and the economics of creative labor. We hardly ever see conversations about poverty and the working class on major platforms of mainstream American politics, so we need to have those conversations in our own communities.
Opening that question up, Daniele said in an interview that Priests would refuse almost all corporate sponsorship until "corporations develop some natural form of humanism." I wondered what, if anything, that would like?
DD: Wow, the stuff that comes out of my mouth sometime, geez!
I don't think corporations are capable of developing humanism. They're a tool capitalists use to distance themselves from their own actions, to depersonalize what they're doing, to make their actions about "making money" as opposed to what they're actually doing aka: exploiting other people. Corporations are a way of masking structural violence and making it seem like something else, something productive, something good for "society", "progress" or some crap like that.
Check pretty much every important breakthrough of the last century and you'll see it came from publicly funded research. It's crazy that neoliberals have enough of a strangle-hold over economic discourse that most people typically think of government as leaching off corporations via taxes, when in reality, so many things those corporations depend on to function (roads, the internet, optical digital recording technology behind all music, video, and data storage, fluorescent lights, communications and observation satellites, modern water-purification techniques, the list is endless!) came from publicly-funded works projects and/or research, Whew, ok, my rant is over.
All that said, I will take a corporation's money if I think I could subvert the paradigm which allows them to exists with it. Short of that, I'm also happy to take it, so I can pay my rent and you know live. I'm not a dogmatist. Taking a corporation's money does not automatically make me a sell-out or something like that. It's not about rules. It's about engaging strategically and conscientiously to bring about your goals.
As someone who has worked retail, the title song on Nothing Feels Natural does a great job of hitting on that fundamental depression of retail monotony. As people with day jobs, do you feel more connected to daily lives of your listeners?
KG: Everybody I know has a day job, at least one, if not more; even people who are exclusively living off their work as an artist. Every working artist I know is putting in long hours and likely still responsible for monotonous tasks. You don't hit some kind of recreational jackpot if you're living off money you make from your work, at least not in most cases.
GL: The kind of music I've always been attracted to is made by "normal" people. Like for example, it was this big epiphany that The Ramones were just "normal" Jewish boys from Queens, like me, as opposed to rock stars like Led Zeppelin flying around in jets. We're just normal people.
Guitar rock has been around. Yet Priests manages to sound, for lack of a less overused word, "urgent." Do you ever feel anxious about the space you share with your influences?
KG: I hate being compared to almost anybody, if that is what you mean. And I feel anxious about almost everything, haha.
GL: Guitars only have six strings so there's only so much you can do with it, but weirdly there are thousands of rock bands, and some of them are pretty terrible, but some are awesome. We listen to a lot of music that doesn't even involve a guitar. Being in a guitar band is extremely uncool or unpopular these days, in some circles. It isn't like how after the Beatles played suddenly everyone owned a guitar. The guitar is old news. In some ways though, that is exciting, because synthesizers have become so affordable that the way people used to have guitars laying around their house now future generations will have synthesizers. Who knows what sonic fury will erupt from this?
KG: Yeah, also with Priests, like who even knows how we will sound on the next record. Maybe we will all sing. Or none of us will sing. Maybe it will be drums and noise.