The D.C. post-punk band will play a Feb. 10 show at the Rathskeller.
Washington D.C. outfit Priests approach post-punk with a balance of tradition and progression. Since forming in 2011, the band has self-released a handful of EPs and a 7-inch single that stylistically draw on the politically charged music of D.C.'s past. Yet Priests' debut LP, Nothing Feels Natural, released in January, delivers a seamless marriage of the band's myriad influences, from Bratmobile to Portishead, from Kicking Giant to Kanye West. Previously working with a four-piece foundation of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, Priests expand on Nothing Feels Natural, adding piano, cello, and saxophone, amongst other instruments, layered throughout, thanks in large part to the numerous musicians who make up a community stemming from Priests' DIY record label, Sister Polygon Records. Lyrically, they weave drawn-out narratives with direct challenges to consumerism, bipartisan politics, gender and systems of oppression as a whole. This questioning spirit is the common thread through every Priests song.
Priests will be playing a free show at the Rathskeller on February 10. Ahead of the show, vocalist Katie Alice Greer spoke with me over the phone about the band's creative process, live performance, and the importance of reconciling art with politics.
Tone Madison: It's been years two between the last Priests EP and Nothing Feels Natural. How did you approach these songs differently than earlier recordings?
Katie Alice Greer: It was different. We are always growing as musicians, and we're a band that spends a lot of time listening to music together. Often that is when we're on the road on tour. As we speak, actually, I am trying to put together my playlist of albums I want to catch up on while we're on the road. So going into this record was a lot different than the last time. We've had three years to grow and change our approach. The last record, we really just tried to capture the energy of our live performances, and this time around we wanted to use the studio as more of a tool. We realized that in order to capture some of the magic we feel on stage we were going to have to do it a little bit differently on this record. We didn't totally throw out everything that we did before. Half of the last record was recorded with Kevin Erickson and Hugh McElroy, and we brought them back in to record with us again for this entire record. So a little bit of new stuff and a little bit of our familiar family who we already work with.
Tone Madison: With this record there's a lot more going on with the instrumentation. That was the first thing I noticed, with the piano on "JJ," or the programmed drums on "No Big Bang," and the strings on "Interlude." How did the band work in these new elements? Did they just surface while you were writing the songs?
Katie Alice Greer: When we were writing these songs we heard these elements, so it was just a matter of figuring out how to realize them in the studio. This is a fun fact: the piano that you hear on "JJ" was actually recorded on one of Roberta Flack's practice pianos. At least that is how the legend goes. We were recording that at a friend's basement studio in D.C., and two musicians who used to play with Roberta Flack, Kiki and Herb, used to live in that house, allegedly. When they moved out and someone bought the house they told the owners the piano in the basement studio was one of Roberta Flack's practice pianos.
So that is cool. But that part on "JJ" was played by Perry Fustero, who is in another Sister Polygon band called Gauche. That's one of our drummer Daniele's bands. We have a whole network of artists who are all connected around here kind of through our record label, Sister Polygon Records. So we brought in Perry to play. We brought in our friend Luke Stewart to play saxophone on "Appropriate." He is an incredible musician who lives around here. Janel Leppin is another incredible musician who plays cello, plays mellotron, and composes a lot of different kinds of music. She wrote the interlude on the record. She's playing cello on "Nothing Feels Natural." So it wasn't totally outside of our realm of possibility to imagine these different instruments that aren't part of a traditional rock band, and to incorporate them into what we were doing. It was just a matter of bringing in our friends.
Tone Madison: So when you were writing the songs you were thinking, "I know this person who plays cello, or plays saxophone, and that would lend itself well to this song"?
Katie Alice Greer: Yeah yeah, and honestly something that really inspired me is that I really love Kanye West's first two records and the strings on those. That was a big reference point for me in bringing some strings into this record. We listen to all kinds of stuff.
Tone Madison: What were some of the other big influences for this record?
Katie Alice Greer: The thing is, every week, if we're together, someone is bringing out a new record they picked up, so it's hard to pinpoint. But one that we kept coming back to for this record is Third by Portishead. We listened to that endlessly on one of our last big tours, and I think it really informed the way we wanted to approach these songs and build them out.
Things also get really into individual members' tastes. I know Daniele is really inspired by Rachel Carns from Kicking Giant. Gideon is really inspired by Erin Smith from Bratmobile and also Duane Eddy, their styles of guitar playing. This is the first band that Taylor has played bass in—he's typically a guitarist, like in his other band Flasher. But Hugh [McElroy], who I mentioned engineered our record, he played bass in a band called Black Eyes from early 2000s D.C. I think listening to one of their records, Cough, a lot was a big influence on how Taylor likes to play, also probably the Minutemen. My big reference points—I love Fiona Apple. I was really trying to figure out how to sing and write more melodies for this record while still maintaining some kind of intensity. So artists like Fiona Apple, Nina Simone, and people who aren't necessarily screaming but are still communicating that kind of energy.
Tone Madison: Singers who don't let it all out but still feel so heavy.
Katie Alice Greer: Yeah, there's still so much fire. Right. So those were some reference points for me. I really love Björk. I got super into her this year. I mean I've always been into her, but I kind of just came back to her again this year. So, yeah we're always pulling from a lot of different places. We also really love the new Angel Olsen record. It comes from a lot of places.
Tone Madison: I feel like there are songs on the record that are particularly informed by specific styles or artists. For example, the last song on the record, "Suck." As I was listening to that it gave me a Lizzy Mercier Descloux vibe. Like the rhythmic, danceable music that you hear in some of the late-'70s, early-'80s post-punk.
Katie Alice Greer: When we first wrote the song I was really feeling a Raincoats vibe, and then when we went into the studio our big sonic reference point was "Born Under Punches" by Talking Heads, just like the way that so many different textures guide your ear through this very linear sonic landscape. The influences come through in your songwriting process, and then a whole different batch of influences come through when you take it to the studio. So really, if you're drawing from a lot of places, I think that is how you come up with something that is totally new for you and more true to your vision.
Tone Madison: You've said in previous interviews that the filmmaker Adam Curtis influenced the lyrics for "Pink White House." To me, the power in Curtis's work comes from the way he makes you think about what he's showing you. You have to actively piece together what he communicates through montage and think about the message that arises through the collision of disparate images and sounds. As I listened to and read the lyrics for that track, I noticed how you take these two narratives and push them up against each other, and that influence totally came through to me.
Katie Alice Greer: One thing I love about his work is you get very pointed, critical thinking, yet the creativity and the artistry aren't sacrificed. And vice versa. You're not sacrificing critical thinking for some kind of slick filmmaking that is ultimately vapid or something. That's something that's always been really important to me. The artists who inspire me the most are people who don't compromise art for politics, and don't compromise politics for art. I think it's so important to keep both of those things in check the best that you can because if you're sliding on what you believe in to make something just look pretty, what's the point of putting your pretty thing" in the world in the first place? Then on the flip side, if you have something to say but you're not thinking about your medium or your delivery or the art of it, well maybe nobody's going to be listening.
Tone Madison: How do you reconcile taking a surreal or sometimes abstract approach to narrative style with being direct when it comes to getting a message across?
Katie Alice Greer: I think what you're describing is the essence of being an artist. You're not an academic. You're not a lecturer. You're not an activist. But then at the same time—especially when you're making commercial art—you're probably not being so inscrutable, and dense, and complicated that a person who's not familiar with your work wouldn't understand. You're constantly trying to weave these two different paths together into something that is consumable without being junk food, essentially. You still want the ideas to be in there.
Tone Madison: On that same note, do you think songwriting and lyricism in punk need to be direct to be politically effective?
Katie Alice Greer: "Direct" is such a subjective word!
Tone Madison: That's true. I was thinking of how to phrase that question, and it's tough.
Katie Alice Greer: I think what you're saying is sometimes people want to hit you over the head with their politics, and nine times out of ten if someone is hitting you over the head with their politics, you're going to be like, "Dude, get the fuck off of me." That's annoying, you know. That is where it becomes important to really hone your art because art is not coercing people into believing what you believe. Art is presenting something on a pedestal and leaving it out for people, hoping that you're enticing them into wanting to learn more and wanting to do their own critical thinking.