The first question I asked Katie Alice Greer, primary lyricist and vocalist for Washington, D.C.-based Priests, was to describe their most recent record in as few words as possible. The interview was off to a great start until she said she can’t do it.
“I would’ve just done that instead of making a record, you know? I don’t know if I could speak about it in a shorter way,” she explained. Some might think of this as a copout, but the reverence that she and the band have for art — and not just their own — seems to be one of the cornerstones upon which the band is based.
Priests have been making aggressive, sometimes discordant and always challenging music together since 2011. The band began to form when Greer met drummer Daniele Daniele and shortly thereafter connected with guitarist G.L. Jaguar at a show. The group added bassist Taylor Mulitz in 2012 and, five years and three EPs later, the long-awaited Nothing Feels Natural was released in January of 2017.
The first thing you need to know about Priests is that the passion they have for their music and what they hope to communicate through it, as well as their commitment to one another, is their driving force. When I asked Greer to name some important influences on the album, her immediate response was that their “biggest influence is [their] bond together as a band.” If that came from anyone else, I would have been cynical at best. But I believe her, such is her earnest nature.
“This isn’t a project of just one person, it’s four people trying to creatively communicate with each other and weave very disparate ideas and backgrounds together,” she said.
Even the next influence that she named is predicated by the band’s engagement with one another: “We all love going to see movies. I think there’s a lot of movies that influenced this record, a lot of writers,” she said.
Indeed, “Lelia 20” is named for a character in John Cassavetes’s “Shadows,” a movie which focuses on interracial relations in the late 1950s. The rest of the album covers similar topics and, although it would be unfair to say that the band leaves no stone unturned, they do cover an impressive amount of ground in just 33 minutes.
“Nicki” focuses on the odd, oftentimes hostile nature of relationships in the modern day. One lyric in particular — “Venture a guess you hinge your success on that which you might bleed from me” — seems to strike a very real chord. Other songs act as vignettes about struggles with religion and finding realness and meaning in life — “If I go without for days will I finally hallucinate a real thing?” Greer questions on the titular track. On “Puff,” Priests struggle with the inherent evils of capitalism — “Accept the triumph of the machine,” Greer sardonically commands. And “Pink White House” is a satirical, scathing stream of consciousness directed against the notion that the “American dream” even remotely resembles that which so many say it does.
“Appropriate” is “a meditation on cultural appropriation” Greer explained, after I asked her about a line from the song — “Is George Clinton the kinda story your adventure’s looking for?” — that particularly piqued my interest owing to the fact that Priests will be playing Pitchfork Music Festival the day before Parliament-Funkadelic does (and I have to wonder if the Pitchfork organizers didn’t get a little chuckle out of it).
Speaking on cultural appropriation, though, is where Greer especially demonstrates an awareness that strikes me as rare, not just in terms of artists but individuals.
“Maybe a white band is kind of pulling from black music, and perhaps making a lot of money off of that or a lot of social capital. Is this really your story or your sound or your identity?” she said, satisfying my inquiry about the George Clinton line. “It’s not meant to be a finger-pointing indictment song,” she clarifies. “I try to write lyrics where I can even ask myself these questions.”
And it’s clear that she really does ask herself a lot of the questions that the band poses: “All of us are drawing from music that is made by people more marginalized than us. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you should only be influenced by people who had more than you did, I’m not saying that, I just think it’s worth thinking about.”
Everything she said during our interview is marked with humble sincerity and the sort of nuance that comes with hours of self-reflection and answer-seeking. At the same time, though, the band knows who they are and hold firmly to their truth.
Priests are often labeled as an activist rock band or, as Rolling Stone put it, a “protest-punk” band, something with which Greer doesn’t entirely agree. One writer who she mentioned as having influenced her lyrics is Thomas Frank, his essay “Commodify Your Dissent” in particular which is “about how the image of a rebel is very marketable, so it’s difficult to actually create subversive cultural movements without them being subsumed by capitalism,” according to Greer. In another interview, with SPIN, she mentioned that the band was uneasy about receiving some press in which they were identified as “feminist punk.” While she doesn’t seem to entirely disagree with these labels, she is wary of piggybacking on a title that she doesn’t necessarily feel the band deserves — see lyrics of “JJ” for more of her thoughts on the idea of “deserving” something.
Greer is also hesitant, personally, to accept the activist label despite her involvement in benefit shows and the like.
“I think it takes away from how much work, especially work that goes uncredited, that other people do on a daily basis,” she said.
Besides, she has been busy helping run the band’s record label, Sister Polygon, which she mentioned when I asked about her favorite releases of 2017 so far.
“Well I’m biased! A lot of the stuff that we really love has come out on our label,” she said, naming an album they just put out by the New York-based Blood Clot.
She also admits to being obsessed with the new SZA record (see evidence of this on the band’s Twitter) and a “noisy weird punk” group called Mozart.
“I really love punk and rock ‘n’ roll that tries to step out of the confines of what that genre means to people historically,” she explained, and it feels like that’s what Priests themselves are trying to do, too. Although Greer does point to The Stooges, Throbbing Gristle, Charles Mingus and Patti Smith as having had an influence on Nothing Feels Natural, she emphasized that “(Priests has) never really been a band that’s about a genre exercise. We just try to weave as many disparate things together in a way that feels like our own.”
In addition to managing Sister Polygon, the band has been busy at work on new music and touring abroad — Greer had landed back in the States fewer than 24 hours before our interview.
“We’ve got some really scrappy demos down… I would really love to get something out in 2018. I feel like it’s the kiss of death to talk about it too much, so I’ll just say that for now,” she said.
If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll hear versions of these demos in the coming weeks as the band plays Pitchfork and Waking Windows, a new festival debuting in Detroit for the first time July 20-23. (There are also ongoing installments of the fest in Portland, Maine and Winooski, Vermont).
Greer also happens to be a Michigan native — she went to high school in Bloomfield — and when I ask her about Detroit, she shares nothing but love for the city.
“I went to my first shows in Detroit, and I have a lot of friends at this point who play music there. It’s really one of my favorite cities to visit when we’re on tour in the U.S. There’s always a lot going on,” she said, and she named the Trumbullplex and Lo & Behold as a couple of her favorite spots and praised the city’s tabbouleh and hummus (with good reason).
Later, we also talked about whether artists have a responsibility to be socio-politically engaged outside of their music. She countered my initial thought by saying that it should be less a question about the responsibility of the artist, but of the individual. She had watched Spotlight during her flight back to the States and thought it raised important questions about how communities function.
“Every human being has the responsibility to be engaged in the world that we live in right now,” she says, “And to understand what is at stake for them, what is at stake for their neighbors, what is at stake for the world,” she said. Empathy is clearly at the heart of what she believes in.
Near the end of our conversation, there’s one question I couldn’t help but ask. There’s a lyric on “Appropriate” where Greer repeats “It feels good to buy something you can’t afford,” and when I first heard that, I realized I really agreed. It does feel good! So I had to ask: “What’s the last thing you bought that you couldn’t afford, and did it feel good?” She laughs and responds like she was ready for the question: a white leather coat (second-hand, of course), white lace-up boots and floor length housecoat (“Like something that a character would wear in Dynasty”). “And it felt amazing! And then my fucking wallet got stolen!” (No worries, though; she canceled her cards in time).
Finally, Priests are known for their intense live sets. I asked Greer what we can expect from the band’s show at Waking Windows.
“Besides having a good time,” she said, because having a good time is a given. “I hope people feel like they can connect with what we’re doing. (They) should have an expectation that we’re going to make music that speaks to them and moves them.” She wouldn’t say much more, as I perhaps should’ve expected at this point, because she doesn’t want people to have too many preconceived notions. “Expect to rock out and have a good time.”
You can catch Priests on Friday at Waking Windows at El Club in Detroit. Whitney, Car Seat Headrest, Mount Eerie, Dâm-Funk and Moodymann will be headlining. Three-day passes and single-day tickets are available at El Club’s website for $75 and $35 per day, respectively. See our interview with festival organizer and El Club general manager Nick Mavodones III here, and stay tuned for an interview with Whitney’s Julien Ehrlich next week.