PRIESTS: A TORNADO BEHIND YOU
illustration by elza burkart
Priests are more than a D.C. band. Although they certainly wear their politics on their sleeves, they’re still not taking themselves too seriously. Their live performances are theatrical but still somehow poignant. And by running their own label Sister Polygon, making their own zines and helping to foster a positive inclusive scene in their own city—among other things—they embody punk in the truest sense of the word. Their new record, Nothing Feels Natural, is out on Sister Polygon now. Priests performs Tue., Aug. 8, with Lithics at the Highland Park Ebell Club. This interview by Emily Twombly.
I know you get a lot of questions about D.C. so I’m going to try to not ask a lot of questions about D.C. … but it’s hard to avoid political questions now. Since the Trump regime took over, how do you feel the political climate has changed in your scene specifically? Is there more urgency to make art and music?
Katie Alice Greer (vocals): For us, it feels just as urgent as any other time. I think some people who weren’t hip to that in the past are more down to talk or think about it. We’ve had a lot of conversations with people since the election who were like ‘I’m not sure I want to be a musician anymore, everything is so fucked up, I feel like I should go be on the front lines.’ It’s important to remember that you’re always on the front lines with any job you’re doing. There needs to be smart people furthering the right values in any line of work.
Daniele Daniele (drums): I’ve noticed people really want to be politically involved—they want to volunteer or go to a protest, and those things are awesome and amazing. But they’re not willing to look in their own workplaces and be like, ‘How has my own privilege helped me here?’ It’s a way of dealing with guilt to field them in other contexts. But how do you conduct your business on a day-to-day basis? Are you holding yourself and the people around you accountable? We always think about how we run our label and do our band—that to us feels like the most relevant and important direction to try to take things.
G.L. Jaguar (guitar): I’ve also noticed like more … I have a lot of friends who are bartenders, and one of them has been called the n-word three times in the past six weeks which is completely unheard of. So I think people are more overtly racist. Coming out of the shadows.
Katie Alice Greer: Can we all make a concerted effort to make racists afraid again? There’s a president in power who makes them feel bold again. And it’s everyone’s responsibility to be like, ‘Fuck off, there’s no place for that here.’
G.L. Jaguar: Especially white people!
Katie Alice Greer: That’s something that we’ve been trying to examine in interviews lately. We have friends who are not white—musicians—who are constantly asked, ‘What’s it like to be a musician of color?’ Why aren’t people talking about what it’s like to be a white person in America right now? There are so many things you can do with that privilege, you know?
There’s been all these benefit shows for various causes but it often seems like a bunch of straight white bands playing—not a lot of diversity in bands being featured. How do we make these shows more inclusive and safe for the people they’re supposed to be benefiting? And when this fad of benefit shows dies down, how do we continue that inclusivity and creating safe spaces?
Daniele Daniele: One thing I’d like to point out that I think happens a lot in the DIY world is … it’s like ‘Oh, all the people doing things are white.’ Actually there are a shit ton of bands that are marginalized and out there making work, but people aren’t giving them a platform. I bet you there are a shit ton of Black people in their community making badass music and they don’t know about those shows. So maybe just go to those shows, and support those people.
Katie Alice Greer: Or decolonizing where we focus our interests. That can be a ‘first and foremost’ thing. When we’re in show spaces, if there are just white people there, think, ‘Why would non-white people not want to be there?’
Daniele Daniele: A big thing for me has been talking about how the idea of genre is obsolete—it’s a tool of the marketplace rather than like making music. One way in which that functions—and always has in popular music—is it has a history of unnecessarily dividing music along racial lines. Rock ’n’ roll, even though it’s built by stealing culture made by Black people, is considered white music, whereas R&B a lot of times meant ‘music made by Black people.’ And to sell more tickets, people book shows where the bands all sound the same—but really we need to book shows where one person is rapping and one person is playing theremin. Enough of the line-ups where the music all sounds the same!
Taylor Mulitz (bass): Also focusing the efforts of the benefit shows has an impact too. A lot of benefit shows have been working with local organizations, like Casa Ruby, an LGBTQ shelter where a dollar of every ticket we sell on our tour—
Daniele Daniele: —it’s a shelter that’s trying to support the really large Latino and Latina and all different populations of D.C.
It’s awesome the amount of benefit shows that happened after the election, but how do we continue that momentum? It shouldn’t stop with this presidency.
Katie Alice Greer: I hope a lot of these benefit shows were an initial meeting place for people with different organizations—no shade to Planned Parenthood but definitely a lot of shade to the ACLU for picking up Milo Yiannopolous’ legal fees. People need to stop donating to big nationwide organizations that have a lot of money and start forming relationships in the longterm with local organizations in their town, and consider ways of acting that are taking into account their communities rather than just single-time donations.
Daniele Daniele: —and pay people who don’t get paid normally! Pay people of color! Hire them! Pay artists of color! Pay trans women of color! And not just art—in every field. Incorporate those people so they can support themselves. They’re marginalized economically because the system doesn’t support those people. So don’t just give a donation—actually change the system you’re working in so that those people are getting paid.
Do you worry about—or have you discussed amongst yourselves—your popularity in the mainstream? Does that matter to you?
Daniele Daniele: Popularity … fuck, getting paid would be really nice, and selling more records would be tight. But something we think about right now—all four of us are really opinionated people who try to keep up with what’s happening in the world so we’re down to talk about it with everybody, but then we’re like, ‘Damn, we’re actually musicians first and foremost and we want to talk about our record!’
Katie Alice Greer: It’s not necessarily about worrying about our popularity, but we do worry about our image—owning our own narrative, owning our own message, and like what’s important about it. It should be about the music. And I do think that the deprioritization of art and culture contributes to fascism existing in our culture. It’s not a direct threat. But the less we care about art and the less we want to center on music or some other kind of expression, the more we’re prioritizing systems that say creative expression isn’t important.
And you don’t want to be put in a box of being a political band—
Daniele Daniele: No!
Katie Alice Greer: That’s a big reason why we don’t want people to call us a political band. There’s a political dimension to almost anything you want to talk about in the world, you know? And yes—talking about these things right now feels like the human response to what’s going on, not the political response. But yeah—I think we make music anyone could get into. I hope we sell a million records!
Let’s talk about the record. What inspired you? Art or music or something you saw walking down the street?
Katie Alice Greer: We’re very influenced by movies. There’s a song that was written from the imagined perspective of a character in a John Cassavetes movie. Musically we were really drawn to Portishead’s Third. We were trying to understand how to use the studio more. And Third is a record where the songs really grow in the production.
Daniele Daniele: We love movies because often with musicians, there can be a way of talking about music that just keeps people out. None of us are professionally trained musicians or anything like that—we’ve all taught ourselves. Often when we’re talking about a song we’re writing, we talk about like, ‘OK, this is the part in the movie where you’re like in a car, and there’s a tornado behind you, and you’re driving as fast as you can!’
Katie Alice Greer: We don’t read music but we love music and listen to a lot of it. Another record we listen to as a band is [60s star Del Shannon’s arguably out-of-character] The Further Adventures of Charles Westover which is a psychedelic record. So that idea too, of people taking a boxed-in identity and flipping it—that’s always been very inspiring to me. Growing out of the dimensions that the marketplace set for you. I’m really personally inspired by Fiona Apple, Björk, Nina Simone and vocalists like that. I shouted a lot over songs in the past. I had to figure out how to write melodic parts I could sing over time on tour and not lose my voice.
You released your new record on your own label. Do you have advice for anyone who would want to start their own label?
Katie Alice Greer: ‘Don’t do it!’ would be my advice! We’re no experts but I would say don’t spend beyond your means, start small—a lot of our releases have been cassette and that’s a great way to kind of emotionally support music that you love. You’re giving it a release, you’re getting to hype it to people and give them something to sell, but it’s not such a crazy financial risk in case the band breaks up or something goes wrong. It’s good to start small and keep it rooted in music you love. Everything we’ve released is stuff that we are hyped about.
Daniele Daniele: You can’t promote something and hype it to other people if you’re not really hyped on it.
Do you have advice for young people who want to get involved in the music scene and don’t necessarily know how?
Katie Alice Greer: It seems like silly advice, but you’re not going to die of embarrassment. When I was younger, there were so many things I avoided because I was worried about possibly humiliating myself. Once you do a couple things where you’re like, ‘Wow, I fucked that up. That was terrible, but I’m still alive—’ … Just follow your passion! It sounds corny but that’s what’s going to get you out of bed in the morning. Especially right now, when all of us have every reason to be chronically depressed.
SID THE CAT PRESENTS PRIESTS WITH LITHICS ON TUE., AUG. 8, AT THE HIGHLAND PARK EBELL CLUB, TKTK, HIGHLAND PARK. 8 PM / $15 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! PRIESTS’ NOTHING FEELS NATURAL IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM SISTER POLYGON. VISIT PRIESTS AT 666PRIESTS666.COM.