Priests - Katie Alice Greer on “Nothing Feels Natural,” Obama and Trump, and the DC Music Scene

Appropriate Conversation for a New World

May 26, 2017 Photography by Audrey Melton Issue #60 - Father John Misty
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Washington, D.C.'s Priests (vocalist Katie Alice Greer, guitarist Taylor Mulitz, bassist G.L. Jaguar, and drummer Daniele Daniele) formed in late 2011 and have already released two cassette tapes in 2012 and 2013 (fittingly titled Tape One and Tape Two), 2012's Radiation/Personal Planes 7-inch EP, and 2014's Bodies and Control and Money 12-inch EP. 2017 has finally seen the release of their first full-length LP, Nothing Feels Natural. A marked step up from their already impressive previous work, the debut album showcases influences ranging from The Stooges' free jazz squawks to early '80s post-punk bands like ESG and Bush Tetras, all while retaining their energy and sense of outrage mixed with self-awareness. Read on as Greer discusses the difficulties they had making Nothing Feels Natural, their record label Sister Polygon, and a wide variety of other topics. 

Matthew Berlyant (Under the Radar): How are you today?

Katie Alice Greer: We have a few days off on our tour. I'm back home and we're off tour and it's nice to be sleeping in my own bed.

What was it like to move from Michigan to DC?

I moved to DC a decade ago for school, so it was the experience of moving to a new place and being an adult for the first time, being in a city where I didn't know anybody for the first time, so I feel like it's mixed with the experience of growing up. I really love this city. It's like a really big small town in a lot of ways. People outside of think it's just the White House and the government, but that's a very separate sector from the people who live there. There are a lot of free museums and there are a lot of European-like streets. There are lots of gardens and so I feel lucky to have so much greenery in our city. But culturally, it's very rich and a diverse place. People from all over the world live there and historically it's been half black if not more for many years. Unfortunately, that's changing now due to displacement and gentrification, but that's always been a constant reminder of my relationship to this place. I feel like I've learned a lot living here and I consider it my home.

Did the other band members grow up in DC?

Gideon and Taylor grew up in DC and Daniele grew up in Texas and then moved to New York and didn't move here to DC until about five years ago. The week before we started the band, Daniele moved here and we met and started the band. I was obsessed with starting a band then and we met at a show and she told me that she could play drums. I really wanted to make sure that there was another woman in my band and thankfully it worked out.

When did Priests actually start?

That was late 2011.

The first time I saw you play was at Ladyfest here in West Philly back in 2013.

That was a really important show for us. We made a lot of friends at that festival who we're still tight with. Grace Ambrose, who was one of the organizers, is a long-time friend of ours and we met that way. She's now one of the coordinators for Maximum Rock and Roll in San Francisco. It's like the largest punk rock fanzine in the world, so she's always busy with that. We also met a woman named DJ Haram. She did a fanzine at the time called Bros Fall Back that she distributed there. It was inspired by an idea from the early '90s called Girls to the Front. This took it a step further and says that gender is a social construct and instead of always censoring women, let's just ask men to move back a little.

I detect a free jazz influence on "Appropriate," the opening track on your new album Nothing Feels Natural. Can you expand upon that?

We were trying to do a Stooges or maybe a Swans thing with that song. I'm a huge Iggy Pop person, as someone from Michigan.

Are you from Ann Arbor?

I'm from about 30 minutes south of there. It's not really the suburbs, but the exurbs. I feel a lot of affinity with both DC and Detroit.

I visited the Motown Museum in 2009 when I was there.

I love that museum. It's neat to see where all of that stuff came from. I think that most people grow up on that kind of music nowadays, but Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, and Stevie Wonder were playing a lot around the house when I was growing up, so it had a profound influence on me.

I wanted to ask you about a line in the song "And Breeding" from [2014 EP] Bodies and Control and Money and Power. Namely, the line is "Barack Obama killed something in me and I'm gonna get him for it." Do you still feel that way now or do you miss Obama given what's currently going on now? Do you feel that something positive will come out of all of this?

We're all sad that he's gone now, but he was a President like any other. He was dropping bombs on brown people and furthering the prison-industrial complex. There was lots to be desired with him as President and I think that broken neo-liberalism is to a large extent what elected Donald Trump. Thus, I still do feel the same way. I've been changing the line to "Barack Obama killed something in me, fuck Donald Trump and his white supremacy" when we play it live now. As for whether something good will come of this, I say "no." I'm terribly concerned about the state of the world. I think that all of us are having difficulty waking up, looking at the news and not thinking "we're all gonna die." I think that's always been true, though. We always have to be aware of our own mortality. I don't think that means we should just give up, though. It means we should further be strengthening ties in our communities. I've always been wary of the government's ability to take care of us or save us, so now we have to look out for each other more than ever and think of how we can take our lives into our own hands.

What are the biggest differences between the way you recorded Nothing Feels Natural and the older records?

We've learned more and more about how to record ourselves and how we want things to sound, so we came into the studio this time around with a heightened sense of how to communicate amongst ourselves and talk to our engineers about what we want to sound like as well. Hugh McElroy and Kevin Erickson recorded this record, Tape Two, the first 7-inch, and half of Bodies and Control and Money and Power. In the past, we were concerned with harnessing the live energy we had and putting it on a record, but we realized that our live energy didn't quite translate onto record. I love that record, but like with anything you've done in the past, you go "I would've done this different." This time, we went into the studio thinking that we wanted to use it as a tool and think of the studio as an enormous instrument. How can we carve out the sounds we're hearing in our head? We made recordings that were totally divorced from the live experience. We ended up making a record where we can actually play all of the songs from it live, which we weren't able to do before, but I think that's because we're more skilled as musicians now. We're always striving to write songs that are a little outside of our comfort zone and that's pushed us to progress as musicians over time. 

I'm assuming that doesn't include "Interlude." How did that come about?

That was written and composed by Janel Leppin. She performs as Mellow Diamond. She's a DC multi-instrumentalist. We wanted our friends and collaborators on this record and she also plays on other songs on Nothing Feels Natural. Mark Cisneros, who's another incredible studio musician around here, plays on there as well as in Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds. Luke Stewart is the saxophonist on the Space Echo on "Appropriate." I knew going into this that I wanted to work some strings into this record. I wanted it to sound lush and yet aggressive and scary in different ways, so it's cool to have all these folks playing with us. One of our first shows when we were still way more of an atonal, experimental, art project band, we did a deconstructed version of The Gun Club's "Jack on Fire." We didn't want it to sound like the original at all and it didn't. We were playing a show at the Black Cat downstairs and it was way more packed than I expected it to be and at some point Kid Congo Powers walked in as we were playing that song. I was so embarrassed at that moment, but I'm not even sure he was totally aware that we were covering that song.

At least it's a song he didn't play in, though!

It was a weird, bizarre moment. From a musician's standpoint, you don't want someone else trying to play your song the same way. Actually, Kid Congo was one of the first people who said that he liked our band. He said "you guys are cool; it's like The Shaggs." Daniele wasn't familiar with The Shaggs, but she went home and listened to them and was mortified at the comparison.

I've never heard a more musically incompetent band than The Shaggs, so I can understand that reaction.

When we started, I was into confrontationally playing our instruments in a non-traditional way. I liked that Daniele had just started learning how to drum. I don't think she ever sounded like the drummer in The Shaggs, though. We were doing deconstructed stuff influenced by teenage girl punk bands. I didn't want us to sound like we wanted to be on the radio or something. It's because I think we live in a society informed by our values and our shitty values have elected Donald Trump. Ed Sheeran is "good music," so what's bad music, and for a long time I was obsessed with how to make "bad music."

It wasn't everyone who voted for him, though. It was only 25% of the electorate.

I still think that our country is run and built on white supremacy, misogyny, and [that] mobilized enough people to elect Donald Trump and so any of us with marginal privilege have to consider how [it[ helped elect Donald Trump. 53% of white women who voted did vote for him.... It is my greatest hope that we develop some interconnectedness in this struggle and that we can relate to each other's struggle. You're gonna survive through this. This is a black woman, this is a queer white man, this is a refugee, and our struggles are not the same, but we can link arms together and fight together. And I hesitate to even contextualize it as good because I think we're all socialized to look for the silver lining. In this situation, I think it's healthier to just say "this is horrible." I feel like it's more important now than ever to interrogate our own privilege. In other words, we can say, "how can I use this to help myself but to protect other people" and that to me is an incredibly radical resistance movement against the cannibalistic capitalistic society that we all live in here that's killing this country.

I've noticed a lot of U.S. and U.K. post-punk influence on the new record, particularly ESG and also early Siouxsie and the Banshees. Was that deliberate or something that just came out in the music?

We're big ESG fans, big fans of The Raincoats, Bush Tetras, a lot of early Rough Trade. Those things are there, but when we're writing songs, we don't say "let's rip off this ESG" thing. Some bands are and that's cool, but we're not a genre exercise band. We're big into music listening. One of our favorite parts of being on tour is playing records for each other.

What's big in the van these days?

Mayo Thompson, Robert Wyatt...

Which records?

Somebody was playing Corky's Debt to His Father, I've been on a Red Krayola kick lately. I was listening to The Red Krayola last night and today I was listening to Rihanna. I don't try to put barriers on what music is good to listen to. I also love Amerie, who is a singer from DC who had a big hit about 10 years ago called "One Thing." I love pop, I love noise; it's really all over the place. I was listening to Robert Wyatt's Old Rottenhat and I got a copy of Joni Mitchell's For the Roses last week as well. I love her. She's wonderful.

The three records she did afterwards are my favorites. Court and Spark is one of my favorite records ever, but I love The Hissing of Summer Lawns and parts of Hejira as well. I like the period where she started getting into fusion.

She's always been a big influence on me.

I'm not as big of a fan of Blue as most other fans are, though. I like that record, but just don't think it's her best like a lot of other fans seem to.

I think that sometimes people confuse a record's accessibility with an artist's best. I love Hejira as well.

I wanted to ask about "No Big Bang" as it's the most striking song on Nothing Feels Natural. How did it come about? Is that the only song in the Priests catalog that Daniele sings?

There's a song on Tape Two called "Watch You" that she also sings and she also does a song called "Say No" on that tape. She sings occasionally, but a lot of times when she writes songs with vocal parts, she puts them in her other band Gauche. I'm a really big fan of Daniele's melodies and lyrics. And "No Big Bang" is one of my favorite songs on the record, too. A lot of people seem to be struck by it as well or think of it as a standout. It's about the creative process. It's very fitting because it was so difficult to make this record and though we didn't set out to make a record about the creative process, it ended up being about that. She wrote about how when you get a great idea, it can be this incredible, exhilarating thing, but the flipside is the isolation and the total despair when it doesn't work out right. She says "it's fucking terrifying" and it's a really great narration of what it's like to be going through that at that moment. Taylor started playing this bass line and wanted to expand it out of that, but I said that you have to keep playing that and it stayed that way until the third verse, which is where I come in. It's super heavy how that song came out and a real fun one to write.

So why was the record so difficult to make?

The most basic reason is money. These songs were done over a year ago, maybe more, but it's hard to find time for your creative outlets that don't make enough money so you have to keep working your job. We flew out to Olympia to record it last year and that went totally wrong. It wasn't anyone's fault, but it just wasn't coming out right. Therefore, that was a big waste of basically five grand and we had to scrap it. In a lot of ways, it was about scraping up the right amount of money to make it work. We also don't wanna put something out into the world that we think is garbage and we don't wanna put something out if we hate it. I hope it doesn't take another two years to write a record, but if that's how it is, that's fine. It's just important to us to make something that we love that we're really passionate about.

The first half of "Appropriate" sounds a little more like your previous record, but when it quiets down in the middle and the crazy free jazz part comes in, was that done purposely to lull listeners into a false sense of security to then completely surprise them?

I love that interpretation. That's a really cool way of putting it and you're not wrong. "Appropriate" is the oldest song on the record and "Suck" [the last song] is the newest song on the record. I've heard a lot of people write that my lyrics on "Appropriate" are free association poetry, but it's not that at all. It's like an internal dialogue inspired by a discussion on cultural appropriation. A friend's record was put out and a lot of the writing around it was about some guys discovering New York City and it felt weird to read that about a band of young white men and a city that's been there a long time. It's reminiscent of lots of tired narratives that get trotted out. It's not a slight to that band as they're friends of ours. But that part isn't so important as it was just a writing prompt for me. The idea of "Is George Clinton the kind of story your adventure's looking for" and referencing Maggot Brain, which is one of my favorite records. It's the idea that more privilege gives you access to more resources and therefore make more money off of stuff that others don't get to make money off of. A friend of mine is doing my hair for a show tomorrow night and she said "what do you think of this style?" and we both looked at it and it was a style based off of putting cornrows in my hair and letting it out. Black women have dealt with stigma over the ways they wear their hair forever and the fact that cornrows are now this cool, trendy thing for white women to wear and not just on runways is really weird. Or white people having dreadlocks. That's something that meaningful to people in cultural ways. I don't want to be the fashion police, but think about what you're doing. It usually doesn't bother other white people or white-passing people, but it reminds me of a really great thread I saw on Twitter recently. It said that if there was a recipe in my family that was passed down to me from my mom and I love it and I think it tastes so good, but all the kids at my school made fun of me for it and told me that it sucked and that it's horrible and then suddenly someone's on TV cooking my family's recipe and making hundreds of dollars off of it or whatever, that would be a shitty feeling. I never want it to be boring or finger-pointing because it's not a cool way to engage that topic. 

Your method of writing feels much more insular to me.

I hope it's something that's fun to unpack and wonder about instead of feeling like you're being scolded at like a parent. I would never want that.

It often feels like you're in a dialogue with yourself.

I saw that in an Elvis Costello interview once where he said that most of his lyrics are a conversation with himself and I was like, "I feel the same way."

It reminds me of a review I read about Jawbox once where it said that their debut album Grippe felt like the first time a DC punk band turned insular instead of critiquing the outside world or the political climate or something similar. I don't think that's totally true, as Rites of Spring had come out five years before that, but it did bring up a great point.

A lot of people think that sometimes DC punk is holier than thou and I don't think it's true, but I also think that music is very subjective and that people take different things from it and we can have multiple realities from that.

Do you see yourself as part of that lineage that started with Revolution Summer in the mid-'80s with bands like Beefeater or Fire Party and continued later on with Fugazi, Bikini Kill, etc. I know you've performed with Ian Svenonius as well.

I would say that we're part of that narrative, but not exclusive to it. At least three of us grew up very into stuff that was from DC and very informed by it and I always tell people that if I could make music that could touch people in the same way that music touched me, that would be one of the best feelings. I think our story is different from that. Dischord has been distributing this record, but we put it out ourselves. So that's another reason why the record took so long to come out. I think people sometimes forget that we're the record label and the band. I even forget that, too, sometimes, but we were determined to push [our own label] Sister Polygon this time.

Did you not want to do another record on Don Giovanni?

Bodies and Control and Money and Power was actually a split release between us and Don Giovanni. That was because we didn't have enough resources and we were friends with Joe [Steinhardt, owner of Don Giovanni] and he offered. The plan was always to grow Sister Polygon, though. That's the big reason why early Rough Trade stuff is such a big influence on me. My friend is writing a book on The Raincoats and let me read a draft and there's a great Geoff Travis [Rough Trade's founder] quote where he says that the reason why mainstream stuff sounds the way it does is because these slick record producers think that this is what people want, but we shouldn't let the market dictate that. "Everyone thinks that if you don't do that, then all you're doing is that you're cutting off your chances of survival in the marketplace and that's one of the things that we're fighting against. We're saying that the marketplace is a false creation and has very little to do with what people might want given the option." When I read that, I thought it was great because I feel the exact same way. So therefore, we'd like to get to a place with our record label where we could do for other artists what we've been able to do with Priests. We'd love to support them and give them the agency to do whatever they wanted to do. It's incredibly important to me to support the artists and push forward with the many beautiful visions that are around here.

Who are the other artists on the label right now?

We just put out a record by a band called Hand Grenade Job, which is a duo of women. The other one is Coup Sauvage & the Snips, which is more of a dance music record. Taylor has another band called Flasher and they're about to release a 7-inch in two months. There's another band on the label called Snail Mail. I'm biased, but I'm terribly fond of all the music we've released, but we've all made the choice to release it and it's all stuff we really love.

[Note: A much shorter version of this article originally appeared in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar's Spring 2017 Issue (April/May/June 2017), which is still out now. This is the full unedited transcript of the interview.]

www.666priests666.com

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May 27th 2017
12:19am

I love all the music they’ve released!