Priests on "The Seduction of Kansas" Struggling with America | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Priests on “The Seduction of Kansas”

Struggling with America

Apr 24, 2019 Web Exclusive
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Priests are a band that always have a lot on their mind. Much was made when the release date of their heralded debut album, Nothing Feels Natural, happened to coincide with the inauguration of the new U.S. president at the start of 2017, the D.C. band’s defiant energy offering a dose of desperately needed anger-catharsis during that most dystopian of weeks. It was, of course, nothing but happenstance, but it did serve to highlight the fact that Priests were a new artist willing to use their platform to make a statement. Now, with the release of sophomore album The Seduction of Kansas, they return armed with two years of living in Trump’s America, brimming with thoughts of the structures of power and the plight of the classic American archetypes. We spoke to the band (vocalist Katie Alice Greer, drummer Daniele Daniele, and guitarist G.L. Jaguar) to explore these ideas, as well as to discuss their recent line-up change and exactly what it means to seduce Kansas.

Max Pilley (Under the Radar): I think some people will be surprised with your new album, The Seduction of Kansas. How would you characterize the difference between this one and your debut?

G.L. Jaguar: This record is kind of playful. I feel like we really had a good interplay between everyone who was involved in making it. Between the three of us and the other collaborators and even the producer John [Congleton], we really pushed ourselves sonically. We were able to explore new ideas that we weren’t really able to do before. I think from a sonic perspective, it’s very playful and joyous.

You mention John Congleton, somebody with his tentacles all over the music world. How did that collaboration come about and why was he right for you?

Katie Alice Greer: Our publisher Morgan Lebus has been really supportive of our band, and we were talking to him about a lot of trouble we were having recording this record, saying that we needed to get some other people involved. He was the one who first suggested John. But I think we were all already fans of a whole lot of music that he’s worked on.

Daniele Daniele: We collaborated a lot with John, and he is pretty influential on how the record sounds. There are two other collaborators that are worth mentioning that had a big effect on it: the first is Janel Leppin, who played on the last record too and he was our primary songwriting collaborator on The Seduction of Kansas and he played bass on all the songs except for the title track, which our new touring bassist Alex Tyson wrote with us and played bass on. So we also expanded not just with John Congleton but with also those two people, as opposed to the old days when it was just the four of us.

What was the reason for this spirit of collaboration for this album?

Katie: It’s just by virtue of necessity. The first album that we wrote, we wrote the songs the way that we needed to and we had been working with the same people for many years recording it, and when that wasn’t working out this time around for the new record, we just had to start exploring other options.

Did it feel like a risk?

G.L.: Yes, it did. It’s like, if you do something for a real long time, let’s say you learn how to shave, and then you cut off your hand, and then you have to learn how to shave with your other hand.

Katie: That’s a really extreme way to put it!

Daniele: Also though, I don’t think we thought too much about the riskiness of it because we were at a point where the band wasn’t really functioning anymore so it didn’t feel like a risk so much as some choices to make to enable the band to continue to exist. A lot of our creative decisions are most influenced by matters of practicality. That might seem antithetical to being creative and making art, but I think a lot of times for us, making inventory of what our limitations are has often been one of our strongest guiding forces in guiding us with what we do.

You mention that the band had stopped functioning. Is this in relation to your bassist Taylor Mulitz leaving?

Katie: Yeah, a little bit. We had always been a four-piece. Again, another melodramatic sounding analogy, but it’s like if you have a chair with four legs and you have to saw off one of the legs. He left on amicable terms with us, it was just because he has another band called Flasher that was ready to become a little bit more full-time and we all just realized that it wouldn’t keep working with him being in both bands. The four of us still run a record label together, we’re all still friends, but when he left Priests, the three of us had to figure out, “Okay, now that one of the major points of our dynamic is gone, how do the three of us relate to each other, or even how do we better relate to each other, and try to correct some of the old relationship dynamics that weren’t working before.”

Was is ever an option to call it a day?

Katie: Yeah, we definitely were planning on it for a little bit.

And then what changed your mind?

Katie: [Pause] I don’t know! We just keep booking shows, it’s weird!

G.L.: We’re just extremely stubborn and we keep working through everything. We booked studio time, and we thought, “Well, the studio time is booked, let’s go for it! And we made a cool record. So, go us.”

Do you feel like a different band now?

Katie: I mean, yes and no. Just in the same way that I feel like a different person than I was when I was 17. I’m definitely still the same person, but I’ve learned a lot more. We’re better at what we do, our ability to communicate our ideas musically and however else is always being further refined, we’re always trying to explore new ideas that are interesting to us, so we’re the same band but we’re also a different band entirely.

The album is called The Seduction of Kansas, which is maybe the most eye-catching album title of the year. I know there’s a story connected, could you talk us through it.

Katie: The title track is very heavily influenced by a book called What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, who writes about growing up in Kansas and the history of the state. It addresses a lot of ideas and tropes of people and fast food franchises that were born there, and he also talks about how it has often been home to very left-wing political action as well as very right-wing political action, and it has often been an indicator of where the entire country is headed, in terms of its set of values. So for the lyrics to that one, I tried to weave an entire movie about the history of Kansas into a three-minute song.

The album is laced with references to symbols and icons of American culture, not always necessarily in a loving way. Is that something you’re struggling with at the moment?

Katie: Yeah, I think everyone should struggle with the idea of America at the moment, especially if you’re American. We are regularly pretty frustrated by living here, and even being seen as Americans. I don’t really believe in nationalism, I don’t think it’s a good organizing principle for humanity. However, I recognize that it significantly organizes the world that we live in, so I always feel like I’m negotiating between those two mindsets, in terms of how much I want to dismantle the power structures that squeeze the life out of all of our lives, without trying to sound corny. For me, what characterizes the lyrics that I’ve been working on is trying to stay present with the fact that we do live within these power structures. It’s very aspirational and fun and cool to feel like you want to burn the system down or whatever, but I think sometimes it’s more useful to try to sit with where we’re at with American identity.

I read that you’re fans of Adam Curtis. Would you say that some of his worldview is reflected in this album?

Katie: Yeah, I think definitely. I first became aware of Adam Curtis and his filmmaking around the time we started Priests and I distinctly remember thinking, “I want to be able to write songs the way that he makes films.” I think his influence in that way is still something that I approach lyricism with. More topically, the song “Good Time Charlie” is actually directly inspired by footage from his documentary Bitter Lake, about the U.S.‘s relationship with the Middle East. That’s how I first became aware of Joanne Herring, who Julia Roberts plays in Charlie Wilson’s War. That’s where the lyrics to that song came from.

The release of your first album coincided with Trump’s inauguration. To what extent is this album a reaction to the first couple of years of the Trump administration?

Katie: I mean, I’m sure it is that in certain ways, but it certainly was not a conscious thing. We didn’t sit down at meeting number one for album number two and say, “Let’s make an album that is a reaction to our first years under Trump.” A lot of times songwriting, we just try to make stuff that sounds cool and interesting to us, and it’s not until the song or album is done that we can look back and say, “Oh okay, we were talking about this or that.” I certainly didn’t try to write songs about bad people just because Donald Trump is a fucking idiot. I’m sure that had something to do with it, but yeah.

I know minds are starting to turn towards the 2020 election. Do you have hope for that election?

G.L.: No.

Katie: I always think of a story I heard recently, where a man was at a therapist’s office and he’s saying, “Oh, I’m so depressed, I don’t have any hope for anything in the world,” and his therapist told him, “You don’t have to be hopeful, you just have to be curious.” I really try to keep that mindset when I’m trying to figure out what’s going on in the world. It’s rough to be hopeful, but at least try to be curious, I can latch onto that.

Is there a candidate that you could feel enthusiastic about?

Katie: No, not yet. I had a friend tell me that she didn’t know why anyone would care about presidential elections, and I think that’s a little too extreme, but I do think that we all need to be thinking about organizing and politics on a local level. We all nationally get so caught up with presidential electionsand it is essential that we get Donald Trump out of the White Housebut there is so much we can do in our daily lives.

Daniele: He’s a symptom of a bigger problem, which is I think often humans are afraid of their own agency. If you think a presidential election every four years is going to fix everything, you’re looking for a magic pill. It’s just not real life. I can’t vouch for any single candidate, nor would I ever want to, but I can say if you are going to vote, don’t try to assess someone’s character, don’t try to vote for a personality. Actually look for what they’re going to vote for, what their actual policies are. That’s hard and it takes time and that’s what we should be doing.

You’ve mentioned that Portishead and Massive Attack are major influences for you. People might not expect to hear that.

Daniele: You know when you do high school track and field, you might watch the Olympics, and you know you’re not going to be able to do that…

Katie: Damn, Daniele is roasting our band so hard right now…

Daniele: No, I’m not saying that! What I think is interesting is that even on the last record we always said Portishead was a huge influence. We were even sonically farther from them and people would say that it’s a weird reference point. We’ve always appreciated the craft and thoughtfulness of their music.

G.L.: And the large sonic palette that they work with.

Katie: And their refusal to work within one genre, and the way that they sculpt an environment on their records, that mood.

Are you expecting people to be surprised with the new album, overall?

Katie: I don’t think the album is that surprising. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but when people say that we sound so different, I don’t think that they’re really listening to the music, I think they’re paying too much attention to the giftbox it’s wrapped in. I really don’t have any expectations for how people are going to receive it. When people tell me they really like it, I am delighted, but I’m also anticipating that it’s not going to be for everyone.

Daniele: I do think people will categorize it as a radically different shift in a lot of ways because of the different production value on it. It’s kind of funny to me though, because as someone who played on it, it does feel like a continuation of what we’ve always been doing.

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Jeins Smitth
April 29th 2019

Nice! :)

Jeins Smitth
April 29th 2019

Comment blocked!