City Paper is not for tourists
The headliner wasn’t going to make it in time for noise curfew. It was one of those buzzed-about bands from Brooklyn that had come from elsewhere to be a Brooklyn band. That’s not a slight, just how it goes. Word spread around the basement-show crowd, but no one left, because on Jan. 9, 2013, the only thing keeping the bundled masses from freezing were its huddled asses. And a local punk band called Priests.
At the Rocketship, a rowhouse venue in 16th Street Heights, when someone starts to push and shove, everyone braces for disruption: One wrong step and you’ll smash into the room’s lone, low-hanging lightbulb. Head-bobbing was fine during Teen Liver’s opening set, but with Priests now thrust into the main spot, suddenly it felt as if anything could happen.
Katie Alice Greer, the band’s intense and captivating vocalist, stared down the audience like she was fighting off an exorcism. Daniele Daniele pounded her drums into the concrete floor. G.L. Jaguar nimbly hopped around the space, aiming his guitar the way you’d point a spear. As the band ripped through a set of chaotic, minimalistic, surf-inspired punk, its band members responded to each other’s movements as though they were playing full-contact chess.
Then, in one of those moments of levity that somehow only heightens the drama, bassist and backing vocalist Taylor M lost footing and fell straight into the PA. Quickly, the band’s newest member smiled and powered on—a reminder that this was a punk show, that musicians can fall on their butts just like anyone else caught up in the moment. And a crowd that had gathered to see the next big thing out of Brooklyn instead discovered something real from its own town.
Now the rest of the country is getting its chance. Just a few years into its existence, Priests is about to have a moment D.C. punk hasn’t seen for a decade: a new record likely to get serious national attention. Since 2011, the band has built momentum in living rooms and clubs, with a handful of tapes and a 7-inch that captured its heart-on-sleeve-punch-to-the-gut beginnings. On June 3, Priests will release Bodies and Control and Money and Power, an EP on the tastemaking label Don Giovanni. It’s the culmination of Priests’ climb from upstart punks to one of D.C.’s most exciting bands to an outfit making ripples in national DIY circles and earning the goodwill of Pitchfork, Spin, Brooklyn Vegan, and other nodes of indie rock’s modern infrastructure. Their evolution isn’t just statural: From the post-punk barn-burner “Design Within Research” to the positively insane funk-punk of “And Breeding,” Bodies and Control and Money and Power presents a band whose music has evolved from local curio to vital force.
Not that the potential wasn’t always there. Released at the very beginning of 2012, the self-released Tape 1 was the kind of ramshackle mess that contained far more promise than its photocopied artwork let on. On those four tracks, Priest didn’t know what it wanted to be. The dancey chant-along “Diet Coke” railed against product placement, the guitar on “Talking” rang out like a Go-Betweens B-side, and “Cobra” snarled like the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” It was like Beat Happening hit the record button on the boombox during a confetti party.
But it was the blissfully primitive pop song “The World,” not at all representative of what Priests would later do, that was oddly prescient: “The world is not so black and white/There are things that cannot die/Your paycheck is wrong, prison is a lie/The world is not so black and white.” In two minutes, Priests spelled out the mission of a very modern punk band, one more concerned with social ambiguities than political certainties.
Our world is not defined. We are not defined. Let’s talk about it.
It’s hard not to be distracted by the room where Priests is working on a new song. History is literally stenciled, in faux-Roman letters, on briefcases, wooden boxes, and the side of a PA.
Priests borrows this backroom space in a Takoma set-production warehouse and sound stage from former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, who rents it to mix records and create soundtrack music for television. Walking through the warehouse to the spacious rehearsal room, you pass gold-spraypainted styrofoam statues, impossibly tall glass cabinets that probably belong in a Terry Gilliam film, and a full-scale replica of a hydrogen bomb, among other hand-built wonders.
Greer, 26, with bleached blond hair and a charming smile, is sprawled out on the rug-covered concrete floor, an iPhone displaying newly written lyrics at her side. Audiences rarely see her so still: Live, she dances with her mic stand like she’s MCing a sock hop from hell. But in both situations, she’s intensely focused.
Jaguar, 27, who with his slicked-back hair and mannered ’stache looks like a bit character in a P.T. Anderson flick, is toying with a spiraling guitar line, a constellation of descending, deconstructed, single-note runs. Sometimes he and Taylor, 23, trim and almost always wearing an Orioles cap, lock eyes for the next musical cue, only to explore more entropic ideas. Daniele, 28, whose impossibly wide bangs bounce wildly with each beat, isn’t quite sure about the demanding drum pattern, a crucial grounding to Jaguar’s frequently chordless melodies, but goes all in on every take. They each offer tweaks, with no member’s voice dominating the process. In its current state, the new song is both Priests’ most accessible anthem and its most bafflingly constructed track. Once they nail the bridge, it’ll be a scorcher.
While Priests’ songs tend to be political in some way, they’re also the products of four friends living in a certain city at a certain time. When the band writes, “echoes of conversations we’ve had together in the band or at dinner” come out in the music, Daniele says. “When I look back to our songs, it definitely feels like moments of our lives together.”
“Don’t ever say that!” says Taylor, bristling at the romantic-sounding sentiment.
But “the story of us becoming a band isn’t that interesting,” Greer says. The very day after Daniele moved to D.C. in 2011 for a fellowship at Georgetown, she met Greer at a JEFF the Brotherhood show. “We’re gonna start a band together,” Greer says she insisted.
Not long after, at a DIY show at the now-defunct Gold Leaf Studios, they met up with Jaguar, whom Greer had known since her freshman year at American University—he did a semester in the audio technology program before transferring to the recording school at Omega Studios in Rockville. (That was during the brief time when interests on Facebook could directly link college students—not the entire world—to others with similar tastes in music and movies. Jaguar’s profile had “some totally obscure Star Wars reference,” Greer says.) The three of them got together to jam and soon came up with the name Priests—mostly because they liked how it sounded and because “none of us would be allowed to be priests,” says Daniele. “Because we’re either women, Jewish, atheist, or generally anti-institutionalized power of any form.”
The idea, from the start, was to play energetic, sharp-elbowed punk rock—music partially rooted in the District’s long history of hardcore and post-hardcore, or at least the kind of thing that’s likely to shoulder the comparison just by virtue of being made here. Jaguar, in particular, is a student of D.C.’s underground lineage, but by the time he connected with Greer and Danielle, he “felt very disconnected from the hardcore and punk worlds,” he says.
In the mid-2000s, Jaguar—his friends call him Gideon, his birth name—delved into the city’s then-growing noise and improv scenes to get some distance from what he considered a “vapid” D.C. music scene at the time. His main foil was Luke Stewart, a free jazz multi-instrumentalist and member of the band Laughing Man. “When I met Gideon, I think he was deep in this period of disillusionment,” Stewart says. “Gideon was one person who ran down a great deal of D.C. punk history outside of Dischord—the various individuals who set high bars musically, the different weird beefs, ex-bands, ex-girlfriends, etc. He’s always been a hardcore/punk guy at heart. He just needed the right kind of inspiration.”
As a trio, Priests released Tape 1 and a 7-inch featuring the songs “Radiation” and “Personal Planes” on its own Sister Polygon Records. By then, Greer had also joined Chain and the Gang, the current band of perennial D.C. punk preacher Ian Svenonius, as co-vocalist; while she was on tour, Jaguar and Daniele met Taylor at Small Press Expo, an independent comic-book convention in Bethesda. “I remember coming home and the three of them had been jamming,” says Greer. “Even from the first time that we all four of us practiced together, I felt like, ‘This is the band.’”
Tape Two was Priests’ next release, a furious 20 minutes that tackled everything from street harassment (“Leave Me Alone”) to a blacklisted political writer (“Lillian Hellman”). Over the course of a four-day retreat in Canty’s practice space and an extensive, two-month tour in 2013, the group honed the songs they eventually recorded for Bodies and Control and Money and Power—a lithe and furious and sometimes deliriously melodic EP that presents the band, for the first time, as something that sounds complete.
“There was definitely a point in time for me, at least, that the unfinishedness of our band was something that I was into presenting to people the most,” Greer says. “But you can’t just keep saying the same thing over and over again.”
When Priests headlined Fort Reno on July 29, 2013, it was clear something had clicked. On the weather-worn square stage, set against the backdrop of a park that used be a stronghold for the Union army, suddenly the night felt like one of the Fort Reno shows of yesteryear. Or at least the ones you hear about, when bands like the Dismemberment Plan, Unrest, Bratmobile, Jawbox, and Q and Not U were regulars. It was dangerous. It was raucous. It was an invitation.
“New,” then unrecorded but recently perfected on the road, was a thrill. If punk rarely shimmied before, it did now, as Greer danced fiercely from her shoulders and knees, mediating on the words, “When you are just a kid, you want everything to be new.” There was a moment when the music dropped out, and Daniele, from behind the drumkit, yelled the refrain: “Everything to be!” Then the band redoubled its fury, with Greer howling from a place deep in her chest. It’s a move lifted from the Ramones playbook—the 1-2-3-4 count-off—but transmuted into a kind of anti-chorus, a repeated signal that it’s almost time to rock the hell out.
Drop out. Build up. Tear it all down again.
Priests do most of their recording at Swim-Two-Birds, a basement studio in a Columbia Heights rowhouse owned by Hugh McElroy and his husband Kevin Erickson. McElroy, a veteran of the D.C. art-punk outfit Black Eyes, met Jaguar when the guitarist was a “not talkative” 14-year-old volunteer at Fort Reno. And he remembers meeting Taylor M as a participant in the now-defunct D.C. Free Recording Project when the bassist (“with hair down to the butt”) was a high-school musician really into Tegan and Sara.
Ten years in, Swim-Two-Birds Studios is emblematic of both the last generation of exportable D.C. punk and the wandering-yet-creative years that followed, a lost era of D.C. DIY that has just as much to do with Priests’ M.O. Decoding exactly how Priests came to its sound is tricky, but in many ways they’ve built organically on decades’ worth of punk, local and otherwise.
When Priests went into Swim-Two-Birds to record the “Radiation”/“Personal Planes” seven-inch in early 2013, Greer and Daniele brought a handful of albums to be used like sound swatches. This is a common preproduction practice, a way to tell the engineer whether the band wants, say, boomy, arena-rock reverb or stark, Martin Hannett–esque minimalism.
In Priests’ pile was The Map by mid-’90s D.C band Meltdown, a “weird, dissonant, angular, semi-dancey” avant-punk record released in 2000 after the band had broken up. McElroy says the 12-inch “anticipates Erase Errata,” another weird, semi-dancey punk band. It’s the kind of obscure root that speaks to the biosphere of local, ostensibly forgotten ideas that continues to germinate in unexpected ways. And it’s the kind of oddball touchstone that had to exist for Priests’ oddball punk to happen—not unlike how McElroy can rattle off past D.C. bands weirder than his own (Meta*Matics, Et At It, Nuclear Crayons) that got freaky enough so that local fans would know what to do with Black Eyes when it took its own hard left turns.
It’s hard not to feel the weight of a local punk tradition whose ’80s and ’90s peaks get rememorialized year after year. (There are currently at least three in-progress documentaries about D.C.’s early punk scenes.) There’s also the precedent of the early 2000s, the last time a handful of D.C. bands scraped at national appeal by making odd, booty-shaking punk for odd, politically fraught times. There’s the lesson of a community of bands that incubated at home and shared its sound with the world—as when, a decade ago, Tsunami’s Bob Massey, members of Black Eyes and Q and Not U, and musicians who would go onto to form Food for Animals all lived within a block of each other in Silver Spring, trading ideas, sharing tours and merchandise tables, and engaging in unhostile competition. (“‘Oh, damn our friends just did something really cool, we should do something really cool, too,’” is how McElroy puts it.)
And there’s the frustration of a punk scene that shrank, even became nomadic, as the city transformed. Neighborhoods that once afforded DIY efforts—U Street NW, Arlington, Mount Pleasant—upscaled, pushing musicians and artists to Columbia Heights, then Petworth, and now Brightwood and the Metro dead spots of Northeast. Key venues like the Girl Cave, Kansas House, and Warehouse Theater were driven out by high rent or developers collecting on their investment, as most DIY spaces eventually are. Rehearsal spaces became harder to come by. “Where the punks go, gentrification follows,” McElroy jokes.
The punks definitely kept going, even if the scene became less likely to find you before you found it. Bands like Mass Movement of Moth, Sentai, Turboslut, the Points, the Max Levine Ensemble, and others kept the torch burning. Some bands made an effort to tour. “I think, ironically, one of D.C.’s great strengths was this great, very localized, all-ages scene,” muses Taylor M. “Which is also kind of what made it self-contained.”
But when one venue gets shut down, determined kids make sure another pops up—Gold Leaf sputtered out in early 2012, Subterranean A closed the same year, spots like Paperhaus took up the mantle. When new management at the Salvadoran restaurant Casa Fiesta barred the hardcore scene from the upstairs bar in April, Ft. Loko in Edgewood opened its basement doors. And slowly, bands like Priests have found a community.
Priests, says Don Giovanni’s Joe Steinhardt, “really embody everything about what we are as a label.” The New Brunswick, N.J.-based outfit helped bands like Screaming Females, Waxahatchee, and Kicking Spit grow sustainable careers. Part of its success stems from a focus on common values rather than a unified sound—“meaningful releases from bands that matter,” says Steinhardt.
Like many punks growing up in the ’90s, Steinhardt was inspired by labels like Dischord, Lookout!, Touch and Go, and Kill Rock Stars, companies that “figured out a way to make things work on their own terms with their artists.” But as with any established code, DIY rules about album prices, profit sharing, and which venues to play became limits instead of guides. Instead, Don Giovanni Records aims to set rules “with their bands and create their own system with which to live.” What might work for Waxahatchee (once a bedroom project, now headlining sold-out shows around the country and licensing music to The Walking Dead), might not work for Priests (who now work with a boutique PR firm but book their own tours of all-ages spaces). For now, it’s a fit, a label in step with the band’s self-starter ideals that can get them to the next one, whatever that is.
Steinhardt first heard Tape 1 through Screaming Females, but it wasn’t until the 7-inch that he really took notice: “‘Personal Planes,’ for me, is one of the most powerful songs that came out since I’ve been involved with punk,” he says. It’s a hypnotic track led by a single-note riff and a chorus that rattles the brain, expressing anxiety over corporate greed while the rest of the world suffers. It’s no wonder that Priests’ second-ever show was in McPherson Square during the Occupy D.C. encampment.
“There are just so many interesting things to have a dialogue about that we’re not having conversations about,” says Greer. “And I think a lot of it is about fear. A lot of it is about money, because ultimately, it is less sexy to have conversations about a lot of these things.”
Post–Iraq War, post-Bush, post-whatever political upheaval that rallies the punk community, Priests wants to talk about gender, influence, gentrification, and sexual harassment. Daniele says that upon forming, it was something “that we all desperately needed when we found each other was to be talking to other people.”
Closing out Bodies and Control is “And Breeding,” an erratic herky-jerk with a dive-bombing guitar riff and a mind-screw of a bass line. For Greer, “that is our No Trend song,” referencing one of D.C.’s stranger, skronkier ’80s hardcore bands. As the song threatens to collapse on itself, Greer screams, “Barack Obama killed something in me and I’m gonna get him for it.” Like many young Americans who came of age during the George W. Bush administration, Greer shared the idealism of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Which is why she addresses her comedown. “I don’t really think we can vote our way into making things any better,” says Greer. “I don’t have any answers, but that line sort of sums up the absurdity of my hope in the first place.”
Priests, says New York–based Pitchfork staff writer Jenn Pelly, are “a band that thinks really critically about the world around them.” Pelly organized a live event this past March featuring Priests, Downtown Boys, and Olga Bell at MoMA’s PS1 outpost in Queens. “I never thought I’d see a punk band this good that clearly values the same things that I value,” says Pelly. “When a band is broadcasting your experience back to you, that’s always powerful. I feel like they’re doing that for a lot of people.”
Because Priests have political concerns and a DIY vibe, make to-the-point punk rock, and are led by a woman, media have been quick to connect them to the riot grrrl bands of the early ’90s. Former Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna has said she’s a fan of Priests, and the band opened for Hanna’s group the Julie Ruin. Still, Priests feel a little awkward about the comparison. “We are not against [riot grrrl],” Greer told the zine Yellow Green Red last year. “Those bands are totally great, but it doesn’t really have much to do with what we are doing right now.”
Politics inform much of what Priests does, but don’t define its identity. If anything, how these issues affect their personal lives have more bearing on how they present themselves on- and off-stage, as failing human beings in the process of making sense of it all—a more open, inquisitive stance that places them within contemporary punk’s dominant mindset. Why issue a rallying cry when you can start a conversation?
Earlier this year, Sister Polygon released a 7-inch by the Providence, R.I., band Downtown Boys, which Jaguar recorded at Swim-Two-Birds. The sax-fueled, bilingual party-punk group had toured with Priests in 2013. “I get very nervous while recording because I have to stand still and focus on the mic, and I can’t release my energy in the same way I do during live performances,” says Victoria Ruiz, Downtown Boys’ vocalist. Jaguar “was very sympathetic and helped me get through it along with the rest of the band.”
The single is part of a growing catalog on Priests’ in-house label that, as Erickson puts it, attempts to “elevate a whole community.” The roster includes L.A. post-punks Neonates and Brooklyn’s Shady Hawkins as well as homegrown acts like minimalist surf-punk band Dudes and the ambient guitar work of Carni Klirs.
At DIY venues, coffee shops, and art openings, Jaguar hands out flyers not only for shows he’s booked, but also for friends. “Gideon’s probably the social butterfly of our band,” Greer says. “It’s really nice. Gideon just draws energy from a different place in that way, when the rest of us aren’t so naturally sociable.” The tactic might seem like a relic from a time before Facebook dictated your social calendar—especially since Priests barely bother with social media—but the personal appeal is just that, a reminder to open up in an earbudded world.
Priests’ dedication to playing only all-ages spaces comes from that openness—as does their friendliness to younger kids who might want the band to pose for an Instagram. “We want to encourage people to book shows in welcoming spaces that are relatively safe, but also fun and seem appealing,” Greer says. “It seems more crucial than ever to create appealing events where people have a reason and desire to hang out in a physical space together, to experience things together and remember what it feels like to see another person and maybe touch them.”
Earlier this year, the band approached McElroy, who teaches Latin at the Field School in Foxhall, about doing something with his kids. As the faculty advisor for Field’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance student group, McElroy organizes cabarets featuring students and the occasional local band with ties to the prep school. Jaguar went to Field; when he plugged in this March, it was the first time he’d been there in years.
Playing for a room of high schoolers, Priests “were 40 times louder than everything else that happened that night, which momentarily scared the head of school’s son away who was there with his mom,” McElroy says. “But they stuck it out. They were into it. A lot of kids that I necessarily would not have expected to respond to them were so into it. It was like these kids who I do not think of as punk rockers were just entranced.”
That’s how a lost kid finds a way to connect. That’s how D.C. punk stays alive. Reach out and “play music for everybody,” Greer says, “or at the very least as many people as possible.”
Or, if Priests’ music isn’t for everybody, Jaguar says, then it’ll still “freak out the squares.”