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When you’re a punk band from D.C., there’s an expectation to be political. But for Priests, the presumptions have gotten a bit out of hand. “There was a French blog that covered our new video, and we put their headline through Google translate,” recalls vocalist Katie Alice Greer. “It came out as “Priests Predicted Trump!””
Sitting in Buck’s Fishing & Camping restaurant on a cold December night, everyone in the band cracks up at Greer’s story. None of the four members—Greer, bassist Taylor Mulitz, guitarist GL Jaguar, and drummer Daniele Daniele—deny that their music is political. But they see it more universally. “We come at it thinking everything is political, all art is political,” says Greer. “Even making the choice to not make a statement is political.”
Politics certainly emerge on Nothing Feels Natural, Priests’ fifth release and first full-length album. “Pink White House,” with its references to voting, fundraising, and the myth of the American dream, is, according to Greer, “an indictment of the structures that are squeezing the humanity out of art and social organization.” “Puff,” a mocking of capitalist optimism replete with chants of “accept the triumph of the machine,” was inspired by Greer and Daniele’s interest in Accelerationism (“we’re against it,” Greer insists).
But the political stances of Nothing Feels Natural are broad, subtle, and open to interpretation. It’s just one aspect of a lyrical and musical approach that the band has stretched wider than ever. Priests’ new songs are richer and more detailed than those on their previous EP, 2014’s Bodies and Control and Money and Power, which captured the energy of its live shows. Nothing Feels Natural represents an effort to, as Greer puts it, “use the studio as an instrument.”
The result is an album that’s both urgent and patient, strident and understated. Moving deftly through slamming rants, surf-inflected melodies, atmospheric meditations, and taut grooves, Nothing Feels Natural has the maturity of a post-punk classic, one as likely to get bodies moving as neurons firing. There’s still tons of raw power in Priests’ attack—the album opens with Greer moaning “You want some new Brutalism!” over a ruthless Daniele beat—but it comes with equal amounts of nuance and range.
Jaguar points to the inspiration of early Cure, Bauhaus, and Portishead’s 2008 album Third. “That record has this big studio sound; the synths just blast you from this crazy stereo image,” he explains. “But at the same time the guitar and vocals are lo-fi and punk sounding. We wanted this record to capture a bridge between the live elements of our band and a new direction in the studio.”
That new direction incorporated many D.C. comrades, including Mark Cisneros on vibraphone and bass clarinet, Luke Stewart on saxophone, Perry Fustero (who plays with Daniele in Gauche) on piano, and Janel Leppin-Pirog on strings (contributing a beautiful solo cello track called “Interlude.”)
“We ended up making a record that’s very much about community, because we had so many friends play on it,” says Greer. “I’m glad in this horrible current situation, where people are threatening the arts and arts communities, we could make a record about why they’re important and how they’ve enabled us.”
Daniele even goes so far as to claim that the D.C. music community literally saved Nothing Feels Natural. Given what Priests went through to make it, she’s not exaggerating. Counting initial self-recorded demos, the band recorded four versions of the album over the past two years. And the final one almost didn’t happen.
In early 2016, Priests traveled to Olympia, Washington to record at High Command studio with Dave Harvey, AKA Captain Tripps Ballsington. Though the band enjoyed the experience and respect Harvey immensely, the results didn’t match the grand sound they envisioned. But they were torn about whether to try again.
“I thought, fuck, we spent all this money, we all missed weeks of work for this,” says Daniele. Adds Greer: “I was so ready to be done with the record that I thought, let’s just put it out. We’re going to make another one anyway, so I’d rather get to work on that.”
Jaguar and Mulitz felt differently and pressed their bandmates to record a few more songs at Inner Ear in Arlington. “We said, ‘Once you hear this you’ll want to re-record it all again,’” insists Mulitz. He was right, but it took some conflict to get there. Daniele recounts a shouting match at Buck’s, where she and Mulitz work, on her birthday. “Priests is usually a very collaborative, democratic process,” Greer says. “So it’s unusual for one or two people to say, ‘No, absolutely not.’”
Once everyone agreed, Priests still needed to find someone to produce. They turned to Kevin Erickson and Hugh McElroy, both of whom had worked on three previous Priests records. Though the pair was on the verge of moving, they immediately accepted.
“They basically worked on spec, didn’t even talk about price,” recalls Daniele. “They just saw this broken mess of four people and said, ‘Don’t give up!’”
Going back to Inner Ear with Erickson and McElroy gave Priests the chance to finally stretch their songs to meet their collective ambitions. “We thought that these were great pop songs and we could make them as big or as small as we want,” says Daniele. “We didn’t have to rewrite them to add to them.”
That led to a multi-part harmony in “Leila 20,” with seven vocal tracks layered together, dramatic piano chords in the raucous “JJ,” and a hall-of-mirrors effect on Daniele’s singing during “No Big Bang.”
“Now that I’ve held the record in my hands, I think to myself, this worked out great!” Greer says. “But there were times when I thought, maybe we’re destroying the band by going on the quixotic journey of this record.”
Such uncertainty influenced the choice to name the album Nothing Feels Natural. As Mulitz puts it, “Making this record did not come easily or naturally. At one point I was worried: what if people hear this and think, ‘Hmm, nothing feels natural? No kidding!’”
The concern proved unwarranted—the sonic and thematic cohesion on Nothing Feels Natural is far from forced—but the album title still has philosophical significance. “When someone says ‘just act natural,’ I don’t know what that means,” explains Greer. “I’m a performer. I’m always thinking about what I’m doing. Even when you’re sleeping, if someone’s watching, you’re performing. And what the fuck does natural mean anyway? Does it just mean something we’ve all been socialized to do?”
The notion that convention shouldn’t be mandatory informs Priests’ thoroughly DIY approach to art. All four members taught themselves to play, and they still strive to avoid accepted rules.
“When we started the band, [the No Wave documentary] Blank City had just come out,” explains Jaguar. “There’s a part where Lydia Lunch says, ‘We were playing music like we were inventing the fucker.’ And we all thought, ‘We’ve got to do that!’” In turn, the band rejects even its own conventions. “If one of us has an idea and is not sure it’s really a Priests thing, we say, ‘Fuck that, everything’s a Priests thing,’” adds Daniele. “If you like it, it’s a Priests thing.”
The logical extension of Priests’ musical autonomy is the record label that all four members run together, Sister Polygon. “We started it out of necessity, at least for me, because I couldn’t think of any other way to do it that made sense for us,” says Daniele.
Thus far, Sister Polygon Records has released 22 records by nearly 20 different artists, filling the makeshift office in Mulitz’s apartment. “For me, growing up in D.C., if you have a record, you put it out yourself,” insists Jaguar. “What else are you supposed to do?”
Such self-reliance is on their minds as Priests look toward a tour in support of Nothing Feels Natural. It will be their longest as a band and their first in an America where the far right suddenly has unprecedented power. Threats against underground artists and venues are on the rise, something Daniele and Mulitz have seen first-hand: Buck’s neighbors and shares ownership with Comet Ping Pong, a venue famously targeted by fake conspiracy-obsessed harassers. But the challenge emboldens Priests.
“It’s interesting that some places of attack lately have been art spaces,” says Daniele. “There’s a lot of symbolic currency there for populism and what art has become. As DIY artists it makes it very obvious what your job is.”
“If people want to work to destroy those things, what does that represent?” asks Greer. “It represents creating a temporary environment where we can come together and share ideas and reinforce one another’s differences in ways that mainstream culture doesn’t.”
Maybe it’s these kinds of circumstances where Priests’ universal approach to politics can have its greatest effect. In a time when every day seems urgent, they’re well-equipped to make a difference with their art. “Drastic circumstances force people to pick a side,” Greer says. “At times people want to say, ‘There are no sides, I’m not involved.’ But no, you’re always involved. It’s time to see your place in all of this and figure out the best way to participate, because we’re all already participating.”