Nothing Feels Natural, the debut album from Priests, came out a week after Trump’s inauguration. Since then, the Washington DC band has been trying to shake the “political punk” brand. Priests have always aimed to transcend punk, and on their new record, The Seduction of Kansas, they flaunt a list of influences long enough to make critics think twice before trying to pin their genre down. In the interim between the two records, founding bassist Taylor Mulitz left to pursue his own project, Flasher, forcing the band to recalibrate as a three piece, with Katie Alice Greer on lead vocals, Daniele Daniele on drums, and G.L. Jaguar on guitar. For the first time, they sought production outside their self-created label, Sister Polygon, and found John Congleton, whose credits range from Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson to experimental rock band Xiu Xiu. With Congleton’s studio savvy, as well as key contributions from bassist Alexandra Tyson and multi-instrumentalist Janel Leppin, Priests have adopted a smoother, less abrasive sound that flirts with trip-hop, new wave, and even straight-ahead cock-rock (with a sardonic, Priestly twist). Thematically, Kansas explores the American mythologies promoted by those in power. But it goes deeper than that, examining the subtle power dynamics, both national and personal, that make these mythologies possible. I spoke with the band about controlling the narrative, hyper-capitalism, and personal planes.
The Seduction of Kansas sounds very different from your earlier music. How much of that was due to personnel changes—losing Taylor Mulitz, getting produced by John Congleton—and how much of it came from a desire to reinvent your sound?
Katie Alice Greer: For us, it wasn’t such a grand departure. The way that we rolled it out, and the way people learned about it, it was like, “Oh, they’re working with some big name producer,” and “Oh, they lost a member,” and “Oh, the first single sounds a lot different production-wise.” So I think maybe that gave this presentation of, “Wow, it’s so different.” But we write songs the same way we always have. Someone comes in with a little kernel of an idea or a demo sketch, and the other people flesh out their parts. Lyrically, I think I’m still traversing a lot of the same territory I was before. Daniele wrote some lyrics and sang on some of the record, which she’s done in the past too. So for us, it didn’t feel that different.
Daniele Daniele: I know it sounds a lot different, and I had this discussion with my dad where he was like, “Wow, your playing’s changed so much.” But it really hasn’t at all. But the trick is that all of a sudden, rather than just having a kick, a snare, a hi-hat, a tom, and a bunch of cymbals, now we also have John and all the effects that he can add. It almost gives us five different drum kits to use all the time. So there are a lot more tools, production-wise, because John is so fluid in the studio. So I know it sounds a lot different, but I think the methodology is ironically pretty similar.
G.L. Jaguar: And we all listen to tons of music all the time. We don’t want to be a band that’s a genre exercise. We just play what feels good to us.
I hate to beat this point into the ground because I’ve seen other interviewers ask you about it, but you’ve been vocal about trying to shake the “political punk” label that’s been given to you. This album feels like a reaction to that because there are obviously so many more influences at play than punk.
KAG: Just to preface this, I think you’re right: Some of the ways we’ve talked about our music have been reactions to the ways people have talked about our music, but I don’t think our art itself is a reaction to that. We’re just asking people to talk about it differently. We’re not saying “Well here’s a whole new thing!” We’re just trying to not have people box us in. I think one thing that’s a thread through a lot of this record that I didn’t quite realize until more recently is that there’s a lot of meditating on anger—where that’s OK, who is allowed to express it, the forms it can take: when it is destructive and toxic, when it is generative and forward-moving. I think a lot of my lyrics tend to be, in the vaguest sense, meditations on power dynamics. So there’s a lot of that and a lot of trying to write really extreme, interesting characters. Daniele sings a song about a woman who’s seemingly so cold on the outside; and inside, she seduces and murders people and then kills herself.
That’s “I’m Clean,” right?
DD: She doesn’t really kill herself. The world kills her.
I think I missed her dying at the end.
DD: She’s not really dead at the end.
KAG: It’s figurative.
DD: It’s just like, she’s so dead on the inside and so incapable of desire, except maybe the desire for revenge.
KAG: That’s one of my favorite lines on the record: “I killed myself to make you see your own perversity.”
Yeah, that’s a great line. That song is based on a short story you wrote, right?
DD: Yeah. I was just thinking a lot about this character in my head, so to brainstorm, I wrote about her. In the short story, she ends up killing somebody, and I wasn’t expecting it to go there. Sometimes, characters just do their own thing. I was like, “OK, I guess that’s you,” and then I changed the way I thought about performing her.
What art were y’all consuming that resonated with you while you were writing and recording this record?
DD: I was really into femme fatales: Mae West; reimagining Grace Kelly as kind of a weird femme fatale; all of Hitchcock’s cool blondes. We got really into Westworld too.
GLJ: We also really like the David Byrne movie True Stories.
KAG: Yeah, that’s where a lot of the lyrics from “Texas Instruments” came from. “Jesus’ Son” is kind of inspired by The Twilight Zone, kind of inspired by Denis Johnson’s short story collection, Jesus’ Son. For the song “Control Freak,” we used The Prodigy’s song “Firestarter” as a template for how we wanted to record and produce.
Lyrically, you offer some of the most informed, thoughtful political commentary I’ve heard via music in a long time. Why do you shy away from the “political” label?
KAG: First, thank you very much. That’s really kind. I think I really cringe these days when I see people wearing… I don’t know. I was thinking about this yesterday, reading all the news about what’s been going on with horrible, restrictive abortion ban bills being passed in different states, and then seeing all these people posting on the Internet about it, just their personal feelings. Sometimes, when I see artists doing that kind of thing, it feels really disingenuous. It seems like politics is just a trendy outfit to wear right now, and there’s gonna be other times where it’s not trendy. Where will those people be then? But, at the same time, I argue with myself in my own head about this because who am I to say who’s full of shit and who isn’t?
DD: With the “political” label, when you put a hashtag next to it, it feels like branding, in a way. We want people to meet [our music] on its own terms because it came out of us on its own terms.
KAG: Yeah. I remember once having a conversation with a friend who’s a little older and saying to her, “I don’t want to sexually identify as anything. Why do I even have to do that? Why does it matter, unless it’s with someone I’m intimate with?” And she was like, “You don’t, but the reason it’s important is not for you; it’s for other people. It’s for organizing purposes. It’s for finding community and solidarity and doing political work together.” So I do feel like that sentiment extends to hashtag politics and social media messaging. I don’t think it’s all bullshit, and obviously, if we’re living in a world where no one is using these shitty social media platforms to speak, then we can’t all talk and organize. So it’s complicated. I think we’ve often felt that people ignore our songwriting and our craft by just talking about content or what it stands for. Politically, that means a lot to us too, making space for a world that really values art.
DD: Art that’s not dogmatic. That’s another thing that’s really hard about when people label you a political punk band. They assume you’re being prescriptive and giving people answers, and I think we always try to underline that that’s absolutely not the point. It’s not to tell you what to think; it’s just to make you think. We like art that opens up our minds to thinking different ways or thinking about things we hadn’t before. I don’t like art that’s dogmatic and sloganeering. I think that, often, when people think of political punk with a hashtag, they think of that. So there’s a fear of not wanting people to think of our art that way.
This album is very focused on Americana. What fascinates you guys about middle America and hyper-capitalist institutions like strip malls and fast food chains?
KAG: For me, it’s not specifically middle America. It’s the culture of our whole country. I grew up in the suburbs, in metro Detroit. I’ve always felt strangely comfortable in strip malls and areas of commerce in general, where bullshit is being peddled to me. To quote The Avengers’ song, that’s probably “the American in me.” So we’re just trying to paint pictures with words of stuff that has always been around us, that feels very much a part of where we come from and what our experiences are.
GLJ: We’re always on the road, so it’s kind of osmosis. It’s not just middle America; it’s all of it.
DD: We’ve gotten so many Groupons for tire changes.
GLJ: Oh my god, so many Groupons for Sears tire changes. It saves touring bands. Jiffy Lube, we owe you.
DD: Sears is always in that outer suburban strip mall that was cool ten years ago.
GLJ: We once got one from a Sears oil change in Memphis. It was just the three of us coming back from South by Southwest (Taylor had a Flasher thing). It was strangely beautiful because this mall was so empty and had nothing in it.
DD: Is that where I got the “Rich Bitch” dress?
GLJ: That’s where you got the “Rich Bitch” dress. But it was just like, “This is what people do. This is people’s lives.” And there are malls by my house that feel just like that. It’s great how universal these things are.
DD: But it’s scary at the same time. It’s great, in one sense, but also depressing. I’m gonna sound like such a douchebag saying this—and I’m sorry ahead of time—but it’s almost like those French writers during industrialism that go, “Look at all the rats in the sewer and all the industrial smokestacks. Isn’t it weirdly beautiful?” I feel that way sometimes about hyper-capitalism. It has this nostalgic pull. It’s so ugly, and it’s also weirdly beautiful and compelling.
GLJ: It’s like drinking a Coca-Cola. You have it, and that spike hits your veins. It’s the same everywhere you go. But then, afterwards, you feel gross, like, “Oh my God. I just put all this corn syrup in my body, and I’m gonna get diabetes. Fuck.” But that ten seconds is great.
Seduction of Kansas feels like an ensemble record in that there are all these big, colorful characters telling their stories. Did you start each song with a character in mind and go from there, or were some of the characters created from certain sounds or aesthetics you stumbled upon while jamming?
GLJ: It’s kind of like what Katie said earlier: We each come in with a little kernel of something, whether Katie’s got some lyrics or Daniele’s working on a new beat or I’ve got a riff. Things kind of flow together organically and build on each other.
DD: I feel like [Katie] did have a lot of “Aha!” moments on this record, where a certain medium resonated and inspired a character.
KAG: That’s basically how I write. I get really fixated on a news story or a sentence I read or a line in a movie. A lot of times, I don’t really understand why my brain has gotten fixated on it, so writing about it is a way of exploring that.
DD: Yeah, and then we just jam to music, and usually, it comes together.
That’s interesting that it’s such an organic process because the songs all feel very carefully constructed, like short stories. Does everyone have lyrical input on every song?
KAG: No, not usually. Usually, if I’m singing, I wrote the lyrics, and if Daniele’s singing, she wrote the lyrics. There’s a song called “Ice Cream” on the record that was me, Daniele, and Janel Leppin. The three of us wrote those lyrics together, and that was a really fun, totally new experiment for us because we’d never really done that with lyrics before. It was a fun challenge for us to figure out how to write something that resonated with all three of us.
Daniele, your voice feels much more present on this record than on Nothing Feels Natural, and from what y’all just said, that must mean you did more songwriting. Did this record feel like a coming out party for you as a singer-songwriter?
DD: No, not per se. Nothing Feels Natural had one song I wrote. This one had two. I just do “I’m Clean” and “68 Screen.” I think what that is more a symptom of is that once Taylor left the band, the book of established roles went out the window. Because I have other bands where I play other instruments and sing, I think that to get the creative juices flowing and try new things, I was like, “What if Katie and I jam on keys? Or what if we work with loops in Logic?” We were just trying to be as creative as possible, so I think that’s where those two songs came out of. With “68 Screen,” I’d been trying to work on a 6/8, and then [G.L.] and I had this riff. I’d been playing a 6/8 beat, and he came up with a really cool guitar part for a song I had previously written by myself on keyboard. I heard the words of the chorus, and I was like, “Oh, it would sound so good on that guitar riff.” So I just swapped the words over, and then we mashed it up as half 4/4, half 6/8.
That was my favorite song on the album, and also my favorite that I saw you guys play live at South By Southwest. What was the initial concept for that one?
DD: I was joking with Katie that I should just rent myself out to men as a projector screen. I could market myself as “Has masters degree. Really good for intellectual types. Very good looking. Good for insecure masculinity.” I was talking to somebody who I felt was talking to me about intellectual stuff they were interested in, not because they wanted my opinion at all but because they felt like, by talking to me, it gave this person who had not gone to college and had a chip on their shoulder about it a sense of validation. So it was kind of like, “That’s right. I’m just a plain, white, flat surface. Do what you will.”
“I’ve always felt strangely comfortable in strip malls and areas of commerce in general, where bullshit is being peddled to me.”
What were each of your favorite tracks or moments on the record?
KAG: I think my favorite, just in terms of checking all the boxes—lyrics, songwriting, production—is probably “I’m Clean.” I feel like that one sounds like Priests dressed up as David Bowie, which is so fun. But I also really love how the production turned out on “Texas Instruments.” That was a song where I was like, “I don’t quite know if this sounds like us” when John gave us the recording back. But the more I listened to it, I was like, “No, this is tight. This is exactly what we hired this person to do, to breathe something different into what we’ve been doing.” I also really like the title track. I just like the record a lot. [Laughs]
DD: I like “Texas [Instruments]” a lot too. Growing up, I listened to a lot of twee, like Belle and Sebastian and Talulah Gosh, so when I was learning the drums, I always thought “I’m gonna be in a band like that,” which isn’t what happened. But I felt like I got to do something I’ve had in my mind for a really long time on that song. It was [G.L.] and Katie who started that jam, but it was really intuitive for me to play that type of drums to it, and I was like, “Yay! I’ve wanted to do this for so long.”
GLJ: It’s hard. I feel kind of tied because, on one hand, “Jesus’ Son” went through so many iterations, and at one point, it was just like, “Oh my God, I fucking hate this.” But I like the lyrics, and I’m glad we were able to make it work and do a piss take on cock-rock type stuff. I really like how the solo came together. I was listening to a lot of Berlin-era Bowie stuff. I’m a huge Adrian Belew fan, and I feel like I have my little homage to him in that song. Also “[The Seduction of] Kansas.” I’d been sitting on that main riff for so long, and it felt really good to get into the world something that was cohesive. And the song slaps.
I read your Stereogum interview, where you go through and break down every song on the album. It’s rare to see a band do something so demystifying. What made you guys agree to do that?
GLJ: I think that’s why we agreed to do it. You read a lot of reviews where it’s like, “Man, you really don’t know me.” I mean, it’s all subjective.
KAG: I think it’s a genius format because, often, music interviews aren’t actually about the music, so if you go track by track, it forces you to return to the music over and over again, which is actually what we want to talk about.
You guys put on one of the most fun, energetic live shows I’ve seen, but your lyrics are generally pretty heavy. Is that an intentional dissonance?
KAG: Have you seen that meme—sorry, my brain is completely rotted by the Internet—where it’s a pink house next to a black house, and the pink house is “the sound of the song,” and the black house is “the lyrics?” I feel like that’s us sometimes. I’m glad to hear that our shows are fun. That’s probably just an extension of the show being fun for us. We always want to be engaged in work that feels good for us. Sometimes, you go to a show where it feels like the frontperson is reading from a script onstage of what they think they are obligated to talk about as a responsible frontperson. It’s cool when people take away something from our music that feels generative or inspiring or educational, but you should be able to come to that on your own terms. And you’re not gonna be able to come to that on your own terms unless you’re having a good time and feeling present in the moment in an experience, rather than thinking about your everyday anxieties, looking at your phone.
My all-time favorite Priests song is “Personal Planes,” and I always think about the line, “Air Force One is a personal plane,” but I’ve never really been able to figure out its significance. What does it mean to you?
KAG: I wrote those lyrics on a plane. I was reading Skymall, and I read an article that was like, “You can buy planes if you’re really rich!” And I started meditating on the privatization of wealth and resources in our country, like, “Isn’t a lot of executive power just the privatization of resources for shitty, personal agendas?” I think that’s much more true now than it was when Obama was in office and we wrote that song.
GLJ: Even for Air Force One to be pulled out on the tarmac is like $500,000, before takeoff. It’s completely, astronomically expensive.
KAG: We’ll try and get that one ready for the New Orleans show so we can play it for you.
Priests play Gasa Gasa Tuesday, June 18 with support from Knife Wife and Ex Specter. For more info, visit 666priests666.com.
photo Drew Hagelin