Washington, D.C.'s Priests are Political, But Don’t Call Them “Riot Grrrl”

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Washington, D.C.'s Priests are Political, But Don’t Call Them “Riot Grrrl”

Priests do things on their own time. Though the staunchly D.I.Y. band initially formed in 2011 in Washington, D.C., they’ve never been in a rush to release a full-length album. In fact, they’re only just getting around to it now. Sitting across from each other in a booth at Sugarburg in Brooklyn, drummer Daniele Daniele, guitarist G.L. Jaguar, bassist Taylor Mulitz and singer Katie Alice Greer point out how demanding the press cycle can be when it comes to up-and-coming acts. “Some people have said, ‘Isn’t it weird that it took so long for you guys to do your first full-length?’” Greer notes. “And it’s like, yes and no. I mean, we’ve already put out a lot of stuff. I also think the unspoken assumption is that you’re just going to get shit out as quickly as possible. That might make sense for publicity or press stuff, but it doesn’t always make sense for the music that you’re making.”

“We’ve always been very preoccupied with being at the helm of crafting our own narrative,” Daniele chimes in. “Which can also feel like an antiquated pursuit in the age of social media where everyone’s uploading photos of you and talking about you or not talking about you and your currency is built on that. It’s always been very important for us to tell people, ‘This is who we are, this is what we want you take from us.’”

Audiences certainly aren’t complaining. Priests have been hailed as hometown heroes in their native D.C. for years, with Metro Weekly declaring Greer a “Punk Priestess,” in spring of 2015. That same year, New York Times critic Jon Caramanica dubbed Priests “excellent” in a write-up of their surf-splashed single “JJ,” which will appear on their long-awaited full-length, Nothing Feels Natural (out on January 27 via Sister Polygon). Additionally, Greer frequently gets tapped to talk scene politics by local publications and radio stations.

In their coverage, outlets are quick to tag Priests as “punk,” perhaps due to the fact that they are noisy, opinionated performers, with Greer growling and groaning more than straight-up singing (think a more atonal Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex). It’s a label the band doesn’t seem very interested in. “I think a lot of stuff we were drawing from isn’t punk at all,” says Greer. “Like our big touchstone was the Portishead record Third.”

Another genre writers freely assign to Priests, much to their chagrin, is “riot grrrl.” Both Greer and Daniele sigh and shake their heads in unison at the term. “We’re all really conditioned to dismiss loud women,” says Greer. “Anything with feminism has to automatically mean riot grrrl for people, which is so incorrect.”

“I know of male music writers who use ‘riot grrrl’ as a quiet signal to their readers that [this band can be easily dismissed because] it’s a riot grrrl band,” agrees Daniele. “Ya know, ‘push it to the side, maybe your girlfriend will like it.’ It tokenizes [women], which is so nauseating.”

Greer nods. “We’ve never sat down and asked ourselves, ‘What genre band are we?’ We’re just a band. We’re trying to make songs that we think sound dope. If other people wanna call it whatever, at the end of the day that can’t be our primary concern. I would love it if no one ever used ‘riot grrrl’ in writing about us ever again, but whatever. It does feel very condescending. It’s limiting. It’s a way to make us sound dated.”

It’s not that the group, who do draw from a range of influences like jazz, post-punk, the aforementioned Portishead-era trip-hop and Fiona Apple, take issue with the ‘90s-born punk subgenre. It’s just that they aren’t particularly interested in being stamped with any genre. “Genre is such a false concept that has nothing to do with making music,” says Greer. “It has to do with selling music.”

What Priests do want to promote, though, is the idea of collaborative work, which is, Daniele explains, is inherently political. “Pretty much everything is political,” she says. “Talking about us being a political band is like saying we’re a band that makes noise. It’s just such a non-descriptor. Our politics play out a lot of times in the way that we do things rather than what we’re saying. So, for us, pushing the narrative of all of us being a collective and a collaborative effort feels like an important choice that reflects that.”

Indeed, the quartet are wholeheartedly committed to working as a team, both with Priests and their self-run label, Sister Polygon. Initially forming when Daniele moved from Brooklyn to D.C. for grad school at Georgetown University, Priests started after the drummer connected with Greer at a local show. The lead singer, meanwhile, had been in the area for years, having studied undergrad at American University with Jaguar. Priests operated as a trio briefly, until Mulitz came along in 2012 when the bassist was in the middle of transferring from Parsons to MICA in Baltimore. “I met Gideon through mutual friends at the Small Press Expo, which is like a comic book fair,” he says. “He asked me if I played music and if I wanted to jam. I was like, ‘Sure!’”

That was also the year the quartet put out their first recording, 2012’s frenetic Tape 1, which housed basement-recorded wallops like the frenetic “Diet Coke” and ragged guitar anthem “The World.” Three releases followed: a 2012 7-inch called Radiation/Personal Planes, as well as two more EPs, 2013’s Tape Two and 2014’s Body and Control and Money and Power, which they put out as a split with New Brunswick DIY staple Don Giovanni Records.

But it still wasn’t the right time to release a full-length. “When we did the Bodies EP, [Don Giovanni Records founder Joe Steinhardt] was really pushing us to do an LP,” Daniele admits. “Like, it doesn’t make sense financially for bands to do anything except for a 12” LP anymore on vinyl and we just kind of dug our heels in the sand and said, ‘These songs go together thematically. There are seven of them, they’re going to be grouped together.’”

It almost feels fateful that Priests would choose the week after President-elect Donald Trump’s much-contested inauguration to drop Nothing Feels Real, a ten-song collection of, as Greer puts it, “vignettes,” that grapple with the casual inequalities women deal with (“Why do I always have to be the police to get you to shut up when I speak?” they murmur on album closer “Suck”). Tied into that are themes of seeking balance — by both creating meaningful art and simultaneously protecting it from commercial compromise.

And that threat looms ever closer, especially as the Trump administration proposes cutting a number of government agencies and departments, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, a move that essentially encapsulates everything Priests fight against. In fact, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Priests will play at an anti-inaugural event partially organized by Greer titled “NO THANKS: A Night of Anti-Fascist Sound Resistance in the Capital of the USA, featuring an eclectic lineup of artists, musicians, and activist speakers will come together at the Black Cat to resist the coalescence of fascism in America.”

Meanwhile, on the album itself, the crowing “Pink White House” jabs at the idea of the American Dream by calling out the ways in which we’re complicit as “cog(s) in a machine” — whether that means enjoying ‘90s nostalgia or buying an SUV or mindlessly signing petitions. Artists constantly question—and help audiences to question—authority, and Priests are no exception. But they worry about their ability to survive in cities where the cost of living isn’t getting any lower.

“One of the words that comes to me now, and didn’t come before, is ‘precariousness,’” says Daniele. “I had friends who, after the Oakland fire, were writing about what caused it and were saying that we all are living in a moment of precariousness where artists are getting kicked out, and how do we live this way, etc. And now that I think about it, for me at least, it seems like so much of this album is about feeling endangered, feeling like there’s not a space for yourself, and trying to survive within that space.”

“The weird see-saw balance of all of this is that if you find a way to make a living off of your art, a lot of times you are making choices to compromise it to such a degree that it’s no longer spiritually fulfilling for you,” argues Greer. “You’re very lucky if you’re not asked to make those concessions, financially. So why do we only have this binary of two options where you can only make something that’s fulfilling for you, that you’re passionate about, or make a living have your soul sucked from you?”

But Priests are enduring. Actually, they’re thriving. In addition to going on tour in support of Nothing Feels Natural in February, they’ll hit SXSW in March and then visit Europe in May. That particular continent is, understandably, far more attractive to the group, politically speaking. “A lot of other countries have some other subsidy for the arts,” says Hulitz. “We played a really amazing venue in Amsterdam, it was maybe one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. It just looked like a little painted gnome house. It was completely government subsidized.”

“Everything’s better if you do it en mass,” says Daniele. “Just let the government tax everyone a little bit. But this government—this country’s so fucking whack. I have no faith in [Europe’s model] ever happening. I guess in the meantime, if you don’t want to live in a horrible fascistic world, support artists and expression.”