The playwright Oscar Wilde was a quotable fellow, and the realest sentence he ever uttered might have been about power. “Everything in the world is about sex except sex,” he wrote. “Sex is about power.” It's true that power dynamics drive everything, from governments, to workplace politics, to kickball leagues. Even the most morally conscious and seemingly inclusive communities—punk included—can be privy to the very same kinds of political underpinnings.
Which brings us to the chaos-preaching quartet Priests. Since their inception in 2011, the group's minimalist surf-punk thrashes have been bristling within the very city where political power dynamics are consistently romanticized in television dramas: the ivory city of Washington, D.C. The band—comprised of singer Katie Alice Greer, guitarist G.L. Jaguar, drummer Daniele Daniele, and bassist Taylor Mulitz—is often mistaken for a purely political punk group. Sure, they have a pop-punk gem entitled “Right Wing” and are interested in the dynamics that drive their city's infrastructure, but the group is all about expressing the complexities that lie beyond surface glimpses.
“We're a band. We communicate. Sometimes we're talking about politics, sex, sometimes both, but our subject matter is always changing,” explains Katie, the band's charismatic vocalist. “It's weird to just be singled out as a political band. We just have a band, and ideas.”
Priests explored musical dynamics on their unapologetic 7”—which Daniele hand-screened—and on a series of self-released tapes. Amplified feelings of anxiety, abandon, and tension (sexual and otherwise) gristle against each other on the band's latest record Bodies and Control and Money and Power, their most high-profile release to date. A joint split between their label Sister Polygon and New Jersey's Don Giovanni, the EP is seventeen minutes and twenty-seven seconds of ear-splitting enlightenment.
“The record is embedded with a lot of like, paranoia,” comments Taylor. “And not only in the lyrics but in the way we're playing. A lot of it is really herky jerky weird-sexy. I think that we feel in the world.” Katie agrees, and mentions that the French phrase l'esprit de l'escalier—in other words, thinking of the right comeback just as you've walked away from the conversation—also informed much of the record. Somewhere, Oscar Wilde is beaming that mischievous smile.
Musically, the record is a seething and beautiful thing. The banshee stomp of “New” could resemble a Cramps b-side, but it's entrenched by Greer's inflection of the word “new” that sounds eerily like “no,” a fierce proclamation against capitalism as well as a culture constantly instructed to say yes—to love, to the dress, to a notion of false happiness. “Doctor” takes a stab at critiquing our culture of pathologization, and given the ample mental health stigmas in our society becoming more and more prescient, is a particularly sobering listen. The bounciest song on the record, “Right Wing”, is a double-edged critique on being, resources and the patriarchy.
“The chorus ‘I’m not trying to be anything,’ is about just existing—but I was also trying to a write an outline of the conservative patriarchy we live in,” explains Katie, “and how maybe it's a really bad thing that we don't live in a culture where we try to be things because we don't have the resources to, or because it's looked down upon, or because it's untrue or fake.”
Here, resources and space are contested things. Places to press records are few and far between; performance and practice spaces are limited. Originally, we were going to meet at the band's practice space, which doubles as a sawdust-laden storage area for infomercial and Shakespearean play costumes. Located in the residential Takoma Park neighborhood, the space is owned by Fugazi's Brendan Canty, who rents it out to the band. It's a far hike north, but thankfully it exists.
We're sitting outside an upscale taco joint instead, right next to a bubbling fountain. It's a gusty Wednesday. Katie shares her guacamole and chips with the group, while Jaguar and Daniele snack on tacos. Taylor and I sip on iced teas. The five of us sit in a circle of metallic chairs, and over the next hour the conversation veers into underrated Britney Spears records (Taylor is big on Blackout), strange Internet findings (an MS Paint version of Blink-182's Dude Ranch), and what kind of relationship the band exemplifies (at this stage Priests are totally into each other right now, having good sex, doing well in their own lives but also why do you chew so loud?).
“It's been really fun to watch the musical relationship grow—I love hearing what G.L. and Taylor come up with,” says Katie. “I think our dynamic is different than other standard rock bands setups. A lot of time the bass trails or complements the guitar lead, but the two of them have a really interesting conversation musically and play off each other in a really dynamic way.”
The conversation at present also gets quite deep, as we all dissect the disturbing mirrors between the punk world and capitalism, the obsession with creating musical authenticity and whether the cost of living in D.C. is even sustainable at all for young punk and hardcore bands to make movements, Priests included. When speaking, all four members of Priests listen attentively to each other before speaking eloquently on their own. They make eye contact with each other, nod and ask follow-up questions, emphatically building on each other's words in order to create productive discussion. You get the sense that this is how the band's practices must be, too: a lively discussion that predates language, an attentiveness to body language and improvisation, rhythm converging with melody in unforeseen ways.
Fried fish and stray chatter sticks in the air outside the taco joint. We're just off 14th Street, where D.C.'s nu-restaurateurs and art gallery roam and flirt and play. The once-impoverished area has seen astonishing growth, especially over the past five years; the mom-and-pop bars are gradually being demolished for mixology cocktail bars, high-end organic markets, careful boutiques.
Washington, D.C. is a place that consistently paves over and over itself again. This isn't just in relation to physical spaces (or lack thereof), but people as well. The city itself is less a foundation and more a transient entity, where the majority of stays are denoted with expiration dates, the population surging during the daytime and depleting by sundown as the hill-dwellers retreat to Virginia's climb of thick trees, sprawling Maryland.
Understandably, it's difficult to create a scene with deep roots in a place like this. In the '80s and '90s Fugazi struck dissonant chords by using their disillusionment to create something productive, not to mention inclusive. Inclusive spaces for the DIY community including Gold Leaf Studios, Fight Club, and Subterranean A are just a handful of the places that shuttered. Shows at current spaces like Rocketship and The Dugout are swept with the prevailing sense that, at any moment, they might be shut down for a noise ordinance or violation of some kind. The D.C. artistic community is privy to neighbors, the city's limited resources and individuals fighting to keep this alive.
But if it's so rough to find resources, there has to be something sacred about the city to Priests. What keeps this group of artists here?
G.L., who grew up in the area, thinks for a second before mentioning that positive movements are happening at this point in time, some not exclusive to Priests' own work: “There are a lot of really good things happening right now. Really young hardcore bands. Everything in a lot of ways feels fragmented, but there's a lot of crossover.”
“I feel like you really have to reach out and make connections to other people to figure out how to make stuff, how to make a 7″ or cassettes and stuff,” adds Daniele, nodding in unison, speaking rapid-fire. “People are here are really open about that knowledge and sharing resources.”
Greer comments as much: “Sometimes I feel like because it is so expensive here and because the resources are slim it almost makes people that much more invested in what they're doing. You don't have time to just fuck around, so you have to try harder to make things happen.”
The culture of sharing is what creates scenes, from zine to no wave, a period of time in New York that is of particular interest to Priests. Katie tells me she's been recently reading Marc Masters' book, No Wave, as well as Lydia Lunch's diary.
“They were living in bombed out buildings in the land no one wants in NYC and sometimes I feel like I'm inhabiting the life none of my peers want in a certain way—not in the making music way, I think it's very fun and cool—but in order to do that, we have to have weird jobs that are not respected, that are tenuous, usually part time. Being homeless all the time, with touring,” explains Daniele.
Despite the struggles of living within an expensive city, the band is genuinely psyched about the work they have been able to produce with limited resources. They speak excitedly about Bodies and Control and Money and Power, gushing about listening to it on their own and putting it into the big rooms.
“We've had recordings in the past that were good, but it didn't quite capture what we felt was the energy of performing live. I'm super happy with how these recordings sound, I listen to them on my own all the time,” says Taylor. The record listens as a triumph, and hearing them speak about it makes it all the more so.
“Musically I think it's a confident lashing out, a pent up energy of ugh!” exclaims Daniele. “We're getting to the point as a band where we were feeling confident and were sick of people giving us shit so it was like here!”
Priests are already thinking ahead to their next release, and have been recording new songs. As for what that might be, the only indications are a mention from Daniele about G.L. coming up with “the sickest riff the other day” and Katie's interest in playing with vocal effects. “I'm interested in my voice as an instrument in the future, not that I feel 100% comfortable with it all the time, but I'd rather put that out there for people to hear and to own than rather than to bury or obscure it.”
Honest and open discussions, as well as confrontation without the conflict are what Priests preach. The transparency and no-bullshit approach to music, conversation and life is a large reason why it's been wonderful to watch them rise in popularity and prominence, profiled in the likes of Washington City Paper, Pitchfork, and elsewhere on the blogosphere. Still, Katie bristles when I bring up the word “community” in relation to their impact on punk, especially online in places like Fvck the Media and given their own engagement with fans on their band Tumblr.
“In my own personal experience, I don't see the Internet as a place where community can be created itself,” she says. “I don't even know if community is a word I believe in necessarily, but if it exists it needs a real world nucleus. You need to see other people and have a reason to be together.” Pausing, she adds: “The Internet can be useful for connecting with people on an individual level, or keeping in touch with someone, or having a dialogue…”
Taylor disagrees, mentioning that building online communities could be a form of escapism. They mention religiously going on band forums as a teenager and, even without engaging, feeling a strong sense of community.
Nodding, Katie counters: “That was a personal experience for you, I'm not sure that would count as like the community that you felt was an internal thing.”
“But if you're saying you don't know that a real community exists and nothing actually exists, the community's in your mind man!” grins Taylor.
“That's the thing about Priests,” Katie says, turning to me with a wry smile. “We don't actually know if anything exists.”