A Trip to the Alter with Priests
September 16, 2017
Priests, the D.C.-based foursome consisting of vocalist Katie Alice Greer, guitarist G.L. Jaguar, drummer Daniele Daniele, and bassist Taylor Mulitz, defy easy categorization. The band’s compelling, incendiary stagecraft was on full display at Basilica Hudson’s SoundStage (with Merchandise’s Carson Cox filling in for Taylor Mulitz on bass), a weekend of innovative and experimental music, visual art, and spoken word, plunked down in the county seat of Columbia County. Priests—whose debut album, Nothing Feels Natural, was released this year via the band’s own Sister Polygon Records—is imbued with a loud, take-no-prisoners musical ethos, but it’s an ethos that also references Portishead and Devo. The band, spawned from D.C.’s incubator of activist music, offers an ideological critique that goes significantly deeper than a visceral response to the rise of the execrable Donald J. Trump, encompassing trenchant observations of systemic inequities that predate the current know-nothing White House occupant.
Priests’s lyrical content, not surprisingly, is derived from a broad, literary context. “Lelia 20” pays homage to one of the protagonists of John Cassavetes’s groundbreaking Shadows (1959). Lelia is a young African-American woman who cruelly falls victim to the era’s unforgiving racial strictures: “You are alone, I said / You are alone, I said / the space engulfs your head.” The dysfunctional political landscape is aptly summarized in “Pink White House”: “Magical psychology, deceptive anthropology / All the wing nuts got a haircut, bred and had babies / A puppet show in which you’re made to feel you participate.” And there is the haunting, elegiac “Nothing Feels Natural”: “Perhaps I will change into something / swing wildly the other way / If I go without for days / will I finally hallucinate a real thing.”
Priests’ exposure to right-wing lunacy is anything but anecdotal: Daniele Daniele and Taylor Mulitz both worked at Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria/concert venue that figured prominently in one of an ever-growing number of wing-nut conspiracy theories: Hillary Clinton, it was said, kept a ring of child sex slaves on Comet Ping Pong’s very premises. Pizzagate, as it was dubbed, turned serious very quickly, as an armed avenger arrived on the scene and fired some shots.
While SoundStage was in full swing on this September weekend, the town of Hudson was host to another sort of performance in a nearby park, not more than a five-minute walk from Basilica Hudson: a full-fledged revival service, complete with scriptural exhortations and a call for “our” elected officials to profit from God’s wise stewardship. Musing on the political situation both here and abroad, guitarist G.L. Jaguar opined that “it’s just really a weird time to be alive.”
“There’s a political dimension to almost anything you want to talk about,” Katie Alice Greer says. “Everything has a political implication. Whether you’re making party rock or singing politically explicit songs . . . The irony is that someone who posits themselves or identifies as apolitical” is, in fact, expressing “the strongest political stance you can take, because you’re holding up the status quo. You are obviously hiding behind privilege and the fact that you don’t have to declare what you’re thinking about. People who are marginalized are forced to wear their politics.”
To Daniele Daniele—who comes from a grad-school background of pop-culture studies via Marxism, feminism, and Jean Baudrillard—“a lot of this discussion comes out of an environment where art has been commercialized; it’s been monetized.” She continues: “When we’re in a cynical era”—and this is nothing if not a hyper-cynical era—there’s an emergence of a “meta, self-aware type of ideology to entrance consumers.”
A substantial portion of Priests’ musical advocacy is devoted to Sister Polygon. The creation of their own record label stemmed, in part, from what Jaguar describes as D.C.’s intrinsic DIY musical ethic: “We have this band, let’s just record it! We’ll put out an album—why not? That’s how you do it.”
“The nice thing about doing it yourself,” according to Greer, “is not having to ask for permission,” sometimes figuring it out along the way. “Artists were willing to take a chance on us and us on them. We learned together as a community.”
Priests pay a price for their musical outreach. They are on the road for most of the year and are attempting to make themselves heard—literally and metaphorically—in an American society that does not, to put it mildly, exactly respect the artistic process. The band recently concluded a two-month European tour, playing most of their dates at government-subsidized venues, something that would be unthinkable here. But even where there is some sort of supportive nod toward art, there’s most likely some lurking profit motive. To G.L. Jaguar, “It’s really funny that a lot of major cities are like, ‘Oh, we’re going to give artists grants; we’re going to do this,’ but a lot of that’s just trying to attract marketing and people to their city.”
Political developments in the U.S.—akin to a mash-up of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here—are fast outstripping any parody or dystopian rendering. But parody and satire, of course, can be funny. Dystopian fiction can be disregarded. What is not funny—nor can it be disregarded—is that there is a contingent of the population who truly believed that at Hillary Clinton’s behest a sex slave ring was housed at a pizza parlor in the nation’s capital. What is not funny is that a sizable number of Americans feel that we are a short step away from the full-fledged imposition of Sharia, or that the nation is being overrun by crazed, homicidal Mexicans. These are not fictive constructs.
In the face of all this seemingly insurmountable irrationality, how do Priests keep going? “We’ve made music,” Greer says, “to build something that we’ve wanted to be a part of . . . [at] a time like this, when things seem really bleak, it becomes more personally important than ever.
“The simple answer is: You just keep making music.”