Priests: Action Now
“Every single time we say, ‘Oh, we’re so tired of talking about politics.’” Katie Alice Greer laughs, rolling her eyes. “But we feel really passionate about it, so we end up here…”
It’s a chilly Friday evening and Greer’s sat on the roof terrace at Manchester’s Deaf Institute, joined by bandmates Daniele Daniele (drums) and GL Jaguar (guitar). Bassist Taylor Mulitz is found later, cheerfully running the merch stall. Based in Washington D.C., they have been a band for roughly five years; soon after they started making thoughtful, abrasive punk rock, they founded their label, Sister Polygon. Priests navigate the music industry with a healthy distrust, and their community is clued-up and anti-commercial, believing in the power of music for music’s sake.
It’s no surprise that people love to ask Priests about politics. Their debut album Nothing Feels Natural was released the same week that Donald Trump was sworn into office, and the coincidence exasperated them. Priests are angry, yes, but they aren’t prophetic: the inequalities, corporate greed and under-representation that they write about has been present in America for far longer than Trump’s tenure in the White House. “We worked on these songs for years,” Greer explains, “and understandably everything that people were talking about was tied to Trump taking office.”
“Our Western culture really devalues art in and of itself – we don’t consider artists unless we have sculpted an easily digestible narrative around them”
“The problem is when that’s the lens that’s used to look at our album,” Daniele adds, “because that wasn’t the view from which it was made.”
“And it’s not like things were great before, with Obama,” Jaguar reminds us. “You know the saying, the old boss is the same as the new boss? Unfortunately the new boss is exponentially worse. I can understand that Hillary Clinton [was] a terrible candidate, but if your options are a warmonger or a liar? Take your pick.” He pauses. “But this really digresses from the album!”
On the song Pink White House – one of the many highlights of Nothing Feels Natural – Priests tear apart America’s flawed two-party system.“Anything you want/ Anyone you want!” Greer chants, saccharine as a cheerleader, before taking a sledgehammer to the American dream’s illusion of freedom: “Sign a letter, throw your shoe/ Vote for numbers one or two.” The song derails itself several times over, Daniele’s drums pinning the chaos down just enough, gathering pace as Jaguar’s guitar and Mulitz’s bass spiral toward a ferocious finale.
Nothing Feels Natural was possibly Sister Polygon’s biggest release, and running the label successfully requires a great deal of trust in each other. “There’s no paperwork,” Greer explains. Daniele nods. “You have to have faith that everyone is working as hard as you are.”
“Running a label is really stressful But the industry is incredibly fucked up, and I don't want some man owning my music”
Juggling the label while managing their own lengthy US/EU tour was an ambitious task, Priests acknowledge; now that they’re back home they can better focus on Sister Polygon’s 2018 calendar. “It is really stressful,” Greer says. “But the industry is incredibly fucked up, and I don’t want some man owning my music. I am so proud that we own our own shit.”
Their frankness has led to Priests being praised as a band with capital-M morals. A non-corporate approach and eloquent political lyrics help bolster this reputation, but they refute it. Or, more specifically, they find it contradictory to boast about conducting yourself with decency. “You should lead by example, but you shouldn’t be bragging about it,” says Jaguar.
“You’ve got to take your ego out of it,” Daniele agrees. “There’s a certain currency to the virtue signalling of ‘I am moral’ and I think a lot of those words are divorced from peoples’ actions. If you have a diverse roster and you make sure your artists are adequately compensated, awesome. That should show up in your operations, and if other people want to talk about it, fine.”
For Greer, this kind of performative positive action ties in with the dubious theory that tough times make better art, or that music should be judged by its contemporary relevance. “I’ve been thinking lately how our Western culture really devalues art in and of itself – we don’t consider artists unless we have sculpted an easily digestible narrative around them. Or your music is not ‘valuable’ unless you’re an educator about systemic infrastructure or injustice. What else is your music being used for? Why can’t we just think something is beautiful? These things are harder to talk about.”
So instead, they back up their politics with action: their US tour raised almost $11,500 for Casa Ruby, a bilingual charity which assists vulnerable people in DC’s LGBTQ community. Greer actively ensures that the atmosphere at their shows is inclusive, and Manchester’s audience applaud when she calls for consideration. “Think about how much space you’re taking up,” she urges one extremely vigorous dancer. A week after our interview, at a show in The Hague, she responds to another incident via Twitter. Her statement describes how, in six years, she has “lost count of how many times I’ve been heckled by men.”
That night the Deaf Institute is a warm, welcoming place. Opening musician No Home, aka Charlie Joseph, plays her first ever show to a packed room, whilst Priests whoop encouragement from the sidelines. Joseph’s zine Hungry and Undervalued is stacked on the merch stand, next to tote bags promoting Spark Mag – the cultural-political site run by Joey DeFrancesco and Victoria Ruiz of incendiary punk band Downtown Boys, who’ve often shared a tour with Priests. They’re alumni of Sister Polygon, and the two bands have a long friendship. Ruiz takes a second to acknowledge this, announcing to an enthusiastic crowd: “Priests have allowed so many bands to bloom and blossom, so that we can protect our energy and we can fight the right fights.”
As independent artists continue to struggle in the era of streaming and the industry battles a wave of sexual assault allegations, it’s clear that we all need to reassess how we participate in the scenes that we love. Priests’ work is an antidote to a frenetic, consumerist music culture, and the clickbait rush to brand a band as timely. They’re here to show you, rather than tell you, that your choices are always political – and that’s an attitude we’ll need to get through this new year.
Photography: Eleanor Hardwick