Jolie Maya Altshuler

Priests Rip It Up And Start Again

The D.C. punk band talks about its new album, ‘Nothing Feels Natural,’ and the fight to stay creative

In a darkened room at the Brooklyn Museum, a pair of lips moves across a glass plate, licking and sucking up a swirling pool of glitter and liquid candy. The image, from visual artist Marilyn Minter’s 2009 video “Green Pink Caviar,” is disgusting, but also sort of beautiful, as the disembodied mouth makes a psychedelic pattern of the pretty colors smeared onscreen.

“I love any mixture of hyperfeminine aesthetics and violent imagery,” Katie Alice Greer says. The 28-year-old singer and the other members of the Washington, D.C.–based punk act Priests are standing, transfixed, in the middle of Pretty/Dirty, the first major retrospective of Minter’s provocative four-decade career. The artist, whose photorealist paintings and videos often depict female bodies, food, and glitter in greasy, oddly sexual collision, is a favorite of the band: Greer mentions that they considered asking Minter to direct one of their videos but put the idea on the back burner when they heard she had already worked with Miley Cyrus. You can see something of her influence in the video that Greer directed this past fall for their new song, “Pink White House,” in which the fancifully dressed band dines on a robust, colorful meal in a field before devolving into a grotesque food fight, interspersed throughout with disturbing parodies of commercials and exercise videos.

Walking through the museum on a chilly December day, Greer and her bandmates — guitarist G.L. Jaguar, 29; bassist Taylor Mulitz, 25; and drummer Daniele Daniele, 30 — connect to Minter’s bright, large-scale artworks. They sit, rapt, through video pieces like “Smash” in their entirety and talk seriously about the labor put into each fingerprint-covered painting: “Every plaque has to emphasize she made these with her hands to legitimize her work as a woman artist,” Daniele says. Since Priests came together in D.C.’s downtown punk scene in 2011, their snarly, restless music has brimmed with angst toward right-wing American politics, sexism, and capitalist machines of all kinds. They started a small, rigorously DIY label that they run out of their apartments — Sister Polygon, which has released music by some of punk’s best new acts, including Downtown Boys, Pinkwash, and Sneaks — and they make an effort to play noncorporate venues.

Minter’s ability to produce subversive, political work while also placing art in popular spaces, including collaborations with Playboy, Tom Ford, and even MTV, speaks to the band’s ethics. “It’s fascinating to see someone like that who was actively courting commercial mediums, because that’s something I’ve always loved about making music,” Greer says later, when the band has settled in for a meal of pancakes and burgers at a nearby diner. “We’re making music, hoping it’s catchy and that people will have fun. But then how do you ride that line where you’re making something that’s truthful to you and feels like you’re interrogating something?”

Priests’ music has always been invigoratingly interrogational, challenging listeners to question their environments in direct, unpretentious ways. Their live performances are exceptional, feeling like feverish, soulful sermons as Greer writhes onstage in unapologetically femme getups. Their songs often seem born from a pressing desire to find a different blueprint from what the world has offered. “Consider the options of a binary!” Greer chants on “Pink White House,” echoing past tracks like 2014’s “And Breeding” and “Design Within Reach,” on which she sings of figuring out a way to live as a woman, and as an artist, outside the norm. “I’m trying to understand / Trying to explode the upper hand,” Greer sings on “And Breeding,” “Trying to procreate without / Fucking and breeding, fucking and breeding, fucking and breeding, fucking and breeding!” Priests don’t have all the answers — they prefer to look into more questions, more opportunities to scream and play out against the abuses of the world. And, of course, you’re invited to do so too.

Next week, after a series of tapes and EPs, Priests are finally releasing a proper full-length album, with the evocative title Nothing Feels Natural — their latest and greatest attempt to make something truthful in an age when independent musicians are struggling just to survive off their work. When the group began to piece together the album in 2014 after an exhausting U.S. tour of over 80 shows (plus a van breakdown), they were in a weird place. “A lot of us were very burnt out,” Daniele says. “We were trying so hard to have this band make it. And then we were like, ‘OK, we made it, but we still have no money!’” While they had released their breakthrough 2014 EP, Bodies and Control and Money and Power, on Don Giovanni, a small, New Jersey–based label that has released music by Screaming Females, Mitski, and others, this time they decided to release their new album on Sister Polygon, simply because they didn’t want to answer to anyone but themselves. Each member was working a part-time service job, which made for a difficult writing and practicing schedule. Greer was living full-time on Jaguar’s couch and, she says, “nosediving into depression.”

“There was a really sad moment playing this show in Phoenix at a fake-ass tiki bar,” Jaguar recalls. “The band playing after us were some dudes in diapers, and we were all sitting there like, What the fuck are we doing?

“At one point we were literally considering stealing an Eames chair we saw in the corner, because we didn’t know what it was worth,” Daniele says, giggling. “We were like, ‘We can sell that!’”

The release of their Bodies EP and the following hectic tour changed how Priests saw their future as a working band. “After Bodies came out, I didn’t really see a path for us to make a living doing this, but I also didn’t see another path that was working,” Greer says. “Like, cool, working in this restaurant is crushing me spiritually, and I see ways that I could become a professionally creative person — but what that entails squeezes all the life out of what I want to do most times.”

Nothing Feels Natural is an impressive product of that realization, a snapshot of a band figuring out how to be creative in an industry that doesn’t necessarily sustain it. There’s a weariness to this music that feels new. “This record isn’t very shouty,” Greer says. “I was trying to figure out a way to convey sadness, because I’ve often been too embarrassed to write songs from an emotional place like this before. It was a challenge for me to get parts of myself out that didn’t seem like the narrow identity of the band.”

For most of their career, Priests have been labeled a political punk band, undoubtedly because of the frank lyrics of their previous records which have called out doctors, politicians, misogynist creeps, and more. There is still some of that on Nothing Feels Natural, as the group fires a surrealist diatribe against the American dream on “Pink White House” or calls out right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the industrial-leaning “Puff.” But much of Priests’ new album works on a smaller plane, examining the universal theme of how bad people can hurt you in more nuanced, insidious ways.

“I wrote a bunch of songs for you / But you never knew and you never deserved them / Whoever deserves anything anyway? / What a stupid concept,” Greer declares at the end of the twangy, confrontational “JJ,” a deranged-sounding piano banging underneath. Throughout Nothing Feels Natural, the band takes issue with nameless social-climbers and dishonesty while also reflecting on how to maintain a coherent sense of self. On the spoken-word “No Big Bang,” Daniele likens the creative process to a rocket moving through space, though one that can often feel like a prison. “No time passing, no gravity,” she recites. “Just the weight of my own insignificance, my foolishness, and my hubris.”

Whereas Bodies was full of songs meant to play great in a live setting, their sound on Nothing Feels Natural has shifted to something more layered, with contributions from cellist Janel Leppin and saxophonist Luke Stewart. Lush with reverbed guitar riffs and Greer’s expanded, gorgeous vocals, songs like “Nothing Feels Natural” and “Lelia 20” have more in common with dream pop than the sort of jerky punk Priests are known for. A newfound softness to Greer’s vocals was both a practical approach — turns out screaming every night on tour can hurt your voice — and personal. “Being a performer, you’re always objectifying yourself every time you’re on a stage,” Greer says, citing a stage presence that began to feel “bratty and immature.” “There are specific things people expect from you, and then at some point, you feel, This me isn’t me anymore.”

Another way their sound has evolved: During the recording process for the new album, Priests got a cover-band gig for a friend’s wedding, expanding their repertoire with covers of “My Sharona” and “Be My Baby,” all immortalized on a bootleg tape the band made. “If you want us for your wedding, bar mitzvah, any event —” Jaguar begins to say. “Don’t ask us, because we’ll never come out with another album!” Mulitz adds.

As Sister Polygon boosts artists like Downtown Boys and Sneaks to bigger indie labels and Priests gain more of a spotlight, the band and its members have become a highly visible part of the capital city’s punk scene. They say the tight-knit nature of the community keeps them grounded. “D.C. musicians are lifetime musicians,” Jaguar says. “You start when you’re 15 and you keep playing into your fifties.”

Right now, Priests are trying to use the platform they have to help their fellow D.C. musicians, especially in light of the threats to free expression, health care for women, and rights for LGBTQ people under a Trump administration. The scary realities of the new national mood hit close to home for the band last month, when a shooter inspired by the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory targeted Comet Ping Pong — a D.C. restaurant and music venue where Priests and other Sister Polygon artists have performed, and which is located down the street from two band members’ day jobs. “There’s an armed guard outside where I work now,” Daniele says. “I can’t go in until there’s an armed person outside with a gun.”

Mulitz, too, mentions reading conspiracy-filled comment sections on news stories about the deadly fire at an Oakland DIY venue Ghost Ship this December, which affected people the band knows personally: “It’s terrible to see a tragedy like that be used as fuel for that sort of vitriolic hatred.”

Tomorrow, on inauguration night, Priests are hosting a protest concert titled “No Thanks: A Night of Anti-Fascist Sounds,” featuring artists including Sadie Dupuis and Waxahatchee, with proceeds going to charitable causes. “My politics are built into the way I live my life, and for me, being a part of something that is community-minded is a political choice,” Greer says. “It’s rewarding to create a community and camaraderie, especially right now with all the depressing shit we’re all facing.”

That’s something that they say won’t change, no matter what the next four years bring. “At this point, I am trying to be a working musician in a way that makes sense for me,” Greer says. “A couple years ago, I wasn’t sure that’s even what I wanted, because I didn’t want to change or compromise things. Now I feel so very confident in what we’re doing that I’m not worrying so much about being crushed by the machine.”