How D.C. Protest-Punks Priests Are Fighting Fascism on Their Own Terms

Quartet talks refining their sound on new debut LP 'Nothing Feels Natural,' searching for "a way forward" in a troubling age

Read how D.C.'s Priests went from No Wave–inspired noisemakers to one of America's most promising young punk bands. Credit: Audrey Melton

On Inauguration Day, mere blocks from where the processions and pageantry of the Freedom Ball unfolded, a very different kind of event (entitled No Thanks: A Night of Anti-Fascist Sounds) was going down in front of a sold-out crowd. Held at Washington, D.C.'s Black Cat, the show, which benefited Casa Ruby LGBT Community Center and ONE DC, featured acts such as Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz, the hardcore group Free Children of Earth and the fiery punk crew Priests, who delivered a blistering set of songs that one attendee described as "the set of a lifetime."

Katie Alice Greer, who fronts the D.C.-based Priests, and who also helped organize the show, says the mood was heavy, albeit positive that night. "We've all been talking about looking for a way forward, and the way forward is stuff like this," she told Rolling Stone on Saturday. "All of us coming together and giving the little bit that we can because our strength is in our numbers." Activism is sacred to Priests, both as a band and as individuals. Comprised of Greer on vocals, drummer Daniele Daniele, bassist Taylor Mulitz and guitarist G.L. Jaguar, the band forges jagged incantations that challenge norms ranging from the driving forces of capitalism to punk's own chest-beating macho traditions.

Despite their songs' outspoken stances, the members of Priests are the first to admit that they're not an explicitly political band. "Music is inherently political, everything is political," Greer says. "So to say that music is political is like saying music has sound. It's saying nothing." Still, the band's staunch DIY ethics make their own kind of statement. Priests have been been steadily operating within the underground for the better part of five years, mobilizing a coalition of fellow punk agitators including Downtown Boys and Sneaks on their label Sister Polygon, playing an exhaustive circuit of firebrand live shows and releasing a handful of tapes, the Bodies and Control and Money and Power EP and a 7-inch. Their first full-length, Nothing Feels Natural, arrives today, exactly a week after the inauguration. Like everything Priests have accomplished so far, its release is hard-won.

The night Rolling Stone first meets with Priests, over tea in frigid mid-December Brooklyn, is momentous too. They're in town to play a surprise headlining set at Alphaville, and that same evening, Greer is one of the many luminaries set to read at the marathon Housing Works event Art After Trump. It's also the four-year anniversary of their first show with Mulitz at cozy D.C. venue the Pinch. The band's roots date back to the end of 2011, when Daniele, who had moved to town to study for her graduate degree, met Greer at a show and the two decided to collaborate. They linked up with Greer's friend Jaguar, and began practicing in his parents' basement in the suburbs. Mulitz signed on after meeting Jaguar at the SPX comic-book expo in Maryland.

At first, Priests' unifying purpose was the desire to make music that sounded cheeky, bracing and intentionally non-musical: In short, like nothing else. "There's a documentary that came out around the time we started the band called Blank City, which talked about the No Wave music and film movement in the late Seventies and [early] Eighties," Jaguar says. "[In it] there's this great Lydia Lunch quote where she's just like, 'I don't know, man, you just play music like you're inventing the fucker!' and I'm like, 'Yeah, we should do that!'" Greer nods. "Bands that were teenage girls making noise, a lot of times that was really exciting and liberating to me," she says, citing groups like Finally Punk and Crazy Band. "Like, people who were not technically trained just ... freaking out, you know."

Early on, that freeform approach, which let Priests experiment with noise, space and dynamics, also led them to develop a confrontational reputation. They would appear onstage, blaze through their 10-minute set, and leap off the stage, leaving audiences breathless. "We were really excited about people not liking us," Greer laughs. "There was a lot of joy in antagonism early on. Like, 'Oh, people are going to freak out when they hear this – they think it's going to be so bad,'" Daniele says, "And we were like, 'If they don't like it, that means it's great.' We were just in that place. It was so liberating!"

But in 2014, when the band released Bodies and Control and Money and Power, suddenly, unexpectedly, the spotlight was on them. "It threw us off, because we were being talked about in the same way as these other people, but we were seeing them to continue to move forward in an upward trajectory where they were able to have it be financially sustainable," Mulitz says. "We were kind of expecting for someone to maybe be like, 'OK, cool, you did that thing people like – I want to be part of that or help you out.' And then when that didn't happen, we had to be like, 'Oh, OK, at least part of the reason why is that from the beginning we were like, "Fuck you!"'" Greer agrees. "We definitely had an attitude of, like, middle fingers up at everybody around us," she says. "Maybe to be funny but also maybe to be like, 'No, really, back off. This is our thing.'"

Priests then took matters into their own hands, and began asking the right questions about how to make playing in a band financially sustainable. Simultaneously, they began recording what would eventually become Nothing Feels Natural, a record whose creation Greer describes as "cursed." The band initially flew out to Olympia, Washington, to record the album, but the analog studio didn't fit with the ethos they were trying to capture this time around. "Bodies and Control, that was much more oriented at capturing a live energy," Mulitz says. "Whereas that was so not the end goal for Nothing Feels Natural." Upon returning to D.C., the group didn't feel excited by the songs, but were torn about how to proceed.

While Mulitz and Jaguar lobbied to re-record the album, Greer and Daniele were intent on releasing the songs from the Olympia session. Mulitz and Jaguar came forward with a compromise: They would re-record two songs that had been lost during recording. After those tracks were complete, they planted the idea of re-recording the album in full. "It felt like this insane, quixotic journey of 'we're never going to finish this record!' you know?" Greer says. "'This is never gonna come out, all of our jobs are terrible, all of our bosses are mad about how much work we've taken off, we have no money as a band, we have no money as individuals.' Like, 'We are just running this band into the ground.'" Eventually, after careful consideration, they reached an agreement. "The other thing that changed my opinion was sending people old recordings and new recordings," Daniele says. "People we really really trusted, who are close to us in our D.C. community, and people being like, 'Don't put these out.' Which is horrible to hear. That was on my 30th birthday, the day we threw out the old album and I cried at work."

But with the help of friends and collaborators, Priests were able to re-record Nothing Feels Natural in their hometown. It's the band's most self-assured and complex release to date, balancing anxiety and ebullience on the newfound funky swells of "Suck," and the demonic surf-stomp of lead single "JJ." Mulitz and Jaguar's chemistry has never been more apparent than on this album, particularly on the brisk, bouncing "Puff," with Mulitz and Daniele's rhythmic call-and-response acting as a terrifically strong backbone. The album also demonstrates that Greer's vocal talents go far beyond spry punk vocals. "I've lost my voice so many times on tour with this band because I've written these shouty punk lyrics or vocal parts, and so I definitely wanted to learn how to write parts that I still thought were cool but that were a little bit more singing-oriented," Greer says. Lyrically, Greer explores more abstract territory here, with words that are less didactic than those heard on earlier releases such as Tape Two. "All the wing nuts got a haircut, bred and had babies/A puppet show in which you're made to feel like you participate/Sign a letter, throw your shoe, vote for numbers one or two," Greer growls on the throbbing post-punk banger "Pink White House," just before she implores listeners to "consider the options of a binary."

Nothing Feels Natural also makes it plain that Priests are a highly visual band. For one thing, their reference points often stem from film rather than music: "Lelia 20" is named after a character in John Cassavetes' Shadows. And for a while, the band was calling the seething "Pink White House" "Airlock" instead. In Jaguar's words, "I was envisioning the scene in Alien when Sigourney Weaver is shooting the alien of out the airlock and how everything goes 'whoosh,'" he explains. "You know how space movies have that moment where the air pressure breaks?" Daniele adds. "It's like that."

While they've significantly experimented with form and sound on Nothing Feels Natural, Priests' defiant ethos remains intact. "We're still interrogating the same subject matter that we were on Bodies," Greer says. "It's digging a little bit deeper ... definitely pushing forward this idea that art is inherently political."

She continues, getting to the heart of Priests' protest-minded mission: "To suggest that art is superfluous to the well-being of a society is definitely to support fascism and a culture that doesn't support free expression and a diversity of ideas."