Backstage at a club in Sheffield, England, Priests singer Katie Alice Greer and guitarist G.L. Jaguar were arguing at the top of their lungs about the future of their band. It was the fall of 2017, and they had just started a European tour that was rapidly unraveling. “Gideon and I got into a screaming match that ended in me vowing that we would not play in a band together anymore,” Greer recalls. “We finished another week and a half of the tour not speaking to each other. It was very VH1 Behind the Music.”
Confrontational anger has always been a driving force in the music that Greer, Jaguar and drummer Daniele Daniele make together as Priests. That hot, furious energy animated the Washington, D.C., band’s 2014 breakthrough EP, Bodies and Control and Money and Power, and it coursed through the difficult sessions for their 2017 full-length debut, Nothing Feels Natural. Now it was spilling out into their lives, louder than ever.
More than a year later, the three members of Priests are gathered for breakfast at an IHOP near New York’s Union Square, very much together and with a new album to talk about. The Seduction of Kansas, released last week on the band’s own Sister Polygon Records, reinvents the entire idea of Priests, finding bold new ways of expressing their rage against soulless consumerism and empty empire. It’s an LP full of disco ghosts and subtle threats, sideways glances and radical moves. There are echoes of New Wave and hints of ’80s post-punk; on the late-album highlight “Carol,” they sink slowly into dark, dreamy ambience, letting instruments fall away until they sound like another band altogether. They still seem a little shocked that it all worked.
“This record was maybe even harder to make than the last one,” Greer says as they wait for their pancakes and omelets to arrive. “[Nothing Feels Natural] was a can of worms. This one was like, you wake up and suddenly worms are raining from the sky, and you’re like, ‘Is it the plague? Is the world ending?'”
“Cloudy with a chance of meatballs,” Jaguar offers from across the restaurant booth.
“It’s like the beginning of that Tina Turner song: ‘We never, ever do nothing nice and easy,'” Greer says. “That’s Priests.”
The reasons for the fight that almost ended Priests were complicated, but most of them can be traced back to founding bassist Taylor Mulitz’s departure from the band in the summer of 2017. Mulitz played a key role in developing Priests’ early sound and aesthetic before leaving to focus on his other band, Flasher. (“It was really hard to have to choose,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “They’re my second family.”)
While the split was amicable — Mulitz still helps run Sister Polygon, and he designed the cover art for The Seduction of Kansas in a gesture of goodwill — that didn’t make it less painful. “Taylor wanted very much to figure out how to make it work,” Greer says. “I think we all wanted to make it work, but I was so scared of the band falling apart.”
Rather than sorting out the emotional aftermath, Priests headed straight into more touring with friends filling in on bass. “I was like, ‘I see why Taylor has to go. I respect his decision. Rock on, my dude,'” Daniele says. “I think it would’ve been so obvious to anyone watching us: Maybe you’re working hard so you don’t have to face the fact that you feel very sad and hurt right now.”
But by the time they got to the U.K., Jaguar was having doubts about how quickly they were moving on. “I’m constantly, as a person, having Larry David moments,” he says. “Like, ‘You stupid idiots! Why are you doing things this way? What the fuck?’ I’m not saying my bandmates are stupid idiots, but …”
“Those were your feelings in the moment,” Greer says calmly.
“I was like, ‘Fuck this. I’m flying home,'” Jaguar says.
Their driver convinced him to stay on the tour, and when they got home to the States, the three old friends went to band therapy. Ultimately, Jaguar says, “I didn’t want to go back to walking dogs.”
They were back in motion by early 2018, meeting four or five times a week at a practice space or in Greer’s basement to work on the new songs that she and Daniele had been demoing after teaching themselves to use Logic recording software. Around the same time, they invited cellist Janel Leppin to help co-write and play bass on the new material.
“I had to relearn how to play guitar, because Taylor and I had a way we locked in instrumentally,” Jaguar says. “It was like starting again from scratch. That ‘rip it up and start again’ mentality.”
“I probably would’ve given up,” Daniele adds. “It was Katie who said, ‘I’ve seen you play a million other instruments, why can’t you just compose on something different? Why can’t we all just step up our game?’ As much as it was scary, it was also exciting to have someone tell me that.”
Last September, they went to Dallas to meet with producer John Congleton — their first time ever recording with someone outside their tight-knit D.C. circle. For Greer, it was a chance to team up with someone whose work with St. Vincent and others she’d admired. (“I probably listened to Actor 900 times in 2018,” she says.) It was also a chance for everyone in the band to push themselves creatively, with no guarantee of what they’d find on the other side.
“Our manager told us afterwards, ‘I’m so glad that this worked out. I genuinely wasn’t sure that you guys were going to come back with a record,'” Greer says.
“People gravitate away from calling something a rock band because it seems uncool. Maybe it seems uncool because the only people grabbing that mantle are Imagine Dragons.”
They spent about two weeks in Dallas, broadening their sound to the point that a fact sheet distributed to the press this spring notes a formal shift in genre: “Please, it is no longer accurate to refer to us as a punk band, we feel it does a disservice to our songwriting and also to underground artists intentionally operating with this ethos.”
At IHOP, Daniele emphasizes the second part of that rationale. “Are you really a punk band if you have a publicist? Are you really a punk band if you’re pressing the quantities [of records] that we are?” she asks. “It’s kind of like when Panera says that it has artisanal bread. Fuck you! This isn’t artisanal, it’s mass-produced!”
“That bread is microwaved,” Jaguar deadpans.
“We were a punk band, in my opinion, when we started with $200, making tapes by hand,” Daniele continues. “But I don’t want [punk] to be a marketing strategy, because that devalues something that I love very much.”
Greer nods. “We’re a rock band,” she says. “Just call us that. People gravitate away from calling something a rock band because it seems uncool. Maybe it seems uncool because the only people grabbing that mantle are Imagine Dragons.”
Because Priests run their own label, creative risks almost always entail corresponding financial ones. “When I saw how much money we spent making the album, I was like, ‘This better be the best thing ever!'” says Daniele, who is the band’s designated “money person” thanks in part to her background at an environmental non-profit. “I don’t think we did anything irresponsible, but I’ve never been in this much debt before, personally or business-wise.”
“Most likely we’ll be doing fine in six months,” Greer says. “But nothing about running a record label is a smart business plan.”
Since founding Sister Polygon in 2012, Priests have helped launch the careers of some of the D.C. area’s best and brightest voices — many of whom have since graduated to more established indie labels. Snail Mail released an EP with Sister Polygon two years before making one of 2018’s most celebrated debuts for Matador Records. Downtown Boys, Flasher and Sneaks have followed similar paths to deals with Sub Pop, Domino and Merge respectively, as has Daniele’s groove-oriented band Gauche, who have an excellent debut LP coming out soon on Merge.
And Priests themselves? “One of the paradoxes is that I want our band to be the biggest band in the world that we can possibly be,” Greer says. “It would be sweet if we could play in stadiums! It’s a fun, frustrating puzzle: How do we push it forward, both as a business and creatively, without having to cede ground?”
With each release, Priests have yielded a few more inches to the music industry. Bodies and Control and Money and Power was a split release with New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records; Nothing Feels Natural was distributed through storied D.C. punk stronghold Dischord Records. For The Seduction of Kansas, Sister Polygon has partnered with Secretly Distribution, giving them access to a large warehouse in the Midwest that makes it easier to get the record into Priests fans’ hands.
This spring, they’re playing clubs and theaters across America, bringing the new Priests to the people with help from touring bassist Alexandra Tyson. They’ve been talking about bringing a sampler on tour to help capture the album’s unique sounds, and they’re dreaming even bigger than that. “Hopefully it will get to a point where we can be like Talking Heads and get cool people to back us up — keyboards, auxiliary percussion, all kinds of things,” says Jaguar.
“Maybe in the future,” Greer says. “For right now, our big business ambitions are just to make this sustainable. We would like to have this be a job that we are getting a reasonable paycheck for, and that’s not always consistently the case yet. But we’re getting there.”