Priests: the punk group caught up in Trump politics and Pizzagate

Other artists would love to be the poster band for anti-Trump alienation, but the DC quartet want debut album Nothing Feels Natural to represent more

Priests have a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time. In January, the week after Donald Trumps inauguration, the Washington DC four-piece released their appropriately titled debut album, Nothing Feels Natural, a boisterous rampage through surf rock, savage cheerleader chants and dystopian murk.

Critics were quick to link the bands alienation-obsessed lyrics to the foreboding political climate, even though Priests started working on the album in 2014, when the idea of a Trump presidency was just a bad joke.

The response left the band frustrated. The state of the world is troubling to say the least, and deeply disturbing to say the most, says singer Katie Alice Greer, calling from a tour stop in Glasgow. No matter who is president of the United States, that will probably always inform what were thinking about ideologically.

Closer to home, Priests were directly caught up in Pizzagate, the absurd conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child abuse ring run from the basement of a DC pizza parlour called Comet Ping Pong. Last December, an armed man arrived at the restaurant and fired three shots in an attempt to liberate the non-existent children. Priests drummer Daniele Daniele and bassist Taylor Mulitz work at Comet, which doubles as a popular DIY music venue (the Breeders Kelley Deal played recently).

Watch the video for Pink White House.

On the day of the shooting, the band (completed by guitarist GL Jaguar) drove Daniele to work to find a police barricade surrounding the building. They werent surprised to hear about the attack for months, staff had been fielding obscene calls from frothing alt-right fanatics. It really made me lose faith a little bit in the ability to have a discourse with somebody that disagrees with you, says Daniele. When people called, you could hear in their voices that they really hated us, they thought we were terrible. Sometimes I would try to explain [the truth], but they always had a comeback about how we were being deceitful or why that couldnt be true.

Mulitz recalls meeting a fan at a show in Arkansas who insisted that the conspiracy could be true. I told him, we can tell you first-hand, we work there, its not true. We kept having this conversation with him, and he actually said: I dont know I mean, is the Earth flat or round? I was like: The Earth is round! These are the people were up against. Theres no sense of facts or reality, and at a certain point you have to throw your hands up and walk away.

You realise how much belief precedes knowledge, Daniele continues. If you really believe something, nobody can talk you out of it. And that was scary and very disheartening.

More opportunistic bands would kill for this kind of headline-grabbing synchronicity, which is precisely why Priests hate it. Prior to Nothing Feels Natural, the group had released a few cassettes, a single and an EP. They used to be more polemical USA (Incantations) from 2013s Tape Two is a sardonic speech about how the US constitution is rigged in favour of white, male property owners. But Nothing Feels Natural is less brash and more insular, swapping sloganeering for fraught dilemmas about the effect of capitalism on personal identity: I thought I was a cowboy because I smoked Reds, Greer wails on JJ. She jokes that shes a better lyricist these days, but Daniele sees their change in approach as a direct reaction to modern punk marketing. We never wanted to be didactic, she says. I think didactic art is propaganda but we were willing to be polemical then because it felt like a moment where taking an ethical stance felt like going against the grain a little. But then, around 2014, it felt like the commodification of punk re-emerged and bands were selling feminism, selling activism.

Were making something thats not simply product … Priests: (clockwise from top right) Katie Alice Greer, Taylor Mulitz, Daniele Daniele, GL Jaguar. Photograph: Audrey Melton

With Nothing Feels Natural, Priests wanted to expand the way that fans and critics thought about them, showing they were more than just a political punk band. Inspired by bands such as Devo, Black Flag, Portishead and Fugazi, their aim is to stir somebodys consciousness, says Daniele. Greer continues: Art in culture is so often disrespected. Everything that Daniele is talking about is our way of communicating our respect for art, and how integral we think it is to culture in a healthy society. Were trying to make something thats not simply product, or easily digestible.

If that sounds self-serious, Priests are quick to describe themselves as the anti-purity band, as Daniele puts it. Purity and perfection are ideals that are incredibly damaging and we would like to distance ourselves from them as much as possible. They also have a biting sense of humour. The lurid video for Pink White House ends in a well-dressed food fight; in 2013, they kicked back at Doc Martens sponsoring one of their New York gigs by throwing burritos into the crowd. Priests used to struggle with the balance between creativity and commerce, but these days they accept that many bands at their level wouldnt be able to exist without corporate sponsorship. For Daniele, taking money from big companies lets those companies refocus lavish resources in a more acceptable direction. It feels like an easy answer to just say no and not think about it, she says. But to actually engage with the systems that control the world and challenge yourself to do it in a way that youre OK with seems more ethical, weirdly.

Unsurprisingly, they think the concept of selling out is meaningless. Its completely obsolete, says Greer. Its a social construct made from privilege that when art doesnt make money its somehow more special or important or pure or intellectual, and when it does make money its corrupted somehow. Thats idiotic. Its a horrible romanticisation that leads people to starve, figuratively and literally. Jaguar references David Lynchs book on creativity, Catching the Big Fish. He has a whole spiel in there about how, if youre miserable all the time, youre not going to be able to create, he says. Its all part of the bigger system to be a functional human being.

What is important to Priests, though, is artistic integrity. They recorded Nothing Feels Natural twice to get it right, at great financial and personal expense, and almost split up in the process. They dont answer to anyone about band business and run their own label, Sister Polygon, through which theyve released acclaimed acts such as Downtown Boys and Sneaks. Theyre pleased that those bands have since signed with Sub Pop and Merge respectively, but want to build an infrastructure that allows acts to stay on Sister Polygon and maintain total agency over their work.

Theyre closer to being sustainable than they were this time last year, but nowhere near it in real terms. But thats what makes being in Priests worthwhile, says Greer. I think a lack of stability has always informed our sound, and continues to do so, because nothing about any of this stays the same, she says. Its always been a challenge for us creatively, financially and collaboratively. Its this resilience in the face of uncertainty that means Priests wont just thrive in the toxic Trump era, but outlast it, too.

Priests tour the UK in October.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/jun/27/priests-punk-group-trump-politics-pizzagate

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