When first assigned to cover a band from Washington D.C., my mind worked up an expectation, based partly on their being commonly described as ‘punk’, and partly on associations of a D.C. punk scene that is now nearly 40-years-old. Hanging in the portrait gallery of that scene are some pretty significant figures — most famously Bad Brains and the constellation of bands associated with Ian MacKaye’s Dischord Records — and although there has never been a particular sound attached to the major bands of that city (a wide range exists from, say, Void‘s chaotic hardcore to Rites of Spring‘s proto-emo or Faraquet’s math rock), there has been a particular, consistent feeling that prevails among them: something smart, aware and humane.
So, when I went to listen to Nothing Feels Natural, the latest full-length by D.C. band Priests, I entered the experience with a few pieces of luggage. As the album got into its paces, I found myself having to actively sort out how it gets counted as punk. If no one had told me otherwise, I probably would have cataloged it as some peppy variety of indie rock. Granted, the record showed the bounciness and tone of both early new wave and riot grrrl punk of the 1990s, but there was nary a power chord in sight, and although the production wasn’t what I’d call “slick,” it sounded really rich and clear, and not overtly punk. Singer Katie Alice Greer’s vocal style — which has drawn comparisons to riot grrrl icon Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre) but is actually much stronger and has way firmer pitch — was often heading past the standard shouts toward actual melody. These were surprising elements to find in a band that is being fit into the taxonomy of D.C. punk.
Seeing Priests live, however, the association becomes clearer. Guitarist G.L. Jaguar plays some kind of modified post-hardcore version of echoing surf guitar (surf being a much more apparent style on Priests’ earlier recordings) that lets the rhythm section press the song while he adorns it, sometimes with just an atonal wash of strings. Taylor M.’s bass lines are insistent and percussive, and Danielle Danielle’s drumming maintains high intensity while tending toward deeper, more thudding tones from the kick and floor tom. In a live setting, the band’s affinity with certain D.C. post-punk acts that followed that town’s initial wave of hardcore — bands that through the ’80s and ’90s embraced a certain amount of danciness, extending from Fugazi all the way to mod-gospel-pastiche band Make Up — becomes a smidge more obvious.
Greer is a fierce natural performer with a voice that is powerful enough to not need the cushion of reverb and delay that often gets lacquered on, though her voice also wears those effects well.
True to D.C. tradition, Priests are every ounce an activist band (the show I attended here in Atlanta at the Drunken Unicorn sent one dollar from each ticket to D.C.’s Casa Ruby, a nonprofit assisting homeless and at-risk LGBT youth), but Greer limits her speeches to a few measured comments, staying friendly with the crowd and saving fury for the songs. There is a realness to the band’s energy overall, and it feels a lot like that smart, humane thing that was bred into that city’s gene pool four decades ago.
I was able to ask Priests a few questions via email about D.C., being punk or not and the general topic of making things:
ArtsATL: I wanted to first talk a little about process and how you make what you make . . .
Danielle Danielle: A little jamming and a lot of talking. We’re a strange band. Sometimes we drive ourselves crazy with it, but since we’re not trained musicians (we’re all self-taught instrumentalists) and most of us don’t know how to play each other’s instruments, we get to this weird place where we have to use language to get at what we want musically. We often find it works best to describe the scene we envision the song evoking. A lot of our discussions and descriptions of songs are based in movies because of this. It’s totally weird, but it’s what works for us.
ArtsATL: How do you write songs? What prompts them? They seem fairly immediate and collaborative.
Danielle: It’s very collaborative. A song can start with some lyrics, a bass line, a drum beat, or a guitar riff. That’s all it takes. Once someone starts playing, the rest of us start building it up around them, interweaving and tweaking our parts to create something.
ArtsATL: It seems that as you have matured as a band, the rhythm section — particularly the bass — seems to carry more of the songs. Was this the result of wanting to do something more subtle with the guitar than the surf references you made early on?
G.L. Jaguar: The surf and rockabilly influence still stands. You can hear that in “JJ” or the main riff from “Nothing Feels Natural.” Guitar is really boring when it’s just a bunch of riffs or an onslaught of chords, like when you’re walking into a loud Guitar Center and all you’re hearing is “Enter Sandman” and “Stairway to Heaven.” We live in a time when guitar bands are really not cool — everyone uses synthesizer or plays on laptops. I try to use what I learned while playing in jazz bands, finding that balance between playing too much and too little. It’s not about ego; it’s about the right tone and dynamics.
ArtsATL: Tell me about the D.C. punk scene these days. Is it multiple smaller scenes, or one interconnected one? How much does a historical awareness of D.C. punk tradition seem to keep energy in the scene/scenes?
Danielle: I would say lots of smaller scenes, but obviously they are a lot of connections between them. And the word “punk” isn’t all that helpful in describing them. I mean, yeah, there is definitely a codified history of D.C. punk, a story that keeps getting retold over and over again, but that story hides more than it reveals. It makes it seems like D.C. music was about one band or one record label, when it’s so much more interesting.
ArtsATL: About a decade ago, there was a great phase in Atlanta punk where all kinds of bands that followed similar DIY ethic were all playing shows together, no matter what version of punk they were. What kinds of bands do you play with in D.C.?
Danielle: Yeah, I think that’s what I was trying to get at with my last answer. Genre labels are not helpful. It’s more like, we’re all trying to create something without the proper training or infrastructure or money or support we need to do so, and that’s really what unites us more than any genre. I shirk at the term “DIY,” ’cause it just feels like another label to slap on things or market things with when genre labels stop working. We as artists are collaborating and pushing things to a place where genre labels aren’t useful, but we can’t let our art get caught up in a different marketing scheme called “DIY,” ya know?
ArtsATL: I think it’s exciting that bands are returning to a pretty expansive range of what can be considered punk. You guys have elements that are rooted in certain punk traditions, but they aren’t expressed in an obvious way. Do the words ‘punk’ and the phrase ‘punk rock’ now describe pretty different things?
Danielle: Haha, I think I just answered this before you asked it. I’m psychic.
ArtsATL: Is there a feeling among artists — particularly punks, whose movement has often embraced nihilism and impermanence — that art matters now more than ever? Are you seeing that feeling mobilize young artists at the DIY level?
Danielle: I think for some people, with how fucked the world is right now, they’re just like how can you make art in the moment like this?! I need to be on the frontlines doing something, like translating for detained victims or ice or protesting in the streets, or calling my representative. And to all that, I’m just like hell yeah, do it. I need, we all need, those things, but we all also need art. Real, authentic, meaningful (as impossible and crazy as those terms are) art. We need it to live. Real, free art is the only true safeguard against fascism. It sounds cheesy, but I 100% believe it in good faith. If our hearts and minds and creative selves become colonized by fascism and capitalism we are truly lost. We must fight every day to be free thinkers, and art is an exercise in free/alternative thinking and that is why it is so, so vital.