With last year's "Bodies and Control and Money and Power," Priests became the breakout stars of Washington, D.C.'s new punk scene. They make political and personal punk shaded in with no-wave bass and surf guitar, and anchored by sometimes-obtuse lyrics from their vocalist, Katie Alice Greer. Perhaps most importantly, the band lives out a collaborative, DIY ethos, and they've become the anchor of an exciting movement in the city just south of us. We talked to Greer over the phone about D.C., Ariana Grande and the impact of pop culture on politics, her label Sister Polygon, and the band's involvement in Ferguson-related activism.
City Paper: It seems to me like there is sort of a cultural shift happening in the D.C. scene where people are really trying to do things that are inclusive and more DIY again, which I think is really admirable in a city like D.C. that is gentrifying so quickly.
Katie Alice Greer: I do think in some ways that the spike that everyone's seen in independent music in the past couple years in D.C. is directly related to how crazy everyone feels watching the manifestations of all this money around them. We're finally in a period where people can acknowledge that they're inspired and informed by the so-called important punk that's happened in the past, but instead of just aping that, people are inspired by it and building something new on top of it.
CP: Do you feel optimistic about the future of music in D.C.?
KAG: I'm in a bad mood today, so my first reaction is "Hell no." It feels like it costs so much fucking money to live here, you know? We've been fortune enough to get our band off the ground, but we're still struggling. We're trying to write a record right now, and juggling that with daytime jobs. Three of us work in a restaurant, one of us is a dog-walker. If you want to make a good living, which you need to live in a city, you have to work a higher-paying job than we do, and you have to work more hours. But if you do that then you don't have time to do the band stuff. Culturally, artistic projects are being squeezed out of people's daily lives, and they're finding other weird ways to express that, like through Twitter, or some other kind of free social media that's usually mitigated by corporate sponsors. So no, I'm not really that optimistic about music in D.C. or anywhere else, or the state of creating art anywhere. I'm actually really pessimistic about it and it bums me out a lot. But obviously I'm not so pessimistic about it that I'm throwing up my hands and forgetting about it.
CP: You've said in other interviews that you are more interested in power dynamics and power structures than just general "political band" concerns. Can you talk a bit about that?
KAG: Whenever you start asking questions about the world, you have to start to consider why things are the way that they are. It's not a simple matter of nature. Yeah, I see us as a political band, but I see every agent of ideas as a political actor. There's no need to separate us from any other band. Like, Ariana Grande is political to me, the fact that she's famous is political to me. The fact that Kendrick Lamar is backing Iggy Azalea and her career—there's so many interesting things. Politics doesn't just mean whoever the speaker of the House is, it means like the way that we relate to one another, and the ways that we relate to one another are totally mitigated by power dynamics. That's always what I'm most interested in. I think you can also use pop culture as a way to take a cultural temperature of how people are feeling right now, and what they're interested in. Because the most pervasive vessels of ideas are the things that we're hearing on the radio and on television. Even if you're not directly hearing Ariana Grande, you're interacting with people who are hearing her, you're seeing more high ponytails because she's there. Pop culture helps me relate to people—the biggest, most formidable markers in culture are the things that help us relate to people around us, who we might not have much else in common with.
CP: One thing about Priests is that even though you write political lyrics, there are also a lot of themes in your music that are not necessarily overtly political or tie it to the personal. Is it a conscious decision to weave the two together?
KAG: It's just a product of the evolution of what I'm thinking about at the time, coupled with sometimes more of an overarching strategy. On "Bodies and Control and Money and Power," I wanted want to write specific songs about specific things. I was really influenced by '60s protest folk music. But we're writing a new record right now where I'm definitely trying to be more free-form and just sing whatever comes out of my mouth instead. Just to see where that goes.
CP: Can you talk about your label Sister Polygon? What's the vision and intent behind doing a label in this day and age?
KAG: We started Sister Polygon to put out our first 7-inch, and since then we've just tried to use it as a vehicle to release or give some kind of support to friends or other artists who we feel really passionate about the music of like Downtown Boys. It's the four of us in Priests working on the label. We do all these projects collectively. It can be a challenge. Not to say that we all get along with no fights, doing a four person project for anything is fucking exhausting. But when we all line up, it's great.
CP: I watched "The Chris Gethard Show" with you guys and Sleater-Kinney, and during Priests' performance, you wore a T-shirt that said "Black Lives Matter." What is your or the band's involvement in the protests against police brutality and what made you make the decision to put the shirt on?
KAG: We've all individually been a part of different demonstrations that have gone on here since these multiple verdicts have come out. It's just something that we all keep up with and feel strongly about. The day of the show was the day that it was announced that there was no indictment for Eric Garner. As we were driving up from D.C. to New York, we were reading about it in the van, and getting pretty upset. And so when we got there, my friend had a shirt from being at a demonstration earlier that day, and I was like, "Oh, let me wear that on camera." I particularly wanted to put the shirt on because I had been reading some more mainstream news commentary about how "all lives matter," and it just really strikes me that when people can't make black perspectives, black voices, black humanity more of a priority—that's a symptom of something deeply wrong with culture or with society. Especially when society has exploited and profited off of black culture for so long, and won't even step up to the plate to say in the most literal terms that black lives matter. I prefer to be subtle in my art, but sometimes it's really important to be to be really fucking honest. So that there's no mincing of words about where we stand on some things.
Priests play the Ottobar on Jan. 24 with Horse Lords and Parquet Courts.