Priests Drummer Compares Running a Record Label to Chinese Communism

Priests Audrey Melton
"We're driving through Seattle right now. It's like an episode of Frasier," G.L. Jaguar says to me shortly after picking up the phone. He and his bandmates in Priests are bundled up in a van, embarking on a cross-country tour to promote their astonishing new album, Nothing Feels Natural. It's a playful and furious album — one that feels perfectly suited to soundtrack the increasingly surreal and ominous times that we're living in right now.

Emerging from the D.C. punk underground, Priests have been turning heads for years with their fiery live sounds and chaotic, spirited records. Initially playing with explosive no-wave fury, they've evolved into a tightly coiled unit. On the mic, Priests singer Katie Alice Greer sounds like the long-lost love child of Poly Styrene and Mark E. Smith: Language just seems to pour out of her in manic, poetic fragments. Jaguar's guitar sputters and roars like a drowning surf rock band, and the rhythm section of Taylor Mulitiz's bass lines and Daniele Daniele's drumbeats holds it all together beautifully.

Priests also run their own record label, Sister Polygon. Talking with the quartet as they drove through Frasier Crane's hood, I asked them about the influences behind their new record and the struggles that can come from trying to run your own record label while staying true to your D.I.Y. roots.

New Times: How's the tour been so far?

Katie Alice Greer: It's nice to see so many people coming out — we haven't done a full U.S. tour since 2014. It's very exciting to play in all these cities that we haven't been to in years.

Has it been a challenge playing these new songs live as a four-piece band? You've incorporated a lot of new instruments and sonic touches on the album, like saxophones and pianos.

G.L. Jaguar: We don't have the additional instrumentation when we do it live... there's different ways that the songs play out in a live setting, like through pedals. There are definitely things we did on this record that we can't do live —

Greer: This is the first time we've put out a release where we can actually play all the songs live because the basic structure was written by the four of us on our primary instruments. So it was very easy to transpose that into a live setting.

Daniele Daniele:
 About a month ago, we played a show at home. All the style of musicians who are on the album are DC musicians. So for that we got to have two of our friends come onstage and play those songs with us, songs that they had helped us record and play on. It was a blast.

I read a feature that SPIN recently did on Priests, and it's mentioned in there that Portishead's Third was a big sonic reference point for Nothing Feels Natural. I was surprised by that, because I wouldn't have guessed at all from listening to the album that there was a Portishead influence on it. In what way did you draw inspiration from Third?

Jaguar: Since we tour so much, we're always listening to music in the van. Third is an album I really like to put on when I drive. It's a really good, almost-krautrock record where it's constantly flowing. The thing to me that was really appealing, from a sonics perspective, is that it had a lot of these very lo-fi raucous elements, but it was combined with big production values. It was a really good mix of the two. It helped us find a way to bridge our older material with the newer sound: to mix lo-fi rockin' sounds and fill it all out more with synthesizers, percussion, cello, and saxophones. So in that respect, that's how we draw from it sonically.

Speaking of road music, what are you listening to for this tour?

Daniele: As you called, we were just listening to Parliament.

Jaguar: The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, specifically.

That leads me to my next question. Katie, in "Appropriate," there's this line, "Is George Clinton the kinda story your adventure's looking for?" I was wondering what the meaning of that was?

Greer: That song is about cultural appropriation. What I meant with that line is is George Clinton's story really your story, or is it his story and it's something that you're trying on? If you're an artist who's relatively more privileged than someone else, you have access to all these different influences. It's important to be mindful of how you're bringing in your influences. I wrote that song almost as a dialogue between two people; the line before it is someone talking about maggots and bugs. One of my favorite records is [Funkadelic's] Maggot Brain, so it's kind of a nod to the monologue at the beginning of that song.

Considering your band's political beliefs and convictions, I was wondering how that has an impact on how you run your own record label.

Greer: It's important for us to own the means of production whenever possible. It's not always possible, but it feels good to us to have this little world for our music and our friends' music.

 It's really important to us to not have anyone do any work for free for us. And that goes for the band and the label. The downside to that is we're often paying to play, paying to put out — sometimes we end up hitting ourselves financially cause we're trying to live up to that ethos. It's interesting because we want to practice ethos, but we're an island in a sea of capitalism in that way. ... We were in Vancouver last night, and we were talking about the real estate market there. There's all these empty apartments in Vancouver because in China you can't keep more than a certain amount of money in your bank account because it can be seized by the government. So all these people don't want to keep money in their accounts, so they just dump it in properties in Vancouver that they're not going to use. They just want to hold their money that way. And I was just like, wow, because China is a communist country essentially — I'm not trying to be like "woo China" but I am "woo socialism" and different forms of economy. People are always like, "See? Communism doesn't work. Look at China, look at...," and that's not really fair, because the reason that fucked-up dynamic is happening is because it's one place within a larger capitalistic world economy. I'm not trying to endorse the Chinese economy because it's really fucked-up in a lot of ways. ... I just often feel that way with our record label and with how we run our band, that we're trying to live out certain ideologies but we keep butting our heads up against this fucked-up system.

Priests will be performing with Olivia Neutron-John and Nanami Ozone at Valley Bar in Phoenix on Thursday, February 23.

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Ashley Naftule

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