On their 2017 debut album, Washington D.C.’s Priests sound like a pack of English majors that have gone feral. The 10 songs on Nothing Feels Natural speed by in a blur of warped surf-rock riffs, frantic drumming, moody post-punk atmospherics, and literate wordplay. A fiercely political album, Nothing Feels Natural’s meditations on power, politics, and gender felt like another link in the long chain of great principled D.C. punk music that created so many great Dischord Records bands.
But while the quartet of Katie Alice Greer, Daniele Daniele, G.L. Jaguar, and Taylor Mulitiz could write and toss off perfect punk slogans like “Sign a letter, throw your shoe, vote for numbers 1 or 2,” they rejected punk as a label that suited their music. And all it takes is one listen to their latest album, The Seduction of Kansas, to hear why they were right to distance themselves from that particular four-letter word: It’s hard to be a punk when your heart belongs to disco.
A lot has changed for the band since Nothing Feels Natural put them on the map. For one, the quartet has slimmed to a trio: Bassist Mulitiz left the band to start his own group. And while the band have said that the split was amicable, they were so used to working as a democratic, everyone-has-an-equal-say quartet that the loss of one of their own members threw them into an existential crisis.
Their struggle to learn how to be comfortable standing on three legs instead of four led them to making another big change. For the first time, they decided to work with an outside producer. For the Seduction of Kansas sessions, the trio enlisted the services of producer and recording engineer John Congleton.
"He's very technically proficient at what he does, and he's able to translate ideas, sounds that we imagine in our heads, into reality,” Jaguar says over the phone about working with Congleton. “Every day was a fun adventure with John.”
Congleton has worked with a staggering variety of artists across a range of genres, including Erykah Badu, The Dismemberment Plan, St. Vincent, Moses Sumney, and even Brian Wilson. From neo-soul to post-punk, he's done a little bit of everything. That range of experience was perfect for Priests, who were ready to do a little genre-hopping of their own. And the fact that Congleton, unlike many other big-name producers, didn’t impose his own sonic signatures on recordings was an added bonus.
“He wants to sound like them and not like him,” Greer says. “He’s not one of those producers who tries to put his mark all over everything.”
While Jaguar’s love of surf guitar and Greer and Daniele’s vocals remain as stylistic constants in their sound, much of The Seduction of Kansas sounds wildly different from their past work. They’ve taken the dance-ier elements and post-punk flourishes in their music and turned them way up.
“When we were making Nothing Feels Natural, a big reference point for us was Mezzanine by Massive Attack,” Greer says. “And whenever we’d tell people that, they’d go, ‘Whuh, that doesn’t sound like Priests!’ We’ve always had these crazy aspirations, but didn’t always have the toolbox to realize them in a way that made recognizable to other people.”
According to the band, working with Congleton helped expand their toolbox. Their love of the tight disco-pop of Chic and New Wave sounds shines through on The Seduction of Kansas. The record sounds like it’d be right at home alongside outfits like The Delta 5, Gang of Four, and The Slits, groups who knew how to combine biting commentary with booty-shaking grooves.
But while the band’s sound has gotten slicker, the righteous fury that animated their songs is still there. Whether they’re telling the story of a feminist serial killer on “I’m Clean,” railing against U.S. foreign policy on “Good Time Charlie,” or talking about the political radicalization of middle America on the title track, Priests haven’t lost their knack for searing and thoughtful commentary.
It's easy to wonder now what other genres and styles they’ll play with in the future. When asked if a Priests hip-hop album is in the cards at some point, the band laugh it off but say they’d always be down to collaborate with other artists.
“If Tyler, The Creator wants to work with us, I’d be down,” Jaguar says. “Kendrick Lamar, hit us up.”
Priests. With Sons of an Illustrious Father. 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, at Valley Bar, 130 North Central Avenue; valleybarphx.com. Tickets are $15 via Ticketfly.