Priests on their new album The Seduction of Kansas
Katie Alice Greer, Daniele Daniele and GL Jaguar of Washington, DC-based Priests discuss having to re-establish themselves as a band and working with John Congleton on new album The Seduction of Kansas
“We're just a sexy party band,” exclaims Priests drummer Daniele Daniele halfway through our chat, while discussing a recent idea the band had to develop a concept album around Prince’s Sign o’ the Times concert documentary. There are many ways Priests have been described in the past, but a sexy party band is probably not one of them.
When the Washington, DC-based band released their debut album Nothing Feels Natural back in early 2017, it arrived a week after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. The album, then, was widely acknowledged as Priests’ take on the current political climate, and with lyrics like ‘I thought I was a cowboy because I smoked Reds’ and track titles like Pink White House, it seemed like an easy comparison to make.
But the ‘political punks’ label the band quickly became associated with was not one they necessarily agreed with themselves. “We've never been a genre exercise band at all, we just make whatever music seems fun and cool and interesting to us,” says frontwoman Katie Alice Greer. “People really deeply misunderstand us, they always want to box us into political this and that.”
Priests’ music has always celebrated and critiqued American culture though, in equal measure, and their latest record The Seduction of Kansas is no exception. Taking its title from Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas? – exploring the state’s ideological shift from its historically socialist leanings to its current conservatism – on the new record the band tackle the concept of American mythology, with references to iconic and distinctly American figures, both past and present, filtered throughout.
On the album’s eponymous lead single, Greer shouts out fictional American characters Superman and Dorothy, as well as famous American food chains White Castle, Pizza Hut and Applebee’s. But on its follow-up single, Good Time Charlie, Greer explores a more controversial character, Charlie Wilson. However, rather than being influenced by the man himself, the track was inspired by Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Wilson in the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War.
This all plays into a key thematic element on the album: the retelling of history, how stories from the past are presented to us, and how they can often be misconstrued or misrepresented. “I approached this record trying to write lyrics about what intuitively and emotionally felt interesting to me,” says Greer. “We didn't set out to make a record about exploring American mythology and the sort of made up idea that is the USA but that's kind of what emerged after the fact.”
Rather than going down the traditional route of announcing the album through a press release, the band once again teamed up with music journalist Jenn Pelly – having previously collaborated with her on their debut album’s accompanying zine – who introduced it on their website in the style of a long-form feature. “Jenn has had a relationship with the band really since our earliest days,” says Daniele. “It feels like she's one of the people who really understands all of the nuances of our band and our history, and she's become a friend at this point… and to her credit she's kind of a genius.”
In it, the band discuss the difficult process of making the album; a result of them suffering some pretty monumental interpersonal changes, following the departure of original bassist Taylor Mulitz. Although parting on amicable terms – with Mulitz continuing to work with the band on the label they started together, and which Priests continue to release all their music on, Sister Polygon Records – his exit to focus on his other band Flusher left the remaining members unsure how to work together cohesively.
“We all kind of had to relearn how to keep the band functioning with only the three of us, and we were fighting a lot,” says Greer. “So I found one thing that I was gravitating towards, I think, was I felt very unlikeable to my bandmates, and I found myself writing these characters who I found to be pretty unlikeable or outlandish because that's what emotionally made sense to me at the time.”
This volatility the band were experiencing led them to try new things this time around. Daniele wrote and sang on two of the album’s tracks, I’m Clean and 68 Screen; Janel Leppin, who played cello, mellotron and lap steel on Nothing Feels Natural, returned but this time as the band’s primary bassist and fourth songwriting collaborator; and they were led to producer of the moment John Congleton by their publishing company Ribbon Music’s co-founder Morgan Lebus – this being their first time ever working with an outside producer.
“We were really sort of re-exploring what our methodology was for writing songs in this band,” Greer continues. “And [Congleton] knew that we weren't really getting along, he knew that we were dealing with all kinds of difficulties, and so he created this scenario where we went down to Dallas and recorded in his studio, had no distractions for two weeks, just making music and focusing on our record, and also just having fun.”
Daniele adds: “I think one of the challenges when you're a new band – or new at performing at all – is to take yourself seriously… And so then the challenge, once you've got a little bit more established as an artist, is to not take it too seriously… he created an environment where nothing was sacred, nothing was too serious; you just had fun and kept an open mind and listened and played.”
The Seduction of Kansas feels like a natural progression from Priests' debut, but while the band take steps towards a poppier sound, they don’t completely abandon their post-punk roots. Greer’s signature growl is accompanied by GL Jaguar’s thrashing guitar and Daniele’s urgent drums to blistering effect on tracks like Jesus’ Son and Control Freak. These darker, more visceral elements on the album seem to have risen from the band’s interest in cinema, particularly noting the recent revival of horror in TV and film as a means of exploring modern societal issues.
“Sci-fi and horror, the genre, I think is often looked down upon... but I feel like there's really excellent commentary in it,” says Jaguar. “Katie and I were really into this great film that came out earlier last year called Assassination Nation, which was really, really overlooked but it's a really good analysis of the current state of the United States, in a very palatable, easy to digest way.” Greer adds: “I think maybe on some intuitive level we gravitate towards this like the pageantry of visceral intense feelings and interactions because we're hoping to understand it better without always having to look directly at it.
“What is happening in our reality right now is unprecedented for most people who are alive in general. We've never really quite seen the world turn in ways that it's been turning as of late,” she continues. “But I think horror films, surreal films like Assassination Nation, just these really over the top, intense things, are particularly resonating with people right now because of that… but I think maybe that speaks to a little bit why we ended up writing these pretty dark, fantastical songs.”
Whether dealing in the past or the present, Priests continue to provide a unique gaze and a depth of insight on topical issues that is distinctly theirs, and show no signs of faltering.