There’s no denying that, over the past decade and a half, music has opened up. The internet’s made way for genre explorations and collaborations that, before, might have never seemed possible; it’s obliterated regionalism (and perhaps territorialism), given global music acolytes access to the micro-est of genres, exposed artists and fans to new sounds. But within that, it’s also created a more specific desire for locality—the preservation of the embattled homegrown music scene that can operate and thrive, reflecting the specificities of the community that creates it. Since the tragedy at Oakland’s Ghost Ship, and the subsequent and related shuttering of long-running independent arts venues in Denver (Rhinoceropolis), Los Angeles (Purple 33) and Baltimore (Bell Foundry), tensions between municipalities and creatives have become even more heightened.
And nowhere in the United States is tenser than Washington DC, the city with a long history of a hyper-local political music scene that encapsulates, iconically, the stark disconnect between citizens and the state. “I pee, and I see the Capitol building, and the Washington monument,” said G.L. Jaguar, guitarist for the beloved D.C. punk band Priests, when the band came by Jezebel’s office for a chat in December. “It’s outside my bathroom window. It’s in the water.” Given their environment—and the writ-large symbolism of that environment—it’s easy to assume that Nothing Feels Natural, Priests’ debut album full of personal-is-political polemic and dissonant urgency, is an especially relevant album we need now, considering the political climate and, you know, the way its title is a great summation of our current mood! But in so many other ways, it’s the kind of album that we always need—one that, like Priests’ other work, is personal and specific but relatable, rousing and cynical but not prescriptive, intelligent and questioning but not alienating (except for when it means to be, via jagged guitar stabs). It’s also deeply beautiful, chopped in half with a string section interlude that feels like release and a reminder to, if you can, chill out once in awhile.
“We started a band and started a record label at the same time, which is not something I would recommend to anybody,” says singer Katie Alice Greer, sitting with me at a fancy, burnished table in a Jezebel conference room. (Don’t let anyone tell you we don’t have a flair for irony.) “We really wanted to put this out on our own label, so getting the financial wherewithal to do that took some time.” The band, which also includes drummer Daniele Daniele and bassist Taylor Mulitz, has run its label Sister Polygon since 2012, when it released its first seven-inch record; with two EPs between then and now (one on Jersey independent Don Giovanni), it effectively took the quartet five years to unleash Nothing Feels Natural. “To me, it took that long to learn how to be a band, and to learn how to communicate what I wanted to communicate.”
When Greer first met Daniele and Jaguar, their interest in immediately starting their own label was pure artistic gumption, almost innocently so. (Jaguar had also briefly run his own record label in his teens.) Eventually, though, once it was time to put in the work, “it was almost like getting invested in underground culture,” says Greer. “We were building our own network of bands we thought were tight, and who we reached out to and wanted to play shows with. That could not have happened without there being spaces to set up weird noncommercial shows... It’s always been important to us to be at the helm of crafting our own narrative with this band. And similarly, having agency with how that’s presented. With my politics, it’s always been a priority to me to own the means of production in as much as we are able.”
It is undoubtedly a weird time to run a small business, which is effectively what touring bands are, even when they aren’t dealing with the additional work of maintaining an independent record label. Factor in the uncertain future of government arts programs like the National Endowment for the Arts, which is eliminated in Trump’s first budget proposal, and DIY seems even more like an artist’s primary mode for survival than simply a principled choice. Posed the question about government arts funding, Greer cited a 1991 edition of the cult book series RE/Search focused on “Angry Women,” including essays by people like Lydia Lunch and bell hooks—a product of another time in which the NEA was under threat, and many of those specifically targeted were women artists the government considered “subversive.” “We get into this mindset of ‘we’ve got to get the government to give artists grants,’ but then someone like Trump gets elected so all that money will disappear,” she says.
“I don’t make friends easily or naturally,” sings Greer on “Nicki,” one of the band’s candid character studies from Nothing Feels Natural. “You can blame chemicals or you can blame patriarchy. It’s nothing against you, I’m sure you’re sweet and pretty. But it’s going to take a lot for me to want to leave my mental city.” The song haunts, as does the melody—an eerie, lithe minor-key thing that seems to waft upwards—as a head-on vignette of modern-day alienation. More specifically, it is a rebuke of the way the prescribed solidarity of capitalist pop feminism parallels the expectation of niceness in patriarchy, that womanhood must always be amenable. “Keep your copper, keep your pearls,” she growls, guitars and percussion building a cacophony wall behind her. “I’m the stubbornest girl in the world.”
Priests’s style of protest embraces complexities, lyrically and musically; while Nothing Feels Natural builds on melodic hooks (see: the stormy “Leila 2.0"), it’s most rewarding to listen to when you’re willing to interrogate alongside them. Anthems and catchphrases aren’t part of their vocabulary here, in part because the music is such a conduit for internal displacement—exacting descriptions of emotions that are abstract yet so familiar. On the title track, over another moody set of guitars, Greer sings about a time or place or thing that we can’t quite identify—religion, maybe? It’s abstract. But one line in particular we can all recognize, and it hits in the gut: “Come on, please/ Work for something/If I walk a hundred days does it mean I get to say you can’t talk to me that way?”
Nothing Feels Natural is an album about power dynamics, whether the band’s politics are as subtle as that line, or more explicit—on “Puff,” Greer screams “Munayyer says Netanyahu’s actually the best thing/ ‘Cause so much hate can only mean we’re accelerating/ Accept the triumph of the machine!” This manifested in their sound, as well, which incorporated the idea of a producer, and production, as another instrument, explains Daniele, rather than a sound-warping force.
“Being antagonistic was really a guiding ethos at the beginning,” she says, “and I think we really rode that out of like, we’re going to be as abrasive as possible. It was part of the joy, and I guess it still is, but I think this album was more about giving ourselves permission to not be confined by what you do live. We wanted to make a beautiful pop album, but it was more like not feeling like we had to abide by peoples’ preconceived notions of the type of band we were, and really be a more expansive creative project.”
But preconceived notions are the core of what the band rails against, anyway, which is partly why it works. “Going from what Katie has said, the lyrics are about the frustration of the creative process in an interpersonal way but also in a larger critique of capitalist society,” says Mulitz. “And how it’s unsupportive of artists, and how it can be really hard to find the time or have the means to be creative in the first place.”
All four musicians keep day jobs when they’re not touring; Greer and Jaguar work a dog-walking service, which Jaguar says gives them an interesting perspective into the pet lives of the rich and powerful. Daniele and Mulitz work at Buck’s, a restaurant next door to Comet Ping Pong, the pizza joint/music venue now best known outside of D.C. for being the site of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. A few weeks before Priests spoke with Jezebel, Daniele showed up for work and the parking lot was cordoned off, after one of those conspiracy theorists showed up with a gun. “I’d been getting death threats every day on the phone,” she said (Comet owner James Alefantis also owns Buck’s). “I’ve had friends that never used their real names associated with their performance, and it always seemed a little paranoid to me, but now I just think, you had a toe in the water to feel the temperature rise. I didn’t take it seriously enough, and I feel really silly. It’s just crazy.”
But who better to combat it than artists in proximity to it? Priests are inquisitive, are solid and brave, in the tiniest big city in the world. And owning your means of production, as well as being integrally involved in your local community, has been and is now D.C. punk’s ultimate antidote to the monoliths surrounding it.
Priests are currently on tour in the U.S., U.K., and Europe through the summer. Nothing Feels Natural is out now on Sister Polygon.