Priests Are Musicians, Not a Political Party
The D.C. band opened up about national identity, Thomas Frank, and Bowie’s Berlin trilogy—three major influences on The Seduction of Kansas.
“We are en route to Savannah right now,” says Priests’ guitarist G.L. Jaguar, who has just finished apologizing for delaying our interview by ten minutes so that the band could finish eating breakfast. It was day one of a six-month tour that will see the DC rock band traverse North America and Europe, playing songs from their new album The Seduction of Kansas. The tour included an early stop in Austin, where Priests played FLOODfest, FLOOD’s official SXSW showcase.
The Seduction of Kansas is Priests’ second full-length album, and comes after Nothing Feels Natural gained them a reputation as one of rock music’s leading dissident voices. Songs like “Pink White House” and “No Big Bang” confronted the frightening reality of a nation toying with authoritarianism after years of allowing unregulated capitalism to take ownership of America. At a time when algorithms are separating us all into categories and attempting to dictate how we consume culture, Priests are one of the few bands exploring the theories and mythologies that have led us to this moment. Meanwhile, the band themselves have also been categorized in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
When Trump was elected president in 2016, some people suggested we were set for an explosion of protest music, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Gulf War. As misguided as that thinking might be, an expectation has lingered over Priests. While labelling them a political band is not entirely a mischaracterization, it’s simply not something they want, or agree with. “We’re musicians, we’re artists, we’re not a political party,” explains frontwoman Katie Alice Greer. “We make songs about what is interesting to us, and we write songs in a style that’s interesting to us.”
Greer continues, “We’re a rock band, not a punk band. We come from a punk community and context, but we’re a professional band. We write lyrics that people are interested in, but there is a political dimension in almost anything you want to talk about. So specifically categorizing us in that way, I think, is a little bit of a misdemeanor. Our lyrics are not usually hyper-specific topical protest songs. There are bands that do that, which is cool, but I do think it does a little bit of a disservice to them to point to us and say that we are this thing that we’re not…just to call us a political band because people are interested in the term seems reductive.”
“Just to call us a political band because people are interested in the term seems reductive.”
— Katie Alice Greer
The Seduction of Kansas’ title was inspired by Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which examines how the state of Kansas flipped from advocating for socialism in the 1880s to now being one of the most radically conservative states in the U.S. Frank attempts to ascertain how an entire population has been convinced, time and again, to vote against its own interests and elect a party that is decidedly anti-worker, and whose support for free market capitalism simply advances the 1 percent while immobilizing the middle class. He looks at all points on the political spectrum to try and uncover the source of this bizarre phenomena.
“I do think that one of the overarching points that Thomas Frank is trying to make in that book is that the Democrats always present themselves as the party of the working person, representative of the greater interests of more people in the USA, and consistently they’ve alienated a lot of working-class people,” explains Greer.
In the introduction to the book, Frank asks, “How could so many people get it so wrong?” It’s a question Priests ponder on The Seduction of Kansas’ title track. Greer, who is the band’s primary lyricist, positions pop cultural icons like Oz’s Dorothy, Superman, Peter Fonda, and the Wichita Lineman alongside bloodthirsty cherubims and the Koch brothers. Each represent a different distorted version of the American dream. All have played a role in the seduction of Kansas.
“Even if they weren’t conceived of in that way, the meaning that images take on often have little to do with what their creators intended originally,” Greer says of the characters being open to interpretation. “That’s largely what we were trying to explore with this record: not so much what happened, but what are the perceptions of what happened in terms of American history? The mythologies that we tell ourselves about our national identity, or even our identities on an individual level.”
Jaguar also cites David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy as an influence, noting several similarities between the way Priests and Bowie went through a period of rebirth—Bowie, following a debilitating cocaine addiction in the 1970s, and Priests, after their original bassist, Taylor Mulitz, left to focus on his other band, Flasher. “We basically had to start back from square one,” he says. “For [Bowie] it was also kind of a fresh start.”
Speaking about the trilogy, Jaguar adds, “A lot of very inspiring and interesting stuff goes on in those records, particularly with the collaborators. And, you know, we were working with different collaborators. We had [bassists] Janel Leppin and Alexandra Tyson, and we were working with [producer] John Congleton, who was really able to help us execute ideas that were in our heads that we couldn’t really figure out.”
“That’s largely what we were trying to explore with this record: not so much what happened, but what are the perceptions of what happened in terms of American history? The mythologies that we tell ourselves about our national identity, or even our identities on an individual level.” — Greer
Sonically, the guitars on The Seduction of Kansas sound cut from that same period in the late-’70s; Bowie’s Station to Station, Low, and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), as well as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, all share a similar dynamic. Jaguar’s piercing glam-rock riffs and sprawling arpeggios slot seamlessly between drummer Daniele Daniele’s bullish drum beats and Greer’s blistering vocals, displaying much of the same chemistry that Bowie had with his bandmates. You can almost see diamantés falling from the sky and shattering like glass on the dancefloor. “There were so many interesting sonic sounds that I really gravitated to,” Jaguar says enthusiastically. “I was really trying to pick up on a lot of Adrian Belew with my playing, but also Carlos Alomar, too, because he is a very awesome unsung hero of David Bowie’s work. People are always like, Earl Slick or Robert Fripp, but the rhythm guitar has such an important place in music, it fills out the space and cohesively brings everything together.”
To understand Priests, you must first understand that, like all good art, everything they say and do is open to interpretation. Otherwise it’s simply a form of propaganda. “Buy our music because we write good songs,” Greer concludes, “not because of some fake conception of an identity.” FL