Second go-round breathes new life into quartet's ferocious debut full-length
Nothing Feels Natural (Sister Polygon), the 2017 debut full-length from Washington, D.C. quartet Priests, nearly buckled under the weight of expectation.
The fan and media attention was driven by a pair of celebrated cassette releases (Tape 1 and Tape 2) and a 2014 EP, Bodies and Control and Money and Power, that earned plaudits from national outlets such as Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, which described the 17-minute shot of rocket fuel as, potentially, “Priests' big coming-out party.”
“I think, honestly, knowing there was an audience out there was only hurtful in some ways … [and] we definitely felt that pressure,” said drummer Daniele Daniele, reached by phone in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in the midst of a seven-week European trek. (Daniele will be joined by singer Katie Alice Greer, bassist Taylor Mulitz and guitarist G.L. Jaguar in concert at Ace of Cups on Thursday, July 20.)
As a result of these pressures, songs recorded analog to tape during initial sessions, which took place in Olympia, Washington in January 2016, didn't meet Priests' expectations, leading the musicians to scrap the material — a costly and difficult decision that stressed ties within the band.
“We were unhappy with a lot of the recordings, but we were also totally dead broke. It was like, ‘We can't afford to do this,'” said Daniele, who described herself as “the band accountant.” “I didn't know what to do, so we showed it to some of our closest friends, and they were like, ‘This is not good enough. … I love you guys. I love this band. I love these songs. You can't [release] this.'”
Initial sessions were further marred by studio mishaps. One song was accidentally erased, while tape-speed issues sapped the life from a second, the album-closing “Suck.”
“It was the newest song we had written and we were all so excited about it,” said Daniele, who went on to describe the underwhelmed sensation that accompanied the band's first spin of the completed track. “We were like, ‘This is going to sound like two women riding off in the sunset next to the Grand Canyon, like, “YEEAAAAAH!”' We just had that feeling. And then we finally heard it and were like, ‘What? Really?'”
Regrouping in Washington, D.C. with friends/recording engineers Kevin Erickson and Hugh McElroy, who doubled as those trusting ears who earlier cautioned the band, Priests re-recorded a pair of songs, including “Suck,” uncovering the spark missing from the Olympia sessions.
“When we heard those two songs, even before they were mixed, it was sublime,” Daniele said. “Seeing how those two songs turned out was kind of this dawning: ‘OK, this is special stuff. We need to go back and redo this. It's not important how fast the product gets turned out. If people care about the band they'll still care about us in a year, or however long it takes. Our vision for this is so much more expansive.'”
This more-expansive vision plays out in the music, which widens the band's previous punk palette, incorporating Mellotron, oboe and wild, skronky saxophone that elbows aside the accompanying instruments near the close of the clattering “Appropriate,” as well as in the lyrics, which blur the line between personal and political (“So maybe we're talking about this conversation with a drunk guy at a party but really it's also about Trump,” Daniele explained).
“We toured a lot on [Bodies and Control], so my technical skills improved. It was exciting for me to be able to explore different ways of playing, and I think that's true of all of us,” said Daniele, who had never played drums prior to starting with Priests in 2012. “Some people are really into genre, and we're not a band that is, at all. We're kids in a candy store running around like, ‘I want to eat everything!' Anytime we hear anything we like, no matter the genre, it's like, ‘How can we do that?' The well of inspiration is so broad and endless.”
Lyrically, however, Priests — as with many things associated with D.C. — are never far removed from that political/social realm. “Pink White House” serves as a condemnation of the two-party system (“Sign a letter/Throw your shoe/Vote for numbers one or two,” Greer sneers), while “Puff” obliterates the idea that bottoming out is the best way to bring about radical change — a concept that also drives the misconception that human suffering is the best way to bring about great art.
“Whenever people say, ‘Oh, the struggle leads to this creative [flowering].' No. Fuck off,” Daniele said. “And, even if you do believe that the struggle creates good art, which I don't, if that's what your priority is, you need help. People are getting killed by police. There's economic inequality and rampant incarceration. People's lives are more important than your fucking album. End of story.”