Trio soldiers on following departure of founding bassist, continues lobbing grenades on 'The Seduction of Kansas'
With The Seduction of Kansas, Priests' second full-length LP, the Washington, D.C. rock trio expands its lyrical and musical scope without sacrificing any of the ferocity of early recordings. “There's no way to overthrow the bourgeoisie/Except tossing a hand grenade into society,” Katie Alice Greer sings on “Youtube Sartre,” summarizing the band's still-fearless philosophy.
But while earlier targets were more easily discerned, Seduction, which takes its title from What's the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank's 2004 critique of Republican populism, is comparatively slippery, filled with untoward characters and American archetypes, and increasingly interested in the myth of American exceptionalism, shaped, in part, by the band's extensive cross-country tours of recent years. On the title track, suburban dining staples pass in a blur, as if situated at highway rest stops. “White Castle, Pizza Hut and even Applebee's,” Greer sings.
While the tours reaffirmed some of the bandmates' pre-held notions of rural America — “You'd go to a diner and someone would misgender one of your bandmates, or say something bigoted, and it was like, ‘Oh, yeah. That's where we are now,'” drummer Daniele Daniele said — it also reminded the musicians that most were simply trying to make due amid constant turbulence.
“You're making small talk with people at the gas station and you see … everyone kind of has the same problems wherever you go,” guitarist G.L. Jaguar said. “Everyone has the same hopes and dreams and desires. It's illuminating.”
Other songs, such as “Good Time Charlie,” are informed by Hollywood's glossy portrayals of American history, with Greer and Co. retelling the story of Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, the blandly heroic figure of the Tom Hanks-starring “Charlie Wilson's War,” from 2007.
“[G.L.] and I watched it, and we were just so struck by the bizarre tone of the movie, kind of like valorizing the story and this person whose actions, in a way, eventually led to 9/11,” said Greer, who joins Jaguar and Daniele in concert at Ace of Cups on Wednesday, May 1. “It's just such a bizarre, truncated way that in the U.S.A. we often tell our histories. We create these mythologies that leave out a lot of facts or distort things in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves.”
In Priests, the three musicians routinely strip away this veneer, examining sexism and exploitation (the creepily seductive “I'm Clean”), the corrupting nature of power (“Control Freak,” a barely controlled detonation spiked with Jaguar's discomforting riffs) and the unease that comes with being a public figure and having to carry on amid “these ideas … you've projected on me” (“68 Screen”).
Rather than forcing listeners to adopt a viewpoint, however, the songs populating Kansas, which the band recorded in Dallas alongside famed indie producer John Congleton, are more elliptical, with some words and phrases — the Koch Brothers, Superman, Applebee's, etc. — presented absent added context, meaning that the terms take on different shades depending on the value a person has placed on them.
“I would prefer that any time people are listening to our music that they are coming at it from their own perspective,” Greer said. “Sometimes that backfires or creates frustrating situations. We've definitely heard that some people from Kansas interpreted the lyrics [of the title track] as a slight toward them, which was not my intention at all. … I just wanted it to feel like a portrait of Kansas, not really a value judgment one way or the other.”
The bandmates grew up with varying understandings of American exceptionalism. Jaguar, for instance, was raised by a mother whose career required her to regularly visit war-torn countries deeply affected by U.S. foreign policy, causing the guitarist to ask more pointed questions at a young age. Daniele, in contrast, adopted a more optimistic attitude early in life — a façade that started to crack a bit after she moved to New York at age 18 and entered into a relationship with someone who grew up in public housing, forcing the drummer to consider issues like public funding, corporate tax cuts and economic inequality.
According to the trio, The Seduction of Kansas almost didn't happen. Following the amicable departure of founding bassist Taylor Mulitz, who now fronts Flasher, the three questioned if Priests would continue.
“We definitely considered the band not existing anymore,” Daniele said. “We were all like, ‘This isn't working. This band needs to break up or it has to get fixed.'”
To address these lingering tensions, the three turned to self-help books and even a therapist, learning to re-open channels of communication within the group. From there, songs started to flow, with some lyrics even seemingly addressing this earlier dissent. “I feel misunderstood like I'm some kind of enemy,” Greer sings on “Control Freak,” “when I'm the one in charge of all the things that make you happy.”
“We got really into this one book called Crucial Conversations and that was incredibly helpful,” Greer said. “There are many conversations we all have to have on a daily basis with people, and sometimes they come up without warning. Knowing how to be better prepared to communicate your needs, and to hear what other people's needs are … it's been helpful. I can't say any of us are experts in it, but we're certainly trying our best.”