Interview

Q&A: Priests On Playing Festivals And Why They’re Not Just A Political Band

It can’t be easy for DIY punk bands to play on giant outdoor stages at music festivals — especially if they’ve only played a few of those festivals and especially especially if they’re playing in the 2PM slot, on the festival’s first day, while people are still filing into the park and looking for their friends. But Washington, DC’s Priests didn’t just make do with their circumstances at this past weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival. They owned them. They transformed themselves into something larger-than-life. They looked and sounded like stars, like the huge stage could barely contain them.

Priests have a rep for being a politically driven punk band, and they are that, but they’re also more than that. Nothing Feels Natural, the long-awaited debut album that they released earlier this year, is as much about personal anxiety and about getting pissed off at the people in your life as it is about anything larger. It’s personal and political at the same time. And it’s also fun, full of buzzing broken-surf riffage and meaty, intense hooks.

At Pitchfork, frontwoman Katie Alice Greer wore a floral trench coat, a bright-yellow dress, and a whole lot of makeup; she looked like a post-apocalyptic version of a ’60s country star. And her voice is huge; watching her, I kept thinking of Danzig. The band was tense and coiled, its riffs ripping through the sunny afternoon air like darts. But for all the ferocity of their attack, they radiated the happiness of a band that was only just getting to play on a stage that big and realizing that they could totally fill that space. They were having fun, and they were fun to watch.

Shortly after their set, all four members of the band sat down with me for a conversation. Here it is.

STEREOGUM: You’re fairly new to festivals, right?

DANIELE DANIELE: This is our first year doing them. We played a couple in Europe. We’re doing this one, Maha Music Festival, and Happy Valley Pick-A-Thon. So yeah, it’s kind of a new thing for us.

STEREOGUM: How do you like it so far?

KATIE ALICE GREER: It’s fucking great. A festival like this is amazing. There’s a lots of free food and drinks. I asked for a mirror and an iron earlier, and someone brought it to me, which is so nice. It’s just little things like that. I feel like it maybe sounds like I’m being a diva for asking for a mirror, but you’re about to go onstage and be on TVs, and you want to make sure the outfit you put together doesn’t look stupid, so…

STEREOGUM: You look awesome! I hope that’s not weird to say.

GREER: No, I appreciate it. I was trying to look awesome, so that’s cool. It’s really cool playing festivals, though. There’s a different energy. If you go out and no one is feeling it, that sucks. But playing to a few people who are feeling it is really cool.

STEREOGUM: You got a very good response. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly. Underground bands can be dwarfed by big stages and you were not at all. You seemed perfectly comfortable and happy up there. Was that your experience of it?

TAYLOR MULITZ: Yeah, this one felt comfortable. It was cool to look into the crowd and see some people singing along. That always helps. Generally, I saw smiles on some faces, so that felt good. I think because this is, like, the fifth one that we’ve played now this year, I am starting to feel more comfortable onstage. We played Primavera a month and a half ago. We had to do two different sets, and the crowds were actually smaller than the one we played in front of today. I got so nervous, but the way that it manifested is that I didn’t feel anxious but my fingers got stuck in the shape of a claw. I could not open them. The pick was just jammed in between my two fingers for the entire set, and I could not pry them apart. It was really painful. Then, the second the set ended, my fingers opened up and the pain went away. That was so weird. So now I’ve been afraid that I was going to have zombie fingers at every single festival, but it only happened those two times. Something about Barcelona.

STEREOGUM: Have you played festivals with [your other band] Flasher at all?

MULITZ: No, nothing like this. Maybe someday. We’ll see. It’s weirder playing guitar and singing at the same time. It’s harder to take up the same amount of space on the stage if you’re singing.

STEREOGUM: Watching you play today, I guess you can write certain narratives in your head about the way music functions or whatever, but I guess I didn’t realize how fun the new album is. It’s a great, intense rock album, but it’s fun. Is that something that, when people are writing about it, should come across more?

GL JAGUAR: Yeah. Since the record came out just after the election, I think a lot of people are like, “Oh yeah, this a political record about the election.” But a lot of these songs were written almost two years before the record came out. We just had such a long process of actually getting the thing done. In the time that we did that, we hit the road really hard and we played this songs every night for months at a time, so I feel like these songs are well-lived in and fluid. We love being a band, just being in a band is fun.

GREER: This is absolutely supposed to be a fun record. We were trying to write a very multifaceted album that would have a lot of dimensions to it, not just be any one thing. That can be the frustrating thing sometimes about the narrative that gets created around it. It’s hard to write something that is encapsulating that. Not to say that we don’t appreciate people writing about us. It’s great. It’s more than we could have hoped for. But yeah, we wanted it to be a lot of different emotions and see if we could weave that all together into one cohesive narrative.

STEREOGUM: The different levels of the album were kind of a casualty of what was happening when the album came out. Also, you guys put together a big protest show at the Black Cat the night before the inauguration. During those couple of weeks, it was hard to think about anything else.

GREER: I think everything seemed depressing for that time period when the album came out. Even if we had just made a party record, it would have seemed sad.

STEREOGUM: There were party records that came out then! I remember writing about the Migos album that came out the same day as yours, like, “There’s like shades of sadness in the Auto-Tune.”

DANIELE: The other thing, too, that I think people forget about is that catharsis is fun. It feels good to scream. On the Europe flight, we just watched the Tears For Fears tour documentary, and they’re talking about “Shout.” [Roland Orzabal] was like, “I really like ‘Shout,’ because it’s a protest song, it’s angry, but it feels really good to yell angrily with a bunch of people.” Performing “No Big Bang” today, that’s a really dark-ass song. Sometimes, I’ll look around, like, “What do people think of me? This is so fucked up.” Even though it’s a dark song, it was really fun to perform it today. It was a joyful thing. It was shouting about the things you can do without with a bunch of people shouting back at you.

MULITZ: People had their fists in the air.

DANIELE: It was really fun. Narratives are helpful, but the one thing they do is compress nuance, tighten it into a ball and all the wrinkles are hidden from view. When you get labeled a political band or an angry band, sometimes that flattens the image that you see of it. But if you open it up, there is actually a lot in there. Even anger can be multifaceted. It kind of hit that home to me today during the set.

STEREOGUM: On the album, a lot of the songs are just about being freaked or confronting people in your lives and calling them on their bullshit. I hope I’m not misinterpreting anything.

GREER: You’re not wrong.

STEREOGUM: Are you going to stick around for the rest of the festival?

GREER: Fuck yeah, we’re already here. That’s the thing I love about going to festivals. I wouldn’t usually have money to buy a ticket for something like this, so I’m going to go as many places as I can. I’m going to LCD Soundsystem. I’m trying to see Kamaiyah later on. That will be really cool. I saw Dawn Richard earlier, and she blew my mind. I’m a huge fan.

DANIELE: We have a show tomorrow in Chicago, so we’re missing stuff tomorrow, which is a bummer.

GREER: We’re very big music fans so, you know, a festival is a fun thing.

DANIELE: We’re like kids in a candy store.