Priests Talk Political New Album & the ‘Bizarre Expectation’ We Place on Art

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Priests’ breed of elastic post-punk is as danceable as it is thought-provoking. On their sophomore LP, The Seduction of Kansas, the D.C. trio locks into rubbery grooves that beckon for the freewheeling boogying of Converse-clad clubgoers. Simultaneously, frontperson Katie Alice Greer, guitarist G.L. Jaguar and drummer Daniele Daniele are dishing out astute cultural commentary about the American mythos, tapping revered minds such as author Thomas Frank and filmmaker Adam Curtis as direct influences.

Billboard recently spoke with Priests about some of the dense narrative layers in The Seduction of Kansas, what intrigues them to write about those topics, and the reductive qualifiers our country places on its artists.

There are so many pop culture references littered throughout this record. You sing about strip malls and chain restaurants and our country’s sort of banal monoculture as this interesting spectacle. What do you find intriguing about Dollar Trees, Sears and Applebee's?

Katie Alice Greer: So that lyric in particular about the Dollar Trees, Sears and Thai Bistro is probably one of the darkest references on the record. I was writing the lyrics for that song, “Carol,” right after that really awful shooting in Las Vegas last year. And there was this tidbit in one of the pieces I read about how the shooter just bought the gun in a strip mall between a Sears, a Dollar Tree and a Thai Bistro.

I grew up in suburban Michigan and I also had a lot of family down South. So I spent a lot of time driving through the country, much like I do now with our band. And it’s not very beautiful in a lot of parts when you’re driving through endless strip malls. But it is a lot of the physical geographic identity of our country. And a lot of this record was about exploring what constructs identity. What are the mythologies that are passed down through textbooks, through newscasters, through an American sense of self.

G.L. Jaguar: You read a lot of thinkpieces on trying to understand America and it’s like, you go to this small town and you go to this five and dime that doesn’t even exist anymore. Like, really, to get a good grasp on what America is really like, is going to be big chain restaurants. The portions are very American, the items on the menu are very American. There is a consistency across the country; that’s where normal people eat, that’s where normal people work. It is what it is, it is America in a lot of ways.

In the title track, the way the verses are written and sung, the subjects in the line about “senators, news anchors, Superman, and Dorothy” are equated to the one about “White Castle, Pizza Hut and Applebee's.” Why did you choose to present those as all being cut from the same cloth?

Greer: All those lyrics were heavily drawn from a Thomas Frank book called What’s The Matter With Kansas? And he points to all of those things as having been born, in some ways, in Kansas. One of the most popular states for news anchors to come from is Kansas. Obviously, Dorothy and Wizard of Oz takes place there. Superman grew up there. All those chain restaurants either were born with their headquarters in Kansas or moved offices there.

So it’s just a very interesting cultural birthplace for a lot of things that maybe we associate with being very American. The whole book is just about how the political climate in Kansas has often been an interesting indicator of where the entire country is headed, ideologically. So I was trying to paint what was, for me, sort of the cinematic picture of that. Just sweeping over the whole mythological identity of Kansas and the things that come from there.

In the song “YouTube Sartre,” you say, “don’t believe yourself to be a virtuous thief / or virtuous about anything.” And then in the last line of the song you’re kind of accepting that you’re unavoidably part of this disgusting political/cultural enterprise, regardless of your ability to acknowledge that it’s wrong. Can you go a little deeper into what you’re getting at there?

Greer: That was particularly inspired by reading about Leo Strauss and the birth of neo-conservative ideology and mythology. Leo Strauss is very good at understanding that in order for an ideology to take hold, you really have to come up with the appropriate fairy tales or bedtime stories that are appealing to people. And it’s where a lot of the Americans as the cowboys defending the land from whoever the bad guys were came from. It’s something that Ronald Reagan also carefully perpetuated and was well-versed in, coming from a Hollywood world.

Americans being weirdly arrogant for thinking that they’re the great protectors of the world. Or the benevolent force coming into other countries during times of disaster to save them. That’s never really what’s going on. It’s about Americans getting in there to get the resources that they want and to exploit other countries in a disadvantaged situation.

So I was just trying to break down that idea a little bit. Like what is the U.S.A. if not just a big, stolen place? Maybe the identity we all need to work off of is we’re all just, like, thieves living here. And there’s not really a sense of virtuousness in that. But maybe that’s a better starting point than this idea of courageous cowboy defending the land.

In the press release you briefly touch on the expectation our society places on art to teach morals and values. And that you think that that’s an “anti-art” attitude. I was wondering if you could go into that a little more?

Greer: I just think we’re in an interesting time in terms of broader conversations about media and art. Where people are very obsessed with trying to extract some kind of value outside of the art itself, from art. People want to figure out how to put it into this narrative of, like, is it teaching me something positive? Is it standing for the sort of political consciousness that I want to be about? People are very obsessed with the idea that if something is problematic, cancelling it—so to speak. Which is kind of a very childish concept.

I just think that culturally, we’ve often been a place that thinks of art as an afterthought. It’s usually one of the first programs with a budget being slashed in public education. Public education in our country is abysmal, as we all know. And I think that’s also part of the reason why we have this bizarre expectation that our art and our TV shows and our movies should teach us something in order for them to be worthwhile. Whereas really, art should be about stirring us on the kind of level that maybe comes even before we’re able to articulate words or thoughts about it.