What is punk?
A sound. A style. An attitude. An ethic. A pose. A creed. A code. A club. A community. A consequence. A harness. A coffin. A corpse. Something long dead. Something brought back to life. Something that tried to die but couldn’t.
Maybe it’s all of those things or none of those things, but it still exists in 2014, and it’s something that Priests is doing very well on a recent Monday evening in the sleepy-creepy Northwest industrial park where the band rehearses three nights a week.
The group has been on the road “forever,” so this night is a chance to write new songs. But bassist Taylor Mulitz and guitarist G.L. Jaguar each think the other’s amp is too loud. Drummer Daniele Daniele changes the subject with a hissing disco beat. Vocalist Katie Alice Greer bobs silently in place, like a kid plotting a cannonball into the deep end. Right now, they sound awful, which means they sound great, which is punk’s fundamental and enduring aesthetic mystery.
“We’re just trying to figure out what feels right to us,” Greer says after practice, sitting on the floor in a circle with her bandmates. “We’re trying to figure out our own rules, collectively, rather than somebody else’s.”
Being a 21st-century punk band is complicated. With infinite voices shouting across the Internet, the us-against-them binary that defined punk during its late-’70s advent seems quaint. But reflexive consumerism and countless varieties of injustice still exist. Priests prove that rock-and-roll is still an efficient tool for slicing them up.
On its forthcoming EP, “Bodies and Control and Money and Power,” the band fuses the dystopian surf-rock of the Cramps and the radical rage of Bikini Kill into something fresh and excellent. “Everything . . . so right wing,” Greer bellows on the first single, “Right Wing,” as if the enemy has her surrounded.
“All of my life, I’ve been fascinated with politics,” Greer says. “But what I think I’m really interested in is power dynamics. You’re made constantly aware of that, living in D.C. Maybe some people don’t think about it, but to me, it’s everywhere.”
In addition to living in the shadows of federal power, the members of Priests also live in the shadows of the District’s legendary hardcore punk scene, which ignited in the early ’80s, years before they were born.
All in their mid-20s, the four met by crossing paths at the Black Cat, at the now-shuttered Gold Leaf Studios, at the annual Small Press Expo in Bethesda. And like any great band, it’s made up of very different people. Jaguar and Daniele go by stage names; Mulitz and Greer do not. Jaguar and Mulitz are area natives. Greer moved here from Michigan, Daniele from Brooklyn. Greer used to sing alongside D.C. punk icon Ian Svenonius in Chain and the Gang, while Daniele joined Priests shortly after learning to play the drums. In 2012, after nearly a year as a trio, the group met Mulitz and everything finally clicked.
“This band was a starting place for us to feel involved,” Mulitz says.
They never made a formal decision to be a political group, but they each had backgrounds in activism and wanted to make music that responded to the world.
“We started the band right around the time of Occupy, and I was watching all these [Michelangelo] Antonioni films where he’s in this Marxist phase,” Daniele says. “And this is when we were first writing songs, so the concepts we were talking about found their way in there.”
So they released a cassette, then a 7-inch vinyl single, then another cassette, and instead of seeking ears through digital buzz, began touring coast to coast, playing roughly 80 shows last year.
“I think a lot of people are living in this blogosphere world, but that doesn’t feel very tangible,” Jaguar says. “We’re out there playing real shows and meeting real people.”
But that doesn’t mean the band’s highly physical live show hasn’t translated into online hype. Last fall, the tastemaking music site Pitchfork invited Priests to play a showcase in Brooklyn. The only snag: The concert was sponsored by the footwear company Dr. Martens. So the band showed up and lobbed burritos into the crowd, thanking Chipotle for “sponsoring” the gig. It was a joke. And as an exercise in 21st-century punk protest, it was more effective than pointing fingers or staying home. But it’s tricky.
“It’s hard to talk about commodification in music without making it sound like you’re attacking other bands,” Daniele says. “I’m not attacking other bands. I’m attacking a [messed]-up system.”
The quartet seemed completely in its element last month at Damaged City Fest, an all-weekend festival dedicated to hardcore punk at Saint Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Columbia Heights.
On a Saturday afternoon in a multipurpose room short on oxygen, Greer wore a stringy golden wig that made her face appear to glow crimson as she snarled “Doctor,” the most forceful song on “Bodies and Control and Money and Power.” Daniele, Jaguar and Mulitz played their parts accordingly, thrashing and squirming, as if trying to escape capture by phantoms.
After 15 minutes, it was over. The band said its thank yous dripping sweat, smiling smiles, waving waves. Furious, then courteous. Maybe that’s what punk is now. Or still is. Or will be.
“We don’t have a thesis statement for our band,” Greer says. “We’re still figuring out what we’re trying to say, so if it’s nuanced and confusing to people, that’s cool. It’s nuanced and confusing to us, too.”
Priests performs at the Black Cat on June 2. “Bodies and Control and Money and Power” is out June 3.