In the midst of a pandemic, in a small room in Los Angeles, Katie Alice Greer thought of Bruce Springsteen. Not the anthemic wrestler of “Badlands” or the poet of the “4th of July, Asbury Park” walk; the Bruce she had in mind was that of Nebraska, the dark solo album he had recorded nearly 40 years earlier in another small room across the country. “I was thinking what it looked like to him,” she said. “It takes a certain amount of faith or trust to get into a dark, lonely headspace and do something.”
Barbarism, the album she emerged with after 18 months alone in this room, is full of surreal language, distorted noise and disorienting melody. It looks like nothing Nebraska — but it feels like the existential crossroads Greer faced when she did it.
At the beginning of 2020, when she started making Barbarism, she was reeling from the recent disbandment of Priests, the band she had led for eight years in Washington, D.C. With Greer as their incandescent vocalist, Priests had been one of the most essential rock bands of the 2010s, playing unforgettable shows. which rocked thrillingly to the brink of chaos in crowded basements and clubs that have since closed. Through their proudly independent, artist-run label Sister Polygon Records, they had helped bring artists like Snail Mail, Downtown Boys and Sneaks to a wider audience; on their own records, such as the 2014 EP Body and control and money and power and their debut in 2017 PL, Nothing seems naturalthey had gone from caustic punk tirades to something more complex and challenging.
Upon the release of their second full album, 2019’s The seduction of Kansas, the bonds that united the priests were fraying. In interviews from that time, they spoke of the tensions that had resulted from their relentless work ethic and their upward career trajectory pushing them into group therapy in an attempt to save the band. Even now, three years later, as she talks on Zoom from a sun-drenched West Coast living room, it’s not easy for Greer to revisit that part of her life. “I haven’t talked about it much,” she said. “It was devastating. The band meant everything to me.
His spirit dates back to the spring of 2019, when Priests played a show in Bloomington, Indiana. The next day, she was so dehydrated and ill that she had to rush to the hospital – a reality check that left her wondering if she had put the welfare of the group before her own. That fall, she went to rural Tennessee to stay with her parents for a few weeks and settle her thoughts. “I half-jokely tell people that I must have had a nervous breakdown, but that’s no joke,” she says. “I was really not doing well. I wanted so badly to keep the band together and make it work. I hadn’t imagined a future where I wouldn’t be involved in this band.
Feeling she had reached a breaking point, she returned to DC and made a deal with her bandmates to put the priests on indefinite hiatus. On December 31, 2019, they played one last show in Brooklyn, giving their fans a bittersweet moment of closure. “I’ve never been married, I don’t know what divorce is, but I have to assume it was kind of like that,” Greer says. “I was so ready for the fighting and the sadness to be over.”
At the start of 2020, she was preparing to build a new life in Los Angeles after spending 14 years of training immersed in the DC music scene. “I love DC so much, but in some ways it just felt too heartbreaking to stay,” she says. The end of Priests had caused her to rethink her whole way of life there, and to reconsider the choices that had left her exhausted: “I, very naively in my early twenties, said to myself: ‘If I throw myself and all my passion into this little world that means so much to me, it will give me what I need in return. But if you don’t literally think about your own health, it’s just not sustainable.
Two weeks after moving into her first apartment in California, the pandemic forced her to take a break. “It made this situation even more emotionally intense for me,” Greer recalled. “On some level, I needed to close this chapter of my life – but I probably also needed to process a lot of my grief. Being locked up was like, ‘No, you have to sit here with all your terrible feelings and uncertainty and just deal with it.’ It was a very, very difficult first year here, but it was necessary.
Working in “a very small bedroom at the back of the apartment, the smallest room possible to record”, she settled into a daily creative routine, creating songs from scratch using Voice Memos. , a vintage Alesis HR-16 drum machine, an old acoustic guitar her parents bought her at Costco when she was growing up in Michigan, a few keyboards, and everyday sounds like car alarms and eggs that smash in a mixing bowl. “It was endless,” she says. “There were times when I wondered, ‘Am I losing my mind? Is this going to be a Bright something where at some point I realize I’m just typing, “All work, no play makes Jack a boring boy?”
Instead, she ended up with distorted pop songs like “Fake Nostalgia”, where she starts talking about The twilight zone and ends up repeating “I want out” like a prayer, and “Captivated”, which eerily revolves around a single repetitive piano note. On “Flag Wave Pt. 2,” her voice ripples and warps over waves of warm synths as she reaches a moment of acceptance: “You don’t want to be ruled, and I don’t blame you.” Other songs fall through trapdoors into a haunted-sounding space or an ambient guitar hum. It’s trippy, radical, strangely alive music like nothing Greer has ever done.
she went out Barbarism on Four Four Records, the new venture of DFA Records co-founder (and longtime Priests fan) Jonathan Galkin. “I’ve been trying to sign Katie Alice Greer since Priests released her first 7 inch single in 2012,” Galkin said. “I was fascinated by this group and their talent from the start. They had tremendous power. After their controversial split from DFA in 2020, the pieces finally aligned for them to work together.” Katie was in that moment of reinvention,” Galkin continues. “I, too, was in a moment of reflection. I like to think that we decided to take risks for each other.
As we speak, Greer seems excited and happy about the latest twist in her career — though she’s still adjusting to the idea of sharing her solo pandemic project with the world. “I made this record totally by myself, and I was trying to feel comfortable being as weird as possible,” she says. “I love how weird this turned out. But as the album got closer to release, I suddenly felt nervous – almost that way where you dream that you forgot to put clothes. I just feel very exposed.
She is working on plans to perform Barbarism live, including next month’s dates at the Lodge Room in LA (August 16) and the Knockdown Center in Queens, New York (August 21). “I want to perform,” she says. “I miss it a lot.” And she is already thinking about her next project. “This record is probably unique, because of the circumstances in which I made it,” she adds. “I have a feeling that whatever I start recording next will sound totally different.”