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On 'Barbarism,' Katie Alice Greer builds a discordant world that's all her own

"When you don't have the creative restriction of others, you're out there in the wilderness of your own brain and abilities," says Katie Alice Greer, whose debut solo album <em>Barbarism</em> is out June 24.
Kathryn Vetter Miller
"When you don't have the creative restriction of others, you're out there in the wilderness of your own brain and abilities," says Katie Alice Greer, whose debut solo album Barbarism is out June 24.

Katie Alice Greer likens the creation of her debut solo album, Barbarism, to the construction of an entire world. Written, performed, produced and mixed entirely by Greer, the record makes use of gunshots, industrial noise and tremolo-warbled guitar riffs, among other sounds, to create complex, layered compositions. The effect is sometimes jarring, sometimes lush, but always captivating.

As frontperson of the widely-hailed Washington, D.C. punk band Priests, Greer cultivated a reputation as a dynamic performer and an astute conveyor of both abstract and didactic cultural critiques. On Barbarism, out June 24, Greer draws inspiration from her new Los Angeles surroundings, the dissolution of relationships and the forced isolation of the pandemic. Merging pop sensibilities with the expansiveness of electronic manipulation, the album is in line with the numerous tapes, cover songs and EPs Greer has released as a solo act. While the music can be harsh and hard to parse, the overall message seems to be one of hope. On the uplifting opening track — in a line that echoes poet June Jordan — Greer asks, "Aren't we / The ones that we were waiting for us to be?"

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NPR Music: You've been in a lot of different bands. On this, you really did it all — what was it like to have total control as a solo artist?

Katie Alice Greer: It was both the most exciting part of making this record, and also the most challenging and scary. I'm such a big believer in teamwork and collaboration. I love working with other people because I think, in the best case scenario, both parties are making something that they probably would not have created on their own. When you don't have the creative restriction of others, you're out there in the wilderness of your own brain and abilities. I was excited to see what I would come up with on my own, and also freaked out sometimes.

You moved to LA right before COVID-19?

I got here two weeks before the pandemic.

What was it like working on music when you couldn't perform and couldn't put music out [physically?] I know there [have] been delays in terms of pressing records. Did it change the way that you were thinking about yourself as a musician?

It completely changed my day to day reality. I spent the last decade, if not on tour, working jobs that allowed me the flexibility to go on tour, centering my whole life around being able to perform live and being able to live on the meager and inconsistent income you get from doing that unless you're at a higher professional level. In the past when I've moved to new places, I've always been like, I just need a place to keep my stuff, I don't really care what my home is like, I'm on the road all the time. Not having any live shows for the foreseeable future, it sucked. One of my favorite things is performing. But it helped me refocus on other aspects of my life that I had been neglecting or just not even really bothering with. It's been a good period for me to just get re-grounded in other parts of my life so that hopefully when I can be back on the road more, I have more of a home to come home to.

Did being in LA shape [the album's] sound?

I think so. Not just LA but the whole experience of living through the past two years, which I'm sure everyone can understand from their own experiences. Having left the East Coast when I did and getting out here just before everything shut down, I felt really grateful and lucky. As much as LA gets a bad rap for being filled with smog and traffic, there's a lot of greenery. I felt really inspired by feeling more connected to nature. I mean, I wasn't just walking around, totally inspired by the uncertainty and horrible destruction of the pandemic — but a lot of weird mixed emotions and feelings during all this, coupled with the fact that I've never lived on the West Coast before. Even two years into living here, LA is still sort of a novelty to me. There's a real weirdness that runs through this city. I'm sure that worked its way into some of the stranger sounds on the record or just leaning into things feeling maximalist and over the top and peculiar.

Some of the songs, particularly the opening track ["FITS/My Love Can't Be,"] mimic this feeling of how overwhelming social media can be — or the news, how it never ends. It's this onslaught of sounds. What were you trying to convey using these sometimes discordant sounds?

Conveying a sense of being overwhelmed was a big influence in that track. I wrote it after the first couple of months of quarantine here where I hadn't really seen anybody at all and was kind of just holed up in my apartment and then started going downtown for more protests. It was this extreme of total isolation to being around hundreds of bodies. That contrast and those extremes really informed the mood I was going for. I wanted to play with feelings of optimism and excitement and happiness, and also maybe draw out how those things can feel when taken too far into an extreme.

Are there any themes or ideas you return to? There seems to be this hopeful message behind a lot of the songs. There [are] moments where the lyrics are really beautiful and positive or poppy.

It's less topical for me and less about communicating a specific message, and more like, I keep seeing in my head building a model planet or habitat. It was more about creating sonically a whole world that these narratives and weird songs could live in. It was a very exploratory process for me because this is the first time in so long that I've been decoupled from the responsibility of being sort of a spokesperson for a group. That often informed a lot of my songwriting sensibilities in the past. This album was stretching out a little bit and making space for that, really giving myself permission to say: this is how I'm feeling these days, when it's just me.

You've been releasing solo music for a long time. You used to do it using your initials, [KAG] and now you're going by your full name. Was there a reason for that?

It's two reasons. The first one being I started getting an uptick in people following me, especially on Twitter, who seemed to be into "MAGA" this, Trump that. I was kind of scratching my head because I'm pretty vocally opposed to that stuff, but it's not like I'm some famous person who might be the target of Trump trolls. I finally realized it's because #KAG, my initials, for them means "Keep America Great."

That coupled with the fact that a lot of times I felt bad about taking individual credit for my creative work. There's just something about that that's always made me a little uncomfortable. And I'm often drawn to doing things that make me uncomfortable in my creative work, because that's one of the best ways for me to figure out what's going on in my head. The idea that putting it out in my own full name scared me also drew me to wanting to do it.

Some people like to have day jobs that are totally separate from what they do creatively. You have had other sorts of jobs in the past. Does that help your creative process or do you prefer to always be working on music or creative projects?

I do prefer to constantly be working on music and to have no interruptions. I remember reading about Prince in his heyday and how when he would go on tour, he would have a separate vehicle for all the gear in case he decided he wanted to jam and turn the venue into a studio for recording. He had his whole routine set up around constantly writing and recording and that's my dream. Obviously, I don't have that luxury. I've had multiple day jobs since I moved here that have nothing to do with music and it always sucks a little bit when I go back to that because I just hate anything that tears me away from what I want to be working on. But I know that it's been good for me if for no other reason than I've had more of a steady income. Not having a steady income when you do creative stuff can be really distracting to creativity in other ways, when you're stuck trying to figure out where your money is coming from.

What do you get out of making music? Or do you just feel compelled to do it?

I would say the reward is not having a nervous breakdown, like maintaining some semblance of mental health. [Laughs] I tend to feel compelled to make stuff. When you grow up in the culture that we live in that is so obsessed with productivity, maybe if you're a creative person, [there] also is this constant thing in your head of: make more stuff, do something productive, which I don't think is necessarily healthy. I tend to feel good when I find a way to translate the sounds I'm hearing in my head into something other people can hear. I probably want to make things that are more accessible to other people in the future. But for now, it's just been a real satisfaction getting strange things I hear in my head out into the world.

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Kerry Cardoza