Interview: Priory (Portland)
As the boys of Priory get ready for their next tour in August they are ripe with gratitude ready to share their special blend of folk-electro fusion. The Portland-based quartet is comprised of Brandon Johnson (vocals, guitar), Kyle Dieiker (acoustic guitar, keys, bells, falsetto), Joe Mingus (drums) and Greg Harpel (lead guitar, bells, keys). They were able to spend an entire month in the studio recording their debut eponymous album compliments of Expunged Records.
Arrangement and texture do not escape the album with a couple of seasoned session musicians in the mix and a great affection for Beethoven. Each track is saturated with wanderlust that it seems you can only find in the northwest anymore. Covering everything from estranged family relationships, the certainty of death and sorted love affairs while remaining accessible. Vocalist Brandon Johnson spoke with us about the groups haphazard formation, the influence of the northwest, and what the future holds for Priory.
How did you guys meet and what compelled you to form Priory?
Me (Brandon Johnson) and Kyle Dieker are the two guys that write the songs primarily. I mean, it really is a band effort. A lot of times Kyle will come up with a guitar lick or a basic phrase, whether that’s like a lyric phrase or whatnot. I would say that my strong suit is kind of arranging. Me and Kyle met seven years ago. We were just kind of living in this bachelor pad house in Portland together and we were both going to school at the time. Back then we had written a bunch of songs, but it was just kind of more playful, but we realized there was that musical connection then. Then we kind of went our separate ways. Kyle moved to Seattle and started working for a record label there. I really focused on doing studio session bass work and giving lessons. I was trying to make a living doing music, but I was doing just a ton of different things. Then I ended up going to Oklahoma to horseshoeing/blacksmithing school. So I went down there and I became a blacksmith horseshoer and then I came home and went through all my journeymen certifications. I did that for a period of time and continued doing session work kind of as a side thing. Kyle had gotten married in Seattle and he moved back to Portland and we started hanging out again. I used to brew beer and I had this keg in my basement, which was Kyle’s excuse to come over and work on music. But we were really just hanging out and drinking beer and kind of throwing song ideas around. We got to this point where we started showing the stuff we were working on to some people and everyone was really excited about it. We just decided to give it a run and try to create a full album. We brought in our buddy Greg Harpel who is a poet. He was studying English at PSU at the time and he started coming over and getting involved with it. Before long we had a whole set of music and just went out and started playing. It was just received really well. We created a demo with one of my buddies, Skyler Norwood, who is a fairly well known producer in the northwest. Then Expunged Recordsapproached us like a couple months after doing our demo. We knew we wanted to do it, but we were more in a place where we wanted to kind of do it on our own. Our idea was kind of to give this thing as much attention as we can and finance it ourselves. And then Anthony McNamer, the owner of Expunged Records, kind of fell in love with it and his offer was just amazing. Some other record labels had talked to us and we weren’t necessarily at that point where we wanted to jump in the bed on a 360 deal because it just seemed like none of the deals were in favor. What Anthony brought to the table was very much in our favor. So that’s been an amazing relationship. Expunged Records is phenomenal, they paid for a whole month in the studio for us to go and record this album. Which was really neat because it’s the first time in my life I had that kind of freedom to make the songs exactly how we wanted them.
Was it a natural progression for you to mix in the electronic elements of Priory? Where did the electronic elements in Priory come from? Why use them?
Here’s the thing, when I was a teenager I was actually a DJ. So I’ve always kind of been into old Daft Punk and Future Sound of London and all that electronic stuff and so was Kyle. So we had some of the very first sequencing software that was out on the market when we were younger so we’ve always done that. Kyle is just a very proficient guitar player and I studied bass in school. So that was a very natural thing. The very first song we wrote together as a band was “Lady of Late.” So the very first thing we did was using electronic percussion and synth along with acoustic instruments. You know it seems like a natural thing and actually the stuff we’re working on now is even slightly more sequenced. It’s a learning process for us you know. The fun thing is the live show is such that everyone is doing like three or four things so it makes it really interesting and it never gets boring. Within eight bars of a song say Greg, who’s the lead guitar player, he’ll like play bell kit, lowrey organ, guitar and sing all within like one chorus. It took a lot of doing. I would say we have really good work ethic as far as practicing. We feel very blessed; we’re very stoked that at this point in our lives that we get to just do this. All of us are just focusing on this project. We try to take it very seriously and realize that you know we’re very fortunate to be in this place.
Where is Joe Mingus in the “Lady of Late” video? Is he a recent addition to the band?
So here’s the deal with that, he had joined the band…but Joe Mingus is like a ringer. He’s this like amazing, probably literally one of the top five drummers in Portland, and me and him met doing session work together where I was playing bass and he was playing drums on different albums. So he had joined the band, but he had prior engagements when we were shooting the video and he kept trying to make it out for different things, but he just wasn’t able to make it out for the shoots. So he’s just implied.
This tour has been a really really special tour. In the past it was good. Rich Preinesberger, our first drummer, is a really talented guy. But that being said, Joe is kind of a different level of musicianship and also he’s just so easy to be around. I get to tour around with my four best friends and Kyle I can literally say is my best friend as well as I’m very close to Greg. It’s so easy for us I think because we’re a little bit later in life for us to be doing this music thing. We’re all in our late 20’s and early 30’s. So I would say there’s a level of maturity that we bring to it and a work ethic that I haven’t had in any other band I’ve been in and I know everyone kind of feels the same way about it. So it’s just been really easy and really good. This last tour Joe was like a metronome. He’s such a strong drummer that it’s kind of helped escalate our live performance to the next level. I couldn’t imagine the band without him at this point.
Is the song “Lady of Late” about someone specifically or you collective experiences with love?
I would say collective experiences of love for sure. I mean, I guess when I was writing lyrics to that song, it’s definitely about the phase in a relationship when you realize ‘this is forever’ or ‘this is real’ you know and kind of the idea that there’s death and life in it. It’s like you die to yourself and you definitely change, whether that’s for better or for worse. A lot of people get into these life long relationships that aren’t meant to be and they can damage their lives. The flip side of that is you can find someone that is going to change you for the better. This is like the whole thing. So it’s kind of like open ended is the way I look at it. It’s like, “you broke my throne, I’m a humble man”, I’m something different for sure. But with me, fortunately and I know I can speak for Kyle also, the women in our lives, our amazing wives, it’s definitely for the better.
Tell me more about the premise for the song “Searching” and what it means to you.
The song “Searching” is about growing older and the individual members of your family and the relationships with your family, which felt kind of fantastical and all encompassing when you were young becoming more realistic. Like even the way your view your parents. Your dad is your hero and your mom is like the only mom, like the matriarch…she is the strongest female figure in your life. As your grow older and you mature, those relationships become different while you can still maintain strong relationships with those people. You see the way the world is and people move apart. That song is kind of personal to me and it does speak exactly to my life and some specific situations with my family like my brother moving away and distancing himself when we were young and stuff like that. The idea isn’t for it to be bleak; it’s just more bringing it to light. I think as we get older and move into our own lives more it’s just easy to lose track of our family. So if anything it’s kind of like harkening back as opposed to just being open ended. It’s also a call to us to just kind of pull our family close to us.
I think a lot of times you can have this kind of dark, almost introspective, subject matter. But then by making songs kind of major keyed and having familiar melodies and these exciting textural arrangements you can balance it out and make it so it’s not just this downer. Because if your hearing just these dark minor key droning chords and that kind of stuff, it’s just gonna feel like an Elliott Smith album or something. Which is amazing, I’m a huge Elliott Smithfan, but that’s not what we were going for. Like the yin and yang of the earth…that was way too melodramatic, but just the balance of things.
How has the Portland music scene influenced the way you interact with fans elsewhere?
It’s weird that you ask that. The Portland music scene is phenomenal. The cool thing is it’s a really tight knit community. So you can see Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse just walking down the street or in the same music store as you on any given day. Or Chris Funk from The Decemberists, like we all know those guys. It’s a small community and it makes things feel very attainable, but a lot of musicians that I’ve talked to also in the Portland scene don’t feel that way. They feel that it’s pretentious and kind of elitist, but I do not agree with that at all. I think that arms are open. You know Portland likes things that are kind of weird. One of the music writers in town, who’s a friend of mine, said ‘the consensus is Priory is going to be huge despite their sound being too saccharine for Portland’. Portland does like the melodrama and the dark and weird. They want mixes to be bad and they want the sound to be overly edgy. It’s a great place to come from because I think there’s amazing music coming out of here. The venues are really what stand out to me. There are venues that have this huge emphasis on quality of sound. Little thing that you take for granted like long sound checks and people that actually love music and are willing to express themselves at shows. Portland maintains this kind of boutique accessibility. Everywhere feels a little different and we love it, but Portland is definitely home. After being out on the road for a month and a half I’m always ready to come home.
How do you feel that the Northwest and Portland specifically have influenced your lyrics and music?
The weather is kind of nasty so we definitely spend a lot of time in doors practicing and writing without distractions. It’s funny because I think music is going to be music regardless. The way Portland has been nurturing to us has been really encouraging. Portland has been a really good parent. At the same time though, we decided to tour and go out and do our thing before Portland was even paying attention. I mean we were able to play some good venues or whatever, but I think press elsewhere was saying nice things before Portland. I think Portland has enough music venues and the northwest in general that if you’re willing to work really hard and you have some music that’s pretty good, it’s a very nurturing environment for bands.
We’ve actually been surprised and kind of blown away by the positivity we’ve received from the press in the last couple months. Our goal is to be out on the road as much as humanly possible this next year. We’re thinking at least six or seven months this next year. We also already have about half an album down. My favorite thing in the world is writing, I love the writing process so much. The day we got home from tour I started working on a new song and even when we’re in our tour bus we have recording software on an iPad. So we’re working on new stuff constantly. This new stuff, I’m easily as excited if not more excited about. I’m really excited about this next one, it’s gonna be really good.
Do you feel that your experiences on the road contribute to your material as far as the lyrics and what you write?
Absolutely! Beautiful scenery. Not too many people my age get to wake up and be on the road in these different amazing places and our tour bus has these huge windows down the side. Just like sitting and looking out at these new environments, I’m like in awe. At least once a day, I’m like ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ I’m in a bus with my best friends seeing all these sights and being in these new environments. It’s a very exciting thing and it definitely influences the music for sure especially the lyric writing part of it. I keep a notebook and I try to journal everyday. I think a lot of my lyrical stuff just comes from my journaling.
Is it important to you guys to cover some of the less flowery and more guteral topics that you approach in the album? For example the inevitability of death and estranged family relationships.
You know what, what comes out kind of just comes out. We have some songs like the song “Wait” on the album, which is just face value. Basically the idea of “Wait” is just that none of us really know what we’re doing, but as long as we have a support system we’re gonna survive. “Come on here we go, march out in the snow, I can’t see nothing.” Like we’re all blinded, we all don’t actually know where we’re headed as much as we try to tell people we are, but as long as we have love and support in our lives. So that’s pretty lofty and some of the other stuff is pretty heavy. We don’t have these concepts of what things need to sound like. We don’t feel like we need to fit into anyone’s genre specific idea of how something is supposed to sound or that the lyrics need to be overly deep or overly poppy and simple. Whatever we’re feeling, we as a band have the consensus that if this is what we want and we like it then we’re gonna do it. This is something we want to really stay true to also. We kind of draw upon all these crazy different influences and we don’t make excuses for what we do and I like that. We just say yes to everything in the studio, like if someone has an idea…we just try it. Mostly we want to write good songs with strong structures and I think that’s where the emphasis is. It seems like songs live forever, songs can really have a life. Where as like a lot of albums that are just about textures or about a sound or cultural movement have a smaller shelf life. It doesn’t take away from the validity of that art because that’s a specific thing too. We just like writing songs, as poppy or whatever as they can be, we just like writing songs. You know what I’m really excited about on this next album is Greg, our guitar player, is a published poet and he’s always been kind of shy about contributing lyrical content. So we just recently sat down to do this song that I think is going to make it onto the next album. When I do some pre-production in my home studio and working out the arrangements, I’ll come up with a lyrical idea or sometimes and we just head in that direction. But I had Greg with me in the studio this whole time and he came up with some of the most beautiful and eloquent lines, just the wording in a way that I never have. So I really want to utilize a lot more of him in this new album. I think it’s a gift he has and I’m really excited about having more of his lyrics in it too. Ultimately I think the more involved people are, like if the entire band is in the process, the better the product because everyone is so involved and they feel passion about it and ownership of it. We trust each other, each one of these guys has extreme strength that I don’t have and vice versa. I think that’s the only way a band can survive, is if you trust each other and you respect each others musicianship.
Say you had to do a road trip across the country for a week with three musicians living or dead, who would they be and why?
(this answer is compliments of Greg Hapel)
Priory’s A-team, Priory’s supergroup:
David Bowie: Bowie made it through several decades of drastic changes in popular music and for the most part continued to put out timeless material. Yeah, for sure there are some outliers there, but the quality of the songwriting is undeniable. The four of us in the band come from some real varying musical backgrounds, but Bowie’s a common thread on our influences list. An adaptable experimentalist he was. There’s a lesson there for any contemporary musician.
Beethoven: You might say, Yes great fantastic, Priory thinks that if Beethoven were around today he’d be doing collaborations with indie rock bands, that he’d be into the Portland scene. We’ll, yes, maybe its far-fetched, but we all entertain the fantasies of pulling our influences out of their time in history. But throw us a bone, if one could have one time traveling consultant to give advice on your craft, the canon of Beethoven’s work and breadth of influence on music in the GENERAL sense more than qualifies our desire to put him on this list.
Sufjan Stevens: There are any number of incredibly talented contemporary artists who we could put here. Sufjan is someone who stands out as a brilliant composer and actually, business man. He’s put all the money’s made back into his music, something that has given him the freedom and critical mass to explore a wide variety of aesthetic directions. The Sufjan kingdom grows and grows. His arrangements are unlike anything else that’s out there, one of the big movers and shakers.