Priestess is a Canadian rock band formed by singer/guitarist Mikey Heppner in Montreal, Quebec in 2003. Since its inception it has featured Heppner, singer/guitarist Dan Watchorn, singer/drummer Vince Nudo, and bassist Mike Dyball. Priestess were considered one of the most important bands in the early millennial "retro rock" movement, although they denied intentionally attempting to emulate the sounds of classic rock bands such as Black Sabbath and AC/DC, whom they idolized and to whom they were frequently compared.
Priestess was established in the early 2000s after all but one of the members of punk band the Dropouts left the band. The sole remaining member, Heppner, sought new bandmates after changing the group's sound, and after a name change they released their first album, Hello Master, on independent record label Indica in 2005. Initially only released in Canada, the album was noticed and released by RCA Records internationally the following year, and the single "Lay Down" brought the band much success after being included in the popular video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. RCA disliked Prior to the Fire, the result of the group's attempt at a second album, as the label feared its progressive rock-influenced sound would not be marketable; the band subsequently left the label and the album's serially-delayed 2009 release occurred in Canada on Indica, followed by an international 2010 release on independent label Tee Pee Records.
2012 would have been the year for a new album, but such a release was canceled. Priestess have gone on hiatus and members have engaged in other projects for the time being.
As the Dropouts (up to 2003):
Mikey Heppner attended Vanier College in Montreal to major in music and find other Frank Zappa fans like himself to start a band with. He found no one suitable for the job; he described the people he met there as "all elevator jazz geeks" and became discouraged about being able to form an experimental band. Heppner discarded his experimental rock goals entirely after being inspired to form a punk rock band instead; a friend he met at Vanier named Olivier Corbeil took him to see a punk band in concert, which enthralled him so much he formed the Dropouts with Corbeil, Tim Fletcher and Dave Hamelin to partake of the same high energy he saw at that performance. Heppner wrote "really simple Ramones-type of songs" for the group while the other three achieved gradual fame in their side project, the Stills. Heppner had no lasting ambitions for the Dropouts, who only recorded a demo, but after the Stills left the group for New York in 2003 to continue on their own, he felt surprised by their success. He changed his musical goals and decided to reform the Dropouts, this time hoping for a more serious project in the vein of Tricky Woo (and their resemblance to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath).
Future guitarist Dan Watchorn, who also moved to Montreal to attend college, was inactive musically when Heppner asked him to join the group. After hearing a demo of songs Heppner had been working on, Watchorn agreed to join, and Mike Dyball auditioned for the band with an unnamed drummer (who left a year later and was replaced). Heppner discovered Vince Nudo when the latter played a concert with another band in the club at which Heppner worked as a disc jockey, and Heppner was impressed by his performance. Recalling the performance, Heppner asked Nudo to join the Dropouts once their second drummer was fired three months later. Heppner felt certain he had found all the right people for the group when their first jam session with Nudo resulted in a new song. By this point, the band still called themselves the Dropouts; they would not take the name Priestess for another year. The new name was chosen only for how "heavy" it sounded, but it led to the misconception that they were trying to be a heavy metal band (a claim they have repeatedly denied), and Watchorn has explained that it also leads some concertgoers to think they are "an all-female Judas Priest cover band".
Early years as Priestess (2004-2007):
The band's debut album, Hello Master, was produced by the Stills' producer, Gus van Go, and released on October 18, 2005 on Indica Records in Canada. After its release, the group admitted to being dissatisfied with its sound; Heppner described the album rather apathetically as "just the recorded version of twelve of our songs", and as "a really weird sounding album where everything is so tight and really produced". Critics took note of the album's hard rock style, sometimes to point out that it was not terribly unique; some criticized the classic rock-influenced style on Hello Master as being repetitive and stale, while others enjoyed it for that very reason. Comparisons to Black Sabbath were frequent, as were others to AC/DC and even Motörhead (even though Heppner has never been a fan of Motörhead, who ironically would take them on tour).Hour magazine specifically pointed-out that the comparisons to Priestess' spiritual ancestors actually proved the band were trying to pay respect to their musical roots instead of claiming a unique style. Heppner was somewhat taken aback to learn of the impression critics were under; he noted that the album sounded "pretty modern" to him and the group did not consider the record to be a metal one at any point during its creation.
To promote the album, Priestess committed to a regular touring schedule which saw them frequently being selected to support more well-known acts. Motörhead took notice of Priestess and made them the opening act on several dates in Canada in 2005 before the release of Hello Master.RCA Records noticed the group and signed them in January 2006, becoming their label for all territories outside of Canada, remastering Hello Master and releasing it internationally, beginning with the United States on June 13. After the Canadian release, the group spent early 2006 supporting the Sword, Early Man and Dinosaur Jr. in North America, and spent much of the rest of the year in the US with bands such as GWAR,Nashville Pussy and Black Label Society. Their schedule continued well into 2007 as they traveled with Mastodon in the US and made their first appearance in the UK supporting Megadeth for several dates.
The single "Lay Down" was included in the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, which elevated the band's profile drastically. Enthusiastic about the success of that game, Heppner has stated he believes Guitar Hero and such games to be perfectly valid ways of finding new music, noting that his first exposure to Black Sabbath was through the Super Nintendo video game Rock n' Roll Racing, and Vince Nudo has given the genre credit for its potential to expose younger generations to classic rock. Another single from the album, "Talk to Her", peaked at #33 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in 2006. Priestess were voted Montreal's heaviest band by readers of the Montreal Mirror in 2006.
As their busy touring schedule left them little time to write new material, Priestess only began work on a follow-up album in the summer of 2007. Heppner began writing things that were inspired by listening to progressive rock in his youth, which he felt made the work he created too esoteric for his bandmates to enjoy. When he did show them the material he was working on, they instead loved it, and as a whole began adding minor progressive rock characteristics to their sound in an effort to challenge themselves.
Prior to the Fire, dispute with RCA and departure for Tee Pee Records (2008-2011):
Priestess' second album, however, was constantly impeded before, during, and after recording. All throughout, RCA debated with the band over whether any of the songs were worthy of being singles that could sell the album substantially. RCA first delayed the beginning of the recording process trying to force them to write more songs, then delayed the album release by asking the same thing again, which the group refused. The production process itself was plagued with problems that prolonged it, as any producer hired before David Schiffman quit the project and after recording had begun in Los Angeles, the police forced them to change studios to avoid noise violation penalties.
Because of the disagreements, Priestess were relinquished from their contract with RCA and allowed to release the finished product, which was completed in the fall of 2008 and became Prior to the Fire, on another label - a compromise for which the band still respect RCA. Tee Pee Records, who had approached the band in their early days before they decided to sign with RCA who offered them more money, subsequently signed the group and the release finally occurred. Indica Records waited until the band had an international label before releasing Prior to the Fire, and released it in Canada on October 20, 2009, while the international release occurred early the following year. David Schiffman's more-relaxed approach to recording led to a sound for the record the band were more satisfied with; his production style was summarized as "being about recording it and not fucking with it", avoiding such studio tools as click tracks or editing, resulting in a record that more closely mirrors the band's live sound than Hello Master does. They have also expressed feeling more comfortable being signed to Tee Pee than to RCA.
The album was critically well-received, though some reviewers did not view the stylistic departure from Hello Master favorably. Rock Sound compared the group to Thin Lizzy and Baroness in a positive way, but Pitchfork Media declared the album could not compare to a record such as High on Fire's Snakes for the Divine. Other reviewers concluded the long wait between the group's two records was worth it.
In spite of delaying concert plans due to their inability to schedule recording dates, Priestess continued to tour ceaselessly after finishing the album, making a Canadian tour with Bison B.C. in November 2008, and touring the US again in the spring of 2009 with GWAR and Cattle Decapitation. Following its release, the group performed with such acts as Early Man,High on Fire and new labelmates Naam in North America, and Bigelf in Europe and the UK. A music video for "Lady Killer" was released on February 4, 2010.
Attempted third album and hiatus (2012):
Priestess had planned to embark on a tour of Europe in the spring of 2012, including a concert at the Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands. Without explanation, these plans were cancelled. They had been working on and would have released a new album by that time, but no announcement has been made regarding a third Priestess album since then.
On September 3, 2012, after a long period of silence (which he attributed to issues for all the band members he was not at liberty to discuss), Heppner posted to the band's Facebook page via his own account to explain that the band lacked confidence in the material being recorded for their third album, and elected to simply "let it happen naturally". As of late 2012, the band are on hiatus, and members have engaged in side projects during the downtime. Heppner has formed garage rock outfit UBT (formerly Uncle Bad Touch), and during a feature on UBT, Planet S Magazine noted the "rumoured demise" of Priestess. Vince Nudo became the drummer for Kurt Vile's backing band, the Violators, and has also formed Frères Lumières, a film-scoring group, with bandmate Dan Watchorn. Mike Dyball has been playing bass guitar for metal band WetMetal.
"We just consider ourselves a rock band. Every band is different and we play rock our way. I guess it kind of dwells into heavy metal territory from time to time but I wouldn't go into a room full of 'metalheads' and say, 'Hey, this is my Priestess record, we're a heavy metal band!'"
--Mikey Heppner, 2007
Priestess are frequently cited as a classic rock revivalist act, using such rock 'n' roll staples as guitar solos, and are often compared to legendary acts such as Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Heppner denies that they are actively emulating the sound of the likes of such bands on purpose, arguing that they simply play what they want to play, and that such comparisons are only incidental.
The band have been variously labeled as hard rock, heavy metal, and even stoner rock, although the band do not try to define their style; Heppner once commented that "all labels beyond rock are useless to him," and also pointed out in 2005 that Cream were considered metal for their time, concluding that "in this ancient way, Priestess are metal." Other bands that have influenced the group were also referred to as heavy metal in bygone decades. Watchorn only describes the band as hard rock, and argues that calling their music "metal" only limits the band's creative freedom. Drummer Vince Nudo has said that since the songs are not written to be "heavy", he does not understand the direct metal association. The band have opined that they are perhaps not "heavy" enough for heavy metal fans while they are too "heavy" for fans of softer rock, and have also denied that the music scene of Montreal has in any way defined, shaped, or helped them find their sound; Heppner once said, "We might as well be from anywhere," and the band are close friends with fellow Montreal acts. The band's name itself has been part of the confusion; Heppner, speaking English during an interview with Canadian French-language newspaper La Presse, stated that Priestess was "just this heavy name" and the reporter wrote, "parce que ça sonne metal" (which translates to "because it sounds metal").
Hello Master was intentionally written to be simple in terms of the music, while Prior to the Fire was meant to be somewhat more complex on purpose without being too different from Hello Master. The stylistic shift was attributed to the band's desire to create something more challenging for themselves. Their debut album also features twin harmonized guitar solos, something long considered to have gone out of style in rock music. Heppner largely wrote the first album himself and had the others' help in arranging it, but the second one featured much more writing input from his bandmates.
The group admire classic rock mainstays such as the Beatles,the Rolling Stones,Black Sabbath,Led Zeppelin and AC/DC.Nirvana was an early inspiration for Heppner, whose earliest repertoire was entirely made of Nirvana songs. Watchorn says the Melvins are his favorite band, and also enjoys folk and country music.
Heppner prefers the Beatles, while Watchorn has stated that he likes the Stones better. Bassist Mike Dyball is known to enjoy Bruce Springsteen and the Cult, and Nudo admires John Bonham, David Bowie, and Thin Lizzy. Heppner has also cited Dinosaur Jr., with whom the group toured in 2006, as "a band that they have worshipped since they were teenagers," along with thrash metal group Metallica as a personal favorite.
Groups who championed the progressive rock movement of the 1970s have also impacted the group; in addition to the Beatles, Heppner cites Pink Floyd,Yes,Jethro Tull,Genesis,King Crimson and Frank Zappa as his favorite inspirations, the latter being his favorite artist in general. On the band's second studio album, Prior to the Fire, they drew from more progressive rock influences, with more complex music and more obscure lyrical themes; Heppner, who had listened to these artists throughout his youth (while his bandmates did not), had been writing new material with them as his inspiration, but was embarrassed about the new musical direction at first, as he was not sure how his bandmates would react. Consequently, he did not show them the material he was writing for a time, and when he did, their reaction was the opposite of what he was expecting.
Songwriting and lyrics:
Lyrical themes range from typical rock 'n' roll themes to film & television characters. Favorite movies inspired certain lyrics from Hello Master, and were also the subject of many songs on Prior to the Fire, along with anime; for example, "Murphy's Law" was a tribute of Heppner's to Robocop, his favorite film, while "Sideways Attack" was inspired by Lone Wolf and Cub. Because of his preferred lyrical focus, Heppner does not claim to be an "amazing" lyricist.
Hello Master contains grim lyrics that refer to death and murder; in particular, "Lay Down" is about a man who murders his wife, while "Two Kids" relates the discovery and investigation of the dead bodies of two children.Prior to the Fire continued that lyrical tradition with "Lady Killer", in which someone promises to avenge the murder of a loved one.
Regarding the apparent theme of violence in the band's work, Heppner argues that such a theme is a logical side effect of writing heavier material, noting that he does not write violent lyrics for the sake of writing violent lyrics.
Mikey Heppner - Lead vocals, lead guitar (2003-present),
Dan Watchorn - Rhythm guitar, backing vocals (2003-present),
Mike Dyball - Bass guitar (2003-present),
Vince Nudo - Drums, percussion, backing vocals (2003-present)