By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the most promising new bands to surface on the global doom scene of late, Los Angeles power trio High Priestess has come a long way since first coming together only two years ago.
Started in 2016 after bass player Mariana Fiel placed a Craigslist ad looking to form a heavy spiritual/psychedelic doom bass-and-drum duo in the style of Bay Area heroes Om, Fiel found not only a talented drummer in Texas transplant Megan Mullins, but ended up bringing aboard recently relocated veteran guitarist Katie Gilchrest.
The three musicians quickly bonded and realized they had a unique chemistry, even coming up with a song the first time they played together. High Priestess went to work refining their sound — a collision of muscular, tuneful riffs and loose-limbed, psychedelic improvisation topped with intricate vocal harmonies — and writing material. The trio self recorded and produced a five-song demo that they made public last summer and quickly had doom-focused blogs raving about High Priestess as a force to be reckoned with.
Within months the women had signed to Bay Area heavy rock imprint Ripple Music and set about putting together their eponymous debut album, which came out last week. Having already established a solid local following in Los Angeles, the band will be making it’s first ever appearance in the Bay Area this Friday at Thee Parkside with like-minded SoCal labelmates Salem’s Bend, South Bay heavy rock juggernaut (and fellow Ripple act) Zed and SF newcomers the Mudlords as they kick off their first tour up the West Coast and into Canada. CBS SF recently caught up with the band for a phone interview with all three members to discuss their backgrounds, how they came together and the influences that helped shape their remarkable sound.
CBS SF: Prior to forming High Priestess a couple of years ago, did you have past band experience? Had you played this type of music before?
Katie Gilchrest: I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 13 and I’ve been in bands since high school. I lived in Portland, Maine, for ten years and was involved in the scene there. I played in a bunch of heavy rock, psychedelic and stoner doom bands. I guess the last band I was in there was called Arcane Lore, which was a stoner/heavy psych duo. I jammed in a lot of projects, but that would probably be the one of note. Then there was another band that I played keyboards and guitar in called Dementia 5. After I was in Portland, I moved to Brooklyn and then ended up in LA. And this is my first project here.
Megan Mullins: I started playing drums when I was like 14 and played in a couple of high school bands. But after high school, I didn’t really play a lot. That went on through college, but a couple of years after college, I picked it back up and joined a rock cover band in Austin, Texas. For two years solid, we played three or four gigs a week. That kind of was my rock and roll school in a way. I got a lot of experience through that.
And then I moved to LA and jammed a bit with quite a few bands in a variety of genres. This is my first doom project. I’m also in a sci-fi/horror movie inspired psych rock band that’s a duo called Obey the Wolves. And I’ve also got southern gothic revival for Satan organ-and-drum duo that’s pretty fun too called Jamestown Pagans. But I would say this is probably the heaviest band I’ve ever been part of.
Mariana Fiel: So I used to jam in Portugal a lot. Just garage sessions, so to speak, with whoever was in the house at that time and whatever instrument they played. Mostly with my older brother as well. I was in a couple of projects there but nothing really big. We recorded a couple of songs to eight track, but nothing as big as High Priestess is becoming.
CBS SF: Megan’s response made me realize I should also ask about your respective backgrounds as far as where you grew up and lived. Katie, it sounds like you were in Maine for the most part before moving to Brooklyn and then LA. Megan, I think I can detect a bit of Texas in your accent. Did you grow up in Austin or did you just end up there for college?
Katie Gilchrest: I actually grew up in Maryland and went to college in Maine and stuck around afterwards. If I had realized there was this amazing heavy underground scene in Maryland when I was a teenager, I probably would have stayed there. But I just didn’t know that Wino and Pentagram and all these other bands were happening. So I went to Maine for college and later when to New York for grad school at NYU in 2013. Then I stuck around there for a few years and moved to LA in 2016.
Megan Mullins: I grew up in southeast Texas, way down there almost in Louisiana, actually. So I’m a true Cajun. I went to college in Huntsville, Texas, at Sam Houston State. From there I moved to Austin, which I would consider more of my Texas home. I love Austin so much! But then I moved to LA in 2012.
CBS SF: And Mariana, I guess a little more detail on your travels from Portugal to ending up in Los Angeles would be good too…
Mariana Fiel: I’m originally from Porto in Portugal. I moved out here to the U.S. and specifically LA in 2007 when I was about 22 years old. And I’ve been here ever since because it’s awesome; the weather is amazing and there’s such an amazing music scene, so there’s no reason to leave here.
CBS SF: Did you all move to Los Angeles specifically to pursue music, or was it for work or other reasons?
Megan Mullins: I would say for music.
Katie Gilchrest: Yeah, I came out here to play music.
Mariana Fiel: I came here because I was in love with an American. That didn’t work out, but living in LA worked out, so I stayed here.
CBS SF: It seems a little unusual that you ended up as a trio when the initial inspiration was to be a duo modeled after Om. Was it just a matter of meeting Katie and playing with her to make you realize that the chemistry was right for a three piece?
Mariana Fiel: So what happened was that I placed the ad and was looking for a drummer. I wasn’t finding the right person. People were sending me videos of them playing and nobody seemed to be the right fit. Meanwhile, Katie was like, “I know you’re looking for a drummer, but I’m a guitar player.” And she sent me all of her previous work and I was amazed! There was no way in hell I could pass up someone like that! No way. And that was the best decision I ever made.
Then I think a couple of days later, Megan replied to the ad, and that’s when all the stars aligned and it was perfect. We jammed together and it just fit. It clicked and was perfect. Just the individual energy that each person brought to the sound was just great. It’s the biggest pleasure to jam with musicians like that.
Megan Mullins: When I first saw Mariana’s ad, the way that she described it — I wish that I could remember it verbatim, because it just sounded so bad ass, that I knew I definitely wanted to be a part of it. So I thought, “How am I going to convince this girl to definitely pick me?” So I’m so glad she did and it all worked out. Our first jam, like what Mariana said, it just clicked and really felt like it was meant to be. I know that sounds cliche and people say that all the time, but that honestly was the reality from Day One.
Katie Gilchrest: I remember I had just come to LA and hadn’t even found a place yet — I was house sitting — when I saw Mariana’s ad. Just like what Megan said, the way she described how she wanted the music to be, even though she was just talking about bass and drums for this really heavy doom project, I was like “Oh my God! I have write her and convince her to jam.” It just sounded like it could be really awesome. Luckily she like my music. When we jammed the first time, we actually started jamming on “Earth Dive,” right?
Mariana Fiel: Yeah, it was “Earth Dive.”
Katie Gilchrest: So right out of the gate, we came up with that chord progression and were just improvising and soloing. We created this whole other environment in the practice space. There was definitely magic in the air.
CBS SF: My next question was whether any of you brought song ideas that you already had written to the band when it formed or did you wrote everything collectively after it came together? It sounds like at least one song was written as a group as soon as you started playing…
Mariana Fiel: I think with “Earth Dive,” we were basically tuning at the time [laughs]. Katie was tuning her guitar and Megan was warming up and I was making sure my bass was in tune, and that’s when “Earth Dive” came along. I started playing the basic riff and Megan brought those drums to it and Katie started playing her guitar with the harmonizer. It was just amazing.
So “Earth Dive” was like that. Some of the other songs I had already, but just the basic simple riffs in mind. So I would bring it to practice or send it to Katie and Megan and say, “What do you think about jamming to this at the next practice?” And they would transform what I thought was an OK riff into something next level. Katie would compose the rest of the song around it. And she brought some awesome song ideas of her own as well.
Katie Gilchrest: That basically was it. Usually Mariana has a riff that we work around. And sometimes we’d just jam to something. I know it happened on more than one occasion that Mariana would just be messing around on her bass and I’d be like, “Wait! What was that? Play that again!” [laughs] And it sounds really awesome and then it becomes a song.
Megan Mullins: [Laughs] I was about to say the exact same thing! Which is that sometimes songs would just happen in that way. I felt like Mariana and Katie weren’t even trying to put down awesomeness. It just happened! I don’t know. It was amazing.
CBS SF: Did you collaborate as far as the lyrics, or was there one person who took the lead on that part of the writing?
Mariana Fiel: Katie is the mastermind behind the lyrics. I contribute a little bit, but not half as much as Katie does. She comes up with these great stories and makes it seem so effortless [laughs]. I’m so jealous of that! She comes up with beautiful vocal arrangements as well as far as the harmonizing. So that’s mostly Katie.
Katie Gilchrest: But you wrote all of “Despise” as far as the lyrics. And some of the melodies Mariana is coming up with and I can just hear the harmony to it. But if I’m driving around listening to our jams, I’ll get a word in my mind that has a little melody attached to it and it all kind of stems from there. It’s almost like one word coming out of nowhere will create the idea of the song. It’s just a matter of working it out.
CBS SF: The vocal arrangements and the harmonies are part of what really sets the band’s sound apart. Is there anything that specifically inspired the vocals and the vocal arrangements as far as your musical influences?
Mariana Fiel: I think Katie would agree with this as well, but Acid King is a big one. Also Witch Mountain, especially Uta Plotkin’s work with the band. Katie, do you have anyone else you can think of off of the top of your head? I mean other than Hendrix [laughs]
Katie Gilchrest: Well, it’s always Hendrix [laughs]! I don’t know. As far as writing, I went to music school and did a lot of composition there. We went through a lot of classical and baroque music. I remember a lot of multi-vocal parts — there was Palestrina, who had these amazing vocal lines that would weave in and out of each other that I was kind of influenced by.
It’s not modern doom, but it definitely made an impact. And just learning about how traditional harmony works and studying classical counterpoint and things like that — especially in baroque music like Bach. Obviously, that stuff is a lot more complicated, but I definitely learned a lot. And even just growing up and listening to the Beatles and learning all of their harmony parts really gave me a perspective of what you can do with a song and a melody. And you know who else? Alice In Chains.
Megan Mullins: Hell yeah!
Katie Gilchrest: They have unique harmonies in their music. That was a huge influence on me, especially in my teenage years. As far as performers, there’s Grace Slick and definitely Acid King. And I like the vocal melodies of Windhand. They’re great and they use harmonies too.
Mariana Fiel: Also Jarboe, who has a Middle Eastern sound that’s really cool. She did some stuff with Neurosis…
CBS SF: From what I’ve read, you debut album is essentially the demo you put out last year plus an additional song. Is that extra song, “Banshee,” something you had recorded separately? Or was it already recorded and just didn’t make the demo?
Katie Gilchrest: The demo and the album are the same recording. I have a master’s in music technology and have been recording music since college when I was in my early 20s. So I’ve been using Pro Tools since then and working studios and live sound and whatever. So I said, “Why don’t I just record our demo in our practice space? And maybe we’ll release it and it’ll be lo-fi or whatever., but we’ll just do it and see what happens.”
I just used a minimal set up and it happened to sound really, really good. We did it after a show at the Viper Room, so I think we brought in that energy from the live performance. And the practice room just sounds great. We did all the instrumental parts live in there and then recorded vocals at home later.
And then we got signed to Ripple. We were jamming along to the song “Banshee,” which came out of nowhere, like we were saying earlier. It came out of a little ditty that Mariana did in between songs, and we were like, “Oh my God! Let’s work on that!” So we really wanted to include it on the album.
What we did, because the original version of “Despise” that was on the demo was too long — we wouldn’t have been able to fit another song on the record — was we re-recorded “Despise.” I brought in all the mics and we set them up the same way — this was about six months later, after we had recorded the original demo.
So we kind of did an abridged version of the middle improvisational part and cut it down a little bit so we could fit “Banshee” in, which was only about four minutes long. So yeah, it was recorded the same way in the practice space and we did the same thing; we recorded vocals at home and then I mixed it in my free time.
CBS SF: As far as getting hooked up with Ripple, how did you end up working with them? Did someone with the label just hear the demo online?
Megan Mullins: Mariana, didn’t you share it somewhere first?
Mariana Fiel: I shared it on a Facebook group. There are like a million doom groups; I don’t remember exactly which one it was. But I shared a link to the demo through our bandcamp. Christine Kelly of Tridroid Records heard it and really liked it. She offered to release our album on cassette through her label. And she is good friends with Matt Bacon, who works a lot with Todd Severin of Ripple Music. So he passed along a message — “Hey, check out this band!” — and Todd really seemed to like it as well. So a couple of weeks later we got an email from Ripple Music about signing with them.
Katie Gilchrest: Then Megan and I went to Psycho Las Vegas, and that’s where we met Todd and Matt. And they introduced us to some more people, like musicians from the label, and they set up the contract and that was it.
CBS SF: That’s funny. I went to both editions of Psycho Las Vegas, but I didn’t meet Todd until earlier this year when Ripple put out the Blackwülf album. But he’s got really good taste. So this tour that you’re going on that starts in SF, is that your first tour outside of LA?
Katie Gilchrest: Yeah, it is.
CBS SF: So how did you end up booking the tour with Salem’s Band and Ape Machine? I guess Salem’s Bend is from LA too and also on Ripple…
Megan Mullins: I think it was the brainchild of Matt Bacon. He wanted to put this tour together. We had been chatting about what we could do to promote the album and what bands. He said we totally should tour with Salem’s Bend. So it started out being a West Coast thing, and then it ended up being extended into Canada and back down. So it was through Ripple, but also Ian from Ape Machine did the booking; he runs Hi-Wattage Booking. It was just a matter of being connected with them and then making the dates work.
CBS SF: So why haven’t you played San Francisco sooner?
Katie Gilchrest: As far as playing San Francisco, we would have loved to. It’s just all gone by so fast. I feel like we haven’t been a band for that long. We almost haven’t been able to venture out. We’ve mostly just played in LA and were busy with the demo and getting signed and everything. But we’re glad that it’s going to happen now.
CBS SF: Had Matt or Todd actually seen you guys play in LA prior to the band getting signed to Ripple?
Megan Mullins: Not that we know of; they may have sent someone to vet us, I’m not sure [laughs].
Katie Gilchrest: No, they haven’t seen us live. We’ve played with other Ripple bands though. I think our first show was with Salem’s Bend. But they’ve never seen us live. They’re taking a gamble [laughs].
CBS SF: One thing I feel an obligation to ask you as an all-female doom band. Women in doom have really had a lot of success over the past few years between Witch Mountain and Windhand and a few other bands; locally both Chrch in Sacramento and Brume in San Francisco have been making waves. I was just wondering what your thoughts might be on the boom of heavy bands fronted by women?
Mariana Fiel: We already mentioned Acid King, but the Bay Area also had Bottom. They were more stoner rock, but they were also an all-women band playing heavy music.
CBS SF: Yeah, that’s right. They are another band that was out on the leading edge. Do you think there’s anything driving this groundswell of women in doom? To me, part of it is just the simple fact that women’s voices singing over super heavy music just sounds good…
Mariana Fiel: I think it’s because of the time we’re living in. It seems like it’s time for women to rise, now more than ever. Coincidentally, you mentioned this happening in the last few years. There’s been a lot brewing. It’s good to step up and be heard, so what better genre than doom to bring out all of that force and the feelings that women have been feeling over the past couple of years.
Katie Gilchrest: I think it’s great. Rock music has always been sort of a male-dominated field. And with each generation, it’s been more acceptable for women to step into roles that were previously held by men. And because of that, I think women feel more comfortable — at the very least — being in bands. And people want to hear something different. Like you said, a female voice over heavy music is a new-ish kind of thing, I guess. And it sounds awesome. And I’d love to see more women get involved.
Megan Mullins: I don’t really have too much to add, except I’m really excited to see this uprising of female musicians and vocalists across this entire genre. It’s really inspiring to me and I hope that through our music, we can inspire other women — and young women of course — to get in the mix and get in the fight.
High Priestess plays Thee Parkside in San Francisco on Friday, May 26, at 8 p.m. For more information on their upcoming tour, visit the band’s website.