In Sherman Heights, where Prayers frontman Rafael Reyes grew up, summers were far from picturesque. Low-income households are the norm, air conditioning is scarce and taking days off at the beach generally isn't an option for the neighborhood's working-class families.
This environment serves as the backdrop for "Gothic Summer," the lead single off of Prayers' upcoming EP of the same name. It's a window into the life and history of its songwriter, breaking the narrative of typical, fun-in-the-sun Southern California summer jam. The song is a real-life tale of brotherhood, survival amid gang violence and incarceration during the summer of 1992. And while the lyrics are dark ("hunted by the living and haunted by the dead / this life we signed up for the day we got jumped in"), the song is given brighter contrast by its vibrant chorus, sung by Reyes' nephews and nieces.
For Reyes, the oldest son among six siblings, summers meant protecting his home and reputation by "putting in work" with the Sherman Grant Hill Park gang.
"Our neighborhood was hot with cops and rival gangs," says Reyes, who was born in Michoacán, Mexico. "Every summer was, like, who was going to get shot. Who's going to get stabbed? Who's going to jail? Or who's getting released? I couldn't wait for school to start."
Prayers is the collaboration between two rebels from two different generations on both sides of la frontera: Reyes, a former Sherman Grant Hill Park gangster, and Dave Parley, a skateboarding, straight-edge punk rocker from Tijuana. They've dubbed their new wave and í80s gothic-rock-inspired sound "cholo-goth," a term coined by Reyes. Parley is the Rick Rubin of the duo, crafting the beats and soundscapes on an MPC 5000 sampler, while vocalist Reyes, a tattooed thug poet with a voice reminiscent of The Cure's Robert Smith, presides over their dark ceremonies.
The duo formed in 2013 when Parley traveled north from Tijuana to collaborate with Reyes. In just two days, they ended up writing eight complete songs—in the process giving rise to a new, long-term partnership and their first album, SD Killwave. It also marked the end of Reyes' former band, Vampire.
Parley, who was born and raised in Tijuana, describes Prayers as "soul brothers." He started drumming at age 15 and has played drums for various punk bands. He lives his life free of drugs and alcohol.
"Straight-edge to me is about living a healthy life," he says. "I live drug- and poisonous-people free. Being punk is the freedom of doing whatever I want with my life."
Reyes, 38, echoes Parley's individual-freedom perspective with his own unconventional life path. He's had his share of run-ins with the law and has two strikes against him, but despite his rap sheet—and an admitted tendency to be an adrenaline junkie—he ended up headed in a much different direction than his rough past might have suggested. He's a self-starter with keen business acumen; Reyes is the original owner of Pokez, the Downtown Mexican eatery, which he sold in 2006 to his younger brother. Using the money he made from the sale, Reyes made some real-estate investments and even wrote an autobiography, Living Dangerously, providing himself with a decent living.
Yet, despite all the musicians his restaurant supported and fed, many of them shrugged their shoulders at his request for some simple music-industry advice. In the past two years, Reyes admits to feeling shunned by local musicians and record labels.
"They think I should just be selling burritos and not making music," he says.
Prayers have been together for only seven months, yet have been moving particularly fast for a local band. They've received radio airplay on FM 94/9, and critical praise in the music blogosphere with co-signs from The Cult's Ian Astbury and former Three Mile Pilot and Black Heart Procession frontman Pall Jenkins. And this spring, they went on tour as the opening act for The Cult.
Prayers play Saturday, June 28 at Soda Bar
That they're able to share the stage with U.K. goth-rock legends speaks to Prayers' unique approach. As trans-border musicians, Prayers are bridging the gap between a number of different subcultures: Latino gangs, straight-edge punk and goth. Reyes says he gets emails from Los Angeles gang members, thanking him for making cholo-goth a reality, because they identify with it so strongly. The truth is that hard-living Latino gangbangers don't listen only to rap or Art Laboe radio classics—there are perhaps millions who also identify with music by The Cure, Depeche Mode and, in ironic contrast to the machismo of the gangster lifestyle, Morrissey.
"Being a gangster means doing whatever the fuck you want," Reyes says. "And if that means painting your nails, wearing lipstick, then that's what it means. I had to fight to dress the way I dress. Maybe it'll inspire some gangsters to say, 'I don't have to live my stereotype.'
"Prayers is about not living stereotypes and representing Chicanos."
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