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‘Cholo Goths’ Prayers Playing Back Bar SoFA

In Music
Prayers create dark, goth-inspired songs, informed by life in some of San Diego's roughest neighborhoods.

Prayers create dark, goth-inspired songs, informed by life in some of San Diego's roughest neighborhoods.

As a teenager, Rafael Reyes had to hide his love of dark, brooding bands like Christian Death and Joy Division, but not because he had overbearing parents worried that such music would warp their child. His story is a little different. He had to listen on the downlow because he was a gang member in a rough Chicano neighborhood in San Diego, where identifying as a goth would have carried potentially more serious consequences than getting grounded.

“The guys from my neighborhood, they didn’t like the way I dressed—so I conformed, Reyes explains of his adolescence. “I shaved my head and my eyebrows—just looking crazy—but inside I was a different person. I was miserable for a long time because I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live. I was doing what everyone else felt I was supposed to be doing.”

Reyes grew up living two lives. He was sent to school in a predominately white part of town. It was there that he was introduced to and fell in love with the death rock, post-punk and shoegaze bands that were never played in his neighborhood. Back at home he made the decision at a young age that joining a gang and putting up a badass facade was the only logical course of action. He made this Faustian bargain in order to protect his family and himself.

And so, when he was hanging with the neighborhood boys, he endured their music. But behind closed doors it was the underground, alternative music of the time that really spoke to him. He remembers seeing Duran Duran on MTV and dreaming that one day that could be him.

Though his band Prayers—a dissonant and aggressive industrial-goth duo, which he describes as “cholo goth”—hasn’t been played on MTV, they have been garnering a fair amount of buzz since their formation a year ago. Reyes and his bandmate, David Parely, are being offered shows all over the country—and report that they’ve been arriving to eager, highly receptive crowds. It’s a victory that Reyes has fought hard for—literally.

“I became a gangster to the point where I didn’t give a fuck,” he says of his decision to openly embrace goth style. “I, for a lack of better words, came out of the closet. I got in fights with a lot of guys, and they finally gave up. They said, ‘do whatever the fuck you want. You earned it.’”

It was a little after embracing his true self—and under extreme circumstances—that Reyes started playing music. His father died on the same day the two of them had a big fight, which sent him into an emotionally chaotic state. He turned to drugs and violence, and landed in jail for six months on assault charges. One day while incarcerated, he had a vivid dream. He was visited by his dad who forgave him, and gave him permission to live his life.

“That dream washed away my self-hate—I finally stopped feeling sorry for myself,” he says. “That’s the day I decided to be sober and to fucking live life. When I got out of jail, I fucking started playing music.”

The first couple of bands Reyes put together, Nite Ritual and Vampire, were heavily goth influenced. Reyes had spent so much time before then holding all his dark fantasies back, and they all poured out in those groups. Prayers is something altogether different, he says.

“This is real shit,” Reyes explains. “In Vampire, I was singing about being a Vampire, or whatever the fuck I was singing about. Prayers is not fantasy. I’m talking about things that I’ve been going through: the betrayals, the heartbreaks, trying to break stereotypes, because of growing up in gangs, and how they were always trying to put me in a box.”

Prayers’ raw, straight-to-the-point aesthetic—with Reyes shouting, rapping and singing over abrasive electronics and driving beats—has drawn comparisons to other out-there alternative rap groups, like Death Grips and Clipping. It has also connected with both suburban kids and the same hard-knock crew that used to rag on Reyes for his goth style.

“It resonates more with people because it’s all reality,” Reyes says. “Before Prayers, I felt like people in the music scene in San Diego weren’t taking me seriously. I gave up. I was like, ‘Fuck everyone.’ I was just angry. It turns out that was what people were actually waiting for.”

That anger is made crystal clear on the fourth track of Prayers’ 2013 full-length, SD Killwave. “I am feared and respected,” Reyes wails on the first verse of “Dog to God,” a meditation on the violent gang culture he grew up with. “Loyal to my family/Death always chasing me/From dog to god, I’m alone in this world.”

And yet, despite the bleakness of the scenes Reyes paints, he says that these days he is in a great place, thanks to Prayers.

“When I played my first show, it was better than therapy. I felt like I got this off my chest. It’s out of my system,” Reyes says. “I get these beautiful emails from people like how they connect with it, like I’m speaking about their life. It makes me so happy.”

Prayers play the Back Bar SoFA in San Jose on Friday, Nov. 21. More info.

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