“I’m not going to lie to you, punks don’t really read poetry,” deadpans Davey Bales. “I mean, not the punks that I hang out with.”
Bales is a force-of-nature frontman and lifelong poet whose band, The Wraith, make his goth-tinted words punker-palatable by stitching them inside murky convulsions at once ominous and oddly optimistic. Formed in 2016, the quartet have swiftly become one of California’s most recognizable dark punk acts, headlining shows from the Bay Area to San Diego.
Hailing from Richmond, Virginia, where he sang for revered post-punk band Lost Tribe and played synths with Shadow Age, Bales washed up in Los Angeles in 2015. A keen writer since seventh grade, he’s been in punk bands of various subgenres since his mid-teens — not only singing but also playing drums, guitar and keys. As one of the few African-Americans in L.A.’s punk scene, he’s a minority within a minority, making a statement within a statement.
“I feel like I kind of have more meaning to myself because I’m black and I’m in the punk movement,” says Bales, whose irreverently spiked ’fro invariably explodes above the shrapnel of stud-encrusted leather. “I’m an outcast anyways, because I’m black, so I might as well be a black punk rocker.”
Soon after landing in L.A., Bales met another new arrival, Floridian guitarist Kaz Alvis, and the pair began conjuring what would become The Wraith: skeletal basslines and tribal beats propelling Alvis’ textured swaths and twinkling countermelodies beneath Bales’ imposing bark.
“I write poems first and then Kaz and everyone else will have songs for me to write to or to sing to,” Bales explains, almost breathless with enthusiasm. “I’ll take the poems that I have and I’ll just break ’em down piece by piece and switch out lines and stuff to put it into a song.”
Posting a raw demo of a song called “Comatic Romance” on YouTube in the summer of 2016, Bales and Alvis were surprised to see it rapidly rack up thousands of views (it’s currently around 11,000). They were on to something — especially here in L.A.
“There’s a lot of bands that are doing kinda the same thing we’re doing, but they’re in other countries or different cities,” Bales says.
Having cycled through a couple of different rhythm sections, The Wraith advertised for yet another drummer on Craigslist, only to be contacted by one Scott Raynor — the original drummer for multiplatinum San Diego pop-punkers Blink-182.
“[Raynor] said that he liked the music and that he was really familiar with our influences,” Bales recalls. “We were kinda shocked.”
With Raynor and former Riverboat Gamblers bassist Colin Ambulance aboard, The Wraith released their definitive statement to date, the Shadow Flag EP, last January. The four Alvis-produced songs are defiantly upbeat romps through mostly ’80s influences — Killing Joke, The Chameleons, Death Cult, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees — set apart by battering beats, multiple layers of Bales’ lived-in bellow and restlessly mobile, effects-saturated guitars.
“The ’80s era is one of the best eras that existed when it comes to punk … and the post-punk and the whole subculture movement around the alternative lifestyle,” Bales says. “There’s a lot of great [’80s] bands that are obscure that have put out a lot of good stuff.”
Shadow Flag immediately and authentically evokes Europe’s glasnost-era goth clubs: places of dense fog and makeup, massive hair, leather, latex — and an embracing sense of outliers-under-siege bonding. It’s an aura the crimson-stained, clamped-on-camera video for urgent EP standout “Barbed Wire Somber” only enhances.
Now completed by bassist Bryan Yazzie, The Wraith are finding that having a Blink-182 alumnus in their ranks can be a mixed blessing. Because, while both bands might be loosely filed under “punk," they’re at opposing ends of the genre’s gloom and aggression spectrums.
“It’s kinda weird a little bit, because we get a lot of teeny poppers through social media that know of Scott and have seen pictures of us with Scott,” Bales says. “[But] I think it’s a good thing. I think it helps kids who are just all into the pop-punk kind of branch out into other styles of music.”
Between smatterings of famously chaotic, unpredictable live shows up and down the West Coast (“whatever happens, happens” onstage, Bales says), The Wraith are lately focused on writing and preproducing their debut album. But, while six songs have already been demoed in their practice space, a release date remains vague (“maybe by mid-spring,” according to Bales), because the band are hoping to find a record label to fund the studio recordings.
A foretaste of the record, “Prevail,” was released as a grainy black-and-white music video, shot in an abandoned Norco power station, in December. More polished and sonically seamless than earlier Wraith efforts, “Prevail” finds riotous beats and upper-register, Cure-ish bass figures cajoling the band’s signature juxtaposition of Bale’s bestial angst and Alvis’ succulent meanderings.
While his band’s debut full-length slowly takes shape, Bales — a man who prefers to buy albums on cassette, and still calls them LPs — also is working on the third issue of his monochrome, decidedly DIY Dead Flowers poetry fanzine, influenced by the likes of Lord Byron, Sylvia Plath and Charles Baudelaire.
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“I try to sell them, but I just give ’em away for free, mostly,” he admits bluntly.
With dark punk being strictly a niche concern over the past 30 years, the career ceiling for a band like The Wraith may be undeservedly low. But Bales is more concerned about the longevity of this facet of his self-expression, and the memories to be made along the way.
“If I have to switch out a member here and there, I have to switch out a member, but I think it should last a good while,” he concludes. “I’m not really worried about that, honestly — I just want to play music and have fun.”