The backing band that’s so much more
PRVLGS backs dozens of local bands, but they’re about to find their own spotlight
Live hip-hop group Kare fearlessly attacks the Sol Collective stage with a call and response: “Take care of yourself!” Relatively new artists in the Sacramento scene, everyone in the band is 20 or younger. Except for one familiar face behind the drums: Omar Gonzalez-Barajas. Ten minutes before the show, he’d never even heard Kare’s music.
Gonzalez-Barajas has played in more groups than even he can recall. Tonight, he’s just filling in. His beat is tight, but loose enough to groove.
I know all of this because emcee Sean LaMarr tells me during the show, leaning in and whispering the information, almost gleeful. Gonzalez-Barajas, on the other hand, is casual about the whole thing: “It’s for the youth, man,” he says. “You can’t say no.”
It shouldn’t be a big shock that he could wing a set so flawlessly—and have a good time doing it. Gonzalez-Barajas has a reputation around town as a drummer who can play any and every style, and will play in your band if you ask nicely enough. But he also has his own group, PRVLGS.
You might think of them as Sacramento’s backing band.
The other two members are every bit as talented as Gonzalez-Barajas and just as spread thin. Between the three of them—with Zach Hake on keyboards and Melissa Garcia on bass—they’ve played with DLRN, Petaluma, Sunmonks, The Philharmonik, Separate Spines, LaTour and dozens more.
“I don’t think we ever set out to play in every big band in Sacramento. It’s not like we had a big checklist,” Hake says. “It feels like we are pulled into projects more than we are pushing to play with everyone. People see what we do and they want to add that element to their set.”
What is that element exactly? Surely, the fact that they can play any style, and with only a week’s notice, puts them in demand. The members know their way around a hodgepodge of styles, whether it’s jazz, R&B, funk, prog-rock, pop or indie rock. But what drives them is something deeper.
“The groove is the most important thing in everything we do,” Hake says. “It’s what makes people move, which I think is where the emotional impact comes from. I think a lot of it comes down to the chemistry between band members.”
I saw PRVLGS play a set at the Sactown Nachos Festival. They jumped between jazz, R&B and rock and played with high energy, filling in the gaps with the complexity of a ’70s prog-rock band. They did it all as an instrumental trio. But what linked everything together was a low-key looseness. They were up there having fun, messing around, despite their intricate songs.
After the set, The Philharmonik took the stage, and Gonzalez-Barajas and Hake backed him, along with David Baez on the bass. The Philharmonik’s music is slower and funkier. They sounded like a whole other band, and they looked just as easy-going, like they were having a blast.
“I trust Omar and David with my life,” says Christian Gates, stage name The Philharmonik. “Zach adds such a great interpretation to my tracks. Not only are they good musicians, but individual artists most importantly. They can keep a crowd from leaving after the artists they’ve come to see stop performing.”
PRVLGS lurks in the shadows, at least compared to the groups they accompany. But they don’t want to hide in the back anymore. They’ve got big plans for 2018, starting with their long-awaited debut full-length record that’s still untitled and expected early next year.
“PRVLGS will always be the priority,” Gonzalez-Barajas says.
To whet listeners’ appetites, they’ll be releasing the first single “Lift” on November 16 on their SoundCloud page. Unlike their previous instrumental work, this song has vocals provided by Bay Area singer Leviathe, formerly of the experimental electro-pop band Genuis. It’s a dreamy, jazzy R&B track that flirts with pop elements. While the opening minute seems too simple for a PRVLGS song, it evolves gradually into surreal territories as the tension builds.
The trio has been working on the record for nearly a year and a half. They recorded bits and pieces whenever they could, and added to or entirely changed tracks as they learned new tricks.
“I’m sitting behind the drums and watching how each band functions and bringing [it] back to PRVLGS and saying, ’This may work,’” Gonzalez-Barajas says. “We keep growing as musicians live. We keep dialing in and really learning how each other plays.”
The group’s debut EP, Common Language (2015), was created under much different circumstances. Days after they finished recording it, Hake’s apartment caught on fire, and he lost instruments and his laptop—including the raw music files. They decided to just release the record. Thankfully, a few days before, Hake had done a test mix and master and saved it to his Google Drive.
Gonzalez-Barajas came to the project as the former drummer for Cove and Sister Crayon, but at the time, PRVLGS was his only project. Hake had moved to Sacramento only a couple years prior and joined Separate Spines for a few months, but that was it. This was before Garcia joined the band. They played with guitarist Tyler Simmons.
“It went directly from burned laptop to the disc without a whole lot of thought,” Hake says. “We write as we record sometimes. It worked for Common Language. It’s taking a lot longer with the new record.”
After a fun record release show, Simmons’ interest waned in the group. While Hake was still dealing with the trauma of the fire, they set PRVLGS aside.
“I think we rushed the record a little bit. Was kind of too much for everybody,” Gonzalez-Barajas says. At the same time, he says, “I’m glad we didn’t just scrap the whole thing.”
In no time, they became the Sacramento musicians of choice. It started with hip-hop group DLRN. Gonzalez-Barajas caught a DLRN set at Sol Collective, and told them they could use live drums—him. Then he recommended Hake as well. Soon folks were clamoring to have them in their band.
“They could play anything. They’re all so talented,” LaMarr says. “Together they’re a force, and then they go out into our scene, like they’ve been the glue for a lot of really dope projects.”
Backing other musicians inspired Hake and Gonzalez-Barajas to give their own project another shot: They had felt the chemistry they brought to other bands. To start PRVLGS again, they tried out several bassists. Most overplayed, trying to compensate for the lack of a guitar—except Garcia, who anticipated the flow of the band and played simply when the music called for it. She came recommended by Separate Spine’s Buddy Hale. She had told Hale that she wanted to play in a “jazzy hip-hop group.” He told her he knew just the group.
A few months after joining PRVLGS, Garcia proved she was in fact a true member of the band by joining Petaluma—on the drums.
“Mel is more than just an incredible player,” Petaluma singer Rob Habel says. “She carries herself with the kind of calm and assured rock star demeanor.”
The second incarnation of PRVLGS has clicked even better. With this album, they hope to show what they have to offer as PRVLGS.
“I remember our first time playing with Mel,” Hake says. “It was immediately clear that this was a band and that we could really add something to the music scene. It’s that feeling where you start playing, and you don’t know where you’re going to end up, and before you know it you all wrote a song together.”