Provoker: The Best of What’s Next

The band's "Rose in a Glass" video premieres below

Music Features Provoker
Provoker: The Best of What’s Next

For years, Paste has introduced exciting, up-and-coming artists to our readers. This is the return of The Best of What’s Next, a monthly profile column which highlights new acts with big potential—the artists you’ll want to tell your friends about the minute you first hear their music. Explore them all here.

In a way, we have The Greasy Strangler to thank for Provoker’s music. Founder Jonathon Lopez and vocalist Christian Petty met at a screening of the unsettling 2016 horror-comedy—in which a father and son, one of whom may or may not get grotesquely greased up and strangle people until their eyeballs pop out, compete for the same woman’s affections—at San Francisco’s Alamo Drafthouse. “We didn’t really talk much that first day,” Lopez recalls. “No, we didn’t talk at all,” says Petty with a laugh. “After the movie we all just sat in a circle, just awkwardly, like nobody was talking. They were like, ‘Okay. Seeya.’” It’s an understandable reaction to an uncanny (and extremely greasy) film—it’s tough to reenter reality after an experience like that.

Escaping reality—or rather, creating their own—is more where the Bay Area-originated band’s interests lie. Lopez started Provoker (opting for “a really metal-sounding name” as a misdirect) as a solo project while getting a screenwriting degree at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, with the aim of composing film scores. “I just had an idea of doing this thing where [I’d] make a fake movie, and make a fake soundtrack to a fake movie. And that’s how the idea started,” he recalls. He made poster art and titles sequences for these films, and though he never got so far as scripting their stories, he did make their music, self-releasing 2015’s Sneak Peek! (soundtrack to the fictional film Mercy Stroke); Oakland label Smoking Room released Dry City Maniac (soundtrack to the fictional film of the same name) in 2017.

Even the early, mostly instrumental Provoker tapes have an immersive quality, drawing inspiration from ‘80s horror and action movie soundtracks to create dark, stylish synth- and drum machine-driven reveries that are both menacing and danceable, part post-punk, part R&B and part synth-pop. (The band’s sound has long been “a hard kind of thing to define,” says Lopez, though the unattributed “Goth Drake” is a descriptor that’s stuck with them. They kindly refrain from booing me off Zoom when I tell them their music has “Big Drive Energy.”) Meanwhile, Lopez’s roommate around that time, bassist Wil Palacios, helped convert Provoker from “an Ableton project” run out of Lopez’s bedroom to a full-fledged live band. But something was still missing.

“I had in mind that I wanted someone who could sing really well from the beginning. I did some vocals on the early stuff, and I don’t know how to sing, so,” Lopez recalls with a laugh. “Us [Lopez and Palacios] coming from punk and metal music, none of our friends can sing. They only yell and shit. So that’s pretty much why Christian […] was a perfect fit.” Lopez met Christian’s older brother Alex at a mutual friend’s house in Oakland, where they happened to bond over owning the same drum machine. The two kept in touch and “did some house music together that we never did anything with,” Lopez says. When he mentioned to Alex that Provoker was in search of a singer, “Basically, he was like, ‘Yeah, my brother is actually very good.’ That’s how it started.”

Before meeting Lopez at that fateful Greasy Strangler screening, Petty was making music on his own: “Pop stuff, like R&B stuff. Well, I was making a bunch of different stuff.” Lopez sent Petty “Sex with My Ex,” an instrumental off Sneak Peek!, and Petty “just recorded something really quick in a day. And I was nervous about it, because I wasn’t sure if it was what he was looking for.” The result was “a perfect fit,” as Lopez recalls: Petty sent “a verse and a chorus. And he was like, ‘Should I do more?’ And I was like, ‘Nah, I’m just gonna copy and paste this.’ And then that was it. It’s not even an official take, really, it’s the first take. And I thought it was perfect. So that’s what we went with.” Later on, Kristian Moreno joined the band to handle drums and electronics, completing Provoker’s core cast.

Provoker put out their Dark Angel EP via Smoking Room in the summer of 2018, with Petty singing on four new tracks, plus the new and improved “Sex with My Ex.” The record was essentially a proof of concept short for Provoker as we know them now—“For me, Dark Angel felt like the first step towards the sound that I’d been wanting it to be,” says Lopez. The band began moving more purposefully (“Before that, it was like we would try to play shows, or just put out random cassettes and songs”), releasing the EP’s title track (written about “a succubus,” Petty recalls) as its lead single, and shooting and self-directing their first music video, in which Petty and a lady friend (played by Bay Area DJ Lady Z) traverse a haunted house, their unsettling stroll intercut with O.G. Doom gameplay footage.

Provoker started grinding out a following via social media, piecing their aesthetic together on Instagram—“That was really hard to start from zero, start from scratch,” Lopez recalls. “We followed so many people and then unfollowed,” Petty says, laughing. “It was just really messy.” “It was a dark time in our Instagram career,” Lopez deadpans, later adding, “It’s much easier now. You know, people are excited about the band, and that’s great.” “Merch helps,” Palacios notes—that’s particularly true when Keanu Reeves is the one wearing it. “Provoker’s connected with Keanu Reeves, actually,” says Lopez. “My brother,” Petty explains. “He got some part in John Wick 3 as this tattoo artist character. They dressed him up in Johnny Depp-style accessories, like bandanas on his wrist and other accessories. And he was just on set for three days and didn’t shoot anything. Eventually he just quit.”

Though it may not have worked out for Petty’s brother, that act of leaving one’s self behind to inhabit a fictional character is key to Body Jumper, Provoker’s forthcoming debut album. After releasing Dark Angel and making Los Angeles their base of operations in March 2019, the band had considered putting out “a bunch of EPs,” Petty recalls, but their plans changed after Oscar Ekman, head of Swedish indie label YEAR0001 (Viagra Boys, Bladee, Yung Lean), dug the band’s demos and signed them. “The way that [Ekman] talked about [our music], I think that’s what made us excited to work with them,” Lopez says. The timing clicked, too: COVID’s North American onset did derail a Provoker tour on only its second day, but the band had plenty of time to record remotely and make the debut LP they envisioned (dropping one-off single “Since Then” along the way). “When YEAR0001 got involved, we were able to create this album and get the concept more fleshed out,” says Petty.

That concept is spelled out in the album’s title: Like Andrea Riseborough’s Tasya Vos in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, Petty hijacks one mind after another, inhabiting whomever can best help him accomplish his goal. On Body Jumper’s relentlessly hooky lead single “Spell Strike,” Petty sings from the perspective of “an RPG character encountering an evil fairy boss,” per press materials, begging to be released from the agony of unrequited love: “Spell strike, deplete my life / You let me go, I won’t,” he sings over punchy drum machines and hazy riffs. Its guitar and bass sound pixelated somehow, as if you can see the hard edges of each note, yet they glide by so smoothly, and the melodies—bright, in purposeful juxtaposition with Petty’s despairing lyrics about “feeling unseen”—stay lodged in your head long after the song is over.

Petty jumps into multiple bodies on the record’s second single “Bugs & Humans,” telling the song’s story first from a child’s perspective, then from an adult’s. Dark visions of annihilation crystallize before our ears as the character grows increasingly isolated, yearning to hurt others just as, you may conclude, they themselves were hurt. Petty links this kind of songwriting to the escapist power of videogames and movies that Provoker often calls upon: “I like that idea of being transported—listen to a song and forget about everything else. You feel someone else’s emotion.” In the case of “Bugs & Humans,” that emotion is anger, as innocence erodes, giving way to evil. The song ends with a sample from the 2008 documentary Beautiful Losers, in which filmmaker Harmony Korine recounts a friend’s brutal murder while standing in a public park—children play in the same place where his friend’s severed head was found years earlier, like the song’s rise of evil in reverse.

Petty finds “songwriting so much easier” when he can seek emotional truths like these through the eyes of fictional characters—he estimates he does so on about half of Body Jumper’s 13 tracks—but as Lopez points out, “with any kind of writing, a portion of the person writing it comes out anyway, little parts. So in a way it is relevant to what’s happening within our lives.” That frequently manifests as what Moreno calls “a common emotion in goth music […] ethereal love mourn,” with Provoker’s characters animated by powerful feelings for another, but dreading the dangling axe of rejection—Petty’s smoky R&B vocals, set to the band’s doomy, yet propulsive instrumentals, perfectly reflect this in-between state of impossible passion and inevitable pain. Elsewhere on the record, uniquely 21st-century anxieties rise to the surface: Songs like “Vehicle Dissolve” and “Re-per” depict technology as the antithesis of humanity, a force for obscuring our truths with artifice, filling up the mind with useless information, draining the passion out of people—“Pull away the plug, enable sight / Clean the mind,” Petty sings, evoking The Matrix, on album opener “Vehicle Dissolve,” which is dominated by videogame-y 8-bit synths.

The language of videogames, as well as the music, is also prominent on Body Jumper: The soulful dance-punk of “Mystery Key” is written around 2015’s Undertale (“Come to REZ, look me dead in the face,” Petty’s point-of-view character challenges), and a three-track stretch on the record’s back half considers what it’s like to be more machine than human being: “Spawn inside / Back to life / Swing the knife down,” Petty intones on the dark and blurry “Spawn Kill,” which captures Provoker at their most hopeless and fatalistic, while on “NPC” and “Memory Overwrite,” Petty sings about complete numbness and passivity stemming from technological immersion (“Soon enough / I’ll be online / In my mind / I’m there all the time”), then finds solace only in replacing pain with sensory overload (“Give me all your pain ’cause I want it / I can’t feel a thing when I’m on it”), respectively.

“Rose in a Glass,” premiering at Paste today (July 14), is a fan-favorite Provoker have been playing live for quite some time, as well as Body Jumper’s most cinematic track. Over a ghostly guitar riff and pumping drum machine beat and bassline, the band unspool the L.A. noir-esque story of an overmatched detective in search of a missing girl. “Only seen a single picture but feel like I know her,” Petty sings, his character clinging to that tenuous connection against overwhelming odds, present danger and his own doubts—we’re left clinging to it, as well, as the song ends without a resolution. Meanwhile, in the track’s Alexis Gross-directed visual, a monstrous-looking P.I. (played by Petty, outfitted in some serious b-movie prosthetics) acts out the story, seeking a missing girl (Ale Washington), and at one point, darkly dreaming that he himself is her assailant—in the video’s climax, he comes face to face with her, only to discover she did not want to be found.

Provoker are looking forward to the future, with “a ton of songs” in reserve for “whatever comes next,” says Lopez, and a fall U.S. tour upcoming in support of Body Jumper. “I think it’s the only way that we’ll be able to grow,” Petty says of playing live, “so pretty excited to just expose more people to [Provoker]. Yeah, just engage more.” They look back fondly on their last show: March 2020, at the grand closing of Still Smoking, a head shop in Modesto, California. “It was great. Yeah, it was really good. I was a little worried. Because, you know, it’s at a smoke shop in Modesto,” Lopez recalls with a smile. “But it was great. A ton of people came, and everyone was dancing and having fun.” “It sounded better than an actual venue,” says Palacios. “Yeah, who would have thought? A smoke shop in Modesto,” Lopez agrees.

When we talk, Provoker are at Soundwave Studios in Oakland, gearing up for what will be their first shows in a year and a half—making music together in person again, rather than online. “It’s been going good,” says Lopez. “This is the first time we’re back together in a year or so. We’re just trying to get used to it again.”

Body Jumper is out Aug. 13 via YEAR0001. Preorder it here.

Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.

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