Before a show at the Night Light in Oakland, Cocktails vocalist Patrick Clos is bobbing his head compulsively. Paisley shirt buttoned to the neck beneath a flight jacket, Clos casually describes the San Francisco band's assets. "What works for us is super-catchy, fist-pumping rock songs with lots of dual vocals," he says with a grin. Clos is right — Cocktails' lilting melodies and punchy back-beats follow a formula, but their lack of pretense and thoughtful songwriting impart that formula with considerable charm.
Clos and Lauren Matsui founded Cocktails around the notion that maybe if they wrote good pop songs, people might hear them, like them, and wouldn't that be great? Their approach smacks of the innocent rock ambition immortalized in countless music biopics — the inspired dreamers moving out of the garage, etc. — and so far, it's working. Though they've only released a 7-inch EP and one music video, Cocktails are frequently landing opening slots for national touring acts like Mac DeMarco and, this week, Bleached.
At first, though, the band had trouble getting gigs. "We didn't have many connections," Clos recalls. "We still don't." Faced with the task of differentiating themselves from droves of other catchy guitar groups, Clos coined the tag "slop-pop." This clever bit of marketing led to more bookings, and now almost every story about the group uses the descriptor. Clos admits that the phrase was partly a preemptive deflection of criticism for their ramshackle live shows, but that aspect of Cocktails' sound is irrelevant at this point. They're tighter now, and err only as often as other local bands, only without the effects to hide it. Since Matsui alternates between keyboards and guitar, and both she and Clos share vocal duties, they divide front-person responsibilities evenly. Their harmonic vocal chemistry is the focal point of Cocktails' live presence; meanwhile, bassist Rion Rinker and drummer Phil Lantz build a foundation for their instrumental leads and poppy dual vocals. Onstage, Cocktails don't posture with rock hostility or art austerity, and evade bubblegum pop's tiresome saccharine glee. Their rejection of effects isn't a staunch philosophy, just a pragmatic step to maximize the impact of their hooks. Clos and Matsui simply appreciate the ample power of melodies unadorned.
That faith in the inherent value of a good song impressed Jessi Frick, one-half of San Francisco's Father/Daughter Records. She saw Cocktails live by chance and, based on the strength of their songs, decided that very night to invest in an unknown. The label ended up releasing the band's four-song debut EP. Father/Daughter is small, but its clout won press coverage for Cocktails that snowballed into a voluble stream of praise.
"Hey Winnie," the EP's lead single, saunters through understated verses and bright guitar leads. An expected guitar solo rises from the mix replete with bittersweet bends and a descending outro. It is formulaic, new-wave-era singles rock, played as if late-'70s artists like Nick Lowe wrote Cocktails' rough draft. The band's '90s debts are less glaring but equally significant. For the "Hey Winnie" video, in which the band members rob a thrift store, Matsui cites the humor of Airheads as inspiration. "I wanted it to be like ... stick-'em-up movies like Point Break or Beverly Hills Cop," Clos says. Those references are telling: Clos readily admits to being "a big college radio dork in the '90s."
Cocktails emulate other eras of guitar-oriented rock in their endeavor to deliver universally accessible tunes. They lack pretense and set simple goals. There's no agenda or cultivated mystique behind the group. Clos and Matsui don't want listeners to dwell on the group's story, and doing so isn't necessary to enjoy the songs. The music industry often belittles and crushes idealists, but Cocktails persevere wide-eyed and without pretense, resolute that good songs and an audience are all they need.