Two years ago, I stumbled into Artist in the Alley, a Pomona art space that hosts artists of any media, including music, at no cost to them (shout out Nate!). As I walked down Park Avenue toward the back street that led to the studio, I heard a voice shout, “Ey, we’re Cooli Ooli. We’re from Baldwin Park. We’re well known for In n’ Out and gang violence!”
My ears perked up as the band exploded into the first song. I turned the corner to see the then two-man set facing the gallery, with people practically stepping over the drums to make their way deeper downtown.
Tonight, Cooli Ooli, now a trio, is slated to perform at the notorious Sunset Strip music venue, The Viper Room. To say things have changed for the band is an understatement, so let’s talk about how they got here.
The voice that echoed down the alley belonged to Cooli Ooli’s lead singer, Victor Padilla. He chuckled as I reminded him of the night. “We still say that,” he mused. Drummer Diego Ayala smiled along with the memory as their newest member, bassist and vocalist Karina Jimenez, settled into a seat between them.
During the global shutdown following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Padilla and Ayala released several singles building up momentum for an album, but it wasn’t until February 2021 when the band invited Jimenez to help with one of the songs that the project really took shape. The three of them couldn’t deny their chemistry, and Jimenez, who uses they/them pronouns, permanently joined the group soon after.
“We had a lot of connection and could feel the energy,” Jimenez says. “We’re at the same level of musicality — if you will. And we really wanted to work together. So I was able to join the band and just have a fresh new start with great music to back us up. It’s just been a great ride since.”
In the band’s latest single, “Pity Party,” Jimenez’s talent and sense for synergy become apparent as their voice weaves just a beat behind Padilla’s. This asynchronous harmony is nurtured by the upbeat tempo Ayala drives on the drums. While the beat is lively, the lyrics reveal a disenchanted troupe, “Isn’t it wonderful? That we’re so terrible to each other. Isn’t it wonderful? It was me and you who share the blame. Hope that you all see it now.”
Like with many others, the pandemic did not leave the bandmates unscathed. Relationships turned for the worst, and, as friends and lovers were lost in messy battles, the band produced their first album — “Bagchasing, Heartbreaking, Lovemaking.” It was here that their sound transitioned from what was once beach indie into emo-leaning, Midwestern-style tuning. This change allowed them to be vulnerable with their bitterness.
“I definitely broke myself down emotionally, mentally, and tried to let people in on my story,” Padilla says. “I now make it a goal when I’m writing lyrics … I want the listener to feel seen and feel related to, not just a listener and an artist. I now understand the severity and the power that my words hold, basically.”
Padilla usually plays lyricist, but Cooli Ooli is a predominantly DIY and collaborative effort, and the tough times the bandmates faced inspired Ayala to write the single “Jelly Bean.”
“‘Jelly Bean’ is a song that I wrote just out of, you know, just really a dark place, and the lyrics are pretty self-explanatory,” Ayala says. “Ya know, it’s about alcoholism. It’s about being in [that] very dark place, and it’s about not having any motivation at all. So, again, that album is just super angry. It’s just super full of emotions, very full of heart.”
While the album’s tuning leans melodic, the rhythm is dedicated to feeding the audience’s energy. Padilla, who also plays guitar, seamlessly transitions from easygoing indie bounce to drilling chords reminiscent of punk. The track “Peace of Mind” opens with a groovy bassline and low-key vocals but hits hard with a surprise cumbia breakdown that can get anyone out of their seat and onto the dancefloor.
“When people come to see us for a live performance,” Ayala says, “we want to make it worth their while, and we want them to have a good time and be able to dance and be able to feel free, be able to feel accepted. So we always do our best to really perform with the highest of energy and really engage with audiences.”
Aside from the music, the band’s inclusive ethos also drew Jimenez to join Cooli Ooli. Padilla and Ayala made an effort to foster Jimenez’s vocal experimentation. For them, this nonrestrictive foundation was critical to finding their groove within the band.
“We love to meet new people,” Jimenez says, “we love to engage with people. I think it’s what makes our band so unique. Let’s be real. Like, you come in and you want to start fresh, but you also have to have your guard up. And with this band, I didn’t have to have a guard up. They helped me transition very, very easily. And again, very inclusive.”
Anyone who’s experienced the anger and grief phases of heartbreak knows the hardest part comes later — healing. Recovering from that kind of devastation is a cathartic and raw experience. And this is what Cooli Ooli wants to tackle for their upcoming album.
“There’s a song that specifically says, ‘I can do better than you. But don’t forget to love yourself.’ Whether you’re singing it for yourself or you’re saying [it] to that person, you got to find that empowerment within yourself to be able to move forward,” Jiminez says. “How can you find love or find a new friendship when there’s still things to be worked on within?”
The crew is ready to let go and embrace joy, and “Pity Party” is their last “fuck you” before moving on to bigger and better things.
“It’s about looking back retrospectively …,” Ayala says. “We wrote this amount of songs about how we fucked up. We wrote this amount of songs about how maybe [they] fucked up, and now, we’re writing about how we acknowledge the hurt. But we are also acknowledging how we need to move forward.”
Follow Cooli Ooli on Instagram to learn about upcoming shows and new releases. Their music is also available on most music streaming platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music and SoundCloud.