Upon entering Soft Lions' stuffy Mission Valley rehearsal space, it's hard not to notice the Dollar Tree kitten calendar on the wall. Sure, there are tons of musical equipment, including a vintage electric Wurlitzer piano that drummer Jon Bonser restored and that keyboardist Lex Pratt plays in the band. There's symmetry between the three members of the band, and one could argue that it's the cat calendar that's the most telling.
"We always wanted the name of the band to be about cats," says Pratt. "First we wanted the name to be Indoor Kids or Indoor Cats. We looked it up and there was a band called Indoor Kids with an album called Indoor Cats. It was insane."
"It was so rude of them," jokes singer and guitarist Megan Liscomb. "I felt personally attacked."
It's refreshing to meet a band that's unpretentious enough to admit that they all just really love cats. Fortunately, this predilection hasn't extended into their music. OK, well, they did end up naming the band after a line from one of Liscomb's lyrics about being "soft as lions," but really, the obsession stops there. The music they have made over three EPs in two years—harmonized psych-rock with a touch of indie-soul and blues—has made them one of the bands to watch in the local scene.
"I feel like everything we've done in this band has happened very fast," says Bonser. "We've only been together two years and so much has happened in just the last year and a half."
Bonser is correct in that the band's trajectory does seem sped up compared to most local bands that slog away for years before getting noticed or perfecting their sound. While Soft Lions' music does seem stylistically scattered at times (more on that later), there's a chemistry—both onstage and off—that makes the songs both catchy and nuanced. It wasn't always this way. Liscomb was playing in blues-rock project Boy King when she said she started "lurking" Bonser on Facebook after seeing him play a few shows with his band The New Kinetics. Bonser admits that the initial rehearsals with Liscomb were a little awkward and that they mostly "just stared at each other," but they knew that there was something there. Enter Pratt, who Liscomb knew from modeling shows they'd done together and had been the singer and synth player in Marco Polo.
"There's no bass player so having another piece of rhythm other than the drums was good for everybody," says Pratt. "For Megan and I, our voices complemented each other's so naturally."
The band found that chemistry and their first EP, No Peace, was a stripped-down, lo-fi outing that certainly has the hallmarks of a band trying to find their sound. Released a year ago, Earth Energy, was a much more bluesy affair, with Liscomb's voice resembling singers such as Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards or Patti Smith backed by the Black Keys. Spellbreaker, their latest EP, is a much more varied set of songs, although much of its sound is rooted in the '60s and '70s. "Waitress" is a paisley-coated rave-up with a punk-rock heart. "Thx 4 the Sanctuary" takes the ubiquitous "Be My Baby" drum intro and combines it with a surf-rock guitar lick and keyboards straight out of a Centurions song.
"Someone asked me what was one of our biggest struggles in the music scene and I said fitting into a particular category or genre," says Pratt. "We just started describing it as 'post-riot grrrl.'"
What's most striking about the songs on Spellbreaker, and what makes the "post-riot grrrl" description so apt, is Liscomb's development as a frontwoman. Her singing is much clearer and more nuanced, and her maturity as a songwriter shines particularly bright on "Waitress" and album closer "Phantom." There's a stark vulnerability in the EP's four songs, with Liscomb recounting failed relationships and a troubled past more directly than she had in previous songs.
"A lot of the material is about stuff that I was going through 10 years ago that started bubbling up again," says Liscomb. "When I was a lot younger, I was in a weird and destructive relationship and I was trying to come to terms with that head on, which I hadn't really done before."
The new EP will also be the band's first for tastemaking indie label Velvet Blue Music, which, it could be argued, launched the careers of bands such as Menomena, Birds & Batteries and Viva Voce. The label has also been successful in getting its artists' music on dozens of TV shows over the years, including American Horror Story, Degrassi, Homeland and even American Idol.
"It's probably one of the biggest reasons we wanted to get involved with a label is that kind of stuff," says Bonser, noticing Liscomb whispering something to Pratt.
"I whispered Pretty Little Liars," admits Liscomb, laughing and confessing that the ABC Family drama series would be the preferred show for their music.
Even if their music never makes it on Pretty Little Liars, Liscomb says she has found two fellow cat lovers that she'd like to play music with for as long as possible.
"Even at our first show, a ton of people showed up, but I wasn't scared or nervous like I had been with other bands," says Liscomb, who looks at Bonser and then to Pratt. "I don't know. I just feel really confident with these guys. I always have."