up close & personal with Alexis de la Rocha
// by vanessa willoughby
Some bands need an elaborate, flamboyant backstory in order to cover up the lack of musical skills. Fortunately, in the case of the band LEX, the mythology-inspired mission statement and keen interest in costume don’t distract from the quartet’s talent. In a recent YouTube video upload, “Mystery Boy,” the clip intended for NPR’s Tiny Desk showcase highlights the band’s fashion savvy and electronic sound foundation. Fans of bands such as Air, M83, and especially Daft Punk will appreciate the narratives of tentatively blossoming love affairs and the journeys of unlikely heroes. Originally hailing from Los Angeles, California, LEX is comprised of the following musicians: Alexis de la Rocha on vocals and synth, Leah Chisolm on synth and vocals, Alicia Villarreal on bass, synth, and vocals, and Jessica Ragsdale on drums and vocals. The band recorded their first EP in May of 2015 and are currently on tour. Although the band began as a solo project for de la Rocha, it’s clear that LEX has turned into a team-operated effort with an imaginative scope that travels light years.
(all photos credit: Alexis de la Rocha and Lex)
A: I’m so excited to do an interview with you guys! I looked at your site, it’s so beautiful.
V: Yasmin was the one that introduced me to your music and I really like it. It has that whole kind of dark, synth pop feel and obviously there’s—or at least I could tell—the influence of Peter from working with Daft Punk. I think it’s really cool, your EP that just came out.
A: We’re honored, we’re so grateful. Anyone’s listening, you know, it’s a good feeling.
V: I guess to start off, just reading about you and your musical background, I find it so interesting that you studied jazz but now you’re kind of in a genre that’s on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. So, I know the basic backstory of your band, but how did you go from taking jazz vocal lessons to this new atmospheric music?
A: Oh man, you know I think for me I’ve just always really loved jazz and singing in general so it really helped me appreciate at least the vocal styles and the classics, which I’m a huge fan of. But really, I’m an '80s baby, a lot of the music that I really love is definitely synth-y, and I’m a big fan of a lot of classical—I don’t want to say necessarily classical singers, but vocalists that remind me of jazz styles, [with] that deep undertone. I know Bjork, I’m a big fan [of her] and I have her jazz album, Bjork’s singing I love, and David Bowie is another one who has just such a beautiful low end to his voice. Even Morrissey… I’m definitely a fan of those vocalists, so I think singing-wise I still do that kind of style a little bit. And then with writing the music, I’m kind of just letting myself go and just writing, not really thinking about a style or genre. To be completely honest with you I just had my keyboard and was just writing and it was the first time I’d ever written solo without this band I was writing for, so it was pretty cool to share the finished product of the EP and just realize, wow I really do like the '80s a lot, a lot of you know, like Fantasy and Labyrinth, The Never Ending Story, a lot of songs I grew up on, I share a lot of their influences. Yeah it was really cool, cool to kind of just venture and see what the heck was going to come out and then be really pleasantly surprised by it.
V: So how long have you been playing the keyboard and writing your own music?
A: For LEX I’ve been working on these songs for about three years now—and I had them before I met Peter—, and then you know keyboard, piano I started when I was really little. Playing, you know we all start playing music when we’re really little so [I’ve been doing that] for just a while, but not in the synth world until recently, until the last three years.
V: So regarding the recording process, I read—I think it was LA weekly—that you had done most of the EP before the rest of your band mates had joined?
V: How was the dynamic with that? Was that hard, adjusting to having three more people working with you, or did you find it pretty easy to collaborate with everyone?
A: In regards to jumping in with the band? Recording? Recording-wise I was a little nervous. It had been about two years since I had recorded any kind of music. When I first went into the studio with Peter - I'd had a meet and greet with him, we'd hung out a little bit, but I really didn’t know him that well, all I knew was like, “this guy’s a badass, I’m a huge fan of Daft Punk, I don’t know how to act, I’m going to throw up.” [laughs] It was really intimidating at first but you know, Peter and Art—who plays a lot of the drums, percussions, and helps with engineering—they’re really sweethearts. So it was a really fun process, they helped me get really comfortable, and a lot of it was just dragging and dropping MIDI keyboards, like, leads that I had already played on my own and then we kind of enhanced everything in the studio, either with myself playing it or Peter or Art. Then, when the girls came in, luckily we still had one more song, we were still recording “Mystery Boys”, so the girls got to play on that song, and that was really fun 'cause by then we'd already practiced a lot together and spent time getting to know each other—[at] my last singing check I had my bandmate Leah in there with me and it just made me so happy to have her there. To me it enhanced it once I had a band and they were able to jump in with those last recordings. It was fun. But yeah, I was definitely intimidated.
V: Yeah, I don’t blame you!
A: Not gonna lie girlfriend, I was like, “Ooh!”
[They both laugh]
A: But no, now we’re all really close, so now it’s just a big old joke, now we laugh about it.
V: That’s good. And it seems like you guys, you and Leah and Alicia and Jessica, seem to all have, like, kind of the same background, you know you’ve all studied Jazz but now you’re doing synth music, so that must be interesting.
A: Yeah, it’s been very fun and Jessica especially—she was a jazz drummer, she studied jazz drumming. You know Alicia is the one who pulled her in, and every now and again Jessica will be like, ‘I can't believe I’m doing this, I never in my life thought I would be in a synth band.’ A lot of what we’re doing is playing on drum pads and triggers and writing this kind of music, but she’s like ‘I’m having the best time.’ But yeah, she never imagined [this], she grew up, studied with Jeff Hamilton all the time, (V: Oh wow) but she’s a happy band mate so that’s cool. That’s all I care about, that the band mates are happy! You know, we have a lot of fun together; we talk a lot and just share. I think that’s why we all got along so quickly. Because we share, like there’s a dream, that’s what it was. She was with the band and I said, “I want to be really clear.” I’d like the girls together trying what I had kind of created, I wanted them to know that we have to be in it to win it, and it’s gonna get weird. [I said] “I want to do choreography with your movements while you’re playing, I want to do costumes, and I want to do more avant-garde, I don’t really want to make it about our faces or superficial appeal, I want to make it more about musicianship and history,” so they were like, “Fuck it, let’s do it!” I think I really lucked out. They’re amazing women and I feel really lucky. LEX was originally supposed to be like a solo project, but now it’s the four of us, and its our team, and I feel like its bigger than us even, an entity or something that everyone can be a part of.
V: Speaking of your stage shows, from the pictures and videos I’ve seen it’s [a] very high-concept, kind of futuristic Blade Runner type of thing going on, which is really cool. How did you come up with the concept for the stage, and how did you end up partnering up with Michelle? And Amanda for the costumes?
A: Well, Michelle and Amanda are sisters, and Michelle has been my friend for a long time. She was my friend when I had another band, and afterwards she was a huge component, an inspiration to get me to write again, 'cause I had a previous band and then I just wanted some time apart for a little bit and I was getting kind of down on myself and just feeling like [groans]… not unsatisfied but kind of disappointed that I didn’t go where I wanted to go. I felt like “alright, I failed” kind of in the band. You know I didn’t, but you just kind of beat yourself up. So I was kind of doing that. And Michelle was a huge friend of mine, she was like, “I just need you to write, make it fun again.” So I did that and because she’s known me for so long, too, she, actually we share a favorite movie, and we’ve talked about what are cool visuals, so when I write, I actually see sometimes the music more as a soundtrack, like, “ooh I want to be in this room,” and it’s very visual. It’s kind of like, I see shades, cobalt and soft spoken, that kind of thing. So I sometimes write visually , [so] Michelle and her sister are given a lot of visuals naturally, just from me describing the song. And Michelle’s sister, she was the head of innovation, she worked for Adidas—and she just launched her campaign—and she had always wanted to design costumes… like she got to design for Adidas, but it was never made, because she was in innovation, she’d be like, “yeah we’ll see it in 2020.” So she just got to design and patent all this cool stuff and never quite see it executed, so with us it was a blessing to be able to have Amanda design costumes. 'Cause she sort of sat with our music and drew and pulled her magic, and Michelle was the one who was helpful in executing those looks, and then she and I worked together to focus and keep it clear, at least for the EP, to keep a cool focused look and not be all over the place. And also, not really give everything away right away. Because you know it’s fun when you just execute little bits, and keys, and it’s exciting to take things at least a little bit at a time, and that’s kind of how it ended up working out with them. But yeah, they’re really beautiful, creative artists, and together we kind of used to talk about what our fantasies are—we love emphasis, we love power, we love women andwarriors, and a lot of that influenced a lot of the costumes and our stage looks.
V: That’s really cool. And I also read that you guys recently played LA Pride, how was that?
A: Oh man, it was awesome, pride was so cool! It was so much fun, like—oh, it was such a dream and we played in our white costumes, and I had so much fun just watching people dance in the audience, and it was an absolute honor to be a part of LA pride and to play. One of our friends, named Jeffery, is kind of the head of our social media, he’s done so much work for us and helping stuff, he’s part of the queer community, right—and he goes “ok girls, when you see two guys take off their shirts and start making out, then that means that you win.” But yeah, it was fun, I had a beautiful moment with someone in the audience. He was moving the whole time and then I saw him after when I was walking around, and [it turned out] he was deaf. So he signed ‘thank you’ to me and I signed ‘thank you’ back to him—which is one little thing that I know how to sign—and he just was like, he pointed to his heart, and he like, he was saying, “I felt you, I moved the whole time to you” and I thought that was just the most amazing moment for me, of pride. It was beautiful, and open, I just felt so grateful to be a part of that. It was fun.
V: I guess going back to influences, and things like that—do you still host the Morrissey karaoke nights?
A: I do, oh my God, next time you’re in town you have to come for that, you would have so much fun. People are die hards and no one cares, everyone just wants to sing, sing with them and hug them after. It’s such a fun night! But yeah, of course, I love Morrissey, I feel like he has beautiful poetry. I love them-David Bowie, because to me, they’re just such full, conceptual artists, it’s just this fun journey that you’re peeking in on as an audience member, and it’s kind of what we’ve really wanted to do with LEX, [we] just wanted to go on a journey, with different visuals, films—we love films, like Blade Runner, and mythology, cool stories, and the occult and all that kind of fun stuff, like when it comes together, and even like the hero’s journey, just finding the power from within and going for it, was kind of, all of this shared on this journey, what we wanted—I mean people can take away what they want from the music, for sure, that’s the great thing about music—but for us it’s definitely about going for what you want and following it, and kicking the shit out of it! [she laughs]
V: I like that, that’s awesome!
A: Yeah, those are some things that are inspirations. Kind of power, power like, people that I’m sure hurt, people…
V: So then, would you say, I feel like this is a hot button issue that journalists always ask female musicians and artists, but would you say that feminism is something that is consciously included in your music, or no?
A: Absolutely. Well, I feel like for us, I mean all three of us are very much about equality, and feel that any human being, whatever gender, whatever they want to name themselves or not, that it’s just finding the power from within. No matter who you are, your sex, your gender, or whatever you name yourself, it’s just about finding the power from within and loving yourself and then with that you’re able to kick down the walls and just do whatever you want. That’s really kind of what we’re about, the people and the journey and the helping along the way.
V: So are you guys working on your debut right now? How is that going?
A: We are, we’re writing a lot, [we’re] working toward a full length [album] and it’s been really fun. We played one of our newest songs that we’ve written on our own Screenfalls huggy bear? Written, it’s funny, cause it’s like Peter, because he played such a big part in the first part that I wrote, that it’s funny when I write something new and he loves it too, it’s fun. So we’ve been working on that and also working on a tour, we’ll be going on tour in the end of September to October. Unfortunately not the east coast, which I really wanted to, but soon, soon! We’re excited for any touring opportunity. So we’ll be going from Washington to Arizona over here on the west coast, then we’re hoping to play a little bit here in LA some more, and then we’ll be working on a music video! And I’m really excited about that.
V: Would that be for “Mystery Boy” or something off of the album?
A: I think we’re trying to decide what we want to do, we’re still figuring out, trying to see if we’re gonna do a whole journey, have it be connected or not, what kind of shoot we can do, any guerilla style shoot we could do. Those are pretty much the next steps though. Visuals, video and lighting, writing a bunch and still playing, doing a bunch of playing.
V: Nice. So, does it take you a while to write a song? 'Cause some artists will be like, ‘Oh I sat down and wrote this in 10 minutes and I got this song’ or is the process something where you have to have your rituals, like, ‘Ok, first I have to do this and this and then I can get into the song writing groove.’
A: It varies. I don’t like… some songs, they come right away, or I’ll write something and then I’m the type where it takes me forever to finish a song, it can be in my head forever like, ‘I could do this, oh I could change here, oh I could change the key here’, and then my band mate can come and be like ‘just give it to me and I’ll just put some rough structure on it and you can decide where to take it from there.’ And now it’s like, Alicia is bringing songs forward, Jessica—everyone is coming together. But yeah, for me it varies, sometimes it takes a long time, maybe I’ll be too in my head about it, and then other times it can be twenty minutes, it can be really quick. It’s weird. I think it’s like, the songs—the songs are also like with you, [to] help you decide, help it work out. Sometimes I felt like that, but I think it was the writer of Eat Pray Love, and she was saying like she used to put all the pressure on herself as a writer to be like, ‘I need this to be a hit’, thinking, ‘don’t fail’, and then she couldn’t finish it, but now she takes it out of her hands, and she’s just, you know the creativity is going to be with me or not this time, and it’s not up to me, and I was kind of like, “wow, that kind of makes it a lot less pressure on the artist!” But yeah, I definitely got a lot better sitting and just writing and not getting in my head about it.
V: Yeah, I think the hardest part is just sitting down, at least for me.
A: Yes, that’s what it is, right! Michelle told me—'cause she's an amazing career creator and designer—“I create because it makes me happy. So it really doesn’t matter if someone likes it or not, because it’s kind of what I feel like I’m on the planet to do. So, just do that.” [laughs] Way easier said than done, that’s why I’m laughing! But gosh, if it makes you happy as a human then, man, who cares if people or like it or not! 'Cause people will always like it or hate it, but it doesn’t matter, as long as you like it.
V: So have you been, for the debut album, have you been exclusively working with Peter, or are you guys looking to work with different producers, or…?
A: I would be open. To be honest anything goes cause we’re so early in, but we’re all open to collaborating and I think it’s just so fun to work with different artists and people, you get some cool things. But Peter is a huge part of our LEX family, so we’re gonna have room for him no matter what, somewhere. But no, we haven’t really even talked about any of that yet, it’s just been more writing right now.
V: Cool. Just wondering about the kind of hero’s journey narrative that you guys have kind of adopted for the band, I just wanted to talk, hear a little bit more about that from you, your thoughts. How do you personally connect to it? What’s the most appealing thing about using that kind of narrative device for your art?
A: I think it became very much like a self-journey. When I first started writing the LEX music I felt very much alone, it was kind of tough, I just wrote it by myself in my apartment without any people. And then I met Peter and through each thing it was like I would get happier and happier the more I was writing, and with the beautiful people that were coming into my life, and then I began to realize that like, oh, the stories behind my favorite movies are all about the journey, the power from within that protagonist, their happiness. And It’s funny, what I like watching is kind of what’s happening with LEX, and I feel like the band and everybody, we’re all on this journey now towards this self-happiness, but together. We’re all kind of friends on this journey, and I guess it’s how I ended up feeling so good, it just kind of added to our biomyth—we have the biomyth of ‘the darkness covers the land, then the women united their powers’—the darkness to us is when you are in a place of sadness, depression, where you don’t see the light anymore, where the things that you want don’t feel like they can happen, and it’s just crazy, and then so our goal with the myth was to be like ‘don’t let it cover you, we’re here to help you, and to lift you and to take you on an adventure to what you want.’ That was kind of our way of finding, through the hero’s myth, our personal journeys.
V: So are you guys all originally from LA?
A: Well, Leah’s originally from Eugene, Oregon, but she lived in San Francisco for a while… so she’s from up north. But yeah, Jessica and Alicia, or J and Alicia, they’re from different parts of LA County, yeah.
V: Do you think that has kind of worked its way into your music? Has living in LA, and growing up there, has that kind of influenced what you write or what you’re drawn to?
A: I’m sure, I just don’t know how specifically. But yeah, I’m born and raised in LA so—I think what’s interesting about LA is that there are people from everywhere here, and people’s perceptions too are always like “oh, they’re assholes”, so it’s just like you don’t really know what you’re getting sometimes, and something I try to do is just be a good person and be kind to people, treat them how you wanted to be treated, and be open, loving, and excited about any new relationship or experience. Because you never know what someone’s done with their life, what they’re doing. Be excited about opportunities—I think that’s probably that’s a good reason that has gotten into the music as well, just be excited, be ready, being excited and open for anything. But yeah, I’m sure it’s a big component. You know Blade Runner takes place in LA, in a future world. I love being from LA, I love LA. I also really love traveling, and I love a ton of cities. I feel like you kind of create your own little world wherever you go. I mean there’s gotta be an influence—I’d be curious to see what it would be like to write a song from some other country, somewhere else, see how that kind of inspires something else.
V: So what would you say has been your favorite show so far? Have you guys gotten to—cause I think, right, you guys just came off of a small tour?
A: We did, we had a small tour, and then we had our showcase, which was July 1st. I think I can safely say the showcase was our favorite show, it was the first time where we got to really—we never had lighting before, to put to our music, so Martin Phillips who is spectacular, and I still talk to myself like, “did we really just work with Martin Phillips? I don’t know how that happened!” you know? But that was partly from Peter, and because Martin is a good guy. But Martin designed the most spectacular lighting! It’s just, I’m learning now because when we’re performing the lighting is behind us so we actually have no idea what the lights looks like, so its not until [I see] the photos after that I’m like, “Whoa!” So at our showcase, it was the first place where we were able to really incorporate our biomyth. We do our story, our narrative in between our songs. We play songs, and then almost interlude between our songs. So it’s like our narrative is this journey, and then our band’s songs are kind of the soundtrack on this journey, or you know, these adventures. So we were able to incorporate our music, our live execution and everything, the costume pieces from the Morton sisters, and we were able to build some of the costumes too which was fun for us as a band, and then the lighting from Martin Phillips and then Peter did the sound. And it was just such a cool, cool experience. We got a standing ovation so you know my heart was gonna freaking explode, we were all extremely overwhelmed and just grateful. It was such a beautiful night, we’re still flying high from that night, just in awe of it, that it happened and that there was so much duty and love and support that night. It was a fun adventure, and I think that was definitely a highlight. 'Cause we had been working on that for months and months and months, too, choreographing our movements, we had four costume changes. So yeah, it was a lot of work but it paid off and it was such a great night, we’re so happy.
V: Yeah, it definitely must have been really, a great relief and really a satisfaction to see all those months of work finally come together. It looked really fun from what I saw.
A: And you know what, I totally forgot—our other friend Andrew, who did our LEX tee-shirts, the black and white ones, he essentially, he’s working, he video taped the whole showcase so he’s working on editing almost a live video of the whole thing that will be accessible to people. So we’re trying to put that out too. So yeah, you’ll get to see it, at least a few clips of it. We have a few songs we’re going to highlight!
V: Yeah, that would be cool to see.
A: I’ll send you that link!
V: Well, I don’t want to take up too much of your time on your day off, so is there anything that I have missed that maybe you wanted to mention or, just anything that I maybe skipped over?
A: No, I mean we’re just excited to keep playing, and have people share the music, and we’ll keep touring and sending cool stuff to you and Art. You know I’m so excited, I just really appreciate you featuring us.
V: Oh, no problem, we’re glad to feature you guys!
A: I’m very excited. And I can’t wait to play the east coast! That way you can see us. I loved your interview, I thought it was awesome!
V: Thank you, it was great talking to you.
A: It was great talking to you too, Vanessa, and thank you again.