The four women of Lex are crammed inside a Commerce garage, synths and drums surrounding them. They are dressed casually in shorts and tank tops on this hot, June day, but the remnants of an earlier photo shoot — silver streaks of eye make-up that recall Pris from Blade Runner — sparkle through the sweat. On a shelf behind them is a doll version of Jareth, David Bowie's Goblin King from Labyrinth. As they work out the last few songs of their rehearsal, the line blurs between four jazz-trained musicians practicing in a suburban garage and the four fantasy-world empresses that they embody onstage.
Lex is on a “hero's journey” — the members mention this ancient narrative style more than once during our interviews — with a high-concept stage show based on mythology that dictates everything from their set lists to costumes. At L.A. Pride, the band offered a 20-minute glimpse into their world, one filled with shimmering white costumes and dramatic, danceable synth-pop. On July 1, they will bring the full-blown stage show, which includes lighting by Martin Phillips, who has worked with Daft Punk, and costumes by the Zamora Sisters, to the stage for the first time.
It took two years to get to this point. Lex started life as a solo project for Alexis de la Rocha, who is also know for running Morrisseyoke, the all-Morrissey karaoke night, at Boyle Height's bar Eastside Luv. The 32-year-old singer had studied jazz vocals at UCLA and previously played in the local band Beatmo. But sometime around 2009, she stopped making music. “I got really depressed,” she admits.
Her friend, Michelle Zamora, now one-half of the team that handles costumes and much of the accompanying imagery for Lex, convinced her to get back to her passion. Then De la Rocha met Peter Franco, who engineered Daft Punk's albums Alive 2007 and Random Access Memories, and went to work with him on the five songs that form the self-titled debut EP. The other members — Leah Chisolm (synths), Alicia Villarreal (synths, bass) and Jessica Ragsdale (drums) — came in when the five-song collection was nearly done. Chisolm and Villarreal play on “Mystery Boy.”
Since the EP, released in May, was recorded in part with a vintage synthesizer that couldn't be taken on the road, the new band had to find a way to adapt the sound for the stage. “Our job was to replicate the sound as best as we could with hardware synths,” says Chisolm, 27. She uses a Roland Jupiter-50 to make something similar to what was done on the EP with a Jupiter-4, an instrument that was popular with early synth-pop bands like the Human League.
Lex has spent the past year fine-tuning songs for live performance. Adding to that challenge is that, while they are accomplished musicians, some of the instruments they use are new to them. “I think the beauty is that we don't really come from an electronic background,” says Chisolm, who studied jazz piano at UC Berkeley. “We have an amazing team around us helping us learn all of that — the best in the business, arguably — but we are all really skilled in jazz and music theory so combining those, I think that's the best of both worlds.”
On stage, they create a full sound. Villarreal, who was a guitarist before this band, alternates between a Korg synth and a bass. Ragsdale works what she calls an “electronic-acoustic” sound as she alternates between a regular drum kit and a Roland pad. De la Rocha, who plays a little synth too, is reminiscent of Roisin Murphy or Portishead's Beth Gibbons in a live setting. It's a voice so emotional, it could make you cry, even if you're on the dance floor.
Bits and pieces of the Lex mythology are on the band's website. “The darkness covered the land,” it reads. “Dreams were desolate.” They have arranged the show to follow a saga, starting out with the “dark” period and moving to the “light” one.
On a phone call after our initial meeting at the band's rehearsal space, De la Rocha explains a little bit of the story's evolution. “It was kind of like a hero's journey for me,” she says of making the album. “There was something more to my life than what I was doing.” She injected this experience into the tale of the four empresses that drives the show. “When we speak of the darkness,” she says, “it's more like doubt.” De la Rocha elaborates, “when you're so down that you can't see anything good anymore, your dreams seem so far away that you can't see them even.”
For Lex, getting this far hasn't been without struggle. The band is self-funded and, initially, De la Rocha used her savings to get the project off the ground. “Now we all have invested in it,” she says, “our time, our driving, our money.” After the practice in De la Rocha's garage, Villarreal shows off her driver's tan. She has the longest commute of the bunch, driving from Riverside to Commerce for practice twice a week.
In the year that they've been together, the members of Lex have formed a bond. The project may have started out as a De la Rocha's solo effort, but they are now a cohesive unit. The band members have worked on a score that links together stand-alone songs onstage, and they're extending some versions of the songs so that the musicians can add a bit more of their own flair. Meanwhile, they are writing new songs together for a future full-length release.
The journey of the empresses who live onstage in Lex's shows isn't simple fiction. Says De la Rocha of the band's journey to bring their vision to life, “I think it's been really empowering for us, too.”
Lex present their full live show at Los Angeles Theater Center on Wednesday, July 1. Tickets and more info.