Inside the music: The story of the fast rise and quick fall of Mikaela Mayer's teenage metal band

Olympic boxer Ginny Fuchs, Mikaela Mayer, Alice Cooper and Nita Strauss at a Cooper's concert. Courtesy Mikaela Mayer

Editor's note: This story was originally published in June 2021.

MIKAELA MAYER WAS backstage at a concert in Colorado waiting for her friend. It was 2018, before Mayer had become a world champion, before she started to become more of a face of women's boxing.

A man approached her and her best friend, Ginny Fuchs, also a fighter, and started offering boxing advice. Watching from the side was the person who brought them backstage to begin with, and all Nita Strauss could do was laugh.

"This guy starts talking to them, like, 'You got to lead with your left,'" Strauss said. "I'm like, 'Oh my God.' They were so classy, like, 'Oh, we know.'"

Mayer was there to hang with Strauss and meet Alice Cooper, as Mayer's past life and present collided.

Before Mayer became a boxer, an Olympian and a world champion, she was a musician. Before she fought in front of international crowds and had fans chanting her name in pro fights, she craved the energy of being on a small stage during Warped Tour as a bassist in Lia-Fail, a hardcore metal band. Together, she and Strauss traveled the country, sometimes playing the early, early set on a show in front of bartenders and random stragglers.

Had things gone differently with Lia-Fail, Mayer may not have left the band. She may not have found boxing and instead might have made music a career like Strauss, who is Cooper's tour guitarist. She also fronts her own band, Nita Strauss, and is considered one of the best guitar players in the world.

"We don't see each other a lot. She's busy," Mayer said. "I went to see her perform, and we had breakfast and did a hike and she was off."

This is how friendship lives between two people at the top of their professions -- something they could have only dreamed of 15 years earlier as teenagers and bandmates.

"That experience, showing me this world at such a young age and having no fear and going after something that people thought was crazy," Mayer said. "It kind of trained my mind to be a risk-taker, right?"

IT STARTED WITH one of those tween fibs. Mikaela Mayer, a beginning bass player in search of an all-girl rock-metal band to play with in California, lied.

She placed an ad saying she was a 13-year-old bassist. It caught the attention of three older teenage girls putting together a band, and they decided to meet at the AMC Promenade in Woodland Hills at 1 p.m. on a Sunday.

Wearing her best tank top with piercings in her ears and black Dickies jeans, Mayer's mom took her to hopefully meet her new bandmates.

"The other guitar player and I walked past her three times, because she looked so young that she wasn't even on our radar," Strauss said. "And finally, her mom came up to us and said, 'Are you looking for Mikaela? She's right there.' And that's how we met her."

Strauss and guitarist Tina St. Claire, wearing spiked collar necklaces, connected immediately with Mayer. By the time the mall meeting ended, they invited her to band practice.

Mayer played bass for a little over a year, mostly with a friend and her friend's father, in the living room of their home. She learned to play Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man' first, followed by an AC/DC track and another Black Sabbath bass line. Mayer was hooked.

"I didn't think I was going to have a problem finding a band to be in," Mayer said. "And I guess when you're young, you're just spontaneous and open-minded like that."

When Mayer stepped into the first Lia-Fail practice with St. Claire, who was six years older than Mayer, and drummer Kirsten Schluter, three years older, she fit in. At some point in early practices, Mayer fessed up to her lie. She wasn't 13. She was 12-and-a-half. They didn't care.

Mayer was learning from repetition and memory instead of reading music. She didn't know how to tune her bass -- something Strauss did for her all the time. But she was talented.

She was in the band.

MAYER NEEDED A ride to practice and Schluter -- who had her license and lived nearby -- offered to drive. Those short car trips bonded the two teenagers who otherwise knew little about each other.

Their influences were the same -- Tool, System of a Down, Black Sabbath -- and they were doing something different and unexpected. All-female bands were rare. All-female teenage metal bands were almost unheard of.

Strauss and St. Claire wrote original songs. Mayer and Schluter were the backing. They had visions of fame.

"We were all-in pretty much," Schluter said. "Yeah, we were young, but it was great. We all wanted to do this full-force, be a band. Tour. Make money. Make a living, a lifestyle, everything. We all had the potential for that and Mikaela was the s---.

"It was crazy. And she was young."

Mayer turned 13. Strauss worked with her on playing technique and how to read and write music. On Sept. 6, 2003, they debuted in the same West Hollywood venue that once hosted The Doors, Janis Joplin, Motley Crue and Guns N Roses: Whisky A Go-Go.

It was a pay-to-play gig, meaning they had to sell enough tickets to get on stage. They sold to family and friends, and dressed up in their band clothes outside the Viper Room and Rainbow Bar & Grill selling tickets to build a following. Mayer, Strauss said, was "fearless." She'd go up to anyone, talk to them, convincing them to buy a ticket or three. To them, it wasn't a chance to play a legendary room -- it was getting to play any room to start their careers. "We had no idea, really," Schluter said. "Now, looking back, when you hear bands [say] the Whisky [is] all iconic, and we played there and they are obviously not from California, but it's to me, we play the Whisky all the time, but I realize that we were really fortunate to do that.

"Not only play there for a show, but also, like, we played there over 20 times. They knew us by name. It was a killer experience. And I didn't realize that until probably recently."

The first show wasn't their best performance. But it was real, in front of people -- some of whom they didn't know. The show at the Whisky led to a second one two months later. Then appearances at The Knitting Factory, Palisades High School and venues all across Southern California.

They garnered some fans. And when school was out for summer, Lia-Fail decided to go on tour.

THE FOUR OF them -- and Mayer's dad, Mark -- were unsure what to expect. All they knew was they wanted the next step, so from June 25-July 2, 2004, they embarked on a four-show mini-tour in Arizona, Colorado, Utah and northern California.

St. Claire called venues, saying they were a Los Angeles band on tour and asked if there was a slot to get on. They borrowed a van to lug themselves, their gear and Mayer's dad from place to place.

This was the taste of the life they really wanted, getting out on the road. It wasn't organized the best, but it was a tour.

"It wasn't glamorous," Strauss said.

They were neophytes, but local promoters booked them. Mark Mayer was the constant cheerleader and part-time bass tech, offering advice and a person to guard equipment if they were able to sleep in a hotel for the night.

The last day of the tour, Mayer's dad was nowhere to be found. The girls figured he ran out for coffee. He returned to the hotel room soon after.

"He had a bandage over his arm and we're like, 'Oh s---,' " Mayer said. "He got the band logo tattooed on the back of his shoulder. He still has it. My dad was the coolest dad ever."

It was also the last tour Mark went on. He'd seen what he needed to. From then on, Lia-Fail traveled on their own.

THROUGHOUT THE 2004-05 school year, they played California shows, from Victorville to Canoga Park and, of course, the Whisky. School ended, and they were improving, gaining a following in Los Angeles and a few super fans who followed the band wherever they went.

Mayer remembers hanging out with the band at the house of Jack Osbourne -- as in the son of Ozzy -- one night and not knowing who Jack Osbourne was.

Lia-Fail continued succeeding, landing three shows as part of the Vans Warped Tour in 2005. They played a side stage, far from headliners Avenged Sevenfold, Dropkick Murphy's, Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance.

This was the band's opportunity to experience festival life before kicking off their own summer tour. The Plain White T's and Gym Class Heroes, both bands a year or two from stardom, played some of the same Warped Tour dates as Lia-Fail, just on different stages. On the same Shiragirl stage later that summer, an up-and-coming band named Paramore played for a couple of weeks.

"We were on a tiny little stage that folded out of the back of a truck and we were looking out across the way at these massive stages with Avenged Sevenfold and Pennywise and the biggest bands in our genre at the time and just thinking like, 'One day,'" Strauss said. "And the stage we played on was great. I'm not knocking starting somewhere but I just remember thinking one day we're going to go from this little stage over here to that big stage over there."

After their Warped Tour stint, Lia-Fail packed up in Schluter's brand new 2005 silver Toyota Tacoma with a camper shell on the back and hit the road on a 15-show, 13-state tour -- a baseball bat underneath the driver's seat in case they ran into any trouble along the way.

THE ROAD WAS tough. They made enough money to make it from place to place -- barely. They made their own merchandise, burned their own CDs for sale and sometimes slept in either the camper or the truck. They navigated shady promoters and outdrove a tornado.

"It takes a lot of balls for a group of kids, girls no less, to roll into a new town with people you've never met and go give the performance of your life, hungry and cold and tired every night, to people you've never seen before and are never going to see again," Strauss said. "No crew, no support, no guitar tech, drum tech helping us put things together and take things apart and handle the money and talk to promoters, all this kind of stuff.

"It takes a lot to go out there and do that. Having that mentality early on in life really prepared, especially Mikaela and I, really well for where we ended up going."

But it became too much. No one can exactly remember the city it happened in, only that the breakup came over breakfast. Strauss considered going a different musical direction. Mayer had a boyfriend she wanted to spend more time with. They were out.

"We were struggling. We were having a tough time," Strauss said. "It was like, 'This is too much. We're fighting all the time. We're not having fun. We can finish out the tour or we could just drive home.'"

They decided to finish touring and make their way back to California.

After getting home, Mayer got rid of her equipment and didn't play bass again. She turned into a "stupid teenager" for a couple of years until she decided to walk into a gym to start learning how to fight.

"I was just done," Mayer said. "Like if I could go back and just tell my 14-year-old self just don't stop playing. Don't be in a band, but don't stop playing."

THEY'D LOST TOUCH, though there would be random interactions, until meeting up again at one of Strauss' birthday parties.

"It was the coolest thing," Strauss said. "And we all hugged and apologized and everybody apologized and we didn't really start hanging out after that, but it was nice to have that closure."

It was also time-sensitive, even though they didn't know it yet. St. Claire, according to a story written posthumously by her fiance, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer in December 2015. Strauss didn't realize how sick St. Claire was -- she'd just hired St. Claire to do some graphic work weeks before. Strauss was in Spain teaching guitar classes when St. Claire died in March 2016. They were all grateful they rekindled their relationships before St. Claire died.

Strauss and Mayer have been in closer contact recently, as their interests are once again becoming intertwined. Mayer recently received an electric guitar as a gift and reached out to Strauss to tell her she wants to start playing again -- recreationally.

Strauss does FightCamp training and has practiced Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. When Mayer fought in the 2016 Olympics, Strauss was on stage with Cooper and ran backstage between songs to catch glimpses of her old friend pursuing her boxing dreams.

When Mayer fights, Strauss and Schluter text back and forth along with Strauss' boyfriend, Josh Villalta, who doubles as her drummer.

And Strauss and Mayer have another plan: To get back on a stage -- a different type of stage -- together again someday. Mayer wants Strauss to walk her out before a title defense -- a long way from the Whisky-A-Go-Go and the back of a silver truck.

"It's going to be a great, great feeling to look across a stage at her again," Strauss said. "I know that Mikaela-walking-on-stage face, and I can't wait to see it up close in person again."