By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
Independent thought is an endangered endeavor. That pisses them off. Modern politics are more akin to marketing Brand X over Brand Y than they are about solving problems. That also pisses them off. The music media insists on slapping labels on them. That pisses them off, too. But they aren't going to keep quiet. The BellRays aren't inclined to keep their emotions bottled up.
Who or what, then, is the target of all this emotion? "The world in general," answers Lisa Kekaula, the Riverside, California, quartet's outspoken lead singer. "But we're not mindlessly pissed off, either."
"It's when you live in the belly of the beast for as long as we have, there are very specific things that you've banged your head against enough times. It just makes you angry," elaborates Lisa's husband and bandmate, BellRays guitarist Bob Vennum.
The cover art on the group's latest album, Grand Fury -- a middle finger shrouded in white-hot flame -- is a good indication of the attitude contained within. Released last October on Los Angeles's Uppercut Records, the disc sounds like the culmination of the band banging their collective heads against the social landscape of Southern California since 1990, the year when Kekaula and Vennum kick-started the BellRays. The anger, however, doesn't drown out everything in its wake: Kekaula, in possession of an exceedingly flexible and expressive voice box, sounds just as secure delivering a sensitive, sexy purr as she does flaring out lyrics describing racial and social alienation. The backing band is punk, sure, but the connotations implied by the word 'punk' don't do justice to the BellRays' compact, unyielding and tuneful intensity.
Grand Fury's "Warhead," with its disquieting content -- "My daddy was a Nazi and my momma was a Jew/I'm so fucked up I don't know what to do" -- is pure whiplash. Another burner, "Stupid Fuckin' People," is about, well, stupid fuckin' people. (Sings Kekaula, "Stupid fuckin' people always been in my way, wanna ruin my piece of the world/Stupid fuckin' people wanna make me pay for things I've never asked for.") "They Glued Your Head On Upside Down" fuses some of the album's most danceable riffs and rhythms with more serious snarl. As Kekaula says, this rage isn't focused like a laser; it's more like a cluster bomb. But there's more than a little bit of soul amid the invective, most strongly represented on Grand Fury by the delicate groove of "Have a Little Faith in Me."
"We like really energetic, soulful, heartfelt music, in whatever form that takes," says Vennum. "There's heartfelt opera, there's heartfelt punk rock. We just like that element of it: the soul that comes out in the music."
To this end, the BellRays are equally adept at a groove and a sear, but they manage to combine both to create very human, very real music. Punk rock is too often about musicians intentionally burying their humanity underneath a tidal wave of wattage and robotic riffs. But not the BellRays: They dub their act "maximum rock and soul" and back it up with a visceral, from-the-gut passion that has all but evaporated from punk in the 21st century.
At a live show, the Rays are equally likely to rip into a Billie Holiday tune, a Motown number or an arcane hard-rock cover. "In our shows, we do a lot of soul," says Kekaula. "On a given night, you could hear just about anything."
"We like to keep the sets up there energetic and happening, but there are too many bands that think every song has to be fast and loud," explains Vennum. "By three or four tunes, you realize, 'This is all they're going to do.' I tend to get bored, and I'm a big fan of fast and loud music."
The BellRays' shows in Los Angeles have become the stuff of local legend, garnering the band an award from the L.A. Weekly as the best unsigned act of 2000. It didn't hurt that the pre-2001 lineup, with Ray Chin manning the drum kit, Tony Fate on guitar and Vennum on bass, knew "a shitload of songs" -- more than 300. Last month marked the debut of a new lineup, with Jeff Porterfield on bass and Mike Sessa, formerly of the BellRays' SoCal brethren the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs, on drums. The band's current tour, in support of Grand Fury, will be a comparative challenge: With two newcomers, the pool of songs to choose from has dipped considerably.
"That was a really nice thing to have," says Vennum of the long list of tunes the band knew with Fate and Chin. "You learn a lot of material, you can go wherever you want to go."
Chin left the band to pursue an MBA, but Vennum and Kekaula wouldn't get into specifics on the subject of their parting with Fate, who wrote all of the songs on Grand Fury save one. The current tour, however, was a big part of the reason for the split. "We needed to take this thing out on the road," Kekaula explains. "To try to convince people you're playing with that this is what they want to do...it's just like trying to convince somebody to get married when it ain't something they want to do. We just had to do some things we really didn't want to do. We really enjoyed playing with those two guys."