The BellRays have been forging their own path in rock and roll since their inception in 1990. Back then, as now, there were very few black women fronting rock bands, something lead singer Lisa Kekaula jokes she doesn't mind.
Kekaula started the act with her now-husband Rob Vennum; they called it the Rosethorns, and it was more in the vein of the art punkers in Television. But as the ’90s progressed, the group changed its name to the BellRays and incorporated more elements of soul, punk inspired by the Stooges and the MC5, and fiery gospel blues.
The BellRays became a staple of the underground-rock touring circuit of the late ’90s, and they often rolled through Denver for dates at the now-defunct 15th Street Tavern.
“It was the spot,” says Kekaula. “We played a Halloween show there one year. It was the most fabulous Halloween party I have ever seen. It was one of those things where I felt like I kind of wished I wasn't playing and I could just be there, and I rarely feel that way.”
In the 2000s, the band was championed by some of its more famous peers. In 2005, it toured with the Pixies and the Violent Femmes, and all three bands performed at Red Rocks – each boasting a different sound.
Over the years, Kekaula has also contributed vocals to records by electronic acts like the Crystal Method, Basement Jaxx and the Bloody Beetroots (including Bob Rifo's side project, the Legendary Tigerman). She was tapped by James Williamson of the Stooges to do vocals for “I Got a Right” for Re-Licked, his 2014 recording of Stooges songs that saw no truly official release when recorded in the 1970s. Prior to that, Kekaula also performed as a vocalist in the MC5. Perhaps her own style of revolution rock brought these opportunities to the table. After a long hiatus from releasing original music, the BellRays are poised to release a four-song EP in July and a full length in September under the titles Punk Funk Rock Soul Volume 1 and 2, respectively.
We caught up with Kekaula in advance of the BellRays' April 26 show at the Lion's Lair.
Westword: The most recent BellRays record, Black Lightning, came out in 2010, and you're finally putting out a new set of music later this year. Why that kind of gap?
Lisa Kekaula: We had done a recording of the BellRays in 2012 when we worked on the Lisa and the Lips stuff. When you put something down, you want it to start talking back to you. Bob and I were both having the same problem with the BellRays record, in that it was not talking back to us. The Lisa and the Lips record was talking back to us first.
I have this thing with shoes. I really like shoes. But I know I have too many shoes. So if I'm going to have some shoes, they have to be spectacular. They don't have to be ridiculous, but they have to be so me that when I walk by them, the shoes say, “Lisa! Buy these shoes!” So the record, when you lay it down, it should start calling to you. It should say, “Lisa! Bob! I'm waiting to be born!” I feel like the tapes we did, we didn't have who we needed to do it or something else – but it wasn't doing what it needed to do. We tried again in 2014, and we were able to get a couple of original tracks. But the covers record took, and we did that. After that, we figured out, let's hunker and hit these tunes. We went back and recorded in 2016, and we got our old drummer back. It's nothing against any of the guys recording with us, but these songs needed Craig Waters. He was on Have a Little Faith with us and Hard, Sweet and Sticky. He wasn't on Black Lightning because he walked away with music for a while. These songs to me now are amazing. All killer, no filler.
Do you feel your message of revolution and personal empowerment is especially relevant or pertinent now?
I do. But I feel that message always has been. There are windows when people want to be young again and cool. We fit into small windows and into all of them. We don't have a specific genre or sound that people can say we're this or that. It has prevented some people from getting into it, but it has also helped us to stay relevant. But I hate that word, because I think it is used to abuse rather than help or inspire. But we're able to do what we do because when people see us, they hear good songs, good singing, honesty — things that don't fall out of style. We don't sing about being a specific age, so however old we get doesn't really matter.
For us, we don't force a song to become what it isn't. You want your mind to be open to what is coming and what it has to say to you rather than what you have to say to it. That's part of our approach. I want to write a song about this thing! We don't come about it that way naturally. We use a weathervane approach and hold it up and hope it's going to come. Which is why it has taken us so long for us to put out new records. You want to believe it. I have to sing it over and over again. But I've seen bands and solo artists making lots of money and doing what they do, and I see it and see they don't believe it. They go through the motions, but they're not buying the song.
When you were starting the BellRays in 1990, there weren't many women fronting rock bands.
There weren't, and there still aren't as many as people think there are. And black women, I can count them on one hand with three fingers down.
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Did that present any an issues or barriers for you?
No. If it was, it would have stopped me right in the beginning. If you were going to be in a band and you were a woman, then they wanted you to be a singer-songwriter, play your guitar, and they wanted to dress you up and liken you to somebody else. That seemed the thing. The Carly Simon or Joni Mitchell way to go, even if the music had nothing to do with those things – I think it was a more palatable, easier way to market women. But having to front a band or giving a shit that they were fronting a band? There was this thing in the early ’90s when you would see when they had a solo artist. I saw Janet Jackson do this. They wanted you to rock out and sing like you're a rock person and show you're with a band. They used that tactic with Rihanna. It's interesting the way they'll use it on the inside, but then there's no women fronting [actual] bands. Like getting in the van and fronting bands. I actually kind of like the fact that there aren't many black women doing it, because someone would make it the new thing and then no one would know what they're going to see.