The Sound and the Fury
The BellRays are pissed off.
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."
Vennum sees success as a double-edged sword that can be unnerving. "If you're in a band, you're working for a certain thing for a long time. Then all of a sudden, this window of opportunity comes out where people are actually inviting you to go places and do things. I think it just freaks some people out."
Since the shakeup, Vennum has moved back over to guitar, the instrument he played before Fate came on board. It's a position in which he's very comfortable. "He [Bob] only went to bass with the idea of me, Tony and Bob being in a band together," clarifies Kekaula.
When the BellRays found themselves at the eye of a hurricane of buzz following a good showing at last year's South by Southwest festival in Austin, the press regurgitated one "(insert female soul icon here) fronting (insert pioneering proto-punk band here)" analogy after another in describing the band, putting to paper everything from "Etta James fronting the MC5" to "the Stooges fronted by Tina Turner" (the latter an appraisal printed in Westword last July).
"I think that's what people want to do no matter what they hear anymore," says Vennum of the rampant cliches. "They just find an easy label and just stick it there and don't expect anything from it. We've run into it more because we're not trying to join any crowd. We just do what we do, how we do it. It just pisses us off."
While Kekaula doesn't necessarily take these comparisons as an insult, she thinks they have more to do with the color of her skin than anything else. "I don't want to look at it with a race aspect, but I really think people think, 'Oh, it's got to be really eclectic, because there's colored people involved with rock and roll,'" she says flatly. "And we were at the beginning of it, and the only reason that anybody thinks we're divorced from it as a race is because of all the labeling that was done by the record companies to sell records."
"Anybody who thinks the first punks were white is insane," adds Vennum. "Charlie Parker was a punk. [Ragtime pioneer] Eubie Blake was a punk. It's just stepping outside of the norm and doing something different. That's punk. That's what it's all about."
Regardless, those new to the BellRays' "soul-punk revolution" tend to equate the soul with Lisa and the punk with the white guys backing her up. It's convenient to cleanly separate the two musical directions rather than see the BellRays as an organic whole, but Kekaula sees a lot of the soul coming from the white boys. "Tony [Fate, ex-guitarist] and Bob are writing these soul songs, especially Tony. He's writing these things that Curtis Mayfield could have been writing."
"If you look back at the Coasters and all of these doo-wop and soul groups, and rock-and-roll groups, a lot of their material was Leiber and Stoller and Carole King -- written by white people," interjects Vennum. "Even black people think, 'That's black music.' No, it was written by white people." In the BellRays' eyes, the clean and easy lines drawn between white and black music originated in marketing departments, not the real world.
With Fate now an ex-BellRay, however, the possibility of his penning Impressions-style R&B for the band is iffy at best. Nonetheless, says Kekaula, "I still believe in Tony's songs. I believe in them enough to be going out on the road and playing a bunch of them."
The in-progress outing is the BellRays' second major tour (following a billing on the College Music Journal Tour last fall) and consists of twenty shows in 24 days in the West, Midwest and Canada. Bouncing around half of North America in less than a month is a pretty serious workout, but it's both exhilarating and the next logical step for Kekaula and Vennum.
"I think, for both Bob and I, [touring] is a nice thing to do, even though we have to be away from our daughter," says Kekaula. "I'm just really grateful that people want to see us. We get in a van and we haul ass to go to the 66 Bowl in Oklahoma City, and people are glad to see us. They thank us for coming. That's an honor."
"Having a tour under you -- I don't know if a lot of bands know this -- if you have that kind of reinforcement from playing, you can grow a band in so many directions," she adds. "I think some people use it as 'I'm a movie star, I'm a rock star, I can do whatever, I can fuck around,' but if you use it for what it actually allows you to do, it allows you to focus on nothing but playing your music. You have one hour a night to work."
The BellRays' goal is that their albums be an accurate reflection of their incendiary stage act. Like 1998's Let It Blast, Grand Fury was recorded live with no overdubs, with Vennum twisting the knobs in a rehearsal room, not a studio. The recording, he says, "was all about the performance. If you get a good performance, it really doesn't matter what the sound quality is, because the electricity comes from that. The sound quality cannot help the performance at all."
"We know some bands that have gone into a studio and spent two months and $80,000," he continues, "and come out with something that sounds like shit. It doesn't sound like somebody spent $80,000 on it; it sounds like somebody jerry-rigged something and they played while they were asleep. You can make somebody sing on pitch with a machine now, but that's not going to bring any vibrancy to it. It's just going to make it sound mathematically correct."
"Shit, I just wish somebody would let Britney Spears get recorded on a cassette," Kekaula adds. "It might give her a little more body. I'm so tired of people thinking things have to be clean and clear to validate a record."
While Grand Fury was released on Los Angeles-based UpperCut Records, "It's still us out there supporting our music, taking it out on the road," says Kekaula. "There have been no big advances, no big money to support us." Yeah, but with more and more buzz churning around the band, haven't the major labels come sniffing around? "Yeah, they sniff," she responds, "but nobody's thrown anything out there that I would say, 'That's something to call an offer.' It takes more than dinner to be an offer."
One has to wonder if the BellRays' DIY inclinations and brutal honesty would even mesh with the 'bottom line or else' philosophy of the major labels. It's an experiment, however, for which the band is a willing subject. "We're interested in the money," says Kekaula. "It's not that we're this big anti-establishment thing. We just want the establishment to know what they're doing."
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