By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
The BellRays' set at South by Southwest (SXSW) last year provoked the kind of massive critical slobbering that relatively unknown, unconnected, ultra-indie bands just aren't supposed to cause anymore. The SXSW guidebook compared singer Lisa Kekaula to Gladys Knight. A writer from Minneapolis described the band as "Tina Turner fronting the Ramones." A music critic from Austin's major daily penned a rave, branding them as "Etta James fronting the MC5." Another from the same paper likened Kekaula to Aretha Franklin. A scribe from Dallas said the BellRays were "Tina Turner fronting the Stooges." Even some lame OC Weekly music editor weighed in with his own "MC5-meets-Aretha" analysis.
Did the flood of great ink flatter the BellRays? Mmmm . . . yeah. And, well, no. Problem is the group they most resemble is this Inland Empire-by-way-of-LA soul-punk band of revolutionaries called . . . the BellRays.
"Labeling and comparing us seems too easy," says drummer Todd Westover between mouthfuls of his late-night supper. The BellRays have just finished a rehearsal at their Garden Grove practice space (a convenient midway point; half the group lives in LA, the other half in Riverside), and the band members—Westover, Kekaula, bassist Bob Vennum (yes, it's his real last name—cool, or what?) and guitarist Tony Fate—have huddled into a booth at a nearby Spires for an interview.
No, Kekaula interjects, the BellRays are much more than the imaginary collaborations they've been held up to.
Fate, um, intervenes. "They're trying to lump you in with something, but you can't Frankenstein something together," he says. "They're trying to paint the picture without having to go see it, and our thing is go fucking see it. Come see our live show, and make up your own opinion."
Obviously, the BellRays aren't into sweeping generalizations. Even more annoying are the attitudes they've dealt with during their 10-year existence of people who can't see (or hear) past Kekaula's flesh tone.
"We've had to really fight to get into some clubs," she says, "because we're trying to do something that you just don't see everywhere else. Visually, a black female singer in front of three white guys playing loud music is a big obstacle for some people, even though it shouldn't be. Pre-categorization has also been a problem with us getting booked—when someone gets an idea of what we sound like just by looking at our picture, which is crazy."
So what do the BellRays sound like? Turns out even the BellRays couldn't resist throwing some names around: their Web site makes a "listening to the Bellrays is like getting kicked in the balls by James Brown" reference; a "bus full of Motown recording artists being steamrolled by Black Flag" pops up, too.
Colorful images and all dead on target. The BellRays preach revolution with their music (and with the way they run their band; more on that in a sec), kinda like the way the MC5 did, but instead of the 5's "dope, guns and fucking in the streets" mantra, the BellRays' goal is to unite the masses with a skull-cracking mixture of maximum soul, punk, R&B, metal, blues, hardcore—rock & roll, baby!
At a BellRays gig last year at Chain Reaction, Kekaula was a leather-jacketed, nitro-fueled fireball, a throaty diva with commanding, full-tilt-orgasm vocals. Then there's the rest of the band—not merely statues content with backing Kekaula, but the grease that lubes the entire BellRays machine. Fate's blitzkrieg guitar attack is just as impressively pulverizing as the one Kekaula drops. Mix in Vennum and Westover, make mental notes of who they sonically remind you of (just don't let the BellRays know), and you've got a band that feels like both the past and the future of rock—"FUTURE NOW!" as they frequently chant on their self-released, self-financed 1998 CD, Let It Blast. Only ridiculously naive, burnt-toast-hippie optimists could possibly think that rock & roll can change the world anymore, but when you see and hear the BellRays—when you experience the BellRays—you get this feeling that . . . maybe . . . just maybe . . .Though the BellRays have logged adecade's worth of club shows, it really wasn't until Let It Blast that their profile started creeping up. Even before their SXSW set, former MC5-er Wayne Kramer had been raving about the BellRays, which gave them a certain hip-by-association notoriety. After the great SXSW reviews, Kekaula wound up on the cover of one of BAM Magazine's final issues; they were invited to play a large international music festival in France, where they followed Public Enemy; the LA Times metro edition ran a feature on them, something they never, ever do for a local, non-major-label band; and the LA Weekly gave them an award for Best LA Rock Band, all of which have helped to move about 3,000 copies of Let It Blast so far. Let It Blast is a pristine example of what the BellRays are all about, a loud, angry slice of organic rock & roll, with moments that range from Kekaula's pained, I-wanna-testify, wailing-priestess exorcisms to the band's frenetic nitro burn to the straight-up Stax grooves to the occasional bits of social commentary ("Changing Colors," a song penned by Vennum but howled by Kekaula—"You say you're black like me, but you don't want me around!"—about not being true to yourself or acknowledging where you come from). It's that rare album where there's not a stinker in the bunch, made all the more amazing by its low-end sound quality, recorded quick and on the cheap in their 15-by-15-foot practice room, each of its 17 tracks cut live to a six-track, with zero overdubs. It sounds like it was recorded around 1968, which Kekaula says is partially the point.
"You read all these things about how to get into the music industry, how they tell bands that you've got to have a great-sounding demo, that it's gotta sound a certain way," she says. "Our album has broken all those rules. People from all over the world have sent us e-mail thanking us for Let It Blast. It's honest, good rock & roll, and I don't think sound quality matters. I think that's something the industry has pushed on everybody, where they think that everything's got to sound slick and has to be up to their standards. . . ."
Fate cuts in. "But they're cranking out so much crap they've got to have it sounding really slick so people won't notice how crappy all the songs are," he says. "The industry has just pushed the idea that you have to have a certain technology to be at this level or you can't gain acceptance."
This is the part where you enter the realm of the Militant BellRays, when their healthy suspicion and flat-out disdain for the record-industry machine is in full effect, where you're reminded that before "indie" got co-opted by conglomerates (just as "alternative" did before), the word meant independent.
The BellRays say they would like more than anything to see the music reclaimed from the clutches of label marketing and A&R departments, and they are also wise enough to know that if they ever signed a deal, it would almost certainly entail a potentially fatal level of creative compromise.
On this matter, they say they will not give in, their reasons ranging from artistic freedom to cold cash.
"We've had labels call," says Kekaula, "but getting signed to a major is not what we're doing this for. And I think that's another thing that makes us stand out, that we will not compromise."
They say they aren't about to sign any deal unless they can walk away with a contract that's worth more than the 10 percent to 15 percent the standard industry contract offers.
"We're doing all the work," Kekaula points out. "All somebody else is doing is putting up the money to package and move this product. We've done all the market analysis ourselves by getting our asses out there and selling it, and then they're gonna tell us that all they'll give us is 15 percent? You'd have to be an idiot—in any business—to jump into that."
Vennum chimes in. "We're the band that says no, while all the other bands say yes. They're the ones who'll do what everybody else does and do what everybody tells them to do, who kiss ass and are afraid to be independent. They think they've got to be connected to something, like a label or a scene. It's like a game, and they think that playing it is important when it's not. It's just being true to yourself, not having someone else dictate what it is you should be doing. If you're doing any kind of art at all, you shouldn't be looking for fans; they should come to you."Kekaula lets out a deep sigh. Closingtime at Spires—the waitress comes around and sternly asks us to pay the bill. The cleaning crew is here, and someone's pushing a pissed-off-sounding vacuum around.
Kekaula restarts herself. "The BellRays aren't here to change the world, just the part we live in. But I have faith—we're gonna sell a million records."
When Kekaula tells you this, you want to laugh, but the silence and seriousness of the other band members seated around the table tell you that you'd better not. Then Kekaula flashes you a glare that's just as intense and ball-breaking as the persona she projects onstage.
"If we gotta sell 'em one at a time, we're gonna sell a million records," she says. "We ARE. It's not just an attitude; it is a FACT."The BellRays play with the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs and Midnite Rapture at Club Mesa, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-6634. Fri., 9 p.m. $7. 21+.