Interview with The BellRays

The music of The BellRays may be the best kept secret in music today. Hearing their mix of organic, dirty, garage-punk-soul, fronted by the fierce vocals and presence of singer Lisa Kekaula, is a life-altering experience. Founded in the early 90s, with three albums under their belt (Let it Blast (live), Grand Fury, and the re-released In the Light of the Sun), this Riverside, Calif. area-based band believes in music’s ability not only to change but to save lives. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a more powerful voice in rock today. Kekaula’s authoritative garage band combines the salvation of soul music with punk’s rawness. The urgent guitar work of Tony Fate, along with the sturdy bass of Bob Vennum and stout drumming of newest member Chris Markwood, deliver the jolt of a thousand double espressos. According to Kekaula, the band’s new lineup has her feeling “very confident that we can achieve more than ever musically.”

I recently spoke with Kekaula during The BellRays’ tour of the UK to discuss the band’s influences, what they expect from their audience, their upcoming album, and their US tour.

Delusions of Adequacy: Your second album, Grand Fury came out in January 2001. Do you have plans to release anything soon? Will you be heading into the studio after your European tour?

Lisa Kekaula: Yes, we have plans for two records. The first will be Raw Collection, which is a compilation of 7 inches. We expect to have this one done in the time we go on tour in the US in October 2002. The second record we expect to finish in early 2003, but it doesn’t have a working title yet. We have our own studio that we record and practice in. Bob Vennum, bassist and engineer for Let it Blast, Grand Fury, and most of our recordings since 1996, is always ready to lay down tracks.

DOA: You have had several lineup changes – what’s the current line up and how has that effected the band as a whole and you as the singer?

LK: Yeah we have had many line-up changes, and the current line up is: Tony Fate on guitar, me on vocals, Chris Markwood on drums, and Bob Vennum on bass. A change in lineup effects everyone equally in this band. It is a difficult transition. Some of the lineup changes were abrupt, others were understandable, but all were very difficult. We just got Chris on board two weeks ago, so we are still feeling it out, but we technically didn’t have a drummer since January, 2002. All the dates we’ve done traveling have been with Vince Meghrouni, who we hired to play with us until we found a drummer. We are very excited to have Chris on board and we feel very confident that we can achieve more than ever musically.

DOA: Your brand of music has been called “maximum rock ‘n’ soul” – are you happy with that label?

LK: We not happy with any label and tend to shy away from them. We happened to come up with that description, so we are a bit more comfortable with it. The problem with labels in today’s sound-bite age is that they become part of the “hype” machine and end up not describing much of anything. People hear a label and think it should describe so much that there is no need to buy a recording. Our society is more inclined to take a chance on a $50 video game than a $10 to $20 CD. The music is its own label and is always in the ear of the listener. The best description of any band is the recording. Buy it and decide for yourself.

DOA: Your voice is beautiful and powerful – when did you first start singing? Who did you listen to and admire growing up?

LK: Thank you for the compliment. I, like the other BellRays, take pride in my instrument and my command of it, especially in the context of our songs. I admire and have been inspired by many artists: Stevie Wonder, Smokie Robinson, Etta James, Carol King, Ozzy Osborne, Paul McCartney, Abbey Lincoln, Oscar Brown, Jr., Lou Rauls, Carmen McCrae, Martha Reeves, Mary Wells, Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles, Natalie Cole, Roger Daltry, Joe Tex, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Andy Partridge, HR, Chuck D, James Brown, Bootsy Collins, Big Momma Thorton, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Muddy Waters, Ike & Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, etc. I’m influenced by someone new and old all the time. This is just who I could think of today.

DOA: I understand that you’re into audience participation. Bob Vennum was quoted as saying that you want the audience to role play – what does that mean?

LK: As far as audience participation goes, we are into having a conversation with the audience, kind of one-sided, but still a conversation. We want to know that they are paying attention and that they know they are not in a sports bar or watching MTV. We are working on that stage and are there to engage, one way or another. The aspect of role-playing, from my perspective, is that everyone has a role at a show – owners, promoters, band, and audience. The audience at times needs to be schooled on what their role is. I don’t see this as just their problem. For many years, there have been and still are bands that take the audience for granted. Bands get on stage and spend every break between songs senselessly tuning, falling down drunk, or telling stupid jokes and explaining the meaning to every song they sing. To me, this is not very respectful to the audience and teaches them to tune-out intermittently during a set. We are trying to raise that bar. We expect more from the audience because we give more.

DOA: What do you think of the current music scene? Who do you enjoy listening to?

LK: Music scene are relative to where you are physically and who is asking. The BellRays have never been a part of a scene, not by choice, mostly by design. I don’t have as much faith in scenes as I do in bands. If there are people who own clubs and they’re showcasing bands and people want to see bands, then that’s all you need for a scene. The rest is bullshit. I enjoy listening to Alice Coltrane, The Lost Disciples, Piano Drag, Jackson’s Corner, Bad Brains, James Brown, and The White Stripes.