The BellRays have a tough-love plan to save rock & roll's lazy ass.
“You know why there are so many crappy bands?” asks singer Lisa Kekaula during a recent interview at a Japanese restaurant in a mini-mall near the Beverly Center. “It's because so many people go out there and say, 'Well, you gotta give 'em a hand just for trying.' No, you don't! Do you give plumbers a hand for coming down and messing up your toilets, if they don't do a good job?”
“Absolutely not!” replies drummer Ray Chin.
“So, if you see a band you don't like,” Kekaula continues, “you have an obligation to say, 'This sucks,' or boo, or do whatever, so that they go back and make it a better art form.”
There's no need for a return to the drawing board for Riverside's BellRays, whose pulverizing live show typically leaves unsuspecting audiences too dumbfounded to heckle. The combination of Chin's scattershot dexterity, Bob Vennum's earthy, fluidly grooving bass lines and Tony Fate's blistering guitar is remarkable enough; add fireball diva Kekaula to the mix and you've got “Maximum Rock & Soul,” the band's motto. Kekaula testifies, pleads and howls with so much full-bodied authority and superior technique on the new, aptly named Let It Blast CD (on their own Vital Gesture label) that you believe her when she boasts, “I shall lead and you will follow/because it's star time!” Most of the songs on the CD, such as “Dark Horse Pigeon” and “Blues for Godzilla,” explode with punk energy and a rambling hard-rock expansiveness, though the BellRays also unveil a cooler mood on the ballad “Blue Cirque.”
Frustrated by the straight-ahead rock limitations of their previous Inland Empire combo, the RoseThorns, Kekaula and husband Vennum formed a version of the BellRays in 1989 and recorded an eponymous LP. Then they added Chin and ex-Grey Spikes guitarist Fate, and released an underrated cassette album of Stax-inspired soul, In the Light of the Sun. “The aim was to go beyond the simple boundaries, and push the music and raise the musicianship level, and take this hard form of music that's very visceral and provocative and make it more modern,” Fate says. “I think rock music has lagged behind jazz as far as the musicianship and ideas.”
“At one point, rock was the art form that was pushing everything else,” Vennum adds.
“With all these musicians walking around that think they're hot shit and have big egos, you'd think they'd want to try to do something better,” Fate says. “I've got an ego the size of a fucking freight train, and I'm not going to dumb down my music. I'm not going to pretend I don't know the chords I know. This dumbing-down period is fucking everything up. It's making kids stupid. It's making everything stupid.”
Fate and Vennum write most of the songs, and the whole band makes the arrangements. “There are moods that are predefined,” Kekaula says, “but I don't think any levels of our expression are predefined.”
Vennum's lyrics on Let It Blast are among the band's more socially conscious, as in “Changing Colors” (“You say you're black like me/but you don't want me around”). “It's about not really being who you are, not acknowledging where you're from,” he says. “Hole in the World” could be about A&R drones, or vampires in general: “There are people who don't put anything into the world, and everything runs out through them. They just suck all the energy and life out.”
The brooding Fate is a painter who creates “abstract-expressionist, slash-'n'-burn stuff. It's what the music sounds like.” After some prodding from the rest of the group, he opens up a little, but still keeps his head down and his gaze lowered. “A lot of the songs I write tend not to go this way [points outward]. They go this way [points to his stomach],” Fate says. “Kill the Messenger” is an inner dialogue “between ego and id. 'King of the World' is more of a desperate plea to yourself. I let society do what they want because I've got my own problems.”
That the BellRays rock so supremely owes in large part to their surprising combination of influences. It's not just that the band sometimes plays songs by Wilson Pickett, Black Sabbath, Montrose, Patsy Cline, Etta James, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the Stooges, it's how they personalize these covers and blow them up with so much power. Fate got his early inspiration from Chuck Berry, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, whereas Vennum's parents turned their son on to blues and classic rock (B.B. King, Frank Zappa, Creedence Clearwater, etc.). “My dad listened to Lawrence Welk,” confesses Chin, who was raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, and preferred big-band jazz, especially Buddy Rich. “I'd be playing Frank Sinatra, the Capitol recordings, and all I would do is listen to the drummer.”
“I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, Lou Rawls, Billie Holiday, Earth, Wind and Fire,” Kekaula says. “I didn't know about the MC5 till the late '80s. Most of my background comes from soul and jazz, when soul was soul, you know?”
It's unusual to hear a band combine punk rock and soul music. “It wasn't rare in the '60s,” Fate says. “Iggy Pop would play gigs with Ike & Tina Turner. It wasn't a big deal then. It is a big deal now because punk has segregated itself so far from what it came from.”
“We've never been a part of any scene,” Kekaula says. “People have taken it upon themselves to say that we aren't like anything else just on the basis of having a black female singer . . . We couldn't get a gig at Gilman Street [a notoriously P.C. club in Berkeley supposedly run by the kids for the kids] because the booker said, 'We're not really into singers. The only girl vocals we're into are screaming chick vocalists.' And this club is supposed to be the punk alternative! He said, 'You guys are more R&B.' Or there's another one: 'You're bluesy.' Now what does that mean? That means black, that's what that means.”
Fate adds, “We get those kinds of comments a lot, and it shows the true colors of the people saying it more than it does us.”
“It hasn't kept us down yet,” Kekaula says. “If there's a stage, we fit in.”