Interview with The Bellrays
by Jeanne Fury
"We came with the intentions of burnin' this mutha down!" The BellRays' singer Lisa Kekaula is standing onstage at New York City's tony Joe's Pub, howling into the heads of awe-struck attendees who are too stunned to do anything other than gape at this afro'ed vixen in remarkably high heels. Kekaula and band members Bob Vennum, Tony Fate, and Craig Waters do indeed burn the mutha down, using the BellRays' heart-pounding musical assault they refer to as "maximum rock n soul." The Southern California band positively rattles the walls of this dinner club, ripping through songs that have the fervor of punk and the staggering emotional connection of the blues.
For over a decade, The BellRays have rocked the underground while occasionally peeking into the mainstream. Kekaula sang on Basement Jaxx's Grammy-winning Kish Kash, and the BellRays' song "Revolution Get Down" was featured in a Nissan commercial. Their latest album Have A Little Faith (Cheap Lullaby Records) expands their musical horizons to include Middle Eastern influences and textured percussion arrangements. It's time to get saved by the BellRays. Virgin Mobile talked to BellRays' guitarist Tony Fate.
VM: The Bellrays have been a band for 15 years. What do you attribute your staying power to?
TF: We're very stubborn. (laughs) And we've always known we had a right, regardless of what the situation is. So that's pretty much it. Well, and we knew we had a good sound and good music and it was worth fighting to get it out there.
VM: You play maximum rock n soul no matter what is popular at the time. Tell me about the scene you grew out of. What were the early days like?
TF: Well, the scene when we started was the end of the grunge scene and those bands were dying out and the sound was boring and people were looking for something new and we didn't sound anything like grunge. We sorta got noticed right away and after that, there really wasn't a scene. In fact, we've never been a part of any kind of scene.
VM: Remember when the Strokes came out and everyone was proclaiming "rock is back"?
TF: Yeah well that's the media trying to put a spin on things and the media is generally five to six years behind everything else. It was real frustrating because it was not only us but hundreds and thousands of bands that have been touring and playing all over the world and didn't get any recognition and all of a sudden somebody decides you know, rock n roll is back. Well, it never went away and it never will. It's folk music. It belongs to the people.
VM: A lot of today's music, from Pearl Jam to Bruce Springsteen to the Dixie Chicks, focuses on how horrible things are what with the war and Bush, but you put out an album called Have A Little Faith that tells people to hang on and be strong.
TF: Sometimes you just need somebody to tell you have a little faith. It seems like a very simple thing but how many times do you hear that every day?
VM: Not much.
TF: Yeah. A kind word now and then never hurts.
VM: Are you normally an uplifted kind of band with positive attitudes or is it something you have to work at?
TF: Oh we're like anybody else. It's something we have to work at 24 hours a day, you know. The title is as much for us as it is for anybody else. If you listen to our songs, there might be a couple of upbeat songs and a lot of them might be real downbeat. But that's part of being alive. A lot of these... there are some people who go around just preaching this uplifting happiness, everybody's gotta smile all the time, and if you can't say anything nice, don't say it at all. But that's not the way the real world is. You gotta deal with it on its own terms, not on your terms. So we're trying to establish some terms, somewhere.
VM: At the Joe's Pub performance, Lisa was hollering at everyone to lose their inhibitions and just go with the music. Why do you think people are so reluctant to do so?
TF: Yeah, because well, I don't know what it was like to go to a rock n roll show in 1965 but when I see those old films of everybody screaming for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I'm thinking they let loose. For some reason a lot of times people come to a show and they think they're watching MTV. They don't realize they're standing in front of real live human beings, you know? It's a weird dynamic at work nowadays because people, even though they talk to each other, they might in one sense know they're talking to a human being, I think a lot of times they still feel like they're talking to television or a video game. It's a desensitized kind of engagement. If we do anything with this band, we're gonna kill that off.
VM: New songs such as "Time is Gone" and "Tell The Lie" aren't as in-your-face as some of your older material. But then there's "Chainsong," a thick rock track. What were some of the influential factors in figuring out what you wanted the album to sound like?
TF: For this album, we played a lot of these songs for couple of years on tour and we had 'em down good and we wanted to paint the picture that better represented what we do. Some of the other albums we've done, there's the soul music and the hard rock music and a few things in between but it's all kind of got a blanket sound to it. This time we wanted to present each song as its own entity. Each one has its own personality sound-wise and I think it's working because people are paying a lot of attention to it. Like I said before, we played these songs onstage for years and we kept people hearing say "Oh the BellRays are this thundering, distorted garage band" even though we're up there playing straight-up jazz music. People hear what they want to hear. We decided to make em hear what we want them to hear.
VM: There's a carnal sexiness in The BellRays' music. What makes a song sexy?
TF: Vibration. You know, there's a lot of times you'll hear a song on the radio, like some old Marvin Gaye tune, and all of a sudden you forget everything. It's totally sexy and it feels great. He knew how to tap into certain vibrations. And it's not something you can study at the "musician's institute." You just have to know how to do it. And if we have managed to do that, I'm glad. It's a throw of the dice. You hope for that, and hopefully the playing conveys the message.
VM: How has your audience changed through the years? When you look out into the crowd, what kinds of people do you see?
TF: Well, we see more of 'em. (laughs) It seems like everyone who comes to see us tells two or three of their friends and the next time we'll see that same person with two or three other people. That helps a lot. Plus, we get a real broad age range. Sometimes, if the clubs allow it, people will bring their kids. We'll get older people, like in their fifties and sixties who say things to us like, "Man, I lost all faith in rock n roll till I heard you guys." And then they tell us stories about going to see The Who and Jimi Hendrix.
VM: Does it blow your mind?
TF: Yeah, that's real inspiring.
VM: You close the album with "Beginning From The End" where Lisa sings, "The airwaves let me down. No one saw me flying." Is that a reflection on how the industry has treated you as a band?
TF: It is kind of a commentary on the industry and it's also a self-awareness kind of commentary so it can be taken both ways. Each album is a brand-new beginning for us. We were gonna call it that [Beginning From The End], but this new title, Have A Little Faith, is a little more inspiring.