Ring my Bell

When The BellRays' Let It Blast blares over the speakers in a local hole-in-the-wall record store, the eyes of bored hipsters in the aisles suddenly come aglow. A few whisper urgently to the nearest clerk, "What is that?"

The music is unnerving, unreal after years of digitally enhanced sounds--a time-warp from a free-format '60s AM station. It's wildly unpredictable and original, a fusion of punk and soul exploding with raw, visceral passion. Listening long enough to a band like The BellRays only highlights the sad fact that the most boundary-shattering music doesn't cross the public radar anymore.

Had Blast, the L.A. band's first "real" CD (they previously released two full-length cassettes, The BellRays and In the Light of the Sun) come out during the indie gold rush, they might've been another Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a target for big-money labels. The album bore all the hallmarks of '70s punk--recorded on a bare-bones budget in the band's practice room to a six-track machine. But this was back in 1998, and the industry was already experiencing the effects of the Orlando Invasion of boy bands and prepubescent divas. The BellRays failed to convince skeptical label suits to release this imperfect gem for them, so they had to put it out on their own Vital Gesture Records.

To everyone's surprise, Blast created a sudden flurry of interest, bringing the band a high-profile South By Southwest showcase triumph and expanding a growing word-of-mouth reputation for electrifying, in-your-face live shows.

"We have absolutely no money in publicity, so anytime anybody says they've heard of us, I see it as the highest victory, " says singer Lisa Kekaula at the band's underground "it" status. "I think record companies would just shit their pants if they realized how poor we are. How much money do the labels drop into [bands], and how many of those artists--even proven ones--have gone down the tubes? We've been riding on the tails of Let It Blast for two years, so I think we're winning."

The BellRays will soon release a new as-yet-untitled album, also on their Vital Gesture imprint. Kekaula says the music is in much the same vein as Blast's aggressive amalgam. "We're still angry," she says. "If anything, The BellRays are protesting everything all the time. We're always pissed off about something."

It will also be recorded the same primitive way--with the exception of using a slightly bigger practice room, newer equipment (their old gear was stolen after Let It Blast was finished), and, as the sole concession to technology, recording on thicker tape. "In the beginning, a lot of people wanted to slam us for the sound quality," Kekaula says, a note of aggravation in her voice. "I don't think any performance I've ever really loved has been perfect. There might be songs that have been written perfectly, [or] a guy who's just flawless on his instrument, but I've never heard a song with exactly the perfect EQs. Listen to Led Zeppelin--there's a bunch of mistakes that the guys were makin' on those records. But there's stuff in your imperfections that make things come alive."

That attitude is a natural extension of The BellRays' captivating live performances--part unpredictability and part violent energy. "Rock and roll should be dangerous; it should be something you don't expect," Kekaula says emphatically. "Most of the people I know, myself included, have been robbed in the past decade. I think we've gotten to a point where there's so much production going into these CDs that the entertainers can't live up to it onstage. And MTV has a whole lot to do with people's perceptions; that performing music live is supposed to be some kind of playacting, or a background thing. How many people can hold not just one or two people's attention, but a whole audience? That's the highest form of compliment that I can get."

Kekaula's frequent laughs belie her intense focus--and her interview savvy. Without referring to it by name, she frequently turns the conversation back to the BellRays' credo, their "Soul Punk Revolution" (a phrase inscribed on Let It Blast's sleeve), the No. 1 rule being "death to stereotypes."

For one thing, she's quick to condemn reviewers who characterize the band as "Tina Turner fronting The Stooges" or "MC5 meets Aretha Franklin," considering them narrow-minded, lazy, and, well, just plain wrong. "It shows me that people haven't really listened to the record, because I don't sound anything like Aretha," Kekaula says. "Our society is so icon-driven and into buzzwords, rather than allowing people to think. People automatically think that because I'm a black person fronting three white guys, that's where the 'soul' is coming from. R&B is not color-coded, but we've gotten into that mindset."

In fact, with a single exception, all the songs are written by the "three white guys," mostly Kekaula's husband, the band's original guitarist-now bassist Bob Vennum, and guitarist Tony Fate--who brought in the aggressive punk element from his former band The Grey Spikes. More recent contributions have come from new drummer Todd Westover, an old friend who replaced longtime trapsman Ray Chin last year when Chin left to pursue his MBA. "It's a complete group effort, and the identity of The BellRays that people see as me is just an extension of the band," she adds.

The group's burning vision of a world where complex, worthwhile music is once again revered--that, and sheer stubbornness--has kept them from the graveyard littered with talented bands who never fulfilled their promise. In fact, the early negative industry response created the opposite effect--it made them even more confident, more uncompromising, and more determined to succeed on their own terms. The forthcoming record may be the band's first joint venture with another label (since the deal isn't final yet, Kekaula won't get into specifics), but whatever happens, it seems likely that they'll have the upper hand.

"People think we're entirely about industry bashing, but we're not," Vennum says. "When you're in a line of business, you start pointing out bad business practices. All of a sudden the record labels get up in arms."

Kekaula and Vennum claim that once record companies put an end to the concept of long-term artist development, they in effect slit their own throats. "They've made musicians have to learn how to manipulate and understand a market base," Kekaula says with a snicker. "Once you have that knowledge, you'd be a fool to sign most of their contracts. It's like, 'Oh, can I give you my songs and everything that makes me unique, and then you tell me what you want it to sound like?'"

The couple thinks the future bodes well for renegades like themselves. "I think we're at a really good point in the record industry right now, where things can go in any direction, " Kekaula says. "They're so scared of the independent thing now that they're willing to look at business dealings that they weren't willing to look at five years ago."

However, they also admit they lack the finances or support to get radio play. Still, it seems unlikely that even high-powered promotion could help land the BellRays between Creed and Christina Aguilera. For Kekaula, the airwave exclusion is a backward compliment. "I think that what we're doing is too intelligent and challenging for anybody to really want it on the radio, because we're raising the bar," Kekaula says, matter-of-factly. "If people start to like what we're doing, then maybe they won't like the pap they've been given for so long. There are also a lot of bands on labels right now that have meaty ideas that they want to get out, and are being told that the public isn't ready for it. And that isn't the case at all."

For a band so concerned about its integrity and ability to affect the public consciousness, what's the ultimate goal? "Utter and complete world domination" jokes Kekaula, adding seriously, "I wanna sell a million records. If I've got to sell them one at a time, a million it will be."

And though the band's homebase, L.A., is at the seat of the music business, they've found no shortage of like minded local comrades, many of whom participate in their annual Vital Gesture Christmas Shows--among them The Streetwalkin' Cheetahs, Hellbenders, B-Movie Rats, White Trash Debutantes. "We're aligning ourselves with other bands that have the same ideas," Kekaula says.

"We'll form a cartel, have a monopoly on the rock," Vennum says. "Radio can have Kenny Wayne Shepherd."

"I think people have already stopped paying attention to the radio; now if they can just turn it off," Kekaula muses. "If they can start getting angry enough to say, 'You're not playing what I want to hear.' All they have to do if they really want to stir things up is to buy our record."

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Anita Jackson