Posted December 17, 2002

FIRE ON THE MOON: THE BELLRAYS

By Roberto Calabrò

The BellRays are one of the loudest and most real rock ’n’ roll bands around. In 10 years of fiercely independent activity they’ve released a bunch of seven-inches, mini-LPs and albums. Their latest two full lengths, "Let It Blast" and "Grand Fury", along with some devastating live activity, have made the band pretty successful on a certain level in the States. After the release of the career overview, "Meet The BellRays", via Alan McGee’s Poptones, they’re big in Europe too. I interviewed singer LISA KEKAULA, guitarist TONY FATE abd bassist BOB VENNUM midway through the second half of 2002 just before coming to the Old Continent and kicking our asses on stage!


You’re often defined as a sort of "MC5 fronted by Tina Turner". Does this definition annoy you or is it descriptive of your sound and attitude? And does "Maximum Rock’n’Soul" define well your music?


Lisa: Not in the beginning but now it does. Some guy wrote that about us and it gave other writers something to copy. Maximum Rock ‘n’ Soul does describe our music. It’s our description of our music not some asshole writers’.

Why is the soul element so important in your music?

Lisa: The soul element is important because the band has soul. Soul is what makes music credible. It is a human connection not just a marketing tool or category. We want to make sure the readers understand that we don’t see soul music as "black" music. Buck Owens is a soul singer. Ozzy Osborne is a soul singer.

Which artists and bands did influence you in your teenage years?


Tony: The Ramones, The Beatles, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Alice Cooper, Joe Tex, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry.

Bob: Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Beatles, The Who, Muddy Waters, Montrose, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Robert Johnson, Cream, Chuck Berry.

Lisa: Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Prince, Parliament/ Funkadelic, Lou Rawls, Gladys Knight & the Pips.

How did you get in touch with Poptones’ Alan McGee and how did you make a deal with him?

Bob:
Alan saw us at South by Southwest in Austin, TX in 2000 and expressed interest in doing something with us. It took a while to find common ground and get everyone into position to be able to get something out.

What do you think about "Meet The BellRays" and do you like the way Poptones is working for you?

Bob: "Meet the BellRays", being a "best of" of our two stateside releases is weird because those two records are complete entities. We took half from one and half from the other so it was a lot harder to make it come across as a complete idea. Hopefully people will get the idea that it is an introduction to us. Poptones has been very good to us so far. They get what a band like us is about and are not trying to leave their stamp on our product.

Which are the main differences between "Let It Blast" and "Grand Fury" for you?

Lisa: The difference between the two records is two years, wider tape and a different room.

Tony: With "Grand Fury" I feel we broke some new ground with tunes such as "Too Many Houses In Here". It was a new approach, and the reviewers didn’t pay any attention. Either that or they just couldn’t comprehend it.

In what sense do the new songs show a new musical approach?

Bob: The musical approach to songs like "Too Many Houses in Here" is a more free and exploratory one. We’re trying to stretch the boundaries a little bit instead of just bashing out barre chords. We like to think that we spent all that time learning to play for something more than just posing and sticking to the expected. Rock and Roll is built on a whole lot of different ideas, in fact, it's built on the total freedom to do different things.

Lisa: Our songs utilize what Tony calls "tornado drumming". This is not like what most bands use for rhythm. It gives the songs a very exciting element and affords me quite a bit of freedom as a singer. It is an elevating approach and makes for an interdependance between the musicians.

You’ve released a lot of seven-inches and split singles. Is the seven-inch your favourite format? Which is your fave record?

Tony: Yes, my favourite format of recording is 7"’s. They are easy to digest. You don’t have to sit thru 30 crummy songs to hear the one you like. My favourite record of the BellRays is all of them.

Bob: Vinyl sounds better. My favourite BellRays single is "Nights In Venice" (split-single with Adam West).

Lisa:
It used to be it was the most accessible as a kid. I could either buy 2 candy bars or a single. I still think of 7"’s as an accessible treat. I really like the 8" "Smash the Hits".

You show a revolutionary attitude - in the MC5 vein. You’re always talking of "Future Now". Do you believe rock music can still bring revolutionary messages? Has real rock’n’roll any chance to be listened by a big audience in a period of MTV/big record companies influence?

Lisa:
Yes. The message doesn’t change, the audience changes. Different artist sing about all kinds of shit that we never hear on mass radio or MTV yet everybody knows about it, i.e. Rap. Rock and Roll like any art form is a reflection of the creator. It’s a connection between the artist and the audience. If crap has a chance to be big on MTV/big record companies any thing does.

By the way, what’s your musical focus and aim?


Tony: To create provocative, adult music that won’t sound dated years from now. I’d like the BellRays to be a big underground force and maybe have some success above ground, but not at the expense of our music or integrity.

After September 11th what did change in America and in particular for artists? Are you afraid of censorship ?

Lisa: Everybody has a flag and is still an asshole. "God bless America and fuck everybody else!" We hear all this talk about "unity" but the lines are still the same and some people use the September 11th incident as cause to discriminate. The only thing September 11th did give Americans another reason to do whatever they want and blame it on somebody else. George Bush can and will go to Hell. Condaliza Rice can ride straight down the hell train with him.

We are always afraid of censorship. That’s why we put out our record our way. Everyone is afraid of censorship.

You come out of Los Angeles. How is the indie scene over there? What are the best underground bands of L.A. for you?


Lisa: There are a lot of indie scenes, not just one major scene. We have never really been a part of any scene. When Tony was in the Grey Spikes, he was playing shows with punk bands but was never really part of a scene. The same was true for the BellRays. We just did what came naturally and truthfully. That doesn't always make for a party.

The best underground bands are the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs, The B-Movie Rats, Slowrider, the Condors, The Excessories, The Flash Express, the Hangmen, the SuperBees, Brother Wayne Kramer, Jamie & the Punk Rock Vatos, the HellBenders, the Insect Surfers, Nels Cline, The Beefs, Texas Terri & the Stiff Ones.

You met and played with Wayne Kramer of MC5. What was your first impression when you met him? Why are Wayne Kramer's music and attitude still modern and rockin’ for you?


Lisa: Wayne moved out to LA right after he did "The Hard Stuff". I was blown away when I heard the CD and even more so when I saw him play at a record store. I remember Bob said "I've been trying to do what he just did for the past five years". It was a real blood letting. What I like most about Wayne is he is looking to the future with his mind and music but he doesn’t appear to run away from the past. He uses what he has, his life experience to speak through music. I always get the impression that Wayne is playing music because if he didn’t he’d die. The BellRays understand that attitude. He and we are always looking forward. I think that keeps us modern and especially rockin’.

And what about your friendship with him? Are you thinking to do something together in the future?

Lisa: We are very fortunate to be considered friends of Wayne Kramer. He has had quite and influence on the band before we knew him. I think he has elevated the LA scene just by moving there after he released "The Hard Stuff". We are definitely in league with him. He is very much a mentor for me. He’s a heroic figure to still be clear of the bullshit and focused on his work as an artist. He has name recognition and could just live off that if he wanted. But Wayne chooses to explore and expand himself and his musical approach. I think his evolution is more exciting now. I think we are kindred spirits. Any work with Wayne would and will be a pleasure.

Which are the today’s bands you feel close to you both for the music and the attitude, I mean ?

Lisa: The BellRays music is organic and honest. Our attitude is so many elements including superhuman work ethic and bull-headed aggression with sex appeal. We don’t really look for companions. We've never had them when we really needed them so we forge ahead.

With who would you like to share a tour/stage with?

Lisa:
We like the challenge of playing with just about anybody who is ready to rock. I don't mean act like a rock star either. I mean ready to bring on the fight. When we go on stage weither we are first, middle or last, we come to kill. Our job is to make them forget about the band they just saw and not want to see the band coming on next. We don't have friends when it comes to the show. We don't go to have a good time and drink some beers. We come to work. We play because we must. We go for the kill. So any band brave enough to play with us, we are ready to play with.

After the States, also European press is giving you a good exposure. You had a rave review on the important NME in UK. Are you satisfied about it?

Lisa: We don't worry about press too much because it's really something we have little control over. We're glad to see good reviews (and most of them have been great) but we're very critical of the press most of the time. Just because a reviewer likes us doesn't mean we're going to like the article. And conversely, I've enjoyed reviews that hated us. We don't like cheap comparison style writing. Writers should strive to be engaging, thorough and most of all, descriptive.

Which are your plans for the year 2002? Planning a new album? Any new releases coming out soon?

Lisa:
We’re recording a new album now that will be on some label somewhere. And there are a split 7" with Zen Guerilla and a split 7" with The Chargers out soon. This will definitely be the year of the BellRays!!!

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