Posted February 21, 2007
Story by PATRICK EMERY
Cartoon by RICK CHESSHIRE
Live photos by THE BARMAN
If you had to reduce the contemporary music to a caricature it’d be of an overweight, slightly paranoid, fiscally obsessed corporate executive presiding over a stable of artists with the collective charisma of a piece of processed cheese. And if you had to identify the opposite to that caricature, it’d be a shot of Los Angeles band the Bellrays on stage, with lead singer Lisa Kekaula’s infinitely rich vocals (not to mention her halo-like Afro) casting a shadow across a sea of mesmerized punters, while Tony Fate’s razor sharp guitar attack, backed by the impregnable rhythm section of Craig Waters (drums) and Bob Vennum, mows down an audience in a manner George Bush’s neo-conserative ideological army could only dream of. In a sea of pretenders propped up by the flaccid egos of music industry accountants, The Bellrays are the real deal.
The Bellrays’ 2004 release, “Red, White and Black” (released locally through Infidelity Records in 2005) includes the band’s succinct self-analytical statement: punk is the teacher, soul is the preacher. It’s a statement that explains both the origin and the destination of the Bellrays. On the phone from his home state of California, Tony Fate – the man whose guitar riffs give sonic life to the band’s punk ideology – is equally at home with soul, as he is wielding the brutal axe of punk rock.
“We all grew up with it”, he says. Like lead singer Lisa Kekaula, Fate finds the contrast between soul and punk illusory at best. The association and commonality between punk and soul transcends the superficial – time signature, melodies, chord structures – and focuses on attitude and sincerity of application. “They both have the same element – honesty,” Fate says. “But not all soul music is great. Some of it is really awful. The best of all music has soul to it, even heavy music.”
Listening to Fate’s guitar licks and you can hear aspects of the free from jazz style that underpins another notable Bellrays influence, the MC5. “Yeah, I’m a big fan of jazz, artists like West Montgomery”, Fate says. “There’s an abstract quality in jazz music that rock needs, a certain harmonic freedom.”
The mainstream music industry is never short of specious rhetoric to describe its latest cash cow, even if that cash cow is a flimsy paper mache creature likely to blow away in the first strong breeze. It’s an assessment that Fate agrees with. “There’s lots of conservative ideas being paraded out as if they’re wild ideas”, Fate says. “A lot of the music is really middle of the road, especially pop music. The best stuff is coming out of Jamaica – reggae continues to re-invent itself”, Fate says.
The BellRays in their only headlining Aussie gig in 2006 at Annandale Hotel, Sydney.
Fate agrees that the music industry remains dominated by people interested in balance sheets, not music. “It’s definitely only concerned with getting a return”, he says. “Someone once signed Zappa, the MC5 and all those bands, but these days you have 30 bands on a label and they all sound the same. Even some of the smaller labels have a really narrow focus”.
While the Bellrays might invoke the language of political agitation in its music – not to mention being compared ubiquitously to the MC5, a band that rode the crest of the revolutionary discourse of the 1960s – the Bellrays aren’t in the business of using music to create social change. “As far as revolutionary rhetoric goes, it’s other people who’ve put that on. We don’t wave banners like U2. We’re not that political,” Fate says.
The Bellrays might not be promoting partisan political cause, but the band is on a political quest of a sort – to re-invent the power relationship between artist and audience like a preacher addressing a congregation. It’s an approach that’s obvious when watching the Bellrays play live. Once on stage the Bellrays aren’t just in it for the money – they’re there to please, and to drag the audience along for the ride of their lives.
“You have to believe in what you’re doing”, Fate says. “What we’re trying to do on stage is to create something other than ourselves.” And the audience is a critical part of the equation. In these days of push advertising, and unilateral consumer expectations, the Bellrays champion the dialetic approach to rock’n’roll performance.
“The audience has to give something back”, Fate says. “Sometimes the audience comes in expecting a TV show, and the audience is sometimes surprised by what they get. Sooner or later you drag the crowd in and you destroy that TV expectation. And when you do that it’s a great achievement.”
As anyone who’s had the privilege of seeing the band play live, The Bellrays in full flight are one helluva a spectacle. Was there a moment in the band’s history when things came together? “It’s hard for us to tell”, Fate replies. “We don’t look at it from the outside. We just get up and play music, then go home and go to sleep”, he says matter-of-factly.
Tony Fate: Up close and personal at Annandale.
During the Bellrays’ only headline show of its 2006 Australian tour at the Annandale Hotel in Sydney, Lisa Kekaula told the crowd the band was playing its ‘ramp up’ set. “That’s one of our sets”, Fate explains. “We might have three or four sets ready for a tour. That [ramp-up] set builds slowly and gets bigger.” For the Bellrays, the content and structure of each set is much more than songs written in Texta on a scrap of white paper and taped to the stage. “A set is supposed to be like a conversation”, he says. “It has peaks and valleys, some songs hit hard, other times soft. The entire set is like an artistic statement.”
The Bellrays have managed a very busy touring schedule in recent years, with regular tours of Europe and the United States. Not surprisingly Fate says its meeting the punters that make up for the ardour of life on the road. “Sometimes it gets tiring, but the audience makes it worthwhile. You meet so many great people. We have really great fans – and they’re very discerning. They don’t just take any shit”, Fate laughs.
After what seemed like an eternity The Bellrays finally made it out to Australia in August 2006, playing a series of supports for legendary Australian garage rock band Radio Birdman. The double act continued in the United States, with The Bellrays supporting Birdman on the latter’s long delayed debut tour of the United States. Bellrays guitarist Tony Fate is effusive in his commentary on both Australia and Radio Birdman.
“It was an honour”, Fate says. “I never thought I’d get the opportunity to play with them live. They didn’t disappoint anyone, and they really lived up to the legend which is pretty hard”, Fate says. And the bands also bonded on a personal level. “We got along really good”, Fate says. “Those guys were really nice, which just goes to show how music can bring people together.”
As for Australia, and its rock’n’roll atmosphere, Fate is equally positive. “It was great, absolutely fantastic going to Australia. It was like being in southern California! I used to think that Spain was the rock’n’roll capital, but now I reckon it’s Australia!”
The latest Bellrays album, "Have a Little Faith", is out in Australia through Shock.
BELLRAYS 2007 AUSTRALASIAN TOUR:
Wednesday 28th: Auckland, AUT University, Vesbar Marruee St, City Campus
Public Tickets: $30.00 from Real Groovy and Fast & Loose. AUT students: Free Entry with AUT University ID. Other Tertiary Students / bcard Holders: $15 doorsales only
Friday 2nd: Melbourne, Spanish Club
Tickets $30.00 + bf available from www.webtickets.com.au , the Corner Hotel box office, phone: 03-94279198, www.cornerhotel ,com, Polyester Record Store and Missing Link Record Store.
Co-presented by Beat Magazine.
Saturday 3rd: Perth International Arts Festival, Becks Verandah Bar
Tickets $30.00 + bf on sale now from BOCS: Online: www.bocsticketing.com or phone: (08) 9484 1133
Country callers (Australia only): 1800 193 300
Sunday 4th: Sydney, Laneway Festival
Tickets $82.50 + bf from Moshtix: Online www.moshtix.com.au or phone: (02) 9209 4614 and all Moshtix outlets.
Wednesday 7th: Adelaide, Fowlers Live
Tickets $22.40 + bf available online from www.fowlerslive.com.au or www.venuetix.com.au . Also Venuetix phone charge: (08) 8225 8888 and and all CIB outlets - phone charge: (08) 8231 0824
Thursday 8th: Brisbane, The Zoo
Tickets $30.00 + bf available online from: www.thezoo.com.au . Also Rocking Horse and Skinny's Record stores
Co-presented by Rave Magazine.
Friday 9th: Sydney, Gaelic Club
Tickets $30.00 + bf available from www.moshtix.com and all moshtix outlets.
Co-presented by Drum Media
Saturday 10th: Meredith, Golden Plains Festival
Tickets $169.90 + bf from www.goldenplains.com.au