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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 effects of the Orlando Invasion -- 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 any time anybody says they've heard of us I see it as the highest victory," says singer Lisa Kekaula, laughing 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 assures that the music is in much the same vein as Blast's aggressive amalgam. "We're still angry. If anything, the BellRays are protesting everything all the time. We're always pissed off about something."
It will also be done in the same primitive manner -- 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," says Kekaula, a note of irritation 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 'n' roll should be dangerous, it should be something you don't expect," says Kekaula 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 play-acting, 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 number one 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," says Kekaula. "Our society is so icon-driven and into buzz words, 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," Kekaula adds.