Bellrays de Jour
It's been a long day at the office, academy, or widget factory, and you're off to catch some live music. A perfectly respectable local band opens -- college guys with cultivated scruff and fabulous vintage-shop couture. They're followed by a Luvox diva singing about herself in front of video projections of Welcome Back, Kotter, and then by your favorite pop-punk locals on the rise, Queef 401k. Ah, the comforts of civilization.
But just as you nestle in, there's something that sounds like the gathering of the hordes. Chugga-chugga-chugga-sprroinng!!! You eye the stage for the first time as though it matters. The guitarist looks like a rock 'n' roller -- cool, skinny, shaggy -- who makes the first band look like, well, college students -- but he sounds like Shiva channeling Johnny Ramone, Steve Cropper and Miles Davis into each pair of arms. A woman in a leather mini struts around, her voice rich, crackling and insistent. Are you ready!? Soul chanteuse or piss-splashing punk stomper? You can't decide. The bassist plays implausibly loose and melodic for someone so wound up, the drummer like he's bridging the distance between the pub and Planet X. You stare at your musical map until you realize you're holding it upside down. Stupid fucking people got the world by the tail, makin' more money than I ever will/Stupid fucking people got friends in high places/Stupid fucking looks on their stupid fucking faces. By now, the other bands' mommies are unloading their equipment at home, and something hits you about the one onstage. It's a little frightening -- it seems to . . . mean it.
"What most people need is a good ass kickin'," reasons Lisa Kekaula, singer of the band in question, the Bellrays. "Most people are so sterile now and they're just so into, 'I got my cell phone, I got my car, I got my little place up in Laguna,' or whatever. They're just so detached from living and experiencing things that they just need to have the shit kicked out of 'em."
Yeah, well, maybe a few weeks ago, before you-know-what. But is this really the time for aggression and subversive shenanigans? America has lost its innocence again, and dammit, we've gotta get it back, just like those "born again virgins" you hear about. We'll keep our legs closed, be coy and self-conscious. Let us find solace in the full range of masturbation: from charging around in SUVs like some suburban Special Ops force, to making installation art with our own poop at Burning Man. And we have such reassuring purveyors of culture to choose between -- from Janet to Slipknot -- what do we need with a band from a place called Riverside that doesn't even have a river, that wants to beat the hell out of us?
Just try walking in on the Bellrays at their Hollywood practice space. First, they tell you to shut up until they're done. Then, just when you think you've got them pegged as a "punk-soul" band -- according to the motto on the cover of Let It Blast, the band's '98 album debut -- they try to bamboozle you again.
"Merle Haggard is soul music," announces guitarist Tony Fate. "That guy is God damn soul music!"
"Iggy Pop and Ozzy Osbourne, they're soul singers," throws in Kekaula.
Not to be outdone, Todd Westover -- who was added last year as drummer and seems suspiciously soft-spoken for someone who day-jobs at Hot Rod magazine -- compares punk to polka. And he explains the band's hesitancy with safe categories: "It's like a script. It's become like a type of music, like swing. Here's how you play it -- it goes like this. Punk rock goes like this, and there's a way to play it and everyone reads the same sheet music."
A suggestion that the band members are too young to have participated in the first wave of punk draws a somewhat self-effacing "ha!" all around (except from Kekaula, who actually was a tyke). Long before bassist Bob Vennum met Kekaula and the two got married, had a kid and a band (in '91), and Fate defected from his own Grey Spikes -- Vennum was party to the unlikely mass punk initiation that was the opening slot of Black Sabbath's 1977 Technical Ecstasy Tour. "The Ramones opened up for 'em," says Vennum. "They played a song and a half before they got absolutely shelled off the stage."
The creepy cover art of last year's Grand Fury is inspired by another attendee's reaction to the glue sniffers from Queens. Says Vennum, "I saw a guy like five or six feet down from us who poured butane on his hand and lit his hand on fire and was flipping them off."
Unlike that pyrotechnics genius, Fate -- as a misfit teen -- was instantly attracted to punk. "It was like the music I had been waiting for," he says. "And it's still like the greatest music on earth. I mean, it's been bastardized and fucked up for years, but the basic idea I think is something we maintain." Gauging just how far afield punk has traveled to get to Blink 182, he observes, "All those bands didn't sound the same. They were very experimental and weird. The bands right now don't like to be weird. That's a big difference."
And the Bellrays are weird. Under the journalistic cudgel of musical and racial stereotype, they get contorted into the following Mad Lib: "It's like (insert '60s soul diva) fronting (insert seminal early-'70s proto-punk band)." But they're seamless -- indebted as a group to the abrasive warmth of American punk and hard-core, the meat-and-potatoes groove of Stax/Volt R&B, and trippy (though not dippy) psychedelia and avant-jazz.
On Grand Fury, they fanned out in all the directions Let It Blast started in, making for such rarities as the lilting, philosophical hard-core of "Fire on the Moon," purposeful, concise jazz fusion like "Zero P.M.," and "Have a Little Faith in Me," which is bluesy, dusky and sweet. While the improv pattering of former drummer Ray Chin could have used some Dramamine, Westover supplies a steadier feel along with the complex Keith Moon conniptions. His eyes widen when describing some of the band's post-Fury material: "You'll just think you're on acid, like, 'This doesn't sound like anything I've ever heard in my life!'"
Far out. In the end, though, the Bellrays' ace ain't weirdness. Sure, they experiment with chemicals others mistake for dormant, in a way not seen in L.A. since the Minutemen. But it's their tunefulness and searing populist conviction that make them one of the two greatest living West Coast bands (see Washington's Makers). You have to wonder if Fate's nostalgia for early punk isn't misplaced. After all, track down an old regional punk compilation, or thumb through a reprint of the notorious rag Search and Destroy: Alongside a few greats, you'll find Marxist poseurs, art school hipsters, vampy glamour pusses, hardly a multiracial band, and collectors' bins full of aimless, bloodless music. Then as now. Is it any surprise that the Epitaph label -- contempo-punk's own Mobil -- has shown the Bellrays about as much hospitality as the majors?
"They're all fuckin' scared to death of us," says Fate.
Both Bellrays albums are self-released, and they've won their following the medieval way: playing their -- and our -- guts out. They've toured the States and Europe (with Public Enemy, no less) and torched industry hobnobs like South by Southwest. Along the way, there have been run-ins with the theoretical lucre, but the band hasn't been impressed enough to bend over like sensible careerists.
"If somebody says, 'You know, Barry Bonds, you're a really good baseball player, but play with your back to the plate and run around the bases backwards,' that's an arbitrary thing that makes no sense," says Vennum. "That's what we end up getting a lot of the time -- these arbitrary things that people just wanna try and infringe on you."
Which brings us back to the untimely bad attitude. Not only do the Bellrays kvetch about the music industry, but they show bald-faced disrespect for a band that not only listened to Tony Robbins and said yes to success, but also just happen to be real artists! Witness "Stupid Fucking People" from Grand Fury. R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People" didn't exactly inspire Mr. Fate to buy some Neutrogena and get tap lessons. "I thought," he pauses, "'I just wanna kill them motherfuckers.' So as soon as I heard that song, I just sat down and wrote the whole thing in about seven minutes."
"We go out to kill," says Kekaula. "Not to be mean, but that is our job. And we get onstage, we go for blood -- others' blood, our own blood."
Oooooh! She said "blood." The Bellrays seem intent not only on violating the rules of post-9/11 etiquette, but also disrupting your well-earned pathological complacency with some real heart and soul. And you thought it was just a rock show. Maybe you should have stayed home.
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