Hell's bells

What do the Strokes, the Hives and the Rolling Stones all have in common? According to California's soul-punk outfit the Bellrays, none of them take enough risks. Sheer bravado? Fiona Sturges meets them to find out
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The Independent Culture

The members of the California soul-punk band the Bellrays have a few things they'd like to get off their chests. Their principal gripe is the British obsession with the Strokes. "What the hell is that all about?" drawls the bass player Bob Vennum, a grizzled-looking individual who might have just stepped out of an American road movie. "Why do you guys like them so much? They're trying to pump them in America too but people aren't really going for them. They're not for real, they're a bunch of trust fund babies. They may as well be in a boy band."

"A lot of these guys aren't thinking about how to make great music," grumbles Tony Fate, the band's guitarist. "They're geared towards getting on the cover of magazines or getting free endorsements. Those bands don't go out and improvise and take chances on stage but we do every night."

Such indignation could be interpreted as envy although this doesn't seem to be the case. The Bellrays' passion is oddly inspiring; their long list of favourite bands, old and new, is testimony to their love of music. It's also refreshing to talk to a band that doesn't worry about being liked – the Bellrays couldn't care less. "I'm glad you want to talk to us but I can't sit worrying about whether or not you or anyone else likes our album," says the singer Lisa Kekaula. "We're not looking for validation. The fact is that I like our album. That's good enough for me."

Their bewilderment at the Strokes' success is part of a wider concern at the media scrum that surrounds new rock bands. "Being called the future of rock'n'roll is the worst thing that can happen to a band," says Vennum. "It's so much to live up to. The language that the press use to describe music ends up devaluing it. These days everything is 'genius' or 'amazing'. Either that or it's 'worthless' and 'crap' and there's rarely anything in between. If the Strokes are brilliant, then what is John Lennon, what is Mozart? If you play a Strokes and a John Lennon album you know which is brilliant."

The Bellrays path from obscurity to almost-celebrity has taken seven years, two albums and several drummers. They started life in Riverside, a small town 60 miles outside Los Angeles. Kekaula and her husband Vennum had been playing together for three years before they were joined by Fate. He and Vennum had been in and out of each other's bands since childhood and shared similar interests and aspirations. The band spent the first few years exhaustively touring the US. "These were the hard gigs," says Fate. "You know, playing for the bartender at midnight on a Tuesday night. It can really wear you down."

So, how to describe their sound? It's a sheer noise attack that takes in Black Flag and Aretha Franklin, The MC5 and James Brown, the Stooges and Parliament. Like its practitioners, their amalgam of soul and punk music comes with spirit of fierce determination. But what really sets them apart is Lisa Kekaula, an iron-lunged diva with a fabulous electro-shock afro and a deep belly laugh. A former jazz vocalist, Kekaula belts out a sound that falls somewhere between Janis Joplin and a pneumatic drill. The artists from whom she draws inspiration are a varied bunch – Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, Wayne Kramer.

"People always assume that I'm the soul influence in this band just because I'm black," she sighs. "But hell, I've never been able to get enough of rock'n'roll." "Oh yeah, she likes it real loud, and real heavy," confirms her husband. Vennum plundered his parents' record collection as a child, discovering Creedence Clearwater and Frank Zappa, while Fate got his early inspiration from Chuck Berry and Miles Davis.

The Bellrays like to do things on their own terms. So it comes as little surprise to know that, rather than sign to a record label, they started their own. This is common practice among British musicians but still rare in the US where a band's success relies on radio play and the backing of a major label.

"One of the reasons that we've been in the wings for as long as we have is that we've never consented to doing anything that we didn't have control over," says Kekaula. "We want to retain rights over our master tapes, but also over the way that we sound, the way we look, everything. We're completely independent. We don't have to kiss ass to any record label. We own the goods – you want it, you license it."

In 1998 they released their debut LP Let It Blast, but it was mostly ignored. Gradually the word got around about their pulverising live sets and they got more and more bookings. As one US paper put it: "It's like God decided to form a punk band and put his best church voice up front."

It was two years ago that they caught the attention of Alan McGee, then the head of Creation records and now the boss of Poptones. Their latest album Meet The Bellrays, released in the UK only, is a composite of the last 10 years' songs, and is one of the loudest and brashest records you'll hear all year.

That the Bellrays have been together for so long means they are taking a broad view on their career prospects. Certainly, they're wary of the attention being lavished upon them now, having seen plenty of bands in the same situation join the legions of disaffected and disappeared. They also arrive on our shores hot on the heels of the band of the moment the Hives, are licensed through the same label, and have just finished a short tour with them. "I'm delighted for the Hives but I don't want to be the saviour of anything that happened 20 years ago," thunders Kekaula. "I want to be in charge of my own castle. I want to leave a body of work when I die that I can be proud of. To me, that's what it's about."

There has been criticism that the Bellrays are little more than an MC5 tribute band and that they, like the Hives, are living in the past. "Despite all the comparisons, I think we have new ideas," insists Kekaula. "That's where we stand apart from a lot of these garage bands. But people don't know where to put us. We certainly weren't looking to become part of a scene."

"When the writers say that the Bellrays are a late Sixties group, then I suppose in a sense they're right," adds Fate. "That was when people took chances all the time. They would risk sounding like shit just to see where the music could go."

"The important thing is to keep it interesting," says Vennum. "We tour with different sets. We do stuff that isn't on the set list and we revise songs that we wrote 10 years ago. You look at the Rolling Stones – they've been playing "Satisfaction" for 35 years. I don't know how they do that. We're always trying to keep it fresh if not for the people who come to see us then for ourselves. "

'Meet the Bellrays' is out now on Poptones

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