When this column
last checked in on the BellRays in 2001, the Southern California
quartet was already a decade into its career and firmly established
as one of the best American bands in the garage-rock underground.
Since then, its profile has grown, thanks in part to the
extracurricular activities of firebrand singer Lisa Kekaula.
Kekaula toured with
the surviving members of the MC5 and loaned her vocals to dance acts
the Basement Jaxx and Crystal Method. But the soulful yet
hard-rocking group she formed with guitarist (later bassist) Bob
Vennum in their native Riverside remains the best outlet for her
talents, and the group's fifth album, "Have A Little Faith," shows
its range, with a number of more low-key R&B- and jazz-flavored
grooves in addition to its patented take-no-prisoners barn-burners.
I spoke with
Kekaula before the band -- which is completed by guitarist Tony Fate
and drummer Craig Waters -- set out on the tour that brings it to
usual, Lisa, the band is kickin' butt and taking names on "Have A
Little Faith." The title is indicative of your attitude: You've been
touring since 1990.
it does, but it really feels like we've reached a new level with
this record. Just like with any record, our goal was that we wanted
the best representation of the songs, but I also wanted something
different, with a bit more warmth to it. I had no idea how to get
that, and I was pretty sure that we were going to need to go outside
of the group. Then Bob said, "No, I have a really clear vision of
what I want, but I need to do it by myself." That was probably the
best decision we have ever made as a band: He came up with things
that I would have never seen.
does the songwriting work?
guys come up with songs on their own. Bob and I write songs together
as well, but on this record, you have songs from both Bob and Tony.
Each of them brought their songs in and handed them over to the
band, and we made them our own after that.
they ever come up with something you feel like you can't sing?
A. I feel
that no matter what, it's up to me to make it my own if it's a good
song -- and to be truthful, they haven't brought me any bad ones. I
don't ask them, "What does this song mean?" and they never offer
that information. To me, it's supposed to be the same way it is for
someone that listens to the song: It becomes whatever you think it
is. That's the only way you can really make it your own.
With outside projects like the Basement Jaxx or the MC5, new
audiences started to realize what a great singer you are. What do
you learn from those gigs?
use the Basement Jaxx for an example, because it's so different from
what the BellRays do. It also means that the crowd is very
different, with a different attitude. When you go to rock concerts
-- and this is no slam against rockers -- people are waiting to be
shown that you're great. It's the arms crossed and the guarded heart
and all that stuff. When you go to dance concerts, they're just
ready: They're melted away, happy, already in a great mood and you
don't fight it! I learned so much by being in front of that kind of
You're not the type to let people stand there looking bored.
[Laughs] Why thank you!
mean, I imagine you're a little frightening when provoked; there's
certainly anger in your performances. Are the boys in the band ever
yeah! [Laughs] We've had quite a few drummers -- the proof is in the
What has held the core of the group together for so long?
think it's that familiarity. With Bob and Tony, I've known them so
long and they've known each other for so long, and when you have
that kind of history, there is a trust. When they write for me or
when we play together -- or even if we're going to fight about
something -- we still know at the end of the day that we're going to
be there for each other. Granted, there are loads of bands that are
like that. But for us, it's really been a long haul.
you ever get tired of the multi-hyphenated descriptions critics use
not just a punk rock band, we're not just a rock 'n' roll band,
we're not just a soul band -- we're a conglomerate of all those
things. Knowing where our power is, I think that helped us. Some
people will never stop looking at me as a black singer doing rock.
The ones that do, that's great, but I'm just not going to worry
about it anymore. People want that black soul diva no matter what --
they want Lauryn Hill to be that black soul diva, they want Tina
Turner to be that black soul diva, they want white girls to be that
black soul diva. They wanted Liz Phair to be that! Well, I just
don't worry about it.
Time to catch up
on some of the best recent rock DVDs. Topping the list: Jonathan
Demme's concert film, Neil Young: Heart of Gold. When I
reviewed it for the Sun-Times, I called it one of the most musically
sensitive and emotionally gripping movies of its kind, and the
two-disc set includes enticing extras such as rehearsal diaries,
several featurettes about making the film, Young's performance on
the "Johnny Cash Show" in 1971 and a bonus song, "He Was the King."
Right up there
is the 1987 concert film and documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail!
Rock 'n' Roll, the tribute lovingly shepherded by Keith
Richards. It's now available in a two-disc set that includes the
original film and two hours of bonus features including the full
interviews with peers and admirers such as Bo Diddley, Little
Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and
Willie Dixon. Berry the man may remain rock's greatest enigma, but
this DVD sheds light on his accomplishments, as well as giving us
more clues about who he really is.
noting: two DVDs from the Sugar Cubes, a k a Bjork's first band,
Sugar Cubes: The DVD, a collection of 12 of the Icelandic
alternative-rockers' videos, and Live Zabor, a concert film
from Reykjavik in 1989, and Rush: Replay x 3, a set of three
DVDs with live performances from 1981, '84 and '88, when the
Canadian art-rock trio was at the peak of its powers, and a bonus CD
of the soundtrack for 1984's "Grace Under Pressure."