Lead singer sees BellRays taking a step up

June 16, 2006


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 Chicago Thursday.

Q. As 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.

A. Yeah, 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.

Q. How does the songwriting work?

A. The 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.

Q. Do 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.

Q. 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?

A. Let's 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 an audience.

Q. You're not the type to let people stand there looking bored.

A. [Laughs] Why thank you!

Q. I mean, I imagine you're a little frightening when provoked; there's certainly anger in your performances. Are the boys in the band ever intimidated?

A. Oh yeah! [Laughs] We've had quite a few drummers -- the proof is in the pudding!

Q. What has held the core of the group together for so long?

A. I 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.

Q. Do you ever get tired of the multi-hyphenated descriptions critics use for you?

A. We're 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." A must-own.

  • 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.


  • Also worth 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."