She's been the voice of Basement Jaxx and The Stooges but Lisa Kekaula's heart belongs to The BellRays, and they're coming to The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea

The BellRays may have been born in the sunshine of southern California back in 1990, but their distinctive sound combines two styles more synonymous with a city further back east – Detroit.

Monday, 13th January 2020, 10:34 am
The BellRays are at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea, on January 15. Picture by Carlos Puma
The BellRays are at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea, on January 15. Picture by Carlos Puma

Imagine a garage-rock act a la The Stooges or The MC5 fronted by a Motown diva and you’re well on your way to The BellRays.

Their 2018 album Punk Funk Rock Soul Volume Two pretty much sums up the band’s approach, but they’re back over here, this time in support of a new double-disc best of, It's Never Too Late To Fall In Love With The BellRays. The UK tour kicks off here at The Wedgewood Rooms.

And they’re also marking their 30th anniversary this year – no mean feat for any band.

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‘No, and specially when you're doing it on the level that we're doing it,’ agrees frontwoman Lisa Kekaula, ‘which is completely DIY and very low visibility.

‘But we stay true to what we do – it's no big deal, because it's basically what we've been doing our whole life!’

They started, in Lisa’s words ‘young and stupid’.

Guitarist Bob Vennum, also Lisa’s husband, has been the band’s other mainstay, with numerous others passing through their ranks over the years.

‘There's certain things you have to be young and stupid to do,’ she laughs, and Lisa laughs a lot when you talk with her.’

But it's one of those things where if you don't love doing it, you wouldn't be doing it!’

While the band has always kept its DIY punk roots, Lisa admits that’s not entirely by choice.

‘We tried to actually get record labels to be into whatever it was that we did. We tried that for years. They just weren't ever really buying.

The BellRays live. Picture by Gilles Simon

‘At the very beginning it wasn't like we said: “We want to reinvent the wheel and do it all on our own”.

‘Having somebody who sings like I sing, fronting anything, you would think it would make everything easier, but it really doesn’t.’

Being fronted by a black woman with a powerful soul voice, but playing punk rock, the band soon found that the sound they made was not what was expected of them.

‘Everybody wants to say what you are, and never listens to what you actually are, and they have this opinion of what will work.

‘And because there's not anything else out there like us for them to compare us to, very few people want to take that chance.

‘I'm very grateful to all the record labels that in the end did want to take that chance. It doesn't mean that everybody did the right thing, but it also doesn't mean that it was really set up for people to do the right thing.

‘Everybody just did what record companies did, up until we had all these algorithms to look at – they just kind of threw money at stuff, or didn't throw money at stuff… And said: “Hey, let's see how this sticks.”’

The band has had releases on numerous labels throughout their career - including the prestigious punk label Alternative Tentacles, and on this side of the Atlantic, the band were championed by Creation Records founder, Alan ‘the man who discovered Oasis’ McGee.

He was hoping to replicate the success he had in breaking The Hives to the UK market with the 2002 compilation Meet The Bellrays on his then-new label Poptones.

But they were hit by terrible timing.

‘We were supposed to come over a bit earlier, but 9/11 happened and every business went into turmoil. And then all of these people at Poptones got released. It was just crazy.

‘Alan wasn't able to do everything that he wanted to do, that he was able to do with The Hives.

‘It was right when all of that stuff was breaking and nothing could get secured. I would never have guessed that 9/11 had anything to do with, you know, a tour.’

However, those who know The BellRays tend to love them – and modern technology like social media has brought the band closer than ever to their fans.

'I can speak directly to my demographic, I can know where the bulk of my fans are.

'The fact that I know all of that stuff, and I don't have a team of people working for me, that's huge - the way all of this tech and everything can work for us. I really like what I'm able to do now on my own.

‘All you really need are the people that really want to hear your music. All you need to do is find them, and now there's actually a way to do that! It’s a nice time.’

Through the '90s and noughties, the band pumped out material, but from 2010's Black Lightning, it was another seven years before there was anything else from the BellRays, with release of the EP Punk Funk Rock Soul Volume One in 2017.

That's not to say Lisa and Bob had been idle.They had gone into record a follow-up to Black Lightning, but weren't satisfied with what they were producing.

'We listened to it, and we were like: "This is not what we want. These are not the performances of the level we want." The songs did not sound like we needed them to sound.

'We listened to it and we were just like: "Oh, we're close, but no cigar.”’

Instead they ended up producing an album under the name Lisa and The Lips, which leaned more on the soul/funk side of the equation, and took on a life of its own.

‘We were trying to get the creative juices flowing. It wasn't working for the stuff that we did with The BellRays and somehow we pulled it all out for Lisa and The Lips.

'We didn't expect it would actually be awesome,’ she laughs, 'and time consuming.

‘We just thought that it would be this thing that we would do, and then we’d get back to The BellRays record, but it took a little bit longer.’

The pair also took the chance to work on other projects, and there was a change in BellRays personnel.

Lisa and Bob are currently joined by Bernard Yin on bass and Dusty Watson on drums - both seasoned players. The latter played in surf-guitar legend Dick Dale's band for several years and is also in the current line-up of the reformed Seattle garage-rock legends The Sonics.

'We have great musicians that play with us all the time. I'm very, very lucky to have that level of skill with us, and it is what keeps us on top of our toes, but having somebody like Dusty totally changes the whole thing.

‘There's an ease that comes with playing with somebody that knows how to just get behind you - just be spectacular. Just do those things that... he just understands it. He can just feel it out, so it's really awesome.'

While Lisa has taken part in numerous other projects, including a notable appearance on Basement Jaxx's hit 2004 single Good Luck, and there have been offers from labels for her to go solo, Lisa says she's never been tempted to follow that route.

'I don't know if “tempted” is quite the right word.

‘Things just happen the way that they happen, when they happen for the reason that they happen…

'Basement Jaxx was really fun to be involved in and to be a part of that. But at the same time even with that, it wasn't like I felt my calling was to just go and write for producers and have them come up with the music.

‘I'm so fortunate to still have a really good working relationship with the Basement Jaxx guys and the many other producers that I've worked with over the years.

‘It's really a cool thing to do, but if you start out doing bands, and that's really what you want to do.

‘If you have your own band, there's nothing that really beats that feeling of being behind a drum kit and two or three other instruments.

‘One of the coolest things that I think I learned from trying all these different ways of doing music and doing Lisa and The Lips and doing [duo only shows as] Bob and Lisa and doing The BellRays, is that Bob and I are like the secret sauce.

‘If we get added to whatever it is that we want to do, it's going to be damn awesome, you know? Because we know what we want it to sound like, we know what we want.

‘We know what it tastes like when we get it right.’

She points to the 2014 Re-Licked project as an example. Led by The Stooges' guitarist James Williamson, guest vocalists including Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and The Kills/Dead Weather’s Alison Mosshart, appeared on reworked Stooges demos dating back to the 1970s which were never recorded with original frontman Iggy Pop.

'It always helps having somebody in your corner, someone that's going to have your back, just because they know you, they know how far you can be pushed’

‘Like I did that thing with James Williamson a couple years back, where I got to sing I Got A Right.

'Bob was in the recording studio with James while I was cutting it. I cut it the first two times and James was like: “Man, that's great. I think we got what we need”.

'And then Bob was in there and he said: “No, man, she's got a whole other level she can open up to. Just let her sing it one more time”. And that was the one that we ended up using.

'Having somebody like that in your corner that knows what you sound like, it's very helpful for me as an artist, or for him as a producer, or for whoever wants to get whatever it is that they're trying to get out of me: “Yeah, it might sound great, but if you can sound better, why not do that?”’

One gets the impression Lisa doesn't suffer fools gladly, and as a black woman in a largely white-led world, she's had to put up with some maddening situations.

As she puts it: 'This is my whole philosophy over the way that everybody [in the record industry] perceives rock and roll – at least modern rock and roll: they want tall, skinny white guys to act like black women singing rock and roll and be the front man. But the people who provide the major support of that industry, I'm not the poster girl for what they want.

'Even if they want somebody that's going to sing like that, they don't want them to look like me. And that's fine, because I'm not really doing any of that mainstream kind of stuff in the first place.

'But still, it just seems ridiculous that it's still this thing where it's not the norm. But the world is what it is,' and she gives another booming laugh with perhaps just the wryest note to it.

THE BELLRAYS

The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea

Wednesday, January 15