by Rowan Gavin
Since their formation in the early ‘90s, Californian Rock & Rollers The BellRays have befuddled the expectations of music media and the industry, just as much as they have thrilled audiences. They’ve taken an open-minded approach to the genre that has defined American music for the past seven decades, and they’ve been an independent outfit that whole time.
The BellRays have self-published their nine albums through a variety of independent labels, including Upper Cut and Alternative Tentacles. 2017 saw the release of EP Punk Funk Rock Soul vol 1, the long-awaited follow up to 2010’s Black Lightning, and last month gave us the album-length Punk Funk Rock Soul vol 2. I caught up with Lisa Kelaula & Bob Vennum, the band’s permanent members, before they went on stage at Norwich Arts Centre last Friday.
The title of the new 2-part project implies a uniting of those genres, but the tracks themselves have more of a feeling of transcending genre labels in the name of the groove and the spirit of the music. Is Punk Funk Rock Soul a record with a mission statement? “Yeah, ‘mission statement’ is a good word for it”, Vennum agrees. It’s a simple way of sending a message, by “just trying to call it what it is without being too fancy about it”.
The BellRays have a fascinating, non-standard idea of genre. They are continually bemused by the modern obsession with “everything being so compartmentalised”, a habit only made more extreme in the age of the algorithm. “We just happen to say ‘Punk Funk Rock Soul’, we could have added Blues, Country – anything that’s ever influenced us becomes Rock & Roll” says Kelaula; for Vennum, “Rock & Roll has always been the louder brother of Jazz. Jazz tries to explode things and blow things up and free people, and that’s what Rock & Roll has always been”.
Once you’ve learned how to release a record yourself, when “someone comes and offers to do it, and make you pay for it, and they get to keep it, it doesn’t make sense”
On the practical level The BellRays have been playing out this resistance to compartmentalisation, this refusal to believe in the hard lines between genres that the industry dictates, through nearly 30 years of independent operation. This independence wasn’t originally born out of any high-minded ideals though. Kelaula explains that nobody really wanted them at the mainstream labels because “we didn’t make it easy for anyone to say ‘Oh, this is what you guys are’”. But independence suited the band well, as it turned out – “it allowed us to explore what mattered to us, what drives us as musicians”. Once you’ve learned how to release a record yourself, when “someone comes and offers to do it, and make you pay for it, and they get to keep it, it doesn’t make sense”.
Being an independent band in the days before the internet had its challenges of course, from writing letters to long distance phone call bills – “For us to make a phone call from Riverside to LA was a long distance phone call – and it was just an hour away!”
The ‘90s Californian Rock scene had plenty more to it than just questionable telecoms arrangements, however. The BellRays were in with the renowned Easy Action agency, alongside The White Stripes, Fireballs of Freedom and The 45s. “We ended up doing shows together, we just did it” – and those shows, “at all these small clubs”, became definitive moments in the late ‘90s underground Rock scene. Such was the hype and mystique that “you had bands that they said were part of that scene but weren’t, like the Strokes”.
The reaction in those small clubs to The BellRays unique blend of indefinable Rock & Roll was, in Kelaula’s words, “explosive. People didn’t really know where it came from”. Their audience’s touchstones were bands like the MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges – “that’s what everybody was trying to be compared to”. But The Bellrays, of course, “weren’t trying to mimic those bands”, though they saw how many other bands, fans and critics around them “took a very limited scope, a very limited view” of even the most iconic artists. Vennum explains: “People would take three songs and say ‘Oh this is what the MC5 is all about, this fast loud stuff’, but y’know if you talk to Iggy or to [MC5 guitarist Wayne] Kramer they’d say ‘No man we were trying to be James Brown, we wanted to be that, but the only way we knew how to do it was the way that we did it’. And that’s what we’re like.”
Have a conversation with the audience, don’t run them over
Iggy and Kramer knew what Vennum and Kelaula know: there is no one thing, no Paradisian ‘It’ that makes good Rock. “I would pull my hair out by the roots if I had to play every song in E at 180bpm because I was afraid that people wouldn’t like us if we played a slow song. All of my favourite bands were that way, they weren’t afraid to push tempos, to be slow and be quiet and be spare and all of that – and then light it up on the next song. Have a conversation with the audience, don’t run them over”.
What, then, should the content of that conversation be? The BellRays’ lyrics often carry a message of radical personal empowerment, but are rarely explicitly political. Have their personal politics or political events ever affected them as musicians? “I don’t know how you can’t be,” Kelaula replies, “but we’ve never used it as a stepping stone”. “It’s never been the point”, Vennum adds. “Sure, you talk about the times and climate and stuff but I’ve never ever believed that you’re gonna write that song that’s gonna change the world […] The point of art is to get people thinking and talking and reacting and moving around, just get ‘em moving around. Things’ll happen after that”.
From here the conversation moves on to more explicit protest singers, the Bob Dylans of the world. For Vennum, his namesake’s “intentional” political songwriting was just one way of processing experience through music. “That was the way he recycled it. That was the way what came into him, left.” And of course, even in the work of such an acclaimed genre-definer as Dylan, the archetypal modern folk singer, there are blurred lines and mixed influences. As Kelaula puts it, “Dylan loved the Staple Singers. That was the music that he wanted to hear.”
The point of art is to get people thinking and talking and reacting and moving around, just get ‘em moving around. Things’ll happen after that
This gets me curious about what music The BellRays want to hear, and I wrap up by asking if there are any up-and-coming bands on the scene at the moment that they think are doing it right. They go straight to Fuzzy Vox, the French rockers who they’ve been touring with (sadly they weren’t about for the Norwich show). Vennum is a fan: “They’re really a kind of look back but pushing forward, they’re forging their own road with really good songs, really strong songs” – “and they’re a tight band”, Kelaula adds, approvingly.
So what next for The BellRays? Is Punk Funk Rock Soul a point of fulfilment? The start of something new? Kelaula laughs: “It’s always new – it’s always Rock & Roll!”
Featured image via thebellrays.com
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