Hard rock may be back in vogue at major labels these days, thanks to the success of such local bands as Buckcherry and Orgy, but at least one of Southern California's more celebrated bands, the BellRays, isn't interested in being pursued by those powerhouses.
"If you give a rat's ass about anything that you're doing, nobody in a suit behind a desk should be telling you how to put your music out," says singer Lisa Kekaula, 31, who co-founded the Riverside-based quartet with her husband, bassist Bob Vennum, in the early '90s.
That resistance must be frustrating to the label representatives who have caught one of the BellRays' Los Angeles club shows, where fans who think of punk rock as more MC5 and Stooges than Green Day and Limp Bizkit embrace the band's self-described "maximum rock 'n' soul" as the real deal, a chaotic blend of classic punk and classic R&B that puts a fresh twist on the three-chord tradition.
Named best Los Angeles rock band at this year's L.A. Weekly Music Awards by that paper's critics, the group has also won fans on the road, touring clubs by itself or as the opening act for such groups as Nashville Pussy. The BellRays play around the L.A. area a couple of times a month, in such venues as Al's Bar, Spaceland and the now-defunct Bar Deluxe. The title of their current album, "Let It Blast"--its first "real" album after two cassette-only releases and assorted singles--telegraphs the band's dominant philosophy, but there's more to the BellRays' aesthetic than playing loud and fast.
Fueled by Kekaula's R&B-shouter exhortations, the group performs explosive rock songs that urge listeners not to fight for their right to party, but to think about issues of race, the justice system, apathy and the various bummers that make life a serious drag.
"A lot of [punk rock] bands don't try to challenge their audience," says guitarist Tony Fate, 38. "They play the same old chord changes, the same old beats, the same lyrics. Everything is just the same as it's been for 20 years."
Committed to seizing the moment, the BellRays' shows generate a barely controlled chaos that's rarely seen--much less pulled off--among modern rock bands of any stripe.
"You have to be willing to sound like [expletive]," Fate says. "So many bands just wanna go up [on stage] and sound perfect. That might sell records, but you ain't making good music that way."
Yet there's that one chance the group won't take--the crapshoot of courting, or being courted by, a major label. Kekaula, who makes her living running a home-based accounting business with Vennum, simply sees it as practical morality.
"In what other business would you work to invent a product and promote it, and do everything yourselves, and then sell it to somebody who gives you nothing and even tries to control how you use that product? It's insane."
Committed to punk's do-it-yourself ethic and adding an emphatic own-it-yourself, the band releases its recordings on its own label, Vital Gesture Records. "We own it, run it and get all the money," Fate says with a laugh.
An exception is the just-released split-CD "Punk Rock and Soul," featuring new tracks by the BellRays and fellow high-energy hard-rockers the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs, on the Bay Area indie Cold Front. Also, notes Vennum, 37, the members are deciding whether to self-release the full-length follow-up to "Let It Blast" or offer it to one of several interested indies.
The savvy record-biz exec would say there are serious marketing limitations to the band's approach, but the BellRays can't afford marketing anyway. "We can't try for radio airplay," Kekaula says. "We don't have the deep pockets to get into that game. If somebody wants to play us, they can. We even charge critics for CDs."
That critics actually buy those CDs makes some wonder whether the BellRays could become the Ani DiFranco--the fiercely independent and highly successful folk singer--of the new hard-rock wave.
But for now, the band would just like to get better distribution, play overseas and settle on a drummer to replace the recently departed Ray Chin, who left the band to pursue his MBA at USC. They're also catching up with the digital revolution by investigating the possibilities of MP3.
"Anything to destroy the record business," Fate says. "What good has it done anybody?"
ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT MEGA BABES: The monthly "Viva La Mega Babes" night at the itinerant Cadillac Club lands at the Garage on Thursday with a lineup that includes sets by '70s and '80s punk figures Bebe Buell and Holly Vincent, plus L.A.'s liltingly aggressive Buck, and newbie band Trinket--three actresses who purvey what impresario Jim Freek calls "cutie pop."