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Riverside Band Gets a Boost From a British Friend

June 09, 2002|STEVE HOCHMAN

Has Alan McGee done it again?

First the maverick record executive anointed the Hives as rock's next big thing by releasing a U.K. compilation drawn from the Swedish band's two independent albums. The Hives became a sensation in England, and the excitement traveled to the U.S., where Warner Bros. Records recently snapped up the band.

Now McGee has taken another band from an exotic, off-the-beaten-track locale and compiled material from its two indie albums for a release from his Poptones label. And interest in the group is heating up.

Another band from Scandinavia? Nope. This one's from ... Riverside. With its edgy, rock-soul sound, the BellRays have consistently been a top pick among Southern California rock-scene insiders for years. Largely through touring, the quartet has sold 10,000 copies each of its last two albums, "Let It Blast" and "Grand Fury," but the group had not been able to stir much interest on a larger level.

McGee believes that's about to change.

"The BellRays have got off to a great start in the U.K. and are now getting daytime radio play on [BBC] Radio 1," says McGee, who ran the storied Creation label and discovered Oasis, among other acts. "The U.K. has become once again the shop window for the world's new rock music, as we have seen with the Hives, the White Stripes, B.R.M.C. and the Strokes. It's for me the most vibrant and exciting time in music for the last 25 years. The BellRays are poised in the U.K. to be the next big band, [though] only time will tell."

Singer Lisa Kekaula isn't counting on anything, but says the McGee connection has changed the BellRays' lives, at least for the immediate future. They've just gone to Japan for a week to do shows with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, as well as to be filmed on tour for a feature that will be broadcast on Japanese TV. They'll soon head to England and Europe for a month that includes a high-profile performance at McGee's new Death Disco Dance Club in London.

"It's really weird when you're in the eye of the storm," Kekaula says. "We now have these obligations, but I've still got to take my daughter to school, so we have to reevaluate the way that everyday life is."

At the same time, she says, U.S. record executives are reevaluating the BellRays. Since the Poptones collection, "Meet the BellRays," came out last month, the band and its manager, Margaret Saadi, have been fielding an increasing number of inquiries about its label status.

"Alan's involvement gives something a cool factor," says Tom Sarig, MCA Records vice president of A&R. "I don't know if it means a damn about sales. He put a lot of stuff out on Poptones, but the label was going under before the Hives. However, Alan putting a record out would definitely make me listen to it."

The BellRays, though, are in no hurry to make a deal. They plan to record a new album this summer, and hope to have it out in October--whether released on their own or under a new deal.

"We're at the point now where we're going to need to look at how to facilitate doing business for larger numbers," Kekaula says. "We're taking it one day at a time. I definitely want people to be able to get our records. That's always been my goal."

FRESH HORSES: There have been a lot of changes in and around the Wallflowers between the release of the band's last album, 2000's "Breach," and the making of its next, due in September.

Guitarist Michael Ward left before sessions started. Longtime manager Andy Slater (who co-produced the last album with Michael Penn) became president of Capitol Records. And Tom Whalley left his job as president of Interscope Records, the band's label, to be chairman of Warner Bros./Reprise.

The guitarist role hasn't been filled (leader Jakob Dylan did most of the new album's guitar parts, with Pearl Jam's Mike McCready adding a few), and the band signed on with new manager Pat Magnorella (Weezer, Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls).

The production and label changes occasioned a couple of reunions. To produce, Dylan selected the team of Toby Miller and Bill Appleberry--Miller was a founding guitarist of the Wallflowers but left in 1996.

"When he left the band, it left a hole in how it functions," Dylan says. "When we had discussions about producers, there was no one I was more eager to work with."

At Interscope, Dylan has re-teamed with Mark Williams, the company's senior executive in charge of A&R, who had been the Wallflowers' A&R representative for its first album at Virgin Records.

"I encouraged him to do things differently, come from a new approach in how he wrote and how they made the record," Williams says. "Jakob wrote two really great all-out rock songs, and there are some moodier pieces--one called 'Health and Happiness' has a feel to me like a Tom Waits song."

Don't, however, tie these changes to "Breach's" disappointing sales--little more than one-tenth of the 4.1 million sold by its predecessor, 1996's "Bringing Down the Horse."

"There are lots of factors that go into sales," Dylan says.

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