The Bellrays with The Exchanges and Shikasta at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West) tonight (Thursday, October 20), 9 pm, $10.50. 416-532-1598
Lisa Kekaula of The Bellrays sounds like one tough-ass broad. She's on the phone with me while driving her band from Rhode Island to Boston, and we're not exactly getting on like a house on fire. I think she could stand to lighten up about 180 per cent, and she clearly thinks I'm a total idiot. Granted, I've pissed her off by kicking off with a question about side projects. She wants to talk about the Bellrays and not, for example, about her recently released single with Basement Jaxx. I'm duly chastised.
In all fairness, though, you might wonder what the Bellrays have been up to for the last little while. In 2002-2003, the catharsis period of the garage rock revival, they were all over the media, touted as the "greatest band you never heard."
It was a time when dropping the names of the MC5 and the Stooges was the music journalism equivalent of Ugg boots - far too ubiquitous to be cool. But the Bellrays' searing rock 'n' roll had something no one else's had - Kekaula's powerful presence and smokin' throaty soulful vocals, prompting descriptions like "the Stooges fronted by a punked-up Tina Turner" and "Aretha Franklin fronting the MC5."
Then... nothing, though they did drop a new record, The Red, White And Black, in 2004. Although they're rock icons in Europe, 15 years after their formation in 1990 the Bellrays still haven't broken open the American market. Are they happy to remain on the edge?
"Absolutely not. We just don't have the money or means, and there haven't been many record labels that were offering to let us keep our voice. It's not some cool lo-fi thing to be out on the road and hope that people are gonna know you're playing. Fuck that.
"We're working and we're doing a great job doing what we wanna do. At the same time, we're not 17-year-old kids that some record label is gonna want to pick up, even though they do want to capitalize on the kind of thing that we do. It is what they're trying to cultivate within the mainstream of rock 'n' roll. They don't understand why they're not getting it. The answer is, those people they're putting up there don't have mileage."
The Bellrays take their rock 'n' roll with the kind of intense seriousness usually only encountered among industrial goths and Dio fans. It's extremely important to Kekaula that people understand what the Bellrays do.
"So many people these days have got to filter out a lot of white noise. People are so used to hearing 'This band does this' or 'This is music like you've never heard before,' and they get burned a lot by that. We've got a lot of jaded people out there who don't support music because they've been lied to so much over the years about something being really exciting and amazing. The term 'amazing' is used a lot by PR firms to hype music that is subpar. And we're not that. We're everything that we say we are and then some."
The band does kick some serious butt onstage and, of course, they expect the same effort from the audience.
"If you come in and you pay the money to be a part of our audience, it's your job to be the best part of our audience that you can be. Your time to be in your malaise is when you're at home. When you're at the show, it's shared time. We're there to have a conversation between us and the audience."
The malaise to which Kekaula refers ties into her views on media's audience manipulation, something she believes applies not just to the music industry but to life in general. But not to the Bellrays.
"People just gotta start thinking about what makes them feel good and not look for somebody to tell them what it is. You gotta wake up. You gotta kick yourself in your ass and say, 'I don't like what's goin' on' or 'I don't like what I'm listening to' or 'I'm not satisfied.' We're definitely a band that people have to make their mind up about when they see us. You can't be in the middle of the road about it."