Striking it Rich
By Waleed Rashidi
Riverside-based The BellRays’ latest recording, Black Lightning, is one of our most anticipated local band releases of 2010. This 10-song collection was actually largely recorded in 2009. And this disc finally saw a domestic release nearly three-fourths of the way into 2011. Now, if these dates don’t seem to add up, you’re not alone. Welcome to the music industry, circa now.
However, The BellRays need no welcome to such complexity and confusion. The band is far from a stranger or newbie, having been a part of the local—and international—music scene for some two decades. Founding members Bob Vennum and Lisa Kekaula launched their bluesy-R&B-rock-soul-punk hybrid in 1991, and really haven’t rested since. The group’s musical prescience and unflinching persistence is what’s prompted accolades across continents. And, as you’ll read, The BellRays is a band that’s quite deserving of every drop of ink.
Black Lightning is the seventh full-length release in the band’s lengthy discography, which also includes EPs, compilations and split releases—and such experience is clearly evident at first spin. From the blistering guitar licks of the album’s opening title track to the dynamic, strings-laden “Sun Comes Down” to the high-octane vocal delivery of “Living a Lie,” there’s not a wasted moment in this succinct half-hour gathering, which has been thankfully domestically released via the efforts of Cobraside last week.
This month also had The BellRays returning from a European tour, something the band tries to do on an annual basis. Though the group’s found regular success in countries like France, the U.K. and Spain, it’s becoming less easy on the wallets of the veteran independent outfit, as guitarist Vennum explains.
“Ten years ago, when we first started going to Europe, you could buy a plane ticket to Europe for $400,” he says. “That was a high-priced ticket, too. It’s like $2,000, $3,000 a piece now. It’s a lot harder for bands just starting out right now.”
“I pity new bands that have to go out and do it because they don’t have a sense of what it costs, physically what it takes to go out on the road and do this, and then third, what to expect,” adds vocalist Kekaula. “You should really just be glad that you’re able to just go out anymore.”
Quitting Their Day Jobs
Actually, Kekaula and Vennum seem more than just glad. Seated outside a shopping center in the Canyon Crest region of Riverside, the pair is brimming with enthusiasm and vitality. It’s the kind of wide-eyed excitement you’ll note from most upstarts, not seasoned performers who’ve logged seemingly endless miles traversing the globe.
It’s also a bit uncommon to spot such excitement from a pair who’s been married for nearly a quarter-century, having met while still in college. Kekaula, then an English lit student at UC Riverside, met Vennum (also an English major) while working the night shift at a restaurant in the vicinity of the campus. Their friendship turned them into bandmates, spouses and parents. Oh, and it’s also turned them into co-workers, too.
That’s because The BellRays has also been Vennum and Kekaula’s full-time venture for nearly a decade. Kekaula, who at one point had her own bookkeeping practice, quit her full-time job in 2002. Vennum also pulled the plug on his day gig around that same time. More than 10 years into the band’s existence, the couple opted to ditch the safety net of steady employment for the finicky and unpredictable waters of the music business. But the eventual satisfaction seems to have been worth every penny earned.
“Once we started doing this full time, no matter how bad it’s been monetarily, it’s always been much more fulfilling to me than any amount of money I’ve ever made doing something else,” says Kekaula. “And that’s keeping a studio running, having a van and doing the touring, and all of that other stuff, and never having a hit on the radio. Never even having records that ever come close to getting on the radio.”
“We’ve put our kid through a university,” she continues. “She’s 23 years old now. We’re one of those few rock ‘n’ roll stories, where you get married, do stuff together and you’re still together.”
And how have they made it work on a financial level?
“You have to learn how to be flexible in today’s age, and that’s more than just for music,” says Kekaula. “We’ve talked to people who are doing movies, and they’re talking about how they have to do an entire movie on the budget that they used to have for a music video. It’s everywhere. And it makes sense because you can’t just throw money at it, you have to be creative and you have to make it work for you.”
Making it work includes pre-producing the group’s entire album before heading into the recording studio. Co-produced by Kekaula, Vennum and Matt Radosevich (whose recording credits include 30 Seconds to Mars and The Hives), the band spent months in its own studio fine-tuning Black Lightning’s details before the band began tracking at a recording studio to shave time and expenses, which took place in September and October 2009. The BellRays also toured in between studio sessions, wrapping the record in January 2010. Though Black Lightning was released by European record label Fargo that same year, finding a proper domestic home for the album ran somewhat longer than anticipated, hence the aforementioned delay.
And another thing that’s helped The BellRays work is licensing its songs for television—most notably the use of its “Revolution Get Down” track from the band’s 2004 LP The Red, White & Black that was in a Nissan commercial—though it’s been a very rare occurrence. “It’s happened to us once or twice but it’s never been a thing where that has been what sustains us,” says Kekaula. “Doing shows is what sustains ourselves.”
Stuff of Legend
These shows she speaks of are the stuff of legend. The foursome—its most recent iteration features bassist Justin Andres and drummer Stefan Litrownik—is best known for its sheer power and stage action, which includes Kekaula’s mighty vocal and physical presence flanked by her axemen on both sides. Initially performing in such local rooms as the 6060 Club and Spanky’s, The BellRays have since dominated stages at large European festivals. And the group continues to win over new fans rather frequently, some 20 years after its inception.
“We convert people,” says Kekaula. “We’ve heard fans say it. They say, ‘I didn’t even know, I never knew music could even be like that.’”
“We’re one of those bands that if you just looked at me and Bob walking down the street, you wouldn’t know that we could rock so hard,” she adds. “It would never even occur to you that we rock as hard as we do. I think that’s the problem that a lot people of have, is that they’ve never been rocked. It’s like trying to explain love to somebody who has never been loved . . . And it gives back a lot when we hear those things, when we hear people say, ‘I just didn’t know it could be like this.’”
“I’m Really Happy”
That same surprise happened at a recent date in Billings, Mont. “Normally we could never find dates in that part of the country. And it was incredible to see how people reacted to the music,” Kekaula recalls. “They had no idea.”
However, Kekaula and Vennum seem surprised by the positive changes in the Inland Empire. They’ve seen Riverside becoming hospitable to the arts via music festivals and venues, plus they give kudos to the influx of new talent in the music scene. (“I couldn’t have ever imagined Riverside doing something like that,” says Vennum.) And they’ll likely be surprising some soon-to-be-fans not currently in the know who venture into their gig next month at the Mission Tobacco Lounge in their home city.
Still, after clocking in over two decades of recording, touring and that constant push forward, hasn’t there even been a point where Kekaula and Vennum wanted to check out of their musical endeavors? In a nutshell, yes.
“To me it’s not worth doing unless you’re living that kind of existence with your art,” says Kekaula. “It should always be one of those things that’s pushing you to quit and pushing you to go on at the same time.”
However, “it seems like a waste to just get the hang of something like this and then just quit,” she adds. “We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to work it out every which way. I’m really happy.”