One Big Party

Through almost 20 years of touring and lineup changes, the BellRays have evolved

The intense, high-octane blend of soul and hard rock that has become the musical signature of The BellRays is so well-concocted that it seems as if it must've been intact from the beginning.

Not so, says guitarist Bob Vennum, who founded the band with his wife, singer Lisa Kekaula, 18 years ago in Riverside, Calif. While the two are the constants in the band, the BellRays' sound has evolved according to the abilities and styles of its members.

"When we started, we played pop, hard rock, punk--anything we wanted to play. We didn't have a specific direction yet. But the drummer and bass player we had at the time had played blues and jazz, and with Lisa's singing style, we just incorporated that stuff in the stuff were already doing, and it came out like it did."

Kekaula combines the power of a masterly rock 'n' roll singer with the soulfulness of an R&B diva, and the band is never less than aggressive and energetic, slamming back and forth between garage, early metal and proto-punk. As the band's motto goes, "Blues is the teacher; punk is the preacher."

"Creatively, we wanted to be able to do stuff that we want to play, whatever the style is," Vennum says, on the phone while taking a break from loading equipment into a nightclub in Wilmington, N.C.

The BellRays are touring to promote their new album, Hard Sweet and Sticky, which was released a few weeks ago on the independent label Anodyne Records.

Over the years, several members have rotated in and out of the lineup, including guitarist Tony Fate, who left the band a few years ago.

With Fate in with the band, Vennum switched to bass. While Vennum perfected a Stax-meets-McCartney style of bass playing, Fate's punchy, punk-rock swagger and fuzz-guitar tone helped shape the band's unholy union of Motown and Detroit rock à la the MC5 and the Stooges.

After Fate's departure, Vennum took over the guitar spot again with the 2006 album Have a Little Faith.

"When Tony left, I figured there's room to play with different styles," Vennum says. He adds that on the new album, producers Billy Mohler and Dan Burns (aka Heroes and Villains) pushed him to try new things. "They said, 'Look at this pedal,' or 'Try this sound.'"

Which helps explain the lush classic-R&B inflections in songs on the new album, such as "Footprints on Water," "Blue Against the Sky," "Wedding Bells" and "The Fire Next Time."

Nonetheless, longtime fans will be pleased by take-no-prisoners rock numbers such as "One Big Party," "Infection," "Coming Down," "Psychotic Hate Man" and "That's Not the Way It Should Be."

Vennum attributes much of the band's success to his and Kekaula's success as a couple.

"It's pretty freaky that anybody can stay married together that long anymore. We just kind of understand each other. That was the case before we even got married or started making music together. We listen to each other's ideas and opinions, and we inspire each other.

"That's what we try to do in the band, too. If we're keeping to that part of understanding each other, it's going to work more or less most of the time."

Joining Vennum and Kekaula in the current lineup of The BellRays are drummer Craig Waters and new bassist Justin Andres. (The aforementioned Mohler, who has played with such artists as Liz Phair, Macy Gray, Herbie Hancock and the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, recorded the bass parts on Hard Sweet and Sticky.)

Looking back over nine albums and almost two decades of touring six or seven months out of the year, Vennum says he can see now how things have progressed for the band, and he has mixed feelings.

"When it starts off, all the gigs are local, and you're always 20 minutes or a half-hour from home. But you're always humping all your own gear and your own stuff and finding your own accommodations. Now we have booking agents and publicists and people doing work for us. So we don't really have to worry about that anymore, but unless we're in Europe, we're still driving ourselves everywhere, and we have to find our own hotel rooms.

"It's easier in some ways, and harder in others. At least we don't have to have day jobs anymore."