With a new album - ‘The Red, White & Black’ - newly released on Alan McGee’s Poptones label, and a massive tour of the UK and Europe scheduled for the latter stages of 2003, it’s clear that there’s more to this most crackling of outfits than a mere work-hard-an-grab-the-shard-of-glass-cash ethic.
Though the band themselves are understandably bored of the epithet, the Californian quartet are oft-spoken of as some sort of devilish union between the MC5 and Tina Turner, a slightly disingenuous but nevertheless fairly reasonable indication of where the group’s heads and hearts are at, something people have been engaging with since their UK debut album ‘Meet The Bellrays’ was released in 2001.
It is in the live arena where it all begins to make insane sense though. Once onstage, the band smash together powerfizzing short-circuit Punkrock cerebellum-crunch with a singer of the most granitefilthy Motownmoves to sizzle and fist the open-mouthed venue in visceral triumph of pcp-hipped life-affirming relentnessness. In short, they ROCK.
DiS spoke with voracious Aretha-with-attitude vocalust (sic) Lisa Kalhua following a fantastic - if disappointingly-attended – appearance on 20th October at Liverpool’s Academy 2.
DiS:So how do you think it [the Liverpool gig] went?
LK: Oh, I think it was a good show, yeah
DiS: One of the things I noticed about it was that… I was gutted for you cause you deserved that place full, but everybody who was there, the reaction was really from the heart, with waves of energy going backwards and forwards inbetween you and the crowd, there was a sorta fundamental… honesty about it all.
LK: Yes. Honesty is a big point, a huge point, I mean, that’s kinda what it’s about, it’s not about these roles that people think they have as an audience member, or that they think they should have as being in a band. It’s just about coming in and givin people what we kinda call commercial-free music. We’re not gonna sit up there and talk about what each song means, we just see that as kinda glorifyin what should be… your songs should be able to speak for [them]selves, so we should just be able to sit up there and play and give you what you need.
DiS: What you need, and not what you think you should expect.
LK: You don’t have to define it every step of the way, you know, I’m not a magazine or some sort of advertisement [laughs]
DiS: I suppose it does boil down to the reason why people go to gigs in the first place, I mean, you’ve always got that sorta primal interaction thing going on.
LK: Yeah I mean, you do what comes naturally, that’s what I think at least. Most people have it in them to innately know what music makes them wanna do, it’s their brains that tell them not to do it.
And certainly, glancing round the dankness of the venue during the gig, every clump of rasterised humanity seems to be spazzedly shimmering and stomping, neon eyes aglow with the praeturnatural impact of the crimson quality delivered from the small stage in a rush of distorted napalm.
I wonder for a second why the walls appear to be jumpcutting and strobing around, till I discover that there’s a vascular vibration within me that is rapidly making my limbs twitch and move, almost of their own accord. I think I remember this movement from younger days. And I realise: I am dancing. And I don’t care how fuckin stoopid I look, cause it feels fantastic.
Snapping back into interview mode, I try and communicate this to the erstwhile singer, who responds with a gut-razzling cackle that in a different set of circumstances could well have changed the course of Phil Spector’s entire career.
LK: that’s great, that’s exactly what I want to have happen when we hit the stage! Not for some egocentric thing, but because that’s what the people came for. I want to take them away from what they were doing. I don’t want them thinking about what they’ve gotta do after the show, I want them to live in the moment, and that’s the most important thing.
Absorockinlutely. However, whereas The Bellrays are without any shadow of a doubt one of the most exciting and transforming live acts you’re ever likely to have the pleasure of witnessing, the recorded experience somehow falls short in comparison. Distinctly and defiantly analog, their two UK-released albums so far are at times distractingly fumbling and often almost too first-take-fractious for their own good.
DiS: The way that you record is quite stripped down, isn’t it?
LK: Yeah, it’s stripped down, but because of [our] portable studio, we can do a whole lot more with it, and what we choose to do with it is still explore an area of analog which just kinda seems to be dismissed – for what reasons I don’t know. But to me there’s a lot more breadth – and life – in tape, than there is in a lot of digital stuff. At least [the gear] that we can afford!
DiS: Who were the musicians that you admired in your formative years as people, or if you like, as a band?
LK: I was listening to just about any of the Motown stuff that was going around. Lots of Stevie Wonder, lots of Prince, lots of 80s, everything that was happening in the 80s, y’know, we were really in a fortunate spot because all the stuff that happened in the 60s and 70s in rock n’ roll, we had that, in the 80s we had all the stuff that was comin from Public Enemy, Fishbone, there was kinda groups that was just… I mean, we had a lot to stand on as musicians and you just see how limitless technology and the idea of pushing songs was. But it wasn’t preconceived in any way.
Perish the thought. And though the artists they namecheck are all inspiringly adept at facilitating their craft with the endless possibilities of the studio, it isn’t in the nature of The Bellrays to be, or do, anything other than what comes naturally to them as musicians – or as people.
I mean, I haven’t seen a band give an entire audience simultaneous erections before (even the girls were walking a bit uncomfortably). Two days prior to the Bellrays’ spartanly attended Liverpool appearance, I’d been amidst 2500 punters who’d turned up to see The Darkness cancel their concert in a different room of the same venue complex. The irony of it strikes me as I realise that this is a band for whom the Industry is important merely to provide them with the opportunity to connect with people at a very physical sonic level.
And as another night draws in and we prepare to say our goodbyes, I contemplate the fact that whereas Ms K and her reprobate cohorts get to jump and scream and live and grind together with a succession of enraptured audiences, I’m left with electricity and frazzling memories, and a growing realisation that the shimmering inside me is my still-shuddering bones screaming for another fix of this prestissimo passion.
And, of course, the singer sums it up more coherently than I could ever hope to do:
LK: it’s all about your state of mind, what you think you should be getting out of something, it’s not about what somebody else is getting, it’s about what you get from what you do. And I think I get a lot out of what I do, to where it puts me at ease. The fact that I’m getting what I need. And hopefully I’m giving people what they need. Y’know, if somebody’s gonna pay £10 to get into a show, I feel like I need to give them every bit of their money’s worth. And that’s playing. They don’t wanna hear about politics, they don’t wanna hear about other stuff, it’s not about that, it’s just about getting up there and playing.
Sometimes, such simple cravings can connect with even the most cynical of us. Proof positive that not all addictions are destructive - or, for that matter, that destruction and deconstruction can be redemptively addictive.