Singer Lisa Kekaula and guitarist Bob Vennum formed the BellRays more than 25 years ago in sunny Riverside, Calif., making vintage blues- and jazz-inflected R&B sounds with a healthy dose of punk in the mix. Currently touring across the United Kingdom, the two checked in with Knockdown Alley ahead of their appearance at Brooklyn Bowl London on 28 April to discuss their influences, new music, and hard work.
While your music covers blues, rock, and soul, there’s also some punk in there, too. And to that end, who are some of your favourite English punk bands?
Bob: The Clash, the Damned, the Jam, the Undertones, and the Sex Pistols, to name a few. But I was always more into bands like the Who, the Kinks, and the Beatles, the Police, Roxy Music, Nick Lowe, though.
Some groups are noted for their recorded work, while others are known for their fiery live performances. And the BellRays seem to fall into the latter category. Is there something to that? What is it about performing live that speaks so strongly to you?
Bob: The stage is where you get to let it all out and show what you’re doing right now. Recording a good record is cool, but that’s the same performance everywhere it goes. It’s different onstage every night. That’s the only place that particular show is going to happen, and that creates a kind of urgency that I really like to tap into.
You’ve got a big European tour ahead, kicking off with 13 shows in the U.K. before you get to Brooklyn Bowl London on 28 April. As a band that’s traveled the world, what’s unique about playing London? And what do you look forward to about coming here?
Bob: It’s always great to be in a foreign country that speaks English for one. I dig the sense of history and the actual moving around in spots that were featured in my musical upbringing. It’s always like a ride at Disneyland because all the traffic is on the opposite side of the road.
Do you have any new music coming out? And what can we expect at your show here? A mix of your vast catalog, covers? Anything special planned?
Lisa: Funny you should mention that. We have new music, and it is an EP called Covers. We picked our favorites and some oldies, too. This is special for us because we rarely do covers, let alone an entire EP of them. It was a fun CD to make, and we will be including some in the shows.
As a California band, what do you do to prepare for April weather in the United Kingdom?
Bob: The same thing we prepare for July through December: rain.
The BellRays have been together for more than two decades. And while much of the music industry has gone downhill since then — like people not really buying albums anymore — what are some of the things that have improved?
Bob: The level of technology that allows a band to get their stuff out there is the best thing. There’s a greater independent spirit around now, I guess, since bands like us have to do everything ourselves. There’s more creative energy coming from the bands themselves in their products, less label interference, or waiting around for the label to do something.
Lisa: I think the value of the individual fan and supporter, as well as your artistic vision being realized for more than just a hash mark. This is also very difficult for artists now because you have to sway someone to listen to you. Everything makes you have to be much more personal in a world that is incredibly insular. We’ve always had to work hard to do what we do. Now we just have to work that much harder to sustain ourselves. It ain’t called a business because it’s supposed to be easy, so we do what we have to do.
What’s the best part of touring Europe? And then what’s the less-than-best part?
Bob: I always have to say the food is the best. There’s so many foods that I look forward to getting over there that are the best I’ve ever had: shawarma, pasta, tapas. The actual traveling to get there is the worst part of it — and of that, it’s actually making the flights that I dread. Airlines and security are the new mob. Also feeling bad about not having learned the language (England not included).
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