Monday, 17 June 2013

Profile - The BellRays

Published in the June issue of Rhythms magazine.

Lightning Storm

To my mind, Californian four-piece The BellRays are a lot like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. They’ve been kicking on for around the same amount of time (The BellRays a year longer, dropping their eponymous debut in 1990); they’ve continued to release cracking albums all throughout their tenure; and they’ve managed to survive as independent acts despite the ups and downs of this scurrilous industry. More importantly, they’ve not compromised in their mission to bring their heavily roots-based music (with healthy lashings of rock ‘n’ roll) to as many as they’ve been able. And their respective fans love them as a result.

While JSBX veer recklessly down the blues highway however, The Bellrays infuse their version of Detroit-via-Riverside, California, rock with down and dirty soul, the powerhouse vocal of frontwoman Lisa Kekaula seeing to that. It’s a sound which is tough and hard, but has the ability to slow and to show a softer side, without losing any of its power. Over the course of 12 records (as well as a couple of Best Ofs), The BellRays have stayed true, and with latest album Black Lightning (released in the US in 2010, but seeing a local release this month), they show their mission is still well on track.

Catching up with Kekaula once more, ahead of a whistle-stop Australian tour this month, I make the initial mistake of wanting to talk about the aforementioned fact they’ve been around for almost a quarter century. “Oh my god, do we have to go there,” she laughs, and quite justifiably. For The BellRays, it’s not about the fact they’ve been in the trenches for so long, it’s about the music that’s kept them there, fiercely independent all the while, although there’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek about that. “Yeah, we’re the poster children for DIY,” Kekaula laughs again, adding, “poster children that nobody’s seen the poster of.”

Despite the jibe, The BellRays have never aspired to mainstream success – if they had, they’d have radically changed their music long ago. As Kekaula says, it’s been hard work, but the fact they’re able to travel as far afield as Australia makes it all worth while, and so there’s plenty of life left in the band yet, as Black Lightning illustrates beyond doubt.

Opening with the razor-sharp, hard thumping title track, the record burns through 10 tracks with barely a pause for breath, the sonic interplay between guitarist Bob Venom, bassist Justin Andres and drummer Stefan Litrownik dragging in elements of punk and Detroit garage rock (a la MC5), a force five hurricane of thrashing, writhing sound. You think that’s the business though, you then get assaulted by Kekaula’s voice – howling tempests would struggle to be heard over this, the pure soul that seeps through an elixir to soothe even the most savage beast.

As well, the record dips into more-soul-than-rock territory with the slower ‘Sun Comes Down’ and also blue-eyed soul courtesy of closer ‘The Way’. In between though, it’s all about the riffage and the infusion of said soul with rock, the epitome of what the band has been doing these decades past. “Absolutely,” Kekaula enthuses. “I understand that conundrum of why everybody doesn’t love it… it should be everywhere, everybody should know about the rock and soul.

“And it actually is everywhere, it’s just polished and has been turned into something else. But it’s a very rough diamond, people who understand it will always be very grateful that they were able to experience it.” Listening to Black Lightning is indeed an experience – I’ve not been able to put it on yet without completely stopping what I’m doing in order to listen properly. Background music it certainly ain’t.

Something else it isn’t, is new, at least not for the band, the record having been released in the States in November 2010. As such, even though it’s only being released here in Australia this month, The BellRays are well onto the next installment. “Oh yeah,” she smiles. “We recorded some tracks, we’re working on that right now, and it is pretty weird to be touring the one record, while working on another one.”

“And it’s rockin’, that’s as much as you’re gonna get out of me on that,” she adds. Business as usual then, for The BellRays. Continuing on in their usual fashion, slashing their own path through the ever-growing jungle that is the modern music industry, a band on its own trajectory that we hope never ends – at least not soon.

By Samuel J. Fell

Black Lightning is out locally on May 17 through Sultan Sounds.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Notes From The Middle Of Nowhere

A couple of weeks ago, in an effort to properly finish an article I'd been working on for a couple of months, I went 'off the grid' - I headed to the middle of nowhere in order to do nothing but write. Here's how it went down...

Notes From The Middle Of Nowhere

Whilst I am a freelance writer – a treacherous, minefield of a vocation in this day and age – I’m a lucky one in that I hold an editorial position as well. As Assistant Editor at Rhythms magazine, a small niche publication specialising in ‘roots’ music, I’m able to lay claim to a small monthly salary, something which combined with my freelance income, is enough to keep me in the (albeit frugal) manner to which I have become accustomed.

With that financial ‘security’ however, comes a myriad distractions which serve to take my focus off freelance writing (particularly long form pieces which require more thought, research and time to execute than most other pieces of writing). For the most part, this isn’t a problem – I’ve worked as a freelancer, from home with no one ‘telling me what to do’, for a number of years now, and so organisation and time management are two of my strong points. Sometimes however, in the grip of the monthly Rhythms deadline, the planning for the next few issues, the fielding of countless emails and phone calls, long form freelance journalism can fall by the wayside.

Not that I’m missing deadlines. In this instance, I’m writing a long piece ‘on spec’, an increasingly common occurrence in a time when magazine budgets are tighter than a politician’s hip pocket, when editorial staff are happy to read something, but not necessarily commission it, lest they ‘waste’ their editorial budget on something they’ve since decided they don’t want to run. As such, there is no deadline. Also as such, this particular piece of writing keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the To Do pile, as editorial work and smaller, deadline dependent pieces of writing demand my attention.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this piece – at least ten hours worth of interviewing, a few hours spent transcribing same, hours spent planning and researching, and a lot of hours spent on penning the first draft, something I did in between the aforementioned distractions. It’s a piece I’m very passionate about (despite the fact I’ve had to let it lie, lest I starve to death), and so it came to a point recently where I realised I had to do something drastic, in order for it to come to fruition properly.

This decision? Sequester myself, head ‘off the grid’, get out, get away, go somewhere where distraction wasn’t an option. And so I did, I headed out to the Middle Of Nowhere, in order to do nothing but write, and in hindsight, it was one of the best things I could have done.


Longtime friends of my wife’s family own a small property in the hills behind Pottsville, on the upper NSW coast, about half an hour north from where we live. It’s a modest house on a few acres, in a gully surrounded by towering hills some fifteen kilometres inland from the coast. It has no internet, the phone reception is basically nonexistent, the nearest neighbour is at least a ten minute drive away, and the only other inhabitants on this mini-farm are a clutch of chickens and some inquisitive cows. The perfect place to decamp in order to do nothing but practice one’s craft.

Early on a Saturday morning recently then, during that glorious week and a half between Rhythms deadline and the next editorial meeting, I packed the car with a few clothes, a bag of food, a six-pack of beer and half a bottle of gin, and headed northward. The drive is only a short one, through a couple of small villages, along windy roads, crossing once over the Pacific Highway, once underneath it, onto a one-lane road, over causeways to the front gate (unlocked by a neighbour), up the driveway, which, should it have rained torrentially whilst I was up there, would have become impassable, to the house itself, a fortress of solitude as I hoped it would be.

The house had been unlocked too, and so I unpacked my meager possessions, put my beer, sausages and bacon in the fridge, set up a writing desk at the kitchen table, boiled the kettle and stood on the back deck with a cuppa and a smoke, deafened by the absolute silence of my surrounds. A quick look at my phone, no reception at all. My laptop open on the table, email program languid and unusable. The television new and not yet tuned, and in fact, no antenna plug. Not a single distraction from the task at hand.

I finished my smoke, butted it out in an old tea light candle sitting on the outside table, and went inside, with no other option that to begin what I’d come here for, to properly put together this piece of writing that I’d so laboured on, these weeks past. It was time to work.

I was up at ‘the farm’ for 27 hours. During that time, I didn’t utter a single word. I did however, write three and a half thousand of them. I transcribed, I planned, I went back to my original draft (which my Rhythms editor had gone through with a fine tooth comb, and offered a plethora of constructive criticism on) and I began another. From scratch.

Every so often, I’d re-boil the kettle and make another cup of coffee. I’d regularly down tools and stand on the deck, smoking and thinking. As dusk began to descend, I walked down to the creek and gathered kindling, came back and lit the fire in the kitchen, turned on a light or two. And I kept writing. I’d make notes in my notebook, pages and pages which to the untrained eye most likely looked like chicken scratch with no discernable direction, but which helped me shape what was becoming an article, as opposed to merely words on a computer screen.

At around seven-thirty, I began to think of dinner and the football game which I knew friends back home would be watching. It was then that I discovered I had no television access, and so in lieu of that, I kept writing, stopping periodically to fork in a mouthful of sausage and mashed potato, steamed carrot and broccoli. The fire died three or four times as I neglected it, occasionally realising when my fingers got cold, re-stocking it with pages from the only newspaper I had, it’s resultant rebirth warming me for long enough to continue writing.

I’d had my first beer at around four that afternoon, but had since switched to gin, each glass of which not lasting more than twenty minutes or so, breaks to refill, mind still on the task, not concentrating on what I was doing away from the kitchen table, cutting up three different limes when one would have done the night’s work on its own.

I eventually stopped at around one in the morning, a sore back preventing me from properly concentrating any longer, but light of heart and mind as I re-read what I’d written over the past 12 hours, reinforcing to me that this was a fine idea, that I was getting things done, and not just getting things done, but getting them done in a way that made me proud. I suppose I could have brought a bag of smoke up here with me, toked up and gotten loose, but I was higher on what I was doing than any chemical could have made me. I felt good, invincible. But also tired, and so I wrapped myself up in a sleeping bag on the lounge room couch and soon fell asleep, words reeling around in my head, computer keys finally as silent as the world outside.


I awoke early the next morning, the cold, early winter light filtering through the many lounge room windows, listened to the cluck and scratch of the chickens just outside. A rooster crowed a few times, but other than that, total silence. I got up and made coffee, stood once again on the deck outside and smoked and contemplated how I’d go about beginning again.

First, a re-read, from the start, back to the notes, back to the screen, and to my delight it began again as if I’d not stopped for six or seven hours, the story unfolding before me, from inside me, with nothing to block it, hinder it, render it second fiddle.

The end was the hardest part to write, as it usually is for me, the summing up of all that’s come before it, the part which puts it all into perspective, that makes it all make sense, even more so than it (hopefully) already has. I’d stopped at around ten to make breakfast and I’d broken for coffee and smokes, but at around one in the afternoon, I had what I considered a draft, an article, the fruits of my labours over the past day and a bit, and I was happy. Yet another re-read – it was at the point now where I could have recited the entire three and a half thousand words – and yet another re-read, not so much taking in the words as taking in the gist of the sections, making sure they ran together in a way which not only built a story, but supported my original hypothesis, the evidence to prove same, that it all came together as it should.

At around two-thirty, I decided I couldn’t do much more to it, and so packed up my possessions, washed the dishes I’d used, doused the fire, stood outside in the total silence – not even any bird call today, grey sky, threatening to rain – and thought about what I’d just done, what I’d achieved, how maybe this is how Hemmingway or Kerouac or Thompson would have felt when completing a piece of writing they’d purposely gone off the grid to complete. I felt like a real writer. It felt right.

I drove slowly home, back down the treacherous driveway, out the gate, closing it behind me and making my way along the single-lane road, over causeways, under the Pacific Highway and through the small villages, back home to my wife, sitting at the kitchen table doing some solitary work of her own. I felt alive and incredibly empowered within my craft, I knew that what I’d done had been a success – I’d said to a couple of people before doing this, that I’d either come home excited, or angry and frustrated, and thankfully it was the former.

I was looking forward to getting back into the editorial process too, it’s like the whole exercise, which took only a little over a day, had energised my entire professional outlook. But to decamp to the Middle Of Nowhere just to write like that, was one of the best things I’ve ever done, and there is no doubt, that I’ll do it again.

Samuel J. Fell