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Smash the Rock

Joshua Kessler

Teen-C Power: John (left), Manda and Steve of Bis deride pop stars, film stars, parents and conformism on their new album.

The members of Bis proclaim themselves 'The New Transistor Heroes' in the war on musical boredom

By Gina Arnold

AT FIRST HEARING, the story behind the rise of the rock band Bis (rhymes with kiss) sounds like a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movie updated for the '90s. Instead of a couple of kids from Kansas, the three teenagers in Bis came from Scotland; instead of success in "show biz," they dreamed only of success in the tiny world of indie rock.

But Amanda, Steve and John (they refuse to reveal their last names) were embraced by an international cadre of journalists, bands and fans who found their breezy and imaginative do-it-yourself pop a charming change from the big-and-Beatles ethics of everything else coming out of Britain.

Bis formed in 1995, while Manda and John (who are now both 19) were in their last year of high school in a suburb of Glasgow called Giffnock and while John's brother, Steve, a recent graduate, held down a job in a record shop. Within months of graduation, the trio was asked to appear on the popular British TV show Top of the Pops, and as a result, the new group's independently released EP, The Secret Vampire Soundtrack, sold 35,000 copies.

It couldn't be that simple, could it? According to Steve, now age 20, it could. In 1994, Steve explains, speaking by phone from New York City, Bis put out two EPs--one, Transmissions on the Teen-C Tip, on a small Spanish label called Acurela; the other, The Secret Vampire Soundtrack, on a minuscule Glasqow label called Chemikal Underground.

They were played on English radio by English DJ John Peel, and the next thing you know, the band was huge in Britain. Its third EP, Bis vs. the DIY Corps, released on its own Teen-C Recordings label, reached No. 25 on the UK charts.

Six months later, however, Bis was being reviled in the same quarters. "That's just a traditionally British thing," Steve shrugs, "though I think we've had it worse than other bands, because we're completely different from Britpop, and because we use a drum machine and a little bit because we're Scottish."

According to Steve, "all the bands that do really well are English. We don't fraternize with the journalists [in England]; none of us have friends or girlfriends in the press. But we expected [a backlash], and luckily we don't rely on being successful in England."


The official Bis site.

An unofficial site with just as much information
plus faux crude graphics.


INSTEAD, in 1996, Bis signed a contract with American label Grand Royal (owned by the Beastie Boys), which released a compilation of all their UK EPs, This Is Teen-C Power, earlier this year. At the time, Bis jokingly told the biggest Scottish newspaper that it was using its "million-pound" advance to buy its favorite local pub in Glasgow, which is called the 13th Note.

In fact, Steve says, the advance was "more like 100 pounds," but the newspaper ran the story with a straight face. Since discovering it was a hoax, Steve adds, "they just don't cover us anymore."

Bis takes much of its inspiration from the bands on K Records, a label based in Olympia, Wash., as well as from the riot grrrl movement (which began in Olympia) and K's neighbor- label, Kill Rock Star records.

"That was the first American stuff I really got into," Steve says. "Especially the IPU [International Pop Underground] compilation, with Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Nation of Ulysses. At the time, there was a lot of boring guitar music about, and it sounded really different."

This connection exists despite the fact that riot grrrl bands tend to be all female, with lyrics that can be interpreted as anti-male, or at least anti-machismo. ("I'm always apologizing for being a boy," sighs Steve.) But so too are the lyrics to many Bis songs, such as "Kill Yr Boyfriend," "Monstarr" and "Photoshop," the last of which comes from the band's current U.S. release, The New Transistor Heroes.

On "Monstarr," for example, Manda sings, "Can I not be normal 'cuz I'm not a size 10? ... Why's being slim important, no one is a monster." On "Photoshop," she sneers, "I buy records 'cuz my boyfriend says so / I am this way 'cuz my boyfriend sez so."

On other songs, Bis derides pop stars, film stars, parents and conformism, then praises candy, disco and Japanese cartoon characters. On their charmingly drawn EP and album covers, designed by Manda, the members of Bis portray themselves as superheroes--Sci Fi Steve, Manda Rin and Disco John--come to our planet to help empower youth culture and smash the rock & roll bourgeoisie by a method they call "Teen-C power." Much of their rhetoric seems borrowed from the now-defunct band Nation of Ulysses but with, as Steve says, "a sort of Scottish twist to it."

MUSICALLY, the band draws on Devo, X-Ray Spex, Gary Numan and the B-52s for a sound that's simultaneously cheesy, high-pitched and poppy. But since the band's members were barely even born when those bands were in action, they don't sound like carbon copies.

Bis uses a synthesizer and a drum machine to produce poppy, punky beats; Manda's vocals are supersonically high, while Steve's are reminiscent of Fred Schneider of the B-52's. At other times, the band sounds like a cross between Beat Happening (another two-guys-one-girl band) and Bratmobile, a defunct all-girl outfit from Olympia whose drummer, Molly Neuman, now belongs to the Pee Chees.

Besides expanding on the five-year-old lo-fi, love, rock & riot movement, however, Bis' music can also be seen as a profound reaction to England's twin evils: electronica and Britpop. Ask the threesome what Bis is specifically out to destroy with "Teen-C power," and the answer comes in one word: Oasis.

Told that Oasis is hardly a cultural giant in America, Steve good-naturedly amends his target: "Well, Neil Young then. He's such a sacred cow, and he just does nothing for me. Also, Hootie and the Blowfish, the Counting Crows--anything that is clogging up the airwaves. It's all so boring and dull, and we want to smash them."

Bis has spent all of 1997 touring the U.S., as well as Japan, where they are already very popular. "We're kind of pop stars there," Steve admits. "People come up to us with our photos and ask us to sign them and gasp at us on the street and stuff."

As for the U.S., the members of Bis are still entranced with parts of it--namely Seattle and Olympia, which remind them of Scotland. "But America is like 19 different countries," Steve says. "The middle is so strange. Oklahoma City was the strangest place I've ever been to in my life."

Bis, the Pee Chees and Korea Girl play Aug. 7 at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. Tickets are $6 adv. (415/324-EDGE)

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From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of Metro.

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