Kids Say the Darnedest Things

The members of Bis know what's wrong with most of their peers: They're too old.

Youth fades. That's a given. But if you've got it, flaunt it.
For the members of Bis, a staggeringly ebullient trio from Scotland, this bit of common sense isn't simply a good idea; it's the stuff of which manifestos are made. What pop music needs today, they argue, is an infusion of unaffected precocity, and they feel that they're just the people to administer it. That's why they gave themselves fun names (John Disco, Manda Rin and Sci-Fi Steven) and wrote a load of fun songs that they put on a fun disc (The New Transistor Heroes) adorned with fun drawings that make them look like those big-eyed figurines whose cutesy sayings ("I Love You This Much") are beloved by grandparents everywhere.

In most hands, this approach would add up to, well, too much fun--the aural equivalent of eating fifty Snickers bars dribbled with honey and swaddled in cotton candy. But Bis manages to dodge this fate thanks to exuberantly edgy music (a collision of pop, punk, disco, new wave and football chants) and a good-humored aggressiveness epitomized by songs like "Photoshop" ("I kill myself 'cause my boyfriend says so") and "Rebel Soul" ("A bad influence on youth/But we're the message of the truth"). The eighteen ultra-melodic raveups on Heroes aren't what you'd call intellectually challenging, but that's part of the point. In a world where there's too damn much navel-gazing already, the recording serves as a reminder that screaming, dancing and going bonkers can be ends unto themselves.

So, too, does a chat with John, who at eighteen is the youngest general in the Bis army. In conversation from a hotel in Ohio (where he is registered under the name John Clark), the guitarist/ singer comes across more tentatively than he does on disc; his voice, marked by a heavy brogue, quiets to a near whisper at odd moments, and he sometimes undercuts his bolder statements by breaking into a slightly embarrassed giggle midway through them. But behind his primitive communication skills lurks a lad who seems to be having the time of his life.

"We don't really intend to cause a physical revolution," he insists brightly. "Our agenda has been the focal point of a lot of the things that have been written about us in the British press, but we're not half the things they've said we are. We don't really consider ourselves to be a hugely political band. But obviously, our personal politics are quite strong. And even though we're all very divergent in our way of thinking, we have this whole ethic about youthful energy and the emancipation of youth--the youth of all ages.

"That's one thing that confused a lot of people when we started out. We were all teenagers in the beginning [at present, Manda is 20 and Sci-Fi Steven, John's older brother, is 21], so when we sang about youth, they thought we only wanted teenagers to like it. But that's not true. We like to have people over 21 come to our shows--although it doesn't happen that much. Because we're still young, we appeal to young people. But we would like to appeal to every kind of music consumer, as long as they can get into the vibe that we're putting out."

In other words, an individual's chronological age is less important than the vibrancy of his perspective. As an example, John cites British DJ John Peel, who's been airing the loudest, newest, freshest music for well over a generation. "He's done what he's wanted to do throughout his life," he notes. "He's 54 or something, and even though he still listens to some of the stuff that he liked when he was eighteen, he also likes to listen to drum-and-bass stuff. Some people don't like him because they don't think he should still be a youth icon--because he's that old. But I don't think people should criticize him for that. I think they should compliment him."

Likewise, John believes that being a teenager doesn't automatically guarantee that someone will think or behave like one--by his definition, anyway. "We know young people who don't seem very young," he says. "They're the kind of people we left behind, because they were always talking about money and about all the other things that go along with being a student. I guess I feel kind of sorry for them, because they can't see any other way of doing anything--of living their lives. I'll see people who used to want to be in a band or be an actor, and now they'll be going to a university and studying to be a psychologist or something. And that's just sad. But if they're unhappy, they should be, because there are other things to do besides going to a university or going into a career you don't want to be in. If people want to do all that shit, fine, they can do it. But if you do it, don't come back and complain that you don't like it and that it's stopped your creative flow. Because it's your own fault."

The Bis three play by a different set of rules. Natives of Glasgow, John and Steven joined forces with Manda, a friend from school, in 1994. After a few gigs at local venues like Nice 'n' Sleazy, the players made a deal with Acuarelia, a Spanish label, and subsequently released an EP dubbed The Teen-C Tip. The following year, Chemikal Underground, a British imprint, issued another EP, Disco Nation--and this one attracted the attention of tastemakers like Peel and the writers at New Musical Express. More music followed, and 1996's The Secret Vampire Soundtrack and Bis Vs. the DIY Corps proved inspirational enough to attract the attention of Grand Royal, a firm overseen by Mike D of Beastie Boys fame. This connection instantly established Bis's hipster credentials: When the act appeared at this year's South by Southwest confab in Austin, so many music journalists and record-biz insiders tried to attend its showcase that the result looked like an outtake from The Swarm.

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