Kids Say the Darnedest Things
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.
One of the reasons for the Bis buzz, according to John, is the weakness of the music industry in general right now. He refers to the British scene as "the cloning system. You know, where all the bands just try to duplicate the musical ideas of someone else--like Oasis." As for America, he sees a glut of dour performers of the sort presently traveling the country as part of the ridiculously overhyped Lilith Fair. "Those people can't avoid going so deeply into their own problems," he says. "And it always comes out like the same old crap. Singer-songwriters are supposed to have such interesting, insightful views about things. They have this image of 'I'm so serious--I'm this guy and I'm up here alone and I'm in pain and all.' But it's all so boring. When they see three kids like us up on stage, it probably fills them with fear. And I'm glad."
So why is it that mainstream critics are gushing over Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, the Wallflowers and other regurgitators of warmed-over sounds from the early Seventies these days? John isn't certain, but he has a hypothesis: "I don't know about in America, but in Britain, the majority of journalists are, like, in their late thirties. They're middle-aged, and I think a lot of people who are getting on a bit like that don't get all that excited about the music they're writing about. They think that music that's just entertaining isn't important and shouldn't be paid attention to. And they think that music that's all about people's feelings is better--maybe because they're too old to dance anymore. But pop music isn't just lyrics, you know. And besides, you can write about emotions and still be able to dance to it. It's not that easy, but it can be done."
You couldn't prove that contention by Heroes. Rather than penning introspective couplets about relationships and similarly deep topics, Manda, John and Steven prefer peppy sloganeering. "Tell It to the Kids," for instance, finds the players "fighting for the nation's youth" against fascists ("We know what we saw/Won't let you do more"), homophobes ("Your prejudice lies while innocents die") and businessmen ("You let down the kids/Yes, that's what you did"). But not every Bis effort delves into timely issues. The boisterous "Team Theme" ("There's teen-c kids everywhere/We are gonna hit you where it hurts/Let's go, Bis, go!") is more concerned with revving up the faithful than in getting them to do anything too radical; the vocalists' primary demand is for better nightclubs. Likewise, "Sweet Shop Avengerz" argues passionately in favor of foods that are bad for you: Its key lines are "Reclaim the right to rot teeth/You know you need it."
These pearls of wisdom are not without their contradictions. The wonderful "Popstar Kill" finds Manda declaring, "Hey Popstar, I hate your guts/You don't deserve to live (Die! Die! Die!)/Hey Popstar, get out of my face/I hate the sight of you (Hate! Hate! Hate!)." But "Starbright Boy," the number that immediately precedes it on Heroes, finds the boys in the band declaring, "Yeah, we wanna star in an Eighties movie/ American brat-pack members, truly." Appropriately, John finds himself torn between these sentiments. He despises much of the music that passes for pop these days but admits, "There are pop stars I had something against because of their music and their image, but then I met them and they were all right, and I felt bad about slagging them off." Moreover, he concedes that he and his cohorts have pop-star aspirations of their own: "We want to be famous all over the world, and we want to be remembered in twenty years' time. That's the kind of thing that everyone aspires to, and that's something I'd like in my life, too."
The stardom John has experienced thus far has tasted downright delicious. When asked to describe the best part of Bis's rise to prominence, he gushes, "We've been to places that we never would have been to unless we were in a touring band. And it's been great having people in countries we've never heard of listening to our music and liking it. That wouldn't be happening if we were working in an office." And the worst? The question leaves John downright puzzled. After a moment, he says, "I don't think there is a worst. So far, everything's been hunky-dory with me."
Give him a few years and he might change his tune. After all, he's young.
Bis, with Kenicke. 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 29, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $5, all ages, 322-2308 or 830-
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