Known to those not in the know as "that group who does the Powerpuff Girls theme," Bis have actually amassed a steady following of new wave retro lovers since their debut in 1994, "The New Transistor Heroes." Impressed with their amazing early live shows, none other than the Beastie Boys signed them to their own label, Grand Royal Records (which also features Luscious Jackson and Ween, for starters). Blending elements of campy kitsch (right down to their silly pseudonyms Sci-Fi Steven, John Disco and Manda Rin), sci-fi futurism (as seen through an ‘80s template), new wave, synth-pop, punk, electronica and Brit-pop, Bis are purveyors of an energetic, defiant and fun music that never quite takes itself too seriously. A curiously quirky brand of recalcitrance for kids who find the faux angst of the current “alternative” (read: dead) music scene too much too bear. Yet while Bis embrace sounds and elements of the past, they also offer us an alternative and take it one step further, in some ways even rebelling against the less glamorous aspects of ‘80s culture, particularly lyrically, in songs such as “Skinny Tie Sensurround.” But perhaps the most compelling aspect of a Bis show is the constant reminder of just how much fun a concert can be (and should be). Bis’ refreshingly retro sounds illuminate a higher collective ethic: the glory of youth. Of dancing. Of jumping up and down. All the while pushing us further into the future.
I had the pleasure of seeing them live at the Knitting Factory in West Hollywood. And what a show it was. One must enter the Knitting Factory via a side street. Making one’s way in is a bit like Willy Wonka leading you through the chocolate factory. Once inside, there is a huge room with a bar area to the left. A ticket booth is planted in the middle of the room. Past that are the doors to the theater, another curious room with a balcony (about half the size of the “House of Blues”) and a bar at the back. At first, the crowd seemed pretty small, but after a while the entire place was packed. The show attracted many different types of people, but predominantly young alien types. One clan of friends even came dressed in full Brit-pop regalia, looking as if they’d just stepped off the cover of Pulp’s “His ‘N’ Hers.” Even before Bis went on, I noticed two synths at either side of the stage, a mess of patch bays, sequencers and mixers on the left side and a Roland right in the dead center of the stage. Already, I was in heaven.
After coming on stage almost an hour late, Bis proceeded to put on an amazing show packed with energy, sonic ear candy and cheeky Scottish charm. Main singer Manda Rin was planted at the center of the stage, playing the Roland (I was five feet away!). Sci-Fi Steven was at the right and John Disco was at the left. Each of the men took turns playing electric guitar and synths and covered both with great ease.
Needless to say, one of the most refreshing aspects of this show was how relatively low key the guitars were. The synths, whomping drums (played live) and buzzy synth basses took center stage, with even the vocals taking a bit of a back seat. (Though the words weren't too clear, the various and sundry vocal acrobatics and nice harmonies shone through quite well). Analog synth sounds abounded, with synthesized blips and bleeps (in glorious stereo) and warm, smooth pads backing them up.
What's more, each member of the trio has their own draw. John Disco is probably the most entertaining of the bunch. Looking a bit like a Scottish cross between Dave Grohl and Tom Green, his facial contortions, mock-rock theatrics and taunting of the audience were very visually compelling. Rock that doesn't take itself too seriously...how about that? Manda Rin's strengths--besides her obvious striking appearance--lie in her charm and squeakily adorable vocals whilst rocking out on the keyboard. With her leopard skirt, boots and punk collar, she epitomizes punky chic. Quite the formidable instrumentalist, Manda constantly dances about in an adorably '80s sort of way. Sci-Fi Steven is probably the most calm of the three, exhibiting a sort of affable, naive shyness and earnest attitude towards his work. At the end of the show, he was the only one to come to the end of the stage and shake hands and give “five” to members of the audience. Both Steven and John play guitar, synths and sequencers all at the same time, with John seemingly handling the lower vocals and Steven the higher ones. Though all three share the vocal work, with Manda dominating the majority of the time.
Having just "driven all the way from Minneapolis," Bis showned no visible signs of wear. The show used their newest release, “Return to Central,” as its centerpiece, with its mellow, electronic vibe...certainly a bit of a departure from the punky new wave exhibited on their earlier releases (but still gleefully mired in the ‘80s). The show opened with the wonderfully ambient “What You’re Afraid Of” (which also opens the new LP) with its bubbling synths and strident, chirpy guitar chords repeated ad inifnitum, and closed with the lengthy “A Portrait From Space” (which closes the album). Opening the show with track 1 and closing with track 11 further showed Bis’ emphasis this time around on their new, more ambient, experimental material. Another highlight came in the assembly line jerkiness of “Beats At The Office,” from the 2000 mini-album “Music For A Stranger World,” with John Disco’s effective spoken chorus refrains of “your beats are in the office, sir.”
The one nod to their excellent 1999 full-length LP “Social Dancing” (besides a revved up and almost unrecognizable version of “Making People Normal”) was the Dead Or Alive-ish “Eurodisco,” which was one of the absolute highlights of the evening, managing to inspire everyone to jump around and sing along. “You’re a lively bunch, aren’t ya?” commented Manda. This would reach a peak near the end of the set, as Bis played some of their earlier, more punky fare, inspiring a handful of people (in vain) to start a mosh pit (which caused me to comment “moshing is so passé…so early ‘90s"). One such song even featured Manda singing through a bullhorn into the microphone. Other visits to the past came with “Monstarr” and the incredible “Skinny Tie Sensurround,” from their debut LP “The New Transistor Heroes,” featuring Steven rapping out diatribes in his thick Scottish accent.
“How many of you saw us two year ago when we were out here?” asked Manda Rin. One drunken buffoon made some comment to Manda about how he was, and asked, bizarrely “remember the leopard thong?” “I know I wasn’t drunk,” she quipped, quickly correcting herself to say “I know I wasn’t that drunk,” which had the audience jeering him as if giving one large, collective “’moted!” Hardly phased, but trying her best to be polite, Manda rapped with him for a moment and added “oh, you were wearing a leopard thong? Are you wearing it now?” This is about where Sci-Fi Steven politely chimed in and introduced the next song, seemingly in an attempt to bail Manda out of this.
And, in what is quickly becoming a tradition with me, over the course of the evening, I gave my business card to all three main members of the band. Before they even came out, I placed one on Manda’s synth. Later on I tossed one up at John (who, when he saw me in the Devo outfit on the front, gave a sort of nod of approval). And before the encore, I tossed one at the foot of Steven’s synth (though regrettably he never saw it).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The revolution will be synthesized. Bis might just be the ringleaders we need to drag us out of "return of the rock"/boy band hell.
© 2001 Crapple Records, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of Crapple Records, Inc.
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