We are Bis from Glasgow, Scotland
August 2001 (so don’t laugh at the “average age 24”)
Back in the abyss of the mid 1990’s, Bis (then average age 18) were hailed as the best new band in Britain by the majority of the music press, yet a few short months later were cast aside in favour of the next big thing, who in turn were chastised when their time was considered up. Nothing unusual in that, except that Bis (now average age 24), unlike most of their predecessors and successors, are not only still here doing their thing, but have continued to evolve beyond even their own wildest expectations.
After a prolonged absence, original members Steven, Manda and John return with their most expansive recording yet, “Return to Central”. Their early influences remain intact - Electro-pop, Post-punk and Riot-Grrrl - but they have considerably enhanced their palette with “Return to Central” and its debts to sci-fi soundtracks, Kraftwerk, Talk Talk, spaced-out hip-hop, occasional Timbaland style beats and nu-80’s electro. Self-produced in collaboration with Jason Famous (Mogwai/Arab Strap/Slam), the record reveals the accomplishment of the band’s ambitions, an album for an album’s sake, not merely the collections of three-minute pop songs that 1997’s “The New Transistor Heroes” and 1999’s “Social Dancing” were. The interim mini-album, “Music for a Stranger World” hints at the development that would find fruition on “Return to Central”, and was an essential exercise in self-production that aided the new record’s progress. Indeed, since the recording of “Return to Central” was completed, Bis have been involved in the production of Mogwai, Craig Armstrong and Old Solar whilst providing remixes for Arab Strap, Mount Florida and Elbow.
“Return to Central” sees the band on a new label after the demise of the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label. SpinArt showed a keen interest in the band, after the success of “Music for a Stranger World” that Lookout Records released in February 2001. The Lookout release highlighted the strange position that Bis find themselves in, equally respected in both the punk and electronic communities but reviled by those who can’t bear to see the two mixed, Bis continue to see their multi-dimensional aspects as an invaluable attribute. It’s this diversity that through the years has allowed the band to tour with everyone from Bikini Kill, Luscious Jackson, The Cardigans, Pavement, Sleater-Kinney, Super Furry Animals, Foo Fighters and Orbital. They took part in this year’s Ladyfest UK as well as playing countless festivals across Europe and playing on the main stage at the inaugural Coachella festival.
A delve through the band’s history reveals a rollercoaster ride of stardom and obscurity, brief superstar status in Japan and months-long touring of Europe to little avail. After the crescendo of EP’s “Transmissions on the teen-c tip”, “Disco Nation 45”, “The Secret Vampire Soundtrack” (which featured “Kandy Pop” and peaked at UK#25), “Bis vs. the DIY Corps” and “Atom Powered Action”, debut album “The New Transistor Heroes”, took Bis on three American tours and saw the band appear live on MTV with “Tell it to the Kids”. It sold 100,000 copies in Japan, outstripping anyone’s expectations, and the band headlined three consecutive nights at Tokyo’s Shibuya On Air East venue. Reception in Europe was less ecstatic, an air of suspicion prevailed following what many saw as the UK music press’ “hype” of the band. UK response was particularly disappointing, and resulted in the band leaving the UK behind and concentrating in the US, Japan and Australia. At the time of its release, the band were not entirely happy with the album, but today see it as an important step in the band’s development, with key tracks “Starbright Boy”, “Monstarr”, “Skinny-tie Sensurround” and “Photoshop” still featuring in the band’s live set. It reveals a band high on creative songwriting, but feeling the pressure of self-editing. Bis were much more used to piecing together 4 track EP’s and it wasn’t until “Social Dancing” that they got close to mastering the album format.
In late 1998, “Intendo” gathered together off-cuts and UK b-sides for the US market. It hardly made for a cohesive listen but the fine Bis art of saving some of their best songs for b-sides was emerging. Already “Conspiracy A-Go-Go” had been thrown onto “Disco Nation 45”, but “Clockwork Punk”, “Statement of Intent” and “Girl Star” really deserved better. Back in the UK, “Eurodisco” triggered an unexpected renaissance for Bis, it made the Top 40, got Bis back on the TV (Channel 4’s T4 amongst others), and its infectious 80’s electro-pop edge seemed to have re-established Bis as a cutting-edge pop act. “Eurodisco” also provided Bis with their biggest European hit to date, culminating with 4000 people chanting the refrain at Valencia’s Benicassim Festival in Summer 1999. However, despite follow-up single “Action and Drama” becoming a Summer anthem in Australia, where the band played on the legendary “Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday” TV show and played to a packed tent at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Sydney, the album “Social Dancing” performed disappointingly. Produced by Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, the album was a highly-polished pop record, songs like “Making People Normal” and “I’m a Slut” sounded to the band like sure-fire hit singles, but the public by and large disagreed. With the third single “Detour” giving Bis their lowest UK chart placing at #80, it was time to go back to the drawing board.
The band were bloody but not bowed, and came back from a US tour in late 1999 (coincidentally their most successful and most enjoyable) re-invigorated and quickly produced eight songs which were to form the basis of the third album. It quickly became obvious, however, that these songs provided a full-stop on the first era of Bis whilst providing clues to the future so they were released in Summer 2000 (UK and Europe) and February 2001 in the US as “Music for a Stranger World”. Two songs had vanished (“Why are we Waiting” and “DJ” which appeared only on the Japanese release), but despite radio support for “Dead Wrestlers”, the mini-album fell on deaf ears once again and proved to be the band’s final release on Wiiija Records.
Bis became stronger through this adversity and throughout 2000 worked tirelessly on the sessions that would produce “Return to Central”. Even the title implies the band’s return to pleasing themselves first and not pandering to others expectations, and the first strains of “What You’re Afraid Of” give the listener instant notice that this is not just another Bis record. The band look forward to taking the album live around the world, and connecting with fans past, present and future. As Aretha said “Give a little respect”.
Extra-curricular activities for the band over the years have been varied. Amanda had sidelines as a cartoon-strip writer for Japan’s “Buzz” magazine, as radio presenter on Radio Scotland’s “Air” show, and formed “The Kitchen” with husband Ryan. Steven and John DJ regularly around Glasgow and produce techno and electro under various guises (Freak Electric, Dirty Hospital etc). Perhaps the best-known Bis related activities have been the Casio G-Shock watch which was produced in Japan (it plays the band’s music as an alarm), and as writers of the end theme to the world-wide renowned cartoon show, Hanna-Barbera’s “The Powerpuff Girls”.