Bis Interview: 20 Years in the Making

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Celebrating 20 years since their formation Bis hit the road on a small three city tour to follow up the 2014 re-release of their three albums, a career spanning Anthology and Data Panik etc, an album of previously unreleased recordings. The previous evening they played their home city of Glasgow and the following day they’ll be at The Lexington in London playing two shows, one of which is an all ages matinee at which a substantial chunk of the audience would not have been born when the band were first releasing their disco-punk clatter. It’s a chilly Saturday night in Leeds and Overblown are at the Belgrave Music Hall to catch up with Manda Rin, Sci-Fi Steven and John Disco and find out what the last 20 years has meant to them.

Overblown: Over a 20 year career what have been the highlights of being in Bis?

Steven: Actually getting to meet our heroes is a major part of it. On reflection that was much more of a highlight than we probably appreciated at the time. It’s well documented that the Beastie Boys signed us to their label and looking back that’s pretty fucking amazing even though it just seemed perfectly natural at the time.

Amanda:  The Foo Fighters, Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill. Touring and playing with bands like these was amazing.

O: Sleater-Kinney mentioned you in their recent book which was part of their recent retrospective box set. There must be a sense of gratification that these kind of bands you respect so much appreciate you as well?

Steven: Yeah, to be appreciated by your peers, bands you really look up to is a really satisfying thing. It’s not one of the things you aim for when starting a band, there’s an awful lot more to it than that but it’s definitely one of the reflective highlights.

Amanda: Definitely one of the highlights for me was getting to travel. Before bis I’d only been to Spain outside the UK. We’ve been everywhere from Japan to America, Australia, not many people get to go all the way there and we’ve been twice all because of the band, I’ll never forget it.

John: This is all starting to feel like a different lifetime…

O: and, on the other side of the coin, are there regrets?

Steven: Everything! I’ll list all of my faults. I find it really interesting to hear what other people think about this but a main regret was that when ‘Kandy Pop’ was a hit we followed it with ‘This is Fake DIY’ which was a slagging of the record industry and was sung by me and instead of Amanda.

John: And it was put out by us on our own label

Steven: Some of it is not so much a regret but more hindsight, if we’d done what people had told us and re-recorded ‘Kill Yr Boyfriend’ as the follow up single to ‘Kandy Pop’ we might have been bigger but we might have just become a cartoon punk band.

John: Aye, we could’ve kinda lived the dream doing what other people thought we should do and maybe we’d have made more progress but it would’ve defeated the entire purpose of why we were doing it at all.

Steven: Had we done what people had said we probably wouldn’t be doing what we are doing now. Although we might’ve had a big fucking house, in Sheffield or somewhere

Amanda: When ‘Kandy Pop’ was a hit the actual single wasn’t even called ‘Kandy Pop’, it was on ‘The Secret Vampire Soundtrack’ so people going into shops asking for it were struggling to find it. Then we didn’t put the song on the first album.

John: Doing Top of the Pops was actually probably a bit of a killer but when the chance comes y’know, we just wanted to do it.

Steven: Yeah, we stuck to our guns for most things, until Top of the Pops called. There were a couple of times we did listen to people’s advice about producers, what songs should be singles and stuff like that and we’d be like “alright, let them have this one”, but on reflection we were always right.

O: You mention bands like the Foo Fighters, Beastie Boys, the one’s you loved. Were there any bands that were a bit of a nightmare?

John: Touring wise yeah, we were with an Australian band called You Am I who really didn’t take kindly to us at all. We were touring with them and Rocket from the Crypt. We got to the London show and as normal we were the second band on. You Am I thought they should be on second as the main supporting act because they reckoned they had some kind of established following in London. The guitarist / singer decided he would just smash up our gear and that was the end of our gig. The guy ended up in a sobbing mess and bought us some new kit the next day, but still.

Steven: I tried to find him but he’d left the building quickly.

O: Right from the beginning Bis had a pretty clear identity. You did a lot of paper and paste work with fanzines and built it up through lots of hard work and word of mouth. How do you think a band like yourselves would get on now with the social media revolution over the last few years?

Steven: I think you just adapt. If you’ve got an identity you’ll just find the best route to it. Ours was a bit more organic. People were genuinely writing to each other on paper, sending actual cassette tapes, there was no immediate file sharing then. I think the same principle still exists. I know it’s much much easier to get music made at home now, much easier to get it out there. We had to save up money to get into the studio in order to have a presentable tape. Bands will develop to whatever forms of media are available to them at the time. I think it’s the ease of recording music that makes the biggest difference these days and now there’re probably far too many bands. At the core of it all it still requires a lot of luck whether you get enough people to be into what you’re doing. We had a good weight of support around us and we chanced upon all the fanzines that were around at the time that were post riot grrrl and looking for something to continue it. Part of that’s luck and part of it is self-belief, if you lose or don’t have that self-belief you just shouldn’t bother.

O: In 2014 through the Anthology, Data Panik etc and the re-issues of your three albums with additional tracks you released pretty much everything you’ve ever recorded. What was it like going through all the archives to put all that together?

(Amanda and John just laugh and point at Steven)

Steven: There were so many things that were just on one 7” b-side or whatever, it was cool to go through it all. I didn’t find as many unexpected gems as I’d have liked! Around the Return to Central period there’s tape after tape that’s full of stuff, never finished bits and pieces all over the place because with the first couple of albums songs were simply written then recorded, with the last one it was a completely different process.

John: There’s tunes in there that were deemed unfinished and unusable at the time. It was great to be able to use these now, stick some of that sort of odd stuff on there because that was a side of us that never really got properly represented.

Steven: A really funny thing is looking at all the dates on the DAT tapes. Stuff from the first album was recorded in summer 1996 and the Return to Central stuff is summer 2000. It’s a ridiculous amount of material in the space of four years and the sonic change is ridiculous. We were hyperactive, we never really settled on a sound for long.

O: Isn’t that something you’re quite proud of?

Steven: Oh yeah, definitely. It seems insane now.

John: It’s pretty rare that a band will get through almost an album a year.

Steven: We could probably have done a lot more than we did. Each of the new CDs comes with an extra CD that’s pretty much another album worth of material. That’s us not even having released any of the stuff that was previous to the first album. That stuff will be coming out for Record Store Day this year, we’ll be doing a double vinyl called ‘We Love Bis’ with all the pre-Wiiija stuff, it’s pretty much the final squeeze of the nugget (laughs). There’s your exclusive!

O: What’s been the weirdest or funniest experience you had with fans over the years?

Amanda: I don’t think anything will ever match Kevin’s tattoo of our faces on his arm, that’s forever! He’s doing our merch stall in London tomorrow and he’s the loveliest guy but he surely must regret that sometimes.

Steven: I hope he didn’t regret coming all the way to Australia to see us tour.

O: Last year’s single ‘Keep Your Darkness’ was a new song, any more new material that you’re hiding away?

Steven: Over the last few years when we’ve been playing these reformation gigs there’ve been another couple of songs that we’ve squeezed in but then kind of dropped them again. I wouldn’t want to squeeze many new songs into a set, we only play for an hour and there’s too many songs the crowd wants to hear so unless we had a record to support I wouldn’t have too many new songs in there. There are songs there, but without sounding too boring about it it’s really hard for us to have the time anymore, we don’t have the money or easy access to a studio and, oh yeah, kids can somewhat get in the way.

O: So after this weekend what comes next for bis from a live point of view? Any festivals on the horizon in summer?

Amanda: We’re just awaiting the big offers! As we always say it’s just a case of trying to do the one-off more exciting things. We’re all busy with our own businesses and kids and so it needs to be something that we all think works and that we can fit around our lives.

Steven: It’s slightly depressing to think that being in this band is really just a hobby now but it kind of is. There’s moments where it’s still all a lot of fun and it’s a nice hobby to have. Getting all the back catalogue out at least probably means that if we were to do something new we’ve hopefully re-established an audience and we’ve got a record label that wants to put things out, it’s the first time that’s happened in a good long time. We’ll see how the reaction to these gigs goes and see how we feel after that.

With that the doors open to the gig and a very decent crowd starts to filter in. It’s an interesting mix of young indie kids and the 30 and 40 somethings who nod at each other in recognition of Bis gigs from days gone by. As the band play there’s no shortage of singing, whooping and shouting from the crowd. Some people are dancing their hearts out, others nod and sing along with every word. Everyone in the room is smiling like a cheshire cat. That, more than anything, sums up Bis. It’s impossible not to smile.