By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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By Alice Laussade
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Shortly after signing the group to his Grand Royal Records label, Beastie Boy Mike D said the young members of Bis were the richest kids in the music business. Reminded of this statement a few years later, Bis' Amanda MacKinnon, a.k.a. Manda Rin, busts Mike D for "lying a lot at the beginning." The only thing open at Grand Royal, it turns out, was Mike D's mouth--not his checkbook. Sure, the band may be the most outspoken and ambitious of its generation, but it is definitely not the richest. With an average age of 23, Bis has garnered the criticism of the mostly adult press for being young and loud, which is, well, the point. More important, they've also gained the adoration and respect of youth universal for their teen-flavored anthems, including the Teen-C mission statement (which made its first appearance on 1995's Transmissions on the Teen-C Tip EP, released on Spanish indie label Acuarelia) that Bis disciples swear by.
The Teen-C tip, if you will, is this: "We are young and subversive. The time for revolution is now. Conformity sucks!" If that sounds awkward and overambitious, that's because it was formulated in 1994 by MacKinnon and her bandmates, brothers Sci-Fi Steven and John Disco--three like-minded teenagers in the bloom of youth in Glasgow, Scotland. Just like any kids, they were growing up and becoming disillusioned with the world they were growing into. Their "dissatisfaction of the adulthood expected of them and a distaste of the powers that surround them" couldn't help but appear in their teen manifestos, songs/screeds against everything from "fake D.I.Y." major labels to creepy boyfriends ("Kill Yr Boyfriend").
That dissatisfaction was in evidence on the band's first disc for Grand Royal, 1997's The New Transistor Heroes. And while Bis' second full-length album, Social Dancing, released last year, marked the first omission of the phrase "Teen-C," the gist of the movement was omnipresent. However, with the recent release of a mini-album Music for a Stranger World on UK label Wiiija, the band has moved even further away from its original agenda. On the phone from her parents' house in Glasgow, MacKinnon reflects on the development of the group over the last five years, both as musicians and as people.
"Teen-C was something we talked about when we were 17 because we hadn't really experienced much, and that was how we felt growing up," she says. "It meant so much to us that people were picking on our ages and we were just kind of fighting for ourselves. Now we've experienced so much, we've traveled the world, we've had lots of ups and downs, and we've got so much more to write about than Teen-C. And we're not teenagers anymore, so I don't feel that I can write about that and be honest. I hope that the stuff we did talk about made sense to people who are that age now, and we'll maybe continue talking about it."
Following the release of Social Dancing, in the group's characteristic D.I.Y. spirit, Bis left Grand Royal Records, citing poor label support as their reason. With their contract up for renewal for a third album, the band simply felt that with all the "fake, smiley people" running Grand Royal's distributor Capitol Records--and even Grand Royal itself--they would rather be on an independent label that appreciates the band's music. Currently recording a proper follow-up to Social Dancing, and working independently this time, MacKinnon has hope for reaching more fans. More mature fans.
It makes sense that the band is beginning to leave behind its teen audience. At this point, the members of Bis are naturally grappling with new, less adolescent issues and have an altogether different perspective. For example, MacKinnon speaks with glee about her recently purchased flat and increased artistic and personal freedom. At the same time, the wise-beyond-her-years musician also laments the criticism of those who accuse the group of hypocrisy.
"It really annoys me that people bring something up that I said five years ago and say that I'm a hypocrite because I say something else now," MacKinnon says. "I am still pretty young, but five years is a quarter of my life. I don't want to have to answer to anyone. I want to do what I think."
MacKinnon and the band have always done exactly that; for Bis, doing it yourself has also meant, at times, doing it for yourself as well. With idols like Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker and the whole Riot Grrrl movement, Bis set out at the tender age of 16 to rock the world of pop music, dropping sugar-coated bombs, bricks wrapped in cotton candy. In its attempts to do so, the music has always been as important as the message. Bis has consistently cross-pollinated its music with everything from disco and synth-based '80s music to ska and pogo-inducing punk, seeing no reason to be limited to one sound or format.
Of course, that doesn't mean the lesson isn't just as crucial to the equation. The band has been more than vocal about expressing dissent with social mores, trends, pop culture, and adult behavior. In fact, it's a bit of a shock to discover that the timid, sweet voice on the other end of the line is the same Manda Rin who rails emphatically against plastic celebrities and abusive boyfriends. Still, she never comes across as dogmatic or egotistical, just convicted and concerned. Exhibiting a bit of youthful female uncertainty, MacKinnon can't help but punctuate each thought with a self-conscious giggle.