Fast Boys

Janis Figure motors through psychobilly, garage punk, and surf rock--and wields a wicked belt on the side

Janis Figure frontman Billy Bisson tames wild mic stands with a leather belt. It's a move so smooth that one would think he spent hours practicing to get it right. But the truth is, it was just dumb luck.

"My mic stand was falling down." Bisson says. "I had my belt out, and I was whipping it around and all of a sudden...CRACK! Caught it, put it right back in my hand."

The accident-turned-signature move is central to Bisson's commanding stage presence, which he'll bring to two miracle-working sessions on April 21 at the First Avenue Mainroom and on April 22 at the Dinkytowner. A skinny, throaty singer with a Tiger Beat-pinup-boy face, Bisson is known for singing with the fiery "You are healed" vigor of an evangelist who has stepped off the pulpit and into a pair of leather pants after deciding that maybe sin isn't so bad after all. The Janis Figure choir--drummer Chachi Darin, guitarist Dave Feirn, and bassist Chris Coyne--is a more subtly enthusiastic gang of natural hipsters, all dressed in black.

Some kind of higher power may have been at work some four years ago when the group first convened to form Janis Figure. Together, the band members have miraculously managed to promote their slick debut album Transformer and Honker Room Jams Vol. 1 (a compilation of rehearsal outtakes) mostly through DIY advertising. Over the years, Janis Figure's reputation has grown in Minneapolis's local music scene, earning them a congregation large enough to pack First Avenue's Mainroom. Their seductive chemistry saturates the stage with guitar-heavy, fast-car-on-lonely-dirt-road rhythms and vivid lyrical concoctions. It's the kind of music that the Supersuckers and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion would play on the car stereo if they were burning up the highway toward David Lynch's Twin Peaks.

Bisson himself employs a road metaphor to summarize Janis Figure's musical philosophy: "Music is our vehicle to see the world."

The statement launches Bisson and his bandmates into a slew of half-told tour memories: their bizarre encounter with a stunt man who almost let them run over him with their van; sitting at a table in an L.A. bar with the Get Up Kids, heavy-metal singer Don Dokken, and one of the richest men in Japan; playing with fellow hellions Dick Dale, the Reverend Horton Heat, and Joan Jett.

Janis Figure's current tour celebrates their latest release Damage Control (Owned and Operated Recordings), an album rife with Bisson's "bad seed" imagery. "Dumb Fun," "007666," and "Red, White, and Blue" may not have the deliberate, striptease tension that others like "Dirty" and "Glow Plug" do, but all of the tracks still elicit snaky hip moves from fans. Whether Janis Figure's mix of retro psychobilly, garage punk, and surf rock comes across in fast or slow tempos, it always summons primal urges.

And it is precisely those "instinctive drives" that excite Janis Figure's fans. Darin recalls, "This guy came up to me at [93]X-fest after we played and was like...'I swear when I listen to you guys, I feel like I'm driving a hot rod in the desert with a pretty girl next to me, and we've got a six-pack in the back seat and we're just driving into the sunset.'"

It's the music of a rock 'n' roll fantasy that refuses to die--motorcycles, tattoos, girls with big hoop earrings and even bigger hair--but Janis Figure's vintage music doesn't simply regurgitate old imagery. The band revamps classic rock by greasing it up with kitsch and sending it drag-racing down the highway. It's a slicker, faster 21st Century out there, and Janis Figure is ready to bust the speed limit, leaving a trail of hellfire behind.

 
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