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Getting Serious 

Despite evidence to the contrary, founding members Chris Henderson and Seth Swift swear they always wanted Mistress and the Misters to be a real, serious, touring band. It's taken four and a half years, a founding drummer with a BDSM fetish, a drag phase and a couple big lineup changes, but the duo thinks they're finally getting there.

With the addition of bassist Shane Taylor and percussion/production semi-legend Joe Varela, the last four months have been a whirlwind of writing, recording, traveling and gigging that finds the band suddenly popular in far-flung places like Bellingham and hotter than ever at home. This Friday they'll release Emic, a five-song, 15-minute EP meant to signal the band's coming of age.

It'll be a big night for the band, so they've decided to match, ordering identical women's tennis shorts for the show (how to accessorize is an ongoing discussion). Possessed of no ass by his own admission, Varela got his pair in extra small. When the talk turned to the shorts after a recent show at Spokane Falls Community College, Taylor was quick to voice his distaste that Henderson opted for mediums when everyone else went no bigger than smalls. A quick jab from the waifish crew at Henderson's body (by no means fat) sends the whole band into a little squabble.

Even for a band historically filled with tension, the current lineup is volatile. Taylor deserves much of the credit for that. The bassist lives with Varela and the two fight constantly, fighting over production direction, lyrics and songwriting. "They bicker like lovers," says Swift. It's not limited to just Varela and Taylor. When the bassist dismisses previous incarnations as a "drunk hobby band," Henderson and Swift are quick to jump in, putting him in his place. "We want to acknowledge how far we've come without in any way degrading our former members," Henderson says, tactfully. Taylor's tone changes, "Yeah, those guys are great," adding, a moment later, "I'm kind of a jackass." In sound quality and focus, the tension has paid off.

Raylor cites At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta as primary influences, making him a student of charismatic prog narcissists and megalomaniacs Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. That helps explain the bassist's brashness and alludes to the band's best new features.

Taylor brings a virtuosic streak to bass, giving it a place of greater prominence in the band's sound than ever before. Further, prog has affected the band's song structures: While it hasn't inclined them to push any songs beyond 4 minutes, it has resulted in a 15-minute disc rife with tempo changes and hard stops. Conflagration, last year's riotous 16-track debut album, gave up all its secrets on one trip through. Emic only really begins to unfold itself after a few spins.

It's remarkable, but not without weaknesses. Emic is cleaner and more professional, which has the effect of making it feel too slick and even tentative. It's a criticism the band takes in stride. "This time we were making a record," says Swift. "Before we were trying to capture our live set." Conflagration is kinetic as hell but sloppy, mimicking the reeling self-discovery embarked upon in the wake of original mistress Beth Gibney's departure. Gimmickry had been high pre-Conflagration, and those first shows without Gibney usually found one of the members -- Swift frequently -- dressing in drag to keep the band's old femdom shtick alive.

With the addition of Varela and Taylor and Henderson's markedly improved chops, the band is moving past that. "We've always been a band that wanted to bring people to a live show because the CD just can't capture what we're trying to do," Henderson says. Before, that required onstage spasms and dudes dressed as chicks. Now it's all performance.

Onstage, Taylor is a blur of movement -- hopping into the audience or jumping up on a speaker, knock-kneed, swiveling his hips like Elvis circa "Jailhouse Rock." Swift, wearing a Loverboy tour shirt from 1984 and padding around in socks, sprints through verses while doing a twist-like shuffle that invokes Gidget, strangely.

It's startling, alternately coy and impetuous, alluring and repulsive. Henderson tells a story of a young woman turning down a free CD because the band's performance had freaked her out. The band loves that. "I want to scare people when I'm onstage," says Taylor, "because my favorite bands scare me."

The band admits Emic has a variety that approaches artistic schizophrenia. "It sounds very segregated to me," says Taylor. That too is changing. "The more we play together," he says, "the more cohesive our songs have gotten."

Henderson says that cohesion isn't reflected in Emic because they forced themselves to write the EP within a month of assembling the new lineup. "It was important to have something we could take on tour that reflected the changes we've made," he says.

So they all brought ideas, honed in on the five best and did what they could. As such, Emic is more a reminder of where the band was than where they are now, and that's OK with them. With the long view in mind, says Varela, the EP's variation in styles and tones actually helps. "[It'll] allow us to get feedback on what directions work for people and which don't," he says. "We'll use that when we sit down to do a full-length."

The Emic tour, which kicks off Friday at the Blvd and next Wednesday at the Baby Bar, is a 15-date affair that finds the Misters working middle relief. Because of the group's short sets and relative obscurity outside Spokane (and Bellingham), Henderson has tried to nestle each set between hometown bands in each city they hit. "There's no glory in headlining to an empty room," he says.

Mistress and the Misters with Iceage Cobra and La Cha Cha at the Blvd on Friday, June 8 at 9 pm. $5. Call 455-7826. Also at the Baby Bar with Whiskey Dick Mountain on Wednesday, June 13, at 9 pm. Price TBA. Call 847-1234.

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