By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
They arrived in early March with a four-song EP, digital-only at first. The "Physical Product Edition," as they put it, arrived shortly thereafter, plainly packaged except for the "BNLX" stamped almost haphazardly across the front of the recycled cardboard sleeve, with the track list stamped equally off-kilter across the back.
The following two EPs (released quarterly as part of their "First One Year" plan—a fourth is on the way) arrived in much the same manner, only with a large "2" and "3," respectively, hand painted on the covers along with the stamp. A goofy 8-bit mohawked—what was that thing? Pirate? Otter? Pirate otter?—started making itself known as some sort of band mascot in the form of stickers included with the physical albums. The press materials read like something out of an Aldous Huxley novel and repeatedly identified the music as "music." They claimed elves made the CDs, and the first EP sold for €2,00 on iTunes (that's $2.77 to us lowly Americans). Just what in the hell was going on here?
Identifying themselves only as e.a. and a.a. in the liner notes and everywhere else, BNLX was soon revealed to be Ed and Ashley Ackerson of Polara and the Mood Swings, and they started coupling the amusing, bizarre press materials and blog posts on the Susstones website with stunning, must-see live shows. The songs are reminiscent of everything from Joy Division to the Damned to '90s lo-fi, yet are a wholly unified body of work at the same time. The EPs, all clocking in at about 13 minutes, give or take, are the types of albums you can just let run over and over again in your CD player until every note is seared into your gray matter. While it's easy for a band to oversaturate in a city like Minneapolis, they have played just the right amount of shows to both win a ton of local attention and pique the interest of everyone who has yet to see them—the live shows are actual experiences rather than just run-of-the-mill shows, and people who have never heard a note of their music are converted into rabid fans by the ends of their sets.
BNLX is looking three steps ahead, but not in that lofty, dreamy, "what if" way that most people do. "Elements of BNLX are unexplained and may remain so," reads a line in their press release, and while we may remain in the dark about what those elements are, there is no doubt that they are crystal clear to the Ackersons.
When word spread last winter that Sarah Nienaber and Sarah Rose were in a new band together, it was enough to whet more than a few appetites within the local scene. Simple arithmetic suggested there'd be plenty of sprawling guitar work, perhaps a bit of spaced-out psychedelia, and maybe even some female harmonies thrown in for good measure.
What we got was something altogether different: Nienaber showed up playing bass, and Rose, having long done the same for First Communion Afterparty, picked up guitar. The result was a lean mixture of garage rock and post punk rattling behind Rose's breathy vocals.
"It's really funny, at least for me, to step into that lead songwriter role. I used to be so nervous about putting that much out there, I didn't really expect anything at all," Rose recalls while sitting with the band outside the Kitty Cat Klub. "[When] it started originally, we were like, 'Oh, let's just play house parties and have a good time with this.'"
In fact, the formation of the band was done pretty well on the fly after Rose volunteered to join Nienaber for a solo set at the 331 in August of last year. They recruited Mara Appel, a long-time friend of Rose's and former FCAP drummer, who, Nienaber admits, got "tricked into playing our first show."
"I was pretty down with whatever, any time," Appel says nonchalantly, lounging in the corner and smoking a cigarette. "The whole spur-of-the-moment thing was cool with me because, I mean, shit, I love to play drums."
If Is/Is are taking themselves more seriously than at first, they've lost none of that loose early spirit. Onstage, Nienaber and Appel joke back and forth between songs, and if sometimes the shows get a little ragged, that's part of the fun. Now, having just last month released This Happening—their first EP, recorded with Red Pens' Howard Hamilton—it may not be long before the two Sarahs switch instruments again.
"I tried to learn new songs and then I was like, 'I have some songs'...and they seemed to flow better," Rose says, explaining how she first took on lead duties. "But I've been trying to write songs backwards and write songs on bass. Which is like, it's a challenge, but it's kind of fun to work on that because singing and playing bass, you really got to concentrate when you're doing it. And I want to just be able to do it."