Is/Is take to the desert for artistic growth

The Minneapolis band hit the road, searching for inspiration in the desert

Is/Is take to the desert for artistic growth
Emily Utne

The members of Is/Is are having a yard sale, but it's not just any yard sale. They are, in fact, selling off most of their worldly possessions, saving little more than their music gear and some clothing. In barely 24 hours, they'll move out of their apartment, they'll quit their jobs, and for at least the next three months, maybe longer, they will have no home.

It's late on a Saturday morning in July and Sarah Rose and Sarah Neinaber are camped out in front of their south Minneapolis duplex. They could easily pass for a modern-day incarnation of the Glimmer Twins, both with wavy hair and long bangs that obscure any chance for real eye contact, both wearing flannel shirts with shorts and boots.

Near them in the yard are the remains of a big old oak tree, uprooted by a storm earlier this summer. "We watched the whole thing from our window," recalls Rose, Is/Is's guitarist and lead vocalist. "We were like, 'Oh shit. We better go to the liquor store!'" She's on her second or third Hamm's of the day.

Is/Is from left to right: Sarah Rose, Sarah Nienaber, Ronnie Lee
Emily Utne
Is/Is from left to right: Sarah Rose, Sarah Nienaber, Ronnie Lee
Emily Utne

The band's drummer, Ronnie Lee, rides up on his bicycle. He's dressed in a jean jacket that's covered in buttons, and his shaggy black hair hangs out from beneath a corduroy cap. Under his arm he carries a couple of old drum heads and, more importantly, a handful of gas and cigarette coupons that he swiped from his house.

Before the girls is laid out an array of odds and ends, snippets from the lives of people who spend their days creating, their nights performing in dingy bars, and as much time as possible on the road. There are books, VHS tapes, crates full of records, shelves with camera gear, racks full of dresses and jackets. There's even a speaker cabinet and a mixing board — and, for good measure, a case full of the band's own CDs.

Some of the sales have been a little harder than others. Nienaber sold one of her guitars, an old Gibson, and Rose sold her very first bass and first amplifier, which she'd had since childhood. "Some of the stuff we don't really want to sell," Nienaber, the band's bassist, admits with a shrug. She looks down at the cup of cold press in her hand, swirling it absentmindedly. "But the money is important."

The money is important because the band members have hatched an ambitious plan for themselves in the coming months. With a new record in their pocket — their second full-length — they're hitting the road for tours of both coasts in their gold Chevy Astro van, which they call "Berma." In between, they'll spend a month living near Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California, about two hours east of Los Angeles. There, they'll rent a ranch and spend their days writing and recording music together — separated from other people and immersed in the tranquility of desert life.

"I'm quitting all my jobs and I don't want them when I get back," says Nienaber. "I feel like I'm glad. It's like I know that things are going to be different after this." She nods to herself, as though once more going through the calculations. "One way or another, for better or worse, things are going to be different — which is actually really great."

By the end of the day, Rose and Nienaber will be able to fit all of their belongings — aside from what they're taking on the road — into a corner of Rose's bedroom at her parents' house. After that, there will be no chance for second-guessing.

Sarah Rose, a native of Minneapolis, grew up surrounded by music, and took to it at an early age. Her father, Skip, was a musician himself before going to work as a touring sound engineer. Along the way, he worked with bands like the Replacements and Bash + Pop, eventually settling in at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.

"I didn't want her to follow in these footsteps," Skip says wistfully of Sarah, the elder of his two daughters. "I know there's a dark and seamier side to it. Sometimes it's a cold, hard business." But, he admits, "There was always a piano in the house. I inherited the family piano, so that was always available to the kids to make whatever music they wanted to."

When Sarah was still in middle school, Skip would get her into concerts around town, even though she was too young to get in on her own. It didn't take long for her to create her own connections, and when she was in high school she joined her first serious band, the psychedelia-obsessed First Communion Afterparty. In spite of dividing her time with band practices and even the occasional tour, Sarah was able to graduate a year early, and without much interest in college, she became a full-time musician before she was even 18.

On one occasion, she told Skip that FCAP had a show at the Turf Club in St. Paul. "I said, 'Oh, that's great. I'm working tonight; maybe I should swing by.' And she said, 'Oh, no, we'll be done playing before you're done working.'" But when he looked through the listings in the newspaper and found that the band wasn't listed on the bill, Skip called back, at which point Sarah confessed that she was actually at the 7th St. Entry. "It took us years to get to that point with our bands, where we were playing a room like the Mainroom or the Entry," he says. "And for her to be — she was 16, 17 at the time; God, I hope she wasn't younger — I said, 'By all means, have a good gig and we'll see you when you get home.'"

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