Is/Is take to the desert for artistic growth
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.
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.'"
Meanwhile, Sarah Nienaber's initiation into music occurred in the small, rural town of Pequot Lakes, just north of Brainerd. She spent her teenage years writing songs in her bedroom and playing in a high school band, but it wasn't until she started the shoegazey trio Gospel Gossip while she attended Carleton College in Northfield that she became truly serious about music. Her parents are both creative — her mom writes, and her dad paints and makes stained-glass sculptures and windows — but they do so in their free time.
"What they told me was education was more important than those things," Nienaber says. "At least, that's what happened to their lives." It was only when Gospel Gossip — still driving to the Twin Cities and back for weeknight gigs, often getting home at four in the morning and then going to classes — started getting traction, even placing as runner-up in City Pages' Picked to Click poll in 2008, that her parents became more supportive. "I just don't think it's what they expected me to do," she says.
Since its inception, Is/Is has revolved around Rose and Nienaber's friendship. They first met when their bands shared a local bill, but it wasn't until Rose convinced them to do a joint tour that she and Nienaber became friends. "I didn't know what I was talking about," Rose recalls with a laugh. "But I convinced them it was happening — and it did."
In a similar fashion, Is/Is came to be more or less by accident. In the summer of 2009, Nienaber was asked to play a solo set at the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis. Not having any songs to play, she asked Rose to join her, and Rose wound up taking the lead. Before long, Howard Hamilton, then of the Red Pens, insisted on recording the group, and the resulting songs became their first EP, This Happening. "There were already people paying attention to us," Rose marvels, reflecting on their earliest shows, "which is cool and probably good because it forced us to figure out what we were doing quicker."
Those first four songs, released in the spring of 2010, had an immediately distinct feel about them. Yes, there were inevitably similarities with the girls' other bands — especially with the droning, heavily distorted guitars — but Is/Is veered off into a more raucous, garage-rock style that often seemed to teeter on the edge of control. That likely had a lot to do with the fact that neither Rose nor Nienaber were playing their primary instruments: Rose, a bassist, plays lead guitar, using it for texture and rhythm, while Nienaber, a guitarist, attacks her bass like a lead instrument, often carrying the melody.
Of course, what tied it all together were Rose's vocals — low and smoldering and sultry, delivered in a near whisper. From the beginning, she had natural charisma as a performer, and yet, having never been the front person for a band before, it took a while for her to be comfortable in the spotlight. "When Is/Is started, I knew how to do stuff, but I wasn't used to putting myself out there," she admits. "I used to be really bad. I used to sing super, super quiet. I'd be, like, looking off down at my guitar."
That shyness didn't exactly hurt the band's image. In the early days, with original drummer Mara Appel (a childhood friend of Rose's and fellow FCAP alumna), the trio were often described as "witches," no doubt helped in part by their style of dress — lots of leather jackets, thrift-store dresses, and rings and bracelets. "When Mara was in the band, people had jokes about them seeming like a gang," recalls Old Blackberry Way engineer Neil Weir. He's produced each of the band's recordings since This Happening. "It was very much this tight-knit group of weirdos doing their thing."
But even then that tight-knit group had hit a crossroads. Not long after the EP was released, the three girls took a road trip to the West Coast, where they visited Joshua Tree for the first time. "We all kind of needed that trip really bad," Appel remembers. "I think we all figured out certain things about life, and choices — the power of choices." For Appel, that meant making the difficult decision to move to Portland and, by extension, to leave the band. For Rose and Nienaber, it was an awakening to the thrill of the road, and the lure of the desert.
With Appel out of the band, the next couple of years found Rose and Nienaber in a state of flux, shuffling through a series of drummers — including Annie May and Zoo Animal's Holly Hansen — none of whom worked out long-term. "I feel like I forced myself into being a band leader because I wanted it to work so bad, even though the band wasn't working with the circumstances," says Rose, ruefully.
Nonetheless, they released new music as often as they could manage, first with a 7-inch early in 2011 and then their first full-length, III, in the spring of 2012. Named for the fact that it was their third release and that there were three different drummers on the recordings, it was a suitably disjointed record, weaving from a sunny pop hook like "Hate Smile" to the building fury of a dirge like "Sun Tsunami," and interspersed along the way with clips of ambient noise. But the high points were such that III got props from Vice magazine and landed on both the CMJ and Dusted radio charts.
Finally, late last year, the band connected with Ronnie Lee, who grew up in northern Wisconsin, lived in Milwaukee, and bounced around between different cities before settling in Minneapolis. He plays in a half-dozen bands in town, including Toxic Shrews, the Miami Dolphins, and Cereal Wizard. Something of a nomad himself, Lee helped kick-start a fresh burst of creativity. "It did seem like a fresh start for them in some ways," say Weir, who was amazed by how quickly the pieces fell into place. "They basically had an album's worth of stuff together in what seemed like less than two months."
Those new songs, which the band has collected in the form of a new, self-titled full-length, crackle with that fresh enthusiasm. Where Appel's loping drums had once anchored a slower, grittier sound, Lee propels songs like "Side Ways" and lead single "Hunter" into faster, brighter territory. It's denser, too, with layers of guitars and vocal harmonies; Nienaber even takes her first lead vocal on the chorus of "Shine Down."
More than on prior recordings, there's a noticeable sense of movement on Is/Is, a sprung energy that's full of anticipation and restlessness. For Rose, it's a simple matter of being better songwriters: "Our old [songs] were me coming to practice with an idea for a song and everybody being like, 'Let's do that for six minutes,'" she says. "It's the easiest fucking thing to do." Likewise, if Rose's lyrics have tended over time toward the cryptic, then here there's an undeniable sense of urgency, a yearning for escape.
The new record also sees the band joining forces with a new label, Los Angeles-based Manimal Vinyl, which has worked with artists like Bat for Lashes and Warpaint. Label owner Paul Beahan signed the band based solely on having heard their demos. "I remember my old distributors in the U.K. freaking out on me, like, 'You signed a band and you've never even seen them?'" Beahan says with a laugh. He was reassured, however, when one of his partners caught them in Vancouver. "She came back like, 'Yeah, dude, they're fucking amazing.'"
So now seems to be a fitting time for their trip to Joshua Tree. "[Rose] and I have actually yet to talk about that more," Beahan says. "I don't want them coming back addicted to meth."
The band's last show before leaving town is on a Friday night at the Hexagon Bar in early August. It was originally intended to be the vinyl release show for the new record, but snags on the label's end have forced a change of plans. Instead, they're treating it as a tour kickoff, and they've made dozens of cassette tape versions of the record to take on the road with them.
Not being ones to run early, the band find themselves in a rush come showtime, as the singer for one of the other bands on the bill is sick and the group dropped out at the last minute. Plans to hang a huge, hand-painted backdrop on stage wind up getting dropped as a result. But it's not that they're unprepared: Lee, beginning to act a bit like the band caretaker, finished making a pedal board for Rose before the show, and is already looking forward to getting Berma's oil changed in the morning, maybe even hanging some drapes inside. Rose, too, has recently gotten her driver's license, and tonight, she's proud to point out, she'll be the designated driver.
Rose's dad is at the show, too, and as the girls set up their gear he gives it all a look over. "You know," he says to Nienaber, with a mix of concern and approval, "you should change those strings every week." He also recommends that they get some flashlights. Both girls, amused, smirk at the advice.
Once onstage, the show runs like clockwork, the songs a flurry of energy and swirling feedback. Everyone follows Rose's lead, and right from opening song "Wide Eyed," she usually sets the tempo. She stands, feet together, strumming her guitar with her eyes closed, only occasionally opening them to gaze out into the lights hanging overhead. When she sings, she does so straight into the mic, as though addressing it directly, even confiding in it.
Nienaber, across the stage, watches Rose as she plays. Live, her bass lines feel even more pronounced than on record, each whole note both hanging over the mix and anchoring it at the bottom. But it's Lee, sitting behind his kit, who really helps keep things grounded, keeping time with his lips pursed and an intent look on his face.
As the band move through the set, which is heavy on the new songs, Rose loosens up and begins moving around stage. At one point, she skitters sideways in a half-dance, her movements fluid, almost as though she's floating — an extension, unconsciously, of the music. When she raises her arm in the air, the feedback hangs there with it, as though holding everything else in check.
Finally, as the set builds up toward the finish and gnarly show-closer "Sonic Tooth," Rose leans over toward the floor, knees bent and hair hanging down. She strums her guitar furiously, all slashing chords that rain down sheets of reverb over the room, then stands up straight and swings around, her back to the audience. She wrestles momentarily with the guitar, its neck shaking in her hands, and she too convulses back and forth — until suddenly the music stops, and the show is over.
A short time later, the two Sarahs are on the patio outside the bar — joined at the hip, as usual. Nienaber sits in a chair smoking a cigarette, while Rose stands alongside. Both look relieved. Lee is nearby, talking with friends, filling them in on the trip. In the morning, they'll head to Stillwater for the Square Lake Festival, then hit the road from there. In other words, it's time for the payoff.
"We don't have anywhere to be now," Rose says. "We don't have to go home." She pauses, and brightens up, relishing the thought. "We can't go home," she adds. "So we might as well stay out all night, right?"
Almost exactly one month later, the band drive to their ranch in the desert from a show in San Diego. Berma is strewn with with empty water bottles and beer cans, notebooks, towels, and plastic bags. A rope draped with sage leaves and a dreamcatcher, used to bless the van, hangs from the rear-view mirror. With the windows down, the hot, dry air blasts straight at everyone's faces.
The landscape along Route 62 is brown and dusty. All along the sandy desert floor and up the rocky hills and cliff faces are trees and cacti, their leaves pointed and jagged in order to attract what little water there is in such a harsh environment.
Somewhere in the middle of the remote Yucca Valley, a cloud of dust explodes up the road and envelops everything in sight. A large black object flies out of the cloud, spinning, then disappears again. A car's wheel rolls into traffic and strikes another vehicle up ahead.
"What the hell did I just see?" exclaims Nienaber, who's driving. She pulls over to the side of the road, and as the dust clears, a badly mangled pickup truck appears. Next to it, its driver is lying on the ground, his shirt open, weakly waving his arms around. A crowd is already gathered at the scene, and in no time, all is still once more.
The ranch is located on a dirt road that's washed out in places and full of rocks and ruts. Farther up the road is an entrance to Joshua Tree. The ranch, little more than a kitchen and living room with a covered porch outside, is fenced in in order to keep wild animals out. The yard is full of junk, including old bird baths and truck toppers and piles of rusty scrap metal. There are other houses nearby, but almost no signs of life, save for a dog that runs out into the road when cars pass.
"This is like my heaven," Lee says, pulling out a recently purchased BB gun and aiming it at a pyramid of empty beer cans. "I can shoot stuff and swing stuff at the same time," he explains, squeezing off a round. "I don't ever want to leave."
Rose, worn out from months of preparation for the trip, is already worried about the band's productivity less than a week into their stay. In truth, they've been busy working independently so far — Lee in the house, Nienaber on the side patio, and Rose on a wicker bench out in the yard where she can look out at the mountains. The inside of the house is full of gear — speakers, pedals, guitars, dismantled drums, and a coat rack draped with cords and microphones. At night, they drink beers under the porch lights and pass around a guitar.
"We all needed to take a second to disperse and regroup as individuals — which we've all been doing," Nienaber says. In itself, the trip speaks to the band's success, though. Rose points out they've funded the trip almost entirely with band funds. "I think that means it's been really good," she says.
Without having anticipated it, the trip has turned into a chance for the band to reconnect with what they love about playing music, and to get away from their peripheral obligations. "I feel like playing live music is a lot less important to me than I thought it was," Nienaber muses. "The past month has shown me that I'm not doing the wrong thing, it's just that I'm not focusing on what's important — which is just being with myself and writing and appreciating what it's like to make music, but not necessarily in front of people." She pauses thoughtfully, then gives a shrug. "It's actually exciting and makes me feel good that that's true."
On one particular morning, Rose heads to a "sound bath" called Integratron near the park with a couple of friends, including Appel, who are visiting for the weekend. Integratron is a large wooden dome built over a magnetic field, under which is the convergence of three rivers. According to George van Tassel, who built it in the 1970s, the structure is acoustically perfect. He also claimed that he was instructed to build it by aliens, and that it would be capable of time travel, but he died before it was finished.
The purpose of the "sound bath" is to meditate and, by extension, to achieve rejuvenation. Attendees lie down on their backs while an instructor rubs crystal sticks around different-sized bowls. The sounds echo and reverberate off the walls, supposedly charged by the electrical current of the magnetic field, and "wash over" the participants.
"It started getting really physical. You can feel it through your whole body," says Rose afterward. Some of the attendees started crying during the session, but she returns feeling re-energized. "My mind was just racing, thinking about all this bullshit, [then] all of a sudden it stopped and I started seeing things in my head, like really distinct visuals." She speaks slowly, being careful to choose just the right words. "I kept seeing the words 'Be here' over and over again," she continues, gesturing with her hands as though to depict a sign. "That was kind of crazy, because last night [Nienaber] and I had been talking about how I need to focus on being in the present moment more, because I don't do that very often."
Soon Rose is eagerly planning out having the band record together, and how they'll set up Lee's drums in order to fit everyone inside the house. "I just feel ready," she says.
"I think they could be happy in a situation like this," says Appel of her three friends. "I think Is/Is, from the get-go, a main staple of it is basically an adventure, like treating life like an adventure. I think they want to be heard by people who they think would like to hear them, but I think they'd much rather just have a weird time."
As the sun sets on the horizon — lighting the sky with brilliant reds and oranges and purples, colors that change by the minute and reflect even more vivdly along the surface of the clouds — Nienaber settles into recording along the side of the house. She sits crossed-legged with her guitar and a cup of coffee, her laptop and some pedals in front of her. The notes she strums blare gently from the amplifier and carry out over the hills, for miles and miles, and as they drone on, they blend in with the scenery.
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