Any type of creation involves an unwavering attention to the craft. It demands a sweet, steadfast surrender of Ego; artisans must unfailingly deliver what has been promised, every time they promise it – which is what separates the brilliant from the hack, the proficient from the poseur, those who would rather die on their feet than live on their knees. A collaborative art is much more than the product of experience and talent; it is the result of the love each collaborator has for each other, and each collaborator’s love for their craft. That love, in turn engenders a devotion to that craft, a devotion so strong that it allows for ultimate submission – the surrender of Ego. This surrender is a graduation of sorts, a graduation from the individual to the collective, a sublimation of the Self to the Whole; “Stix” Thompson, Ian Smith, and Steve Trohoske know that this form of surrender is ultimately an act of devotion, just as that devotion is an act of love.
One can distinguish the sonic result of their ethos as cascading and effervescent, in a hypnotic and entrancing way that is open to interpretation; it can be found in the filthy funk of an urban alleyway, or the pristine arpeggio evocative of a white sandy beach.
So what is it? What do they play? How do they sound? Most dedicated artists resist labeling their art, rightfully feeling as though it could pigeonhole them into a particular genre and limit their creativity. Knowing that it would be a tremendous disservice to themselves and their fans to label their nearly undefinable product simply as grimy post-fusion, or rust belt rock, or the bastard child of jazz and punk, they’ve chosen a highly appropriate nom de guerre: “Is What It Is.”
It is difficult to explain exactly what you will experience when you show up to see Is What It Is at one of their frequent area appearances. Despite my persistence, they absolutely refused to describe their music or talk about their musical influences. I can respect that; it is not easily done, anyway. Besides, influences are just that – performers who have affected, but not designed, the way others think. If I told you there was a little Dinosaur Jr. peeking out from behind the velvet curtain, could you even detect it? They are not a cover band; during my talks with them, the overwhelming array of names bandied about suggests that they are influenced by everybody. They recognize the good and the positive in everything. Accordingly, their music is possessed of a savage originality that suggests to me that their biggest influences are each other.
All three of these Erie natives have been playing music for some time now. Bassist Steve Trohoske came up as the neighborhood kid hanging around outside Erie’s clubs, gathering crumbs of wisdom from established players. He is a big guy, sweet and sensitive, in his early 40s, and has two kids. Drummer Stix Thompson came up through the church playing gospel music more than 30 years ago, and has been pounding the skins since the age of six; he has four kids. Twenty-something guitarist Ian Smith also came up around the age of 6 – smashing his plastic toy guitars, because that’s what guitar players are supposed to do. These guys aren’t your typical rock-and-rollers, but at some point, they all caught it – they caught the fever; they caught the love that pushed them to become something more than weekend players wanking around on instruments they didn’t fully understand. They loved it, they devoted themselves to it, and they ultimately surrendered to it.
It is hard to believe that Is What It Is has only been around for one year. Comprised of one guitarist, one bassist, and one drummer, they hit the scene like a freight train last winter, and have only picked up steam since then. Their coalescence into Erie’s most unique and enthralling band makes them a destination unto themselves, no matter which room they are currently taking over. If you have not yet seen them play, it is your own fault – they are everywhere. In the span of just a few days, I unintentionally caught them at an art gallery, a bar that has not had live music in years, and at Erie’s premier music club. That’s Urarro, Scotty’s, and The crooked i, if you were wondering.
Hanging around with these cats, one gets the feeling that they love playing together, both onstage and off. They are especially tight, onstage and off. And they truly love each other, onstage and off. “I love myself, as everyone should, so I have no problem loving those guys. I can trust them. They are friends; they’ve got my back. If I needed something, I could call one of those guys,” says the drummer Thompson. Do not think for a second that is some sort of cocksure statement by Stix; once you meet him, or see how he carries himself in person, you will quickly realize he is one of the most genuine people you will ever meet.
Clearly, Stix feels that the offstage camaraderie translates directly into their music. “It’s crazy because my concept of playing with these guys is that Ian is so creative, I’ll have to blend one ear just to him, and still catch Steve out of my other ear, because I’ll do some things with Ian as Steve’s doing some other things.”
If the idea of listening to two different performers, at the same time, while performing a complex task yourself sounds easy to you, try it out. It’s not. But rather than produce a disjointed dissonance, Stix’s sticks strap it all together. “It just melds perfectly. I have never been able to do that with other musicians. In a trio, it is amazing to do. I love three-piece bands; I don’t think I ever want to play with more than three guys in a band again. I love playing with those guys.”
While that foundation of loving each other as people and as musicians contributes profoundly to the music they create, guitarist Ian reveals that it is not an absolute requirement, but it is instead lagniappe. “You don't have to love or even like the person you are collaborating with to get the job done – I have had amazing sex with arch-nemeses; I have moved refrigerators with strangers – but never the other way around.” This does not mean he’s had amazing sex with refrigerators, nor moved arch-nemeses with strangers. “That we love each other just makes work easier. It facilitates the flow state, the creativity, the motivation.”
Ian continues, inadvertently providing a textbook definition of love. “I have oft felt the compulsion to drive certain perfectionist ideals home to the extent that I would seem like the asshole. Would that be at the expense of their feelings? Would I alienate them by enforcing my own aesthetics too stringently? I have not taken it that far. Part of me thinks ‘They love me, so they will understand.’ Another part of me thinks, ‘I love them, so I will not put them in the position of having to.’”
Bassist Steve echoes the sentiments of his bandmates. To him, music is a nonverbal communication between the musicians and the audience, as well as between the musicians themselves; it is clear that he enjoys the conversations they’ve been having. “Loving that aspect of playing with them is huge, because, Ian’s study of sound is enormous, and I think that it’s just amazing that he’s focused on that. And I’ve learned a lot from Stix – just his rhythmic approach to the drums is so different and intense.”
As with any conversation, it is not all pleasantries and acclimation; Steve elaborates. “Loving each other like a family, it’s like siblings – there are disagreements, there are creative differences, there are generation gaps,” he says. What gets them through the moments of awkward silence is their devotion to their music, and to each other.
Steve Trohoske has not had a vacation in 9 years. As we sit in his house, surrounded by friends, family, and food on Russian New Year’s Day, he strikes me as an intense-yet-mellow fellow who lets little stand in the way of getting the job done. Every square inch of his place is decorated – art hangs on every available wall space, each piece of it, Steve tells me, gifted by other artists or fans. His wife, well-known jewelry artist Lena Logvina, pops in and out occasionally when she’s not upstairs dancing to Britney Spears with their two kids and my daughter, our only indication thereof the pounding footsteps in sync with the pounding basslines emanating from the ceiling above the comfy couch I’m sitting on. Steve’s cat, Baby, jumps in my lap.
“It’s 7 days a week, 24 hours a day,” he says, shifting in his chair, looking up. “Literally. You may have a rehearsal at this time, so you have to get your own music together. Then you have to learn the tunes, or write the tunes, or have something presentable for a rehearsal. Or, an idea comes to you, so you have to do the work on that. And then there’s the whole other side of it, and that is going and meeting with club owners to talk about dates; there are a lot of consultations, travel arrangements, promotion…that takes a great deal of your day. It’s a grind.”
Luckily, for Steve, the cure is found in the disease.
“I’m in it to write songs, and to play memorable basslines – something deep or something that makes me feel that I can express myself, because I feel like, after 9 years without a vacation, you must have the soul to express it. You have to say, ‘I gotta let it go tonight, or else I’m going to explode on everybody I see, because I’m seeing the same concrete, same sidewalks.’”
That same concrete, those same sidewalks. From the bars down on the pier, up the hill, to Scotty’s, to the Erie Club, to The crooked i, Docksider, Brewerie, on up to the studio above Basement Transmissions – Played. Worked. Loved. Hated.
That same concrete, those same sidewalks, they are as comforting and common as they are confining and contemptuous; an interesting dichotomy, to say the least. On one hand, we all seek to master our chosen endeavors so they might one day become comforting, common, friendly, and familiar. On the other hand, that comfort confines and confounds, and can sap the devotion required to master said endeavor.
Stix shines his light on this peculiar form of devotion. He’s just gotten off from a long day of work at the Dovetail Gallery – a job he says he loves – and is sitting directly across from me. He is intense in a quiet way, demonstrating what Steve told me was a gift directly given by the Creator to Stix – the gift of being methodical, mathematical, disciplined, and organized. “You have to be dedicated. You have to be dedicated to the music, and wanting to expand, wanting to get better. Every time I play with them, I get better. And they get better. We get better. We get tighter.” This constant state of improvement stems from the dedication these three musicians have to their craft. “You have to be devoted to your instrument. If you know your instrument, the devotion that you have for your instrument is going to feed it; it’s like an energy.”
But is that musical energy an oppressor, or a liberator? “While we are devoted to each other as bandmates, we are devoted to our art and our performance as well... perhaps more so,” Ian says. “It is our devotion to the music, to the ineffable states of being, and cognition, and trance, and transcendence which I think leads us into devotion to each other. It is sort of a Stockholm syndrome, but not only are we bonding with our captor – in this case, our lifelong obsessions with music – we are fellow hostages bonding with one another.”
They know that the same devotion that frees them also enslaves them, and it will ultimately demand a small surrender of sorts – a toll, if you will; a toll that one must pay to graduate from the Self and become part of the Whole. They also know that in surrender, after paying that toll, they will become something far greater than the sum of their parts – for only those unafraid of what true surrender means can ever hope to benefit from it.
“My devotion to this project requires a sacrifice of time and other efforts and possibilities,” Ian continues. “This is still not absolute. I can still play music with other people. This band is not some deity to which I must pledge all I have. If surrender comes into play musically, it is surrender to the music itself. To the act of playing. To all muses, poetic, mythic, and physiological. That is a yielding of power. But it is also a harnessing of power.” He is now sitting in the chair that Steve was sitting in. He’s got his feet up on another chair, and has slouched to the point of lying down. He seems placid, and calm, the living embodiment of a Ludwig Wittgenstein quote: “Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy.”
“In Flamenco culture, this is known as Duende,” he goes on to tell me. “It is regarded as a sort of demonic possession. A state of intoxication. I could speak of Nietzsche's observation that the Greeks connected Dionysus, a god of surrender to drunkenness, to music. The purest music stems from, and evokes that state of, entrancement.”
Bacchanalian emulations aside, Ian is also a DJ who writes electronic music. Steve tells me that Ian hears things differently and plays things differently than he’s used to hearing and playing; rather than demanding submission or adherence to Steve’s own version of “tried and true,” he instead imbibes it. “It can be the littlest things. Ian could hear something that is straight ahead, and it hits him like ‘dat dat dat dat dat,’ and I hear it as ‘doot doot doot doot doot.’ And you want to go back to what’s comfortable, so pushing in those directions, like electronic music and some of the stuff he’s laid on me has been huge; he approaches chord changes very differently. Even his process in writing, I have learned a lot from him on that.”
Stix concurs. He knows when to step up, but also knows when to step back. “Grooves and melodies are almost orchestrated with me. It’s concept. I know the dynamics. You have to be able to hear and feel where the groove is going, so you can come up, come down, fall back, play pocket, or change the rhythm.”
“Other than just learning how to go different places or figure some things out, I’ve also learned where I need to stay to make some of the things work too,” Steve interjects. “So I’ve given up things, which is a good thing; I’ve left things out because it will make the tune work better, as opposed to trying to keep up with an idea he has at the moment that is so fluent and so everywhere. I’ve learned to be that anchor as well.”
Perhaps Ian puts it best. “As a performer, there are moments when I feel I am not making conscious decisions in real time, but rather I am relinquishing control and acting as a conduit. Devotion to the music and to craft can be further related to that.”
Jimi Hendrix was not a musician; nor was Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jaco Pastorius, John Entwistle, Buddy Rich, or Keith Moon. They were conduits, a channel for energy. They surrendered to the devotion of their love, and transcended normal human ability to become something remarkable and undefinable. Steve Trohoske, Stix Thompson, and Ian Smith have embarked on that same journey, together. Catch them while you still can, because for Is What It Is, “The sky’s the limit,” Steve says. “The sky’s the limit.”
For more on Is What It Is, be sure to check out Cory’s web-exclusive appearing later this week at ErieReader.com.
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