Ishi Gives Dallas What It Wants

It's funny how something can appear to be one thing and actually be something else.

Take, for instance, Sons of Hermann Hall. The 100-year-old Deep Ellum venue is a lot of things—cherished, storied, enduring, charming, one of the best and most underused and underappreciated venues in the region.

Absolutely. All that.

What it's not—by any account—is what one would call hip.

Imagine the shock then, this past Saturday night, when, upon entering the venue, it reeked of all things cool. Or, well, all things supposedly cool.

There were smoke machines. Strobe lights. Lasers. Free beer and vodka, too. And people—tons of the suckers—all clad in their American Apparel-approved, going-out best, no doubt enticed by the allure of an open bar and the chance to maybe shake a tailfeather. Or, in this case, maybe a dandelion.

Their reason for showing: the much-anticipated release of Through The Trees, the debut album from Ishi, who for the past few months have held the distinction of being the biggest-drawing band in town.

The display offered up on this night was quite the spectacle indeed—speakers teetering on the edge of blowing out throughout the night, crowds bouncing in unison at the band's catchiest songs and the night ending with dozens of people rushing the stage. It was a stark contrast from the previous night's affair at the same venue, when Sons played host to revered indie-folk hero Sarah Jaffe's relatively tame album release show. But that's what crowds have come to expect from Ishi, who celebrated their album release in fine fashion on this night—and to a crowd twice the size of Jaffe's, surprisingly enough.

Credit the act's invigorating live shows for all the excitement. On stage, bolstered by multi-instrumentalist and producer Brad Dale's dance-inducing backing tracks and drummer JJ Mudd's diligent time-keeping, the four-piece's two-headed front, John Mudd and Taylor Rea, offer up what, on mute, would appear to be something vaguely resembling a dance aerobics class. One with lots of hip thrusting. Like real lots. Enough to make Elvis blush, for sure.

As for the music? Live, it's a fairly easy sell; it's just so goddamn catchy. Take the band's two calling cards: the bouncing, hypnotic "Pastel Lights," a surefire candidate for best local dance track of 2010, and "Shake Your Dandelion," a sort of sped-up slow-jam (complete with Spanish guitar flares) that sounds like the soundtrack to a futuristic pornographic film set in space.

Only here's the thing about Ishi: Their music isn't all like this. Most of it is, sure. But a good third of it isn't. And that's what's surprising about Through The Trees, the band's first formal release (not counting a sample disc it made for unofficial showcases at South by Southwest in 2009, which featured "Dandelion" and a handful of remixes of that track). The final four tracks on the 12-song effort, turns out, aren't really dance songs at all. They're folk-based tunes dressed up with a few electronic flourishes here and there.

If nothing else, that explains why Ishi, despite solely offering up electro-dance tunes in live shows for the past year, have been adamant in referring to themselves as a folktronic act, despite the absence of any real semblance of folk.

Kind of feels like a bait-and-switch.

And, actually, to hear frontman Mudd explain it, that's the idea. Or, well, what became of the idea. At the start, Ishi's aim was essentially to follow the path of Through The Trees' final four songs. But when Mudd and Dale started really delving into what Mudd calls "a true collaboration," the songs...well, they changed. They started much like the disc's end, with Dale adding adornments to Mudd's acoustic guitar-driven tracks, but ended up more like its start, with Dale's French house influences trending them toward the dance-heavy bent so prevalent in the band's live offerings.

"It's basically just be an byproduct of what we're doing," Mudd says. "It's never been a conscious effort, like, 'Hey, let's make a hot party track.'"

For better or worse, though, those "hot party" tracks are what audiences grabbed hold of during the band's live sets—most notably, during the band's opening performance coups at shows for another prominent area dance-inducing act, Neon Indian. At Ishi's opening performance for that buzzworthy band at the Granada Theater in late December, and again at Hailey's Club in Denton in late January, fans of Neon Indian's experimental dance songs immediately took to Ishi's dancier material.

And so the cast was set.

It helped, of course, that Ishi's live show, with Mudd and Rea animatedly leading the mayhem, was more eye-catching than even the nationally revered Neon Indian's.

"We're just very comfortable in our skin and in front of people," Mudd says. "I think that really helps. There's so many bands that I look up to—even dance bands—that just stand up there with their arms crossed. We don't do that. And, fortunately, our music helps take people there."

In turn, the band's been embraced—perhaps a bit at the cost of its original aim. But Mudd's OK with that.

"Most people, when they hear the record, they haven't heard [our folkier] songs," he says. "I'm sure it may [surprise] them a little bit. But, when writing a record, you can get away with these things. And we like the versatility in it."

OK, sure. Versatility is nice.

But even better than that? Adoration. And, right now, the band's got plenty—if only locally.

"The minimal success that we've had, it's been promising and exciting as far as the potential we may have," Mudd says. "We've all been doing this for a while. I've spent over 15 years just trying to get to this point. As any band would hope to do, we just want to continue the drive and the possible flow and increase the fan base."

For now, that fan base just wants to dance. And, for now, Ishi's all too willing to oblige.

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman