JT Mudd, the frontman of the band Ishi, has been invited to select some tunes at local radio station KNON. It's before his call time of 10 p.m., and he's out by the station's building. The show's producers have yet to arrive, but he punches the code into the building anyway, and sits down in a bright conference room to chat about his new EP, Juno, set to be released in a week. "I know you," interrupts radio host Charlie Park, who's just in the building to do some work.
And it seems that everyone knows Mudd and his band — at least in Dallas. Ishi has been arguably the biggest Dallas band for several years. They easily sell out large venues like Trees and the Granada, and they're an ever-present act at large festivals. But Ishi has been hanging on the threshold of wider success, with plenty in the Texas music scene waiting for them to break out.
Ishi's brand of mad hatter dance party takes their audiences on a technicolor trip. Mudd is a caped Tolkien character reinvented for the electro-pop era, who'll stand out among his cluster of dancers covered in multicolored fringe. Offstage, with his long beard and braids, he's still a wizard in plain clothing, his disco ball-mirrored hat replaced for a plain black one.
As a "side hustle," Mudd runs sound or spins records at a few venues. As he talks, a tattoo of the No. 13 peeks out from his high top sneakers, above his ankle. He explains that about four years ago, famed tattoo artist Oliver Peck was going for a Guinness world record of tattooing for 24 straight hours, and he now shares a tattoo with an elite group in Dallas with the exact same story, and laughs while saying: "I have 400 brothers and sisters."
Ishi was founded eight years ago, when Mudd brought some folk tunes he'd written to Brad Dale, who would then give them the electronic treatment. Until then, he'd mostly played bass or guitar in bands with his brother JJ. "I wasn't comfortable progressing without my brother, so we decided to start a band where we could begin our own creative process," Mudd says. While no longer a member, Dale still produces tracks for the band, which took nearly three years to record their first album. Mudd ascribes the holdup to his own perfectionism.
They first debuted at Crown & Harp, then known as the Cavern, but followed that show by joining a bill at the House of Blues. JJ eventually joined the band on drums but left a few years later, and for some time now Ishi's drummer has been the energetic Jonathan Merla. On guitar, he alternates between Rocky Ottley and Paul Escalante. And so it's been with Ishi, conquering bigger venues while changing members — but it's no question that it's Mudd who's behind the silk screen, orchestrating an uplifting onstage fantasy.
Drawing inspiration from performers like the Flaming Lips, Mudd commands the stage while wearing a Native American headdress or a funky space suit. His overtly playful showmanship developed thanks to no longer having an instrument to distract him. "That kind of freedom really opened Pandora's Box for me," he says. Mudd's a stage provocateur, and it's common to see him performing while lying on the floor, humping the air.
Mudd says he's influenced by Michael Jackson and David Bowie, and doesn't tone down his sensual dance moves even if his mother is watching, as happened last summer. "We played the Renaissance hotel and my mom was there in a small crowd. I was getting pretty scandalous," he recalls. "If there's less people, I have to work harder. I think because there's not that instant reciprocation of energy, so I have to really invoke that level of a good time and make it just as special."
Kam Franklin, the singer for Houston-based band the Suffers, has played with Ishi. "I'm surprised they're not more successful. Their production, the quality of their music and their stage show, everything is executed to a tee. They have the potential to be bigger than anything I've seen come out of Texas," she says.
Ishi have built up a fan base in the Midwest, as well as in Houston and Austin, though they don't have the same loyal following that they've amassed locally. Mudd concedes that creating that kind of momentum elsewhere has been difficult. He says Ishi's challenge lies in the fact that his musicians have day jobs, which prevents the band from touring more extensively. While he finds touring to be taxing, he states: "That's the double-edged sword if you want to make music your career. A goal of mine going into the new year is trying to find musicians that are hungry to tour."
Mudd describes the music industry as "a fickle business" and he's not immune to the strain of chasing a still-elusive success. "It's a constant battle being an artist and getting older and still struggling," Mudd says. "I've been in those dark times where it's all about me and my career and I've completely suffocated myself, so I've been fortunate to have that awakening that there's more to life than me and my music."
Mudd considers opening for New Order, Jungle, Snoop Lion and the Toadies as the high points of Ishi's run. The band's song, "Pastel Lights," was also part of the soundtrack to the 2012 Keira Knightly and Steve Carrell movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, though he has difficulty remembering the movie's title. "I think we should've gotten paid more, but that's the whole thing: getting a good song for cheap," he says. "We're still making royalties off of it, nothing crazy."
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Mudd also adheres to a rule of stretching out Ishi's shows with rigid war-time rationing. "If you don't have patience to grow a brand, people aren't going to have patience to come see you," he says. "If you want to be a bar band and just get that hundred dollar check, that's fine. But if you want to create something that has longevity, you've got to spread out your shows and use those times to branch out and build your markets in different cities."
Juno gets released on iTunes today, Sept. 16, and through vinyl (which comes with a download card) available at Good Records, Josey Records and online. Mudd plans on donating 50 percent of the EP's digital sales to Music is Our Weapon, a nonprofit group that offers music therapy to patients suffering from cognitive disorders like Alzheimer's.
"No cause could motivate me more than the healing powers of music," Mudd says. "In my darkest time of being burned out and bitter, my mental strength was gone, wondering why an opportunity wasn't happening to me, and that's a very vicious cycle that will eat you alive. ... Helping people in general is what it's all about."
ISHI plays a Juno album release party Saturday, Sept. 17, at Trees.