There Once Was A Band Called Ishi...

There once was a band called Ishi. In fact, there still is. Just a very different one.

The raucous electro-sleaze outfit was dealt a major blow last week when co-vocalist Taylor Rea and guitarist Rob Bastien left the band. After spending the past year helping Ishi emerge as one of the biggest-drawing and most invigorating acts the area has seen in some time, the pair announced they were leaving to focus on an as-yet-undetermined project of their own.

Creative differences.

Blah, blah, blah.

A tale as old as rock 'n' roll.

The announcement came on the heels of the band's performance at the second annual Homegrown Music and Art Festival, where rumors swirled throughout Main Street Garden Park that the band's late afternoon set could be their last. That wasn't the case, turns out; the band isn't going anywhere, frontman and founder John Mudd somewhat defiantly states.

"I still believe in this [band]," he says. "I have the utmost confidence in the team that we have."

Almost as if to demonstrate the band's staying power, a Rea- and Bastien-less Ishi performed its scheduled gig on Sunday night at The Double Wide, with Mudd and his drumming brother J.J. Mudd still present and former Backside Pick guitarist Rocky Ottley stepping in for Bastien. The role of Rea—Mudd's on-stage partner in sexual raunch and a significant part of the band's draw—went unfilled. Blame that on the short notice the band had about the pair's exit. Or, perhaps more appropriately, blame the fact that Mudd knows replacing Rea won't be easy.

Mudd hardly even expects to find a proper replacement for Rea. Instead, he says, Ishi will employ a rotating cast of female performers, most of whom are still undetermined, and each of whom will perform with the band as their own schedules allow.

The future will be undeniably different: Right or not, listeners always assumed the band was equal parts Mudd's and Rea's. Not hard to see why: Mudd and Rea were in many ways a perfect pairing, with her sweet sex appeal balancing his rather animalistic, raunchy and oft-cartoonish air-humping and ring-leading.

Sex sells in Dallas, as Ishi almost single-handedly proved in recent years. And, boy, did Dallas buy in, turning Ishi into a force around town. There isn't another band in town that can sell out venues the size of Trees, as Ishi has on multiple occasions, and certainly none that hasn't toured extensively outside the region. The turn of the decade saw Dallas become an Ishi town—not so much because of their sound but because fans adored the scene at their live shows. (Their 2010 debut, Through The Trees, is hardly a must-own save for a few tracks.) More than a few times, the band, in opening slots, upstaged headlining performances from the likes of Neon Indian.

Rea gets much credit for that; she regularly mingled with her audiences before hopping on stage to perform. She'd dutifully apply face paint similar to her stage makeup to male and female fans who demanded it. "Getting Ishied," they called it.

Indeed, Ishi shows over the past year were places "to see and be seen," events that are at once the best and worst thing a band can hope their shows become.

Let's face it, though, things were starting to get bad: In the time leading up to Rea's and Bastien's announcement, Ishi's moment in the sun already had started to feel a bit like a thing of the past. The band had oversaturated the market, playing shows at a rapid pace, eagerly supplying performances to meet fan demand. The shows lost their luster. The fact that the band had barely changed their set list since first exploding in popularity hadn't helped.

Now Ishi faces an awkward future, a huge change for a band that, whether you liked them or not, has been an integral part of Dallas music since people started picking up on them in late 2009.

Mudd doesn't sound too worried when he suggests his band will still matter moving forward. He promises that Ishi, whatever it may end up looking like, will tour later this year. That tour probably should have come a year ago, when Ishi could have counted on its local buzz spreading outward, but it's a step in the right direction. Ishi also will have a new album in 2012, he says. It will feature, he promises, the long-lost Brad Dale, the band's producer and co-songwriter. Dale backed out of the band's live show after playing their sold-out album release party at Sons of Hermann Hall in May 2010, when the band established itself as a legit force in the scene. Mudd even has some good points as to why now is the best time for this shake-up to have happened.

"The fortunate thing about all this," he says, "is that we're still on an amateur level as far as the rest of the country is concerned."

Perhaps. But on a local level, they've been the furthest thing from that. They were the common denominator upon which most music fans agreed. Ishi was, in many ways, the biggest thing Dallas had going—probably the biggest drawing non-touring local band that this town's seen since the glory days of '80s and '90s Deep Ellum. For better or worse, that will always be Ishi's reputation.

There once was a band named Ishi.

Yup. Without a doubt. Set it in stone.

But, a year from now, that could end up reading like the beginning to a very sad story of lost promise.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman