Negotiating a 1am traffic jam of denim and leather in a packed Hotel Vegas proves no easy task. Then the music erupts. As a graceless crowdsurfer passes over me, A Giant Dog singers Andrew Cashen and Sabrina Ellis hit a double-barreled harmony:
Yeah, I wanna get drunk/Fuck another eyesore/ Take it with my clothes on/Same as with the last one/Because that's how we have fun/ Yeah, I wanna get drunk.
Orville Neeley, brow furrowed, lips narrowed, and arms flexed as he beats sixteenth notes like pistons firing, looks pissed. To his left, Graham Low speed picks a sturdy bass line that finds leverage in the distorted guitar of Andy Bauer, who stands calmly at the edge of the mayhem in front of him. Dressed as if she just pillaged your grandmother's vacation drawer, Sabrina Ellis marches in place while belting out meteoritic melodies.
When the beer she orders arrives onstage, the singer dumps it onto her messy red hair and shakes it over the front row. The band fires up another song, and Cashen, the deceptively collegiate looking frontman, spins around and drops to his knees, violently raking his guitar strings into a swell of noise before turning around, climbing a speaker, and shoving his axe into the faces of the congregation.
Performances like this demand a deep breath afterward. And a shower.
A Giant Dog was born on an East Austin rooftop in 2008, but the band came forged in friendships going back to their school days. All five grew up in the Houston area, where music, in the form of teenage punk bands, competitive choir, and even the school orchestra, provided vital escape.
"At 16, we didn't think we'd get dates to homecoming, so we started a band that would play at school dances," remembers Cashen. "We covered a Stevie Wonder song, R.E.M.'s 'It's the End of the World as We Know It,' and 'Earth Angel.'"
The initial rehearsal for the band, Youth in Asia, also marked the first time Cashen and Ellis sang together.
"That was also the first time I saw her vagina," Cashen recalls from the bee-swarmed patio of a Mexican eatery.
Ellis sets down her chimichanga: "You saw my vagina?"
"Yeah, I think me and Orville did. You were sitting open-legged, and we looked at each other like, 'We made a good decision picking her,'" he nods. "Well, we've seen it a bunch of times since then, but when you're 16, you think you're never going to see one again."
If it hadn't been for another teenage band, Cashen, Bauer, and Neeley's punk trio the WeeBeasties, Graham Low wouldn't have gotten the same opportunity.
"I wasn't interested in playing in bands until I started going to their shows in high school," recalls the onetime cellist in the school orchestra. These days, he's bassist for three bands.
"The only thing I listened to back then was Minor Threat and Black Flag," Cashen offers.
"The influence punk rock had on us carries on into what we're doing now," agrees Bauer.
Post high school diaspora sent each member of A Giant Dog to a different city, but none journeyed farther than Ellis, who enrolled in NYU's Experimental Theatre program. While they seemed impractical at the time, the Afro-Haitian dance and improvisation classes she took fed the stage presence she demonstrates today. To be a successful actress, her teachers told her, she had to let go of her idiosyncrasies. Instead, she let go all together, enduring a hellish patch of bad jobs, bad boyfriends, and bad drugs.
Eventually, she sought refuge in Austin at Bauer's house, crashing on his couch for three months while she kicked drugs and recharged. Afterward, she scored a rental house with a rooftop made for entertaining, so she and Cashen, who'd recently moved to town to study at UT, made a practice out of getting wasted and writing songs atop the domicile. Their supercharged harmonies literally rang from the rooftops.
"I wasn't trying to start a band," laughs Cashen. "I was just getting drunk with Sabrina and it happened."
A Giant Dog pulses of youth. Its short, fast, triumphant songs capture all the desperation, lust, and wildness of the young spirit. In the oversaturated local garage punk scene, the band's commanding live performances inspire both emotion and rowdiness.
"Screaming Jay Hawkins – that was the most entertaining motherfucker on the face of the planet," says Cashen, shaking his head. "To come out with a bone in his nose back in the day and scare the shit out of people is amazing. If someone pays $5 at the door and $20 at the bar to see us play, I want to give them a good time."
Cashen and company's aesthetics remain more reckless fun than calculated theatrics, but the effect's the same.
Continuing the title pattern of earlier releases House and Fight, new full-length Bone upgrades the fivesome's feral take on oldies melodies with higher fidelity, courtesy of producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Crooked Bangs). Outta the garage and into the studio, Bone marks the first A Giant Dog LP that wasn't recorded in drummer Orville Neeley's garage.
"So much pressure was taken off Orville because he wasn't having to be the engineer," remarks his partner in rhythm, Low. "He could just focus on playing his drum parts, as well as adding guitar and other instruments. It made a big difference."
A Giant Dog threw itself a Bone.
Forget about a romantic evening alone. This year, Sabrina Ellis and her husband, Seth Gibbs, will celebrate Valentine's Day onstage at Red 7. Their infectious pop rock band, Bobby Jealousy, releases second LP The Importance of Being Jealous on the lovers' holiday. Perfect fit.
As much as Ellis' punk band, A Giant Dog, was born out of deep friendships, Bobby Jealousy spawned true love.
"What happened was, Sabrina and I fell madly in love the moment we really spent time together. Then we realized we just had to write music together," smiles Gibbs. "Then we got married."
The couple's first date doubled as a recording session for his long-running solo project, Brother Machine. He asked Ellis to contribute vocals, then surprised her with a bottle of wine and flowers. "It was a ploy," she recalls. "But it worked."
"I told her on that night that we were going to get married," says Gibbs, his trademark knit cap pulled down almost to his eyeballs.
They put a ring on it in 2011. At home, they're a good-natured couple with an enviable domestic life. Onstage, they're Ike & Tina Turner, burning down the house with a passionate connection both musical and romantic.
Bobby Jealousy drummer Adam Harlow happens upon yours truly one night outside a bar. Questioned about Seth Gibbs' musical abilities, his tone turns rapturous.
"I knew Seth for a while before I heard his music. When I finally did, I was like, 'Damn, I knew he was up to something good!' Seth plays every instrument, he's played with everybody, and he's so over giving a shit about what other people think of his music. Him and I both love the Nineties, so everything we do has that touch."
The rare songwriter who wears his affinity for the alt-era on his sleeve, Gibbs cites Beck and the Eels as influences and insists that, despite popular opinion, Sugar Ray was, in fact, a "really good band." Bobby Jealousy takes the catchiness and flamboyance of that era and blends in timeless elements of soul, R&B, rock, and pop that ache with nostalgia while breaking new ground.
Bobby Jealousy's briefly physical debut, last year's A Little Death, and The Importance of Being Jealous were both recorded in Gibbs' tranquil home studio, where, along with playing an impressive array of instruments and singing, he employs clever production techniques, like looping his farts into a beat and recording Sabrina slapping her ass into a microphone.
Those recording methods might seem unorthodox to some, including the band's newest member, Brian Patterson, a cunning guitarist who cut his teeth on the worship circuit performing at large Christian retreats and conferences. He rolls with it, shrugging.
"They're singing about what they're going through, and I think that's great," he reasons. "It may be a little crass for me at times, but I love the music they're making."
"What about when I hump your leg onstage?" asks Ellis.
"You've never done that," he says dismissively.
Sweet in tone and tragic in content, Bobby Jealousy's lyrics offer a poison apple.
You know what death is/You must expect it/Don't hang on honey/Sometimes it's time to go/Don't ask why it's time to die/We don't need to know.
Death, one of the authoring couple's favorite themes.
"We've approached death in different ways," agrees Gibbs. "When Sabrina and I first fell in love, we found ourselves contemplating and imagining death a lot."
"At first, it was like, 'This love is so great that we can die now and it will be alright,'" says Ellis, pausing like she's never said this out loud. "Then, as we entered the next phase of our relationship, I've found myself touched by something that makes life matter to me and that manifested into a dreaded fear of death.
"Before we were together, I was reckless and wild," she continues. "Now, Seth is more important than anything has ever been to me, and, in turn, he's made mortality an issue. That feeling was part of this record."
Gibbs interrupts her, smiling, his bright eyes fixed on her like she's the only one in the room. "I can't believe we survived to be together."
Bobby Jealousy doesn't advertise its marriage onstage, but it becomes recognizable when you witness the stagy cover of Jimmy Soul's "If You Want to Be Happy," or when Ellis fixes Gibbs' hat or encourages him to zip up his pants. If there's a downside to being lifemates and bandmates, it's a matter of managing multiple roles.
"One night, me and Seth were lying in bed naked talking intimately about life, and he called me his bandmate. I was like, 'Whoa, Seth! I'd like you to think of me as your sexy lover first, your friend second, your bandmate third, and your wife fourth.'"
"I guess that's where it gets weird," chuckles Gibbs. "I've got to know when to turn the business off. We get mixed up sometimes."
Forget about money and success. Those ideals have nothing to do with music anymore, and those who pursue them deserve the failure that awaits them. For small-time bands, the only thing that matters now is the bond. The band's your team, your gang, your family. At the heart of that pact beats friendship and love. These two local underground bands, joined at the lips by Sabrina Ellis, embody those ideals.
Bobby Jealousy celebrates Valentine's Day tonight (Thursday) at Red 7, while A Giant Dog digs up its Bone, Friday, Feb. 15, at Hotel Vegas. Look also for Bobby Jealousy at the Chronicle's Paper Cuts music series on Feb. 26: austinchronicle.com/paper-cuts.
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