Checking In: Sweet Spirit Alights to Trinidad

Austin glam rockers’ third LP casts a deep digi/Tropi spell

“Instead of doing interviews from the road, we get to do them from the comfort of a bed, or patio furniture, or bubble bath, or toilet, or under the bed, or naked – or even eating a kumquat,” emails Sweet Spirit’s Andrew Cashen, presumably in one such guise remotely from co-interviewee Sabrina Ellis about siren song Trinidad. “Anywhere that isn't a van.”

Sweet Spirit hoist a mirrored ball on Trinidad, more on which you can find in our May 29 issue (Photo by Roger Ho)

Austin Chronicle: Where are you sheltering and under what circumstances? Who else is there and how’s that going?

Andrew Cashen: Currently, I am sheltering in Brooklyn with my partner and our two dogs. It has been okay, [but] we don’t leave the house unless it is essential. We are actually moving back to Austin very soon. With the current situation, it is just too expensive to stay where we are and the population is so dense. Our hope in coming back to Texas is that we will be more isolated, especially being on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. I am excited to be back in Texas.

Sabrina Ellis: I’ve been sheltering at home. Alone. Like Kevin McAllister. Except, instead of pizza, make it Amy’s Ice Cream.

AC: At what point did C-19 shut down operations for you, and what went down with the ship, so to speak, both personally & professionally?

SE: I was away on tour with Heart Bones. I had some insider info about the pandemic through an acquaintance in infectious disease research in WA. I departed February 28, with face masks and hand sanitizers, gallon jugs of water, and toilet paper stowed away in the band van.

“I cannot speculate about the future of live music without fear and anxiety. My biggest fear is that live music will no longer be a natural resource, a human right, but will become co-opted by the privileged.” – Sabrina Ellis

I encountered many fellow U.S. citizens who were in the mood to joke about the pandemic in insensitive and under informed ways. I realized I reacted like a killjoy, or came off like a half-cocked conspiracy theorist, because I would explain, deadpan, that the pandemic would cause shutdowns in entire communities once it hit. Americans have a habit of feeling safe, even when the rest of the world does not.

By the time we reached Boston, March 8, there were signs posted all over the city announcing the cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Boston. Canceled. Their St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

The club we played that night, Great Scott, has sadly, permanently closed since then.

Four days later, we reached Atlanta, where people hadn’t yet heard about a pandemic. Sean Tillmann is my co-star in Heart Bones. Together, he and I decided to call off the rest of the tour, drop me off in Texas, and return the band to Minneapolis to be with their families ASAP. The very next day, Trump called a national state of emergency.

On our way back to Texas, I called Andrew to beseech him to lock down in Austin, where we could work and prepare for our Sweet Spirit album release, but the idea of him relocating from Brooklyn seemed too risky and impractical at that moment.

Fall of 2019 was, for me, months of ‘officing.’ The behind-the-scenes world of music isn’t creative or expressive or instantly gratifying. It was months of sitting at my computer at coffee shops, doing admin work to prepare for the busy first half of 2020, which included two album releases (Heart Bones, Sweet Spirit), plus some A Giant Dog touring. It has been jarring, and quite surreal, to have all of those plans wiped away. I now have the liberation of knowing what I cannot control.

My takeaway: I don’t think I’ll ever work as hard for anything again in my life.

You want to hear about my personal life? It’s grim.

I returned from tour four months sooner than anticipated. My partner, who was used to seeing me busy, surrounded by creative energy and exciting events, saw me in a deep depression for the first time, and left. My chest hurt so bad every morning, I thought for sure I had COVID.

I got tested and the results were negative for C-19 antibodies, but swarming with heartbreak antibodies.

AC: Things happened really quickly when SXSW started to approach. Sabrina was on tour with Heart Bones and we were having conversations daily about how serious this was going to be. I had just purchased my plane ticket to Austin and we were gearing up for a pretty manageable, but busy festival.

After SXSW, we were supposed to hit the road immediately, starting with a string of tours into the fall, including two U.S. tours and Europe. Not knowing my plans or the future of music is probably the most stressful thing of this whole experience. The uncertainty continues to cause me a lot of panic.

Sweet Spirit performing for the Aussie Brushfire Benefit at Cheer Up Charlies on February 9, 2020 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

AC: As a global culture, people employ music for every purpose imaginable, obviously spanning religion to entertainment and everything in between. What happens to communities like ours when people can no longer access it in person?

AC: It is still unfolding. We have all seen what people are doing with the livestreaming. I think that was the first wave. I have friends like Adam Weiner, of Low Cut Connie, who have garnered a huge audience and seem to still be making a huge impact with their music.

I saw Austin have its first drive-in concert that looked to be a success. I have no idea what the future holds. However, in times like these, it is still hard to understand success as palpable.

I'm concerned about everyone's well being, but my thought process right now is this: musicians will make music regardless of how hard times are. However, when we come out of this and all the clubs have had to shut down – all these locally-owned incubators of culture have been wiped out – it's going to be harder to restart. It most likely won’t be in someone’s condo that now stands where your favorite club used to be. Most likely, the artists won't be able to stay in Austin.

I’m hoping for the opposite.

“When we come out of this and all the clubs have had to shut down – all these locally-owned incubators of culture have been wiped out – it’s going to be harder to restart. It most likely won’t be in someone’s condo that now stands where your favorite club used to be.” – Andrew Cashen

SE: I couldn’t agree with Andrew more: musicians will make music, regardless. Well said.

“Musician” is not a career choice. It’s an inherent quality, an identity. A song, written by one and felt by another, is sonic empathy. Music, performed in a room, every body vibrating with sound waves and with each other, is empathy embodied. Dance is a manifestation and then an exorcism of a shared experience.

I’m not interested in rushing to re-open live music. I can show my compassion and care for my community by laying low, not luring people into unsafe environments. Service industry businesses who reopen too early are essentially using their workers as an experimental control group.

Just because the proud Texas government says, ‘Whell, it isn’t not-dangerous, but it also isn’t not-okay!’ does not mean it is safe or okay to re-open. I know venue owners are stuck between a rock and a hard place right now. My trust will remain with the ones who do not cross the picket line.

Musicians in America are part of a heritage. We are cultural descendants of the ones who wrote protest songs, who rallied for ending the Vietnam War. We belong to a lineage of people who performed to raise money for AIDS/HIV research in the Nineties. Our godfathers are about Farm Aid. We give our hearts and souls to our community.

My brilliant friend Jackie Venson just earned $6,000 for National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) by auctioning a few of her guitars. T.C. Superstar hosted livestream fundraisers for their favorite local venues. I’ve participated in two fundraisers for Hotel Vegas, and I have been running my own weekly livestream performance with different beneficiaries each week, but I am not heavily promoting it.

I feel like I’m learning a new skill, and letting people watch me take off my training wheels and stumble. I appreciate the challenge of learning to perform this way, and I continue to do it for the handful of people who have expressed feeling relief and solidarity with these performances. I will continue, as long as that is the case.

Being in a crowded room at a loud sweaty live show is like lovemaking. Performing a livestream in the reflection of your selfie-camera to a fluctuating room of anonymous ADD virtual passers-by is like busking naked on the moon. Or it’s like Tinder. There are no pheromones.

I cannot speculate about the future of live music without fear and anxiety. My biggest fear is that live music will no longer be a natural resource, a human right, but will become co-opted by the privileged. For a venue to break even at 25% capacity, they likely have to quadruple the cover charge. That kind of economic shift would only make space for already well known, well established bands to play for financially privileged audiences.

I do miss the energy exchange, so much. For a couple beers and a sandwich, I’ll play acoustic guitar and sing songs on your lawn.

“Musicians in America are part of a heritage. We are cultural descendants of the ones who wrote protest songs, who rallied for ending the Vietnam War. We belong to a lineage of people who performed to raise money for AIDS/HIV research in the Nineties. Our godfathers are about Farm Aid.” – Sabrina Ellis

AC: Everyone’s had to shift or drastically alter their work situation. What does that look like for you?

AC: A Giant Dog did a remote studio session. We had a Zoom band meeting about how to execute a particular song for an upcoming movie. One by one, we each tracked our separate parts.

Our drummer went in first, then bass, then guitar, each taking about an hour. Sabrina went in and laid down vocals, then sent it to Manhattan, where I added guitar, some keys, and shiny things. I sent it back to Austin to be mixed.

I don’t particularly like working this way. There is a lot of chemistry that gets lost not being in the same room with like minded individuals, feeding off of their energy. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity though, and I’m glad we followed it through.

Other than that, Sweet Spirit's album Trinidad is about to come out, so instead of doing interviews and checking emails from the road, we get to do it from the comfort of a bed, or patio furniture, or bubble bath, or toilet, or under the bed, or naked, or even eating a kumquat. Basically anywhere that isn't a van.

SE: Basically, I’ve spent most of my time surveilling Andrew, naked, under his bed, eating a kumquat.

People can watch me watch him, and we’ll split the tips.

AC: What’s your soundtrack for the apocalypse and what role does music play for you as a fan and scholar of it in times of hardship?

AC: I don’t know if this is the apocalypse, but it certainly is a time of hardship for many. I wasn’t listening to much when this all started. I was making/writing a lot of music.

I was all, “I’m gonna take advantage of an opportunity like this and be the most productive human to ever live!" Evidently, that wore off. I started listening to classic albums that I don’t think I gave enough attention to, or tried to listen with a different appreciation.

Brian Eno, Prince, Bowie, Bob Dylan, Blondie, Lou Reed – classics I’m diving into deeper than I usually do. In a weird way, I felt like I owed it to them or something? I have this huge appreciation for the beauty and magic in music.

However, if I listen to these idols too much, I begin to start thinking, “This piece of music is the end all, be all. Nothing will ever be as good as this, so why even f*cking try?” I have to stop.

SE: Since I’m spending most of my time in solitude, my life is scored. I’m like a walking, breathing montage of motivation and heartbreak. I’ve got two speeds right now when it comes to my soundtrack: Full-on angst, or smooth and soothing.

While I mow my lawn or jog in the Saharan climate, I listen to Flipper, the Adverts, the Damned, Wire, Hüsker Dü, X, Cherry Glazerr. While I cry in the bath or drink wine and slap junebugs on my porch, I listen to Roy Orbison, Alicia Keys, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Joni Mitchell, Brandi Carlile, Otis Redding.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Sweet Spirit, Sabrina Ellis, Andrew Cashen, Heart Bones, Eno, Prince, Bowie, Dylan, Blondie, Lou Reed, Flipper, the Adverts, the Damned, Wire, Husker Du, X, Cherry Glazerr, Roy Orbison, Alicia Keys, Perfume Genius

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