The Austin Chronicle

Glimmer Twins

Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen instigate A Giant Dog Pile

By Tim Stegall, May 6, 2016, Music

"I would be a totally different artist without Andrew," states A Giant Dog frontwoman Sabrina Ellis.

The singer smiles at longtime creative partner and guitarist/co-vocalist Andrew Cashen, seated nearby at a picnic table outside Big Orange Recording. Discussing the locals' third LP, Pile, their debut for über indie Merge Records (Arcade Fire, Spoon, Bob Mould), the prolific duo are actually at the East Austin compound putting finishing touches on their New Wave pop outfit Sweet Spirit's sophomore LP, recorded here with Stuart Sikes (Riverboat Gamblers, White Stripes, Loretta Lynn) and Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, who produced Grupo Fantasma's 2015 career-high disc Problemas.

"Without Andrew, I'd be like Liz Phair, probably."

If you've attended a Giant Dog show, shaking in the grip of their theatrical punk rock, angelic curl-topped guitarist Andy Bauer and tightly wound bassist Graham Low headbanging around Ellis like the thuggish twin offspring of Angus Young, plus recent addition Danny Lion slamming drums at the rear, you've witnessed whirling dervish Ellis alternately splintering hearts and spraying the front rows – and herself – with beer and various bodily fluids.

"It's not really GG Allin," muses Ellis, tongue firmly in cheek. "More like Pee Pee Allin."

Unless he's mounting a speaker stack, you can't miss riff master Cashen on Ellis' right, completing a vocal blend that characterizes both A Giant Dog (revisit "Reckless and Romantic," Feb. 15, 2013) and Sweet Spirit. Like his bandmates, live he recedes in the wake of both groups' dynamic focal point, but make no mistake: He's Keith Richards to her Mick Jagger, glimmer twins of songwriting and personal chemistry.

"People are more focused on Sabrina because she's the singer. She's a star," says Britt Daniel, who's taken both bands on tour with Spoon numerous times since 2012, and appears on Pile's semi-acoustic "Get With You and Get High." "But Andrew writes the songs with her. I've seen them do it. It's always seemed like an amazing partnership to me."

"They've both impressed me multiple times," says OBN IIIs namesake Orville Neeley, AGD drummer from their 2008 inception through Pile's recording 23 months back, and who goes back to a high school cover band with the duo. "But their chemistry was developed over time. A Giant Dog started with the two of them and it eventually formed into a band."

"People ask me what they sound like, if they haven't heard them," remarks Merge Records head supremo Mac McCaughan, in acknowledging the band's Seventies influences. "And my first thing is to say 'punk rock.' But part of me [acknowledges] there's definitely a glam element to it. Sometimes, you say 'glam,' and people think kitsch, but the songs are so real.

"There's some Queen in there, even some New York Dolls for sure."

The spirit of Johnny Thunders and crew comes snarling through the swaggering sleaze riffs of "King Queen" and "Not a Miracle," yet the former also flashes a chorus befitting ELO, whom Ellis mentioned as influential alongside Queen when profiled about Sweet Spirit last year (see "Take Me to a Party," Oct. 30, 2015). Such influences harden into a pair of Pile centerpieces, preview single "Sex & Drugs" (subject of a fun video taking place inside a snow globe) and its LP neighbor "& Rock & Roll," which splits a classic Ian Dury idea across two songs.

"I may be wrong," says former AGD drummer Matthew Strmiska, "but the craftsmanship you're talking about is evident in both bands because of the maturity of the people writing the songs."

"The common denominator is the songwriting and vocal team," agrees Mike McCarthy, producing A Giant Dog for a third go-round. "But they're all getting more into record production and listening to different records for ideas, rather than just saying, 'Hey, we're this guitar/bass/drums/vocals rock band. We're limited to that.' Now they're saying, 'Hey, we can add a piano or a horn or a distorted organ to this.' It's all an extension of their incubated personalities. Those traits were in an incubator somewhere in the back of their existence that had to come to the forefront at some point."

"They were certainly exploring more traditional pop songwriting in Sweet Spirit," says Daniel. "And a song like [Pile's] 'Jizzney' sounds to me like a girl-group song from the Sixties. The songs on [second LP] Bone [2013] were amazing, but this one, they seem to have topped that."

Austin punk boasts a decades-long tradition of striking female frontpersons using a mix of humor, intelligence, sexuality, theatricality, and some sort of inner psychodrama that both arrests and unsettles audiences: Gretchen Phillips, Sincola's Rebecca Cannon, Swine King and the Punkaroos' Dottie Farrell. Sabrina Ellis cements that line contemporarily.

"You get deeper as you get older," she explains. "You learn more about compassion, how much meaning performing can have. Maybe the meaning of soul is waking up in a hospital bed and thinking, 'My life needs an adjustment. I need to rearrange my life. I need to figure some shit out. Maybe I need to quit my job and move, or straighten up, become a nurse.'

"Then you hear those few people close enough to you saying, 'No, we need to be doing this rock & roll thing that you think might be crashing and burning you.' Really, this attachment is soul, sometimes."

Meantime, A Giant Dog, having captured Austin's imagination, has been putting in the work necessary to build the broader national platform being on Merge Records will afford them.

"We've done nine tours," says Cashen.

"Six years, nine tours," Ellis clarifies. "And we'll be doing three this year."

"Usually, we do about three weeks," says Cashen, adding with a laugh, "Just enough time to not get sick of each other."

"It's usually 18 or 19 dates," Ellis calculates, "with very few days off."

"Typically, it's a new state every night," says Cashen. "We tend to do better on the East Coast. We have a lot of friends out there who play in bands and let us crash on their floor. We don't do well on the West Coast. We've had some pretty good shows once we'd get to L.A."

As strong as Pile is, Cashen and Ellis are already imagining A Giant Dog's next LP.

"I'm excited about a pair of heart-wrenching songs we've written," says Ellis. "I'm excited about putting out some really heavy, really sad stuff."

A Giant Dog celebrates Pile at Barracuda on Sat., May 7, with Dikes of Holland, Flesh Lights, and the Golden Boys.

Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.