for The Tulsa Voice
Equal parts vulgar party band and thoughtful pop artists, Austin quintet A Giant Dog has spent eight years culling the best of its influences—think the creepy-sexy swagger of T. Rex and the driving energy of AC/DC, among other things—and mutilating them into its own brand of garage glam rock.
Songwriters and vocalists Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen formed A Giant Dog in 2008 with guitarist Andy Bauer, bassist Graham Low and former drummer Orville Neeley (current drummer Danny Blanchard is new to the lineup). Their newest record, Pile, out May 6, is a 15-song tour of sex, drugs and rock. The album is the band’s first offering on Merge Records, and it nearly never came to be.
“We’ve had it recorded for a year and a half and almost gave up trying to put it out,” Cashen said. “Then Merge happened. We’re excited.”
Pile (which follows the also comically titled albums Bone and Fight) is the band’s second record with producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, White Denim) who, according to Ellis, captured the band’s live energy “almost protectively.”
Ellis noted, “He’s a collector of vinyl and always pulled out stuff for us to listen to. He goes really deep into immersing himself in what he wants the sound to be, an engineer through and through.”
Among McCarthy’s LP references during the making of Pile were of course a lot of AC/DC, but also The Pretenders—a surprise that ultimately makes sense when you arrive at the gentler moments on the album. Singles “Get With You and Get High,” which features guest vocals from Spoon’s Britt Daniel, and “Jizzney” are definitively love songs, though still peppered with the band’s signature debauchery. The latter is an admonition for infidelity in an imagined relationship and comes across heartbreaking and a little stalker-y. It’s a great example of the pervading tongue-in-cheek lyrical humor that appears throughout the album.
Overall, though, Pile is certainly more sour than sweet. A Giant Dog’s songwriting has honed in on the bravery found in hopelessness, the moment when caring becomes too much, so you just don’t. I could watch you die and not feel a thing, Ellis sings on “Creep.” I can’t even remember being young, goes the dire refrain of “Sex and Drugs.” These are anthems for lovelorn nerds and hungover outcasts alike, written and performed to sound both flawless and reckless by seemingly loose cannons with intent focus and style.
Notably, Cashen and Ellis are also the primary songwriters for a second Austin act, Sweet Spirit, founded in 2014. On keeping their creative endeavors separate, Ellis said, “You know when there’s a litter of puppies born, you can tell right away which puppies are going to be good and which puppies are going to be really bad dogs? It’s the same way with babies: You know which one’s going to be really good and take care of you and which one’s going to end up in jail. When we’re writing songs, we know right away whether they’re going to be better for Sweet Spirit or A Giant Dog. A Giant Dog is our ‘end up in jail’ band.”
Would-be show-goers should heed that warning: Ellis is a renowned frontwoman with antics ranging from the coquettish and dramatic to the outright gross, and the band’s shows are always loud and always interactive. A Giant Dog is in the midst of a six-week club and bar tour, a room size Cashen said he appreciates because it’s easier to get a feel for the night.
“We can figure out what kind of mode the crowd is in,” he said. “How drunk they are, if they wanna go apeshit or just stand there with their arms crossed.”
And if it’s an arms-crossed kind of night? “We try our hardest to make them uncross their arms.”
“If I feel like people are bored, I start acting like an angry child who’s been told that they’re very beautiful and special,” Ellis added. “In Brooklyn one time, I peed myself. I spit at people, pour beer…especially on people who seem vulnerable.”
A Giant Dog will perform at Soundpony May 14, a venue perfectly suited for the leotard-wearing, head-banging, sweat-spraying crowd involvement the band’s fans have come to love and expect. Until then, stretch, hydrate, and study hard the overarching message of Pile, perfectly summed up in a single chorus line: “I believe that there’ll come a time when we can all just rock ‘n’ roll.”