Houston Roots Help A Giant Dog Climb the Indie-Rock Pile

A Giant Dog has come a long way, figuratively speaking, from sneaking booze outside bygone Spring all-ages club Java Jazz.
A Giant Dog has come a long way, figuratively speaking, from sneaking booze outside bygone Spring all-ages club Java Jazz.
Photo by Sean Daigle/Courtesy of Merge Records
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A Giant Dog, the five-piece Austin band of which the four founding members are originally from the Houston area, are gearing up for the release of Toy, their fourth album and second for Merge Records. The album, self produced by member and co-songwriter Andrew Cashen, finds the raucous punk band pushing their sound further both in terms of studio experimentation and thematic content. A slowed-down nostalgic sludge song fits nicely in between a joyous ode to love at old age and a blistering cover of “Angst In My Pants” by Sparks, without ever feeling out of place.

Throughout the record, Sabrina Ellis, lead vocalist and co-songwriter, crafts mesmerizing characters that she fully inhabits, like an ambitious woman who moves to California with dreams of stardom only to get pulled into the porn industry on “Lucky Ponderosa” and a brash, gun-totin’ Texan who talks tough but has difficulties urinating on “Toy Gun.” Coming out just over a year after last summer’s Pile, their latest record may be their best yet, an innovative journey that fully captures the energetic mayhem of their live performance.

This Sunday, the band is returning to their hometown for an album release show at White Oak Music Hall. Last week, the Houston Press caught up with Ellis over the phone from Kansas City, where she and Cashen were touring with Sweet Spirit, another Austin band they play in. Through the discussion, Ellis went over the her writing process, the influences for her songs, memories of Houston, and how open-carry laws inspired the album’s best song. (Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Houston Press: You and Andrew are credited as writers for all the songs. What’s your writing process like?
Sabrina Ellis: We write them all together. Andrew is definitely the composer. He sits in his room over the course of years and writes all these riffs. His little messed-up mind just shits out riffs and I bet it maddens him. It’s just an amazing resource as my writing partner. I’ve never been like “Hey, you got a riff?” and he says “No.” Lately, we get three or four hours two or three times a year and we sit on the couch in his living room and write. One time we tried to do it while on tour, and we rented a little cabin in upstate New York. It was really cliché and trite. We sat in the woods next to a lake with all of our band members, and that’s when we wrote “Bendover,” which is probably the raciest thing we’ve ever written. I remember feeling embarrassed.

Andrew asked if I had lyrics and I didn’t want to say them out loud because Graham [Low, bassist] was eating potato chips and Andy [Bauer, guitarist] was working on his laptop and I knew the minute I said “then you bend over and flex your back” that I was going to have everyone’s undivided attention so I handed him this chicken-scratch on a piece of paper with the lyrics. I saw him reading it and saw something I rarely see, when his face turned red and he started to blush, so I knew these were going to be effective lyrics to meet the power of the riff.

One lyric that stuck out was “I want to kiss you when your teeth all rot” the idea of this old and decrepit love on “Photograph.”
Old age is something that affects 100 percent of people who live past a certain age. In our culture we in the U.S we treat it like a fucking scourge. Fight those wrinkles, put cream on our face, buy expensive products and definitely consider surgery. I’m being dramatic and dystopian right now, but I’ve always felt, ever since I was a kid and now as a woman starting to see age, really overwhelmed and insulted by the way our culture treats such a natural and unavoidable process. Why are we supposed to fight something so inevitable? It’s ridiculous, like the myth of Sisyphus. We wanted to write something romantic but not unrealistic that expresses the idea of feeling sexual and feeling lust but knowing that this person will be affected by the years and the life you spend together. It’s good to accept that person as a whole and not with some sort of idea of expiration.

On “Toy Gun,” you make this character who's a big talker but take the piss out of him literally at the end. It reminded me of that neo-Nazi from Charlottesville who released that video of him crying after his information went public and there was a warrant for his arrest. It resonated with this idea of people who talk tough but fall apart when you push back.
Yes, we were trying to reveal the scared little man behind the curtain of a tough talker. We wrote this song around the time that Texas made it legal to carry your gun outside your pants. As if concealed carry wasn’t enough they wanted the right to show it off, the right to let their penis hang out of their zipper so that when they walk in people know they have a penis. It was so preposterous to us. I can appreciate that Texas has a wild west mentality and wants to embrace their freedoms but do they have to be vulgar about it? What was the point?

But I felt proud when a lot of businesses did everything they could do keep people from open carry within their establishment by posting those giant signs. I love how you compare it to this guy who was falling apart once he was outed, this KKK dude. I hope he really got a good look at himself and saw some angry, red-faced bloated white guy yelling about things that make no sense and it made him cry the way it makes all of us cry.

You’re playing White Oak the weekend the album comes out, and the band is from the Houston area. What part of Houston did you grow up in and were you involved in the Houston scene before you moved to Austin?
Me, Andrew, Andy, Graham and Orville, our initial drummer, all grew up in Spring, that weird town full of strip malls and Starbucks and unused office spaces. I guess they had a lot of hope for hosting small businesses and offices and now they’re just abandoned office suites all over Spring. When we were teenagers, the boys in A Giant Dog had a band that would play on the weekends at this Christian-owned punk club for teens called Java Jazz in Old Town Spring that would give us all the sugary ice drinks we wanted, then we’d sneak out to someone’s van to drink some crappy sweet liquor.

Every now and then we’d go down to the Heights and Fitzgerald’s, which is not like it is now, but was really decrepit like a shaky old house. We’d go there and see punk bands who were probably in their late twenties playing for a bunch of teenagers like The Guillotines and Middlefinger. We were high-school kids and pretty insulated but if we did get to see music it was four-chord fast, loud, heavy music.

A Giant Dog and special guests We Were Wolves and Noble Age perform Sunday, August 27 at White Oak Music Hall (upstairs), 2915 N. Main. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets are $10.

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