Austin’s A Giant Dog finds the right home for new record with Merge

Three papier-mache creatures – colored pastel pink, off-turquoise and brown — sit atop the console television set in the living room of the home of Andrew Cashen and Graham Low, respectively the guitarist/singer, and bass player of Austin punk band A Giant Dog.

Lacking eyes but featuring giant fangs, they’re simultaneously playful and ferocious, a bit like the band itself, and recognizable to fans as the “personalities” on the cover of the three most recent A Giant Dog albums: “Fight,” “Bone” and their newest, “Pile.”

The brown one curiously has a burned-up wad of paper stuffed in its mouth.

Cashen explains that it’s a photocopy of the band’s contract with Merge Records, the legendary North Carolina indie rock label that will release “Pile” on Friday, nearly two years after the album was recorded while A Giant Dog’s members were unsigned, gigging every chance they got and holding out for a deal and label they thought was the best to help advance their career.

“I thought, what’s the worst thing someone could do once they got this great deal? OK, let’s burn (the contract),” Cashen said with a wry smile. “We weren’t looking for money. It was just about fairness.”

That cavalier nature comes from Cashen and his bandmates – Low, singer Sabrina Ellis, guitarist Andy Bauer and drummer Danny Blanchard – showing a “who cares?” punk mentality much of the time, but it also is born out of trust and reverence for Merge Records and the famously artist-friendly contracts it’s produced since its founding in 1989.

A straightforward 50/50 contract like Merge’s, where the artist and label split all proceeds after recording and associated costs, is pretty much unheard of these days as music fans continue to move to streaming music services rather than buying physical copies of albums. Much more common are offers that give most of the revenue to a label, while a band’s members split perhaps 20 or 30 percent among them.

Ellis said the quintet was confident enough in the music on “Pile,” and how hard they were willing to work to give it legs, that rejecting lopsided 70/30 or 80/20 deals they were offered from other labels was almost an obvious move, even if it meant they might have to put the album out themselves.

“I was a real (expletive) about it and we’d have discussions where they’d try to convince me to take a deal, but I said I’d rather put this out ourselves than take a bad deal,” she said.

“We were being hard-headed with this one, because we weren’t really satisfied with our last deal. We got looked at by a couple record labels where we didn’t feel like it was the right fit. When Merge came along, it was already a finished product and so there was no pressure put on us.”

What Merge is getting is an album that finds the 8-year-old band pushing itself beyond the fast and loud snarl of its earlier work and adding surprising compositional elements throughout its 15 tracks. There are touches like the raucous barrelhouse piano on first single “Sex And Drugs,” ’60s-era girl group pop on “Jizzney,” and the restrained and elegiac “Get With You And Get High” that features vocals from Spoon frontman Britt Daniel, who’s been a longtime supporter of the band.

Cashen said he went into the 2014 recording sessions wanting the next A Giant Dog record to be adventurous lyrically and structurally, and pushed producer Mike McCarthy to keep “Pile” from sounding like the releases before it.

“I went into the studio thinking that we’d do Harry Nilsson and Warren Zevon, if those guys were to do a punk album,” he said.

“Their songs are very rich with lots of strings but their lyrics are sort of deranged, which we do very well, but they’re still also very well arranged pop songs. For ‘Sex and Drugs’ I wanted Mike to keep turning up the piano, because I wanted it to sound like Elton John, and not like just another A Giant Dog song.”

That boundary pushing looks to continue as the band is set to record its next album in August, with Cashen saying he’s leaning toward heavier, loud and borderline heavy metal sounds, while Ellis said she expects her vocals to have a lot more screaming in them.

What that will sound like on record is anyone’s guess at this point, but the pair’s “try anything” spirit is bolstered by the trust they’ve built as principal songwriters not only in A Giant Dog, but in the acclaimed nine-member pop/rock band Sweet Spirit, for which Blachard is also the drummer. And if that’s not enough, Cashen, Low and Blanchard have also built a following with their extreme hardcore band Tear Dungeon.

Ellis points out that because “Pile” was a low-risk gambit for Merge since it was recorded and mastered before the band was signed, the true expectations on A Giant Dog will come with the next album, though Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan said the band’s songwriting and dedication don’t give him much cause to worry.

“We had a good idea about what A Giant Dog were about from the previous album but hearing how strong and memorable the new songs were made it impossible to not want to put this record out,” McCaughan said by email. “The songs hit you immediately and stay with you. The best way I can describe the band is ‘committed’ — to what they’re doing, to the show they’re playing, to the whole thing.”

A Giant Dog’s relationship with Merge came about in part thanks to Daniel, who made a recommendation to his former label head after seeing them grow since Spoon took the then-young band out on a tour around Texas in 2011.

“More than anything I’m utterly impressed by the quantity and quality of what they’re putting out, because they’re expanding and growing and have an impressive knowledge about lots of types of music,” Daniel said. “I’m asked by bands I know to forward things on to people who could help them, and it’s hard for me to not do that. But when I sent (‘Pile’) out to Mac and the people at Merge I made sure to tell them that, this one I believe in and support 100 percent.”

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