- Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
It’s late February and Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen are broke. Flat busted. In less than a month, their two bands — soul pop powerhouse Sweet Spirit and glam punk deviants A Giant Dog — are poised to be among the highest-profile Austin acts at the South by Southwest Music Festival. Fest appearances will include a slot for each band on the Spoon-curated and headlined showcases at the Main (formerly Emo’s downtown location). On one, they share a bill with the New Pornographers and the other features Hamilton Leithauser from the Walkmen. Buzz about both their bands is building, but on an unseasonably warm afternoon at Brew & Brew in East Austin, a $2 cup of iced coffee is a luxury that’s hard to justify.
“There will be this moment in like April or May where we both get a check that will give us a reasonable adult life for a month or two and we’ve both been holding out for that since we got back from Europe,” Ellis says.
A Giant Dog’s month-long continental jaunt, with stops in Italy, France, Sweden, Germany and the U.K., capped off a marathon year that included eight months on the road touring both bands. In their down time, they recorded two albums including “St. Mojo,” Sweet Spirit’s feisty follow up to their excellent 2015 debut “Cokomo,” which is out on April 7.
Dropping day jobs and going all in was a “huge gamble,” but after a decade and a half of collaborations, stretching back to the time they were mean-mugged by their adolescent peers while playing Joan Jett and KISS covers at Ellis’ high school homecoming dance in Houston, they understand this is their moment. Over the past few years they’ve been writing prolifically — churning out chaotic but hooky pop numbers with Sweet Spirit and boozy, bar anthems with A Giant Dog. Nine times out of 10, the songs are very good. Both bands’ live shows, marked by Ellis’ Freddie Mercury-channeling, bombastic brilliance, have attracted fervent followers from around the world. Late last year, they signed a few television licensing deals they needed to survive, but for now they’re in limbo, listening to the persistent whispers proclaiming them Austin’s next big thing, while waiting on the mailbox money to come through.
“We added dance practices to our schedule this week and I keep getting hungry after the practices,” Ellis says. “I’m like, ‘Oh great, I can’t afford the hobby of dance and exercise because it’s making my metabolism higher.’ It’s getting that specific for me.”
Of their two projects, Sweet Spirit is the newer band and, as evidenced by the exhuberant mishmash of sounds on “St. Mojo,” it’s also more adventurous stylistically
“Starting out, Sweet Spirit was all the stuff we were afraid to do in A Giant Dog because it was too poppy,” Cashen says.
Through years exorcising demons in dive bars, A Giant Dog built a fanbase that demanded rowdy punk bruisers. Sweet Spirit became a catch all for everything else. “We’ll do a disco song or we’ll do a country song or stuff like that,” Cashen says. “Stuff that I’d never let A Giant Dog do because I want to keep it this punk outfit. I don’t think we’re afraid to do anything in Sweet Spirit.”
“St. Mojo” covers a lot of musical ground. Lead track “Power” is a hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll call to arms. Followup single “The Mighty” turns a wistful, power ballad interpretation of a Beatitude into an underdog anthem. Ellis channels Dolly Parton on a sweet little country ditty, “Far From Home,” and the album also includes a pop ode to Pamela Anderson.
“It reminds me of if ELO went to a gospel revival or something and then Pamela Anderson was just in slow motion jogging around,” Ellis says.
It’s so ridiculously fun, Cashen, who low-key hates the song, worries he will regret putting it to wax.
“I have a very real fear of writing a song that’s too catchy and then you’re just going to have to perform that song,” he says. “That’s the only thing anybody wants to hear. That’s going to be the song that people shout out when you’re playing another song.”
His concern is not unfounded. For the first time, the band enlisted an outside producer, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, to help refine their sound. Berlin insisted “Pamela” belonged on the album. He also sweetened the band’s mixes with percussion and horn features from Austin’s top-notch cumbia funk outfit, Grupo Fantasma.
Though Cashen says Berlin “trimmed the fat off a lot of stuff,” the album maintains the brink-of-chaos, ecstatic energy that makes Sweet Spirit live shows so engaging.
“St. Mojo” doesn’t have a consistent theme, but sex, risk and empowering the little guy all emerge as motifs. The album also has a timeless quality. “We want these songs to sound like you don’t know when they were recorded,” Ellis says. “Like they could be in a jukebox or something.”
The first Sweet Spirit release, “Cokomo,” was a hat tip to the fictional island the Beach Boys praised in the 1988 song “Kokomo.” They consider “St. Mojo” their own imaginary paradise. “Mojo is like the ‘Austin Powers,’ sex power and sex drive. Adding the saint to it makes it kind of this oxymoron,” Ellis says.
In the pre-SXSW lead up to the release, Cashen and Ellis are grinding hard. They’re scheduled to do three music video shoots, two for Sweet Spirit and one for a Giant Dog, over a 10-day period. The prospect is both exhausting and exhilarating.
“Just the idea of doing three videos, where we’re all going to be kind of in three different towns pretending we’re three different types of people in three different time periods, is to me a grand adventure,” Ellis says.
The creative fire feeds them when real food is scarce.
“Sometimes as a musician I feel like a court jester or something,” she says. “Like we spend our time doing stuff that other people consider really fun and whether I’m going privately insane or Andrew is starving, we still look like we’re having the greatest time. If we can do any service to anyone by making them feel empowered or inspired, that’s the least we can do as rock ‘n’ roll musicians.”