On rowdy rocker “Toy Gun,” off A Giant Dog’s fourth album, Toy, singer Sabrina Ellis and her bandmates may as well be singing about Donald Trump.
“The ‘Toy Gun’ character, we all know that guy,” Ellis said in a recent phone call. “That’s a stock character in the United States; the gun-totin’ American spouting their rights. … We were singing about the defensive nerd who feels like a big man with a gun [but] lives at home with mother.”
The long-time Austin garage and punk rock band debuted the track in November 2016 on a tour of Europe, a week after the presidential election. Each night, Ellis, singer-guitarist Andrew Cashen, drummer Daniel Blanchard, bassist Graham Low and guitarist Andy Bauer were approached by fans who wanted to talk about America’s embarrassment. The song actually wasn’t written about the current president; it just fit the bill.
“Our only way to fight back was to come out with this song,” Ellis said. “‘Toy Gun’ is a pretty pissed-off song, and we had it at the right time for us to get some anger out. “Even though we’re from Texas … we’re not comfortable with the changes going on in our country. We don’t really have any money yet, and we’re spending our time in a van. All we have is our opinions and we’re loud.”
More and more people want to hear those opinions, proving they have value.
“Five dollars at the door, yes,” Ellis jokes.
After releasing its third album, Pile, on Merge Records in 2016, A Giant Dog gained some mainstream success for the first time. In Austin, they’ve been known as one of the best, hardest-working bands since high school friends Ellis and Cashen started the group in 2008.
The band’s shows have been described as manic and wild, with flourishes of ‘70s rock and ‘90s punk. Ellis and Cashen throw sex, drugs, rock and roll and acidic wit into the lyrics in equal measure. The faint-of-heart should prepare to blush.
Ellis, who relishes in flaunting her sexuality and extreme emotion on stage while wearing spandex, has been compared to everyone from Freddie Mercury to Iggy Pop and David Lee Roth. In truth, her stage persona was based not on any other bandleader but on two years of studying experimental theatre in college.
“[It’s] is a huge waste of money to go to college for this,” she said. “I studied Artaud, the Japanese theatre of Noh, which are [about] inflicting physical discomfort on yourself in order to elicit emotion.
“I studied post-modern improvisational dance, which is basically just rubbing up against someone and rolling around together. I studied Afro-Haitian dance. I studied the idea from the theory that your body is the performer and your body is the instrument, and the idea that your emotions come second to what’s happening to you physically.”
She quit because she didn’t get it. Her professors actually pulled her aside and asked her if there was something else Ellis would rather study instead. That’s when she realized she likes to write. Her performance pieces were usually arranged rather than improvisational. Still, she had never performed to music. While the other dancers set their dances to songs, she viewed that as cheating. When she and Cashen started the band, it was a new experience. She does have role models: James Brown for his endurance, Patti Smith for her aggression, powerful voice and songwriting prowess and Martha Davis of Berkeley’s the Motels.
“I never think about Mick Jagger while I’m on stage. But I think about him a lot, otherwise, sexually,” she joked.
After independently releasing Fight in 2012 and Bone in 2013, the band completed Pile in 2015. Then they sat on it for a year until signing with Merge.
“It seems like a quick turnaround [between Pile and Toy], but it actually was a pretty mediocre turnaround,” Cashen joked.
Cashen and Ellis share a similar sense of sardonic humor. The synergy between the two longtime friends is a driving force for the band. Cashen describes it as “productive, efficient, weird and lovely.”
“Both of us consider every show to be our last,” he said. “We just put everything we have into each show.”
In recent years, the two started a second band, Sweet Spirit, a power pop outlet for all the loose ends that would mess with A Giant Dog’s sweaty punk vibe. It also allows them to perform at more family-friendly shows where the other band’s raunchy lyrics wouldn’t fly. It started as a side project but is now an equal entity to the two. Because of the two bands, Ellis and Cashen stay busy for most of the year, lucky to get a combined three months off.
It’s also a bit of a necessity. A Giant Dog is still living paycheck to paycheck. While Pile gave them some name recognition, that name recognition doesn’t pay the bills on its own.
“We’re still playing at the same clubs we were three years ago; there’s just a lot more people at them this time,” Cashen said.
The band hopes to continue the upward trajectory with Toy, which was released on Aug. 25. For the first time, the band went into the studio without having the songs already written. That led to more experimentation than usual. The songs are also story-driven for the first time.
Ellis described “Roller Coaster” as a song about gripping onto sanity during turbulent times. The song includes guest vocals by Britt Daniel of Spoon, also from Austin, who was persistent on contributing to the album and recorded his vocals separately. The pure punk anthem “Photograph” is about growing old in love, with no fear of wrinkles, rotting teeth or split jeans.
The 13-song album includes a sped-up cover of art-pop band Sparks’ “Angst in My Pants.” Cashen is a huge fan and hopes the Los Angeles duo hears the song and learns about his band. Yet, somehow, Toy still manages to blow by in no time at all.
“Bendover” is one of the sexier songs around with a driving rhythm section and lyrics about flagellation, while “Lucky Ponderosa” tells the story of a woman who moves to California to make a name for herself, knowing that could involve working in the porn industry. Cashen got the idea for the song after watching a documentary.
“Andrew always suggested we would want to write some stories, but it’s challenging,” Ellis said. “It takes a lot of focus and getting outside of yourself; not being as narcissistic.”