Their new album, ‘Bite’, moves the band in a new direction
By Jeff McCord
For Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen, the songwriters in Austin’s punk/pop unit A Giant Dog, out touring on their 2017 release Toy, things were cruising along smoothly.
But even before the pandemic called a halt to the worldwide flow, Sabrina and Andrew had begun hatching their own plans for an abrupt detour.
Maybe boredom had set in, or just familiarity.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging,” says Andrew, But it’s …”
“Effortless.” Sabrina chimes in. “That’s why we’re so addicted to working together.”
They’re talking about their songwriting process. I’m sitting with the pair just after their Studio 1A session, where they just launched something brand new. They’re excited, finishing each other’s sentences, still brimming with adrenaline.
“The way that we’ve always written albums,” Andrew continues, “Is very fast. We used to pump out an album a year or something like that. We just wanted to take a different approach to it and sit down and try to push ourselves creatively, artistically, and try to come up with something that wasn’t just about our lives and our personal experiences.”
“A good outline,” says Sabrina. “An arc for the album we’ve never had to think about prior to writing the songs. Usually, we write the songs and think about what order sounds good, but this time it was, okay, which character do we need to represent? What conflict do we need to express? Do we feel the creative license to do some slowed-down, ballad-y, very theatrical stuff?”
You guessed it. A Giant Dog’s new album, Bite, is not just another slab of punk delights. It’s a full-on concept album, from start to finish.
“The first time I mentioned a concept album was probably 2018,” says Andrew. “But at that time we were touring constantly and it seemed like such a pipe dream, something that we didn’t have time to accomplish.”
Sabrina remembers the time. “We would sit down and talk about it late at night, just every few months at random and almost in this folkloric way, or the way that children come up with scary tales or larger-than-life urban myths. We kept embellishing this kind of dream that Andrew had, this very creative idea about virtual reality. Every time we talked about it, we’d pitch ourselves into the scenario and we’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah. And that’s when Apollo looks in the mirror.’”
“And then in the second season …” Andrew continues, laughing. “Oh, let’s not I focus on that…”
Sabrina: “You don’t you think the villain dies at the end of the first season? In the second season, we actually bring the whole thing to Marfa, Texas.”
Sitting with the two of them, even briefly, it’s easy to see their creativity ping-ponging, and their humor driving the process.
When 2020 arrived, with it came the time that never thought they would have. So the hard work began. Andrew found the writing structure ‘ten times harder’ than their usual knock-out-an-album plan. But they persisted with their concept, based around gender dysphoria, AI, a protagonist named Apollo, and a virtual reality world known as Avalonia. “Happiness Awaits Inside” boasts one song in Huxley-like fashion, and you instantly know the opposite is true.
I mention that, while they joke about second seasons and the like, the process was not dissimilar to writing a screenplay.
“We wrote a screenplay!” says Andrew. We wrote a TV series to go along with it.”
“Really?,” I ask.
“We got no response, Sabrina confirms. “But we wrote it.”
Andrew: “Quentin Tarantino said no.”
Sabrina: “We tried to send the script around.”
Andrew: “We were talking to animation companies and…”
They seem genuine, but with this pair, you’re never quite sure. And I suddenly notice Sabrina fiddling with their phone. Fearing I’m losing their attention, I attempt to shift the conversation to Angers, France, and how they ended up in the rural wine country to record their album.
Sabrina looks up from the phone. “Our tour manager last August had been affiliated with the Austin Sister Cities project that used to exist and doesn’t anymore. Because of this, we got hooked up with some younger engineers who had this beautiful studio out of a water filtration silo, which means a poo-poo filtration silo.”
NPR Live Sessions/A Giant Dog perform songs from Bite in KUTX Studio 1A, August 16, 2023/“I Believe”, “Watch It Burn”, “A Daydream”
Sabrina’s back on the phone, now asking Andrew for his. They’re hunting for something. It’s the screenplay.
Andrew: “That what you wanted?”
Sabrina: “No, I want the pilot. One pagers. Boring.”
Finds it. Sitting up, Sabrina launches in, with Dragnet-like Joe Friday gravitas:
“Bite, the tragedy. Written by Andrew Cashen and Sabrina Ellis. Copyright 2021. Jamie Vu. On a black screen text appears. Jamie Vu, the opposite of déja vu from the French, meaning never seen, the illusion that the familiar does not seem familiar. VOICEOVER. They peeled back my eyelids. Traffic sounds fade in. Exterior. Downtown Manhattan. Morning, Apollo. Male. Late twenties. Broke hip, slacker type. Spent the last decade working dead-end jobs, trying to figure out his purpose in life. He’s just exited the subway. As he comes up, we see a square of white light get larger and larger, and we hear the voice again. In the glaring pain of light, drag me up to the height of the sun, far more real. The sun cannot give trust, yet we trust, unable to see neither surface nor shadow. Undeniably, we trust. Are you sure it is so? The transient man singles out a busy man walking past and says infallibly, We trust. The transient man directs his attention to someone else on the street, catches their attention. 99.999% sure, leaving little room for human error. Heaven is human. I am Lucifer. Have mercy on me. Banished. Banished God. How to love. Forbidden. Some golden one. Lured like a lamb. A little effing lamb. A lamb to the slaughter. They had no right.”
There’s a brief silence.
“I mean,” says Andrew, “If you want us to read the full, what is it, 48 pages, we can do it.”
We all laugh, return to the subject of France. I mention their bio plays up their somewhat bad rock star behavior overseas.
“Little rock dead beats more like it, Sabrina retorts. “Is there some trope about bands doing an international location recording and really having to…”
Andrew: “Curb their behavior?”
Sabrina: “Curb their impending implosion? You know, you’re not supposed to all get your band name tattooed. And maybe [laughing] you’re not supposed to go to France and record, but it was wild. I guess that’s safe to say.”
Sabrina is alluding to what has become a widely-known fact. The longtime lineup of AGD that went over to France didn’t survive. They returned missing their longtime guitarist and bassist.
“They didn’t die,” Sabrina deadpans. “We had to do some recasting of the band for mainly reasons of life progression, [which] has happened for some of our band mates, but not for us.”
Andrew: “We’re still Peter Panning. They moved on with their lives.”
“We completely support them,” adds Sabrina. “There’s no drama we can’t get through, there’s no hilarity we can’t get through. But sometimes people do see a different life for themselves than playing in a dive bar for the rest of the year.”
They joke about it now, but the sudden departure created a lot of chaos at the time. And even now, since one of the departing members was apparently the designated adult in the band.
“Now when we check into like a hotel or Airbnb,” Andrew explains, “It’s going to have to be one of us to go ‘Shut up! Shut up! Hey, we’re checking in’.”
They’ll find out. A Giant Dog has a full two and half months of touring dates ahead supporting Bite. Will the oversized theatrical vibe translate to their stage show?
“If we had an unlimited budget,” says Andrew, ”Sure, we’d bring along a full orchestra and background singers. Right now, we don’t got that budget. So we’re still going to do the five-piece punk rock thing.”
“Hopefully,” Sabrina adds, “Just through the power of the strings and the drums and our lyrics and our sweat, it comes across and we’ll have our 2023 intersection of punk rock and off, off, off-Broadway.”
It’s time to go, but their tag team humor and enthusiasm have proven infectious. I wish them luck. “Sell a million copies”, I say.
“We’re told it won’t,” Sabrina says, mock frowning.
“Yeah?” Andrew shoots back. “I was told it would. It was a dude out on the street in front of the station. I don’t know him. But I trust him.”
FOLLOW A GIANT DOG
“Watch It Burn”
New Album: Bite out Aug. 25 (Merge Records)
Musicians: Sabrina Ellis – vocals; Andrew Cashen – vocals, guitar; Andy Bianculli – keys; Vince Delgado – bass; Daniel Blanchard – drums
Producer: Deidre Gott, Confucius Jones; Audio Engineer: Rene Chavez; Audio Mix: Jake Perlman; Cameras: Michael Minasi, Renee Dominguez, Deborah Cannon; Edit: Michael Minasi; Host: Laurie Gallardo