To be labeled a “cult band” can be both an admiring nod to resilient if underappreciated talent and a curse. Let’s face it, no one wants to be a great unknown for very long, but that’s been the fate of A Giant Dog for the last decade.
Singer Sabrina Ellis is as deadly honest in responding to questions about the band’s status as she is in her firebrand lyrics. “I feel that struggle every day, despite how much success or good press or sales we’re getting with the band,” she says. “I feel I’m going through life with a feeling of, Is this worth it? Am I getting anywhere? Being in a day-to-day struggle where we’re not making money, no one knows who you are — that expresses life in a way.”
“Toy” (Merge), the Austin, Texas, band’s fourth and best album, doesn’t shy from those doubts. It broadens the garage-punk quintet’s sound with more ambitious arrangements and introspective songs. The harrowing “Survive” was written by Ellis and guitarist Andrew Cashen in the aftermath of a 2015 car crash that nearly killed her. When Ellis regained consciousness in the hospital, she started to come to grips with some of the personal issues that she had long neglected.
“I wanted to be seen as strong and indestructible without ever feeling burdened. I could take any blows without feeling the hurt,” she says. “When I wrecked my car, I was at a point of desperation, and had feelings that I didn’t want to go on living. I had lot of rage I didn’t understand — overwhelming anger and emotion that drove me to put myself in dangerous situations.”
She dove back into songwriting with renewed purpose, and the core of “Toy” began to take shape. “It was hard to sit down and want to keep writing songs about stealing drugs and drinking and partying,” she says. “That works its way into the ‘Toy’ album, too, because that’s context of who we are, but you want to reach in and tell people more. It’s risky to be that vulnerable, but artists around me inspired me that it’s OK to do that. The band Bully, I was struck by the raw honesty of their lyrics. It made me almost uncomfortable to listen to it. With this new album, I realized I’d achieved something when I made myself uncomfortable with some of the lyrics that were coming out.”
For a band that built its following with unhinged concert performances, the gradual shift toward more intensely personal lyrics and songs that dialed back on the tempos a bit also required an adjustment. Ellis says that a recent showcase for the album in Austin was nerve-racking because she knew some of the songs wouldn’t be quite as raucous as the band’s earlier material. But the audience’s positive response to the new songs felt validating.
“The stage, that’s where we push our boundaries as individuals and as a group,” she says. “I always saw performance as an endurance test. If I’m not sweaty and ready to collapse at the end, or didn’t say something that someone wants to beat me up for, I feel like I haven’t explored every avenue of a performance.”
In addition, Ellis says she quit drinking a few months ago and had to adjust to performing without using booze as an inhibition-crusher. “I had to teach myself how to dance and be physically spontaneous all over again,” she says. “Without alcohol, I tend to overthink things — am I calculating too much? — but about three, four songs in, I find I can still completely forget myself and become a sweaty, writhing mess. Performing is something I can’t go through life without having.”
This is good news for fans already privy to A Giant Dog’s blow-torch concerts. But is it enough to sustain Ellis, Cashen, guitarist Andy Bauer, bassist Graham Low and drummer Daniel Blanchard as road warriors for another decade? She and Cashen are no longer the teenage “misfits” who bonded over their inability to fit in at a Houston high school.
When the band formed in 2008, “it was really hard to perceive we’d still be doing this nine years later,” Ellis says. “About five years ago, I realized that I was viewing my entire career as if we were in a documentary about one of those bands that was very appreciated by a handful of people but no one else knew about. We’ve always had the zealots who like us.”
And so they play the role of “the band that just almost made it.”
“But we’re not finished,” Ellis adds. “Nine years from now, I’ll be talking to you about how we’re about to break through. If anything is worth keeping, it’s A Giant Dog.”