If you’re not yet familiar with Austin’s Sweet Spirit, that’s okay… they’re still pretty new (Less than two, in fact.)… Their debut album, Cokomo, just hit shelves this Friday and is, in fact, one of the year’s best, blending riffage of both ‘70s glam and Southern Rock; boasting a danceability that’s equal parts doo-wop, disco, new wave, and prom slow-dances and an attitude that’s equally indebted to the classic American rebel outlaw and ’77 punk. And Sweet Spirit just happen to be in town tonight, playing Kung Fu Necktie. I recently got a chance to have a pretty extensive chat with vocalist/acoustic guitarist Sabrina Ellis, who gave me the history of the band.
Izzy Cihak: So I realize this is a pretty big question but, considering that the band is still relatively new, what have been some of the highlights so far?
Sabrina Ellis: I must have unknowingly encountered a good voodoo priestess because this band has been running on some juju since day one. Upon formation, we were offered a Saturday residency at an always-packed bar called The Blackheart. A year later, The Blackheart released a live album of an early performance.
We made friends with Britt from Spoon, a chain-of-events result of me sending him a t-shirt and vinyl from my punk band, A Giant Dog, years previous (A Giant Dog started in 2007, also with Andrew Cashen, co-creator of Sweet Spirit). Spoon ended up taking Sweet Spirit on a summer tour of the West Coast.
On our way home from our spring tour, we got a wild idea. Why not use the week between tours to record a 7″ with Britt? He just happened to be in Austin and available. McCarthy, who also just happened to be free, was into the idea. Within days we had our collaborative versions of “Have Mercy” and “Paper Tiger,” and we were headed out on the road again.
While we were away, the local DJs started Father-John-Mistying our music back home. By that I mean, they started playing us as much as his song about sex in the kitchen.
We came home to a one-in-one-out night at The ABGB, which is a huge pizzawarehouse and beer garden.
Izzy: And have you had any favorite reactions to your work, whether from critics, audiences, fans, or just friends or family?
Sabrina: This project, so far, has garnered a positive reaction from varied audiences, which is awesome. We can play an afternoon show at a museum for families and philanthropists then we can turn around and hotbox a dive bar at 1:00 am. What’s funny is it’s always at the sweet family shows, with the sun up, that I havewardrobe malfunctions- I don’t need to explain, everybody knows what this means.
We are a group of loud, dirty, aggressive performers nearing 30. We certainly don’t enter every situation expecting to be liked. Playing pop music is like having a hall pass among decent, everyday people.
Andrew’s mom has said Sweet Spirit is his only project that she likes.
After shows, a moved- or intoxicated- fan will feel compelled to look me in the eye and tell me, “You are gonna make it. I can feel it. You are destined for SUCCESS. Sweet Spirit is gonna be BIG. No. Listen to me. I am serious… BIG.”
It’s so foreboding. I try not to take it as a threat, though it often comes off as some dark prophecy.
I wish I could see into their minds to understand what they mean when they imagine me, sitting at the top in all my glory. Furs and a crescent moon cut out I can sit on while I wonder what I’ll have for lunch with Lady Gaga. Pet monkeys and a chain necklace with my name on it. A pickup truck driving in slow-mo across a river to one of our songs.
What I see when I imagine success is a bank account that isn’t empty at the end of each month, getting a broken tooth fixed, visiting our families between tours instead of scrambling back into the service industry for two weeks at a time. We will strive ruthlessly until we have these things!
Izzy: Considering that there are kind of a lot of you, I’m curious: How does the process of writing and recording usually go?
Sabrina: Most often, Andrew composes a riff and a melody. He and I sit together with acoustic guitar and turn it into a song, with an order, idea, lyrics and harmonies. Then we go to the band and everyone comes up with their own parts. The band together decides on important moments- pauses, breakdowns, intros and endings. We are lucky to have a band of powerful, since-childhood musicians. Jon’s bass lines, Danny’a drumming, Josh’s guitar solos, all establish our sound.
Other times, Andrew teaches the song to the group and we hash it out before, then I add lyrics gradually. I wrote the lyrics to “Baby When I Close My Eyes” on stage at a Hotel Vegas show. The lyrics of “Take Me to a Party” came to me at a party.
Some of the songs, Andrew or I have written from scratch, without much help from the other, but then we later forget which those are.
When we go into the studio, Andrew has a clear vision for the song, and we rely on each member of the band and their range of capabilities, and Mike’s striking engineering to come up with our live wire sound. Our keyboard player, Jake, will often contribute multiple parts on pianos, synths, organ, Wurlitzer, and so on. He’s a gem in the studio.
Izzy: You just released your debut LP, Cokomo. What would you consider to be the album’s most significant influences, whether musical or otherwise?
Sabrina: There’s a struggle for the poor and passionate. We have found ourselves in our late twenties and broke and working all the time. Some of us have made attempts at “normal” lives, marriages, serious jobs, other bands, and found it hard to balance the desirous clamor of being an artist with the ability to live a comfortable life. So this album is a lot of love songs with a bitter edge. Except “All Mine.” That’s a pure, sweet, panty-dropper.
Musical influences are wide- Marty Robbins and Etta James and Queen and DollyParton and ELO and Morricone and Willie Nelson and James Brown and Herb Alpert to name some.
Izzy: At the moment, do you have a particular favorite track, whether one you’re most proud of or just one that’s especially fun to play live? I love the album, but “Poor” definitely stands out for me (I think it might be my drinking song for the fall.) Not only does it strike a profound existential chord with me, but it also reminds me of a really cool, punk-inspired take on Americana, which I’m always a sucker for.
Sabrina: We are glad to hear that “Poor” is your drinking song! “Poor” is a band favorite also. It means a lot to me because it’s one of the songs where the lyrics don’t make me sound like an asshole. We wrote it about this time our friends- a couple- drove out to the country on their day off. They were having a great time til they got hangry, but couldn’t eat until they got home since they spent all their money on gas to drive to the country. So they fought the whole way home. We thought that was so romantic.
The subject matter is punk but the sound isn’t all punk. It draws on a New Orleans vibe. It treads the line of some of our punk ancestry, like The Pogues. If I say punk one more time I’ll lose my wings and become a YBP.
Izzy: So I’m curious, how was working with Mike McCarthy? He seems like a pretty awesome guy with some really great taste. Do you think he brought anything new to your sound?
Sabrina: His taste is awesome. You should see his wall of records that he keeps in the break room. He turned me onto Gram Parsons, Carla Thomas, and Lead Belly. Andrew and I have been working with Mike for years recording A Giant Dog. Sweet Spirit and Cokomo required more time and patience on everyone’s part. Andrew had distinct ideas for the songs, and Mike and the band made these a reality. We used a lot of auxiliary musicians and often gave him six vocal lines to mix, on top of a six-piece live take, and we didn’t shy away from layers and overdubs. McCarthy never seems to worry about making Sweet Spirit sound different than A Giant Dog, the differences were there to begin with. Mike’s been a huge source of encouragement to Andrew and me for a long time.
Izzy: And while we’re talking about it, do you have any particular favorite records he’s worked on in the past? Source Tags & Codes and Worlds Apart by Trail of Dead and The Mountain by Heartless Bastards are some of my favorite records of recent history.
Sabrina: Personally, I am a huge Heartless Bastards fan. A lot of us came up listening to Spoon. It’s suspected amongst the group that our trumpet player Sam joined the band primarily to spend more quality time with Britt Daniel. Mccarthy tells us stories of Trail of Dead’s wild, equipment chucking days. And he has recorded two LP’s for A Giant Dog.
Izzy: What’s your take on the Austin music and arts scene at the moment? I seem to interview a lot of really cool bands from Austin who are doing very cool, but different, things.
Sabrina: Austin’s scene can be an awesome place to come up DIY. It is easy to find a lot of support and opportunities for collaboration with filmmakers, club owners, and especially other bands. We have awesome co-ops for musicians by musicians, like HAAM, which provides insurance for Austin musicians and SIMS, which offers counseling and addiction services for musicians.
It is also easy for a DIY musician to feel overlooked or trampled by the big, corporate festivals that go on in our town.
I am happy to live in a place where I can play a home show once or twice a week if I want and people will come out. Austin’s got the busiest music scene right now.
Punk and garage continue to thrive. Bands we like to go out and see are Dikes of Holland, Fleshlights, Spray Paint, Popper Burns, John Wesley Coleman III, The Golden Boys. There are many more.
I am interested to read some of your other interviews with Austin bands. You ask some good questions. I might find out some more about people I see every weekend.
Izzy: And you’re currently on tour. What can be expected of the live show when you’re here in Philly? It would seem to be something quite dynamic and fun.
Sabrina: Fun can be expected. That’s about all we can count on. Last night we played to a room of five people in Athens, GA. The performance included a death threat from a coke dealer, a busted up drum kit, Andrew climbing to the top of a piano with his mic and stand and screaming the final lyrics of “Take Me to a Party” before flying off and ending the song in shreddy feedback, a corn nut somehow ended up in my shirt and I think we went dancing afterward. I recall drummer Danny arguing with our gracious host over the talent of Chris Bell vs Alex Chilton. I peed in a yard, maybe that will happen again in Philly. Of course it will.
Izzy: Finally, what’s next for you? How do you hope to have Sweet Spirit spend the remainder of 2015 and the first part of 2016?
Sabrina: When we get home we want to work on something with Joe Lewis. We want to establish Sweet Spirit as a house band in Austin. We want to back other singers and some cool one-offs to keep us burning.
Every year Jason Mcneeley hosts a NYE cover night at Hotel Vegas. This year it’s 1980 and we are Fleetwood Mac, so we will have our work out rehearsing those songs without falling into any old 1980 habits.
We have a big pile of songs, and it grows. We definitely want to release another LP via Nine Mile in 2016. And tour Europe?