The first time I called Sabrina Ellis of Sweet Spirit and A Giant Dog, she didn’t answer her phone. Instead, I sat through a few rings in order to leave a message, but was only greeted with a “Sorry, this mailbox is full” alert. My voicemail box has never been full; it will never be full. I jokingly texted a friend, who is a fan, that this must be the sign of a rock star: a phone constantly buzzing, which must be avoided at all costs. Ellis called back about 10 minutes later, and apologetically said she was on another interview, where the interviewee may or may not have made an off-handed and slightly racist joke. Bingo: she was obviously in demand. “Rock star,” I thought. But I didn’t just think it. I said it out loud.
“You might think it’s a sign of being in demand, but it’s more of a sign of being the rock ‘n’ roll type,” Ellis says. “A) I’m too anxious to answer the phone, and B) Once I listen to the voicemail, I forget to delete it.”
Ellis is the frontwoman for Sweet Spirit, a raucous rock-country outfit that acts as the sweeter side to the more aggressive punk band A Giant Dog. On the heels of the eight-member group’s second album release, St. Mojo, Ellis called me back from Cleveland, two hours away from Pittsburgh where her show was that night, and about six hours away from the Black Cat, the location housing their Easter Sunday show in DC. Over the course of an hour, we talked about Norman Greenbaum’s weirdness, skee-ball and whether or not Tear Dungeon (a leather-clad side project for some members of Sweet Spirit and A Giant Dog), will ever get hold of their elusive, exclusive audio tape.
On Tap: When I see the title of your band, I think of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” Is that way off base?
Sabrina Ellis: I like Norman Greenbaum a lot, but I don’t know what I would call his music. What I really like is one of the b-sides on that album where he uses a synth sound that sort of encompasses all of The Flaming Lips. He was really ahead of his time. I think he was kind of an oddball, and his writing was self-centered. For Sweet Spirit, I want our stuff to be universal and relatable. Maybe I’ve just listened to him too much; he’s a weird cat though. That’s a cool song, and I do think that one day when we’re old, we’ll end up covering it.
OT: Where does the band name come from?
SE: In the Mormon slang, a “sweet spirit” is someone who isn’t attractive on the outside, but they have a good personality. I haven’t heard it in a serious conversation; I’ve only heard it in a movie. But I think that Mormons from a certain age will understand that terminology. It sounds like something from the 70s.
OT: So how’s the tour been so far? I read in another interview that the first tour with all you guys was a little hectic because of “double lives?”
SE: It’s going really well. It’s one of those situations where I realized that the world around me wasn’t the problem, but I was the problem. I’ve become a better leader, and I’m just trying to be a clear communicator with my band, and support everyone’s safety. I’m finding a much more cooperative relationship when I don’t try to be the “mom.” My world has shrunken into a van, and you can imagine how maddening it is to live in a tiny world that you’re obsessed with. So I’ve had to escape into my mind a little more. Overall, we’re not in each other’s business as much.
OT: So it’s been completely different?
SE: Sometimes it’s like a rolling Mardi Gras. In the fall, we spanned the country in 18 days, and I thought we needed to buckle down and be healthy, like Rocky running up and down the steps [of the] Philadelphia [Museum of Art]. When the tour hit, we had a break-in, a flat tire [and] the death of our battery. Sh-t happened one way or another every day in the Midwest, and we didn’t fight at all during the string of bad luck. The old cliche of adversity causing people to support each other and show their strength, we got to see that. Ever since the experience, getting arrested together, we’ve all been pretty mature. Now we can save our fights for artistic sh-t.
OT: Okay, so you know I have to ask what you guys were arrested for?
SE: It was for having weed in Idaho. It’s hugged by all the weed legal states, so their game is to pull over all the cars with out-of-state licenses under some silly pretense, and then they say “I smell weed.” It was a waste of a day and $6,000. And it cost me two weeks of community service. Lesson learned? No, I wouldn’t say so. The lesson there is that it’s not me, it’s society [laughs].
OT: This band started from a very sad, intimate place in your life. Do you still tap into that when writing songs for Sweet Spirit now?
SE: Well honey, there will always be sad, intimate places to tap into. Absolutely, I still tap into that sad place. I don’t talk about this much, but I’m a severely depressed person, like clinically depressed, and my whole life I’ve been in some sort of treatment to try and manage it. If I didn’t have music as a place to exercise the depression and dark thoughts, I don’t know if I would still be around. There was a point last year in December of 2015, when I was suffering from an anger management and rage problem that had just built up. I wrecked my truck, and it was deliberate and rage-induced. I remember being in my hospital room the day after my wreck and thinking, “My life is killing me.” When I was there, I received text messages from everyone expressing deep concern and asking if they could help, but also wishing a good recovery so they could keep working. I told them I didn’t know if I could survive that anymore, and I didn’t want them to see me go in a sh-tty way that is stress-induced. I had a sense, not of obligation, to spend some time alone in the hospital. I had the alone time to think, and if I was going to leave the hospital and improve my mental health, and take care of myself, it would be pretty f—ing stupid to give up music. I wanted to see what I was capable of, and I had to understand that it wasn’t the music that was destroying me, but it was me sacrificing myself. I can play music without doing that, but it’s a hard balance to find.
OT: Is writing music about these instances and moments cathartic for you?
SE: I think I visit that place constantly involuntarily, and when I write for Sweet Spirit, it’s an exorcism. I think there is something inherently dark about being a musician, and there’s a high amount of egotism and voyeurism to allow someone to be their own canvas and instruments to display their painful thoughts for entertainment. And then no one should feel sorry for us because it’s such a cool job.
OT: Is it more or less difficult when you have input from seven other musicians on a song or concept? What’s that process like?
SE: It’s definitely helpful for the process. It’s nice to have the input of eight different minds. It’s helpful and fun, but it is always difficult. It’s usually pretty obvious when the best idea comes, but on the way to the best idea, there is struggle. Things get heated in our band, but at the end of our rehearsals, we’ll have a song that we feel good about.
OT: How do the songs come to fruition?
SE: So Andrew Cashen and I, who’s also in A Giant Dog, he’s my cowriter and we write everything together. He writes riffs by himself constantly, and he and I will set aside time to make a song. Now that we’re on the road, so we only really get to do this three or four times a year. We’ve become super efficient though. He’ll start playing and I’ll start writing; we don’t even really have to speak.
OT: I know that a lot of you guys are plugged in with other bands. Do you have different approaches for when you write music for one or the other? For instance, I know A Giant Dog is a little more flagrant. Do you almost have to censor yourself when you write music for Sweet Spirit?
SE: Sometimes, Andrew will have the riff in mind for one band or another. Often, we don’t know what band it will be for, but when we start writing the lyrics, we’ll sort of decide. You can start singing about things on a poppy-sounding song, but it can become grotesque and shocking. For instance, A Giant Dog has a song called “Photograph” coming out on the new album in August, and [Sweet Spirit’s] lead guitarist wanted that song because it’s really pretty, but the lyrics don’t fit. With Sweet Spirit, our families can dance, but the experience you get from A Giant Dog is like if you’re staying up all night watching a special about serial killers, and then you wake up and go dissect a frog in class the next day. Sweet Spirit is still real: we sweat and fart. But A Giant Dog is us pulling off our skin and showing you a real mess.
OT: How are you guys so prolific?
SE: I think we’re discovering that Andrew and I are both workaholics. And that’s a silly word; that sounds like it would be used in a 90s sitcom, but it’s a real thing to realize in your adulthood that you’re in love with something that makes you want to be alive, and for us that’s our work. It can’t be just getting off on the party or performance, or even the gratification of writing. In the world of music, we move in the seasons of album cycles, and if you drew ours, it would be like a manic Tasmanian Devil frenzy.
OT: Will we ever get an acoustic Sabrina Ellis album? Because I really dug “The Better It Feels Today.” Please say, “Yes.”
SE: I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t know if I’ll ever make a solo album. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the time, and to be honest, I like the songs Andrew and I make together more. When I hear my own music, I cringe.
OT: Okay, so you might not know the answer to this question, but will there be a Tear Dungeon album? Asking for a friend, seriously.
SE: A full album? Maybe if they write some more songs. I think they have nine songs now. And there’s a tape that they made, but it’s in the possession of a small tape label called King Pizza Records in Brooklyn, and for some reason, they haven’t handed it over. They didn’t even tell them the tape was made, but we found a copy of it at a person’s house in Chicago. The guys from Tear Dungeon were like, “Can we get a tape?” If we find the box of tapes in Brooklyn, it would be so hilarious if they got burned or something, and then the only tape in existence was in that guy’s penthouse.
OT: On Facebook, you guys posted that you cheat at skee-ball. Why?
SE: Because we all suck at it. Some of us are slightly athletic. I think skee-ball is harder than bowling and basketball. Maybe we need to go boot camp.
Maybe Sweet Spirit needs to go to skee-ball boot camp, but you should definitely see them at Black Cat this Sunday. Tickets here.
Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4490; www.blackcatdc.com