There are nine people in Sweet Spirit, but it’s pretty tough to stop watching their exceptionally charismatic frontperson.
During a recent trip to Austin the country rock band played The Holy Mountain, where the energy was ridiculous. And as everyone chugged plastic cup after plastic cup of whatever delicious grapefruit cocktail the bartender was making, it was easy to see that every other person in the packed bar was just as high on Sweet Spirit as I was. Horns blared, guitars wailed, and voices pierced through the room. I was hooked. You could barely keep up with the thirty-six limbs flailing on stage, and I honestly hadn’t seen a show quite like it in my life. Sweet Spirit ripped into another Marvin Gaye cover, and we all kept on dancing.
Sweet Spirit has been kicking around Austin for a year and a half, with a couple of tours under their belts and one that kicks off today (10/8). I spoke with lead singer and rhythm guitarist Sabrina Ellis, twenty-nine years old and originally from north Houston, by phone from her bedroom in Austin. We discussed Jimmy Buffett, Tom Petty, One Direction, Desi Arnaz, Bo Diddley, Hunter S. Thompson and the Spice Girls.Their debut LP Cokomo is out on October 16. You can stream the record in it's entirety here, and dates and pre-order links are at the end of the interview.
Sweet Spirit with Britt Daniel of Spoon
NOISEY: Who is Sweet Spirit?
Sabrina: We're a monstrous nine-piece band from Austin. It started out as a six-piece in January 2014. My boyfriend is the bass player. He sings sometimes too. We have so many people in our band at this point. One of these days it would be fun if all of them were interviewed because I would probably find out things about them or the band that I didn't know. We have a keyboard player that I worked with in my old band Bobby Jealousy. He's very special because he's been playing piano since he was three years old. It affects your personality when you're that good at something from an early age. Today over breakfast he was talking about how much he likes One Direction, how they're really charming. I don't know. He got me on an angry tirade about why he shouldn't say things like that. My problem with One Direction is they're five fashion models standing twenty feet in front of a good band that is actually playing the music. They're just not setting a very good example for the next generation. I saw them on TV one day at a hotel and formed these opinions.
Did you like any boy band or girl bands when that was going on?
I definitely loved the Spice Girls. They weren't setting a very good example either. I loved Ginger Spice, who was an ex-porn star. She was the one who I would impersonate.
What does it feel like for you to perform?
Sometimes I get up there and I'm performing and I don't even feel like I'm there or that I exist or that I'm controlling a circumstance. I feel the absence of performing very much. If I go a week or two without performing, my chemical makeup changes and I have less release of dopamine and serotonin and things that I need to keep me from being in the newspaper or something. It's the almost the way somebody might describe doing the type of drug that negates you from existing, when someone's trying to escape something. It's hard for me to even peel apart the elements. And then you get up there with this nine-piece band. It's a lot to fall back on. I think everybody in this band is a solid musician, but there's this implicit secret that if anyone messes up, nobody in the audience is going to notice.
On this new record you have a song called "If You Wanna," and one of the lyrics says "if you wanna we can have a place in Mexico." Where in Mexico? And also you say, "wish I was a little but more like you." More like who, and why?
Oh god. This is one of those questions where you have to make a decision. The first place in Mexico that I think about, and this is not a glamorous place, but La Paz, this little fishing town at the very tip of the Baja peninsula. If I had to run off or escape or go hide in a bungalow it would probably be there. The singer in this song wants to be more like the person that they're describing. They want to be the carefree person that could run off, go to Mexico, smoke weed all day, drink champagne and put off their problems. The person singing this song isn't the main character of this song though. They're describing somebody. I know it sounds like a very uplifting, sweet song, but I wrote it during a sad time and it's about a person mourning the fact that they're not able to fit into this irresponsible carefree lifestyle. And yet the song sounds like a Jimmy Buffett song, advocating going to Mexico and smoking weed all day and Margaritaville or something. I'm down with that and people hearing that song and wanting escape.
I like Jimmy Buffet.
I like Jimmy Buffett too. People always really write him off. If you say the word “Jimmy Buffett” everyone thinks you're telling a joke. In the 70's he had some very sensitive, very well written, what I would consider country songs. I think he's a very cool guy, and Hunter S. Thompson loved him, they would hang out. One of the times when he was bankrupt he went out and lived with Jimmy Buffett and they would ride speedboats and shoot guns.
That’s amazing. Would you say that Jimmy Buffett has had a big influence on Sweet Spirit?
Yeah I would say so. Because that's some of the first music I was ever exposed to. Jimmy Buffett and Tom Petty. Tom Petty was my first crush. I told my mom that, I was like "I love Tom Petty that's who I want to marry." And she goes, "ew, can't you pick somebody more attractive? He looks like a possum." I still find him attractive though. I think he's a great songwriter and a straight up guy. He just seems awesome.
What do you like and dislike about playing in a band that big?
I've always wanted this big band. I grew up watching I Love Lucy where Desi Arnaz has this band on risers and they wear these ridiculous ruffled sleeves and shake maracas and a lot of them seem like they're not even doing anything that necessary. It just makes this really party vibe. When I got older I got into Bo Diddley and he's got that same vibe, he's got a band leader who he dances with and shakes maracas and he has The Duchess on rhythm guitar back there singing backing vocals with silver pants.
I saw him play once it was amazing. For free and outside in Albany, NY. It was sick.
That's so cool. I'll bet he's pretty funny.
So funny. He was hamming it so hard.
See? I love that vibe where you can bring a party with you. We played a show last night in Houston with Natural Child and it wasn't very crowded, but it was party enough between just those couple of bands. It's a guaranteed thing. At least nine people are gonna be there at the show.
You're just doing it for the other bands so there will be some people watching them when it would otherwise be empty. So what don't you like about it?
We did a tour with all nine of us. It was pretty incredible because within less than a year of being a band we got invited on tour to open for Spoon on the west coast. Some of these people had only been in the band for three or four months and immediately it's like, whoa, the thing that bands that hope for the most is to be support on a tour with a budget and play in big theaters in front of a bunch of people that would have never have heard their music otherwise. That just happened all of a sudden to all of us. We got to do it. I thought having nine people was going to make it to where all of the bases were covered all the time. I didn't hire a tour manager; we've always done that sort of stuff ourselves. I thought these are really skilled and smart people who work and conduct adult lives, but the freedom of the road and the free whiskey provided by the riders was too much. That party thing really overwhelmed us. Everybody kind of took off on their double lives.
So it got pretty Lord of the Flies -esque is what you're saying?
It was very Lord of the Flies and I don't know, I wasn't ready to be mom.
SWEET SPIRIT on TOUR
Oct 8 - Gasa Gasa, New Orleans, LA 9pm
Oct 10 - Athens Intensified Festival, Flicker Bar, Athens, GA 9pm
Oct 11 - The Basement, Nashville, TN 9pm
Oct 12 - Local 506, Chapel Hill, NC 9pm
Oct 14 - Breakthru Radio CMJ day party, Cake Shop, New York, NY 3pm
Oct 14 - The Saint, Asbury Park, NJ 9pm
Oct 15 - Cake Shop, New York, NY CMJ showcase
Oct 16 - Don Pedro, Brooklyn, NY 9pm
Oct 17 - Gallery 788, Baltimore, MD 9pm
Oct 20 - Mahall's, Lakewood, OH 9pm
Oct 21 - Empty Bottle, Chicago, IL 9pm
Oct 23 - The Foundry, Dallas, TX 9pm
Oct 24 - ABGB, Austin, TX 9pm
Reed Dunlea's spirit is anything but sweet on twitter.