As part of Merge Records’ 30th anniversary subscription series, the venerated indie label just released a full-album cover of Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible by A Giant Dog. It seemed like a safe assumption that the label had tasked the rollicking Austin band with covering an album from its own huge catalog, of which the 2007 disc is a big seller. Not so, said singer Sabrina Ellis and guitarist-singer Andrew Cashen. It was more complicated than that.
— Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor
Sabrina: We had the whole world to choose from, actually.
Andrew: And none of us had really passionate suggestions.
Sabrina: That’s not true. I was pretty passionate about doing Pulp’s Different Class, and Danny [Blanchard, drummer] wanted to do Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack. Honestly, we didn’t really care all that much about Arcade Fire. Being in a punk band—I still am—I was more interested in listening to heavy music for a lot of years. And then on Reflektor, they had David Bowie singing a cameo, and that made me think, “Hey, maybe I should give them a listen again.”
Andrew: We considered a lot of different things. Over the years we’ve done about 15 or 16 cover songs, so we thought about just putting those together and making sort of a compilation album, but then we thought that would be lazy. An obvious choice would have been, like, a Sparks album. But this seemed like a bigger challenge. I hadn’t really listened to Neon Bible very much to be honest, but I heard a few songs and I thought that they could really click with how A Giant Dog plays, like “Intervention,” “Ocean of Noise,” and “My Body is a Cage.”
Sabrina: We practiced it for about two days, a total of like 12 hours, but there was a lot to learn. A lot of it was figuring out what instruments we could substitute for ones that Arcade Fire uses that we don’t have, like accordion.
Andrew: And banjo! They do this thing where a verse will go twice, and then once, so there’s kind of some math to figure out.
Sabrina: Then Mac McCaughan from Merge called us up while we were about eight days into recording and said, “Umm, I just remembered that we pressed Neon Bible as a double album, and we only budgeted for a single album for this.” We looked up the running time on Neon Bible, and it was 47 minutes and three seconds. You can fit about 44 minutes onto a single LP, so they made a whole extra LP for three minutes of Win Butler’s thoughts. [Laughs.] So we had to figure out a way to shave off three minutes.
There’s a song on there that kind of has this Springsteen bombast thing going on, called “Antichrist Television Blues.” We thought if we played it absolutely as fast as we could, that we could get that time back. The guys went into the recording room and just played that one as fast as possible. I had to sing it as fast as possible.
Andrew: At one point I even said, “Do you think you could do it faster?” Then it got to a point where I said, “that’s too fast.”
Sabrina: I thought if I tried it any faster I would combust.
On Arcade Fire songs, it always sounds like the music is led by the lyrics, like they write the music to go with whatever Win Butler has come up with for words. In A Giant Dog it’s the opposite. Andrew comes up with these patterns, and I have to write lyrics to fit within what they come up with—once it’s done, it’s really hard to get them to change the structure to fit with the words. Which isn’t to say lyrics in A Giant Dog aren’t done with passion and emotion, it’s just a different thing.