Last summer, Mark Stoney, an experienced British musician who had relocated to the U.S. a few years ago, started working with Sabrina Ellis and Seth Gibbs on a new band. It was an eclectic trio that drew from influences including but not limited to '60s soul, punk and Beatles-style pop. After some shows that took place when Ellis' other band was unable to play, the group settled into a residency at the 29th St. Ballroom dubbed "Jealous Mondays," where they would put on their upbeat live show through the end of the year.
The band, Bobby Jealousy, doesn't sound quite like anything else in town. On stage, Ellis is part glam rock star, part comedian, a persona that carries over into the band's music, which places hard-to-resist harmonies next to lyrics that run the gamut from personal/sweet/moving (radio-friendly "The Ballad To Jon & Mitra (Earthquake)") to perfectly foul-mouthed ("Muther(expletive)"). Fittingly, the band describes itself as "dirtpop soul & rock n roll."
This week, the band — also including drummer Clint Simmons — will release its debut album, "A Little Death," which they are celebrating with a show Saturday at the 29th St. Ballroom. At a time when there is a lot of good music being released by Austin bands, it's a standout, a larger-than-life pop record where love is a life-or-death situation.
Although it sounds like it, it's not as if Bobby Jealousy came out of nowhere. The band is a thread on a musical web that extends in many directions. Ellis shares lead vocal duties in A Giant Dog, a garage rock band that has been making a racket in Austin since 2008. That band has a debut album, "Fight" (Tic Tac Totally), out this week as well. (In addition to Ellis, A Giant Dog includes Andrew Cashen, Andy Bauer, Orville Neeley and Graham Low. Some of those musicians are in a bunch of other bands; OBN IIIs, Bad Sports, Quin Galavis among them.)
Gibbs, who is married to Ellis, runs Superpop Records, where he has recorded a fine roster of Austin bands, including Bobby Jealousy, Leatherbag and country rock musician Tex Smith.
Although they've been together as a couple for only a little over a year, Gibbs and Ellis met about four years ago, when A Giant Dog traveled to Denton, where Gibbs was visiting his brother (whom Ellis knew through mutual friends in high school) to record an EP. Their relationship provides fuel for some of the more powerful songs on "A Little Death," including "Never Let You Go": "What would I do/without you/to hold me when it hurts so bad?" "When we were first falling for each other, I would feel so desperately about him," says Ellis, who, unlike some musicians, is candid when it comes to talking about her songs and their meanings. "It's about loving somebody so much that it hurts, which is a cliché, but Seth puts it into a nice context."
Ellis, a Houston native, moved to Austin about five years ago from New York, where she studied experimental theater at New York University. "I grew up listening to Queen," Ellis says. "I wanted to be Freddie Mercury. I would dress up in these one-piece unitards and put on a fake mustache and sing my heart out."
Her musical mind was fed by participation in school choirs. Ellis says that when she was growing up, she never thought she would get into singing in a rock band, but it combines her education in theater and music in a way that makes sense. "It also keeps me from being a more high-strung person," she says. "If I worked in an office or something I'd be that person that flips out and breaks things."
Gibbs, who grew up in Huntsville, wasn't exposed to much music when he was younger, but he remembers one moment when his father invited him to go through his record collection. "It was mostly blues, and I really wasn't into it as a child, but there was a record in there, the soundtrack to the live-action ‘Popeye' movie," says Gibbs. "That was a big influence. Harry Nilsson wrote the entire soundtrack. It's pretty amazing" ("Harry Nilsson is, I think, the most underrated pop writer," Ellis adds.). He decided he wanted to go into music, and traveled to England to study at Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts.
Then there's Stoney. The British-born musician came to the U.S. a few years ago after a solo career that had him playing with some pretty big names, including the Arctic Monkeys. He came over during South by Southwest in 2006, returned the following year and decided he wanted to stay. The title on his visa is "alien of extraordinary ability."
Stoney got to know Gibbs during his first visit to SXSW. The two began to work together, including playing in a band together on a tour of Europe. His background is different than his bandmates. "I was into the Britpop stuff, which is a bit of a cliché I guess, being British," he says, laughing as he smokes a hand-rolled cigarette. "Where I was from in Sheffield, we had a lot of storytellers and lyricists, it was a very close community of musicians, the Arctic Monkeys and Pulp, even back to the Human League and Cabaret Voltaire. That was sort of my stomping ground where I cut my teeth."
When Gibbs and Ellis started dating, Stoney lived around the corner. The couple had been working on songs together and they played them for their friend. Their first show happened when A Giant Dog was asked to play but was too busy, and Bobby Jealousy stepped in.
Having three songwriters in the band allows for some variety in the material — Stoney's songs aren't hard to differentiate from his bandmates' — but Ellis appreciates Stoney and Gibbs' singing skills as well. "Most bands you don't really get to have three really solid vocalists that can all hold the lead at once."
After the show this weekend, the band is looking ahead to a spring tour of the East Coast (full disclosure: The band was booked into one New Jersey venue after the booking agent heard them on my weekly report on KUT's Texas Music Matters). They're also thinking about a second album, even before the first is officially released. "We write songs really fast because we're all writing. We already have like half our songs for the next album," Ellis says.