From the release of their very first single— 1990’s perversely prophetic “Obscurity Knocks”— the Trashcan Sinatras have always seemed keenly aware of their place in the pop cosmos. With their first three albums, the affable Scottish lads arguably built the bridge between Glasgow’s old school (Orange Juice, Aztec Camera) and new school (Travis, Belle & Sebastian). But as is customary with the finest of cult bands, they were unceremoniously dropped by their label (Go! Discs) and thrown into bankruptcy by 1996. That very well may have spelled the end of the Trashcans’ tale, too, had it not been for the simultaneous emergence of the internet. Spurred on by a small but passionate online fan base, the group re-emerged from an eight-year creative coma in 2004 with the splendid Weightlifting, followed by 2009’s equally engaging (if a bit more MOR) In the Music.
After 25 years together, the Trashcan Sinatras haven’t necessarily escaped the obscurity tag, but in a roundabout way, they’ve come to embrace it. On the band’s current American acoustic tour, for example, they’re selling t-shirts with the slogan: “Trashcan Sinatras: Legendary Scottish Band.” It’s self-deprecating and funny, but in a just world, there’s no reason to think it couldn’t have been true.
From his new digs in Los Angeles, lead singer Frank Reader was kind enough to talk with me about his band’s transition into middle age, the potential pitfalls of contentment, and the possibility of some TCS back catalog reissues.
ANDREW CLAYMAN: For starters, since the new acoustic tour starts this spring, I’m curious what’s changed the most about life on the road for the Trashcan Sinatras over the past 20 years. And what, if anything, has stayed essentially the same?
FRANK READER: Well, as far as what’s changed, we’re probably a lot mellower. And we tend to stop for the bathroom a bit more [laughs]. But generally, we just tend to let things bounce off us now, I think. In the early days, you’ll gripe if you don’t get a chance to shower before sound check and things like that. But that would be kind of laughable now. So, we’re very patient. Tour managers love us. They’re very happy with that.
What’s stayed the same… I don’t know, the people are essentially the same. Our relationships with each other are probably the same as they ever were.
AC: I know you’re taking requests from fans on this tour. After all this time, do you guys still enjoy playing tunes off Cake (1990) or I’ve Seen Everything (1993)? Is there still a resonance with those songs within the band as there seems to be with the fans?
FR: I suspect there’s some distance in what we feel compared to what the fans do, going by the requests so far. There are some older songs we look at with a little trepidation. But we’re discovering that it’s maybe helping us re-work some things that we might have dismissed out of hand if it wasn’t for the push from the requests. So it’s been healthy in some respects. It’s funny-- when we start playing these old songs, we tend not to rehearse much. We just try to bash through them. A lot of motor memory is really still in place. But when I'm singing them, sometimes I don’t know what I was thinking as far as cramming all those words in and not giving myself a chance to breathe! I don’t know, I must have had superhuman lungs or something back then. And melodically, they're often kind of up and down—almost gymnastic really compared to nowadays.
AC: Yeah, with the lyrics on those early albums, I wasn’t always sure about the meanings behind the songs, but I always enjoyed how the words sounded—the sort of playfulness in them. . .
Excerpt from “Obscurity Knocks”
“Rubbing shoulders with the sheets till two
Looking at my watch and I'm half-past caring
In the lap of luxury it comes to mind
Is this headboard hard? Am I a lap behind?
But to face doom in a sock-stenched room... all by myself
Is the kind of fate I never contemplate
Lots of people would cry, though none spring to mind”
FR: I think that pretty much was the extent of the meaning with a lot of those songs. When you’re that age, there’s this desperation to just get down every idea that you’ve got because it might be the best idea anybody’s ever had [laughs]. You don’t really have that self-editor you do when you get older, where you realize, well, maybe people don’t really need all that tongue twisting wordplay all the time. Maybe simpler, succinct language can be just as effective.
AC: With In the Music, you’ve talked about wanting to capture the band’s sense of contentment—and it's definitely a warmer, more optimistic record. A lot of songwriters have told me it's much harder for them to write from a place of happiness, for whatever reason. What was your experience with that? Has your creative process changed as a happy fellow?
FR: Well, I still have my dark moments, Andrew [laughs]. But yeah, I would agree with that in general. There’s a quote that "happiness writes in white ink," or something like that. It’s very difficult to express real happiness without sounding trite at times. It’s a legitimate challenge. But I don’t know, songwriting always gets harder anyway. You’re always trying to come up with something new, and you can’t limit yourself by editing out thoughts or feelings that might be tougher to navigate or different from what’s worked for you before.
AC: Kind of along those lines, I wanted to ask you about the effect of geography on your mental state.
FR: Ha, okay.
AC: I’ve talked to several Scottish songwriters who credit living in or around Glasgow for contributing to some of the angst or melancholy in their music. Was that true for you, and how has the move from Scotland to Los Angeles impacted your mindset as an artist over the last couple years, if at all?
FR: Do you mind if I ask which Scottish artists you’ve spoken with?
AC: Sure. There was Tracyanne (Campbell) from Camera Obscura…
FR: Oh, she’s lovely.
AC: …Stuart (Braithwaite) from Mogwai, James (Graham) from the Twilight Sad. Maybe a couple others.
FR: Yeah, well I can’t really disagree with them. …There’s an old Billy Connolly routine where he talks about how-- when you’re growing up in Glasgow-- men are always singing these melancholy songs about not being in Glasgow while they’re all still in Glasgow [laughs]. I think it just travels with you, you know? Maybe it’s a sense of drama that we have. I do know that I’ve always felt there was a certain country music influence in Glasgow. I knew a lot of people whose parents loved the kind of country music that was maybe kind of less popular or passé at the time—Frankie Lee and George Jones, etc. The heartbreaking, heavy drinking kind of country music. So I think there’s something to be said for an inherent melancholy in there. It probably never really leaves you no matter where you end up living.
AC: Now that you’re in L.A., have you pursued the show business world much there—working on film scores or licensing songs for TV, things like that?
FR: Yeah, I think that kind of stuff can definitely work to your advantage, especially for a band like us that doesn’t make a lot from selling records. So we’ve definitely been pursuing it—not with much success, to be honest. It’s not been great. But we’ve got a new manager now, so we’re hoping that that kind of thing picks up. It wouldn’t take much for us to step up our general profile, which is never a bad thing.
AC: On the marketing front, when you consider how the music industry changed between Happy Pocket (1996) and Weightlifting (2004), how big a role would you say the internet played in the Trashcan Sinatras resurgence?
FR: The internet really saved us. We were pretty lucky and forward thinking. There were a couple of people at Go! Discs as early as 1995 who really encouraged us to start down that path—people who were already connected with internet fan groups and message boards. So we got in there pretty early, and by ’96 or ’97-- when we lost our record deal-- we already had this really strong, direct contact with our admittedly small fan base. And that really sustained us through the years as we worked to get Weightlifting together. And I thank God for them every day. I never get tired of telling those long time internet fans that I meet how important they were to us.
AC: Looking back on it now, are there are positives you can take away from the bankruptcy experience and long hiatus? Was there a silver lining in there?
FR: Yeah, I think so. The record (Weightlifting) came out of it. Maybe it’s just the way I look at things, but there’s nothing really you could do to change it. And although it seemed like a big deal at the time, for me, there were bigger things going on. My dad was ill at the time, so relatively speaking, losing our record deal didn’t really affect me quite the way it might look like from the outside. It was more a case of-- we’d already been struggling to sell records and get our voices heard with the record company. So the immediate consequence was that we didn’t have to keep banging our heads against that wall. But as far as something tangible, definitely the record Weightlifting itself was born from that darkness and an acceptance of getting older and changing and not being able to fly by the seat of our pants anymore.
AC: Speaking as a fan, I think there was kind of a sense of relief when I listened to Weightlifting and heard how good it was—just because so many years had gone by, and you never know for sure know what you’re walking into.
FR: No, exactly. When bands who were in our kind of position make that long awaited comeback record, it does tend to be quite terrible. And that really was in the back of our minds. I think we even downplayed it to ourselves, like, 'this record’s much better than it should be, isn’t it?" It’s a bit of a difficult one to explain. Weightlifting had kind of a mystery to it, and it kind of grew on its own. I think that was just a testament to all the time that went into it, and of course the immense talent of the individuals [laughs].
AC: Even after Weightlifting succeeded, though, there was another 5+ year gap before In The Music arrived. What do you see as the advantages of those longer waits between releases?
FR: There are quite a few advantages to waiting. One is that it stops us from releasing terrible records. But mainly, it’s just the natural way of things for us. It just seems to take that amount time for us to stockpile all our ideas. In a way, I’d love to be a lot quicker about it. I have those nights where I wake up and think it’d be great to just record something really scratchily and just put it out and see what happens—get rid of that idea and move on to the next one. It could be fun to just continuously refresh yourself, and I think there’s something to that. But I think as far as the kind of records we’ve made so far, this just has to be the way. We have this standard that every album has to meet before we let it go, and I can’t imagine doing it without that feeling. It’s difficult for the lot of us, because we all have different taste, and it’s always hard to get that consensus. And it really needs to be there to be the Trashcans.
AC: Looking at the back catalog, most of the records are out of print and A Happy Pocket (1996) has still never gotten a proper U.S. release. Any possibility that those albums might get remastered or reissued again any time soon?
FR: Yeah, there’s a strong possibility. We’re gathering some really dreadful snapshots from the older albums and we’re hoping to get something a bit nice to put together. For a lot of people it’ll be a re-buy, you know, but it will be nice to sort of all look back and remember together.
AC: I know the current tour is still in support of In the Music, but do you plan on testing out some new material, as well?
FR: We’re gonna try. We’ve certainly got a couple songs that we’ve written since In the Music. It’s just been a matter of figuring out how this is all going to work—how we’re going to communicate and write songs [between Scotland and California], because we’re so used to being in a room together, and that’s not really doable now. But there are good things and bad things about it. In a way, the communication is a lot more direct and easier, because you can just write somebody and say "I do like that or I don’t like that." You don’t need to look into their eyes and say, "well, it’s good, but…" All that stuff. So there are a few positives about the distance. This tour, though, will give us a great chance to be together physically for a while, so we’re determined to make the most of the time.
AC: Okay, final question is a silly space/time hypothetical bonus question. If you could travel back to 1990 and speak with the younger version of yourself, what would you tell him, and more importantly, would he listen to you?
FR: Oh boy. That’s a great question. And honestly I think about things like that all the time. …I don’t know if young Frank would listen. But I would tell him not to pose so much-- not to be worried about what people think so much. Try to be honest with your feelings and talk to everybody more. And don’t hide behind masks. You know, I was a very self-conscious person, and really unhappy. So I think I’d suggest that… and maybe not drink so much [laughs].