Photo credit: Colin Dunsmuir
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When the Trash Can Sinatras decided to make a play for a spot at SXSW this year, they had to figure out a way to make the trip financially worth their while. The suggestion was made that the band should try to land a gig in Los Angeles beforehand, to pick up a few bucks ahead of time. Mitch Okmin with the MOB Agency set about the task of scoring said gig at the Troubadour in Hollywood, but unfortunately, the Troubadour didn’t want to book the band. Reportedly, the club had two main objections: one, plenty of UK bands fail when attempting comebacks on these shores, and two, who even knew who these guys were anymore? Given how long the Troubadour’s been a force to be reckoned with in the Los Angeles music community, it’s hard to begrudge them their qualms. Thankfully, however, Okmin talked the club into booking the band for the night of March 16—and the show proceeded to sell out in a mere three days.
Not too shabby for a band that hadn’t played L.A. for over a decade, let alone one that hadn’t an album released in the United States for equally as long—not since 1993’s I’ve Seen Everything.
“Ugh,” says the band’s guitarist, Paul Livingston, when confronted with this tragic fact. “That’s over ten years ago. That’s no good.”
No, it’s not. But it is good that the band hasn’t been forgotten on these shores during that time.
Once area public radio station KCRW heard about the sell-out at the Troubadour, their interest was piqued, and they promptly booked the band for an appearance on their renowned show “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on the morning of the concert. And when the concert finally came to pass that evening, the band proceeded to sell thousands of dollars in merchandise in the time between when the doors opened and the performance began; people were buying four, five, six copies of the band’s new EP, Weightlifting, as well as T-shirts bearing the band’s name. The line was literally out the door.
“My God,” says Livingston, in such a way that you can hear him shaking his head in disbelief even over the phone. “Yes, it was. We never used to sell nearly that much merchandise… but, then, our names were always very small on our shirts. Which was fine with us, but not so fine with the fans. So we put it on there with bigger letters this time, and… well, look at the results.”
In addition to the simple fact that Weightlifting is the first new material from the band in four years (the Snow EP was released in 2000 and even then was only available as a pricey Japanese import), a tasty “hidden track” has been added for the fans after the standard three tracks: a full-length concert recorded in Paris in 1996. Livingston isn’t sure whose idea it was to tack on the 11-song gig, but he’s proud of it nonetheless. “It’s a really strong performance. The live stuff of ours that’s been put out there hasn’t always been of the best quality, so we wanted the fans to be able to hear this.”
The band finished their new album, from which Weightlifting is taken, in November 2003 in New York with producer Andy Chase. “We’re very, very proud of it,” says Livingston. “It’s the best thing we’ve done yet, the best bunch of songs we’ve ever recorded.” The release date of the album is still up in the air while the band shops it around to labels in the US and UK.
“This is the first time that we haven’t been beholden to any record label,” he explains, “so we just want to make sure that we do it right.” (They’ve already reached an agreement with a Japanese label for a July release, with a tour of Japan to follow.)
The new songs the band performed at the Troubadour went over like gangbusters… as did the old favorites, of course. “The gig was beautiful,” says Livingston. “The crowd was so nice and warm. It’s great to play to people who really want to hear us. I think the fact that we haven’t played in the US for so long has a lot to do with why the shows have such a turnout. I mean, when we play, people literally come from miles away. “People who like us,” he says, simply but accurately, “like us a lot.”
After the Troubadour performance, the band was off to SXSW, where they were kept hopping throughout their time in Austin, Texas, including three gigs in one day on March 18th. First, the band played to a substantial crowd at the Day Stage at the Convention Center at 3 p.m.; from there, they rushed to do an in-store performance at 33 Degrees at 5 p.m., where they proceeded once more to sell a ton of copies of Weightlifting. In fact, the store confirmed that the Trashcan Sinatras sold more of their product than any other artist to do an in-store there during the festival.
“Oh, yeah, that was brilliant,” grins Livingston. “When we first got to (33 Degrees), a band called Dysrhythmia was playing, and they played prog stuff like King Crimson; they were jumping all about. It was quite scary, and we were really worried about how we’d go down… but it was really nice.”
Finally, at midnight, the band was at the Vortex Theater, as part of the “Scottish Invasion” after-hours party. “Oh, that was great. It was this small, artsy stage set-up. With a lot of bands, where it’s not your standard stage and there’s not a proper P.A., they don’t really know what to do, but, for us, the more unique the place, the better the sound. That’s the sort of thing we excel at. It was very odd, though; the place was artsy, but you walked out the door and it was a keg party like something out of Dazed and Confused. But that was filmed in Austin, wasn’t it?”
The next day, March 19th, the band’s formal SXSW showcase again found them playing at midnight, this time at the Fox and Hound in a steady rain, and yet, it was standing room only. It’s said that, of that crowd, only 10 people (give or take) stuck around to see the band that followed them. On the 20th, the band catered to the independent press, some of whom have had their back ever since Cake was released in 1990, by playing the Pop Culture Press party at the Dog and Duck. Keeping things consistent, the band drew the biggest crowd of any performing at the party.
“We’re quite relaxed about playing live these days,” Livingston admits. “We’re good at it. And we’ve always done well in America; people really like us. We haven’t always been so relaxed… but I’ve basically spent the last seven years in the house, so, these days, any gig is a good gig!”
Given that every gig on their recent US trip was undeniably a great gig, it’s hard to call the visit anything other than an unqualified success—but it’s been a long, hard road getting there.
Although it wasn’t released in the States, the Trash Can Sinatras did manage to put out a third album, 1996’s A Happy Pocket, in several other countries, including their native UK, but “I don’t think it did very well at all,” says Livingston. Although one of the album’s singles, a cover of Lulu’s “To Sir With Love”, was named Single of the Week on Radio 1, by the time it finally made it into stores, “our label was in a shambles.” Diehard fan support has helped the group keep a stiff upper lip, but even that didn’t help when, not so long ago, the band found themselves fighting back from bankruptcy, a situation which Livingston calls “not very nice. And knowing that we caused it ourselves, that was rubbish. We found ourselves going, ‘I’m not sure we should be doing this. This could be a sign.’ But we kept going because we love each other. We’re best friends.”
Thankfully, bankruptcy is behind them now. And no matter what happens as a result of their performances in Los Angeles and SXSW, Livingston is comfortable in saying that the band has already experienced a fresh new start. “I couldn’t imagine we’d be here like this after everything that’s gone on. There’ll always be problems, always be things that can go wrong, but we’re better equipped to deal with them now. We’re a lot more confident. Before, we always felt like we were doing something wrong, but now, we’re happier, we’re relaxed, we’re not scared.”
And, he laughs, “things can’t get worse than they’ve already been!”