Doing What's Good for Yourself: An Interview with the Trashcan Sinatras
With over 20 years of classic songs under their belts, the Scottish rock stars known as the Trashcan Sinatras are showing no signs of slowing down, here talking to PopMatters about label deals gone bad, the anything-goes setlists of their live shows, and the delightful tale of how they got Carly Simon to sing on their latest disc ...
After being in the music business for over two decades, it's safe to say that the Scotland-based rock band Trashcan Sinatras are no longer concerned with becoming a household name, especially in the States.
No matter. They have pressed on over the years, for richer or poorer, slowly and quietly building up an imitable body of work that served as a vital link between Aztec Camera and the likes of Travis. At the end of the day, more successful bands would probably willingly trade their fame and fortune to have songs like "Obscurity Knocks", "Hayfever", "Killing the Cabinet", or "Freetime" to their credit.
In The Music is the band's fifth full-length studio album, and it shows the band in fine form as always. Rarely does the combination of subtle pop and psychedelics sound so effortless than in the hands of the Sinatras, and their new album finds them exploring such cross-pollinations in an even less structured form. This summer, the band will embark on a worldwide tour to promote an album which should have come out in the States a long time ago, at least until some surprising things got in the way ...
Paul Livingston, lead guitarist for the Trashcan Sinatras, spoke to PopMatters from his Los Angeles home late on a Sunday morning. Cordial and conversational seemed to be his standard operating procedure as he discussed the making of the new album, almost getting to meet Carly Simon, and how the late great Syd Barrett ought to be remembered.
On In The Music, it seems that the band is very confident in what they are doing. There's no uncertainty and it's very solid, front to back. Do you feel the same way?
Yes, I would say so. I mean, at this point we're really doing this for ourselves, to have a creative outlet. You start off in a band with all these expectations, but you don't really know what you're doing. And now being together for so long, you get to know the people in the band, you get a way of working. The longer you're together, the more hurdles you overcome, the more confident you get. And everybody in the band is an individual, but when you get in the band there's a certain path that presents itself and it seems like the only obvious way to go. You get that faith in the process.
So everyone has settled into their own roles after so many years together?
Yeah, pretty much. Sometimes we shake things up to make it a little bit challenging. This album we decided that we would get less "songy" and just try and get into grooves more. And so we didn't actually finish writing a lot of the songs. We just rehearsed, jamming for hours around these cyclical grooves. It was great. And eventually we went to New York to record and weaned it down a little bit more. That's the first time we've ever done it like that. Usually we have finished songs and then we record the things we can, and this is more about capturing a live band excited about what they're playing.
One song that strikes me that was is "Oranges & Apples."
Oh, yes! That was a lot of fun to play.
Can you talk about the background behind that song? I understand it's a Syd Barrett tribute.
John [Douglas, guitar] wrote that because he was reading about the people who knew Syd at the end of his life. And it's very cool to think about a guy going mad and writing these creative songs. John was realizing that a lot of that is bullocks, really. He was just an artist and he didn't want to make records anymore. He was quite profound in his artistic life, with what he was doing. It was really just a nice way of saying that in song.
I remember a friend of mine playing me The Madcap Laughs, the Syd Barrett solo album. And I realize how everyone likes to talk about how we was high out of his mind, but there are some interesting things going on in that album, nonetheless.
A lot of those songs are beautiful. I think there's something about the way they're recorded that makes it sound unfinished and little bit insane, but the songs are gorgeous.
You talked about the songs on In The Music not being technically finished. Are you guys fussy songwriters?
Totally. It takes a long time to get enough songs for an album, and there are three of us in the band that write. But I think I don't really know what we're doing though [Laughs]. It gets harder the more you do it, I think. But John [Douglas] would disagree, he just writes constantly. But me and Frank [Reader, lead vocalist] are a little bit more ... it takes a lot to get you excited. But I throw away most of what I do because I think it's boring [Laughs].
But like you said, you guys mainly do it for yourselves.
That's right. It's kind of impossible if you try to do it for other people because you think: this might make you money or this is what people might like. There's absolutely no way of telling what's good except when you do what's good for yourself.
And with the way that music is headed now, when a lot of people are financing their own recordings and releasing things themselves, there's probably less overall pressure on bands like the Trashcan Sinatras to write another "Hayfever".
Yes. I mean, "Hayfever" didn't actually do very much anyway [Laughs]. It was not a huge hit. It might be, comparatively to our other songs, or "Obscurity Knocks". Even that didn't do very well, in all honesty. But a record company is basically a money-chasing machine and they're not very imaginative. So if something is big and successful, then the record company's first instinct is to say "Do that." And that usually doesn't work. I think it's a much healthier situation now where people are responsible for their own music and their own output.
All that micromanaging from the big companies seems to have backfired. Would you agree?
Yeah. I mean, I don't actually know how record companies work these days, it's been a while since we've actually had a proper record company. The last record company we had, spinART, ripped us off royally. I don't really know what the deal is these days.
Your previous album Weightlifting was released on spinART, right?
And you had [producer] Andy Chase work on that album?
Oh, yeah. He mixed that album, actually. We recorded it in Glasgow and Andy Chase mixed it all, and ever since then we've wanted to work with him right from scratch, because the guy's great. And so In The Music is that. He's got a great setup and the people he surrounds himself with are really talented, like his engineer buddy, the guy who changes the drums and all that kind of stuff. It's a really good place.
So he was just the mixer for Weightlifting, but he actually produced In The Music?
Yes, that's right.
So did things change procedurally? Did he push you guys in any different ways or did he just let you do what you do?
The idea we had was that we wanted to just record live and then he could splice together the good bits, but we weren't actually sure if that was going to work. And it seemed kind of crazy, spending all this money going to New York and doing this kind of thing. But he kind of gave us the faith that this was very doable. He was initially a little bit like "What? What do you want to do?" And we hadn't really spoke to him about it until we got there, he was a little bit like "Oof, this might not work." But as soon as we did the first song it was obvious that, I mean, he set it up in such a way that it sounded like a record as soon as we started playing. He did actually change a couple of songs, the arrangements of songs. He's a very talented man.
Would you work with him in the future?
Oh, definitely yes.
He probably now understands that the seat-of-your-pants approach works okay for you guys.
Yeah, I think for us it does. I know that it's probably easier to do it one person at a time when you have more control over actual sounds and stuff like that. But when you're dealing with a big band you get easily bored doing all the parts. This is a much better way of doing it for us, that's for sure. But who knows what the next album will be like.
Andy Chase was the one who got Carly Simon to sing on the album?
That's right, yeah, he knows her! And actually she lives near his parent's house in Martha's Vineyard. And so we were going to his parent's house to do some vocals. And we were like "Can we possibly meet Carly Simon? Because we're huge fans!" And he's like "Oh definitely, definitely." And then we sort of thought "Would she sing on any of these songs?" So he played her some stuff we were working on, and we were all expecting her to say 'no' because she says 'no' all the time to these kinds of requests. And she said she's love to sing on "Should I Pray?" But she wasn't going to be in Martha's Vineyard at the same time as us. So we never actually got to meet her which was a huge disappointment. But it's a great honor to have her sing on our record, she's great.
It's strange she wasn't there because when you listen to the song "Should I Pray?" it really sounds like everyone's in the same room.
Yes, I know. She did a really good job.
But since you guys didn't meet her you probably didn't get a chance to hassle her about "You're So Vain".
That's right, but one day I hope so.
You probably will now that she's officially collaborated with you.
The connection, that's right.
[On touring] Are you going to be doing an acoustic set, or will it be full band electric?
Oh, it's the full six-piece extravaganza. And it's a great lineup because playing these songs live is kind of what they're made for. There are no tricks to work around. It's really just about everyone listening to each other and playing what sounds right at that moment. So it's great to play these songs live, it's kind of effortless.
I think I remember seeing something John Douglas said about "Oranges & Apples" and how he never knows what he's going to play.
Oh, I think that might have been me saying that somewhere!
Oh, sorry, maybe it was you!
On the end section, I tried to play what was on the record. But now it's transformed into making a mess of things. Like in Japan, I started to play this out-of-tune stuff, and it was great fun. I'm thinking of going in that direction, to just try it out-of-tune.
Does the band ever have plans of recording yourselves live again? I know you already have an album of acoustic performances, Fez, but have you ever entertained the idea of recording yourselves with the full-on electric sound, complete with jamming and stretching out the songs?
That would be a great thing to do, but I think it's kind of difficult. We do record all the gigs and sell them on USB sticks after the gig.
Yeah, but it's kind of a bootleg operation. I mean, it sounds great as a mixture of P.A. and audience mics. But actually doing a live album like If You Want Blood You've Got It, it's kind of expensive to set it all up and then hope that's the good night. I think the only way to do it would be to record everything, every night, and then pick the best. I don't really know, actually. I know we're doing another acoustic album like Fez, this one is going to be called Brel. It was recorded in a bar in Glasgow, same type of thing; acoustic.
When is that going to be released?
I think it's the end of the year sometime, or autumn.
Do you know if it will see a U.S. release at all?
Oh, I'm sure it will.
Because In The Music didn't come out in the U.S. until towards the end of April when it had been available in the Isles for some time. Was the band holding out for a certain distribution deal?
We actually had a deal in place and it was going to come out last year. And then at the very last minute, the record company kind of fell apart and it was a total disaster. We had a four week U.S. tour for the album coming out and we were presented with the choice of: do we cancel the tour or do we go for it even though there's no record out? And we decided to just go for it, and it was a great, fun tour. It was a little bit of a shame because people didn't have the record. I think we actually sold some on the tour. But they actually had to wait a whole year before it was released here, it was kind of a disaster.
I also noticed that the Sinatras were planning on the release of a box set, is that correct?
Yes, I think so. It's not really our doing. I think it's Universal that owns the rights to those first albums. They keep threatening to re-release them, and we're totally up for it. The new thing is: "do you want to do a box set of the first four albums?" which would be great. I think that's supposed to be happening in autumn as well or maybe early next year. That would be so nice.