Doing What's Good for Yourself: An Interview with the Trashcan Sinatras

John Garratt
Photo: Piper Ferguson

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.

Oh really?

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.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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