Only Tongues Can Tell: A Conversation with Frank Reader of the Trashcan Sinatras

Trashcan Sinatras bassist Frank Reader discusses the band's new album, the origins of the group and the reality of being a working musician in 2016.
Trashcan Sinatras
Wild Pendulum
Red River

Not every band is destined to achieve mega-global stardom and that’s perfectly fine. There’s a need for those cult bands where listening to them is akin to being part of a secret club. Thanks to the powers of the Internet, it’s much easier to converse with like-minded fans and delve into the lore of artists. In the past, the process of tracking down information about low-profile artists was something like a game of telephone with a touch of oral storytelling. The Trashcan Sinatras are one such band.

The Sinatras were influenced by the bands of the Postcard Records label.

 Their story falls somewhere between the crest of indie pop and the birth of Britpop. Calling them a missing link is a disservice to the fine, fine music the group put out. The lush orchestrations and pop harmonies made an indelible impact on those in the know. Never the most prolific of bands (they’ve released a total of six albums from their 1990 debut), they’ve taken their time and settled in to the process of making music when things felt right.

They recently played NYC Pop Fest, a celebration of all things jangly, twee, anorak, C-86, cuddlecore, or insert preferred term for the melodic, ’60s influenced alternative music. 

Their latest album, Wild Pendulum was released earlier this year. It’s yet another well-crafted and enjoyable album from a catalog full of them. Wild Pendulum was a crowd-funded effort through PledgeMusic. Bassist Frank Reader spoke about the history of the band, what’s in store for the group’s future, and balancing the need to make music with other concerns.

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You guys have been together since 1986 and your first album came out in 1990, did you imagine you’d still be together and making music after 25+ years?

I don’t think we thought ahead too much at all. I think probably the answer’s no. We get along better than we used to, we were a bit fractious back then. We’ve kind of mellowed and grown into each other. Now I can’t imagine us ever being apart, it’s become such a way of life. John and Stephen are brothers and John’s married to my sister. So I don’t think we’ll ever be rid of each other really.

As I understand it some of you met in a music class in school? 

Actually a little after school. There was a class organized for the unemployed of which there were a lot at the time, I was one of them. We formed an ad hoc band called The Trashcan Sinatras because we were playing trashcan lids and blowing into pipes. The idea was to make music out of what you could find. We found all this garbage and used it and sang “The Lady Is A Tramp”, so that was the name we used for that, that was a one-off. Then we started thinking about forming a band and when we needed a name, we remembered that one. 
I don’t know, it’s a bit of an albatross. I like it a lot more than I used to. We’ve kind of grown into it. It reflects a kind of punky struggle towards sophistication.

I think that works because it suggests the use of rudimentary tools and with Sinatra, I think of those lush recordings in Gold Star Studios, I think that works. 

We’ve got a fondness for it now. We’ve always tried to sound more sophisticated than we’re really capable of sounding.

For you, what’s the most rewarding part of being a musician?

Writing a song and having a song in your back pocket is probably the most satisfying, self-validating I think I’ve ever found. And I suppose you’re just chasing that all the time. The muse is elusive, so we try and fail a lot of the times, we’re dogged but with it. That must be because the rewards are just the songs. That feeling — I’ve never found anything like it. God knows we haven’t made that much money, but the freedom is one thing I suppose. But nothing ever really tops the feeling of having a great song in your back pocket, for making you feel good about yourself.

Is the pursuit of your muse what keeps you driven creatively over the years? Do you think having a song in your back pocket helps keep you moving forward? 

There’s always something in the back of our collective beings that we’ve been chasing down, some song we want finished. I think it really helps that the four of us write songs. I don’t think a single songwriter can carry a band for this long. I think we’re making some of the best music we’ve ever made. I think that’s really down to spreading the load. And we validate each other, we’re still fans of each other’s work. If you look at bands like The Beatles, obviously, R.E.M., U2, all these bands have a lot of collective effort going into them. Apart from Pete Townshend and Ray Davies, I can’t think of single songwriters that last too long, that can keep it up, it’s too much. I’m talking about carrying the actual band as opposed to being a solo artist.

The lyrics for Trashcan Sinatras are very literate and there’s a fair amount of word play, what influenced that aspect of your songwriting?

I don’t think we do it so much nowadays. It’s something I still a little bit fond of. Those become childish. In the early days, I was kind of showing off, it was an easy sort of shortcut. I don’t think there’s much of an emotional depth to it. There was sometimes, but a lot of the time it was just punning for punning’s sake. I think that’s why I’m kind of not so fond of a lot of those songs back then. I get the sense of desperation back then, desperation to be seen as clever or funny or something.

For Wild Pendulum you crowdfunded this album on PledgeMusic, how did this compare to a more traditional approach with a record label?

We’ve crowdfunded the last few albums now. We had this album called Weightlifting which we basically funded ourselves with music industry grants, the Scottish Arts Council helped us. We’d walk in with a proposal so it was a bit of un-rock & roll work that went into it. And on the last album previous to Wild Pendulum, we presold special box sets and raised the money for the recording that way. I think both those times seemed a little bit like uncharted water. Especially pre-selling the music it felt a little bit wrong to be making an album on a promise, because we’re very slow. They couldn’t really rely that it would be done promptly.

So this time around, I think in the last five years crowdfunding is a completely established way of doing it. It feels like the only way we could make the kind of record we want to make. There’s a definite feeling of ownership and I think we’re slowly rebuilding our confidence. We didn’t sell that many records, we sold a lot more of our first album. Progressively as I think of it, as our records got better our sales got lower. You don’t really notice that your confidence is being chipped away at.

You mentioned getting grants from the Scottish Arts Council. As I understand it, I know Glasgow is famous for the wide variety of art and music coming out of there. What is it about that city that it produces so many great bands?

I can only talk about my experience growing up it was still the tail end of that tradition of people singing songs and telling stories to each other. My grandparents and their contemporaries were still around when I was a kid, I just remember a lot of singing around. And it wasn’t unique, that was happening in every household. Nowadays when I go back, it doesn’t really happen. I think most cities are becoming homogenized, more difficult to live in and expensive. And those individual characteristics disappear unfortunately. Growing up there was always music around and Glasgow seemed to be in love with country music. I thought it was weird that so many people loved American country music, the good stuff, Johnny Cash, The Outlaws, etc. That seemed to be a special western Scotland thing as opposed to eastern Scotland.

Because if you think of the eastern Scotland and the bands that have come from Edinburgh and Aberdeen they’re a lot edgier and to my ears back then, was kind of futuristic. Whereas the ones from western Scotland were country based harmonies and a sort of warmth to the music that made it stand out. I don’t know why it had such a big affinity with American country music. I think we have the only officially approved Grand Opry outside of Nashville. Everybody wants to be a cowboy.

I think that makes sense, I know Irvine where you guys are from is a good-sized port city. Liverpool is sometimes called the Nashville of the North. If you’re getting sailors coming in from around the world, if they’re bringing country music records, it makes sense that it would kind of permeate there. A lot country music resonates with working class folks, so if there’s a lot of that I could see that finding country music easy to identify with. Plus, those country harmonies, a lot of great pop music is built on them. 

And that’s one thing where Glasgow stands out in relation to other places. I think Liverpool is a good correlation. And they were once big empire ports, and yes it could be as simple as that. We face the Atlantic, you go to Edinburg, it feels more like the Arctic, it’s colder and it feels like a more austere place to me. It feels more dry and cold and Glasgow feels more warm and wet.