erasing clouds

When all the weights are lifted: Interview with Trashcan Sinatras’ Frank Reader

by anna battista

“…I’m quite tempted to try it. My nephew says they also have a gentle slope, so if I stick to it I think I will be fine,” Trashcan Sinatras’ Frank Reader reassures me about his snowboarding session with his nephew, which should happen right after our chat. In a way, the career of Trashcan Sinatras can be compared to a roller coaster ride, rather than to snowboarding down a slope. Leaving behind the collapse of Go!Discs, their bankruptcy and the loss of Kilmarnock based recording studio Shabby Road, the Trashcans, John Douglas, Stephen Douglas, Davy Hughes, Paul Livingston and Francis Reader, affectionately supported throughout the years by their loyal fans, have recently released their new album, Weightlifting (out in Great Britain on the band’s own label Picnic Records and in the States on SpinART), their fourth since 1996. The feeling you get after listening to the album is that the pressures which were oppressing the band have been definitely lifted: indeed the title track is a delicate song about leaving the past behind you and looking forward.

The album starts with what many thought is a prophetic song, “Welcome Back”, with the opening lyrics, “Welcome back, back to health…” yet, Reader doesn’t think they’re just ‘back’, “It has just taken us so long to record the new album,” he explains, “it’s not like we’re either coming back and staying or coming back and going away. We’re just carrying on doing things the way we do them, that means writing and writing and recording until we are happy and it sometimes can take a long time and in our case it also took us a long time to raise the money to record the album.” We are sitting in a flat somewhere in Glasgow’s West End, outside it’s unusually sunny and not too cold. Inside the sun is shining through the living room bow window; baskets of tangerines and nuts sit on the coffee table reminding us it’s actually autumn; a portrait of Robert Burns stares at us from a corner of the mantelpiece; music can be heard in the background. While we talk about Weightlifting Reader says the band didn’t expect the album to receive all the attention and the good reviews it got, “People seem to be a bit receptive towards us, maybe they just admire the fact that we’re so stubborn,” he shrugs. “We’ve been mentioned a lot in passing in diaries in the Guardian and in other papers and that’s nice and very helpful, especially now that we don’t have a lot of money behind us, because it makes people aware of the name. Of course good reviews are great as well, lots of people buy albums after reading good reviews, so that’s definitely helpful.”

Recorded in Glasgow, the Trashcans’ new album was mixed in New York by Ivy’s Andy Chase, “At the beginning we thought we were probably trying to mix it ourselves and we tried to do it with one or two songs, but it was becoming very messy, it was just getting into a cul-de-sac,” Reader remembers. “Then this guy phoned us up saying he wanted to do it, so we sent him the tape. He did one mix for free, we heard it and thought we didn’t like it at all. So we went back to mix it ourselves and then, just for fun, one night, after doing a mix of one of the songs, we put his mix on to compare it with ours and it really blew us away. We ended up phoning the guy, saying sorry and asking him if he would have liked to work on the album again. He did, so we sent him the music files on CD and later on we went to New York for a week to tidy things up. Originally we were trying to work on the album with him by email, but we realised we needed to be there. We had a great time, we stayed at the Chelsea Hotel and partied every night, it was fun and it was also very easy because Andy was doing all the work, while we had already done our part, so we only had to supervise the mixing. He was fantastic, opinionated and articulate. For us it was unusual to let go so much control and I’m glad we did it. It’s because we let go so much that Weightlifting sounds like our most direct album, because we’re basically not embedded too much in it.”

The Trashcans promoted their album in the States throughout September and October, playing thirty gigs, but also appearing in record stores, “It was a blast, everybody responded to the new album really well,” Reader says, “we weren’t doing what I would call a hard job while touring, but towards the end we were getting a little bit tired since we were always up early and we were in the traffic all the time. I don’t want to moan, but you get tired when you’re touring especially if you’re a singer and you’re not very good at staying away from the parties afterwards. I had good intentions to go to bed every night and I did do that for a while, but parties were fun and I wanted to meet people and talk to them and stay up with the rest of the band. Americans are very fond of us, we must have done something right for them in the past, though I don’t know what it is!” Since we are still talking about the States, I remind Reader that he still has got to finish the band’s American tour diary on the site, “I can’t, I’m stuck,” he claims in exhausted tones, raising his hands as if he were surrendering, “Our American tour manager has been writing me everyday telling me to finish the tour diary, but I can’t do it, I can’t remember what happened…”

Memory. Memories. Each of us has got happy and sad memories, good and bad memories, nice and not so nice memories. The Trashcans’ memories from the ‘90s must have been of the former kind: the band released their debut album Cake in 1990, three years after their second album I've Seen Everything came out. But, after A Happy Pocket (1996), they parted company with Go!Discs, and were later forced to sell their recording studio as well. The band’s 1999 Snow EP marked a return to full form, while the rare demo collection double CD album Zebra of the Family (2003) helped the band to raise money to record Weightlifting. “Our fans kept us afloat,” Reader claims, calling the support the band got through the web “the initial spark” that helped the band believing again in what they were doing and regaining their self-confidence. The new acquired freedom from major record labels is also allowing Trashcan Sinatras to be more independent. “It seems that we have a lot more potential now that we don’t have a major record label,“ Reader states. “We own the record every time, so we only have to phone somebody anywhere and arrange a gig, whereas with a major label, we wouldn’t be able to do it. We want to afford to tour and play decent venues where we can represent ourselves well enough: it’s all very well to say let’s play anywhere, but if we were to travel down to Birmingham and get any gig, we could end up in a pub where nobody would listen to us and that would affect us and dishearten us. Another thing that it is different about releasing the record ourselves is that now it seems the record also has a longer life. Before on Go!Discs we would have two or three months and if we hadn’t made any impact at all by then, the attention would concentrate on another artist. Nowadays, in general, artists push a record for a year or maybe even more, for example by having a song played in a film, a thing that can regenerate an entire album. I think this is a good thing, I don’t think there should be any limit to your music, you should be able to do what you like with it. Major labels have commercialised marketing strategies that most artists follow, but that’s stupid, because they don’t work with everybody.”

I ask Reader if the new independence also means that they will develop Picnic Records, the band’s label, and use it for other bands’ releases “Well, let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t like to be in a band signed to our label,” he states, “first of all there’s no money, secondly we’re not very organised. At the moment it’s just for us and it’s just an imprint. We just wanted a label for the record so that we could licence it in different countries.” Since we are talking about labels and recording, I ask Reader if the band ever misses Shabby Road, “I sometimes do,” he admits, “but I just miss certain machines, that’s all, I was very fond of a couple of reverb units and I really liked the tape machine, but everything is gone and we don’t regret it. We’re really glad to be away from the building itself. The situation was very stressful. The building would have been fantastic if we had had the money to keep it up. It was very old, so every time it rained, it would get flooded. The Chinese restaurant down the stairs would always been arguing with us. It was really hard to have a big building, that is why I respect a lot of people like the Delgados who run Chemikal Underground and seem to be very organised people. I’m just not like that at all, I can’t keep more than two or three thoughts in my head, but I suppose it is fine if you just want to be very disorganised and shambolic, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it…it’s actually what works for Trashcan Sinatras!” The Delgados are not the only contemporary band Reader admires, among his fave artists there are also Franz Ferdinand, Super Furry Animals, Nick Cave and Rufus Wainwright. According to Reader, music has fundamentally changed, together with its audience, “People are more open and they accept things more openly now,” he claims, “maybe a few years ago, what the U2 did with iPod would have been frowned upon, but nowadays many people simply don’t care. Maybe ten years ago somebody would have said it would have been a bit crass to have your song on a Playstation. Well, I don’t know if it’s crass or no, but nowadays nobody cares, you don’t hear many complaints about it. People don’t really care as much as they used to, it doesn’t seem to apply anymore. Everything is so commercialised now in the world and we’re so used to it that we have become inured to it.”

A few lucky Trashcans fans already heard some of the songs included in Weightlifting during a 2001 gig that took place in Glasgow. More gigs followed last year and in 2004, first in March when the band appeared at the South By Southwest music industry festival in Austin, Texas, and later in June when they were invited by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch to support their open air gig at Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens. A few months after, and precisely on 5th of November, the Trashcan Sinatras came back to Glasgow, to play a gig at a local venue, the Cottier Theatre. In that occasion (but also during the American tour), Glasgow based singer and songwriter Roddy Hart gave a hand to the Trashcans playing the keyboards and the guitar, “A while back we decided we wanted to evolve a little bit and as first thing we thought about having a keyboard player,” Reader says, “then we thought we wanted another guitarist, because I sometimes play acoustic guitar, though I’m not very good at it, but when I play live I can’t rely on it because I get carried away. So we got Roddy to join us and so far it has been good.” I ask Reader if he enjoyed the show at the Cottier Theatre, “At the beginning I thought it wasn’t going down too well,” he replies, “I was a bit nervous just because we were playing in Glasgow. It is hard to treat it like any other show because it’s your hometown and all your family and friends are there.” I wonder if he heard a guy shouting “Taxi for Reader!” during the gig, “That was actually one of our biggest fans,” Reader explains me, “he came backstage after the gig to apologise. He is from Birmingham and he has a tuk tuk, a Chinese rickshaw kind of thing, and wants to advertise us on this tuk tuk all over in Birmingham. Anyway, he’s just one of these guys who gets drunk and shouts things at the band on stage. That’s the way it tends to be in Glasgow, it happens especially for Glasgow bands. I’ve seen this happening also at a Blue Nile gig. There is a certain school of thought that says you should shout abuses at the band when you like them. It’s a very strange thing that happens in Glasgow: if you like the band you shout abuses at them as an affectionate thing, it’s a sign you are having a good time.”

There are plans for the band to go back to America during the first week of December for a radio stations tour, in the meantime Reader says he’s quite happy about how things are going with the band, “The main problem we had before was that we weren’t communicating much with each other. Now we are a lot closer than we used to be. John has also become part of my family and therefore John’s brother, Stephen, has become part of my family too. So we have to accept we will be together in some way probably forever. We have actually learnt to accept each other and I think now we are a bit nicer to each other as well. In our band there are four songwriters, so everybody’s opinion has got to be accommodated, has got to be respected and dealt with. Everything has got to work in a chemical way, but with us it’s not easy all the time as we are not in agreement all the time.” So were there any quarrels during the recording of Weightlifting? “Of course,“ he nods, smiling, “there were plenty arguments!” At present Reader is planning to write new songs in the next few weeks, “I’m thinking about what kind of record we are going to make next, I’m not sure what it will sound like, but I’m really fed up with Aztec Camera comparisons and I’d like to get away from that. Our first album was a bit reminiscent of ‘High Land, High Rain’ and I know I might sound a bit like Roddy Frame, because I have a youngish voice, but I can’t see more comparisons beyond these. I loved ‘High Land, High Rain’, but I do not like any of the other Aztec Camera records at all, because I think they are quite polished and they’re nothing like what we do at all. The rest of the band gets quite annoyed about being compared with Aztec Camera, also because Paul doesn’t like them at all. I think it’s a bit lazy, but that’s the way many journalists tend to work. They might have ten reviews to write and want to have it done really quickly, so they go ‘oh yes, Trashcan Sinatras, they sound like Aztec Camera’ and that’s another review done.”

Apart from the December American radio stations tour, the future seems to be quite uncertain for the Trashcans, Reader says there are no huge plans for them at all, but there is one thing he wishes it will happen, “It would be good for us if the record would sell enough to allow us to play, travel, meet people and do the things that make life a little interesting,” he states. Now that many weights have been lifted from the Trashcan Sinatras’ career, now that they are older and a little bit wiser and have found new inspirations, freedom and independence, Frank Reader’s wishes will be more likely to become true.


Issue 28, November 2004

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Pics: Trashcan Sinatras live in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens, 12th June 2004, by Anna Battista.