erasing clouds

Zebras of the Family: Interview with Trash Can Sinatras

by anna battista

Kitchens are secret places, rooms full of smells and noises where different ingredients combine to formulate the perfect culinary alchemy. And if you end up by any reason in a proper restaurant kitchen you might even be able to meet angry chefs and sous chefs quarrelling with each other. But the kitchen of Brel Bar, in the heart of Glasgow's West End, is really quiet. No, you're wrong, it's not so quiet because there's nobody in the restaurant, it's because it's almost midnight. Everything is silent behind the kitchen door, everything is immaculate and spotless and the stainless steel of the taps, tables and tools mirrors on its surfaces the yellowy light beaming from the ceiling. In the background, the drone of the fridge never seems to die. "Vrrrrr," goes the monotonous fridge, "Vrrrrrrrrrrr…" But we don't care about what the fridge says, we're not here to listen to its comments, we're here to have a chat with Trash Can Sinatras.

Frank, John, Stephen, Paul and Davy have just played their last gig in this Glasgow's bar and restaurant that has constantly been sold out any time the Trash Cans were on. Right outside the kitchen door there's an after show party going on while fans downstairs are stopping random members of the band asking them to sign scraps of paper or albums. "This was the fourth time we played in Brel," guitarist John Douglas tells me in his soft spoken voice, made almost inaudible by the fridge in the background. "It was always good playing here, we always had nice crowds. Since we played quiet, softer, acoustic sets, we had to change some of the arrangements of the songs, but we tried to make every gig different. We do a different cover every night, tonight for example we did 'John' by Paul McCartney 'cos it's his birthday, so it was a sort of tribute. It's great playing live again."

Trash Can Sinatras disappeared for a while after the album A Happy Pocket (1996), resurfaced later on with the Snow EP (1999) and a b-sides collection, On a B Road (2001), and then disappeared again. Yet, their fans stayed loyal: there were those who came from all over the world to see them playing at the Brel Bar gigs. "There was a guy who came from Mexico to see one of the gigs we played here," John remembers, "It's really flattering to know that people travel that long away to see us, it makes us feeling special and for us it's just fantastic. We keep in touch with our fans through the message board on the Trash Cans site, but it's nice to meet them, it's great to know that what we do means a lot to them and this means a lot to us as well."

The Trash Cans recently played also a special gig, this time at Glasgow's Garage, where they headlined a concert that also featured The Vaselines' Eugene Kelly and Astrid. "That gig was done for a British charity called One in Four. We became involved in the project through a friend of a friend who works in the charity and asked us if we wanted to do it. Most of the people there were from Glasgow and we played a bit louder that night."

Playing gigs isn't the only thing that kept Trash Can Sinatras busy: the band has been working on a new record and has released a double CD album, Zebra of the Family (Bobame Recordings, 2003) that includes old demos recorded between 1986 and 1997. The quality might not be great, but the forty-one tracks on it are musts for collectors and for Trash Cans' obsessive fans. "The title of the album is taken from a line in a song entitled 'I'm the One Who Fainted'", John explains, while singer Frank Reader joins us in the kitchen. "We did this compilation because we wanted to raise some money to fund and record a new album and this seemed a decent way of doing it. Now the money raised has all gone, but it was precious. We had a lot of stuff on the back catalogue that we hadn't released. Some of the demos on Zebra of the Family are different versions of the actual tracks on our records. There are a few songs that were really worth and never fitted on any record anywhere anytime and we knew they were as good as those that were out and we wanted to release them. We're quite happy about it because, for what it is, that's the best we could have done it. It was nice just to sit down for a few days and listen to all that stuff. It was a pleasant surprise."

There's a short silence filled, of course, by the fridge droning away and by Frank's whispering remarks about having to be drunk to go through their whole back catalogue, after which he tells us more about the album: "Zebra of the Family brought us the independence to make another record, it had its purpose and it served its purpose. It's a fan record, it's a record to give people a thrill. We can't say how many copies of Zebra we sold up to now, but we printed a thousand and it's still doing OK."

Inside the album, fans will find lots of info about how each song was written and recorded. For example, the story regarding "January's Little Joke" says: "We wrote this song whilst holidaying in (on?) the Outer Hebrides just before Christmas 1989, and we wanted to record it right away, so we phoned the only studio on the Isle of Lewis, booked some time and settled back to watch the 2 p.m. sunset. Showed up at the studio the next day (at sundown) to find a note on the door saying 'Closed for Christmas'." "We put every story we could remember about the tracks on the sleevenotes," John explains, "All the stories are pretty weird…"

Even though John claims that lots of stories connected with the Trash Cans are weird, there is also an unusual thing that happened to them, recording a cover for a play. This happened in 1996, when they did a cover of John Barry's"Born Free", to be used in the stage version of Irvine Welsh's novel Marabou Stork Nightmares. There are rumours about the Scottish writer preparing to direct a movie about hooligans at the end of this year. What would the Trash Cans do if Welsh would ask them to write the soundtrack for the movie? "If it's hypothetical we'd say yes," Frank admits, "But I suppose it would depend on how we'd feel at the time when we would be asked. It's not the kind of thing we would turn down straight away, but back in '96, we always felt that our music didn't fit in the play. There are people who want to do this sort of things and see it as a way of selling a record, but we don't." Since we've taken a step back to 1996, we take a step back even further and remember the band's debut, "I would say that our most mature album is 'Cake' and it's funny that even though it's the oldest, it's also the most mature," Frank states. "At the time we were…" John starts, "…possessed!" Frank exclaims interrupting him, while John continues, "We just seemed to have a bunch of songs that fitted well, whereas with 'A Happy Pocket' we just recorded everything we had."

When Trash Can Sinatras started making their music, Eddi Reader, Frank's sister, had already become quite famous: the hit "Perfect" sang by Eddi and her band, Fairground Attraction, brought her success in 1988. "I wasn't really scared that my sister might have obscured us," Frank admits, "I could have only be scared that this could have happened when she was having number one hits, but I wasn't really."

Even though the Trash Cans' musical inspirations have remained the same, they mention The Jams and The Smiths among their fave bands for their attitude to music and for being such rare musicians, John and Frank say that there's something else regarding the band that has changed: the band itself. "The band changed in the way people change," John states, "We've been playing for a lot of years now…" "I think that before we weren't angry, but frustrated," Frank explains, "when you're in a band, you've got to accept yourself, then after you've accepted yourself, you'll accept everybody else and, then, you'll accept what you do. Now we're a bit more relaxed, we're older, so I think we're a bit softer. Yes, anger's an energy, but before it wasn't healthy. The angst is still there though and I still feel very intense about what we're doing now, but before I felt kind of isolated. I think we've come together and now we help each other out."

Another thing that has changed as time passed in the band's life is the record industry. "We've been away for a long time," Frank says, "When we were releasing a record before we were worried about how we would have been received, but the record industry seems completely transformed since we had our first record out. Right now we do not have expectations, we want independence. Every band who is exclusively interested in making music will never make money, but you'll always have bands interested only in money and that's why the record companies will never die."

Trash Can Sinatras' fans will still have to wait for a few months before being able to listen to the new album, "We're praying it will be ready for this year," John announces. "….or early next year," Frank adds. "The sooner the better," concludes John smiling, explaining, "We've finished recording it and Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub gave us a hand. This is the first time we have done something with him, he's a lovely guy and a great singer. There are three of four tracks that might become the first single, but it's still early to say which one we'll choose."

The drone of the fridge is still ever present as musical background when we decide to go back in the other room. Frank and John join Stephen, Paul, Davy and their friends and relatives who're still there partying. The world of music changes really quickly, one day you're the star, the next you've been forgotten. In this ever-changing world Trash Can Sinatras will stay the same, they'll keep on writing beautiful songs with weird lyrics, will probably disappear from the scene every now and then, but will always manage to have deranged fans who will do anything for them. Here's to the Trash Cans then and who's like them?

Trash Can Sinatras' site:

{The complete interview with John and Frank will be available on DVD, filmed by Ed Halliwell (who also deserves a big thank you!). Check the Trash Can Sinatras site for further info about the DVD).

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