After Scottish rock band Trashcan Sinatras first found success with their 1990 debut album, Cake, their music spent three months on the Billboard 200 chart, led by jangly single “Obscurity Knocks.”
The new wave band struck gold again with 1993 sophomore album I’ve Seen Everything. Single “Hayfever” even got the attention of Beavis and Butthead. The song was featured on the MTV show. Trashcan Sinatras undoubedly influenced other acts like Keane, Sterephonics and Snow Patrol.
The band—which includes original members Frank Reader (vocals, guitar), Paul Livingston (guitar), John Douglas (guitar, vocals) and Stephen Douglas (drums); and newer members Stevie Mulhearn (keyboards) and Frank DiVanna (bass)—continued to grow its fanbase but ran into numerous headaches in America when distribution deals led to delayed releases.
Third record, A Happy Pocket, was not made avaialable in the U.S. at all when it was released in 1996. Their U.K. label was bought out by Universal, which dropped the band. The band members played a string of U.S. shows in 2000—their first since 1993—and released a fourth album, Weightlifting, in 2004. But their new U.S. distributor suddenly folded, leaving them without a proper release here again.
A fifth album, 2008’s In the Music, was released everywhere but in America. A licensing deal collapsed, delaying the U.S. release for two more years.
For their sixth release, the Trashcan Sinatras were not leaving anything up to chance. The band crowdfunded the cost of the recording and release by itself through PledgeMusic. They brought on acclaimed producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Justin Townes Earle, First Aid Kit, Rilo Kiley) at his studio in Omaha.
Wild Pendulum was inspired by the instrumental recordings of frequent collaborator Simon Dine. The band, not interested in revisiting familiar ground in terms of the recordig process, instead used those instrumentals as canvases for songs like “’Let Me Inside (Or Let Me Out),” Best Days On Earth” and “Ain’t That Simething.” The new songs are richly boyant, gliding down molten lava strings.
Trashcan Sinatras are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year with an intimate acoustic tour on which Reader, Livingston and Douglas vow to play a vast majority of their 100-plus songs. The three-piece band is covering the U.S. coast to coast and performs at the Chapel in San Francisco on Oct. 23. We asked Douglas a few questions by email.
RIFF: Your track record of releasing music in the U.S. has been spotty. What is it about the country that keeps you trying to release albums here?
John Douglas: Ha!! Our American release pattern is, as you say, spotty. Or is it? Only one of our six studio albums failed to be released in the USA. But if one out of six is spotty then I’m happy to be polka-dotted. The USA has always been friendly toward our music. The West Coast area is where we first gained a following. We are all West Coast Scotsmen, so maybe those sunset shores made their way into the songs. But the reason we keep “trying” to release records in America is because many Americans treasure them; find a resonance with them. There’s something we do that travels west well.
Where do all of the band members live these days? Two of you live in California; what parts?
I live in Glasgow, near the Forensic Science Department. Frank lives in Pasadena, near Van Dyke Parks. Stephen lives in Glasgow, near the abandoned police station and Paul lives in Tacoma, near Poverty Bay [Coffee].
In what ways is your accoustic show different from traditional electric show?
We will take up less room, we will play a lot more songs [and] we will be easier to feed. There is still a little electricity involved in the show. Paul will be levitating stage right, Frank will be throwing his voice center stage and I will be sawing girls in half stage left. Apart from those subtle shifts, its still the same old beautiful song feast.
You crowdfunded Wild Pendulum. What was that experience like for you? Where there any hurdles to overcome, any unexpected benefits?
It was a smooth, painless experience. Money changed hands; music was made. Financially, it’s probably the easiest journey we’ve made that finished with a record. I don’t recall jumping any hurdles.
I read somewhere that you’re aiming to play all 100 of your songs. Is that still the case? How do you rehearse for so many songs?
Yes, it is still the case. We are rehearsing separately at the moment … in our various Californian, Glaswegian and Tacoman bedrooms. Around half of the 100 are second nature, as we have been playing them regularly over the years. The other half are dusty strangers that are taking a bit of time to get reacquainted with. When we all meet up in Washington to begin the tour, we will have a whole luxurious eight hours to put the final polish on the 100. No sweat.
You and Frank are related now, since you married Frank’s sister, Eddi Reader, in 2013. What kind of effect does it have in the dynamic? Can you feel even more like family than you did before?
Hard to quantify; we just get on with things, as we always did. The band has always had a familial vibe. For better and worse, that vibe continues.
The band has gone years between albums. What other projects do you take up in the interim?
We all have our various family lives that soak up the interims. I record and tour with my wife and contribute to writing on her records as well as touring with Irish traditional band the Alan Kelly Gang. Alan is a master accordion player from Galway, in the west of Ireland, and a few of my songs have ended up on his recordings with my wife on vocals. So we tour Ireland every year, playing traditional tunes as well as playing the songs.
It sounds like Simon Dine played a crucial role in the creation of Wild Pendulum. How did you get the idea to craft a Trashcan Sinatras album from his instrumental pieces?
We had worked with Simon in the past. His instrumental pieces found their way into a song we were writing years ago called “Trouble Sleeping,” and we both had a lot of fun working together at the time. Over the past few years he had sent us many pieces, with a view to us writing lyric and melody. The results became an undeniable bunch of songs that had our flavours running through them so it seemed the right thing to do was make them our next record.
Since this tour is billed as a look back, let’s do that. Which one of your songs is your favorite, and why?
At the moment, my favourite is a song that nearly made it on to our In The Music album. It ended up being the extra track on import versions of the album. It’s called “Astronomy” and it has a great feel to it. I remember writing it and it came over a few nights. There was a while until I was happy with the words but I knew early on that it was strong.
What song should fans be excited to hear and why?
I guess the songs of the first album, “Cake,” will be exciting for folk to hear. There are some we haven’t played for decades, and that record holds a special place in a lot of hearts, so I hope we do them justice and give everyone a good night of old, new, familiar and surprising moments.