Interview Date: 02/22//2011
Run Date: 03/04/2011
Here is the story of the Trashcan Sinatras in a nutshell.
They released their debut album, Cake, in 1990, and instantly won fans through their singles “Obscurity Knocks” and “Only Tongue Can Tell.” When their sophomore effort, I’ve Seen Everything, came out in 1993, those same fans came back for more, but with the landscape of music having changed so dramatically between Album #1 and Album #2 (thanks for nothing, Nirvana), even the piano-propelled “Hayfever” couldn’t shift enough units for the band to maintain their American record deal. Suddenly, having a song called “Obscurity Knocks” didn’t seem so funny anymore. And, yet, a funny thing happened right around the time the guys released their third album, A Happy Pocket, in 1996: the internet allowed Trashcan fans to band together and proclaim their mutual love of the group. Since then…well, it’d probably be overstating things to say that they’ve been shifting mass units, but they have managed to release a couple of new studio albums (2004’s Weightlifting and 2009’s In the Music), a couple of live albums wherein they’ve performed their songs in an “unplugged” setting (2005’s Fez and 2010’s Brel), and, perhaps most importantly to the fans, they’ve continued to tour.
Oh, right, and they’re also directly responsible for bringing me to Bullz-Eye: David Medsker and I were two of those fans who banded together back in the day, and if it wasn’t for meeting him (first virtually, then eventually in the real world), God only knows where I’d be writing right now.
Given this connection, you can understand why we try to do whatever we can to help give the Trashcan Sinatras some love, so when we heard that they were hitting the road for another acoustic tour of the States, this time taking requests from the fans via the ‘net, we wanted to do our part and make sure you were aware of it. Soon enough, we had the band’s frontman, Frank Reader, on the phone…if, admittedly, not quite as soon as we thought we were going to have him.
Frank Reader: I’m sorry I’m late calling you! Do you want me to ring you another time to do this?
Bullz-Eye: If you can do it, I can do it. But it’s a snow day for my wife and daughter both, and the latter has been hanging around, waiting for me to go outside with her. But I think we can knock this out without having her hate me forever.
FR: (Laughs) I’m really sorry about that. I shouldn’t arrange things too far ahead of time. You’d think with all of these reminder devices around me I’d be able to keep it together, but…
BE: Quite all right.
FR: So where are you that’s so snowy?
FR: Ah, okay! Well, it’s beautiful here in Pasadena.
BE: I have no doubt. So you guys are prepping for your upcoming tour, I know. Given the dedication of the fan base, I’m sure it’s always fun to play out.
FR: Yeah, well, this is actually covering a part of the country that we didn’t previously cover in the tour in October. When did we speak last? Was it right before we did the electric tour…?
BE: Actually, it was right before In the Music came out.
FR: Oh, okay. Time flies! Well, you know, we did that tour back in October where it was just the four of us: me, John (Douglas), Paul (Livingston), and Stephen (Douglas). Sort of the original four, you know? Playing like that is really natural to us, because we grew up sort of playing acoustic guitars and writing songs that way together. We’ve also got a lot more to call on, because what we tend to do with the bass player and the keyboard player is teach them 25 to 30 songs, or something like that, and choose from them. Whereas we’ve got a lot more motor memory going with the older songs, you know, where the four of us just know them. At least until amnesia kicks in. (Laughs) So we’ve got a whole palate to work from, so we can take requests, and things can get a little bit looser that way. And, you know, it was a great experience, actually, doing the west coast thing, so that’s why we wanted to take it over to the east and the Midwest. It’s just very simple, you know? There’s an inherent sort of pressure when you’ve got the big rock show…not that I’d call our thing a big rock show! (Laughs) But half your mind is on whether the equipment will actually work, so with this, even if things were to go catastrophically wrong, a lot of the time we could actually still do the gig. So that kind of pressure’s gone, for the most part.
BE: You mentioned the requests. You guys have now gone interactive with your set lists, taking requests on line.
FR: Yeah, well, we take them. (Laughs) And then we sort of see how everybody feels about each and every song. We’ll probably give anything a go, but so far it’s been working really well, because what we tend to do is…Joe (DiMaria), who you know, he’s on the ball with it all, so he’ll sort of gather up all of the requests from everybody who, as far as he can tell, are going to a particular show. For the most part, we tend to be doing the songs, anyway, because people tend to just vote for their favorite songs, regardless of…they don’t really take into consideration whether something’s rare or not. For the most part, they tend to be songs that we already like, anyway, so there’s no problem. But we do try to kind and stretch ourselves backwards, if that’s possible, and maybe do something that’s a wee bit out of our comfort zone. Because a lot of these old songs, they don’t sit all that well on the shoulders, you know? They feel a little bit strange, some of them. And sometimes I’ll be thinking, “God, I was doing stuff on that last one…” You need to learn how to breathe when you’re doing these songs, because some of them have warped phrasings and melodies that just take a lot of breath. It takes the breath of a 20-year-old to sing them! (Laughs) And if I don’t get any practice at it, and I think, “Ah, I’ll be fine, we’ll remember that song,” then you go on stage, and it’s, like, “Oh, my God, how do you actually fit these words in?” As nonsensical as they sort of are…or seem to be. But I’m often pleasantly surprised by how good they are and how well they work.
BE: Are there any songs that get requested on a regular basis that still prove to be a struggle?
FR: Not that get regular requests. Not as far as I can tell. There’s a couple of songs that…well, I think Joe’s actually going to stop handing over those requests, because we just won’t do them. (Laughs) There’s maybe a couple of B-sides that are a little difficult to play. But to be honest, though, if you get us on the right night…or, rather, you have to get Paul on the right night. Me and John…God bless Paul, but he’s a bit more stubborn. He goes, “I’m not doing that, I’m not doing that, forget it.” (Laughs) In fact, sometimes someone will request something, and Paul will just go and have a beer, because he won’t really know what he’s doing, and he’s not up for just playing along. He likes things rehearsed, the poor guy…
BE: By the way, I dropped Paul an E-mail and asked if he had any questions that I should ask of you. His response: “What’s wrong with Robin Gibb?”
FR: (Laughs) Well, Robin…you know, my enemy is my friend’s enemy, ‘cause Robin doesn’t seem to like Barry very much, and I love Barry Gibb! So I’m just defending Barry. (Laughs) Robin’s all right. I just watched a big, long YouTube documentary made in the last year, and it was fantastic, truly fantastic. But a really sad story. It just seemed a very unusual story, you know, where three brothers take this journey together, making music together, and despite the jealousy that Robin seems to have for Barry, it worked so well. But then they lost Maurice. It’s just very sad.
BE: I remember the last time we talked that you said it would be a dream come true for you to get Barry Gibb to produce a Trashcan Sinatras album.
FR: Yeah, unfortunately, I think he’s going to be tied up. He’s doing the Bee Gees again with Robin, I think, so I don’t think that’s going to happen for a wee while. But, still, if I come across anybody who’s got a bit of clout, you know… (Laughs) We’re working with a new management company, and I think they’ve got Coldplay on their books, and they seem to know an enormous amount of people. Maybe they could just say to Barry, “Here’s Coldplay’s new demo,” but it’s actually the Trashcans on it. Just pull the wool over Barry’s eyes long enough to get us in the door. (Laughs)
BE: I’m sure you’ve adjusted your expectations for albums over the years, but were you happy with the reception for In the Music?
FR: I was happy with the reception, but I was very disappointed with the sales of it. It just didn’t sell. It didn’t get played. We’ve had to kind of really re-think what we’re going to do with the next one. A lot of people have preconceptions of us. So it’s disappointing in that sense, and you start feeling lost for a short time, but then you start to get ideas for new songs, and you start to forget. As painful as it is, you just go on with it again. But, no, it didn’t sell. It was very disappointing as far as sales go.
BE: So how far into writing the next album are you?
FR: Well, we’re just at the pruning stage. It’s winter, so the plants are rested and have been pruned, and now we’re just waiting for the buds to grow. We’ve got a couple of things going and…yeah, we’re starting to feel our way a little bit again. It’s hard to say, though, you know? It always feels like such a huge mountain to climb to get a collection of songs. Also, whether we’ll release things in the same way is up for grabs. Whether we’ll collect 10 or 12 songs and make an album is up for grabs. We might do it differently. A lot of people have. I don’t know. It’s not something that really rocks my boat, you know? I don’t really think how to release things. It’s all about writing them and then recording them. The main thing is being able to record things in the way that we want, you know? As far as that goes, we’re really lucky, in that every album, every collection of songs we’ve had, we’ve managed to get ourselves in a position in the studio with an engineer and with the space and the time to be able to make the record that we want to make. And sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we fall short, but we’ve usually had the money and the opportunity to do it. But this time, I’m worried that we won’t even have that. That we won’t have the opportunity. Because it’s so expensive, you know? In the Music probably all in all cost nearly 30 to 40 thousand dollars to make, all in. And when you’ve got promotion and stuff like that, too…? It’s very difficult to get that kind of money together.
BE: Well, you know, you could always go the Kickstarter route. That seems to be getting pretty popular these days.
FR: I’ve heard of a few things, like Bandcamp. But what’s Kickstarter?
BE: Well, for instance, David Mead just financed his next album through fan donations. You set up the project, take donations, and certain increments of donations get certain bonuses, like acknowledgements in the liner notes or what have you.
FR: Yeah, of course, that’s been around in various forms for quite awhile…as you probably know quite well. For ten years or so, we’ve heard about fans paying for albums up front.
BE: You guys kind of toyed with that a bit, though, didn’t you? I mean, I have the deluxe edition of In the Music, with my name in the booklet, for having purchased it well in advance of its regular release.
FR: Yeah, but we had already made the record. We’d actually done the actual recordings. That was in terms of printing up the record. But in terms of getting money from people on the promise that you’re going to go in and make a record…? Something about that just rubs me the wrong way. I’d rather be as independent about it as possible. Obviously, with record companies in the past, that’s what they’d do, but that’s a different thing. You’d have an agreement and a contract. Working with individual donations…I mean, we may do it, but I was thinking that maybe that’s something we could do with repackaging the back catalog. When it comes down to actually making new music and people paying you up front, I would find, for instance, the idea of how much of a perfectionist you want to be would be affected. “Well, I don’t actually like that record.” “Yeah, but people have paid for it, and they’re waiting for it.” (Sighs) “All right, well, okay, we’ll just give ‘em it, then.” I feel like that’d be compromised. But at the same time, there’s a deadline factor, too, which could actually be helpful. But that’s me being a Libra. (Laughs)
BE: To bring it back to the tour to close, for people who might be considering going to one of the shows, can you give them an idea what to expect? It sounds like you’ll at least potentially be playing songs from all of the albums.
FR: Oh, yeah, we’ve been doing stuff from Cake, and…well, I know you know our songs quite well! (Laughs) …but, obviously, we’ve been doing the single-y stuff, but we’ve also been doing stuff like “Drunken Chorus,” “Thrupenny Tears,” and “You Made Me Feel,” and there’s always the potential to do a couple of others, and then some odd little B-sides. So, yeah, we can definitely guarantee a few more songs than we did on the In the Music tour with the full band. We’ve been having a real blast with it, to be honest. It’s been super-enjoyable to do these gigs, as there’s an element of the barrier coming down a wee bit with the audience. When it’s acoustic, you’re not trying to pin them to the back wall with sound anymore, so…I dunno, we have a nice chat, we feel very relaxed, and I think people can kind of see our relationship a bit more clearly. I think when you’re playing with a full band, everybody’s so intent on all of their equipment working that there’s a little bit of five individuals. With this, we can communicate with each other and with the audience. Yeah, I think it’s kind of an evening of warmth and song.
BE: Well, when you come to Dayton, Ohio, David Medsker will be putting in a request for “The Genius I Was.”
FR: Oh, right! I think we did that at some point, so that should be all right. Dayton, eh? That should be interesting. Our sound man is from Dayton, and he speaks highly of the place. (Laughs) I always get it mixed up with…isn’t there some place called Dayton that’s to do with motor racing?
BE: That’d be Daytona.
FR: Right, right. And that’s in Florida, right?
BE: Right.FR: I’ll try not to make that mistake. Or maybe I’ll make it on purpose, just so people will wonder what I’m going on about. “It’s great to be back at the speedway!” (Laughs)