Interview Date: 07/21/2009
Run Date: 08/04/2009
Here is all you need to know about the passion that the music of literate Scottish popsters the Trashcan Sinatras inspires in their fans: during one particularly rough stretch in the band’s existence, the members of the band’s email list – which included this writer, as well as Bullz-Eye associate editor Will Harris – sent the band money in order to keep them solvent and discourage them from throwing in the towel. Lead singer Frank Reader later sent us a note saying that he was “embarrassed” by our generosity.
Now let us guess: you’ve never heard of them.
We’d like to act surprised, feign shock and all that jazz, but it would be just that – an act. In truth, the last time the band had a major push from their record company was 1993, when the piano- and strings-driven “Hayfever” just missed the Top 10 of the Modern Rock chart (and subsequently made a memorable appearance during one of the music video segments of “Beavis & Butt-Head”). Their 1996 album A Happy Pocket did not see a US release (which inspired the fan club pledge drive), and the band did not release another album until 2004’s Weightlifting, whereupon the band’s new label, spinArt, would declare bankruptcy before paying the band a penny.
Sadly, the band’s fortunes have not changed much in the time since. They are set to embark on their first US tour in five years, which was originally scheduled to come right after the release of their lovely new album In the Music. The album’s release, however, is now in limbo after their original deal fell through (it’s now tentatively slated for September), and the tour is now being retrofitted as a “pre-release” affair. The band’s website administrator – who moderated the email list back in the day – wrote us asking for help. “Can you help get the word out on this tour?” Hell yes, we can. We chatted with guitarist Paul Livingston about his love/hate relationship with the guitar, recording with a music legend without actually meeting them, and why they will continue to use the record label system despite a decade-plus of bad luck at their hands.
Bullz-Eye: It is my great pleasure to speak with you. How are things out in California?
Paul Livingston: Eh, it’s very hot. How are things in…is it Illinois?
BE: Ohio, actually. (Note: I still have my Chicago cell phone number.)
PL: Ah, you’re in Ohio? See, I’d like to live somewhere like that.
BE: You’re coming here very soon, hitting Cleveland in the beginning of August. In fact, I have a message from a couple of friends of mine who are going to see you in Cleveland. They have asked that you take it easy the night before the show, because the last time you were in town, they said you were too hung over to go drinking with them.
PL: Oh, my God. I totally believe that. But after a show, usually, a drink is the best cure for a hangover. I wish I could remember [turning your friends down].
BE: So you’re doing your second US tour in five years. If you don’t watch it, we Americans might get used to this, you know.
PL: Was it really five years? That seems like a lot. And there’s going to be more. There’s going to be one before the end of this year, and hopefully more next year.
BE: I really like the new album.
PL: Oh, I’m glad.
BE: How would you describe the new album to those who haven’t heard it?
PL: Well, I was telling everyone that it was, like, disco music. Pop, 1970s, like Bee Gees disco music. But it’s not really, is it?
BE: Mmmmm, no.
PL: (Laughs) That’s what it sounds like in my head, but then, the older (Trashcan Sinatras) stuff sounds like Black Sabbath in my head. It’s different from what we usually do.
BE: It feels different to me in that this one reveals itself after a few plays, whereas I found the other albums were a lot more immediate.
PL: Right. It’s hard for us to know what that’s like. I mean, it seems to me that these songs are simpler. Less of different sections, and less of the big arrangements, and it’s more just about playing this one circular groove, and hoping that the feel is enough, and not like putting lots of overdubs on it, to try and make it interesting to someone’s ear. That’s different in that we’re not poring over every second of it, filling in every gap with an overdub. It’s just the sound of a band playing live in a room. A disco band!
BE: A Bee Gees band!
PL: That’s right! (Laughs)
BE: I have a confession: the beginning of “The Engine” immediately made me think of “Orange Fell.”
PL: Right. Oh, there’s definitely that connection there. “Orange Fell” is one of my favorites, actually. Yeah, we were just talking about learning that one for the tour.
PL: Yeah, that was a good one.
BE: You guys aren’t known for having guest performers on your albums, but you have a big one here in Carly Simon. How did that come about?
PL: That’s cool, innit?
PL: Well, after we recorded the backing tracks in New York, the producer, Andy Chase, was going to set up a studio at his house in Martha’s Vineyard. And he said, “Come on, Carly Simon lives here.” And we were floored, and thought, “That would be great if we could meet her.” And so he asked her to sing on a song, and we got her a lot of the songs we were working on. But the disappointing thing was, when we were in Martha’s Vineyard, she was in New York. So we didn’t meet her, which is kind of a bummer.
BE: Oh, that’s no fun.
PL: Yeah, that’s shit, isn’t it? The idea was that she’d come to Martha’s Vineyard and sing, and that’d be great. And then when people asked us in interviews, ‘what was it like,’ we thought we’d have a better answer than, “We didn’t meet her.” But we’re going to invite her to some of these gigs, see if she’ll come. But it was really nice of her to be so into the music.
BE: That’s praise from Caesar.
PL: That’s right.
BE: Unfortunately, the band is experiencing more record label unpleasantness.
BE: Have you given any thought to forming your own label so you don’t have to go through this anymore?
PL: That’s kind of what we’ve done before. We released Weightlifting on our own label [in the UK]. The problem with that is that we’re selling [our records] to the same people. You need someone with a bit of clout, and money, to reach other people that have never heard us before. I think that’s what’s happening in Britain at the moment, but it’s cheaper in Britain. And we just don’t have any money, that’s the trouble. It costs a lot of money to release a record, and promote it, and do all that stuff.
BE: You hear these stories about how bands will take donations from their fans. They record the album, they own the master tapes, and they can distribute it as they wish. Have you looked into that?
PL: That’s come up, and the limited special edition of In the Music helped a lot (Note: the band ran off a limited number of copies of their new album where they thanked every person who pre-ordered a copy in the liner notes, and included two bonus tracks. These CDs sold for $39.95 each.) Those sales are helping us do this tour. We wouldn’t rule out doing that in future, but I think it all depends on what you’re trying to do. We coasted along for a while, just for the same people. We don’t have enough fans at the moment. It’s hard for me to tell, actually, because we never made any money from Weightlifting, because of spinArt. So we don’t actually know what kind of state we’re in.
BE: I just heard about the Weightlifting thing, and I was shocked that you didn’t see a penny from them. That’s too bad.
PL: No, I know. That was a total disaster.
BE: You would think that to get the album out in the States would be a big step forward after what happened with A Happy Pocket, and then to have that happen must have been a kick in the teeth.
PL: It was a kick in the teeth, but at that point, we didn’t get down about it. We just smiled and moved on. That sort of shit happens all the time. And it’s nothing personal, you know? You just gotta laugh and shake your head.
BE: You and Francis now live in the States, right? How do you go about the Transatlantic songwriting process?
PL: I actually only moved here a year ago, so most of the stuff had been done. Wait…it had actually been recorded, hadn’t it? So we haven’t had to deal with that yet. I don’t think it will be a problem, because usually…we don’t actually sit in the same room and write together. Someone does a song and then sends it to the others, so I don’t think that’s going to make any difference. But we’re just finding out how this process is going to work.
BE: I’ve heard rumors of the band’s back catalog getting reissued. Do you have any updates on that?
PL: Yes. It’s definitely going to happen. All of the albums getting released with B-sides, and I think there’s going to be a box set as well.
BE: What label is putting it out?
PL: It’s someone to do with Universal. Maybe Fontana, actually. But it’d be good to see those four albums in a box set.
BE: You mentioned that you were working on bringing “Orange Fell” into the set. What are some songs that you’ve pulled out for this tour that you haven’t played in a while?
PL: Um, “Easy Read,” but we always play that! Because we’ve only had four rehearsals, we’re sticking to the ones that we came to know. But there was some talk about possibly learning “Even the Odd,” which we haven’t played since Cake. But we’re trying to learn more songs as the tour goes on. So by the time you see us, we’ll have learned a few, I think.
BE: I was one of the participants in the Great Trashcan Sinatras Pledge Drive of 1997. Do you remember that?
PL: Yes, I do.
BE: What did you purchase for yourself with the money we sent you?
PL: Um…fuck! I don’t even know! (Laughs) It possibly just went towards bills.
BE: Damn it, don’t you hate it when you have to be practical like that?
PL: Yeah, it’s not good. Yeah, I saw the bit that Frank had done. That was a good interview. (Note: He’s referring to the interview that our own Will Harris did for Popdose, which I referenced in a portion of our chat that has been excised. You can read Part I of Will’s interview here, and Part II of the interview here.)
BE: Yeah, that’s my friend Will. He’s good at this whole interviewing thing.
PL: Yeah, he got Frank in a really talkative mood. And I saw your comment, you’re absolutely right. (Laughs)
BE: Oh, where I said I haven’t even done my interview with you yet, and it already sucks?
PL: Yes, that was very funny.
BE: Ah, thank you very much. How about that for self-fulfilled prophecy?
PL: I haven’t done an interview for a few years, so this is going to be pretty rusty.
BE: Well, we’re almost done, so look at it that way. One of my favorite bands at the moment hails from Scotland. Have you heard of Attic Lights?
PL: I’ve seen that name a lot. Are they good?
BE: They’re really good.
PL: I’m going to check them out. What kind of music is it?
BE: They’re being managed by Francis McDonald from Teenage Fanclub, so it’s sun-kissed pop. It’s not as noisy as some of Teenage Fanclub’s stuff, but lots of harmonies…
BE: I’m skipping out of Lollapalooza early to come see you guys in Chicago.
PL: Really? Why?
BE: Because I’ve never seen you before.
PL: Ah, right. So you have tickets to Lollapalooza?
BE: I do. I’m covering it for the site, but we have another person that is going to stay to cover the bands I miss. So after the Arctic Monkeys, I’m out of there to see you. Wait, no, the Kaiser Chiefs. Can I buy you a drink?
PL: Maybe I’ll buy you one instead. I can understand staying for the Arctic Monkeys, but not so much the Kaiser Chiefs.
BE: No? I love those guys.
PL: They’re too comedy for me. So who else is playing Lollapalooza? Who are the headliners?
BE: Well, one of the headliners was the Beastie Boys, but they had to cancel because one of them was diagnosed with cancer.
PL: That’s right, that’s terrible.
BE: Depeche Mode is headlining, the Killers, Jane’s Addiction, Tool…
PL: Well, I appreciate the sacrifice.
BE: Oh, it’s no sacrifice. I lived in Chicago for ten years and never saw you, and you’re playing Schuba’s, which one of my favorite places to see a show.
PL: Oh, that’s great.
BE: I’ll introduce myself as the guy who lulled you out of interview retirement.
BE: I know you have lots of things to do before you head to Fiji, but I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.
PL: Oh, my pleasure.
BE: I do have a couple more questions, though. What is the current status of the album?
PL: We’re trying to find a record company.
BE: Any leads on that front?
PL: Yeah, there was someone we were talking to before we got the Hensley deal, so we’re going back to them. And they’re trying to help us out, because people are sympathetic to our silly situation. I’m confident that we’ll get there. It’s just a matter of putting all the stuff back, radio, promotional, all that. And obviously the tour is going to be a preview tour. But that’s okay. It could be one of those things that work out better for us, you know? Always look on the bright side.
BE: Well, you have to look on the bright side, you live in southern California now. It’s always bright.
PL: That’s right.
BE: How is it adjusting to hot and sunny every day?
PL: Actually, it’s getting a little bit old. When I first got here, I thought, “Every day, it puts a smile on my face, it makes me happy.” But there are other days where you want to stay indoors, and not feel guilty about it. You want it to be raining, and you want to watch black and white films. And in California, you can’t watch a film during the day. It seems wrong, somehow. I mean, most of the time I really love it. The thing that I don’t like so much is that there’s no nature. We used to live in Pasadena, and you felt like you were in a town in the middle of trees and stuff. And here, in West Hollywood, it’s just city, cement, and dust, and sun. But the bright side is, we’ve got a swimming pool, so I do a lot of that. Didn’t have that in Glasgow.
BE: When you weren’t working on Trashcans-related stuff, have you met any other musicians or done any outside work?
PL: No. To be honest, I haven’t really played much guitar, at all, in the past year. I’m slowly coming back to it, though. I think I was just acclimatizing to [southern California]. I have a funny relationship with the guitar. Sometimes I really love it, and sometimes I just cannot be bothered with it.
BE: Do you play anything else when you can’t be bothered with the guitar?
PL: Nope. Not a thing. I haven’t been listening to music these days, either. It’s really bad. I listen to classic rock a lot. (Laughs)
BE: When I ask other musicians what they’re listening to, they’re reluctant to tell me. They’re either afraid to reveal some influence that they don’t want people to know, or they don’t want to hear other music for fear of accidentally taking something from them.
PL: I think that a lot of [new music] just doesn’t suit me. It’s kind of a full-time job, keeping up with new bands, and listening to other new records that have got great songs on them. It seems easier to stick with what was in your ear as a teenager. You know?
BE: Yes, I do know. This job has completely wrecked my listening habits. I feel like I have to have an opinion about every album ever released, and it’s impossible.
PL: Of course. The upside of that is that you do get to hear the good stuff.
BE: I do. And I get to talk to guys like you, so how do you beat that, right?
PL: Ah, that’s nice. Thank you very much.
BE: I will see you at Schuba’s, and you tell me what kind of drink you want, and I’ll have one waiting for you.PL: No, I’ll get you one. Just you watch.