England has arguably been the epicenter of pop music and culture since The Beatles changed the world five and a half decades ago. And Ireland is often acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with musically — from Van Morrison to Thin Lizzy to U2 and beyond. But I’ve long felt that Scotland has never really gotten the credit that it deserves. Particularly during the ‘80s and ‘90s, a slew of talented bands came out of Glasgow, Edinburgh and other Scottish cities. These range from Big Country to Orange Juice and from The Proclaimers to The Trashcan Sinatras.
Getting their start in late ‘80s Glasgow, the Trashcans started out as a cover band but soon began writing originals. Their debut album Cake was released in 1990 to critical acclaim, with the delightful single “Obscurity Knocks” becoming a hit on alternative radio stations here in the States. If the Trashcans’ profile has never been that high again on these shores, it’s not for lack of talent. Never the most prolific act in the world, they took three years before releasing their sophomore set, I’ve Seen Everything, and another three before dropping A Happy Pocket. Both of those discs came out on the major label Polydor. After that, however, the band would not unveil another album for nearly a decade. The independent release Weightlifting finally appeared in the late summer of 2004 and showed that the Trashcans still had a way with words and melodies.
The band released their fifth (and, to these ears, best) album, In the Music, in 2010. Highlights range from the beautiful, upbeat “Morning Star” to the lengthy, lovely “Oranges and Apples” (a tribute to Syd Barrett), to the haunting ballad “I Hung My Harp Upon the Willows.” But really, In the Music is an exercise in shimmering, gorgeous guitar-pop from start to finish. The Trashcans returned in 2016 with Wild Pendulum, perhaps their most diverse offering to date.
2018 is shaping up to be a busy year for the band even though they don’t have an new album out. Rather, they kicked off an American tour this week in which the nuclear trio of singer Frank Reader and guitarists John Douglas and Paul Livingston perform Cake and I’ve Seen Everything in their entirety. The Trashcans are rounded out by longtime drummer Stephen Douglas, keyboardist Stevie Mulhearn, and a series of revolving bass players. This piece is culled from interviews I did with Reader, John Douglas and Livingston. In addition to being talented, they struck me as being as unassuming a bunch of guys as you’re likely to find.
What was the music scene like in Scotland when you guys were first getting together in the late ’80s?
FRANK READER: Well, we got together in a town called Irvine. [It] was about 20, 30 miles southwest of Glasgow, on the coast. There were a lot of families from Glasgow that had [moved] to places like that. They were called “New Towns,” you know, sort of municipal grading. [It was] built like a donut. Then in the middle of the donut would be this tiny old town that’s been there since, like, the 1400s, you know? Half of the pubs were literally 400 years old.
So these really crowded small towns, [on] the weekends, with all the youngsters … [We had] what you’d call the jocks and all that scene: some violent, some not. [Then] there was the Goths and the Rockabillies… We’d all be in there with our own little factions. And these scenes were happenin’ everywhere. When we’d go five miles [away], it was a totally different scene, you know? It was like a heavy metal scene — very vibrant. People were interested not just in music [but] in politics and art.
JOHN DOUGLAS: The Postcard [Records] scene had run its course but left an influence, [which was both] good and bad. The Jesus and Mary Chain made a bit of a splash next. Simple Minds had been good but somehow lost it. Big Country were great. Our peers were glossy, soul types – Deacon Blue, Wet Wet Wet, Danny Wilson. Those were the Scottish bands [who were] releasing records as we were starting out. The best Scottish band around at the time was The Proclaimers.
What prompted the upcoming tour? You guys are gonna be playing your first two albums in their entirety.
FR: Yeah, it’s an acoustic tour. Me, Paul and John. We did one last year [but] we had a different theme; we attempted to play every song that we had written together. We’re quite a relaxed bunch — drama free, thankfully. And we were just looking for another way to do it really. I think Cake’s only like 29 minutes or 33 minutes. So we thought we’d just do both [albums]. It’s as simple as that. [We kick off] the 16th of May, which is a Wednesday. We’ll play in San Diego at The Casbah.
So you’re gonna play the States and then go to the UK after that?
FR: We’re going to the UK in late July, but that’s gonna be a full band tour. We got asked to do a short tour with Del Amitri, out of the blue. We’re gettin’ back with our old bass player, Davy [Hughes]. He’s still one of our songwriting partners but he doesn’t tour with us. [So] he’s gonna come back [and] do that short tour, if he can get the time off.
There were a couple of years between Cake and I’ve Seen Everything.
FR: Three years, yeah.
I was curious [about] what it was like making I’ve Seen Everything versus the debut. In what ways might the two albums have been similar or different to make?
FR: [They were] night and day, really. The first [album]…when you start off, everything’s great. You don’t seem to have that kind of self doubt — just speaking personally. Every idea we had [seemed] great.
We were all emptied out by the Cake experience. That [album] was also pieced together from demos. It had a lot of really overbearing demo-itis, you know? Even though I didn’t really know fuck-all, I was interfering too much. I regret that. So the next one…it took so long trying to write songs. The catalyst for everything is always the song, and we weren’t really writing anything. Davy actually joined at that point. Our [first] bass player left and Davy came — and he was a songwriter in his own right. So he gave us a boost. And then we settled on one producer and we had a really nice rapport with him. That was one of those kind of joyful artist-producer relationships that I’ve read about so much (laughs). It was a really great experience. Ray Shulman kind of guided us through.
It’s still one of the fans’ favorites, I’ve Seen Everything. It was a big step for us too, lyrically and musically. John started to write a lot more [and] Paul too. I was… trying to keep up with people, really. They were writing great songs. But we still collaborated. We’ve got a fairly good ‘share the load’ kind of system, and I think that’s kind of helped us [keep things fresh].
Who are some of the guitarists that have inspired you over the years?
JD: Before I even went near a guitar in my early teens, I loved Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham [of] Thin Lizzy, Steve Hackett and Mick Jones. I loved all the multi-layered, melodic guitar stuff on the Clash records. Johnny Marr was another amazing multi-layerer.
PAUL LIVINGSTON: Well, Johnny Marr obviously. He was the first to make me look outside my beloved heavy metal. [But] Jeff Beck is the most emotional player I’ve heard. And Robert Fripp is just frightening!
What is it about Scotland that causes it to produce so many talented musicians?
PL: I reckon the cold weather has a lot to do with it. I actually find it harder to write in L.A. It’s just too fucking sunny! Also, people drink a lot in Scotland. Being drunk or stoned or tired takes you out of yourself, which is always the best way to write. As the late Captain [Beefheart] said, “If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it.”
I have to ask you about one song [from] In the Music. I know you’re not gonna play it at these shows but I’ve gotta ask you about “Morning Star.” I think it’s absolutely beautiful.
FR: Thanks a lot. [That] was one of the few songs that we didn’t play from that album when we toured. I think we may have done it once or twice but there didn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for it (laughs). It was kind of old music of Paul’s…and I think I had an idea for a melody or something and it just happened to be a time when we needed a song like that for the record.
The song itself — I’d just got married, really, so there was a lot of feelings floatin’ around. You know, I’d met my wife and married her within six months. We married each other, I should say, in six months. We took a big chance, lookin’ back on it! It was a very heady time in terms of love so it was a very easy song to write.
Is there anything I haven’t covered that you’d like me to include?
JD: Some of us were altar boys… some have criminal records… and one of us is a fantastic juggler.