Criminally overlooked by American audiences in the 1980s and '90s, the Trashcan Sinatras constitute one of the hidden gems of Brit-pop. Since its formation in 1986, and over the course of five studio albums, the Scottish band has continued to craft uncannily beautiful, often delicate melodies and to gently rock in jangly fashion.
Add to that the nimble singing of Frank Reader, whose literate lyrics brim with unguarded emotions and clever wordplay, and you've got a winning combination that is very much in the venerable tradition of bands such as Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, The Smiths, Prefab Sprout and Belle & Sebastian.
The Trashcans, as the group is casually known, will play its debut gig in Tucson—an intimate, all-acoustic show Wednesday night, Oct. 27, at Plush. In addition to playing two full sets, the band will entertain requests from the audience, which is something it almost never does, Reader says.
"We have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with some of the old songs. The fans love them and we hate them," he says.
During a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, Reader (whose sister is former Fairground Attraction singer Eddi Reader) comes off as cynical, self-deprecating, witty, sincere, sarcastic and charming. A mischievous smirk lurks behind the exterior of this phlegmatic gentleman.
"Sometimes the fans want to hear the older stuff, and usually we tell them that we never really play that stuff. So we have tentatively put the call out for requests. There are some that we like more than others, to be honest, so we'll honor some of the requests—the ones we think we can do a decent job on. And a lot of the time, we are just listening to requests until we hear the song we want to play anyway."
Reader chuckles ruefully, recalling a gig at which one of the audience members could peek at the set list from where he stood near the stage. "He kept requesting what the next song on the set list was, and it appeared to everyone else he was best friends with the band, and other people at the gig were very impressed that we played all of his requests. That was amusing."
Like Reader, guitarist Paul Livingston lives in Los Angeles, while brothers John and Stephen Douglas (guitars and drums, respectively) still reside in Glasgow. All have been with the band since nearly the beginning.
The Trashcans have been playing acoustic gigs more frequently of late because they are logistically easier.
"There's a freer feeling now," Reader says. "All you lose in the potential magic of the keyboards and drums is clear, but there is another magic that happens. There's a fair amount of interest, and we feel pretty good about it. There's definitely less in the way of shenanigans when it comes to dealing with the sound guy. And there's just less to carry."
The acoustic format also offers the opportunity for connecting with fans, Reader says.
"I think with these acoustic shows, there is a wee bit more informality, and they are suited to give-and-take. You can actually, perish the thought, end up conversing a little with the people in the audience. ... People seem to be drawing closer to the music when it's live.
"When the whole band plays, there's so much more to take care of and so much more that can go wrong. It can be really fraught with hidden traps and the sound can get noisy what with the musicians arguing with each other; there aren't as many opportunities to get to know the audience."
Reader admits he's never been concerned with hecklers or bores who simply yell out from the audience for the chance to be heard. Until now.
"We have a lot of quiet songs. In an acoustic gig, there tends to be a little more people going that are looking for that and they tend to be more polite, so I have never found that to be a problem. But now that you mention it, I am going to be so much more aware of it, and it will probably start to bother me more. We may end in situations where we get more than we bargained for. It makes you wonder: How do we keep the riffraff out?"
Considering the carefully constructed nature of the music created over the years by Trashcan Sinatras—including the terrific new 18-song album, In the Music—it's a little shocking when Reader says he's never been satisfied with any of his band's recordings.
He says he considers albums, by their nature, to be "missed opportunities."
"I think frustration tends to drive you on, in a way, because you still haven't made that record that captures exactly what I hear or the thing that's in my mind when writing the songs. It always ends up diluted, you know? It's a moment in time, and it's not always the one you are looking for. Unfulfilled ambitions is the recipe for the Trashcans to make music.
"But I think with the last two albums, we have gotten a lot closer to the sound we want."
Reader thinks it helps that the band has grown closer as friends over the last 20-something years.
"Sometimes when you are in a band together 24 hours a day, you can start not communicating with each other, especially if you are quiet and Scottish and not used to being forthcoming. With our relationships now, we are better friends and can communicate to each other well, and have been able to learn more about each other."
The Trashcans have been working on a box set to compile all their studio recordings and have a new acoustic live album, Brel, available for sale at their shows.
Brel is similar in concept to the band's 2006 album, Fez, recorded at the nightclub of the same name in New York City. "This one was recently recorded in Glasgow and it's titled after Jacques Brel, which is also the namesake of the bar where we recorded it. Anyway, it'll be available for you to buy from us on tour if you feel like you need something to take home with you."