(photo: Mort Shuman)
The Scottish progressive pop band Trashcan Sinatras are playing their first two records in their entirety during the One Night, Two Albums tour.
It may sound like a simple announcement, but similar to the layered wordplay of a Trashcan lyric, the statement holds greater meaning. It points to the band’s storied history of 31 years.
The tour is a rare, sentimental, and acoustic treat for devoted fans who fell in love with the revered 1990 debut Cake and the acclaimed 1993 follow-up I’ve Seen Everything decades ago.
The three-piece lineup of Frank Reader, John Douglas, and Paul Livingston, all songwriters and guitarists, will perform at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley on June 24.
In a phone interview given during the tour, Reader revealed backstories about the two albums, reflected on the band’s early years, and discussed the songwriting process. He said the idea for the dual-album tour came about in part when he went home to Scotland for his mother’s 80th birthday party last summer.
“Me and John were sitting, playing guitars, and entertaining a wee bit. We did a couple Trashcan songs as well and some people wanted to hear them,” Reader said. “After that we were looking for an excuse to do it again. We decided to do Cake obviously because it is the record that broke us over here and we knew a lot of people wanted to hear it. But it is too short a record so we decided to do I’ve Seen Everything as well.”
The “One Night, Two Albums” tour marks the first time ever that the band has played Cake cover to cover in the Bay Area and the US.
The Trashcan Sinatras first toured the US at the height of Cake’s popularity in 1991, including a stop at the Paradise Lounge in San Francisco. Though the group was promoting its only album and gave away cakes at gigs as part of the publicity, the band left one song off the setlist of those inaugural shows.
“Well I don’t even know if in 1991 we played every song on Cake. I don’t think we played ‘January’s Little Joke’ at all when we did the first tour,” Reader said. “It was kind of beyond our scope. We were quite rubbish at playing live for a long time. We really couldn’t get it together.”
This time around, the Trashcans will play all 10 songs on Cake then all 14 songs on I’ve Seen Everything with a 20- to 30-minute break in between. The two sets will be filled out with a selection of tracks from the group’s other four albums including the most recent release, 2016’s Wild Pendulum.
Band members have previously resisted playing many of their older songs, which are the focus of the current tour.
“Whenever we play songs, especially from Cake…it’s always been a little bit like, ‘Oh these songs are just kind of strange songs from the past,’” Reader said. “It’s much more a kind of earnest approach to them. You feel you want to represent the time and actually pay respect to them. It’s a strange feeling.”
“I don’t really like doing the really exposed ones like ‘You Made Me Feel.’ I am a little trepidatious about those. They are kind of emotional,” he added. “It’s getting better, but for a long time it was really hard to do those songs because I felt kind of vulnerable.”
The Trashcan Sinatras formed as a cover band in Irvine, Scotland in 1987 and were discovered by Simon Dine while playing in a local pub. The band was signed to the British indie label Go!Discs and used the signing advance to set up a recording studio in Kilmarnock, which they named Shabby Road. Here bandmates wrote their first three albums. “We had come from different bands,” Reader said. “We eventually gravitated toward each other just because we all had very common points with each other. We got on really well so we started doing things like going to Edinburgh and busking on a Saturday afternoon.”
Cake was produced by John Leckie and lauded for its masterful songwriting that married skillful jangly guitars, emotive melodies, and witty yet poignant lyrics riddled with incisive wordplay. The album spent three months on the Billboard 200 and included “Only Tongue Can Tell,” which reached #8 on the US Alternative chart.
The distinguished guitar chords, intertwining brambly strums, and sweetest of melodies at the opening of favored single “Obscurity Knocks,” which charted at #12, can make you smile or cry depending on the day. It is hard to imagine the song nearly went without its hallmark chorus. “In fact it didn’t used to have a chorus. The chorus thing we added when we got fed up with the verse it had,” Reader said.
“Years of learning I must be a veteran
Of ‘Oh I like your poetry but I hate your poems’
And the calendar’s cluttered with days that are numbered
I’ve turned 21, I’ve twist, I’m bust, and wrong again.”
~ “Obscurity Knocks”
In a look back at the making of Cake, Reader recalled that the album’s working title was Spoofs. But the band settled on Cake because it “seemed the least likely to get old.”
“We were always kind of punning and talking about words among ourselves. We were saying, ‘Spoofs. That’s a great word. Let’s call the album that.’ We were probably drunk,” Reader recounted. “We weren’t really used to that whole thing that if you say something and the record company person is near you…they set some wheels in motion. The next thing you know it’s like, ‘So it’s called Spoofs then?’ Wait. What? But Spoofs never really was a contender.”
It was no accident that Reader was identified in Cake credits as “Frank Read.” He sought to disassociate from his sister Eddi Reader, who was the lead singer of Fairground Attraction. Her band’s song “Perfect” hit #1 on the UK Singles chart in 1988.
“My sister was a pretty well-known folk singer. At that point it was probably the peak of her fame,” he said. “She was getting a lot of press and I think I just I didn’t want to be thought of as getting in on her coattails. It was silly.”
Now, 28 years later, the album continues to be remembered for the intertwined guitar riffs and literate lyrics the Trashcans craft so well. Songs are packed start to finish with precision wordplay. Each line, each word is written just so to play its role in creating layered puns, which reveal themselves more with each listen.
“John was really good at coming up with chord sequences. Paul was a fair bit younger than us, he was like 17… Back then he was really kind of a jumpy kid and he played like that too, so he really kind of sparked things off,” Reader said. “At the same time we would all be writing lyrics and, if we liked them, John would give me lots of sheets…I’d read those lines and just try to sing melodies, try to fancy how we’d start something. I’d get like a little quatrain and usually get a framework that way.
“We kind of settled into songs, and it still works today, where everyone is aware basically of everybody else’s ideas,” he said.
Their collaborative method resulted in lyrics that fans and critics have said are among the best. In what appear to be simple puns, the Trashcans capture the complexity and irony of relatable vulnerabilities — from disappointment to self-doubt to failure — with humor, insight, and touching self-deprecation. Cake is an indispensable treasure trove of perfect lines.
“I can’t have that in my life / But soon I’ll find / I won’t have that in my life.“
~ “Circling the Circumference”
“You’re deep in conversation / Where you really swim / And in the shallow water / I’m the first one in.”
~ “Circling the Circumference”
“Show me how to become / The life and soul of something — anything.”
~ “Even the Odd”
“You came into my life like a brick through a window / And I cracked a smile.”
~ “The Best Man’s Fall”
“Who remembers those good old games / That seemed to fill our days / Like a kiss, cuddle, and torture.”
~ “The Best Man’s Fall”
The second album I’ve Seen Everything celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Douglas painted the album’s artwork depicting room settings in dark-hued blocks of color. One room shows a nightstand with a candle and another shows a single chair and television. “When I look at that, I’m taken back to the kind of flats we lived in. John always used to have a candle by his bed,” Reader said. “There were a lot of late nights and smoking and just playing guitar.”
In 1996, their third album A Happy Pocket was released in the UK and Japan, but not the US. It would be eight years before the Trashcans returned with Weightlifting in 2004. In all, the band has released six studio albums, created a catalog of about 100 songs, and continues to tour.
In the years that followed, Reader and Livingston both married Americans, moved to southern California, and recently wrote a few songs together. The band plans to release a live DVD/CD of a concert recorded during the 2017 “All Night” acoustic tour.
As for new music right now, Reader said “I wouldn’t hold your breath.”