In June 1990, a wee band from Irvine, Scotland called the Trashcan Sinatras released their debut album, Cake, and while it would be overstating things to say that they became overnight sensations, their jangly pop tunes definitely found an audience straightaway, with the album making its way to No. 74 on the UK Albums chart and even managing to climb to No. 131 on the Billboard 200. While the band's sophomore LP, 1993's I've Seen Everything, topped the chart success of its predecessor, it still only made it as high as No. 50 in the UK before beginning its descent, and while the band has continued to record new material and release new albums in the intervening decades, they'd never before beaten that chart high...until this week.
Thanks to a reissue by the label Last Night from Glasgow, Cake has suddenly found its way to No. 10 on the UK Albums chart, providing the band with the first top-10 album of their career...and only 33 years after its initial release! Q was able to hop on the line with Trashcan Sinatras guitarist John Douglas and get his reaction to this surprising new development while also chatting about the origins of the band, working with John Leckie, touring with Prefab Sprout and The La's, and the fortuitousness of having his first solo album come out just prior to this sudden belated TCS success.
Congratulations on belatedly making your way closer to the Top of the Pops than you've ever been.
It's crazy, isn't it? Totally crazy. I knew the record was re-released, but I didn't know it was gonna be counted as chart stuff. So, yeah, it's great!
What brought on the reissue? Because it's 33 years since the album's original release, so it's clearly not tied to any sort of anniversary.
Yeah, it's more to do with the label, LNFG: Last Night from Glasgow. One of the first things they did was put out a re-release of our I've Seen Everything record. The guy that runs it, Ian Smith, he's a big fan of the Trashcans, so we said, "Yeah." And it did such a good job that we said, "Would you do others?" And he did A Happy Pocket next. And then this is the third one. So, yeah, it was just a good sort of relationship. We knew that they loved the records and that they would take care of the project and make sure that the artwork was correct and the remastering was done well, and the quality of the vinyl. And they're very much in communication with us, making sure that we knew everything was alright before things got signed off on.
So, yeah, just a good relationship for the re-releases. The Cake one... I don't know why it was third. I think there was just a lot of interest in it coming out again. I don't think the year or the timing had anything to do with the planning. It was more just, "Okay, let's go for it!" It took awhile, actually. Over here, the vinyl production plants, they've got a big backlog of orders. So I think it was probably about a year ago before the actual vinyl was ordered, and then it takes about a year till you actually get the final product through.
Take me back to the beginning: how did the Trashcans first come together?
Just friends in pubs. The town has quite a decent music scene, and there were a couple of venues and lots of young kids with guitars and drum kits. It was the post-punk period, so the notion of doing things yourself was very much in the air. There was quite a lot of unemployment, so there was a lot of time on people's hands. And the culture of the town was quite encouraging for young folks to do stuff, even though there wasn't a lot of jobs going around. If people wanted to form a band or put out a fanzine or run a club night, the adults that were involved in the local civil service, the councilpeople, would help fund things so that kids were off the street and doing stuff.
I was in and out of a few bands, (guitarist) Paul Livingston was in and out of a few bands, and the same with Frank (Reader, bassist and lead singer). It was one of those things were people would be in and out of other bands until a chemistry arrived, and that chemistry arrived when me, Frank, and Paul got together. We knew there was something special happening.
I found it interesting that you guys got signed to Go! Records and then promptly used your advance to buy a recording studio.
Yeah, well, back then there wasn't any of the laptop recording equipment. [Laughs.] You had to actually go somewhere! And in the town just up the road, 10 miles from us, there was a studio there - that was the one we eventually took over - and we'd go there. Frank had had a part-time [job] there and learned how to do sound engineering, and when we were together, we'd go and demo there late at night. And we hadn't really played live a lot. I mean, we'd done a couple fo gigs in town, maybe in the surrounding area a couple of shows, but we weren't a confident live band.
But we were just really intrigued by this chemistry we had of writing songs, and the studio was this place where there was rehearsal rooms and multi-track stuff, so we would do demos there and send them off to various record companies. And when Go! Discs fell in love with some of the songs, we sort of realized that we were kind of a work in progress. We couldn't have made an album. I think they signed us in '87, and I don't think the first album was finished until late '89. It was a good two years of us working.
The initial thought... We said to them, "Listen, we need to just be doing this 24 hours a day, working 7 days a week, and get a lot of songs together. And that studio's there, and the guy wants to sell it." And they said, "Okay, that sounds like a wise idea." And it turned out it was. We started playing there and got confident in our songs, and we made the first album there. So they didn't have to fork out for any big studio, going down to London and staying for two or three weeks. So it worked out on all fronts as a good idea.
You worked with John Leckie on the album. Did that come about through the Go! Discs connection?
No, we'd recorded all of the songs for the first album, and some of the mixes we weren't happy with, and John Leckie had a reputation for bands who were making their first record. If you look at his career, there's some bands he kind of stuck with, but a lot of the things he's worked on is young guys making their first records. So he's very good at being the person who comes down and says, "Okay, guys, this is working, this is not working, let's just stretch that a little bit..." You know, like a kind of father figure. 'Cause he's got some history in music, so when he walks in the room, you know you're in the hands of an expert. It was recommended to us that if you're unhappy with your mixes, get John to come in and help you out. And we did. And he was great.
We saw him quite recently, actually. "Recently." [Laughs.] I say "recently," it was probably last year! But we did a few shows with Del Amitri over here, and one of them, we were in the old Hammersmith Odeon in London, and John called us up and said, "Listen, can I come along and get a good catch-up?" So he came along to the soundcheck and we ended up spending the day with him and just shooting the breeze, and he's just telling us stories. He remembered a lot more about the recordings we'd done than we did! Great fella.
When you look back at that album, the singles - "Obscurity Knocks" and "Only Tongue Can Tell" - are the songs that people have come to know the most, but do you have favorite tracks in the bunch that maybe don't get mentioned as often?
Yeah, there's a song called "Even the Odd" that I like. It's got a nice light, summery sort of feel, and the guitar's great on it, the singing's great. And there's a ballad thing called "You Made Me Feel" that I really like. That's got great changes and... I dunno, it's quite an ambitious songs for a bunch of young boys to be writing! But, yeah, there's some good songs on there.
For any of the youngsters who might be picking up Cake for the first time in 2023, do you have a recommendation for their next Trashcan Sinatras album? Or should they just keep working their way chronologically through the catalog?
Yeah, I mean, if that's somebody's first record, I would say go chronological. That's the way we did it. [Laughs.] And if somebody's discovering us through their first record and enjoying it, then that's probably a nice way to take the journey, to see what little side roads we went up. I don't think our sound changed radically over the years, but it just got finessed. And there's times when we wanted to be a bit simpler, maybe times when we wanted to get orchestration and stuff in. But the basic sound of Frank's voice and the harmonies and the guitars and the feel that the rhythm boys have, and the lyrical sort of attitude...I think there's a seam that flows right through it, even though it changes.
It's a nice bit of happenstance that this reissue has arrived right on the heels of your debut solo album.
Oh, yeah! I mean, these things are all just haphazard. I wasn't even planning on writing a solo record! I just wanted to do some shows with my guitar, and I was getting stuck for songwriting. I had a kind of block, and I wanted to do something to kickstart that. So that's what I chose to do. I said, "Well, I'll go and play some shows." And I did that, and then I thought, "If I'm gonna play some shows with me and my acoustic, then I should have something that folk can buy on the night as a souvenir of what they saw...and also to earn myself a few quid!" [Laughs.] You know, times are crazy these days, financially.
So all of that just made me go and make a record, and I really like the result of it. It's kind of up my street. And I like the fact that, if somebody likes that solo record and I go and play, it'll be the same thing. It'll just be me and my guitar. There's no big entourage to take around to recreate anything. I can just recreate it by picking up my guitar.
Well, I quite enjoy it. Obviously I would, being a Trashcans fan, but as someone who's grown up along with the music, the one-man-and-his-guitar sound is just the sort of thing I'll tend to listen to nowadays.
Well, good! Thanks a lot for that. I mean, I do like hearing people when they get more mature over the years. I think singers' voices get richer, and there's a bit more weight to someone's point of view, whatever they're singing. There's experience in there. Yeah, I'm a big fan of the elderly musician singer people. [Laughs.] Like Bob Dylan. I went to see Bob Dylan recently, and it was fantastic. I love his voice these days, and his phrasing's amazing. The same with the Sinatra records. I like the later stuff over the earlier stuff.
On the album, you did a mixture of new material, you revisited some Trashcans material, but what was behind the decision to close with a cover of Prefab Sprout's "We Let the Stars Go"?
Oh, it's just a song I knew. I used to go busking years and years ago, and there were songs I'd play that, y'know, some folks would stop because it would mean something to them. And that was one of 'em. So I've just been playing it for years. It's one of my favorite songs, and the theme is kind of universal, looking back on old flames and reminiscing. It's got a warmth to it. And I can play it! [Laughs.] I've been playing it for years, and that was one of the things that I wanted to do by going and doing these shows where it was just me and my guitar: playing things that I'm comfortable doing.
You apparently got Martin McAloon's blessing.
Yeah, that was lovely! I put a video up of me playing it in Dublin, and then Martin announced he was doing some shows, and I got my agent to get in touch with him to see if he needed a support. And his people said, "No, he's doing two big, long sets. There's no supports for anywhere. He just wanted to go and play as many songs as he could." So I was, like, "Fair enough." And then one of the first shows he did was in my hometown, and he had seen the video online, and he asked the guys that were running the show, was I in town and would I come down and sing it with him? And they phoned me up, and I drove down on the night. I got there about halftime, we had a little rehearsal in the backstage, and we kind of reminisced. We toured with Prefab Sprout years ago, in 1990 or something, when the Jordan: The Comeback record came out. They did a UK tour, and we played with them for, like, 12 or 13 shows. So we kind of knew each other. Not, like, in a major way, but in nodding terms. So it was a nice sort of full-circle thing to meet up with him and go and sing with him. Lovely fella.
That's a double bill I would've killed to have seen: the Trashcan Sinatras opening for Prefab Sprout.
Oh, they were great gigs. I think their crowd liked us. We were just fresh out of the box then. It was Cake days, I think, and we were just trying to do our best. But the audience they have are the kind of audience that came along early and gave us a chance. And there was a similarity. We tried to do songs that had depth to them. So I think we picked up a good few listeners on that tour.
Was there anyone else you guys toured with back then who either impressed you or surprised you?
We toured with The La's. We did quite a bit of shows with them, and they were a brilliant live band. That really made us want to up our game, to see them in action back then. They were a fantastic four piece. Great harmonies, great focus on arrangements with a four-piece band, and simple songs. It sort of drove home that you don't have to be very complex in your arrangements to get an emotion across. You can be simple. I learned a lot from watching them. They were a powerhouse back then, a brilliant band.
Just to bring it back to Cake to close things out, do you any particular hopes for what the success of this reissue will be mean for the band at this point?
I think these things are...just another thing that happens. But it's a lovely thing that's happened! We're kind of in the middle of making a new record, so it's nice to have our name bandied about in the firmament so whenever we bring out something else, people will go, "Oh, they just did something a year ago!" rather than "Oh, they did something eight years ago!" [Laughs.] It takes the weight off that side of things. And I'm sure it'll bring in new listeners. As soon as you get P.R. and people start talking about your stuff, there's always people who'll give you an ear who might not have given you an ear. So it's very healthy for us for it to do that. I mean, we're not on the road, we're not doing anything, but we're getting lots of attention. We've not really had that too many times in our career. So it's been a very pleasant surprise!