You wouldn't guess it from the feedback-ridden exploits of guitar bands like Mogwai and the Jesus & Mary Chain, but Scotland also has a more pastoral pop tradition. From '80s bands like Aztec Camera and the Blue Nile to more recent groups like Travis and Belle & Sebastian, these ambassadors from the land that inspired Robert Burns to "wail thro' the dreary midnight hour" can, in fact, be a pretty mopey bunch. And the Trashcan Sinatras are really no exception.
But in spite of their early Smiths obsession, moments of optimism do slip through on the newly released In the Music, the band's first full-length album in five years.
"It's taken us a long time to realize how to write an upbeat song without it being shite," says guitarist Paul Livingston as he packs for a festival date in Japan. "It's sometimes kind of easy for us to write sad songs, and after a while you're like, how do people make happy songs without it being daft?"
Still, the band hasn't exactly abandoned its downcast romanticism. "Oranges and Apples," originally released as a U.K. single back in October, is seven minutes of sublimely atmospheric balladry, with roughly half of it an instrumental showcase for Livingston's beautifully understated guitar work. Lyrically, the song is an homage to original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, who's up there with Scottish poet Burns and The Fall's Mark E. Smith in the group's cultural pantheon.
"There's this whole public image of him, the rumors that he was just a total loner and a sad, crazy man," says Livingston. "I mean, I read once that he went blind, things that just are not true. But then after he died, we started finding out these other stories, that he was nice to the kids in the street, told them funny tales. The neighbors were very protective of him, so if they saw journalists, they'd be like, 'No, he doesn't live here.' He was just making his art and quite happy with his lot."
Despite extremely literate songwriting and sometimes esoteric influences, the band has always had an unabashed reverence for pop songcraft that befits its sophisticated arrangements and frontman Francis Reader's richly mellifluous vocals. (Witness their covers of Randy Newman's "Snow" and '60s weeper "To Sir With Love," both of which one-up the originals.)
Furthering the group's pop pedigree this time around is a guest appearance from Carly Simon, of all people, whose friendship with producer Andy Chase led to her contributing backing vocals at his studio near her home in Martha's Vineyard: "She's one of those people where you can't quite imagine that she is around in the world somewhere," says Livingston. "We were just flipping out because we got to meet her and then she sang one of our songs."
Of course, recording with Carly Simon isn't necessarily the trendiest thing to be doing these days, but the Trashcan Sinatras weren't particularly fashionable even when they were enjoying chart success in the early '90s.
"I don't know what we thought we were doing," says the self-deprecating Scotsman of those early years, "but we weren't very good at it."
These days, the Trashcan Sinatras are very good at what they do, although Livingston isn't necessarily the best judge of what that is.
"I think the new album is disco music. That's what it sounds like in my head. But it doesn't sound like that to anyone else."