Trans Am walks the same line between substance and style that its namesake car model did in its heyday. Often considered the leading light of the ’90s post-rock scene, the Maryland-based trio switches between big, loud rawk riffing and spacey, experimental ambience, sometimes within the same song. Criticized (or celebrated) as a bunch of arch ironists, Trans Am gleans imagery and sounds from the synth- and vocoder-heavy music of decades past, but also informs its songs with a detached, millennial indie attitude. Nathan Means, Philip Manley and Sebastian Thomson also have a tendency to refer to themselves in the collective third person and to assume unusual, even bizarre positions about music and society. Similarly, the group shifts gears from album to album, and this intellectual restlessness continues with the atmospheric, trippy Thing (Thrill Jockey). The LP should appeal both to new-school stoner-metal fans and the hippie oldheads at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, where Trans Am will be playing a free show on August 18. Means will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
“Apparent Horizon” (download):
MAGNET: In the mid-1990s, you were lumped into the post-rock scene. Did you feel that you were part of a fraternity of like-minded musicians then?
Manley: We lived in Washington, D.C., and were kind of on the periphery of that scene. Most of those bands were living in Chicago or Pittsburgh. We were not really fraternizing with any scene in earnest. The D.C. hardcore scene definitely wouldn’t have us as part of their scene. I guess you could say we were scene-less, more or less.
Thomson: We were a little bit clueless about scenes back then. Maybe it was partly intentional?
Means: I think we felt more like we were in a college fraternity. Do you know how amazing it is for three 23-year-olds to get a free case of beer every night? But as far as your actual question goes, I think we definitely liked certain bands. Among our early touring partners were UI and Tortoise, both of whom fit into the “post-rock” genre. It was fun to watch them; they are all great musicians and were certainly doing something a little out of tune with then-current trends, which made it exciting. But I don’t think we completely identified with them. We probably identified more with another early touring partner, Six Finger Satellite, who were not post-rock. But they rocked harder and definitely knew who Chrome was. In a way, it’s contextual. I remember indie music in the mid-‘90s as a lot of horrible noise made by people who couldn’t sing, play their instruments or write songs. It was cool to be out of tune, not that much fun and kind of suck. (Exception: Polvo was a magnificent band that was frequently totally out of tune). But this memory may also be affected by living in D.C. then, which was suffering from a post-hardcore hangover. That scene had burned pretty bright in the ‘80s, but by 1995, Dischord was putting out some really awful music. So, we just wanted to not be those bands and we stopped singing and started playing keyboards and tried to do something fun and interesting that fit in with our affection for Kraftwerk, Manowar and Deep Purple.
What were your favorite records by other post-rock bands during that time?
Manley: Tortoise’s self-titled album and Don Caballero’s II.
Means: I have the strongest memory of listening to Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and there’s a part where the dub bass line wanders off in to this new world. There are only a few moments when you actually feel your mind opening. That was one of them.
Your music references both late-’70s rock like Boston and REO Speedwagon and arty synth pop of the same era like Kraftwerk. What is it about this period that influenced you so much?
Means: Well, Phil and I came from a blues background. I learned how to play bass with friends doing lot of pretty basic 16-bar blues progressions. Of course, a lot of ’50s and ’60s music pretty obviously came from the same place. We were (and are) into a lot of that music, but it was just sort of the foundation for what was coming, like heavy metal and beyond … The 1970s were an awful time in many ways, but there was a sort of celebration of weird space freaks; you could see it from David Bowie to Funkadelic. There were new keyboards and effects and electronics available, and generally, shit was falling apart. By the end of the 1970s, that sort of experimental aesthetic was being pushed really hard, even by groups with commercial ambitions. I loved that. Of course, we still like plenty of ’80s acts, but I think that might be why we liked the period immediately earlier better. Or it could be because it was the era just before we started listening to pop radio in our teens.
Manley: Growing up with this music, I guess it becomes part of your subconscious. These influences might be more obvious on our first couple albums, but I can’t say I hear any Boston or REO influence on our newer records. Do you? Kraftwerk will always be an influence as long as we’re playing synthesizers.
Thomson: I personally only hear this supposed Boston/REO influence in a handful of our early tracks. What surprises me is that critics rarely mention the much more obvious influences: the Police, Chrome, the Jesus Lizard, DAF, PiL. It’s like this ‘70s AOR meme got inserted in some early reviews and writers have been regurgitating it ever since.
The band was founded in Washington, D.C., yet never had much to do musically with the punk/hardcore scene based around Dischord. Do you feel that the city influenced your musical style?
Manley: The city definitely did influence our music style. We were big Fugazi fans.
Thomson: I would say that Fugazi and Bad Brains were pretty huge influences for us when we started playing together. By the time the first album was released, we had assimilated other music.
Means: We moved from blues stuff in our early teens to heavier music influenced by Dischord and funk metal. We also played with Dischord bands like the Holy Rollers and Shudder To Think at local benefits and stuff. But obviously, we never really fit in, and Dischord never released any of our records. Phil met with Ian (MacKaye) once about an early demo, but nothing happened.
Manley: I guess the Dischord DIY thing has always stuck with us. DC has a very rich musical history beyond Dischord. Marvin Gaye and Funkadelic lived there, and the go-go scene in D.C. was also an influence.
Means: To this day, I am a bit puzzled by how completely we were written out of the “D.C. scene,” even in retrospectives that include the 1990s. We were definitely there, people came to see us, we had friends in the scene, and we had a much bigger national profile than all but a few bands like Fugazi and the Make-Up. But we somehow didn’t make the cut. Of course, we didn’t really want to fit in since a lot of that music was inexcusably bad—maybe people clued into that.
You’ve been together for 20 years. What do you think has changed musically and what has remained the same within the band?
Manley: That’s a hard one to answer. I think the little bit of hardcore music that you could hear in our earlier work has long since evaporated. The simplicity of the songwriting has stayed the same. We do have more of a vocal element to our sound these days than we did to start. The keyboards we use now are a bit more sophisticated than the Casios we were using to start with. We had to ditch those because they were unreliable on tour.
Thomson: The songwriting/recording process has changed a lot. Most of the tracks on our early records were performed in one take, but now we also build songs bit by bit in the studio. We also now know how to sequence synths. We’re finally catching up to 1980s technology.
Means: I think we are more focused. I think we can do what we want in the studio more easily. This is good and bad; sometimes the best stuff happens when you have no idea what’s going on. Also, our live show is a lot more consistent since we learned to either not drink beer or drink most of the beer after the show. A lot of our early shows were trainwrecks.
You guys seem to have a fascination, perhaps even an obsession, with outer space and sci-fi themes. Where did this originate?
Means: That’s a crazy question! I can’t speak for the other dudes, but I think lots of kids are really into outer space and rocket ships and robots and sci-fi. And lots of adults are, too. Was it a trip to the planetarium? Was it when I saw Dune? Was it when I started taking Kraftwerk seriously? Was it academic theorizing about cyborgs? I can’t really say. It’s just fun and expansive and cool.
Manley: From smoking pot and watching Star Trek.
Your new album Thing has some spacier, prog-sounding tunes. Do you go for a conscious vibe on each record?
Manley: We started that record as a soundtrack for a film that got canned. We were partway into making the record when we heard that it had lost its funding. We decided to carry on recording it as a soundtrack anyway. The idea of making a movie soundtrack helped give us focus and direction. Some of our records have a conscious theme. For instance, TA was the party record and Liberation was the political record. We don’t assign themes to all our records. Sex Change is theme-less, I would say.
Means: Well, this last album began as a sci-fi soundtrack for a film that lost funding, so yes on Thing. Sex Change had a developed method for writing but maybe no “vibe.” I find that the vibe normally develops when we are in the studio mixing. At some point I think, “Oh, that’s what this record does.” And, hopefully, it is good.
Thrill Jockey has released all of your records. What about the label appeals to you so much?
Means: Well, Thrill Jockey gave one of the only real offers we got for the first album. That was in large part due to John McEntire, who recorded it and who was in Tortoise. I don’t know that we ever seriously considered going anywhere else with an album for a while, although we did put out some 12-inch releases on other labels. Like any long-term relationship, we’ve had our ups and downs. But at the end of the day, Thrill Jockey lets us do what we want musically, they generally appreciate it, and they do a good job on the business end. Lots of labels, even equally high-profile and respected ones, don’t do as good a job and/or pay their bands as well. So, that’s more or less what we want in a label.
Manley: It’s a great label. We’ve all had dealings with other labels over the years, and I can say that we’re lucky to be on Thrill Jockey. They are reliable, fair and our friends. Also, they are big fans of our weird music.
Often, the band has performed or been photographed in costumes. Do you enjoy playing with your image visually?
Manley: Yes. It’s show business. It’s fun to perform and entertain. Dressing up in costume is part of this show-business tradition.
Means: Again, it comes back to having fun, being a little playful and not taking yourself too seriously. We’re three dudes in a rock band! How fucking stupid and trite is that? We better be having fun!
Thomson: One of the attractions of being a musician is the license to live outside of “normal” society and its norms. Why not take advantage of that? To bore people should not be part of a musician’s job description. Like Nate, I’m also suspicious of musicians who take themselves too seriously. If you want to prove how smart you are, get a Ph.D.; don’t play in a band.
Last year, you released an album of live recordings compiled over the course of 15 years. What would a listener experience through your live music that they wouldn’t through your studio work?
Manley: Excessive volume and sweat. Possibly getting spit on by Seb, the drummer.
Means: Well, lots of people have told us that we are much better live. I think they like the visceral impact and musicianship on display. That’s probably it.
How do you feel about playing at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame this month? Do you think the crowd will be significantly different from your usual concertgoers?
Manley: It’s a free outdoor concert. Possibly more families will come out? Maybe more homeless Trans Am fans? I’m not too sure. We like playing in Cleveland generally, and it’s been a while since we played there. We’re all looking forward to it.
Means: Yeah, a free show at the Hall Of Fame should be a little different. We’re excited.
Will you be playing North American dates besides the Hall of Fame soon?
Manley: Yes, we’ll be doing a West Coast tour in November.
Means: The dates should be up soon on our website.
In the past, you have played Creedence Clearwater Revival songs live. Are they a favorite band of yours?
Manley: I guess you could say that they’re up there among our favorite bands. We’ve covered Foreigner more than any other band, though.
Means: CCR were a pretty good band. I wouldn’t say I like them more than, say, the Eagles, but they have some good, basic tunes. John Fogerty has the right voice for that. However, why they covered “Heard It Through the Grapevine” is beyond me. I wouldn’t touch anything that Marvin Gaye had performed.
You’ve recorded soundtrack music for the PSP game After Burner: Black Falcon. Have you played the game yourselves? Are you planning on doing a soundtrack for another game anytime soon?
Means: It wasn’t actually a special soundtrack; they just used some of our old songs. But we would definitely record a soundtrack for a video game if asked. I’d also like to actually finish a movie score.
Manley: I have not played the game, but we’re always open to doing more video-game soundtracks.