Trans Am, I Said

Maryland post-rock trio drives it into the Red Line

You'd never think of using words like "violent," "aggressive" or, especially, "badass" to describe '70s prog rock. That is, unless you saw the 1998 film Buffalo 66. In the movie's pivotal climax, actor Vincent Gallo shoots a man in a nightclub to the pulverizing instrumental portion of Yes' "Heart of the Sunrise." No, prog rock doesn't always have to be the cosmic wimp fest it's usually regarded as, if you remember to hit the scan button before the cosmic wimp lead singer opens his mouth.

In the same manner, the largely instrumental music of Maryland trio Trans Am begs to have movies made around it. Each of the group's albums unfolds like the anxious soundtracks of never-made nail-biting thrillers, if titles like "Prowler," "Enforcer," "Home Security" and "Technology Corridor" are any indicator.

Although exhibiting some of the virtuoso characteristics of both prog rock and fusion, the band's music continues to be categorized as "post-rock" -- which sounds like the kind of music mailmen might compose on their day off. Perhaps the term has something to do with taking all the noodling and extended instrumental passages that punk rock made seem superfluous and shoving them back into minimalist settings.

Bad hair day? The boys from Trans Am create a 
carnal space odyssey with their latest, sort of.
Kate Auleta
Bad hair day? The boys from Trans Am create a carnal space odyssey with their latest, sort of.

Details

With Laddio Balacko and Neil Hamburger. Wednesday, September 13. The show is all-ages and begins at 9 p.m.
Nita's Hideaway in Tempe

Few bands have managed to combine free-form experimentation and single-minded focus as deftly as Trans Am. The band certainly has chops -- it's been suggested that Philip Manley, Nathan Means and Sebastian Thompson play with almost an exaggerated level of technical skill and proficiency. But their brand of showboating is something of a con, done with tongue firmly planted in cheek. And, apparently, the ruse is working great. "The thing I hear from people after shows is, 'Man, you guys are so tight.' And invariably, it would be after a show where we all made disastrous fuck-ups," says bassist Means, laughing.

As to the question of influences, Means claims he was never much of a prog rock fan. "I don't really know much about it. I have a copy of Fragile. Like, who doesn't? It goes for 50 cents everywhere. But Seb was a huge Rush fan. I never got into any of that stuff. I just heard what you'd hear on the radio. The technical stuff, which I like more, and which I really don't know that much about, is fusion like Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis. More technical playing, musicians' music; out of control, way too many notes."

On its 1996 self-titled instrumental debut, Trans Am mated '70s stadium riff rock with cheesy Casio keyboards, creating a paradoxical sound that was both nostalgic and futuristic. Since then the group has scaled back the retro rock factor and updated its bank of keyboards and electronics. Gradually, the group has merged vocals into the overall package. Red Line, the band's fifth and latest for Thrill Jockey, contains the most singing on any Trans Am effort to date -- as well as the most whispers and mutterings.

Songs like "Play in the Summer" and "I'm Going Down" even have vocals that weren't filtered through a vocoder. Is this an unlikely bid for AOR airplay, or a way of establishing a clearer narrative? One would hope it's the latter, given that titles like "Let's Take the Fresh Step Together," "Casual Friday," "Where Do You Want to Fuck Today?" and "Lunar Landing" collectively suggest little other than the entirely un-erotic images of NASA employees shagging on the grounds of a missile base.

"There was always a little thematic development on the albums," agrees Means, who stops short of the notion that Red Line is a carnal-space concept album. "I think those things are usually imposed retroactively by us or by critics. When we finish doing a song, we'll say, 'That sounds like you're lost in a high security office building.' That actually happened to us today! We were doing a radio interview in a huge office building where they make programming for digital satellite radio, and we got lost temporarily. Fortunately, the receptionist found us."

The original blueprints for Trans Am did not have "instrumental group" written anywhere on them. Together since meeting in high school in the late '80s, the band began playing its hard-core and funk metal at schools, coffee houses and battle-of-the-band competitions.

"We didn't ever win," Means says, sighing. "We played one in Rockville, Maryland, and we lost to this keyboard band called Moderation, and we were outraged because we were totally anti-keyboard at that point. We had the Ted Nugent take on keyboards. They beat us and the other contender -- a glam metal hair band called Direct Hit -- who spent a long time in the bathroom before they came out."

In those days, the band's personnel did include a lead vocalist. "Yeah, we had a singer, and we kicked him out," he adds, laughing. "At the time, we were listening to Living Colour and the first few Red Hot Chili Peppers albums, which were more funk -- it would be hard to be less funk than they are now. I was popping the bass strings like Flea but I got out of that before it turned ugly. It does sound funny to hear it now, it sounds pretty outdated," he chuckles. "After we had a parting of ways with the lead vocalist, we tried singing ourselves, and it was pretty bad."

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