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How did the band arrive at futuristic fusion after its bout with hard-core? "Apparently you drink a lot of beer," Means says, laughing. "I have no idea, actually. We went to college and some of us worked at radio stations there and just always had an interest in new music. Phil, who went to Oakland College in Ohio, got a hold of some really cool albums and sent them to me. Then we got more serious about things after we graduated and got to put a record out on Thrill Jockey. In the mid-'90s there really wasn't anybody else we looked at doing the same thing we do."
The band temporarily found a kindred spirit in labelmate John McEntire of Tortoise, who's also been a frequent collaborator with avant-poppers Stereolab. He produced Trans Am's first two albums, Trans Am and Surrender to the Night, the latter of which was recorded and mixed at McEntire's Idful Studios in Chicago.
Since then the trio has tracked at its own National Recording Studio in its new home base of Washington, D.C. In regard to the band's last two records, Means adds, somewhat tersely, that "there wasn't any dominant engineer to change the sound. McEntire's a good engineer, but he's into a cleaner production, less room sound. With his sound, when it's bad, it's more sterile; with us, when it's bad, it's more yucky. He had a real different impact on how those albums ended up sounding. A lot of people like those albums more than anything else we've ever done."
For the new disc, Trans Am purchased 10 reels of tape with the intention of filling them up with a little more spontaneity and experimentation than on previous efforts. "We sometimes roll tape during practice because a lot of times you have ideas and they sort of disappear. Most of our songs have come from jamming," he says. "Things that made the album were not even songs until we recorded them. There's a whole different energy from that you can never recapture again. We leave them alone for a while and then come back to them, and some we mixed more intently than others. On some songs we layered stuff on. But most of them were left raw documents of stupid things we did during practice."
If there's a noticeable difference in Red Line from that of its predecessors, aside from the lengthier playing time, it's that the trio works to include more reflective numbers, some acoustic guitar (especially prominent on "Diabolical Cracker" and the Zeppelinesque "The Dark Gift") and a few sonic curves like "Talk You All Tight," where a maddening little digital pop from an electronic drum machine is put through a variety of effects, until it apes the annoying drone of a stuck record needle.
This time around, Trans Am is bringing in more prefab beat machines and effects than ever before. "I'm pretty excited about this setup, and it sounds great. Some of the songs sound pretty trashing; we'll have old-school rap beats," Means says. Lest you think Trans Am has filtered out its stadium rock completely, the band has added Thin Lizzy's "Bad Reputation" to its live set list.
"I don't know if our inspirations are that radically different than they were five years ago, but I think the one thing that's changed is that some of our earlier records were kind of frantic and they weren't very relaxing to listen to, a little bit too tightly hewn," Means allows. "Most music that I like wouldn't be too relaxing.
"In one of my formative moments, I remember hearing a Fugazi album for the first time and I thought it was horrible, so harsh," he remembers. "But there was something I liked about it. If you listen to that same album now, it's the most awesome pop. It's great, not harsh at all. It sounds like the Beatles."