Trans Am, I Said
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.
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."
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."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.