Two Decades Deep, the Rock Provocateurs in Trans Am Ride On
History owes as much to accident as it does to ambition. Take the story of how Washington, D.C.-rooted (mostly) instrumental rock trio Trans Am became a pioneering name in a hot new genre because of someone else's negligence.
"We did have a singer — a friend of ours — and he would never show up for rehearsal, so we kicked him out at one point," drummer/keyboardist Sebastian Thomson says, rewinding to around 1993. "We had gotten used to the three of us just playing as bass, drums, and guitar. Nobody was really singing in rehearsal at all, so we thought, 'Oh, well, maybe this is fine as it is.'" By following those instincts, Trans Am unwittingly became one of the earliest examples of a post-rock band. Music journalist Simon Reynolds coined the descriptor "post-rock" in 1994 to characterize a wave of underground-friendly groups who trafficked in experimental, instrumental rock. The term was quickly applied to the likes of Trans Am, Don Caballero, Ui, and Tortoise; the latter's style would lay the most significant foundation for how post-rock would be interpreted in the years to come.
But Trans Am wasn't always an instrumental band, nor one named after a kind of automobile. Thomson, guitarist/keyboardist Phil Manley. and bassist Nathan Means all grew up in the D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, first meeting in middle school and then going to the same high school in the mid- to late 1980s. They formed loads of bands in their youth — names included Devil Dennis and the Hellcats, Johnny and the Appleseeds, Squid, Bombblast, and Rock Band 2000 — while making music of varying types, including classic rock and D.C.-style hardcore. Then, Manley and Thomson had a phone conversation in 1993 about changing their band name once more.
"I was like, 'We should change our band name to Corvette,'" Manley says. "He said, 'Fuck a Corvette. We should call it Trans Am,' and I was like, 'Yeah, well, that actually is better.'" (In a variation of this anecdote, "Camaro" was the rejected name.) Trans Am would be the moniker that stuck and prospered, right as the group began adding keyboards and drum machines and making instrumental music.
"The change in sound did coincide with the change in name, which was maybe intentional, maybe not — I don't remember," Thomson says.
Nowadays, post-rock is best known as a serious genre rife with serious musicians making serious music, with its fixtures being sweeping instrumentation, constant use of soft-loud-soft patterns, and musicians showing minimal interest in making anything truly weird. This is why if Trans Am rose in 2014, what it makes wouldn't characterized as post-rock. The group has always had a cheeky, sardonic streak, both within the music and out of it. The titles of some of its releases have a wink-wink quality, like a 1999 EP called Who Do We Think You Are? that referenced Deep Purple's Who Do We Think We Are, and a 2000 B-sides collection called You Can Always Get What You Want that nodded to the Rolling Stones' similarly named song. The band pulled from a scattered palette of rock and electronic sounds — some hip, some not (namely, Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Chrome, Van Halen, D.A.F. and, most notably in Thomson's eyes, the Police) — while plying its trade in a way that never took things too seriously or spelled its intentions out for listeners and critics. (Some have seen Trans Am's use of prog rock and electronic motifs as ironic, but the band has emphasized that its love for these concepts is earnest.)
Yet even while Trans Am was part of the roll-out of post-rock, they have identified as "sceneless" before, especially when it comes to their D.C. scene and how they fit into a world of super-serious Dischord Records bands and aggressive hardcore outfits. It existed on the periphery of its local scene both literally (with the band living in the D.C. suburb Takoma Park, Maryland) and figuratively. In a 2010 interview, Means lamented that Trans Am was being cut out of the area's musical history.
"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," he said. "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."
Today, Thomson and Manley agree with the spirit of Means' complaints, though they played a handful of shows with hardcore bands. One of the signs of this alienation that Thomson remembers is the band playing decent club shows in New York City and Chicago before scoring an equivalent show at the Black Cat in Washington. Thomson notes a tribalism in the scene of the time that set Trans Am apart, adding that he did enjoy some local bands and would become closer to some notable D.C. musicians years later. Socially, Trans Am ran in different circles, too.
"The D.C. scene was very self-serious and very political. It seemed a little bit like taking the fun out of music," Manley says. "We were the dudes who drank beer and threw parties. Then, these Dischord kids would come to our parties and complain that they seemed like frat parties, but meanwhile, they're drinking our beer."
On record, Trans Am still makes it a point to distinguish itself. On May 20, the band's 10th record, Volume X, hit. Assembled in scattered chunks over three years, Volume X features 10 tracks that revel in contrast and chase some great unknown. This one fearless album contains the warped, jarring club tune "K Street," the incensed, speedy thrash metal stylings of "Backlash," the gurgling, chaotic, sci-fi-friendly "Reevaluations," and the summery, acoustic-guitar-heavy "Insufficiently Breathless." Though best known as an instrumental band, Trans Am has always brought in vocals here and there to assist with mood, like the robotic, half-intelligible garble that augments "K Street." Whatever this is, it's definitely not post-rock by the 2014 measuring stick.
With the group long geographically scattered — Thomson resides in Brooklyn, Manley in San Francisco, and Means in Portland — the band sporadically regroups to work on a record or tour, meeting in abbreviated stints. The members have other priorities, too, with Thomson now drumming in reputable metal outfit Baroness and running a solo project called Publicist. Manley and Means have families. While Trans Am isn't functionally quite what it used to be — Thomson sees the group as an artist's collective with musical inclinations rather than the traditional all-for-one, one-for-all-style band it originally was — some things haven't changed. "The attitude is more or less the same now as it was when we started: we do what we want. For better or worse, we're a band to rule by consensus," Manley says. "I don't think we'd still be a band if it was one of us who was in charge."
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