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Trans Am bassist/keyboardist Nathan Means is thinking hard about the last time he had a beer. His furrowed brow suggests it has been months since he last downed some froth, but after a minute of contemplation he flatly replies, “Two days.” So guitarist/ keyboardist Phil Manley offers to go get some beer, in turn giving him the chance to investigate his new Mount Pleasant neighborhood (albeit on foot—it only took two days for Manley’s bike to be stolen). Along with drummer/synth-paddist Sebastian Thompson, the trio recently relocated from Maryland and now inhabits a group house in the District whose living room has been swiftly decorated with a gigantic poster from Means’ extensive collection of Chicago memorabilia—the band, not the city. Citing the group’s improvisational qualities, lack of vocals, and postmodern ability to combine electronics with boogie rock, critics have looked for convenient labels to ornament Trans Am’s hood. But the trio’s innate goofiness goes against the scene it is most associated with—the intellectual overload that is “post-rock.” Thankfully, Trans Am’s celebration of pop culture—and beer—doesn’t feel as inanely jokey as that of other bands who take their personas from the Wide World of Crap. Trans Am’s kitsch is cultured, existing comfortably between highbrow and Löwenbräu.
The three bandmates met during high school, and despite each going to a different college, continued to play together during summer breaks. “We started off as a rock band, [playing] country rock and Rolling Stones and classic-rock covers,” Manley says. And the influence of that suburban staple, ’70s classic rock, is immediately evident on the band’s self-titled full-length debut (released earlier this year), but so are the urban electro sounds of the ’80s. “I remember when a Whodini song came on Friday Night Videos….I remember the break dancing, and that was the shit. My brother and I would watch it over and over again,” Manley recalls. “One of the first albums I got was Herbie Hancock’s [Future Shock, which contained] “Rockit.” And Kraftwerk was always around for Thompson, because “my brother’s, like, a Eurodancer.”
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“Right when we were coming of age, when music becomes a big deal, there was a classic-rock revival, so it was supereasy for us. You start hearing all these bands, and there are more and more bands, and you just can’t get enough of it,” Manley says. And because his sister was a punk-rocker right about the time he was getting into music, he never put barriers between the different types of music he loved. “I had the Buzzcocks just as early as I had Led Zeppelin. They were both good. Everything is worth listening to.”
Manley says the group’s collective record collection “is pretty much split between schlock classic rock and whatever new electro stuff. We pretty much draw from all that evenly. But the songs I like of ours are the ones that you can’t really tell where they’re coming from.”
According to Manley, Trans Am wishes it “were a classic-rock band. There’s nothing better—as stupid as it sounds—than turning it up and playing really loud. It’s totally retarded-sounding, but it’s true.”
“All those indie rockers grew up listening to the same classic rock we did, but they just don’t admit it. They’re embarrassed and we’re not,” Thompson says. “I never took the music to be my identity. I never said, ‘I am punk now.’”
“We were always just dorks,” Manley laughs. “[My friends and I] were always in the bandroom while the punks were in the art room. Or on the hill smoking.”
Trans Am’s highbrow connection comes thanks to Simon Reynolds, whose Village Voice piece on post-rock name-dropped the band when the trio had nothing more than an obscure split 7-inch to its name. Reynolds linked Trans Am with other bands who are moving away from the rigid narrative structure of rock and pop. At the mention of Reynolds, Thompson and Manley laugh and just shake their heads. But the best example of Trans Am being lumped in with a theory-heavy scene came when its label, Thrill Jockey (home of other post-its Tortoise and Rome), arranged for the group to be on an arty tribute CD of isolationist electronica for recently deceased post-structuralist egghead Gilles Deleuze. Trans Am agreed to do a track and then asked, “A tribute to who?”
“I have no idea what he’s about at all,” Thompson laughs. “We did that song the morning it was due.”
“Totally,” Manley agrees. “That was a disaster. Then we got the CD and were like, ‘Oh. Icy. I get it, it’s avant-garde stuff.’ We had thought of submitting some complete and utter noise, which would have fit really well. On that compilation, when you listen to it, it’s hard to tell when songs stop and start. But in a way it’s cool our song sticks out.”
“Nate says our most arty songs are our rock songs,” Thompson recalls. “The artiest thing we could have done is send in ‘Strong Sensations’ to the Gilles Deleuze thing,” he says, referring to Trans Am’s ZZ Top–ish, high-octane groover recently released on a record accompanying the new issue of the fanzine Tuba Frenzy.
Trans Am does its unplanned best to keep its records unpredictable, and its live shows are equally eclectic. “Our sound oscillates, because sometimes we’ll end up in a venue where it seems more appropriate to do an all-rock set, but you force the electronic stuff into the rock setting,” Manley explains. “We played at this artsy-fartsy thing in New York called the Anchorage—it’s within the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a crazy space that sort of had this air of ‘art,’ so we’re, like, ‘OK, fuck this. Let’s bust out the rock.’”
The group’s boundless enthusiasm for adapting any kind of sound to its music is part of its appeal. And despite Trans Am’s nearly seamless stitching of roiling rock and electronic roll, there’s a little bit of silliness that shows through. “It’s there whether or not we want it to be. It always comes off that way,” Manley admits. “Even when we try to be slick about something it’ll still sound a little bit cheesy. On the new recordings it sounds really smooth. We try to smooth out some of those rough edges…but, of course, they’re all there anyway.”
“We don’t really laugh about it. It’s what we’re used to….I think a lot of people think of it as a novelty thing, but we don’t anymore,” Manley says. “There’s no jokin’ around. It’s all business,” he deadpans.
Thompson says that “one of our worries sometimes is spreading ourselves too thin.” And Manley occasionally asks himself if a song is “too eclectic, too quirky. Sometimes we’re, like, ‘Does this sound like Phish?’”
Trans Am’s album is a nice split between rock beats and break-dance bleats, but the group’s new 12-inch for Cleveland’s Happy Go Lucky label is entirely electronic, done explicitly for DJs. The record’s three tracks all hark back to the stripped-down funk of Miami bass, Detroit electro, and Kraftwerk. The A-side, “Illegal Ass,” is lifted “from an album I have, called Illegal Bass. We were going to do a whole 12-inch taking out the Bs. ‘Ass on it.’ ‘Too Much Ass,’” Manley explains. “We came up with [the B-side] “Köln” when we went through this phase of wearing a lot of cologne. All of us during rehearsal would just put on cologne,” Manley says, straight-faced. Any particular reason why? “No, just boredom. Originally it was ‘Cologne’ spelled the English way, but we decided that [the track] sounded enough like some German shit. What was awesome is when we played in Cologne, we played that song and told them it was about their town.” And the final track, “Randy Groove,” a remarkable example of live, bass-heavy jungle breakbeats, is so-named, Manley says, because “British people use that term a lot for ‘horny.’ It’s something we overuse. Something that’s cool is randy.”
It’s February at the Black Cat, and Trans Am is taking the Dischordant crowd through its nervy showcase, highlighting both its electro set (for the sensory nerves) and its rock set (for the motor nerves. Or motorisch, to be all German and shit about it). The band begins with the curmudgeonly Middle Eastern synth-pop of “Köln.” After the tune, Manley announces, “We’re Trans Am. We’re from Atlanta. Let’s get things started!” before diving into the stadium-rock drone of “Strong Sensations.” Manley puts one foot up on his guitar monitor, smiling like an idiot savant playing the song for the first time. After the tune, Means leans into the mike, asking the suddenly animated crowd, “Is there some laughter?,” daring the audience to figure out if it is truly being rocked or if this is just a big put-on. Later Means pulls out his Iron Maiden–style galloping bass line for “Ballbados.” The same dumb guy who yells “Free Bird” at all punk shows shouts, “Joe Satriani!” as Manley fires up his fretboard. For once, the guy is right. CP
Trans Am plays the Black Cat Saturday, Sept. 7.