Trans Am / Sur Une Plage Fox Cabaret, Vancouver BC, July 6
Published Jul 07, 2015Following a selection of 45s by Jeremy Schmidt (aka Sinoia Caves), Vancouver duo Sur Une Plage meekly took the stage. With Joshua Wells (Lighting Dust, Black Mountain) getting his groove on behind his station of synths and gadgets, playing melodies on a Prophet 600 over drum machine beats, singer Colin McKill (Lord Beginner, Hard Drugs) delivered his world-weary lyrics with a serious yet wavering voice, a timbre somewhere between Peter Murphy (Bauhaus) and Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes) without the histrionics. His voice suited their shimmering suicidal synth-pop sound, but his stage presence was negligible; McKill spent most of set facing Wells with his hand in his pocket, even for their upbeat tracks, so there wasn't much connection with the crowd.
In stark contrast, Trans Am got right up in the face of the respectable Fox Cabaret crowd. Flanked by bassist Nathan Means and guitarist Philip Manley, drummer Sebastian Thomson had his kit pushed up a few feet away from the edge of the stage, and for damn good reason — these guys are in their element live, and you need to see them.
Although the West Coast-based trio have released ten studio albums through Thrill Jockey since 1996 (which helped to usher in the post-rock movement), those recordings have always felt somewhat contained, like something important left unsaid. To see them live is to know why the Grateful Dead had the reputation they did; there's just something more to them live that can't be recorded.
Part of their power was that they changed the sound up for just about every song, as they blurred styles of heavy metal, Krautrock and synth-pop. All of them took turns on electronics, even Thomson, who played a Juno synth for "I'll Never" while Manley coaxed Mellotron-esque string sounds from his guitar. Means and Manley both took turns on lead vocals, with Means performing several tracks on a vocoder.
Even on vocoder, Means squarely faced the crowd and raised a hand to the heavens. Most notably, instead of putting his free hand in his pocket while he played a small synth with the other hand on "Tesco V. Sainsbury's," he casually ate a donut (it looked like a chocolate glaze, though there's a small chance it was a Boston cream). Means doesn't come off as a natural frontman, but combined with the odd rubber face, a la Rowan Atkinson, all the little things drew viewers into his world.
Means wasn't the only one bringing it, either. Letting loose passionate "woo!"s between songs, Thomson wore a cut-off shirt that revealed the thick, muscular arms he used to put on one of the most epic displays of sheer kit brutality this side of the Jungle Drummer. You almost felt sorry for his hi-hat, given the righteous fury with which he abused it. Manley was the subtlest of the bunch, but his prowess on guitar was apparent, tasteful and textured. Together, they were tight as a vice.
Granted, their tracks are somewhat minimal and repetitive, but they milked every moment in ingratiating fashion. They transitioned smoothly between their disparate material, nailed the big riffs and small moments and stopped on a dime in their pre-encore track "Slow Response," capped off as Manley and Means crossed axes in front of Thompson. Yet, they also made the time to thank the sound guy and the opening acts by name, so you know their mad skill hasn't gone to their heads.