Trans Am's Transformation

Trans Am's Transformation
"Hey look! We're partying. We're not faceless music nerds. We like to have a good time and we want you to have a good time." All right then. It sounds like Sebastian Thomson and his Trans Am cohorts Nathan Means and Phillip Manley have reinvented themselves. Again. But the notoriously clever post-rock hipsters haven't dumbed themselves down to Andrew WK levels by any means. They've simply taken their sense of humour and exuberance to new heights with their latest experiment — a pop record. "When we started making records six years ago, our method of writing songs was a new different thing," Thomson explains from Trans Am's own National Recording Studio headquarters in their hometown of Washington, DC.

"We weren't interested in being a pop band, we were interested in other kinds of music, more ambient sorts. But after doing that for five albums, it doesn't seem that interesting or rebellious anymore."

The specific reason behind their new direction — albeit one that has been clearly telegraphed in previous outings — was the extended experimentation they engaged in on 2000's Red Line, and their subsequent desire to explore the opposite end of the spectrum on their latest full-length TA.

But it is also their reaction to the painful self-seriousness of nu-grunge and an attempt to reclaim pop from the Backstreet Britneys who would have you believe that watered-down R&B is its only form.

"I think that past decade has not been the best for pop music and I think the idea that rock music can be entertaining and fun has sort of disappeared. For the past ten years, modern rock has been super-earnest, very dour and melancholy and even when it's aggressive, it's in a sort of I'm-hurting-inside kind of way. After a while, that gets really tired."

But since the band's has always been rooted in Krautrockian retro-futurism, it made sense that they would use this opportunity to further explore early ‘80s electro-pop, when androgynous keyboardists dreamed of lip-gloss skyscrapers, epic synths and chilly beats.

The actual structural and sonic differences on this record are largely due to a change-up in their approach to writing. Since Trans Am built their own studio, earlier songs had been hammered out from extended jams, an approach that severely limited Thomson's input.

"I'm the drummer and it's very frustrating to compose music the other way we were doing it because there's only so much I can dictate in a jam session. I can control the tempo and the groove but I can't dictate a chord progression or a melody. That frustrated me after a couple years. This time I could come to the studio myself, write songs and make a demo with guitar, bass, drums and keyboard and play it for the guys the next day."

The results were songs that contained bridges, hooks, guitar solos and, gasp, verses and choruses. Yep, following a couple successful experiments on their past few records, the famously instrumental act has included lyrics on almost the entire album. All three members take vocal duties and only occasionally resort to vocoder masking. Conveniently, they couldn't have chosen a better time to go back to electro. One of the most popular trends of the year so far has been the "electroclash" revival, a highly stylish, art-fuelled update heralded by contemporary club artists like Felix Da Housecat, Miss Kittin and the Hacker, Luke Slater and Ladytron. "I don't really know any of those artists. We've been listening to electro-style music for awhile and I guess we're a little stuck in the past as far as that goes," Thomson says. "People have always tried to tie us into some sort of category or bandwagon. The first reviews we got, because we were instrumental, said that we were a surf band because that's the only instrumental rock music this person had known about. After that, for many years we were considered to be some sort of Tortoise Jr. because we were instrumental and we were on Thrill Jockey. And now we're an electro new wave band. I guess we're just sort of a hard band to classify."

Always have been, actually.

They originally joined forces in 1990 while still in high school, though it would be six years before their self-titled debut was released, after they had completed college. In the early days, before they were even named Trans Am, the trio actually boasted a lead singer. But "creative differences" led to his ouster and while they initially attempted to handle vocal duties on their own, an eventual decision was made to abandon them altogether.

"We parted because we weren't seeing eye to eye on a lot of things. What happened was the three of us would rehearse and he'd never show up to rehearsal so we would just write songs as an instrumental three piece, even though we had a singer. This is the ironic thing, we let him go and we were still having the same rehearsals."

But they were still searching for a unique sound, and what they kept falling back on was their background of ‘80s new wave, DC hardcore and classic rock. Not too mention the experimental rock of Bastro and Slint. "But we were floundering until one day we hooked up a Casio keyboard in 1993 and realised that a keyboard can also be a punk instrument."

Coincidentally, it was former Bastro drummer John McEntire — at this point leading Chicago post-rock pioneers Tortoise — who gave the band their big break. After hearing a seven-inch the trio had recorded, he signed on to produce their debut and convinced his label Thrill Jockey to sign them, providing Trans Am with an instant fan base hungry for instrumental artists. They soon abandoned their big-rock sound for a more electronic feel but even as they progressed through a series of ever-more influential records, their split-personality never quite gelled as one.

"Our earlier albums were very two-sided. You had the rockers and then the synth, drum machine tunes and when we played live it would be really funny. For the rockers, some kids in the crowd would come up and rock out and then leave for the synth parts when other kids would come up. It was like we had two crowds," Thomson says. "But I think we've hopefully put them together."

Since they lack the self-seriousness of their Thrill Jockey compatriots, their other major concern has been to avoid being pigeonholed as an ironic retro act, especially given the in-joke atmosphere of Miss Kittin and company.

"I think there's some people younger than me who didn't grow up listening to [electro-pop] but have heard it and think it's cool and are now playing music like it. Whereas for me, I lived through a lot of that. I'm 30 years old now. One of the first records I ever heard was [synth-pop pioneers] Visage and I grew up listening to Kraftwerk since I was a little kid because of my brother. So when you hear that in our music we're not being retro. That whole new wave thing, it's not like I'm rediscovering some music from the past and paying homage to it. It's not like that. It's just in my blood and I can't really get rid of it."

But if they still take their music seriously, that's about the extent of it. Chris Turco, who will be joining the boys on the road to help fill in the sound, gets an album credit as "‘yes' man" and they even give their hair stylist a shout-out. The album design itself, apparently inspired by Ice-T's Power and No Limit record covers, shows them shirtless with a gold neck-rope, in a wife-beater with '80s hair held back by a headband, and in an all-white tuxedo with top hat.

"Because of the whole aesthetic we've had over the past ten years of people being serious and moody, and because we like to rock out on stage and drink beer and sweat, people have always thought we must be being ironic. These guys are on Thrill Jockey, they sound like Kraftwerk sometimes, they can't possible enjoy playing these rock riffs. When in fact, yes we were enjoying it."

Many, however, are less than amused by the band's latest tact. Several reviews have admonished the band for their stylistic reinvention, which has been perceived in some circles as a step backward in terms of artistic development. Thomson, however, blows off the criticism, saying it's a result of the continued belief that the music they're revisiting really isn't worth their efforts. He, naturally, disagrees that it is — or ever was — cheese.

"This record is obviously a lot more accessible than other records we've done and we've gotten some reviews that are very positive but we've gotten some reviews that are the beginning of the backlash — ‘these guys used to be this interesting post-rock instrumental band and now they're just some new wave pop band.' That backlash is totally inevitable and we expect it."