Trans Am: “Heaven’s Gate”
[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Trans_Am_Heavens_Gate.mp3|titles=Trans Am: “Heaven’s Gate”]
Sebastian Thomson is a man without a country or, depending on how you look at it, a man with two homes. Either way, Thomson has worn out his welcome in London, England, where he has lived for the past four years.
Despite a lucrative career jetting between Europe’s party places as a one-man electro-funk concoction called Publicist, Thomson can’t escape his roots. He’s an American, despite his British address, and has to return to the United States in order to keep his green card.
“It is a bummer,” Thomson says, not sounding terribly put off by the situation. “Publicist is pretty popular, and now I have to move back to the US. I’ll still be able to play in Europe, just not as much. It’s been a bizarre life, and it’s only going to get weirder.”
There is also the small matter of his other band, Trans Am, for which he has played drums and a myriad of electronic gadgetry for the past 20 or so years. Trans Am, a hard-to-pigeonhole outfit that wraps the past, present, and future of rock, funk, and dance music into a surprisingly cohesive synth-fueled fun fest, got its start in Washington, DC in the early ’90s.
Despite popularity and success in the underground music scene, Trans Am’s members (Thomson, bassist Nathan Means, and guitarist Philip Manley) became restless. Despite having lived in the same town for most of their adult lives, often together under the same roof, even the prospect of making wonderful, fulfilling music couldn’t keep them in the same place.
“Instrumental music lends itself well to motion pictures because it’s pretty ambiguous — totally nondescript and inaccessible.”
Still, malaise couldn’t destroy the band either, and Trans Am has managed to thrive under geographic pressures that could destroy even the strongest relationships. It’s the kind of odd but increasingly necessary modern situation that many bands find themselves in. The world is getting smaller, and musicians have adapted.
“When I left America, Nate was in New Zealand and Phil was in San Francisco,” Thomson says. “We had started playing together when we were 16 or 17 and started playing as Trans Am when we were 23, so we’ve been doing this a long time. I think it got to be a bit much.”
Living entire oceans apart has its drawback to be sure. Manley says that the move, while necessary for Trans Am’s collective sanity, fundamentally changed the dynamics of the band.
“Because of the physical distance between us, we don’t play as often as we used to,” he says. “There’s too much about being in a band, at least for us, that is three people in a room creating something together. Not even the Internet can change that. There are subtle nuances of how people work and play music together that are lost when you’re not standing next to someone.”
Difficult or not, living apart was better than the other option. “We had started to move apart,” Means says. “I think we eventually would have gotten completely sick of it and stopped playing together.”
“Living in different cities helped us continue playing together as a band,” Manley says. “We needed the physical space to lead our own lives. Trans Am was a full-time thing for many years. It consumed all of us. Now we have lives outside the band, which is a much healthier way to be. We just get together a few times a year to record and play some shows. It’s fun!”
Bringing fun back into the equation seems to have been just the spark that Trans Am needed. Despite splintering in 2003, the band has since produced a number of records, some of the best material in its career: Liberation (2004), Sex Change (2007), a live album titled What Day is it Tonight? (2009), and now a concept album titled Thing.
“For better or worse, it has sharpened us,” says Means, who has returned to the United States, taking up residence in Portland, Oregon. “With Sex Change, we recorded half of that album in a week, took a week off, then had another week of recording.”
Thomson agrees. Living apart, he says, makes the band’s time together productive and something that they take more seriously. “It’s more exciting when we see each other,” Thomson says. “It forces some of us to bring more written material. We’re forced to be a little more prepared.”
Though the band may walk into the studio bubbling with ideas that were concocted in its members’ very separate lives, it’s still what happens when everyone is together in one room that makes Trans Am the band that it is. “We get into our own band biosphere,” Means says. “Certain things are going to grow in there, and certain things aren’t. I can’t say being apart has made a huge amount of difference in that sense.”
Monotony may have driven the members of Trans Am to separate continents, but it has also played a key role in its development as a band.
“A big part of everything we do comes from getting bored easily,” Means says. “When we first started playing, we had drums, guitars, and bass. Those are still the instruments we’re best at, but we’ve accumulated synths and stuff over the years.”
Much of the forward movement in Trans Am’s sound can be attributed to Thomson’s curiosity for new sounds. He scours the Internet, seeking out old and peculiar analog synthesizers, and spends his off hours trying to make them work with computers.
“It’s a pretty democratic band,” Means says. “There’s not a dominant presence, but Seb is the most technically gifted musician out of any of us, so he definitely has a larger role than most drummers do. If you watch our band and watch other bands, it’s a lot more likely that what you’ll see him doing, it’s three people doing it in another band.”
“We had always thought,” Thomson explains, “that Trans Am on stage and Trans Am in the studio are nothing alike. The way I play drums in the studio, for example, is way different than how I play on stage. I’m much more measured when we are recording.”
And it’s not just the band that feels that way. “A lot of our friends think we’re better live,” Means says. “And when we toured with Tool, we talked to a lot of Tool fans that had bought our albums and didn’t like them but loved us live.”
Embracing that difference, Trans Am decided to release the aforementioned live album, which was culled from years of soundboard tapes, home recordings of practices, and even video footage. Unlike a lot of live records that are simply pushed out by bands trying to fulfill a contractual obligation to their labels, What Day Is It Tonight? sounds like a band trying to build a road between its live show and its recorded material.
“The tape was running for a lot of stuff, starting from the very beginning,” Means says. “We had a mountain of tapes of live shows sitting around that we knew we’d do nothing with unless we had a deadline.”
Thomson says that a live album may have been inevitable simply because of Trans Am’s musical upbringing. Growing up as they did in the 1970s and ’80s, the music of that time played a huge role in the band members’ musical growth. “The concept of a live album, it’s kind of antiquated,” Thomson says. “It’s very ’70s. We might be inspired by Kraftwerk or DC hardcore, but we grew up listening to classic rock. You can be into all sorts of new and interesting music, but you can’t erase your youth.”
Thing, the band’s new album released via Thrill Jockey this April, melds these influences while presenting a hard-rock assimilation of John Carpenter-era horror scores. The project was, in fact, begun when Trans Am was commissioned to write the soundtrack for a science-fiction/horror/thriller film. The film lost its financial backing and was scrapped only a few months into writing and recording, but the band carried on writing music for the project anyhow.
“It’s dark and heavy and has a somewhat cinematic quality to it, hopefully,” Manley says. “Instrumental music lends itself well to motion pictures because it’s pretty ambiguous — totally nondescript and inaccessible.”
And though the album’s intended counterpart never came to fruition, Thing stands alone as an exemplary effort — possibly the band’s best to date. The trio’s spacey synth rock is at its most dynamic and dramatic, but it never loses its head-banging MO or dance potential. Throughout Thing, Thomson acts as a no-nonsense beat machine that drives squiggly and sinister sounds, while Manley and Means use their assorted gear to serve as conduits to otherworldly vibes. It’s an exciting and new representation of Trans Am’s sound, a milestone that hopefully portents sounds to come.
But no matter whether the three are improvising ten-minute solos on stage or spending hours in the studio adding layer after layer, Means says that it’s all Trans Am — regardless of how little one version may sound like another.
“It’s hard for us to get outside of what Trans Am does for us,” he says. “I’m not worried about playing anything really sloppy. You have to be willing to be cheesy, atonal, and just bad before you can get anywhere interesting. It ends up sounding like Trans Am most of the time.”