Maybe it's the tight instrumental ham- mering, or maybe it's the power-trio format. Or maybe it's the name. But something about Trans Am makes it seem like a band that formed 20 years ago. And with Futureworld, its fourth full-length, the group appears to have furthered its backward glances. Just look at the near-fluorescent green grid receding back to the generation-old digital print at the top of the CD cover. Just listen to the ultraprecise interweaving of bass, drums, and guitar. The here-squishy, there-prickly keyboards. The electronically altered vocals.
Breakroom, Wednesday, April 28
Vocals? Hey, this used to be an instrumental band . . . right?
"We just get bored easily," says bassist Nathan Means as he prepares for a long tour from Trans Am's Washington, DC, homebase. "And vocals," he adds, "seems like a movement we wanted to be a part of."
Calling vocals a "movement" hints at Trans Am's ability to summarize and use aspects of different musical styles, ranging from Kraftwerk to Can to tightly managed sonic chaos. Its sound invites questions of influence and lineage. Early Killing Joke? "As far as I know," says Means, "none of us have ever heard them."
He insists, however, that he and his bandmates—guitarist Philip Manley and drummer Sebastien Thomson—"listen to everything in the realm of music in the past 30 or 40 years." Means qualifies these catholic tastes with a caveat: "The one format we don't listen to is modern rock."
Clearly there's degradation of quality from Trans Am's vantage, a slippery slope that's made modern rock something akin to, well, '70s rock with its stadium-choking crowds. Trans Am, with all its grand cogitation, not to mention its hypnotically tight tunes, is on a different road. Trying to pin down exactly which road is downright difficult, what with the abundance of oblique references the band uses to build its recordings—as well as Means' comments like, "I'm at a loss to explain how we write songs or what they sound like."
Tracking Trans Am's references, though, sets up a plot-driven schema for the group as thoughtful social philosophers maybe, commentators on techno-society and digitalia. How could song titles like "Technology Corridor" and "Enforcer," "A Single Ray of Light on a Cloudy Day" and "Access Control" denote anything but a delicate narrative thread?
Indeed, last year's Surveillance played like a meditation on paranoia in the digital age, a sort of post-punk X-Files without the aliens. But Means brushes off the idea that Trans Am's albums are driven by plots or even central concepts. "There are a bunch of illusory plots," he notes. "But the only real ones are those which developed in the mix-down studio like, 'Reverb makes this song sound fucking great, but how hard can we push the reverb without the song just floating away?' Or, 'Who crushed the drums with that compression?' and "Will anyone find the xylophone in the track?'"
Maybe what Trans Am is after is a pure musical universe. Or maybe its members are grand bullshitters in the rock tradition, yanking the imagination's chain with titles and images that somehow jibe with the cultural now (and induce writers to wantonly call its music prog-rock, reference The X-Files, and meditate on the '70s), buying the trio space to simply mess around. After all, Means recalls Trans Am coming together in a high school classroom, a rather humble beginning.
"Phil and I have known each other for a long time," he says. "We met Sebastien in 11th-grade English class. We were arguing over Dale Hunter, a longtime Washington Capitals great who was recently traded, during our discussion of Walden—which, inexplicably, is still taught in public schools. We got in trouble, and it kind of formed a bond for us, which has lasted to this day. Then we played Stones and Hendrix covers. Then we got into funk metal. Now I don't know what we play."
What they play now is something at once entirely similar to and entirely different from their earlier work. The vocals, newly minted for the band and so obviously a stand-out in its sound, come across like a futurist imagining the millennium decades ago, finding alterations that mangle the voice and playing rock 'n' roll. Jarring time changes and steamroller energy rushes are still all over the songs, as is a storm of effects and musical twists. But try to paint Trans Am as retro-futuristic, and you'll get modulated resistance. Means might cop to seeking out old technologies "because they're less prevalent in today's market and give us an edge in sculpting an original product," but he'll also return to the pure musical universe: "Vintage chic," he says, "makes me puke."