Trans Am - Biography
Instrumental trio Trans Am traffic in a peculiar brand of artifice. They’re rock ‘n’ roll Replicants, offering wry mimicry as the most opaque and dubious form of flattery. Do they actually enjoy techno, glam, arena rock and Krautrock? Are they just sardonic, showboating hipsters? Or are they grievous, postmodern cynics, all style and no intrinsic content. It’s hard to say. But parody and satire have a relevant place in pop music, from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention to the Residents; humor was an intrinsic aspect of the blues and big-band jazz as well. Maybe Trans Am have a sincere infatuation with the ghosts of musics past, and all of the thumb-pop funk bass and vocoder warbling and drum-machine beats and algebraic guitar jams and analog, mini-Moog gleeps are just part of a great-big, puckered-lip smooch to all of their One True Loves. Whatever their core intentions may be, Trans Am certainly deserve credit for being at the forefront of the post-rock scene of the mid 1990s, and besides, maybe they turned on a few Touch & Go-addicted slackers to Giorgio Moroder or even Asia, and that can only be a good thing.
Trans Am formed in Washington DC in the early 1990s: Nathan Means on bass, vocals, and keys; Philip Manley on guitar, keys and vocals; Sebastian Thomson on drums. After only a few rehearsals, they recorded their eponymous debut with Tortoise’s John McIntire behind the mixing desk. Trans Am (1996 Thrill Jockey) waffles between the then-trendy math-rock format, deliberately dumb arena-rock clichés, and analog synth noodling. The follow-up is a tighter affair, and more specific in its allusions. Surrender to the Night (1997 Thrill Jockey) is a thorough recreation of early-80s synth pop and proto-techno house beats. Trans Am know their Kraftwerk and they’re not afraid to show it; elsewhere, they meander into funk territory and come dangerously close to channeling Flock of Seagulls. If you missed this sort of thing the first time around, here’s your chance to luxuriate in the Aqua Net aromas of the era (parachute pants not included).
The Surveillance (1998 Thrill Jockey) continues the hybridized, backwards-listening soundscapes, as does the subsequent album, Futureworld (1999 Thrill Jockey). Trans Am really have their act together by this point, alternating rumbling, growling math-rock, with the whole “Domo Arigato, Mister Roboto” schtick. Vocoders abound, and “Cocaine Computer” bounces with a preposterous four-on-the-floor discotheque/Miami Vice beat. The group’s fifth record, Red Line (2000 Thrill Jockey), is a sprawling, 73-minute affair that manages to cover some new terrain, with the addition of acoustic guitars, non-processed vocals, and saxophone. T.A. (2002 Thrill Jockey) takes a satirical jab at REO Speedwagon in its cover art; aurally it’s an over-the-top plunge into all sorts of beat-crazy, electroclash zaniness. Liberation (2004 Thrill Jockey) is vaguely politicized, with various sound bytes and audio samples that allude to bleak, current-day news items.
The band has also collaborated repeatedly with fellow three-piece satirists, and Phil Manley side project, The Fucking Champs. Double Exposure (2001 Thrill Jockey) and Gold (2004 Thrill Jockey) are straight-ahead forays into heavy metal and 70s a.m. radio fare, with lots of riffage. Trans Am continue to plow ahead; Sex Change (2007 Thrill Jockey) thoroughly addresses the tongue-in-cheek checklist: prog, arena rock, techno, E-Z Listening and funk all receive their moment in the spotlight. The latest release captures them in concert: What Day Is It Tonight? - Trans Am Live 1993-2008 (2009 Thrill Jockey) is a deluxe double LP with a DVD, released in an edition of 1,500 copies. It confirms that for all of their studio chicanery, Trans Am are at their best on stage, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, as they’ve demonstrated for nearly two decades, at the end of the day, rock ‘n’ roll is simple theater, and Trans Am excel at theatrics.