Nothing Lost During Trans Am's Three-Year Album Gap

Band leaves D.C., stops playing like assholes.

There is an instinctual order of operation that goes into taking a drive on the open road: Sit down, buckle up, switch on the ignition, look in the mirrors, shift into gear, step off the brake, and go. Then turn on the stereo.

As long as music has been accessible to people on the go, there has been an obsession to bring music along for the ride. Instead of having the noise of the road eat away each passing minute while confined in a hulk of metal, glass, and plastic, most drivers opt for music with a beat or tempo that will guide and propel.

Even without their appropriate band name, Trans Am epitomize the kind of driving music that peels off from the moment you hit play, taking you on a high-octane musical adventure that's locked in on full throttle. Their normally slow recording process hasn't always paralleled the built-for-speed sounds Trans Am put on record, but for their latest effort, Sex Change, they found themselves unusually rushed.

After living and recording in Washington, D.C., since 1990, the members of Trans Am—Nate Means, Phil Manley, and Sebastian Thomson—all decided to take a little break from each other and from touring and recording.

"In late 2003, a couple weeks after [the band's sixth album] Liberation was finished, Phil moved to San Francisco and I moved to New Zealand," says Means. "Everyone sort of wanted to do something else other than living in D.C. I think it was good for us to feel that we are all individuals, and not just a band, because that eventually builds up into resentment."

The band briefly got back together in 2005 for a collaboration with longtime pals the Fucking Champs, dubbing themselves the Fucking Am for their full-length, Gold, but there was little to no discussion of a proper Trans Am follow-up to Liberation. In mid-2006, however, a friend of Means was working at MAINZ Recording School in Auckland, New Zealand, and struck up the idea of having Trans Am come in to do some recordings.

No songs had been written or rehearsed before Manley and Thomson landed in New Zealand, but time was limited. The band worked around the clock, putting together a batch of songs with loaned gear. This was something totally new for Trans Am, who on past recordings had all the time in the world to tinker with their songs at their now-disassembled, D.C.-based National Recording Studio. But the songs that would end up on Sex Change were written, recorded, and mixed in a little over three weeks.

Trans Am's music has never been easy to pigeonhole. In the 17 years the three members have been playing together, their sound has constantly evolved, skirting the edges of convention and cliché along the way.

"We've been playing together for so long, I don't think there is any conscious effort to do something in our music—just to do music that we don't feel like assholes playing. We're a reactionary band," says Means.

Trans Am has come a very, very long way in both distance and skill since Thrill Jockey released their debut, self-titled LP 11 years ago, when the band launched out of the gates as an instrumental rock trio that focused on cock-rocking guitar solos, grumbling bass lines, and beefed-up percussion. However, that stripped-down rock equation was short-lived, and by the time the band followed up with 1997's Surrender to the Night, they added some analog synths into the mix, giving that album a more Krautrock feel along the lines of Can, with songs stretching longer and covering all ground that lies between serene and abrasive. The band's Kraut obsession climaxed on 1999's Futureworld, when the vocoder was brought in and the band, for the first time, incorporated lyrics into the songs.

Between 1996 and 2000, when The Red Line was released, there wasn't a year that didn't go by without a new Trans Am recording, each consistently bigger, bolder, and more adventurous than the previous one. But the output of recordings would become more infrequent, with two-year intervals between The Red Line, 2002's electro-fied TA, and 2004's politically charged and motivated Liberation. And like all hardworking bands, Trans Am were touring machines, traveling around the globe to promote their albums. It was only a matter of time before Trans Am took that long-needed break.

Compared to their past work routine, it may seem as though the Sex Change recording process was incredibly rushed, but the outcome is anything but. The songs are clearly focused and executed with mind-boggling precision and deft technique—as if nothing was lost in the three-year gap between albums. But whereas past albums have consistently shed a new skin and created a new identity, Sex Change is both a retrospective of the vast sounds and styles they have adopted over the years and a sonic trailblazer from the future, unafraid to pave the road with new ideas.

"I felt like we had good luck. I was really happy with how it turned out, getting to work with people I hadn't worked with," says Means. "For plenty of people, our music could be a nightmare."

music@seattleweekly.com

Listen to a sample of Trans Am's "North East Rising Sun."

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