You wonder why Trans Am even bothers with Minneapolis. "Oh, God, every time I even think about it, it makes my hair stand on end," fumes Philip Manley, guitarist for the adrenaline-fueled power trio. "When we first started touring [in 1996], we were conned into opening for Soul Coughing," he continues, via telephone from his Washington, D.C., home. "We didn't even know who they were, and we were very skeptical about touring with them. And rightly so, because after hearing them I'm not a big fan. They're perfectly nice people, but the whole package was just weird from the start."
It soon got weirder. "Anyway, we make it to Minneapolis, and get to First Avenue, and we end up playing a sold-out show of about 2,000 people." Manley takes a deep breath. "After we finished playing, I headed upstairs to the 21+ section, and this bouncer stopped me on the way up and asked for my ID. I explained that my ID was in my van, and showed him my 'all access' stage pass. The guy wouldn't budge, and suddenly I found myself being dragged out of the club by my neck by this bouncer, who happened to be wearing this spiked bracelet that cut the hell out of my neck and face. It was really humiliating. They wouldn't even let me back inside to pack up my equipment to go, even after I'd gotten my ID."
Despite this rocky introduction to our beautiful city, Trans Am has returned quite a few times, playing the 400 Bar each time. "The sound system there is just great," says Manley, a little more relaxed now. "The music just hits you like this big wall of sound." And for a band that puts as much time and thought into sounding as perfect as Trans Am does, a good club sound system just may be more important than, say, reasonably priced beer and toilets that flush.
Trying to capture the essence of that perfect sound, however, is as tricky as trying to pin down the first real day of winter. Last year's William S. Burroughs-meets-Tron album, Futureworld (Thrill Jockey), was chillingly stark, and decidedly not in favor of the future--especially a future where there's "no future boy...no future girl." By contrast, this year's 72-minute Red Line (Thrill Jockey) is a production that veers into the world of sleazy jazz clubs and low-budget porno sets. Anything that the tense "Where Do You Want To Fuck Today?" doesn't tell you about the band's hypersexed new outlook can be found in between the lines of the straight-out Eighties rock of "Ragged Agenda." Here, Manley seems to mutter something about "ripping out seams" over and over under his breath.
Not that Trans Am has shed the techno-geek aspect so central to their appeal. Amid the raw bass lines and train-a-comin' saxophone bleats, a Digitek vocoder (first introduced on Futureworld) makes a return appearance. You can also hear some actual pop-song vocals on the "radio-friendly" (their word, not mine) song "Play in the Summer."
"Basically, we sound just like Rush, except without the stupid lyrics," says Manley. And I'll be the first to admit that "I wanna play in the summer/Like we did once before" appeals to my lowbrow aesthetic a lot more than anything Neal Peart ever penned. And I definitely don't mind the absence of the wineglass-shattering vocals. But those familiar prog riffs, tricky time signatures, and once-futuristic synthesizer leads take on new life when giving a pulsating power to a Jesus and Mary Chain-styled drone, at the same time as the music plumbs the subtleties of the inspirational acoustic-guitar ballad. "We might sound a lot like ZZ Top, too, just because I listen to them a lot. I love that band," Manley adds.
The partnership between Manley, drummer Sebastian Thompson, and bassist Nathan Means stretches back far before Trans Am, to an 11th-grade English-class debate about Walden in Takoma Park, Maryland. The then-youngsters started hanging out on a regular basis, playing Stones and Hendrix covers in a variety of then-youngster bands, much to the dismay of Manley's parents. The elder Manleys had attempted to bring their children up in a household free of all popular culture; they didn't even own a television. Recalls Manley, "When I was in high school, and I went out to play a show, my dad was always like, 'Don't think that this is going to be your usual thing. You can do this once in a while, but don't get too carried away.'"
In 1995, the band's self-titled debut was released on Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records, partly due to the intervention of ubiquitous Chicago producer and Tortoise percussionist John McEntire. Trans Am later opened on a short tour with Tortoise. While their debut went well, Manley and company had a few reservations about bringing an outsider into the Trans Am fold, even as a producer. "Obviously, when you do an album with someone else, no matter how objective or removed that person might try to be, you're still filtering your music through another person," says Manley. "There's always some sort of inevitable coloration. The records we recorded with John McEntire, they're so different than the ones we recorded ourselves. And that's for better or worse. There are certainly some great sounds on those records, but the essence of Trans Am is still masked by this other producer's...filter. As soon as it was possible, we started producing our records ourselves."
Perhaps at the core of the band's identity is a diligence bordering on Spartan austerity. Since 1995, Trans Am has spent nearly all of their time either touring or carrying out the most fiendish of experiments in their recording space, where their research has included trying to turn an archaic Macintosh into a drum machine through BASIC programming. Not surprisingly, their "lunch breaks" often consist of playing Atari games on a similar computer. "I like to play Frogger," confesses Manley, like it's some sort of guilty secret. Only the most self-flagellating of musicians could act like playing video games is something he sneaks off to do when he's supposed to be practicing--and maybe that masochistic streak is why he keeps coming back to Minneapolis.