Music Features

Trans Am (Interview)

Trans Am have enlivened independent music for well over a decade now with good humor and technical mastery.  What Day Is Tonight?, out now on longtime label Thrill Jockey, provides a spectacular sampler of their work from 1993-2008 and showcases their considerable live awesomeness.  A new studio album, Thing, drops later this month and is on par with 2008's great Sex Change.  I sent them some questions and Sebastian Thompson was kind enough to send me some answers.

. . .

No Ripcord: Something that comes across in the new live collection What Day is Tonight? is the fact that you guys rarely take a breath between songs.  There's usually a steady percussion and at least a few other elements bridging every transition.  Is this something you've always done?  Don't you get tired?

Seb: Yes we've traditionally organized our set into 2 or 3 continuous parts. Breaks between songs usually serve two purposes: for the "frontman" to tell a boring story about being on the road or for some punters to go to the toilet. Not the best reasons to interrupt the music.

And yes we get tired but if you can't play 60 minutes of rock music you shouldn't really be on tour.

NR: Your style can vary wildly from album to album. Do you ever find other acts boring? Do you ever resent things like the 8-bit scene and the glut of dance rock over the last decade for luxuriating in territory you've already blazed through?

Seb: Yes most bands are boring, but that's true of almost any art form. Most movies are bad and most novels aren't worthwhile. It's just statistics.

And I don't resent any other band. Sure it's possible that we did some things before other people but that's ok. We've also luxuriated in territory already blazed by Kraftwerk and Van Halen.

I think Trans Am lives in it's own world and people appreciate us for that.

NR: There is often a playful cleverness and humor to your music and concepts, but it's rarely stopped the actual music from being extremely accomplished and rocking in a way that, to my ear, seems entirely unironic. Does it rile you to see more painfully sincere (i.e.. boring) acts get taken more seriously?

Seb: It is unfortunate that people confuse having a sense of humor with being in a joke band. We just got a review in Uncut that claimed we play "tongue in cheek synthrock".

I think the problem stems from people's fear and insecurity, on the part of both bands and critics. They are insecure about their abilities and how they appear so they think that they can use music to prove how smart they are. Which leads to music (and writing) which is paralyzed by seriousness. If you want to prove you're smart you shouldn't do it through music- get a Ph.D. instead.

Musicians and critics also have a fear of appearing too ridiculous. It stunts them. Once again, if you are afraid of being ridiculous you probably shouldn't be in a rock band. It's time for people to strap their balls (or ovaries) to their legs and not worry about it.

NR: Given that, is it a good idea to ignore most of TA like I tend to do and you do on the live album?

Seb: Most of the tracks on TA are difficult to play live. I heard that it's our most popular album in New Zealand.

NR: In live performance, a certain mouth-agape, raised-eyebrows cockiness can come across that might be off-putting if your performance didn't earn it. Is this what you're going for or is it just natural?

Seb: I thought cockiness what the whole point of rock music.

NR: Liberation was interesting in that it's a protest album that's mostly instrumental. How did you approach that? The only other album like that that comes to mind, although it sounds completely different, is Security by Antibalas. Have you heard that one?

Seb: Haven't heard the Antibalas album. With Liberation there are some lyrical cues to its theme but we mainly let the sound and vibe of the album speak for itself. It's one of our darker ones, definitely not a party album.

NR: Have you guys really stopped playing I Want It All live? That would be a shame, because it's a rager among ragers. Are you tired of that one?

Seb: True, we play it less now, but we'll see. Sometimes its not fun for us to play the same song every night. But you never know.

NR: Can you talk a bit about the Obscene Strategies that you used and named a song after on the wonderful Sex Change album? How do these compare with the "Zombification" process you used on the upcoming Thing?

Speaking of Thing, what disparate circumstances produced this monster?

Seb: Lots of air travel, getting beaten up in London, girl problems, freight trains, a life crisis, and really nice salsa.

NR: Do you still drink as much beer as you used to? Feel free to elaborate on other drugs if you wish.

Seb: I do.. As far as drugs go I'm only interested in the newest, trendiest, most chemical and untested ones around.