Nearly 30 years into their career, with 11 studio albums under their glittery belts, Trans Am show no signs of moving to a retirement home in Florida. Now living in separate cities, multi-instrumentalists Nathan Means, and Phil Manley have other jobs and families to raise. Drummer Sebastian Thomson recently committed to playing percussion in the metal band Baroness.
Less-dedicated musicians would have failed to keep a long-distance project alive on a part-time basis, or would have at least been susceptible to diminishment in the quantity or quality of their output. This hasn’t been the case for Trans Am.
By drawing on a seemingly discordant range of influences—including arena rock, synth pop, prog, metal, krautrock and sci-fi soundtracks—the trio created an amalgamated, largely instrumental style that is wholly their own and has shape-shifted through the years. They cut their teeth in the Washington, D.C. hardcore scene, and were initially lumped in with contemporaries such as Tortoise and Labradford; but Trans Am had little in common with the urgent, earnest polemics of the former movement, nor the chin-stroking intellectualism of the latter.
But just because they were considerably more fun than their peers doesn’t mean Trans Am were never sincere. 2004’s Liberation was a reaction to the George W. Bush administration, and their latest album, California Hotel, was recorded as Donald J. Trump was huffing his way to electoral triumph. Packed with fuzzy riffs, glistening synth tones, vocoded voices, and luxuriant rhythms, the album’s overall vibe is one of pre-dystopian melancholy mixed with a more optimistic defiance. This is especially true when it comes to tracks such as “Staying Power,” which the band nailed in one take, immediately after hearing the result of last year’s presidential election. Still, Trans Am have seen off Reagan, George Bush and his junior and aren’t going stand by idly in the face of another administration they oppose. We spoke to Trans Am’s Phil Manley about stupidity, distance, fatherhood and The Eagles.
Trans Am took a back-to-basics approach by recording lots of California Hotel straight to analog. What steps were taken to avoid a sheer regression?
We purposefully wanted to get back to what we sounded like when we first started playing. We’d even talked about making the new album totally instrumental. I think “Staying Power” might be the most successful example of that. It’s very stripped down and simple. Minimalist rock. Our music is already very primitive. I’m not sure if we could actually regress. It’s already so fucking stupid.
The album’s title pays homage to Glenn Frey, who died last year. Why are The Eagles so important to Trans Am?
Trans Am has a rich tradition of reworking classic rock titles, for example “Pretty Close to the Edge” and “Who Do We Think You Are?” I moved to Oakland a couple years ago and there’s this huge old hotel right next to the I-580 freeway. It’s the same hotel from the album cover. I laughed as soon as I saw it and thought to myself it was just stupid enough for Trans Am to use as an album title.
In certain quarters, The Eagles aren’t considered to be a particularly cool band. How might you persuade Eagles naysayers to give them another chance?
I would never try to persuade an Eagles-hater to give them another chance. I completely understand why someone would hate The Eagles. I used to hate The Eagles. It’s possible they are the least cool band in history. There’s nothing more annoying than a Dead Head trying to convince you why you should like The Grateful Dead. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste.
And your favorite Eagles song?
I really like “In the City,” which was on The Long Run LP and composed by Joe Walsh. He’s definitely my favorite Eagle, which is kind of a cop-out given that he’s obviously the odd-man-out. I once played that song so many times in a row that my roommate threatened to kill me. Which reminds me of this news clipping: Vernett Bader Stabs Roommate Who Wouldn’t Stop Listening To The Eagles.
I could name a few bands whose material went noticeably downhill once its members relocated to separate towns. Yet this hasn’t happened with Trans Am. How did you avoid succumbing to the curse of the long-distance band relationship?
We actually started as a long-distance band. We all grew up in the same suburb of Washington DC but Trans Am didn’t start until we were all in college. Nate was at UNC Chapel Hill, Seb was at Bard College in NY State and I was at Oberlin in Ohio. We would get together on breaks and play as much as we could. After we all finished school, we lived together in Maryland and DC for many years. That was actually much harder than the long-distance thing. We rarely spent time apart. Now when we get together, it’s a joyous reunion. And I’m not even exaggerating.
You’ve also reached the age at which your band members are raising families. The literary critic Cyril Connolly wrote that, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” But that’s baloney, right?
That’s interesting. Time becomes very precious when you’re raising a family. Personally speaking, there never seems to be enough time in the day to get everything done, and music often falls by the wayside. I’m lucky that my wife is very supportive of my musical career, and I force myself to make the time to play regularly. Life now is definitely way different than when I was in my 20s and touring all the time in two bands, and recording when I wasn’t on tour. Nowadays, music develops more slowly. Time slows down and I’m fine with that.
Virtually every feature I’ve read about Trans Am opens by saying how your band was originally associated with post-rock before transcending that genre. How sick are you of hearing the term “post-rock”?
Initially, we reacted strongly against the ‘post-rock’ tag. I’m not sure if we ever really fit into that genre. Tortoise inspired a lot of bands that are considered post-rock. Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai are both considered post-rock. I’m not sure how much we have in common, musically speaking, with any of those bands. It’s a term that only a very small sample of people even know about. If people ask me what kind of music Trans Am plays, I just tell them “space rock”.
With which band would you most like to share a bill?
We’ve had the great pleasure of touring with some truly amazing bands. I’d love to play with Golden or The Fucking Champs again, but both bands don’t really exist. I’d love to open for ZZ Top or Neil Young, but their fans would fucking hate us.