Chosen One: Trans Am
Interview with Trans Am.
“Mixing can be very tedious and labor intensive with Trans Am because we are basically still writing the songs as we mix. We are very demanding of the engineer. There’s lots of editing.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
‘Volume X’ represents the latest chapter in Trans Am’s rich musical legacy that has consistently pushed the sonic envelope and moved steadily forward with each sonic shift and glorious genre-defying canvas of sound. The band’s tenth studio album (released as ever on the independent label, Thrill Jockey) heralds yet another pinnacle in the trio’s storied career, beginning back in ‘96 with the release of their self-titled debut album (which included a two-day session at Idful Studios with John McEntire). In the years and decades that followed, a string of monumental and shape-shifting records would be forged by the innovative minds of Nathan Means (bass, keyboards, vocals), Phil Manley (guitar, keyboards, bass, vocals), and Sebastian Thompson (drums, vocals, bass, guitar, programming), including 1999’s colossal double-album ‘Red Line’, the brooding opus, ‘Liberation’ (2003) and collaborations with The Fucking Champs (The Fucking AM’s ‘Gold’ was their first offering). 2014’s ‘Volume X’ feels a culmination where the eclectic and wonderful sounds (rock, krautrock, prog, ambient, electronic) of Trans Am continue to surprise and enthrall audiences, new and old alike.
‘Volume X’ was recorded sporadically over the course of three years, mostly in San Francisco’s LCR Studios where Manley has recorded many other bands as a professional engineer. Album opener ‘Anthropocene’ begins with ambient flourishes before erupting into a frenzy of killer riffs and an infectious groove to burn the darkest depths of despair with each swirling psychedelic note. ‘Reevaluations’ is a pristine electronic pop cut that recalls Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer World’ fused with a seamless array of 70’s krautrock and sublime funk slices. Part A continues with the pulsating neon-lit odyssey ‘Night Shift’ that unfolds into an ethereal, interstellar voyage. ‘Backlash’ erupts into a guitar-frenzied wall of noise and metal excursion.
Some of the album’s towering achievements arrive on part B, particularly the dense sound collage of ‘Ice Fortress’ which masterfully delves into electronic, prog and ambient territory. The plethora of textures and nuances derived from the sonic palette of synths, drums and keys is nothing short of staggering as the rhythmic pulse and ambient touchstones conjures up the timeless sound of Can, Neu! and Tangerine Dream for the 21st Century. The drums become more prominent towards the close, forming a free-jazz undercurrent. The closing hypnotic string notes share the singular rhythmic pulses of composer Steve Reich. Sublime.
The torch-lit ballad ‘I’ll Never’ is ‘Volume X’s achingly beautiful lament, reminiscent of the near-mythical ‘Light 3000’ by Schneider TM. The vocodered Nathan Means sings “I’ll never get over to you” on the gorgeous chorus refrain as layers of neon golden synthesizer lines form technicolour patterns across the neon-lit skies overhead. “Come a little bit closer / Where you can brighten the sky” is a lyric from the verse contains an immediacy and intimacy as a painful hurt radiates from that of a broken heart. The album closer ‘Insufficiently Breathless’ is built on a gentle acoustic guitar strum as a cosmic folk infused ambient pop tour-de-force lays before your eyes. The synthesizers and electronic glitches form a gradual crescendo throughout that brings ‘Volume X’ to a stunning climax. The minor-key bridge that arrives half-way through is another defining moment, where Michael Chapman’s acid folk is interwoven with the laptop wizardry of Kraftwerk.
‘Volume X’ is available now in North America/Japan/Australia, and on 11 August in Europe.
Interview with Phil Manley, Trans Am.
Congratulations on the stunning new album, ‘Volume X’. It’s a real pleasure to ask you some questions about your utterly transcendent music. Firstly, can you discuss how the sporadic recording process influenced the album’s resulting sound and mood? Also, I imagine having other off-shoot projects and being in separate bands (away from Trans Am) must have been a considerable source of inspiration when it came to working on ‘Volume X’?
Phil Manley: The album was recorded over 3 years in 4 or 5 intensive sessions. The sporadic process allowed us to record a batch of songs and then take a step back. Between sessions we could sit with the rough mixes. Once we reconvened we would edit arrangements, change parts, re-record from zero, or scrap things all together. The editorial process has more breathing room this way.
Seb has been playing drums with Baroness and I could hear that his drumming chops were pretty well honed when he came into the studio for the last recording session. Lately I’ve been playing with a group called Once and Future Band. The arrangements are very dense and baroque. I’m not sure how this may have influenced the Trans Am record.
My favourite song at the moment is the divine electronic ballad, ‘I’ll Never’. The use of vocoder is such a beautiful addition to the record’s sonic terrain. Can you talk me through this song please? The immediacy and delicate beauty of the song forms a vital pulse to the album’s illuminating voyage.
PM: That song was composed by Nathan. The demo is actually totally insane and rocking. We recorded that songs about 4 different times with very different “rocked-out” arrangements, but they didn’t sound right. We finally settled on the down tempo, ballad style version that appears on the album.
Previous Trans AM records have been mixed by fellow-luminaries such as John McEntire, James Murphy, and others. The latest album (although not for the first time) is self-produced. Can you discuss the mixing stage of the process? I feel this point in time, after the music is written and recorded, is quite a tedious and labour-intensive process? (Particularly when you consider the wide range of sounds and dynamic range, the album masterfully manifests).
PM: This record was mixed with our old friend, Nikhil Ranade. We’ve been working with Nikhil for almost 15 years now. We met in Washington, DC where he helped us build our old recording studio, National Recording Studio. He has also toured with us for many years as our live sound engineer. He is in the inner circle.
Mixing can be very tedious and labor intensive with Trans Am because we are basically still writing the songs as we mix. We are very demanding of the engineer. There’s lots of editing. With that said, we actually finished the album before we expected we would. We went into the last session thinking we had so much to do and we could never finish it in that amount of time. Somehow, we finished it.
You recorded the majority of the album in San Francisco’s LCR Studios. How does this space differ to the likes of Idful Studios or National Recording Studio where previous records have been recorded? I would love to gain an insight into the recording equipment and instruments (analogue equipment, pedals, and acoustic instrumentation) you must have collected over the years and utilized on ‘Volume X’?
PM: LCR is in San Francisco and where I’ve been working for the past 8 years. It’s a great studio with great gear and a great room. It’s also right next to the train tracks/I-280/rapid development. I’ve recently signed a lease on a new studio. I’m afraid LCR will soon lose it’s lease to the rapid condo-ification of SF. Here’s a link to the LCR website where you’ll find an exhaustive equipment list: www.luckycatrecording.com
Idful in Chicago was in an old strip mall. John McEntire was the engineer. We recorded about 1/2 of the first record there and a couple tracks off of ‘Surrender to the Night’. It’s now a Gap.
NRS was Trans Am’s studio in Washington, DC. We built it ourselves and we recorded most of our own material there. Nikhil Ranade and Jonathan Kreinik also worked there. It was a magical spot in a really sketchy neighborhood. I think it’s a Whole Foods now.
I would love for you to discuss how the trio of Trans AM first crossed paths? I was interested to read you began as a blues outfit (as many do!) that led to the formation of DC hardcore band, Fly. It’s inspiring to look back over your incredible discography and see how the band are constantly pushing the sonic envelope. How do you see Trans Am evolving in the next ten years? What have been your most cherished memories so far?
PM: Nathan and I met in the parking lot of Goshen Boy Scout Camps. This was between 7th and 8th grades. Nathan played with Seb in the Pyle Jr. High Orchestra. Nathan played cello and Seb played the violin. I played the alto sax in the school band, which was different from the orchestra. The first time we ever played together was for a holiday concert at Montgomery Mall where both the band and the orchestra played together. I didn’t meet Seb until a little while later when we went to see ‘Labyrynth’ in the movie theater also at Montgomery Mall.
Seb went to high school in Argentina. After graduating from high school, Seb returned to the states which is when Nate and I actually met him in earnest. He was wearing a jean jacket with the Bauhaus album artwork drawn on the back in permanent marker.
Are there certain defining records for the band that all members have a shared love and fascination for?
PM: Kraftwerk ‘Computer World’, Manowar ‘Triumph of Steel’, Foreigner ‘4’.
‘Insufficiently Breathless’ is a gorgeous closing cut that is reminiscent of a slowed down version of ‘4,738 Regrets’ on ‘Sex Change’. I love how an organic feel permeates the final section of ‘Volume X’. The acoustic guitar combined with the swirling synths conjures up the sound of a gradual sunset. Was this song pieced together over a long time period? How much of the album was put to tape as a result of a jam session in the studio, as opposed to a more gradual process of adding layers of tracks from each member of the band?
PM: This was definitely composed in the studio. We tracked it in an afternoon. It wasn’t really a “jam” session. Actually, most of this record was composed by any one of us outside of the studio. We’d bring demos in and we’d all work on them together. Very little of the album was wholly composed in the studio.
You must be looking forward to playing shows together again, especially considering that each member lives in different continents. How has this new change been for you all and do you feel it has seeped into the music of Trans Am?
PM: Trans Am actually started in a similar situation. We all went to college in different places, but we carried on playing together when we could. Taking breaks just helps build the enthusiasm. It’s really fun when we all get to hang out and make music together.
‘Volume X’ is available now in North America/Japan/Australia, and on 11 August in Europe.