In the mid-’90s, before getting saddled with the term became a dirty word, Trans Am was one of the core members of the post-rock scene. While their label and scenemates in Tortoise meticulously concocted easy-listening fake jazz tailored for indie brainiacs, Trans Am played the part of the prog-obsessed miscreant crony, whipping up a sonic clusterfuck of driving, Krautrock-damaged synthery, testosterone-oozing dance groovage, fireballing drums and Vocoder action.
Now working as an erstwhile unit, Trans Am is touring behind the remastered vinyl reissue of 1999’s Futureworld (Thrill Jockey), arguably their definitive futurist new wave statement. Sound of the City spoke to Means while he was traveling to a gig.
Why reissue and tour behind 1999’s Futureworld?
There was just a lot of demand for it, you know? People have been asking for Futureworld for a long time; it’s the classic. We got asked to do it (Futureworld) at a festival in Pittsburgh, then word got out to the promoters and there were some requests. So we started to go along with it.
So you didn’t consider earlier albums like The Surveillance or Surrender to the Night? Those are also considered “classics” by some Trans Am fans.
[Laughing] I’m not sure how much demand there is for a Surveillance tour. Honestly, I was of kind of two minds about the whole “playing an album” tour. But it’s a pretty good experience—getting back in touch with some songs we haven’t played in a long time and also some equipment we haven’t used in a long time.
What were you conflicted about?
First of all, it’s sort of trendy right now, to play the whole album thing. That made me a little bit uneasy. The public might have one opinion about a band’s album, but that’s not necessarily the way a band might think about their work. It’s like if you have a personal relationship to your records, it’s hard to choose a favorite one. It’s easier for the crowd, I guess.
It goes back to when bands do an entire album, it turns into a nostalgia act.
Yeah, that’s another thing. It’s like that Miles Davis quote about being in a museum. “Is this over now?” Or “Are we not current anymore?” But now I have a more positive attitude about it. I think, basically, Trans Am fans like this record in particular, and why not? It’s been a good, interesting experience to play it.
Were Phil [Manley] and Sebastian [Thomson] into it, or did they have issues too?
The other guys… well. Sebastian, he was really against it and Philip, he was really for it. I had to be the tiebreaker here.
What is the state of Trans Am now? Isn’t Philip a full-time member of Oneida?
No, Phil doesn’t play in Oneida anymore. But he has a solo project called Life Coach and he’s also living in San Francisco, working in the studio recording bands, and he’s going to be a father. I’m editing books now and I also have a child and that takes up some of my time. Sebastian is living in New York and he’s busy with his Publicist project. [Trans Am] is not full-time; it’s more of a part-time thing. We used to tour like three or four months out of the year; now it’s probably like three or four weeks. We don’t all live in the same city, so our collaboration schedule is a lot slower.
How did you feel about being boxed in with the post-rock movement back in the 1990s?
The thing is, post-rock originally wasn’t as specific as it has become; it meant sort of experimental, instrumental Walkmans from the ’90s. But then because Tortoise, I think, became the most popular one, it morphed into more instrumental music that maybe has dub and jazz influences. And vibraphones [laughing], things we never used or had. It ended up becoming a little bit weird. I think post-rock now means Tortoise and Slint-influenced bands, which is not what it really… Don Caballero was considered a post-rock band, you know? Nowadays, I think of it as being totally different. At first, I think any band’s natural inclination is to tighten the category. At some point, it makes sense eventually.
Liberation, your album from 2004, was extremely critical of the Bush administration and its policies. Do you have an opinion on Obama’s presidency so far?
We definitely have opinions. The thing is, Bush now is universally hated, even by Republicans. When we were recording [Liberation], there was pretty much across-the-board support for Afghanistan and Iraq; nobody was really saying anything in the media, especially. And surprisingly, very, very few musicians were saying anything, at all. It wasn’t like we had some policy of being a political band; it was just frustration and surprise that nobody was saying anything. After the end of the Bush administration, there was an explosion of criticism. I don’t think it’s as necessary now, for us to be so obvious about our opinions. We were just talking today though about Obama likes to kill terrorists more than Bush does. Obviously, I have a lot of problems with certain things [Obama has] done but at the end of the day the other option is just incredibly so much worse. But criticizing Obama is necessary and useful but I don’t want to give too much support to the real anti-Obama people. I don’t want to give them more ammunition.
Besides that, you guys seemingly don’t take yourselves too seriously. You inject some humor in your music and image, as well.
We’re very serious. Any humor in the music is unintentional.
Looking back over the nearly two decades of Trans Am’s existence, is there an album you aren’t happy with or could have done better or differently?
No, I think each of them serves their purpose. My whole thing is that music should have a goal. I think they each (album) succeeded in what they were trying to do.
When stuff has been written about Trans Am, Krautrock and Kraftwerk have been constants. Is that what you were into?
Kraftwerk definitely yes, when we were younger. We were not super-familiar with a lot of other Krautrock material when we started. Phil was a huge, huge Faust fan before we started. Sometimes, you sort of arrive at a similar place but from a different direction, like a dolphin and a shark.
Any plans after the Futureworld reissue and tour?
We’re definitely talking about a new album. Maybe we’re gonna re-record the first album; it’s actually what we’re talking about… Trans Am 2.
So you don’t foresee an end?
Oh, no. Trans Am is gonna keep on keepin’ on.
Trans Am plays Union Pool October 8 and 9.