Controversy Liberated

Trans Am's latest CD has thrown the band into unfamiliar, political waters

For more than a decade, the trio Trans Am has been honing its mostly instrumental, always progressive and predominantly electronic rock style, making six albums and three EPs that have all become solid, independent/underground hits, selling between 30,000 and 50,000 units each.

But until its current album, the Washington, D.C.-by-way-of-Chicago band kept overt topicality, especially politics, out of their songs. Not so with the superb Liberation, released earlier this year. The album's staunch, left-wing stance and opposition to the foreign and homeland policies of President Bush's administration is a drastic radical departure for a group that, until recently, was viewed as radical only for its abstract, avant-garde music.

Trans Am's political opinions about Sept. 11 and the war on Iraq become clear with the second song on the CD, "Uninvited Guest," in which soundbites from Dubya are electronically jumbled and rearranged for humorous and ironic effect--"Our commitment to weapons of mass destruction is America's tradition."

This artful outspokenness has brought Trans Am new attention for being controversial, which surprises the band members to some degree, says bassist Nathan Means.

"I don't think politics is especially controversial. I mean, I am sure many people feel and care like we do about these things, and many others will disagree and may be pissed off, but the album came out of our own personal experiences," Means says, speaking over the phone from Washington, D.C.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the members of Trans Am were nearly finished recording their 2002 CD, TA , which ironically is known as the band's light-hearted "party" album, in their D.C. studio. "We could see the smoke from the Pentagon rising in the air from our studio," Means says.

So when the group recorded Liberation last summer, the music was infused with anger and pain about the state of the union and its relationship to the rest of the world; about a nation's capital laboring under the constant presence of helicopters, police sirens and armed Humvees on street corners; about its disillusionment with the recent war with Iraq.

Tunes such as "White Rhino," "Total Information Awareness," "Pretty Close to the Edge," "Spike in the Chatter" and "Divine Invasion" communicate a sense of dread and dystopia that is at times generalized and sometimes very specific. But the opinions expressed are the personal ones of the band members, not a political platform.

"It's a Trans Am take on things. We were outraged by what was going on around us," Means says.

A dark tension throbs through even the instrumentals on the album, harking what Means calls an American atmosphere of "creepiness, surveillance and intolerance."

Since recording the album, the members of Trans Am have been in transition. In a way, Liberation has proven to be "kind of liberating," Means says. Guitarist/keyboardist Philip Manley moved to San Francisco. Means spends much of his time in New Zealand.

In fact, the guys in Trans Am long ago stopped thinking of themselves as a Washington, D.C., band.

"We've never really been a part of the D.C. scene. Although we don't live there, we're a Chicago band, officially. We were sort of adopted by that town." (Trans Am's label, Thrill Jockey Records, is headquartered in Chicago.)

The three group members--all now in their early 30s--first met while doing time in a Washington, D.C., high school. Means and Manley were in English class one day when a new student, drummer Sebastian Thompson, waltzed in. "He had 'Bauhaus' written in magic marker on the back of his Levi's jacket," Means says. "It was a sign."

Soon, in classic teenage-wasteland style, the trio was jamming on "Hey Joe" in some garage. It was a long time before Manley, Means and Thompson found their collective voice in experimental electronic rock.

"We were strictly blues-rock at first. Then we did classic rock and country rock. We've covered a lot of ground. We played funk metal and went through a punk phase. When you're a young musician, you're kind of imitating other musical styles before you find your own."

A few years later, during college, the fellows became Trans Am, and their sound began to manifest. Says Means: "We were definitely a combination of Slint, Kraftwerk and Van Halen--that's the trinity. And Led Zeppelin is always lording over all of them."

During the course of seven albums and three EPs, Trans Am has driven through German-influenced electro-minimalism, '80s-derived synth-pop, stripped-down hard rock and hypnotic trance-rock.

Music buffs can hear elements of New Order, Tuxedomoon, Ultravox, Devo and even Gary Numan in the synthetic soundscapes of Trans Am, as well as brawny analog grooves such as those traded in by Chrome, Shriekback, Neu! and Henry Cow.

It's basically progressive rock without the pomposity, a description with which Means agrees and seems pleased.

"We were never very successful at being pompous. Maybe if we were, we'd do better with the British press. I mean, our last tour was arranged so that, as much as possible, we could follow around Washington Redskins games."