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Escape Velocity

First Idea > Best Idea: Trans Interviewed
Valerie Siebert , October 16th, 2013 06:41

Val Siebert talks to Bernard Butler and Jackie McKeown about Trans, their new "improvised group" born out of drunken texts, oblique messages and krautrock tendencies. Photographs courtesy of Keira Cullinane

Since his days as the guitarist in seminal 90s media darlings Suede, Bernard Butler has cultivated a reputation as a respected producer and songwriter. He spent years in the studio polishing up dozens of bands and played an instrumental part in the writing and producing of Duffy’s monster 2008 debut Rockferry. Solo albums notwithstanding, there were a few ventures into the spotlight, including two stints as half of McAlmont and Butler and a one-album reunion with Brett Anderson as The Tears, a name I can see gracing three hefty-looking hard drives up in his studio shelves as we sit down to chat.

Trans is the first 'band' the man has been a part of since 2006, which is what makes Jackie McKeown’s presence all the more interesting. The frontman for the not-defunct-but-not-up-to-much Scottish indie trio 1990s and former member of The Yummy Fur is not known particularly for his guitar chops but more so for his feel-good party tunes. Nonetheless, something about this excitable Glaswegian indie rocker and his primal guitar sound was enough to get Butler interested in committing his name to a new act.

The pair met when Butler was assigned to produce the 1990s back in 2006. Since then their interactions mainly consisted of "texting drunk rubbish", but somewhere along the way they came together as casual jamming partners. That relationship blossomed unintentionally into the 'improvised group' that is Trans. Their four-song debut EP Red, features swathes of lengthy krautrock guitar twiddling and simple, repetitious vocal and melody lines. The sound is Television crossed with Neu! and a bit of The Velvets thrown in – particularly Robert Quine’s recordings of 'Sister Ray', at least according to McKeown.

Facts about Trans online have been tantalisingly minimal. What is available is obscured as much as possible: from blurry press shots to somewhat cryptic declarations on their Facebook page including “MESSAGE: OBLIQUE” and “first idea > best idea”. Though some is clarified through the course of this interview – such as how “glasgow left/london right” indeed refers to the panning of their respective guitars – Butler does a lot of railing against the walls of accessible information and bands that have left themselves with little or no mystery. He illustrates this point with the promise that there will only be a small amount of interviews with a select few publications.

Butler is a pragmatic interviewee. Sometimes relaxed, but at other moments able to pour tension into the room with a simple furrowing of his brow. He gained a reputation for being 'prickly' in the past, but it’s easy to see how the man has mellowed, looking quite at home sat in front of the mixing board in his North London studio. Still, he is much more serious than McKeown, who punctuates the conversation with jokes, laughter and wild gesticulations – sometimes leaping out of his seat to illustrate a point. Not to say that Butler doesn’t have a sense of humour – he has an excellent dry, sarcastic wit – making each a foil for the other in person, yet a united front on record.

You met back when Bernard produced Cookies for the 1990s. Why did it take you so long to get together in this way?

Bernard Butler: I was doing a lot of producing groups, just one record after another, finishing one on a Friday and starting another on a Monday. I just more and more got the itch to play myself really. I got hooked onto what Jackie was doing because I really like his guitar playing on that record Cookies, which I really love.

Jackie McKeown: We could always communicate quite easily about guitars in the studio. Sometimes when you’re working with bands in the studio, you know what you want the guitar player to play and the guy is like, “Aw, but it should be like that”, but we had a working relationship really quick.

BB: We just shared a lot of taste in playing and sounds and stuff like that. We both play in quite a primal way and I don’t think it’s particularly fussy or overdone.

So you aren’t going to put out a single, but you have the EP. Will there be an album or will it all just be bits?

BB: There won’t be an album. We’ve made records before and we’ve answered questions about our favourite ice cream and stuff before. But there’s a certain point where you wonder, “Is there a different way of doing things? Can I afford to do things differently?”. It’s amazing how we’ve been able to just say, “No, let’s not do that in the official route” and it’s been okay! We’re still playing, and our record is on the radio and we’re sitting here talking to you about it. This music is four of us standing in this room and improvising for hours on end and recording all of it completely live. There are a few overdubs here and there, but what you hear on the record is what it sounded like when we were right here playing it.

We don’t want to draw attention to any particular song. You only need to do that if you’re trying to get a song under three minutes for the radio or if you’re trying to get on 'Dancing With Ice' or whatever it’s called. What shocks me is how many respectable, allegedly alternative groups just go with the flow with every marketing tool available. I think there is far too much information about everything that’s available at the moment and I think that the result of that is nothing is very intriguing. No one wants to hear anything about Lady Gaga, it’s all already out there! What? You’re wearing another slab of meat. So fucking what? I’m not interested in you in any way because there is so much information about you. THAT’s how far you have to go to get my attention and I’m STILL not fucking interested because your music is absolutely appalling. That’s the truth of most mainstream popstars. In terms of people trying to make interesting records, they operate the same way most of the time.

Why did you settle on the name Trans?

JM: It’s neutral. I always liked names that were neutral, that don’t come loaded with anything. You know if you get a girl band called 'Pussy' something… It’s just… ah, I don’t like that. It just sounds neutral to me, it doesn’t mean anything. Though I do like the connection to the Neil Young album.

BB: Yeah, I like the word because it’s not a word. It’s a prefix. I like that it’s the start of something and not the finish of something. It’s just about movement and change. At the end of the day it’s not as bad as The Beatles!

Why 'Red' for the EP?

BB: The idea was that instead of having a selection of sleeves with beautiful photographs of us, I always envisioned it as a vinyl record sleeve. Each EP will be a different colour so the label will be a different colour. Our drummer Paul did the artwork and he came up with the idea of making the spine red. It’s just brilliant. If you think in one year’s time or two year’s time when you look at your record collection you’ll see red, green, blue, magenta whatever. I love records and those are the kind of pathetic little details that I really love.

JM: We’re trying to work out what they sound like and what the colour reflects, it’s kind of conceptual. This record is quiet red. It’s not oppressive, but it’s got some quite bold statements on it. I think the next one is a little bit more icy and fragile, a bit more playful. It’s not finished yet but the colour will reflect it. We thought that we could do it the other way around for the third. Pick the colour first and then go in and try to play accordingly. I think it would be great fun. Like say, "Let’s make some really icy blue music for an hour".

How did you decide on who did the vocals?

JM: He tried to get me to do it. And so I tried to get him to do it. I wouldn’t back down. I’m more of a shouter and the music required more melody I think.

BB: I was in the studio and I was just listening in and would have little things going through my head so I would just go in and say, “Fuck it, what’s the worst that could happen?” and I’d put some little things down and send them to Jackie.

JM: For me I think Bernard’s voice has a touch of that English whimsical side of like Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt. That kind of singing that has a bit of the accent of the person coming through. There was something unaffected by it and I found that it made the music better and didn’t overpower it. Whereas my voice is more overpowering and it would seem like MY thing. I think his sits nice in it.

BB: I think it started out more about performance. I’ve been playing guitar, but I haven’t really played in front of people for people for years. I’ve been getting really sick of people saying, "Well why don’t you play guitar anymore?" But I play guitar an awful lot in the studio. I play on most people’s record and they don’t even know it. I’ve even sang on people’s records and they’ve got no idea!

JM: [laughing] Yeah, the Beach Boys think it’s them on their records, they think it’s Brian Wilson, but really its Bernard erasing it and doing it himself.

BB: Oh Duffy, bless!

JM: [laughs] He had to smoke a few fags for that one!

Bernard, as recently as March this year you were quoted as saying that you wouldn’t want to be in a long-term band and that you thought that it would have been the worst thing in the world for some of your favourite bands like The Smiths to have continued for long. Do you still feel that way, and, if so, what does it mean for Trans?

BB: Yeah it’s very true, but we’ve only made one EP so talk to me after the first fifteen! What I meant by that, obviously it was in reference to Suede. So the idea of being in a group that makes sixteen albums from the start of my career and I did nothing else. Am I part of a group?

JM: Yeah you are part of a group!!

BB: But it’s not like we have some tour of South Asia lined up!

So what about touring?

JM: No, not touring. We’d like to travel. Play a few nice shows here and there. But not get an e-mail when you wake up that has like 95 dates written on it and you feel the blood drain out of your face. I hate that stuff. It kills the music. Can you imagine playing 'Rock Steady' [Red's opening track] for 18 months. I mean, when did 'Animal Nitrate' come out? '93? This would be your 20th year of playing it. The mind boggles!

BB: Well, you wouldn’t want to do it!

JM: I did ‘You Made Me Like It’ for three years or something. It’s like my least favourite song of all time!

BB: We just don’t want to do things that stop being fun. If it ever gets to a point where something isn’t a laugh, then we won’t be doing it next week.

A couple of tunes like 'Jubilee' have a rhythm that can be described as motorik – makes you feel as if you’re driving down a motorway – what drew you to this kind of sound?

JM: Everybody seems to like us in the car! But there was no idea and no plan to do that. I love a lot of krautrock and Bernard loves a lot of soul music and pop. But the only questions we ever asked each other were "sugar or milk?"

BB: I’m not very well versed on it, but we both know lots of music. I always hate it when a band comes into the studio and says, "We want to sound a bit like this, mixed with this song”. I just switch off totally. When I’m working with people, I’m not even interested in what their last album sounded like. It gets in the way, again it’s too much information cluttering your mind. For 'Jubilee' we have a little film on our website and it’s just out the window of the mastering room. Just a view of the Westway. It was not a deliberate attempt to hook onto 'motorik', but I just like how you can take one image that changes very subtly and very slight and that’s the way I hear the music. It’s just one key or one riff and you see the slight variations in dynamics develop. It’s like that when you’re driving.

Tell me what Trans is up to in the immediate future.

JM: I’m going to go to Rough Trade East and see our records in the racks.

BB: I’m going to the other Rough Trade and see our record in the racks!

JM: I’m going to stand at the little book bit and pretend I’m reading some book about Bowie in Berlin and I’m going to wait and see if someone buys it.

BB: I’m going to take the cellophane off and switch the record around the other way because they packed it the wrong bloody way round! That’s the only thing I’m interested in doing.

JM: It was supposed to just be black with a little red centre and instead of that its black with a black centre and the titles. None of us said, it just doesn’t occur to you.

BB: We never made it clear. But I’m going to do a YouTube demonstration. You know how you get ones about how to fix a plug or something, I'll do, "How to correct the manufacturing error on your Trans record".

Red is out now via Rough Trade Records