The Strange World Of Trans Am…

We continue our celebration of Thrill Jockey's 20th birthday with a look at one of their most enduring acts, as Trans Am's very own Nathan Means guides us through ten notable events in the history of Trans Am

Trans Am Plays Chi Psi

We spent one summer in an overheated shit shack in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The "nicest" room was infested with fleas. Seb [Thomson] had to buy us beer because Phil [Manley] and I were both 20. Also, we had no money. Even for beer. We still followed Seb into the supermarket because it was air conditioned.

We played two shows that summer, the first in an empty room at a frat house. Well, not totally empty – the keg was in there so people would occasionally come in and refill their plastic cups. I broke two bass strings, which is probably some other measure of poverty/humidity. Who breaks an ‘E’ string?

Trans Am Plays Bad Grundel See

What a horrible show! It was somewhere in Austria, somewhere no one except our German booking agent would have sent us. Instead of routing us to Paris or Milan or Dublin or Leeds or Prague he’d run us in endless circuits through places where they spoke German – Germany, Switzerland, Austria – and the Low Countries because the Dutch/Flemish are more German than Germans in some ways (mostly bad). He simply didn’t trust people who weren’t German. He hated Italians. He thought playing London was stupid. I’m not even sure if he knew where Spain was. He fetishized Deutsch Marks. He sent me a letter (like, in the mail) asking me to mail him 700 marks (like, paper money) from the US. He called them "My Deutschies." He must be really, really pissed off about the Euro.

Anyway it was because of this man that we were booked into a quite nice theater in some little town in the Austrian Alps that may not appear on the map. (I’ve forgotten the real name). It was NOT his fault that we arrived extra late and had to run up onto the stage with our gear and start playing without even peeing or grabbing a beer. That was probably our fault, but I’ll blame it on the German police who pulled us over to search the van for drugs that, somehow, they didn’t find. Actually, maybe that was a different show.

Trans Am Gets Stoned in a Field Near Seb’s Parents’ House Before Putting on the New Helmet Album

We were pretty excited to listen to Meantime on Seb’s parents’ speakers. I got an abstract vivid red image burned into my head that day while sitting on the couch. It’s cool to be able to date a timeless repetitive morphing color field that you associate with certain music, but not so cool when you realize it actually looks a lot like the album cover.

Some of Trans Am, Again Stoned, Listening to Millions Now Living Will Never Die

The only thing that had really changed at this point was that we were paying rent in a house which would soon be destroyed by a ruptured toilet supply line and then infested with a family of raccoons/their fleas. It’s very lame to admit that a Tortoise album was the first to really explode my mind with the possibility of dub bass, but there it is. It’s still better than discovering the blues through The Small Faces – or discovering the blues at all.

As everyone who has ever listened to music on drugs knows (that would be 176% of Quietus readers) I should end this section here because the intense experience of listening to the Helmet album, or Tortoise, Pansonic, Kraftwerk, Sonic Youth, for the first time is ineffable. Actually that’s why "ineffable" was created, so you can write something that sounds better than, "It’s, like, fuck, man."

Some of the Best Live Shows at Least Some of Trans Am Saw Together

Manowar: Arrived to show in Cleveland with about 12 other people in the only car that would start during a January snowstorm. Awesome. Left show in Virginia with me driving completely shit-faced. Awesome. Once home I realized, "People drunk drive at night because there are so few people on the road. It’s courtesy." Both shows were manic expressions of a refusal to surrender.

ACDC: Drunk drove home but, again, it was out of courtesy. Phil and Seb were also drunk and I had bought them tix as birthday gifts – I couldn’t ask them to get arrested. Plus, I was drunk. I remember the show in tunnel vision, even though it was outdoors.

Oneida: Oneida played before us one night and they wouldn’t fucking shut up. They started doing the same repetitive chords and monotonic, single-syllable chant for maybe 5-10 minutes. Sort of like "Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!" Although it could have been some other word. Paralyzing.

Future Islands: Bands either have to care either way too much or not at all to put on a good live show. Otherwise everyone feels sort of uncomfortable or drifts off to the bar. Future Islands don’t give a fuck. They are hypnotizing.

Knodel: Every show.

Two Shows Involving Trans Am and 1990’s Recording Icon Steve Albini

Maybe the fourth or fifth time we played Chicago there was a rumor that He was coming to our show. I didn’t really care for His Work after 1989, but all the whispers about His Coming made me a bit uptight. Trans Am can be very uptight. And that show was far and away the worst we’ve played in Chicago. I only cared (eventually) because I wonder whether if He had liked our show then maybe He would have brought some of our music to the attention of Percy and Page when he recorded them several years later. Oh well.

Maybe seven years later we opened for Shellac at a fantastic small festival in Spain that lost tons of money because, surprisingly, Morrissey (the headliner) was a miserable prick who made outrageous demands seemingly designed to make everyone else a miserable prick – and penniless. Anyway, we killed Shellac that night. Absolute murder.

Person to Whom At Least One Member of Trans Am Owes His Life

Tim Soete, former drummer and guitarist for The Fucking Champs.

Heading to the airport after a show in Iceland, our driver spun out on the highway. I saw the headlights of oncoming traffic before we hit snow on the median strip. Everyone was OK so our driver pulled into the next petrol station to buy something to spray on his tires. I guess it makes them stickier or more "traction-y"? I was pretty doubtful of the technology and knew the spray wouldn’t make him sober, but just stayed in the car until Tim said, "We got to get out of here." Turned out the driver’s mother had just committed suicide and the promoter was giving him a job to try and fill the hole that endless amount of liquor couldn’t.

In fairness, it was a death-stained tour from beginning to end. It was in fall of 2001 and we flew right over Manhattan and the well-illuminated pit where the World Trade Center had been. From Iceland we continued on to a lengthy and ill-conceived tour of the UK during which I became familiar with the smell of decaying flesh/our driver’s socks at night. I prayed for a merciful end while onstage in Newport, Wales. We also played Belfast. Later the tour we practically killed The Champs, as a band.

Best Workout Prior to a Show

Trans Am likes to workout before a show and, by workout, Trans Am means looking fucking cut when we get on the stage and play for Trans Am’s fans. My workout starts in the morning. I jog, do pull-ups on low-hanging, horizontal tree branches (where available) and then do pre-show push ups and sit-ups, pre-show backstage. Seb prefers to be immobile until about 5:00PM but then does pre-show push-ups backstage. He also brings an adaptable, elastic resistance band to work other muscle groups. It’s really helpful to have a workout partner to keep you motivated, but Phil generally makes fun of us. Whatever, he doesn’t have to take his shirt off during the show.

Anyway, the best workout prior to a show involved Fred Schneider (B-52s) coming to a crowded backstage in New York to talk to a band he liked (not us) and having to step over Seb during his second set of 20 push-ups. Fred looked displeased.

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