TRANS AM - EMusician

TRANS AM

Although showy displays of grandiose patriotism and American bravado have been a marked presence throughout the U.S. in recent years, the surrounding
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Although showy displays of grandiose patriotism and American bravado have been a marked presence throughout the U.S. in recent years, the surrounding political windstorm in post-9/11 Washington, D.C., has been all but inescapable. It was no doubt felt by Nathan Means, Sebastian Thompson and Phil Manley, the D.C.-based trio collectively known as Trans Am, as their seventh album, Liberation (Thrill Jockey, 2004), began to take shape. “It was the kind of thing where, every day, we'd be reading things from the newspaper, and everyone would be aghast,” Manley says. “This was as we were writing, so it kind of just blended in together, the writing and the news.”

Not surprisingly, the diplomatic climate became something of a fascination that grew beyond what newspapers could offer. The band recorded live audio streams from television and radio, as well as outside noise, to formulate the album's political undercurrent. Most apparent is the clever re-editing of myriad George W. Bush sound bites into an alternate — some might argue more accurate — version of events in Iraq and around the world. Trans Am's stance is unmistakable in tracks such as “Uninvited Guest,” which features a reworked Dubya proclaiming, “Operation Iraqi freedom was carried out with a combination of lies and intimidation,” and, “We have witnessed the arrival of a new era: the beginning of the end of America.”

Although Liberation is a first for Trans Am in terms of political rhetoric, the music is a conscious return to the group's classic sound — an energized, futuristic hybrid of soaring synth lines and searing guitar-based elements that vacillates between full-on electronic and all-out rock. The band's collection of hardware — which includes a Roland Juno-60, a Clavia Nord Lead 2, an 88-key Fender Rhodes and a 1947 Hammond C-2 — has gone a long way to establishing the Trans Am sound, and the band is not about to trade them in for any soft-synth counterparts. “Because we have so many cool synths — like, the actual synths themselves — we're not as inclined to get too deep into that,” Manley says. “Even a lot of the plug-ins and stuff we kind of shy away from just because we spent all of this money and we know how to use these outboard things. It's more what we're used to.”

Trans Am has a history of tracking to 2-inch tape, but with the somewhat recent inclusion of a Digidesign Digi 001 and a PC-based Pro Tools LE 5.1.1 system, Liberation became a definite digital-analog hybrid. Still, the devotion to the analog aesthetic is preserved in not only hardware but also long signal chains. For the swelling, sirenlike guitars in “June,” for example, Manley plugged his Fender Telecaster (played with an EBow and a slide) into a Fender tube reverb, a Boss digital delay, an MXR Phase 90 and an API mic preamp before going into the computer. “Because computers are so clean and low-noise, it just kind of winds up sounding weird because it's so naked,” Manley says. “So we would devise these long circuits that lead up to the computer, you know, to give it some character before it arrives.”

Thanks to National Recording Studio, which the band built in D.C. in 1998, Trans Am also has a familiar recording environment and the freedom to experiment with different techniques, such as using as many mics as possible to mike a guitar cabinet (they topped out at four dynamics), as well as record all of their rehearsals. Spontaneous moments of inspired jamming led to much of the finished material on Liberation. “A lot of stuff that we do is not a conscious decision; we try to play on what we're feeling at the moment,” Manley says. “And we'll just edit out all of the crap, which is like 90 percent of it, and there's always the 10 percent that you can distill and kind of form. If you're lucky, you might get a whole thing at once, but, sometimes, you'll just get the germ, and then you'll let that grow and work on it and shape it. Some of the stuff, the first time it happens is the only time it happens.”