Joining the 10th Album Club: An Interview with Nathan Means of Trans Am

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Looking back on two decades of exploration.

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Reggie McCafferty | May 15, 2014

Trans Am

Photo by Mike Seely

“The Volume X, idea was something that we could all agree on,” Trans Am’s Nathan Means tells me. “Some people call it 'Volume 10'. I kind of liked it because you could call it either one.”

This sort of duplicity has come to characterize the band over the years. Trans Am has been the staple of the Chicago-based Thrill Jockey record label since the mid-'90s. Innovators in every sense, they’ve consistently pushed the bounds of any number of sub-genres, their sound often seeming to anticipate budding musical trends. Whatever the phase, they were always able to keep it fun. They wrote music that was electronic and experimental, jumping from 80s party rock to vocoder-laden pop, even managing to recover from a brief bout with politics.

Trans Am has always had a knack for the bizarre. They left DC more than a decade into their career, splitting up to move all over the globe and yet the band survived. They flew to New Zealand to make a record in 2007, seeming to thrive on the distance, still finding time to write, record and tour in spite of the separation. Their next LP, released three years later, was originally intended to be the soundtrack for a sci-fi film that never saw the light of day. Now, nearly two decades after the self-titled LP, Trans Am is preparing to release its tenth album, the appropriately titled Volume X.

I recently caught up with Nathan to talk about to the new record, changing perspectives and his thoughts as they get ready to hit the road again later this spring.

Where are you living these days?

I’m in Portland. I’ve lived here for about six or seven years. We’re pretty well spread out between the three of us. Seb [Thomson] lives in Brooklyn, Phil [Manley] lives in San Francisco and I’m up here. Trying to cover the hipster capitals, I think we’re doing pretty well for three people.

It’s pretty impressive.

Yeah, thanks.

Have you been playing much music while living out there?

I haven’t done much playing at all on my own. I played a one off show for a charity in a Beastie Boys cover band. There were like twelve Beastie Boys cover bands and ours was probably the most punk of them, or just sloppy. But whatever. It was with some guys who had done it before; it’s kind of an annual thing. That was really fun, just kind of standing on the side of the stage playing keyboard.

I do play a lot in my bedroom or office like so many other people. I wrote at least one of the songs that ended up on our album in that way. But Phil and Seb are both busier in terms of side projects and that sort of thing.

What do you do for work right now?

I’m a ghostwriter. I write books for other people, more or less. Sometimes I edit on different kinds of projects too. It’s nonfiction, so they’re pretty serious topics. And I say that kind of jokingly, but they are serious topics, or at least the people who are otherwise involved in the projects think they’re pretty serious and important. So it’s up to me to make them readable, because serious isn’t always readable or interesting.

How did you get into that sort of work?

I was lucky actually, my dad has been a journalist in various capacities for a long time and he started doing this about 14 years ago. I feel pretty lucky because he had a bunch of connections and I got to work on decent projects right away, books that were going to be published by reputable publishers and would actually pay me money, to the point where I feel kind of funny when I invoice people sometimes. Kind of like, “Really? Was I worth that amount of money for the work that I did?” But there’s a lot of work you do that you don’t get paid for, so whatever.

Have you come across anything really strange?

So like I said these are sort of like serious people, they’ve worked high up in the federal government or they’re economists or top advisors to some CEO leadership or whatever. I’ve gotten transcripts from academics, people with research assistants, and they’re just dreadful, the kind of thing that as a high school student you would be embarrassed to turn in. But then they’ll end up being a best seller. The mechanics of the market there are just as dubious as pop music in a way; just total shit can end up selling a lot.

I’m sure producers have come across the same thing, like, “Really I have to shape this shit with just production? This is a horrible, horrible song.” There are a lot of similarities between working in a studio or being a producer and the work that I do. It’s all about taking someone else’s ideas that are maybe a little too closely guarded or just not fully formed and making them work. You put the best possible finish or sheen on and make them coherent. It’s the same with sequencing, transitions and whatnot, so that’s kind of fun. There just isn’t as much duck tape or people wearing black t-shirts.

So Volume X is your 10th record. How do you approach it? You must have a pretty good idea of how the whole process works by now.

In a way technology has always had a big impact on how we wrote songs. We started out on a really lo-fi level of technology, to the point where people would laugh at us when they saw us play in 1993. We had Casio keyboards running through amps that were really distorted and that sort of thing. Later we got new different keyboards and different drum machines. But the technology kind of determines a lot of what we end up doing with a lot of our songs. Back then we were recording the songs conventionally on tape and that sort of thing. Then with Red Line, which was our fifth album, we got our own studio and a computer. It was a huge deal for us to be able to record onto a hard drive and not have to worry about using up all of our tape, which was pretty expensive. We just kind of went crazy and did whatever we wanted and recorded any idea that we had. In a way that was phase two of Trans Am albums where we could throw a lot of shit up on the computer to see what works and see what happens.

This album was a little like that. But I think we made a little more of a conscientious effort to have songs, or ideas for songs, that were 50 percent or 75 percent finished before we brought them into the studio. We’re not the Beatles or Neil Young or David Bowie or people who I think are really great songwriters. I think a lot of our ability comes from working different styles and combining disparate sounds. When we have stuff that doesn’t make sense at all, two songs next to one another that don’t necessarily make sense when you first listen to it, I think that’s where our strength is. We got kind of halfway there with this album. We were able to make some collisions, but I would have liked a lot more bullshit.

Does it get hard to pull some of these songs off live, as things get more and more complex?

Yes and we’re trying to play as many as we can, but there are two problems. The first is that it’s actually impossible to play some of the songs without having extra backing tracks that are already there, like Paula Abdul style. And the other is the fact that we don’t live in the same town so we don’t have the hours and weeks to rehearse these things and figure out how to make them work. But I do want to play as much as the album as possible. My demand for our upcoming tour and any tour afterward is that we learn at least four songs from the new album. Otherwise I’ll go insane because we don’t have albums come out very frequently and we can’t play a lot of songs on the newer ones. I can’t stomach playing a lot of those songs every night. They kind of lose their strength when you pull them out consistently for three weeks.

How does the writing process work with you all living so far apart?

The writing process comes in different flavors. There's the, “I've got an idea that just needs a little tweaking so it will be a real song.” There's the, “Just play the parts I wrote and don't fuck it up.” Sort of what I imagine some late-era Beatles sessions to be like—without the same results. There's the, “This is a horrible riff, let's see if we can make it work”—sort of gauntlet thrown down, examples being “Positive People” and “Anthropocene,” both horrible, clumsy chord changes that Phil wrote. There's the “Trans Am Mark I” technique of actually standing in rooms with instruments at the same time and playing something until it sounds good. There's the computer-fueled, “I don't really know what to do with this so let's each take turns throwing shit onto the computer and hope something sticks.” This started with Red Line. And then there's the playing together at the same time and writing music in the studio control room—“Reevaluations,” for example. No amps or mics were used, sort of cuts out the middleman.

The most rational use of current technology would be to email tracks back and forth and each do our own takes before the recording session, but that's never worked for us.

The record was recorded over a three-year period?

Yeah, I think it was three sessions that would have been separated by six months. We weren’t really in a hurry to get a new album out because the world wasn’t on the edge of its seat waiting for a new Trans Am album. But fortunately the head of our label gave us deadlines and pushed us to get it done, so we actually did have to finish it. I’m happy that it ended up happening that way but we had a long time for things to kind of sit and mature.

It must have been nice to have all that time for reflection and fine-tuning.

Yeah absolutely. There were some ideas that we ended up not liking and I’m glad we decided to change them. Some of them just weren’t very good.

You guys have been playing together now for more than two decades. Do you feel like the dynamic of the band has changed in that time?

I’ve known Phil since 1985 and we met each other through playing music. Then we met Seb five years later. So that’s a long, long time. And I think within Trans Am overall it’s been pretty smooth. We lived together for a few years before we all kind of moved to different places in DC. Then we all moved to different cities and countries from there. I don’t think anyone was ever freaked out or pissed off about it like, “Dude we need to keep the band together what’s going on?” I think everyone kind of realized that it was for the best or that we would have killed each other otherwise. Maybe we would have broken up if we hadn’t gone and done our own thing in totally separate places. I mean I moved to New Zealand, Phil moved to San Francisco and Seb moved to London. Two hemispheres and a lot of distance. And it was good, even if it wasn’t the best for recording albums or touring a lot.

But on the more day-to day touring and recording things, there are lots of fights and this and that. We definitely piss each other off. I don’t have any brothers but I guess it’s kind of like that. You know exactly what’s going to piss someone off or something about them has pissed you off for three decades and so fuck them for still being a dick about the same thing over and over again.

I guess that just comes with being in a band.

Yeah, it’s pretty normal. Seb has a real love of debate and arguing, just as a hobby on tour. And I was always pretty willing to meet him on that. So the drives could get pretty crazy and that made everybody angry.

Do you feel like your relationship with music has changed or matured over that time too?

Yeah. I mean it depends. I don’t know how much it has to do with the band. It does in a sense because I’m not around those guys. We always introduced each other to different music and I’m not as close to them anymore. So getting new music from people has changed, whereas when we were younger, all that I wanted to do was to find out about new music.

Plus it’s pretty easy to become dismissive after being around music constantly for a really long time. To just kind of just listen to any music and be like whatever, I’ve heard this before. This sounds like Simon and Garfunkel, this sounds like the Buzzcocks, this sounds like whatever. And actually it’s true, it does sound like all those things, but that’s not a good way to live. I have a theory that people who remain healthy and not miserable, like old musicians, are people who stay really interested in new music.

What are your plans for touring after this record comes out?

We have to do things in bursts because of our limited amount of time for different things. The tour starts May 20 and it’s two weeks. We’re playing some shows in the middle of the country where we haven’t played in forever. And then we’re playing Texas where we also haven’t been in a really long time since we’ve kind of just been stuck playing the East Coast and the West Coast and that’s it.

Is it difficult to just pick up and leave town for two or three weeks at this stage in your lives? How do you guys make that work?

It's definitely more logistically complicated than when we could just hop in the van and drive somewhere. And it's more expensive to fly and meet up. Our shows have a much higher overhead/carbon footprint these days.

We just dig out what time we can, it's limited. I'd love to play Toronto, Montreal, Chapel Hill and Atlanta and other places this May/June but it's just not possible on a two-week national tour. Especially if we play NYC, Chicago, Texas, LA and SF. They aren't exactly close together.

Do you still find touring to be any less enjoyable after doing it for so many years?

I don’t want to say that it’s less enjoyable but there’s something that you can’t really replace. There’s nothing like traveling around the country and going to places you’ve never been before and being 24 and having almost as much beer as you can drink all the time. Everything’s new. It’s like meeting someone, or doing a drug for the first time or hearing a new band for the first time when you’re 16 and you never thought someone could do that with a guitar. You don’t worry about anything else that people worry about when they get older. That’s pretty irreplaceable.

We used to be kind of like a hit or miss band, in the sense that we were definitely drinking something and we might have been drinking a lot. Sometimes it was the good side of drunk where you’re just really loose and fun and you kind of nail it and everybody kind of catches a good energy off the stage. But then some nights it’s like a sloppy train wreck, but you still think you’re playing great at the time.

Now it’s a bit more even keeled, the performances are more precise. Someone might be fucked up but it’s not like all three of us will be on the same night. That and we get to see lots of friends because we’ve been touring so long and we meet all these people that we never get to see except for when we go on tour.

I guess at this point you don’t tour so often anymore either.

Yeah. We really used to be a road machine. We used to do at least two tours in the US every year and then go to Europe at least once and frequently we’d do it more than both of those times. Then we also used to do all these one-offs. We’d go play Richmond or go play Boston and New York just on a weekend. We did a three-month world tour where we played all across North America then two days off then Europe and then maybe four days off then Australia and New Zealand. Anyway we did a lot of touring and I think we were a pretty good live band then. If nothing else we were pretty loud.

And sometimes that’s all that matters.

It can be a lot of times, depending on which state you’re in.

Trans Am's Volume X is out May 20 on Thrill Jockey.

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