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The title of Trans Am’s latest CD, Futureworld, could be an homage to Herbie Hancock’s pioneering record Future Shock, released sixteen years ago. Hancock’s record exemplifies the high-tech look and sound of the time: video-arcade games like Pac Man and Space Invaders, new-wave synthesizers, and the now low-tech Commodore and TRS-80 computers. You can almost picture the three future members of Washington, DC–based Trans Am sitting in front of a TV, transfixed as Miles Davis Quintet alumnus Hancock’s video for the song “Rockit” (who can forget those robotic mannequins?) introduced DJ scratching to millions of people.
“This era is my childhood, true,” says guitarist Philip Manley. “I am a bit nostalgic for these things, but I am not as interested in retro-chic as it may seem. I’m also not particularly interested in the current wave of techno futurism. I am more interested in the Italian Futurist movement of the ‘20s. These people were very forward in their thinking.”
The members of Trans Am don’t limit their interests to nerdy science fiction or twentieth-century European art history. For six years, Trans Am—Manley, bassist/keyboardist Nathan Means, and drummer Sebastian Thomson—have recorded a hybrid form of instrumental music that defies all categories except one: Trans Am. The band’s electric stew mixes together a rigid, artificial, Kraftwerk-like sound with a balls-out, coked-up Van Halen.
“Our music is an extension of our personalities. Maybe we are slightly schizophrenic,” Manley says. “I think Futureworld is more cohesive and not quite as fragmented as [their 1998 album] The Surveillance.” Possibly helping the new material gel is the addition “electronic vocals”—lyrics that have been manipulated into something more closely resembling a synthesizer.
A third aspect to the Trans Am sound is hip-hop. Not the gat-wielding gangsta variety or the result of a caustic rap/metal fusion, but the really old-school, early ‘80s stuff like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
“I am a big fan of early rap, mostly because of the rock attitude,” says Manley. “This is something that has been lost with most new rap. Most new rap is all computer-based music. A lot of the old rap stuff had live bands. There is a very strong energy and spirit in a lot of those early rap recordings.”
The best example of this old-school influence can be found on “Cologne” from 1997’s Surrender to the Night. To re-create the song’s textures live, Thomson runs his drum kit through an effects mixer, giving the bass drum a monstrous boom that rivals a loud car stereo blasting Miami bass. Apparently, the hip-hop vibe is infectious.
“Seb has a break-dance instructional video,” Manley adds jokingly. “He’s trying to teach himself how to pop and lock and all that.”
But Trans Am isn’t all electric boogaloo. Perhaps the group’s best attribute is how it borrows the experimental nature of hip-hop’s infancy, aware that the rules are being written as they go along. Such a diverse sound attracted the interest of Chicago’s Thrill Jockey records. Famous for a roster of instrumental bands such as Tortoise and Oval, Trans Am fits perfectly into the label’s influential “post-rock” family. (Manley prefers “future-rock,” noting, “It implies looking forward rather than back.”)
The band, scheduled to play November 8 at Sapphire, has a special place in its engine-like heart for Orlando. Bassist Means is a former resident, and his father wrote for the Sentinel. There’s even a cut called “Orlando” on their self-titled debut. “We have always had a great time in Florida,” Manley says, “and particularly in Orlando.”