Ten albums later, and the three-piece known as Trans Am is still barreling through layers of earth crust and rock. Post rock, prog rock, hard rock, electro rock—their drill bits have seen it all. Bassist Nathan Means, guitarist Phil Manley, and drummer Sebastian Thomson stroke their instruments with well-developed finesse. Signature portions of their sound ooze with slathering, pulsating synthesizers. Thomson is the Muhammad Ali of drummers—sharp as an unused razor and heavy as a tank. Means sings like a cyborg deity, running his vocals through a vocoder effect.
Trans Am's self-produced 10th album, Volume X, was recorded in stints over three years, mostly at San Francisco's LCR Studios, where Manley often works as an engineer. (He also plays in Life Coach with Jon Theodore from Queens of the Stone Age.) Volume X's second track, "Reevaluations," is premium-grade Trans Am. They're lurking somewhere out there on a highway with windows tinted black as night. Propulsive, sinister, and clean.
Trans Am spoke from separate locations. Manley was in Oakland waiting for a ride to work. Means was in a shared office space in Portland. And Thomson was on vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina on Ocracoke Island, where he said it was hot and beautiful.
Describe the elements of your sound in metaphorical terms. Like what animal would your distortion pedal be? Or maybe Sebastian's drumming is something surprising, like a hummingbird.
Manley: Trans Am is a rock band that utilized synthesizers to jazz up our sound. This used to set us apart from most bands, but now almost all bands use synthesizers. I have one distortion pedal that has a horselike tone.
Means: You know how some white-guy rock was a reaction to disco? And how punk was a reaction to Yes and BTO? And the "Seattle Sound" was a reaction against fun? We're trying to bring that back a little bit. I heard a drummer one time who sounded like a monstrous hummingbird. It wasn't Seb.
Thomson: My spirit animal name was Raging Ferret for about 25 minutes. It didn't really stick. Being a pyroclastic flow might be fun.
Do you guys go big for the Fourth of July? Do you want to do the Trans Am Metaphorical Fourth of July Special? Trans Am exploding into multicolor bursts of light and flame in the sky?
Manley: The Fourth of July is especially important to us, not only because it's Independence Day but also because it's Nathan's birthday.
Means: You seem to be hung up on metaphors like a cheap suit in a laundromat. Okay, that was a simile. How about: Trans Am is an obscene, sweaty mass of beer and girth special?
Give me one Trans Am fireworks story. If you don't have one, make it up and make it good. It would be great if you could have the story involve Lars Ulrich from Metallica, but no pressure.
Manley: Trans Am used to douse our cymbals in lighter fluid and light them on fire during shows. In Liverpool one time, things got a little out of hand and the lighter fluid container caught fire. I dropped it behind a big drum monitor where it caught a curtain on fire. Things escalated quickly. Luckily, I had the wherewithal to extinguish the fire with a pitcher of beer. Disaster averted.
Means: Once we were at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July party outside of Austin. Everyone was super drunk, which made the fireworks super exciting. Eventually there was only one huge firework left. Unlike most fireworks, you had to light the top of this one. Lars Ulrich was really excited to light it, but he couldn't reach the fuse, so I gave him a boost.
What's your favorite kind of vocoder?
Manley: One that works consistently and doesn't break. We have traditionally used a Digitech Talker, which kind of sucks. But it's what we have. We've tried others including a vintage Roland Vocoder VP-330, which was offered to us at a studio in Mexico City. It was easily the best-sounding vocoder we've ever used. They also sell for $5,000.
Are there things you can say into the vocoder that you wouldn't be able to say in your normal voice? What about "Take me to the leader of your steak-sex quadrant now"?
Means: I would only be able to say that into the vocoder. You can say or sing anything into a vocoder and it sounds good. I forget lyrics to songs, so I just make English-sounding phonics. No problem.
How did the song "Anthropocene" come together?
Manley: We'd given ourselves the assignment of showing up to a recording session with a few ideas. I wrote the riff in about four seconds. It was a total throwaway riff, but both Nate and Seb heard it and liked it.
Means: It was a really stupid riff. That was exciting. Previously, Phil's stupidest riff in memory was for "Positive People." I don't know if you've noticed, but rock and roll is kind of stupid [laughs]. Once you've got a truly stupid riff, then you just try to stay out of its way. Maybe modulate to a bridge and add a solo.
What's the most fucked-up thing you've thought about while playing a song live?
Manley: Killing Sebastian with my guitar. It wasn't something I thought of as much as something I actually did in Newcastle, Australia.
Means: Once I thought, "I'm going to piss all over the stage while I'm playing." Then I did.
Thomson: Actually, Phil, you hit my ride cymbal and then I chased you into the backstage and then we hugged.
Volume X is getting pressed on virgin vinyl. Describe virgin vinyl?
Manley: I toured a record-pressing plant in Cleveland. The vinyl is made of PVC pellets. Sometimes the excess melted PVC gets collected and reused. Those records made with the recycled PVC are considered nonvirgin.
Means: The vinyl is only virgin before Trans Am is pressed into it.