Trans-ironic exhaust

Jun 12, 2002 at 12:00 am

Trans Am is an indie rock band.

Don’t hold that against the group. Although it’s on über-cool indie label Thrill Jockey (home to post-rock icons Tortoise, among others), the Washington, D.C., trio has never been all that comfortable amid the post-everything irony, 7-inchier-than-thou world of smug record-store clerks and overnight college-radio geeks. As if the muscle-car reference of the name wasn’t clue enough (you were expecting “Vega”?), there’s Trans Am’s music, a strangely sincere take on moody ’80s rock and New Wave, wearing Van Halen, Gary Numan, New Order, and Cars references proudly on its sleeveless arms. Despite the band’s a-ha looks and ability to invoke backyard high-school keggers with a single swelling synth line, the only irony to the band, it seems, is the lack of it.

“There are so many acts in the indie world where they think they’re being ironic,” sighs drummer/vocalist Sebastian Thomson. “Like the Fucking Champs, for example. They’re a metal band, but people think, ‘Oh they’re on an indie label, they can’t really like metal.’ People hear us using vocoders and synthesizers and drum machines and think ‘They gotta be joking.’ But we actually like that,” he says.

The newest album, TA, is woven together by dark ’80s pop hooks and lyrical rhythms (programmed and otherwise) and, for the first time in the group’s career, real vocals. In fact, the Am’s contra-pop chops are so up to snuff on TA that everybody else might like the bumpy bits as much as the band does. Past Trans Am records, see, have been almost entirely instrumental. Explains Thomson, “We thought we were taking all the things we liked about rock music — the beats and the riffs — and playing just that, without the whole corny front man-and-guitar-solos thing. But after six albums that wasn’t really interesting.”

The addition of more consistent vocals may not be a musical revelation to Trans Am fans. At their best, the vocals just underline the anthemic ’80s melancholy like a smudge of eyeliner. But that and the attention to actual songwriting on TA shows a side of Trans Am willing to play the game a little more. And maybe, just maybe, subsequently become America’s answer to New Order, instead of just Speaking Canaries’ more party-happy distant cousins in indie dead-ends-ville.

In a better world, or at least one with better booking agents, Trans Am would be touring with Moby and becoming the rock darlings of the international dance set like frog funksters Rinocerose, Jacques Le Cont and Daft Punk. So far, as close as the band has gotten is a series of high-profile remixes from the likes of Gorillaz mastermind Dan the Automator and Ann Arbor IDM-hop wonderkid Dabrye.

If there’s any irony to Trans Am at all, it’s not in the music, but in the notion that staying the course for we-mean-it-man rock and synth-pop-friendly roll may finally bring it into vogue as neo-electro sweeps the country’s with-it metropolises. With Kajagoogoo-ey acts like Fischerspooner getting million-dollar record deals overseas and Detroit’s own Adult. (Trans Am’s current tour mates) turning into de facto scene icons, there’s always room at the top, as Adam Ant once sang, for a band that wants to take the hip beat and write timeless rock and roll over it. Thomson admits Trans Am does have bigger aspirations than being indie-scene eccentrics. “Even though we’re on an indie label, we made this record as a party record, so people would actually enjoy it, like you could actually go to a party and hear it,” says Thomson. While TA isn’t exactly the Wild Planet or even the Power, Corruption and Lies it tries to be sometimes, it is an anathema to the glut of woe-is-me rock of the last decade.

“Rock has been this super-earnest morose thing where people are complaining all the time, so much that it doesn’t come across as honest or substantial,” Thomson sighs. “People forget that rock music, when it began, was dance music; it was stuff you played at parties so boys and girls could meet and make out.” Kiss the chrome and you saw them.

See the review of the new Trans Am album here. Trans Am will perform with Adult. on Thursday, June 13 at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit; call 313-961-MELT). E-mail Hobey Echlin at [email protected].

Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]