Trans Am Interview

Electro rockers Trans Am have built a decade long career, with a half dozen successful indie albums showcasing their chameleon like fascination with late 70s and early 80s pop rock aesthetics. Their current single "Remote Control" has topped both the electronic and rock charts here at Better Propaganda, an unlikely crossover for the party boy band. The trio has regrouped at their Washington, DC studio, readying for a new tour in support of their album Liberation. I spoke with band member Nathan Means (bass/keyboards/vocals) over the telephone from their headquarters.

Better Propaganda Editor Terbo Ted talks to Trans Am's Nathan Means

Better Propaganda: If you had the opportunity to describe your band Trans Am, what would you say?

Nathan Means: How would I describe Trans Am?

Better Propaganda: Yeah!

NM: Aw, that's easy. We're heavy American electro rock.

Better Propaganda: That's a good description. I have to say, at our website here at Better Propaganda, your songs are at the top of our electronic AND rock charts, which is pretty amazing.

NM: Aw sweet, yeah, that's awesome.

Better Propaganda: You've been in the top five on both for a couple of weeks now.

NM: Good to hear it.

Better Propaganda: I have another story to tell you too. You know, we get promos here in the office.

NM: Mm-Hmm.

Better Propaganda: And the good promos disappear.

NM: Right.

Better Propaganda: Your guys' album is ALWAYS not here.

NM: Right, awesome. Yeah, yes, thievery. (laughter) Sweet.

Better Propaganda: And we get lots of stuff that we never listen to, you know. But somehow, that's a good test.

You guys said you have a new website out, what's up with that?

NM: Well, we've got a friend, Allison Childs, ...she's actually out there in San Francisco right now. She just put up a new website for us, it's at It looks great, you know, lots of semi-embarrassing pictures and videos and, you know, good information source, you know, good reference source, so I'm pretty happy with it.

Better Propaganda: You guys seem to do a lot of chameleon work with a lot of late 70s and early 80s motifs, right?

NM: Yes.

Better Propaganda: Do you think the press is pushing you guys there, or you're definitely feeding that yourself, or both?

NM: Well, I mean, you know, it's more obvious sometimes than others. I think that the parts of our music that are easiest to lock into, and figure out what's going on, is frequently those, just because we have sounds from keyboards that are from the 70s or 80s, or guitar sounds that are, you know... a lot of the sounds come from that. So it's probably the easiest part of the Trans Am barrage to kind of latch onto, you know, and that's sort of like what you want to do if you're a journalist. You want to lock on to something so you can like pretend you know what you're talking about, you know? (laughter)

Better Propaganda: Right right.

NM: So I wouldn't say that someone's making that up. Our music wouldn't be more popular in the 80s, (laughter) so like it would probably be less popular in the 80s, it wouldn't fit in the 80s.

Better Propaganda: Do you think you're a modern band, that has just some really strong roots then in the past, or are you really a revivalist band?

NM: Yeah, I don't like the word modern very much. We're pretty well dispersed throughout the ages.

Better Propaganda: One thing that's really funny is that Thrill Jockey Records sends out, you know, a little press sheet for you guys, and it's really pushing your guys' uh, "unambiguous" political views.

NM: Oh, right, yeah.

Better Propaganda: ...coming out of Washington, DC, with your new album called Liberation, and... what does all that mean, "unambiguous?"

NM: Um, well, I, you know, I don't know. I mean, it's um... like... maybe once the promo comes in, you can check it out, because I think that probably some of the songs kind of hit you in the face.

Better Propaganda: Isn't it mostly instrumental music?

NM: It is mostly instrumental. There's a few songs with more or less straight vocals on them, and there's a few songs with sort of effected vocals, and there's a couple of songs with samples. It's probably a lot more instrumental than our previous album in terms of there not being vocals. Let me think... (pause) there's basically uh... (pause) we were... we have an album which is, on some songs, particularly, it's um... (pause) sort of taking the tact of what's happened in the past two or three years...

Better Propaganda: Right.

NM: this country, you know, on a national political level, you know

Better Propaganda: Right.

NM: ...what's happened with that, and we sort of fictionalized it a little bit, by making it sound, by using music that sounds like a science fiction soundtrack,

Better Propaganda: Right.

NM: know, but then you use samples from the current president.

Better Propaganda: Right.

NM: And so it's sort of like, um. You know, with the Future World album, it was about a fictional, supposed kind of retro-future dystopia. And now, suddenly, it's sort of the same album, but it's real, like it's current, it's happening now, you know. So, um, (pause) ... by sort of fictionalizing it, pointing out how ridiculous and how extreme things have gotten.

Better Propaganda: Right.

NM: ... with like, you know, weird the Office of Special Plans, and you know, people popping thrill pills you know, and people trying to collect all of the electronic transmissions in the world and surveil through those, and um, you know, creating new legal reasons to arrest people, or not even answering legally for arresting people? We have a poster for the album, we're in orange jumpsuits, like prisoners...

Better Propaganda: Guantanamo.

NM: Yeah, I don't know if you've seen it, but yeah, so...

Better Propaganda: It's so funny, because you guys have been pretty much seen as like a retro party band, and you're saying some pretty heavy political things,

NM: Yeah.

Better Propaganda: that the time we're in, with an election year, and you're in Washington, DC, that's what you do this year?

NM: Uh, well, it not really has to do so much with it being an election year. We're not like endorsing anyone, but at the same time, um, you know, I think it would be pretty disastrous if Bush got the second term (laughter). You know.

Better Propaganda: I was realizing this morning, that you know, with your guys' aesthetic cloak you wear as a group of performers, you know, you could go off really on the Reagan/Thatcher era and make some effective statements.

NM: Oh right, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Well, we could, but I think, in many ways, Bush has outdone them. (laughter) You know, so, it wouldn't be quite as spectacular. I don't know.

Better Propaganda: So what 80s bands do you think were really great at putting politics in their music, to an effective level?

NM: Public Enemy?

Better Propaganda: Public Enemy.

NM: I mean, probably lots. The most obvious example I could think of would be like Midnight Oil.

Better Propaganda: Midnight Oil.

NM: know what I mean, they were like famous for that sort of schtick, right.

Better Propaganda: And what about the Clash, with all their kind of Sandanista! posturing?

NM: Yeah, they would actually be the most obvious, wouldn't they?

Better Propaganda: Was that like just fashion, or was it really something they were saying?

NM: Well, no I don't think it was just fashion. I mean, I think that with a lot of those bands, like them or like Gang of Four or something, they wrote these really- I like Gang of Four a lot more than The Clash, but the people in the band might disagree- but um, they wrote these really sort of like classic political albums, you know, sort of angry, left-wing kind of albums. And then a lot of them have sort of like gone on to sort of like say that they didn't really know what they were talking about, (laughter) ...words, you know what I mean? But, they're still great albums, and the albums still say what they said in the first place, you know, so, I think they meant what they were saying. I don't think it was just fashion, it worked pretty well for them for awhile. But, you know, The Clash, they wouldn't have had to be as political, they just could have been angry and they probably would have still sold a lot of records, so.

Better Propaganda: How about today, do you see any bands that are effectively putting politics into their sound?

NM: Uh, I'm sure there are, I can't think of any off the top of my head. They may be part of what we're trying to do is just say is like look, you know, just being political and caring about what's happening in the world really, you know- which is what being political should mean, you know, I mean- it doesn't have to mean being preachy or self-righteous, you know, and it can be fun. It should be fun, you know.

Better Propaganda: Well, this is coming from a guy that would dress up like Loverboy at a show, right?

NM: Yeah, exactly. I've got an outfit for this tour. I'm wearing an outfit, you know, I'm wearing... I'm not going to look like I work at a non-profit or something. (laughter)

But I mean, actually we were like in San Francisco, and I remember like one of the few times in recent years when we've really said anything that was political, there was some kind of protest against NAB- which is the National Association of Broadcasters- who are, I think, in many ways, almost singlehandedly responsible for the shittyness of radio in every city in this country, (laughter) you know. Because it's like a huge industry association, and they've force-changed the laws so that you can hear exactly the same music in Myrtle Beach as in Missoula as in San Diego, because it's all of programmed in some sort of central office, it's crap, it's horrible.

Better Propaganda: Are you guys getting radio play right now?

NM: Probably not through anyone who's a member of NAB, you know (laughter).

Yeah, and Phil kind of said this short speech about how there's a march and you can go to it, it probably took about fifteen seconds, and immediately, some douche bag in the crowd starts heckling him like he's been going on a half hour rant. It's like look, if you're at this show, I know you don't like a lot of the music that gets played on the radio, because you never hear us on the radio, unless it's college. That kind of knee-jerk reaction, that sort of HATRED of anything political, is really distasteful and like dangerous, you know. It's okay to care, you know. I just think it's okay to smile onstage, you know. It's like it's okay to dance, you know. It's like it's okay to have unprotected sex, (laughter) you know, in certain circumstances. (laughter) you know, it's not gonna kill you, so, whatever.

Better Propaganda: So you guys are about to start a tour. Can you drop any hints about what you're going to be doing, or is it secret?

NM: What we're going to be doing onstage?

Better Propaganda: You guys are known for some crazy pranks and hijinks up there...

NM: We'll be bringing a full bag of tricks. We're actually in the planning stages right now. It will definitely be a visual and aural assault.

Better Propaganda: There was the one story where you guys did a fake bust with a policeman who came up and played Creedence Clearwater Revival covers tunes with you guys afterwards.

NM: Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, that was really good, that was in a record store. Yeah, that was pretty sweet. That worked out well, actually, as well, that was a well-received impromptu Creedence set. We've played some pretty unwell-received Creedence sets (laughter) at other shows. Um, there will probably be a cop onstage, I think Phil's kinda leaning in that direction. Probably no Creedence.

Better Propaganda: Is this like a Village People phase for you guys with a cop onstage?

NM: Uh, yeah, I think he'll be scarier, (laughter) you know. I think he'll be a scarier cop.

Better Propaganda: I read somewhere you guys are big with the skater community. Are you guys skaters yourselves?

NM: Um, I think Phil kinda dabbles in some skating.

Better Propaganda: Does he bring a board on tour with him?

NM: I don't think he brings a board with him, though, no. I wouldn't say that we're big skaters. You know, I'm kinda like, I'm flattered, it's cool we get on like a bunch of skate videos and stuff like that. But fuck, you know, it's... some of our music I think means sense with that, but I mean, they put some weird stuff on there like Will Oldham (laughter), why would you listen to that when you're skating? Nothing against their music, it just kind of seems like it's what you do when you're like drinking bourbon in a dark hole or something, not skating. So, whatever.

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Trans Am
album:Futureworld (reissue) (Thrill …
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song:Apparent Horizon
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song:Remote Control
album:Liberation (Thrill Jockey Reco…
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