Trans Am have been sculpting widely-acclaimed, primarily-instrumental rock albums since 1996 — yet remain inexplicably unsung as a “Washington band.” (To which we say: D.C., have you listened to “Cocaine Computer” lately?)
The Bethesda-born trio stops at the 9:30 Club on Friday to perform its 1999 album “Futureworld” from start to finish. Click Track spoke with bassist Nathan Means about the significance of that album, the band’s place in D.C. rock history, his memories of the soon-to-be-shuttered Gold Leaf Studios and why Trans Am decided to get out of Washington in late 2003.
The Trans Am discography is vast. Why did you guys pick “Futureworld” as the album to perform on your current tour?
We sort of stumbled into it. Friends of friends were having a festival in Pittsburgh and they asked us to play the album. My initial reaction – and I think I wasn’t alone – was not to do that because it’s been sort of a trend. But, y’know, once we became committed to the idea… we decided if we’re going to fly out to do that we might as well play some other shows.
There has been a lot of nostalgia for Washington’s old-school hardcore scene these days — something that has taken shape in the form of reunion shows and things like that. Did Trans Am ever feel like it had a place in Washington’s post-“harDCore” scene?
We were into classic rock when we found out about hardcore at, like, 16 or whatever. We played a battle of the bands in Rockville next to a place called Mr. Sausage and Ice Cream. And we lost that, actually, to a keyboard band called Moderation. And we were outraged. They were playing, like, Red Hot Chili Peppers covers...
Then we found out about the hardcore scene, which was massively eye-opening. We were able to get shows at, like, a five dollar church show… I think for years afterward when we started playing out, we had this assumption that everyone had the same political approach to music — but they unfortunately didn’t. We did the whole D.I.Y. thing and sold merchandise without profiteering from it at all... which was basically something that no one got outside of D.C.
So you grew up on hardcore but you never really sounded like that type of band.
I consider us a pretty reactionary band… I think music in D.C. was kind of paralyzed after the mid-to-late-’80s You had all these great bands coming out and [people] were petrified by the influence of Dischord [Records] and Fugazi and Rites of Spring… And out of that, there were a lot of really bad vocals. Ian MacKaye isn’t really a great singer... but it works really well for him because certain people can pull certain things off… For lots of other people to do that just sounds like [expletive]. That was part of our reason for not having vocals. And we just got sick of a lot of really boring music. There wasn’t really anything electronic going on, as far as we knew... and we had a sort of classic rock edge, too...
We played a Led Zeppelin cover at one of our shows and [a fan] was overheard saying, “It’s like punk never happened to these guys!” I was pretty proud of that.
The one thing that’s always been odd to me is that we managed to put out a bunch of records and tour and have a certain amount of success. And yet, we were completely written out of D.C. music history. There are these books from when we were playing and having pretty decent crowds at the Black Cat, or wherever. There are these photographic histories. And we’re almost never, ever, ever, ever mentioned. I just thought that was kind of weird. I assumed it was a stylistic decision that we didn’t fit. Because we were friends with the people who were included. Maybe there’s a tinge of bitterness in my heart because we grew up there.
Well, one way your influence has been felt in Washington is through Gold Leaf Studios. You guys opened your recording studio, NRS, in that building over a decade ago. What are your memories of that place?
It was actually called Gold Leaf Studios when we moved in because there was actually a gold-leafing studio there. They did frames.
Oh, really? What year was that?
We were building the studio out at the time “Future World” was recorded, so I’d say 1998… There was an auto shop below there and the guys were super cool there. They did some work on our tour van… But they’d paint cars and do stuff that would release an insane amount of toxic gas, so you’d have to leave for a while.
The gold leaf guys moved out and it was empty for a while, but then that got bought by another guy who built it out into studio spaces for artists — visual art… It was before they put up any of the [neighboring] high rises and it was still pretty shady. The alley right next to us was [next to] an INS building and there was a guard there pretty much 24 hours. So that alleyway seemed okay. But as soon as you walked out of there, there was some scrappy, shady stuff going on… We did an album with the [Expletive] Champs and we called it “running a gauntlet,” to go three blocks from the studio to AV Pizza... And now I hear they’re demolishing the building?
That’s the word .
Our drummer has a side project called Publicist and he’ll be playing there at one of the concerts they’re having before it gets torn down. And it was funny — they called him like, “Hey! We heard you had something to do with it at some point!” There’s no internet archive on that.
Do you guys miss Washington at all?
D.C. was kind of a less-pleasant place to live after 9/11. I thought so. There were fighter jets screaming overhead. All of a sudden the cops started doing that thing they supposedly learned from the Israelis where they had their flashers on all the time. It was weird. You felt like you were in a besieged imperial capital instead of the city you grew up in... It wasn’t hard to leave, to be honest.