By Kriston Capps | Photos by Liz Gorman
Don’t be fooled by all the Lycra and L.A. Looks. Underneath it all, Trans Am is still a D.C. hardcore band. Over a decade after the release of the band’s genre-marking album, Futureworld, the Bethesda, Md.–born trio’s real retro appeal has more to do with D.C. punk than Euro krautrock.
On Friday, Trans Am proved its District bona fides at the 9:30 Club, where they co-headlined with Les Savy Fav. For a big-gesture show—Trans Am played Futureworld in its entirety, in honor of the 1999 album’s reissue—the show failed to draw a big crowd. The club was half-full at best; the show had little of the feeling of a band playing a homecoming, either among the performers or the audience.
Perhaps Trans Am has been gone too long. Or maybe they’ve gone too far. On Futureworld, Trans Am’s fourth album, the instrumental rock group added vocals, albeit through vocodors. That album and subsequent releases heralded the arrival of a number of backward-looking synth acts, among them production-heavy groups such as Chromeo and Yacht, who mix vocoders with cheap beats and cheaper plastic sunglasses to alchemize an arch-’80s aura. Trans Am has the image down—hot sax licks, brooding robot vocals, sweaty bass grooves.
Yet broken down into constituent elements, Trans Am defies its own formula in ways that are too punk, and too DC, for a purely retro-synth act. Sebastian Thomson’s live drumming is aggressive and at times even angular—nothing at all like the slicked-back electronic beats of Kraftwerk or its more modern imitators. Thomson’s set is simple and punk, not tricked out or electronically padded. Trans Am has more rock in its DNA than most of the irony-laden, faux-’80s synth acts that came after them, and the heavy bass in “Am Rhein” could easily be mistaken for a riff by Girls Against Boys.
Singing on the titular “Futureworld,” Nathan Means struck a perfect Kraftwerk imitation. But even that song opens up with a slightly discordant progression that speaks to the band’s post-punk influence—especially with Thomson’s drumming. The ’80s macho inauthenticity is there in spades, too: Thomson’s brother Julian was on hand to lend the saxophone line that opens Futureworld’s first track, “1999.”
“Runners Standing Still,” a fairly light number driven by Means’s breathy whisper, has its place on the album—but not in the band’s hard-charging live performance. Why should Trans Am commit to playing every song from Futureworld, or to only those songs alone? A smattering of songs from their 2004 anti-war effort Liberation would have complemented the aspects of Futureworld that make it last—the post-punk skeleton underneath the ’80s trappings.
At this point in their career, Les Savy Fav seem to be playing the same live show year after year. The antics change each time. On Friday, singer Tim Harrington performed from under the stage, at the bar, and in the crowd. He wore a mirrored burqa, ate a tangerine, and drank photographer Liz Gorman’s beer (twice). “Thanks for coming out on a Tuesday night,” he taunted. The songs, however, stay the same: Les Savy Fav saved their most explosive songs (“The Sweat Descends,” “Dirty Knails”) for the encore. The small crowd at the 9:30 wasn’t in for any surprises—but didn’t lack for them.