Kim Hunter nabs Trans Am’s drummer Sebastian Thomson before their recent Highbury Garage gig, after they’ve arrived two hours late in two battered transits from a gig in a Bradford punk club, and before the venue manager has threatened not to pay them if they set fire to the drum kit
Sebastian Thomson, drummer: Nate steals all the interviews, so I’m not letting him do any.
DiS: that's OK; I wanted to interview the drummer. I'll ask you the geeky stuff later. But first, the Hackney Ocean gig. It was a particularly fine show. Does it stand out for you?
Sebastian: We have a history of playing not our best performances in London and that was the first time we had a good time, because we weren’t too drunk like we have been before. We weren’t too tired and the crowd was really supportive. People were having a good time. People were dancing, it seemed kinda like a celebration. It was good. Bettina Richards who runs [their label] Thrill Jockey was like, “I think that show is going to turn things around for you guys in London.” She was really excited.
DiS: But that was just he start of a European tour for you; how has the rest of it gone?
Sebastian: The first ten or so nights were Thrill Jockey nights – Lisbon, Barcelona (we missed Barcelona, but...), Paris, Brussels…
DiS: Hang on a minute, you missed Barcelona?
Sebastian: Yeah, that’s a long story, but basically the nightliner bus we were on didn’t get us there in time…
Lisbon, London and Berlin were the best Thrill Jockey tour dates for us. Paris was all right. Paris is not the best town for us, because we might be a bit more dancy than most rock bands, but we are still a rock band when you get down to it, and Parisians… we’re a bit more masculine when you get down to it… and I don’t think they get into that.
DiS: You’re not fey enough…
Sebastian: I think we’re not bad enough, is what it comes down to. I love the French, but I mean their music… come o-on… Jesus. It’s not a hot-bed of music.
DiS: What characterised the tour for you?
Sebastian: Missing shows. We missed Copenhagen too. This is the tour we have missed most shows of any ever. Before this tour we missed one or two shows in entire history of touring. This trip we missed four shows. After Berlin we continued on our own with five more shows in Germany, four in Italy, two in Switzerland (except we missed Geneva) one in Belgium, Rotterdam, and we’ve got two more shows in the UK and then we’re done.
The worst low point is – and I’m going to badmouth our booking agent here – we had two shows in Switzerland, Zurich and Geneva. We had this long drive from Italy to Zurich, and we turned up at the club at seven and we’re told the show is the next day. So not only did we miss the Geneva show, but we had an extra day in one of the most expensive cities in Europe. Thanks for that.
You know, we get way more people at our shows in the US than in Europe. We’re way more popular. In a big city in the US, 500 people is a good night, whereas in Europe that’s incredible. Even in a small town in the US we get 200 people; in Europe maybe 50 or 100. And American crowds are more rowdy and energetic and drunk than European crowds. European crowds are very studious. Europeans get into our electronic side more than Americans do. So they come expecting that. But our live set is much more rock than our albums are, so they’re like [stroking their chins] going, ‘I don’t know if I like this.’ The DJ in Rotterdam heard our record and liked it, but said to the promoter after the show, ‘They’re a good band, but I just don’t like rock.’ That’s how a lot of people in Europe are, I think.
DiS: I think it’s the dance element in your music that I hook into.
Sebastian: It’s the rotor toms you hook into! [laughs] What we’ve been trying to get across to people is that rock music is dance music. Just because there’s a guitar solo doesn’t mean you can’t dance. What we always say is that AC/DC is dance music: it has the same exact beats that Kraftwerk does.
DiS: But its intensified in your music, because the backline has almost been reversed, so that the constancy of sound and rhythm is often provided by keyboards and guitars. You get to fly almost like you’re the lead instrument. Your job must be every drummer’s dream…
Sebastian: We never sat down and talked about it, that’s just the way they play their instruments. We all like music that drones. Phil’s a big Spacemen 3 fan, stuff like that, you know, so he likes to drone on the guitar and he likes to peddle on the bass. So if nobody’s like singing or anything I might as well do some stuff on the drums. A lot of bands have that [screws up face for screechy guitar solo impression] wew-y-w-w-w-w-o-wooo thing going on, you know. It’s a rare opportunity, and you take it when you can get it…
DiS: As well as having a percussive instrument take solos, you use the vocals as a rhythm instrument, occasionally even rapping after a fashion.
Sebastian: Yes, the vocals are used in the same way as in dance music, as an added element. The way I look at vocals is it’s a way to bring the audience into the band. It’s something everybody can identify with, because they can sing along. Or, it’s hard to remember a melody or bass line, but they’ll remember a lyric. It’s just like a connective tissue between the audience and the music. It’s not like Celine Dion or something... it’s not the main deal. Sometimes metal music can seem alienating.
Dis: So, let’s get the geeky stuff over and done with: your live drum sound is fantastic. Are they rotor toms or have you processed the sound to imitate rotor toms?
Sebastian: [excited…] a lot of people on this tour have thought the rotor toms were electronic, because they sound so different, you know. They sound great. But when I got the rotor toms I was really worried the sound engineer, Jonathan, wasn’t going to be into it, but he was like ‘no, I love it’. He was really into them because normally toms are so muddy he has to work hard to get them to stand out; he has to gate them and so on, but with rotor sounds you just crank them up in the mix and that’s it. Nothing else. They’re really fun to play; the attack is fantastic, and because they’re smaller you can fit four in the space where you’d normally have two, so you go [descending] du-du-du-du-du-du-duh…
I can’t wait to record the rotor toms. I haven’t recorded with them yet; I just got them before the tour. I think they’ll sound great in the studio.
DiS: And that industrial, dustbin lid sound…
Sebastian: Right now, I’m using two china cymbals with fourteen inch hi-hats in them to kind of deaden them
DiS: Back to real life, then: what do you take from the scene back home in DC?
Sebastian: It’s a small city for the US, so were part of a tight music scene. The local black music scene is go-go. Every white person I know in DC who’s in a band likes go-go. White bands won’t play it because they’re so politically conscious they feel like they’d be stealing. Like for the thirtieth time. Or taking the piss. It’s kind of like hip-hop with a live band, two drummers and the beat’s always swung [gives DiS an example we’re not going to try to represent] like that. Always mid tempo with lots of triplets, really hard and aggressive and overtly sexual. It’s really cool.
DiS: And how did the Krautrock influence come about?
Sebastian: When we first started making records people said we were a Krautrock band. I didn’t know what Krautrock was. Kraftwerk, I always listened to. I knew about Spacemen 3, but ever since I was a kid I listened to Kraftwerk, because my older brother was part of that 80s eurodance scene in the US. But I didn’t know about Can, or Amon Duul for the first two or there records. I think we just arrived at the same point without realising it, but I like that stuff now.
It’s a pretty incredible coincidence, because Jackie Liebowitz is a great drummer, and if I’d heard him before we started making records, he’d have been an influence. But I just didn’t know about him. When you think about it someone like Stewart Copeland, he’s a big influence on me, and he sorta sounds like Jackie Liebewitz sometimes, but in a more pop way. But he has a really precise, like with that super forward momentum, driving thing going, you know. It’s cool.
DiS: So, [most recent album] TA. It sounds like all my 80s listening – the white-trainered rock, the electronica, the disco – all rolled into one. Are you taking the piss out of your eighties roots with that white-suited, pimped-up artwork?
Sebastian: Nate or Phil came up with that. The thing for me is that you know how indie rock and the electronic scene is that the artist is only a name and the whole thing is so distant and cold and mysterious. With Britney, for example, it’s not about a chord progression, it’s about her as an entertainer. With indie, it’s all about a great drum sound or whatever, so we were trying to show that we’re three guys who like to have a good time, to party, rather than analysing everything and being the most obscure we can be.
It was inspired by the way a lot of hip-hop albums have covers that are photoshopped together. Some guy with a building blowing up behind him or something. Totally ridiculous with a gorilla somewhere. So we went totally over the top. We like shock value. We like to confuse people.
DiS: And it’s a real deviation from your traditional sound and way of recording…
Sebastian: Yeah. There are a couple of songs on previous albums that sound like songs on TA, but only three or four. We had a lot of fun doing it. Our first couple of albums were really post rock, totally instrumental. No verses or choruses. They were really about soundscapes and drones and grooves and that’s it. Electronic and rock. I guess Redline was the ultimate post-rock album for us. It’s really experimental. There’s acoustic guitars, saxophone, weird shit. Weird percussion and little by way of actual songs. It’s a stoner album, a double album you’d get high, put on your headphones and hang out to. It’s cool, you know.
TA is an album you can put on at a party and people will leave it on… maybe even dance to it, you know.
It was also the first time we wrote the songs, rehearsed and gigged them before recording them. Before we’d usually jam and write the stuff together. But this time I’d go to the studio late at night and write a song and burn a cd, and go, ‘Here you go, guys, what do you think?’ and they’d go, ‘Hey that’s cool.’ So that inspired them to also write some stuff. Because it’s harder to write a standard rock or pop song in the band way. And as a drummer it’s frustrating because you’re sitting there and you have a riff in your head and nobody will fucking play it.
DiS: People say with Trans Am you never know what you’re going to get. Is that going to change now you’ve developed this new approach to writing your music?
Sebastian: We’re the most inconsistent band in the world. Each album in itself is inconsistent, you know. I think we get bored easily. When I listen to a record, unless I’m a total fan – like of the few bands I love to death, Kraftwerk, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Van Halen – I can’t listen to more than three songs at a time. I get bored. Everything sounds the same after a while. I want some variety. I like to think of Trans Am records as being like mix tapes, party tapes, road tapes, you know. There might be a general vibe, but every song is different.
With TA we wrote our own songs, and that’s opened a whole new can of worms. We’ve written songs together before, but always with me on drums or whatever. Maybe in the future we’ll write songs together but I won’t be on drums. I dunno…
But it’s funny because a week ago in Italy the guitarist, Phil, goes, the next album we’re gonna write it together again. Let’s sit down together and write an album. We’re going to go to a country house like Zeppelin and write a record. Bring our girlfriends and hang out. Have a bit of a party.
DiS: So you’re not splitting up and moving to different cities like I heard? And, by the way, do you really get into fights on stage?
Sebastian: Oh, Phil’s been threatening to go off to Philly or something? His girfriend lives there. I mean, maybe we’ll break up, I don’t know… No, we’re not going to break up, but we’ve been playing together for twelve years. We’ve known each other since we were seventeen. Actually the first gig we ever played together was in junior highschool when I was thirteen and they were twelve. I played violin; Nate played cello and Phil played Saxophone in the school orchestra.
When we get home from this tour we’ll probably take a four month break. Because we’ve pretty much done one record every year for the past six years, so I wanna take like four months off. And Phil and I are in other bands and I’m working on my own stuff… you know it’s like we wrote the album a year ago, we recorded it last fall, we mixed it in the winter, we took like two months off, then went on tour in the US, then took a month off, then did a festival in France, then came here for a month, so we’ve been working this record for a while now. We also have our studio at home, so we have a couple of gigs there…
Philly’s only a couple of hours away, anyway. And right now after a tour we don’t want to see each other when we get home, you know. But after three or four months we’ll be like let’s get the band back together again.
And, yes [laughs] we have had fights; thrown stuff at each other on stage.
DiS: Who wrote Infinite Wavelength? It’s fantastic…
Sebastian: That was a band jam. We all wrote our own parts to that one. It’s the one that sounds most like classic Trans Am on TA. There are a few songs on Redline with that sound – the keyboard, the vocoder and the drums…
DiS: And since you come from DC, I have to ask about September the 11th. What happened to you?
Sebastian: Most of the indie musicians in the US are left wing. They weren’t glad it happened, but they could see reasons for it. They weren’t ‘let’s go and bomb everywhere’ like everybody else. A lot of country acts wrote songs like, ‘I don’t know the difference between I-raq and I-ran'; it’s kinda embarrassing.
You know, the US is such a huge country it’s hard to feel the personal effect. Even being in DC, you know. We were really freaking out when the Pentagon got hit, though. In my mind I was like OK, this is the moment I’ve been expecting my entire life; I’m gonna live like the road warrior now. Time to go and fend for yourself. We were like, how the hell are we gonna get out of DC, escape the city? The funny thing is my dad was flying into Washington that morning and he landed ten minutes before the attack, so for a while we didn’t know if he’d been on the plane or not. So that was pretty scary.
The song Afternight on TA was written the day after 9/11. We had rehearsal scheduled for 9/11. We didn’t go to rehearsal. We were like ‘what the fuck?’ But we went the next day and we rehearsed and that’s the song we wrote. It was a really weird vibe. It was a really sad day, and that’s the song that came out. After something like that you can’t just go, ‘Hey let’s go and rock out!’.
We played a show on New York about a month after and after the show people came up and said they’d been really depressed and were really glad we’d played and cheered them up.
DiS: Are you going to set fire to your cymbals tonight?
Sebastian: You’re the second person who’s asked. I’ve run out of lighter fluid.
DiS: I’ll go get you some…