The best thing about Trans Am (the band, not the car) is its steadfastness: the decade-long adherence to the same formula of '70s classic rock mixed with Kraftwerkian electropop with only small alterations.
Around 1994, The Wire writer Simon Reynolds coined "post-rock" to refer to instrumental bands employing non-rock influences; that same year, Trans Am released its self-titled debut. Guitarist Phil Manley, bassist Nathan Means and drummer Seb Thomson grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., influenced by heroes like Fugazi, but they augmented those powerful sounds with a battery of keyboards and drum machines. 1997's Surrender to the Night dug a bit deeper into the electronics with a dystopian theme of high-tech surveillance and paranoia, while 2002's T.A. spoofed the electroclash trend.
For a band mostly trafficking in instrumentals and a smattering of vocoder, it was refreshing to learn the members also had a political bent. During the 2004 election push, Liberation sampled Dubya speeches over electro beats, following in the footsteps of the "found Reagan" tracks of the '80s. "Some didn't like the message, and we knew we were treading a fine line," says Manley, noting that Green Day's American Idiot didn't drop until months later. "But we felt strongly about our frustration watching [the Iraq war] happen and feeling like no one was confronting the situation."
After a break, Trans Am has re-emerged with Sex Change, which again relies on electronics and riffage mixed with a bit of Brian Eno-styled production. "I think we've refined our aesthetic so that we know how to write a song, rather than shooting in the dark," says Manley. "On the new record, the most noticeable difference is that the overall mood is more positive. Not being in D.C. anymore affected that. That place had a weird negative vibe."
The group also concocted a twisted version of Eno's "oblique strategies" method of jumpstarting creativity, calling it "obscene strategies." These random prompts might include "check your e-mail," "leave the studio unlocked overnight" or "rip off black musicians" (a directive accomplished with P-Funk references on such tracks as "Climbing Up the Ladder").
Manley claims to be out of the loop when it comes to popular music, but he hasn't failed to notice the rise of the neo-new-wave dance-punkers, with their dyed-black hair and radio-ready hooks. "Yeah, it's kind of funny," he says. "We were bringing back a music that was out of fashion. People would say, 'What are you playing those keyboards for?' And now suddenly everyone has a keyboard in their band again."
Trans Am with Zombi. 8 p.m. Fri., Feb. 23. Doherty Hall, 2315, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. $7. 412-268-2107.