Peeling out with Trans Am's Phil Manley

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Trans Am, dude. Powerful, proggy, electro, rockin' - what don't these guys do? Once based in DC, now living all over the place, all over your face, Trans Am rev up their tour tonight, April 21, at Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF; (415) 621-4455. Zombi and Black Taj open the all-ages Green Apple Music Festival-sponsored show; the music starts at 10:00 p.m. Lay $14 down.

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No doubt the venue is all-too-familiar sight for Trans Am-er Phil Manley, who might be found behind the mixing board on occasion. Manley moved to San Francisco a few years ago, and he took a little time out while tooling round South Carolina to chat recently. The friendly 33-year-old musician and audio engineer inquired about my recent car break-in, which scuttled our first attempt at an interview, and revealed that he too lives in the city's Western Addition district. "I used to live in the Mission but there's too many fixed gear bikes," he said jokingly. "It actually doesn't bug me, but I did see a funny bumper the other day - 'One less fixie.' Kinda hilarious and kinda harsh."

Phil Manley: On our first US tour with Brainiac in 1996, our van got robbed. They took mostly clothes. One bag of equipment got ripped out -- it was just junkies. Stupid. That was just unfortunate. We were inexperienced, and people were advising us to load equipment out.

Guardian: What's South Carolina like?

PM: Scrappy. We were just at a music store - bought some drum heads and guitar picks.

G: Why did you move to San Francisco?

PM: We all got sick of living in DC. Tim Green, who plays in the Fucking Champs, asked me to join the band, and he had a room available in his house. It was a good way to move to a city, to have band and an affordable place to live, so that was an easy in.

I used to work at 12 Galaxies, work at Bottom of the Hill, also Slim's and Great American Music Hall. But now I rarely ever home and when I am home, I try to cool out. There's a really good music scene here - there's so many more
music venues than in DC. I also have done some engineering for bands. I do some work out for [Green's] Louder Studios and mostly out of Kurt Schlegel's studio called Lucky Cat on Potrero Hill. It’s a kinda secret weapo. It's a really cool, awesome-sounding room, really mellow vibe, and bands seem to like it, and so very few people know about it. Lounder's always booked. I worked with the Alps and the Makes Nice. I produced the Makes Nice's first one, and we're in the middle of doing the second one. Theyre so prolific they’ve already got a third album written. I've also done work with Tussle and a bunch of bands in SF. Trans Am used to own a studio in Washngton, DC, and when I moved to SF, it seemed natural.

I'm also in a third band, Oneida, playing guitar. I'm sort of an adjunct member. It's only when I go to New York - obviously it's a heavy commute but sometimes it's worthwhile to fly out for one show. I'm friends with Bobby, the keyboardist - we went to college together and Trans Am played some shows with Oneida a few years ago. I've been a fan of their music for a while, and they asked me to join a couple years ago when I was in NYC. I've done some recording with them in past - they're really open-minded as a band and they're always trying to mix it up, trying to keep it interesting.

G: What do all these bands you're in have in common?

PM: It's weird - all three bands are totally different. But all three have a similar MO. They're all DIY and come from the same place, the work ethic. All bands like to do it just for fun. Professional aspirations aside, it's about friends getting together to play music. Also all three bands tour at about the same level, play the same clubs, a lot of the same circle of friends.

G: What's going on with Trans Am now?

PM: It's the third or fourth day of touring in the US. We just finished a month-long tour in Europe - we had 10 days off and now we're starting up in the US. It's been going really well.

We went into this new record [Sex Change] without any sort of concept. With some records we had a concept that ran through the whole thing - this time we wrote songs, put it together, and made a record. There was no preconceived thread. We were just excited to play together because we've been spending some time in different places. Nathan was living in New Zealand, and Sebastian lives in London. We went down to New Zealand to record the record and did some touring down there. We recorded the second half in Oneida's studio and then mixed it at Tiny Telephone.

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I think the mood of the record is pretty up and that might be the one thing that’s consistent. Liberation is obviously pretty heavy and dark. It was kind of a relief to leave it.

I would like to say something about the bands we're touring with: Zombie are from Pittsburgh - keyboards and bas and drums. The keyboard player also plays bass guitar and they're really sort of soundtracky. Good time rock 'n' roll. And Black Taj is a cross between Steve Miller and Jimi Hendrix - they're good friends of ours from North Carolina. A couple of the guys used to be in the band Polvo.

G: Any adventures in Europe?

PM: In Marseille, our tires were slashed. We were driving a British van, and there were riots between British hooligan football fans and Algerian fans. We had some equipment stolen in Ljubljana. No days off so it was kinda stressful - we went everywhere from as far north as Copenhagen and as far east as Vienna and as far south as Bologna.

The most rabid Trans Am fans are in Poland, Slovenia, Crotia - a huge group of Crotian fans… normally Zagreb and Ljubljana. A crew of guys drove up through the snow to make it to the show, and it was the nutty night. I don't know why we strike a chord there. We started touring Eastern Europe in the late '90s. They're definitely more reckless, more crazy dancing, and I think maybe it's because for such a long time they haven't had bands traveling there.