Nathan Means - 2002

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Nathan Means sings and plays bass and synths for Washington D.C.'s leading "post- rock" band Trans Am. They've been rolling out the barrels for several years now with the dandy CDs Trans Am, The Surveillance, Futureworld, You Can Always Get What You Want, Red Line, Surrender to the Night and their latest, TA. They've impressed Tortoise's John McEntire, toured with Neil Hamburger, and gradually added vocals to what was originally an all-instrumental attack.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Trans Am, or at least the reason that they are all over the press, is that Nathan Means used to play in a band with ME! Back in college! When I had long hair and dreams of being a big rock star! We practiced in some guy's old trailer home out in the country with me on guitar, Nathan on bass and a fellow named Dan Radiloff on drums. The band was called Lima (pronounced however people wanted to pronounce it). But aside from maybe five concerts and a noisy practice tape that I'm going to sell on ebay as "early Trans Am" for thousands of dollars a pop, Lima fell apart very, very quickly (but not before Nathan went to Argentina and we replaced him with FOUR different bassists, none of which worked out at all, thus my lack of commercial success).

Regardless, Nathan and I remained friendly acquaintances, he being tall and whatnot, and at one point, his then-girlfriend was my apartment-mate, along with another girl named Martha. So you might call this interview a "homecoming." A "Reunion" between two extremely talented men whose dreams fell to dust as a world came crumbl

No wait, he was successful.

The interview was conducted via email because I'm afraid of people. My questions are in bold print; his answers are in regular print.


You remember back in college when we were in that band Lima together?


Wasn't that the best?


Do you have any fond memories of those days?

Yes - I remember when the dogs at the trailer where we practiced in exchange for a 12 pack of MGD would act not-so-friendly (which was probably just acting "doggy" for them) and I would be scared.

Are you going to write a nostalgic song about those times?


"Lima Days," perhaps?


Do you keep up with our drummer Dan Radiloff? Wasn't he "the man"?

Well, I feel like you might be a little sarcastic with this one. No, I don't keep up with him. I never could, truth be told, which might be one of the problems at the heart of Lima since I was the bassist. Dan was a frighteningly tightly-wound guy. We went to a Melvins show in Charlotte together. We sat in his SUV and drank malt liquor together to get ready for the show. (This was before my life-long malt liquor ban). Show was loud. We split the gas for that fucking thing and I think I put about 50 bucks in. What is that, like 5 miles to the gallon?

I also heard that he was kicked out of that performance art/country band Pine State and then came to their next show, set up in front of the stage and played through their entire set - or maybe until he was attacked. Fucking awesome! I hope he's doing alright.

I remember that you had Trans Am before we were in that awesome band Lima together.


I believe you were originally called "Fly" though.


Was this with the same lineup that became Trans Am?

No - we lost our vocalist and sort of struggled in the woods for a few years before becoming Trans Am.

I feel like you had kind of a Fugazi feel really early on.

Yeah - Flygazi.

Is this accurate or am I thinking of fellow UNC alumni Thomas Wolfe?


You remember how you dated that girl I lived with?

Yeah, I remember once that she gave me a haircut in that apartment's bathroom and I guess we didn't clean up entirely which really upset you. Loose hair is gross, I admit, but I've never really forgiven you for making me crawl around on the floor.

I TOTALLY saw her naked one morning.

Dude, me too!

It wasn't my fault though - she shouldn't have been running to and fro the bathroom in the buff! At least I didn't see her having SEX like I did that other roommate Martha! Through the window! I chose not to watch, but I'm not gay.

I never saw Martha having sex with anyone. What do you mean "through the window" ? The window you were peaking through? Wasn't there a tall hedge all the way around the apartment? It must have been really difficult to happen upon that scene.

Anyway, to your point, is it hard to keep a relationship going when you're on the road a lot? Or do you eschew girlfriends for one-night encounters with Plaster Casters and whatnot?

Well, now you've come to the thrust of it. Really. Perhaps a little too close to the bone. I don't know if my relationships have suffered from being on the road. Maybe they have lasted longer than they should have. I saw this Plaster Caster movie - really sort of depressing. Especially how small everyone gets after a minute in cold plaster.

I was really impressed that your band got as popular as it did even BEFORE you added vocals. What do you think it was that made your music appeal to so many people, considering that instrumental rock-ish music isn't generally what folks gravitate to?

I'm not sure. I hope that maybe it was a little more imaginative than some other intrumental rock music. And maybe not having vocals made us sort of untethered in a certain way. Also we were linked with Tortoise early on and they were getting very popular at the time, which didn't hurt.

I'm really curious to hear from somebody I actually KNOW what this "rock and roll for a living" thing is like. Especially since I FAILED, OH GOD WHY!!???!?!? Is there any fear that maybe a new CD won't sell as well as the last one and you'll have financial problems?

Yeah. I used to worry a lot that no one would buy our record or come to our shows, but it matters less and less now. I mean, I love playing for a lot of people, but I know that the bottom won't drop out for us immediately. We have always had financial problems, but we also have more or less supported ourselves from the music for six years now, so it's hard to complain.

Are you able to save up enough that it's not an issue and you can do exactly what you WANT to do without having to worry about how it is received?

We still rely on the new record to get through the year.

Do you have to tour a lot - does that get tiring?

Yeah. Touring is still one of the most fun but exhausting experiences in my life. I get to a point where my stomach is completely fucked up - not that I'm shitting all over the place - but it just feels stretched and compressed and hardened and feathery all at once. That sort explains to me where I am physically. It's a result of beer, caffeine, other drugs, irregular sleep, an odd and gas-station-informed diet, you know.

Sorry about all those basic questions.

Those are basic questions, but nobody ever asks them.

As a DC band, was there ever any communication with - or interest in - Dischord Records?

Yeah, we got a postcard back from Dischord after sending them an early demo. Phil met Ian somewhere downtown, but perhaps as an act of rebellion or maybe just because he was nervous, Phil got really stoned beforehand. I'd love to have been there. Nothing came of it I think Ian was just trying to be encouraging.

How did you get mixed up with John McEntire and Thrill Jockey in the first place?

Luck. He recorded the other side of a split 7 inch we put out. He heard our side and called us up. He hooked us up with TJ.

The latest album "TA" has a very Kraftwerk-style feel to it. Is that the direction you're going in, or was it just a one-album sidetrack deal? In what direction is your LATEST music going?

No direction. They are all sidetracks. Really, no new music. We are on a strategic break from playing together.

How would you describe the overall Trans Am sound to folks who haven't had a chance to hear you yet?

There was a sign at a show we played in Croatia that said, "Heavy American Electro Rock" which is pretty good. If it doesn't mean anything to you, then I probably can't describe the music to you anyway.

I know you built your own studio -- do other bands record there too?


What sorts of bands have you had come through?

Rye Coalition, Scene Creamers, Ted Leo and Pharmacists, Golden are a few of the more well-known acts.

I remember when we were youngsters, you once said something like "rock music is for people in their 20s - you can't keep doing it into your 30s." It kind of upset me a little at the time (though I'll be darned if I can remember why). I'm assuming (and hoping?) you've changed your mind!?

Well, I've been fortunate to meet some really wonderful people who are significantly (8+ years) older than I but who are still involved in rock or music generally. Many of them have gone on to do older person things (like get married, have kids, and more-or-less normal jobs) but they have kept music as a very important part of their lives. This love of music has meant they have had to make some unconventional choices and perhaps sacrifices as well. You know, not the typical, "I used to play guitar in college, but now I'm an investment banker" bullshit. (Nothing against investment bankers, per se, but I'm sure individually there's some real pricks in the profession.) I still think that rock is a young person's music, but that doesn't mean that nobody over 29 can do it. It just takes someone who is really fucking crazy or committed to be effective. I saw ACDC last summer and they were unstoppable. I sure they will be great in ten more years too.

You just released something called "Extremixx" - what's that all about?

Remixes. You know, marketing ploy. It's a strange project, though, because once someone sends you something you can't really say, "No you did this wrong - do it over." You're sort of going on faith, but it worked out really well I think.

What was the tour with Neil Hamburger like?

The best ever.

I know how the crowd reacted the night I saw him open for you (they were confused at first, then got the joke and laughed, then got bored, then realized he wasn't going to stop and got very very angry), but was that typical?

Yes, but more so.

How was he received by your fans?

There were always a bunch of people near the bar threatening him with alarmingly specific violence, like, "I'm going to stab you in the throat!" or "I'm going to break off your arm!"

Incidentally, Neil has a new album out called, "Laugh out Lord." I'm very excited.

Critics constantly talk about Trans Am's "ironic" use of '70s and '80s bombast and iconography -- is this an intentional "image" that you want to project for the band, or do you just all share a similar sense of humor? I'm thinking specifically about the band photos for "TA" and things like that.

Yeah. Well, first of all, I don't think most critics really understand "irony." Secondly, we're just trying to amuse ourselves first of all. We had a great time with the photo shoot for TA even thought it was cold as a witch's tit in our studio. Maybe we had too much fun. We sort of got taken to task by critics for being too jokey with this last album. Oh well. There should be more fun and innovation in independent music than there is. Even if we only suceed at being "funny" I'm still happy.

Your work has appeared on a few different labels, but Thrill Jockey has been your main one since the beginning. Has there ever been any interest on anybody's part to try to get on a "major" label?

No serious interest that I am aware of. Too bad. I'd like someone to buy me dinner.

Does Thrill Jockey give you complete artistic control and whatnot?


Have you made any music videos? If so, which songs, what were the videos like and what was done with the videos? (MTV or MuchMusic or anything like that?)

Yeah. We made one for Futureworld. It was played once on MTV and probably a few times on MuchMusic and then also in Australia and Europe where it is easier to get independent stuff on the air. It's sort of chaotic. It attempts to be a narrative like old ZZTop videos, but we might have bitten off more than we could chew. It was fun and only cost 3,000 dollars. This guy in NYC, Ed Helms, did most of the work.

As you've introduced vocals to the sound over the past few albums, have the lyrics themselves also taken on new importance?

At times.

Or is it just "another sound in the mix"?

Yeah, unfortunately that's the case more often than not. I'd like to maybe spend a little more time on the vocals for the next album.

What do you write about?

The great topics - love, sexual attraction. Also lack of love and/or sexual attraction.

What are your favorite Trans Am songs and/or albums so far? Are there any that you felt could have been better had you been given more time or practice or anything like that?

I think Red Line is the weirdest and most unique record we've made, so that's sort of my favorite right now if you were to ask. I don't really listen to my albums very much though.

What's next for Trans Am?

The future.

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