Thursday, January 10, 2008

Interview: Chris Anderson of Transona Five

On this blog, we freely, often contemptuously, compare our local music scene to that of other cities. I think sometimes our derisive tone stems from dismay over our inability to form a "scene identity." North Texas has enjoyed periods of interesting bands and interesting music, but for whatever reason, the area's inhabitants seem to lack an interest or capacity to appreciate across temporal zones. That's too bad because continuity and lineage seem to promote vital music communities in other places: DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Portland, Chicago, North Carolina, Athens, small town Ohio, Vancouver. Those are places that I like to call "hotbeds of hip."

One thing that we don't do a whole lot of around here is compare DFWd now to DFWd then. Actually, in one of the few books ever written about Dallas history, Michael Phillips argues that our city is uniquely a "laboratory of forgetfullness" in that our actual history of racial discord has been supplanted by a false myth of consensus. That myth, he says in White Metropolis, has served as a de facto justification for the status quo and for power structures that have enabled us to shine, in the vision of the powers that be, like a beacon of modernity and commerce in an otherwise hillbilly south.

I don't know about that all of that, but I do know that WSJR is on your side in this fight against "amnesia by design." In all of our condescending paternalism, which we might somtimes employ to conceal some of our own insecurities, we implore you to investigate Transona Five and consider checking them out at Sloppyworld on Friday night. They were here in the 90s, and some even say that what they did back then was important. If you were around when they were, use this opportunity to re-familiarize yourself. If you weren't, then give yourself a chance to connect with an artifact of this place and that time.

One of their founding members passed away about a year ago. They've been through a lot. The fact that things are coming together for this weekend is a good story, although that's way down on the list of reasons for you to show up at the Slop on Friday. For one thing, they'll be playing with 3 other acts that are worthy of your attention. For another, you might be interested to come see for yourself if this Sloppyworld thing is going to work out. Maybe if we had some continuity of venues, it'd be a little easier for us to have continuity of music community identity (see "Argo" below).

Check out the below interview with member Chris Anderson to find out more about Transona, Dallas, and Denton... then and now.

Regarding the early days: where and when exactly did things start for Transona Five? Who was in the band? I think I bought Melatonin Bullet at CD World back in the mid-nineties, but back then I was pretty young and I never had the chance to see you play. For some reason I always assumed you were more or less based in Denton. Is that even correct? Didn't you tend to play at the Argo?

We started playing together in Dallas sometime in 1994, I think, when Chris Foley and I placed ads in the Observer and the Met. Greg Morgan answered the ad. We'd actually met the semester before in a creative writing class, so we already had that in common. He came over, we played a few songs, it went beautifully. Then Greg said, "Hey, I know a drummer who lives up the street." Fifteen minutes later he was back with G.P. Cole and we were a band. Rachel Smith came about a year later as we began working on our first single. Denton was more of a home for us than Dallas. Wanz Dover and a few other people had started booking interesting things up there, first at the Kharma Cafe, then at the Argo, then Rubber Gloves. Rachel went to school up there. Scott Marks, who replaced Greg when he took his leave, lived up in Denton. So yeah, we have deep roots in Denton.

I'm not aware of your band changing much in terms of who it involved. I know that you lost Chris Foley, but other than that has anything changed in terms of the membership?

We've kind of organically developed an open door policy for Transona Five. First it was me, Foley, Greg, and G.P., then Rachel came. Then Greg moved on, so we added Scott. Then Foley left for a time. And Mitch Greer (Go Metric USA, the Lickets) was always kind of a satellite member. Now it's back to Greg, G.P., and I. It sounds dramatic, but it really isn't. Even when someone "left the band," they were always invited to play live with us, and often they did. Some of our more magical moments happened when there were seven people on stage. We're now playing with a guy named Jonathan Hooker to help fill in the blanks, and we hope to have other guests on stage as well at these shows.

When exactly did things taper off for the band, and what were the circumstances?

I actually moved to New England to finish my undergraduate studies in creative writing. Scott and Rachel also moved up, but G.P. ran into a snag so he had to stick around Dallas. We played for a while after the move, but it quickly became evident that our lives were too busy to make it work at that time. After our last show in New York City in 2000 we decided it was a good point to push pause. Rachel was becoming more involved in Lickets (their new record is excellent!), and Scott was starting a new family in Massachusetts. I eventually attended graduate school in San Marcos, so that put me back in immediate contact with Greg and Foley. Rachel's in Chicago now and Scott's still hanging in western Massachusetts. They have other things going on, but the door is always open for them.

What motivated the re-grouping? Did everything develop after Chris' death, or did a possibility of getting back together exist beforehand? What sort of leg-work had to occur to make things happen?

We were all hungry for it. Foley had been playing with Austin's the Swells, but I'd been busy with school, and Greg and G.P. had their own things going on--but we all missed what happened between us. When we first practiced in early 2006 we were rusty, but a few glimmers shone through. It made us happy, and hopeful. Then life stepped in. Foley was going to be spending the summer in Montana, and I was offered a job teaching writing in New Hampshire. We decided to wait and let things settle, then arrange future plans the following fall. Last fall we started talking again, trying to map things out. Then Foley died and we had top stop and re-evaluate. I mean, this guy was our brother. I'd known him for nearly 20 years--I was crushed. But there wasn't much of a question about it. Greg and G.P. were still in. We feel like we have much to say, especially now. We got together last August. It was difficult, but it felt like healing.

So now we're running this in kind of a American Analog Set/New Year kind of way. Greg lives in Austin, G.P. lives here in Dallas, and I'm out in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Technology has allowed us to trade demos, and because I teach there are large blocks of time where we can record or play shows. Our goal right now is to do these few gigs, then hopefully hit a studio early in the summer. We've got several new songs we're excited about, and we want to get that down soon. Maybe we'll be able to throw together a few shows late in the summer. We'll see.

As I alluded to, I was too young to witness first hand what's often called the "space rock" scene in Denton circa the mid-nineties. So, I'm curious: do you think there was a legitimate scene along those lines? Was it tight knit or just kind of fleeting? And what were some of the bands that were involved?

Well, I think most of the bands didn't really fit that label, and almost nobody was embracing it. Oddly enough, it was pretty tight knit. We all helped each other out. And we all tried not to pay attention to simplistic renderings of what was going on. Yes, Light Bright Highway, Skiptracer, and Mazinga Phaser took us into space. But Maxine's Radiator, Thorazine Dreams, and Comet were more about song. All of these bands were transportative, if that's a word. The music took you somewhere else. Outer space? Sometimes.

Compared to a band like Wanz' old band, Mazinga Phaser, I think you guys were much more representative of slowcore, another ambiguous movement. If you think that's accurate, then I'm wondering how you think that style came about. The name Transona Five is taken from Stereolab's Mars Audiac Quintet album, but any Stereolab I hear in your music is pretty isolated, and the connection between Stereolab and slowcore doesn't seem self-evident anyway.

We were all about slowcore, but our pop exploded out of us sometimes so we didn't really fit that category either. We did listen to a lot of slowcore bands. We all were listening to Low like it was a drug. God, the tension! But we were just as much into those "noisier" bands--early Stereolab, My Bloody Valentine, and Pavement. I think the Stereolab is always in our sound--we love to get lost in the ringing of a single note, and the pulses that expand out from it. Philip Glass and Steve Reich are also an obvious influence. So we've just perverted some of these ideas to our own end. We try to be pretty most of the time.

I think something unique and special about what you guys did, particulary on Melatonin Bullet, and what some of the other Dallas and Austin bands in the late 90s, especially Bedhead, were doing is that you played music that was basically post-rock in a very pure or straightforward way. Like if you subscribe to the notion that post-rock is the use of traditionally rock instruments to play non-rock music, you guys did exactly that and usually without the addition of sounds made by other non-rock instruments. I think the fact that you get lumped in with the "space rock" group illustrates how your kind of pure post-rock is somewhat of a neglected genre. Stonedranger pointed out to me the other day that Austin's Stars of the Lid were appearing on a lot of "Best of 2007" lists with Their Refine of the Decline last year. But while there might be a notable "ambient" or "atmospheric" album that pops up every once in a while, it seems like it's never purely post-rock in the minimalistic guitar/bass/drums sense. Why do you think there's a void there and are there any bands that you enjoy these days that play in that way?

We always saw ourselves as a pop band, so yes, it is very straightforward music. Bedhead wrote great pop symphonies. They are catchy pop songs that are delivered in a non-traditional way. The Stars of the Lid album is good stuff--it's great to write fiction to--but I've asked myself that question: Is this really a post-rock work? I guess it depends on how you want to advertise it. But I've found that these categories are often falling away for me. I keep my ears open for what sounds authentic. That's my only criteria, really. I play my iPod on shuffle most of the time. Pram mixes with Gillian Welch, Gorecki blends into Movietone. I do think there is a bit of a gap now on the corner we're working. The Clientele were kind of doing it at first, but have moved on. It is out there, but it seems to be happening in Spain and other places. Polar and Astronaut are really good. I guess locally you could look at the bill on Friday. Texas still seems to be the place.

I was listening to Felt recently and I noticed that they don't really make use of cymbals. Then I was listening to Melatonin Bullet, and I realized that it's pretty much the exact opposite for you on that album: the percussion is predominantly cymbals and rimshots with very little bass drum or snare. Was that intentional or did it just kind of happen given the songs and the way other instruments were being played? Or is that just the particular style of GP Cole?

The American Analog Set guys always used to call G.P. our secret weapon. They're right. Before G.P. joined Transona Five, he'd only played in hardcore punk bands. But he says he likes the challenge of playing slow--says it's harder. We all play in a way where we are reacting to one another, but G.P. tends to be our grounding rod. He's really one of the best drummers out there. I can't say that enough. Just listen to him Friday night.

What do you anticipate for Friday? I know that you know Theater Fire...are you familiar with the others that will be playing at Sloppyworld? Do you plan to play mostly newer or older songs in Dallas on Friday, and on Saturday in Austin? What kind of instruments will your guests be handling and will you be picking up from where you left off in 2000, or has your sound changed course at all?

Friday will be many things: rock show, incantation, exorcism, tribute, a second step. It's really coming together nicely. We've known the Theater Fire guys since Don and Mark were in Vena Cava and Curtis was in My Friend the Atom. We were on the same label--Sandwich Records--and played together whenever we could. It was family. A few years back I saw Curtis at the Cavern and he told me if we wanted to play he'd love to fill in for Rachel, who has been in Chicago for the last few years. As this whole thing took shape I kept that in mind. When the Theater Fire played Cambridge recently, I went and reminded Curtis of what he'd said. So he'll be on stage playing guitar mostly, but also drums and organ. He is an amazing musician. We also have a guy named Jonathan Hooker who has been playing guitar and organ with us. He was a fan who drunkenly emailed me a few years back, but I never replied. After Foley passed away and we decided to continue working, I finally got back to him, and he's worked out great. This is what drunken emails can get you.

All I really know of Dust Congress and J.Gray is what I have heard on MySpace, and I love what I am hearing. This is what is great about the internet, and how it has changed the industry. Almost every band has a MySpace page--or something like it. If I hear about a band it takes no time for me to find them and give it a listen. The Blogs are also spreading the word. It's such an amazing time to be a musician. Anyone who says there isn't good music out there right now is lazy.

As for our set, it'll be a mix of new and old. It's been over seven years since we left off, so of course our sound has changed. In 2000 we recorded an LP with Matt Pence and Matt Barnhart that was largely a rock record. It wasn't released for a few reasons. One reason is that we fell out of love with it pretty quickly--some of the louder stuff didn't feel like us. Our minds were elsewhere. I think we've backed off the volume a little now. A few of the new songs don't have drums on them. That isn't to say we don't take off into space once in a while, but now we're back our original pursuit--the quest for melody.

What happens after this weekend? Will you be recording? Playing more shows in or out of town? How important is it that this next phase of the group be "productive" in terms of shows or output? Why not continue at your own pace as long as you, GP, Greg, and your associates enjoy it, whatever comes of it?

After this weekend it's pretty open. We've been asked to play Melodica next month, and I'll be flying back for that. We want to record early summer, then play a few more shows here and there. We're in no hurry. The perspective we have now on time is allowing us to enjoy the process. We're also thinking about whether or not to expand. I'd love to get a female voice in here. And Curtis has the Theater Fire to attend to, so we'll probably be looking for someone to fill that roll. The future is open, and that's an exciting thing.

This article from 2004 was commented on back when we posted regarding Chris Foley's death in early 2007. At the end of the article, a thread of comments exchanged by G.P. Cole and Greg Morgan stems from 2005 and foreshadows the reunion of the band, which will culminate in their shows this weekend. Following the events at Sloppyworld, Transona will travel with Theater Fire down to Austin to play Saturday night at The Mohawk.

The Dust Congress will put on a show at The Cavern with Zanzibar Snails and Six Organs of Admittance on Wednesday Jan. 16.

J. Gray will hopefully come to Dallas more often.

2/8/08 Update: Rachel Smith and Mitch Greer have contacted WSJR concerning what they perceive as inaccuracies in the above interview. They requested that we post: Rachel Smith states that she quit this band permanently in 2000. She is not committed to an “open door” policy. Mitch Greer states that he was not a past or current member of this band." They did not wish to be further interviewed. WSJR doesn't really feel like talking about it either, and we do not endorse the accuracy nor imply the inaccuracy of anything claimed by either Chris, Rachel, or Mitch and contained in this post.