I discovered Trans Am in 2006 when I was living with one too many people in a shitty Brooklyn apartment. Since all six of us considered ourselves to have stellar musical preferences we would each rise in the a.m. and proceed to try and out blast each other with our respective stereos.
For the record, I didn’t have a stereo. So you can imagine my annoyance when my roommate awoke with the need to play Trans Am’s Liberation at ungodly decibels at 6:30 a.m. I’d never heard of them before, and wasn’t too happy to be hearing them at that hour, but after some fierce scowling and a cup of coffee I found myself enjoying the album, so much so I stole it from her. Don’t feel sorry for her. She was kind of a bitch.
Five years later Liberation is, along with Sex Change, Red Line, Thing and pretty much all of the Golden records, one of my favorite albums, and Phil Manley, one of my favorite musicians. He’s been a member of three great bands with wildly disparate yet creative sounds. And he seems like a pretty cool dude. So I was happy to hear he recently released a solo effort, Life Coach, on Thrill Jockey records -Trans Am’s long-time record label.
Life Coach is a collection of instrumental songs composed and recorded entirely by Phil and loosely inspired by Jazz drummer, Tony Willams’ Life Time, project. Unlike Williams, Phil collaborated with no one. I had the opportunity to speak with him about the new project, his history with Trans Am, The Fucking Champs and Golden, a band that has not seen its due but probably will, sooner rather than later. At least I hope so.
FLABmag: Why a solo effort now?
Phil Manley: I just felt like I had the time to myself and I was making music. Though it took about ten years. The creative experience got cluttered so I had to purge to move on.
FLABmag: Tell us about the first single…why is it called Life Coach and are you a Life Coach?
Phil: Yes. The motivational awesome kind.
FLABmag: Does the record speak to that claim?
Phil: I do feel like there is an inspirational component to the album and people have responded that it has been inspirational for them.
FLABmag: Is the collection of songs thematic under the “Life Coach” umbrella?
Phil: No, there was no real theme. It was just out of all of the music that had accumulated over the last ten years, those were the songs that held up. You know I have been reading reviews of the record and people say it’s disjointed.
FLABmag: How do you feel about that?
Phil: Umm some times I…you know it’s weird. I stopped reading reviews of Trans Am because it just got tiresome, but this is my first solo release and I was curious, so I started reading them again, and then I was like, “Oh right, That’s why I don’t read reviews!”
It started making me mad and I was like, “Why am I getting mad? Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
FLABmag: So the album’s title is inspired by the Jazz drummer, Tony Williams? Is that correct?
Phil: Yes, definitely. I had it on my iPod, Tony Williams Lifetime, and started listening to it incessantly and it’s really crazy. I don’t think my album is as crazy but some how it is loosely inspired by Tony. Sometimes I play with Jon (Theodore), the drummer from Golden. Tony Williams is a huge influence on him.
FLABmag: So his album inspired you to release your album or it’s just homage?
Phil: It’s more of an homage to the title of his album, “Tony Williams Lifetime.”
“Phil Manley Life Coach” That was sort of the parallel.
FLABmag: So let’s talk about what has got to be my favorite track, Gay Bathers. Though a short number it is uplifting, yet oddly poignant. I think I hear echoes of Kansas’ Dust In the Wind in the acoustic guitar. Were they an influence?
Phil: Kansas is not an influence. I did grow up listening to a lot of bluegrass and folk music. I think that’s where I picked up the fingerpicking style.
FLABmag: Where did you come up with the title?
Phil: That was from a film I worked on, I did the soundtrack for my friend’s film. It was called Forest. It was a scene where six men were frolicking naked in a stream in the woods. And it was a really positive delightful scene.
FLABmag: Was that the whole film: six dudes frolicking naked in a stream?
Phil: No, it was a short scene in the film. About as long as the song is on the album.
FLABmag: Oh I see. Well, this is probably a redundant question, but since I have never found the answer online I’d like to know: How did the gentleman of Trans Am meet?
Phil: I met Nathan at Boy Scout camp in the mid-80′s. We went to junior high school together and have always played in bands together. Nathan played cello in the school orchestra with Sebastian who played the violin. I met Seb through a friend. We went to see Labyrinth together. We all started playing music together in 1989.
FLABmag: Obviously you have been prolific in that band with many years together incessantly touring the world. What are some highlights from your time in TA?
Phil: Touring with Tool. Touring in South America. Playing in Mexico City. Playing in Poland and Serbia. Playing in Japan. Playing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then going to see Slayer right afterwards.
FLABmag: Twenty years is a really long time together, almost like being in a three-way marriage. Were there times when you loved Sebastian more than Nathan or vice versa?
Phil: Not really. We’re brothers. There have been times when one of them has driven the other two of us crazy, but it works in all directions. You learn to accept people for who they are and take the good with the bad. I don’t know. It’s a heavy question. It’s life and relationships. It can be hard at times, but we all love each other and that’s why we’re still a band. There is a lot of love in Trans Am – maybe even more now than ever.
FLABmag: I read Pitchfork’s review of Thing…
Phil: Didn’t they give us a 2?
FLABmag: I think it was a 6.7 due to fans voting it up but that’s not the point. I was offended to read that the reviewer labeled the mid 2000 albums as “sub par” this would include my favorite, which is Liberation. I was upset by this…
Phil: Well everyone has an opinion. You have to take it or leave. I like reviews that aren’t so much opinionated as they are descriptive.
FLABmag: Speaking of descriptors, Trans Am has been described variously as post-rock and/or spoof rock. Assuming both of these designations are correct, by what percentage can they be divided to equal, say, Sex Change? To be more precise, how much of each, or none, make up a Trans Am recording?
Phil: I can assure you that there is no “spoof rock” on any Trans Am albums. The tongue-in-cheek, piss take sense of humor comes out in our song titles only. We are not taking the piss musically. Listen to Phish or Frank Zappa – both bands with funny lyrics. Trans Am does not share this aesthetic. Our music is pretty straightforward by comparison.
However, we did invent post-rock.
FLABmag: Well speaking of assuming things, there is a common complaint amongst music writers that Trans Am is a band that employs production tricks and insider homage, even a few joking nods to various sub-genres of music, that once figured out, there is nothing more to get from the band. How accurate is that assumption?
Phil: I think there’s more to our music than referencing other musical genres and inside jokes. Trans Am isn’t for everyone. Opinions are like assholes. Everyone’s got one.
FLABmag: But is there something to get, some hidden agenda or message that you want your audience to figure out in order that they might better understand whatever it is Trans Am is supposed to be about?
Phil: No. You can look for a deeper meaning or appreciate it on the surface. It is three dudes in a band. This is not James Joyce or a secret society. It’s a rock band.
FLABmag: So is Trans Am on a hiatus?
Phil: No. We’re in the early stages of production for a new album – probably will come out in 2012.
FLABmag: Regarding The Fucking Champs: How did you come to be a member of that band?
Phil: Tim Green asked me if I would join the Fucking Champs. Josh Smith, the original guitarist, had quit about a year earlier and I had been playing with Tim Green and Tim Soete on the Fucking Am Gold recordings, so it was a logical progression. It took a year of rehearsing/reprogramming before we could play our first show.
FLABmag: Last year Fang Island, a young band from New York City, made a semi-splash on the scene. They were consistently compared to The Fucking Champs. In fact, Jason Bartell (the founding member/Lead guitarist) said he was a huge fan. Have you ever heard of them and if so do you agree they’ve taken a page from The Champs’ playbook? (if not you should check them out. One of their singles was titled “Life Coach”)
Phil: Never heard of them. I’ll check them out.
FLABmag: Are there any plans to tour with The Champs in the future?
Phil: The Champs have broken up. Tim Soete has moved to San Diego and Tim Green lives in Grass Valley, California. I have been playing a bit with Josh Smith, but not as the Champs.
FLABmag: Moving on to Golden…that was also a fairly prolific band that traversed many styles but did so very well. How did you guys meet and why did you disband?
Phil: We met at Oberlin College. Alex and Ian were freshmen year roommates. Jon lived down the hall from me. I met Jon when he asked to borrow my bong. He invited me and my roommate to come get stoned in his room and listen to Phish. My roommate and I suggested that he bring his weed to our room where we introduced him to the Melvins. I think Jon and I met Ian and Alex at a dorm room talent show.
We didn’t actually ever break up. Jon moved to LA to play with the Mars Volta. I was always busy with Trans Am and eventually moved to SF to play with the Champs. Alex and Ian carried on playing together as Extra Golden. Jon and I have been working on and off as Golden State. I expect that Golden will reform and play sometime this year, I hope.
FLABmag: Am I correct that you also played bass and/or you and Ian Eagleson took turns playing bass?
Phil: We did switch back and forth on the bass. We also had three guitars at some points.
FLABmag: Did Trans Am and Golden ever play together and if so, did you play in both groups on the same night? Was it tiring?
Phil: We did a few tours together. I was younger then and I don’t remember being too tired. It was a lot of fun. We’re all old friends and shared a lot of early touring experiences together. I miss those days a little.
FLABmag: What was your favorite album from that time?
Phil: Don Caballero II
FLABmag: Any notable highlights from that time – which I assume was an exploratory period considering how young you were.
Phil: I remember touring Europe in the winter with both Trans Am and Golden. A bunch of dudes crammed in a van driving through the snow in Slovenia drinking local schnapps having a total blast. Good times.
FLABmag: Any plans to continue making solo work? If so will you tour? Are you going to tour to promote Life Coach?
Phil: I just finished playing a couple shows as Life Coach. They went really well and were met with a very positive response. I’m thinking of trying to arrange some shows for the summer. Hopefully, I’ll have Jon Theodore playing with me. We’ll see.
I just finished a record with Isaiah Mitchell, the guitarist from Earthless. We collaborated for an LP due out on record store day this April. It’s very meditative and peaceful. New New Age music.
And I’ll make more solo recordings, but I’m not in a hurry to put out another solo record. Life Coach was made over nearly 10 years. Maybe in 2021 you’ll see another Life Coach LP.
FLABmag: Hey any chance of a Fucking Champs reunion?
Phil: Doubtful. I did pull a major coup, though, and convinced them to play “Air in a G-String” at my wedding. It was AWESOME!!!
FLABmag: Any closing remarks?
Sorry about the aborted phone interview. Wooden Shjips was just arriving in the studio. Been busy in the studio. Just busy being rad.
FLABmag: No worries.
Need some uplifting counsel? Let Manley be your Life Coach
To purchase: Thrill Jockey Records
Note: FLABmag would like to thank Phil Manley for making the effort to complete this interview, which began as a phone conversation that was to be streamed here, but Phil had to jump off due to scheduling conflicts. And though he is a busy man, he did take time to answer the remaining questions via email.0