Trans Am is a three-piece band that performs a mix of synth pop and rock music. Their work treads a fine line between spoof and homage, mainly centering on a cerebrally robotic, semi-danceable, minimalistic format, reminiscent of 1980s video game soundtrack music. They are known for constant touring (with bands such as Tortoise, Pan Sonic, The Fucking Champs, The Bronx, Tool, etc.), cryptic album artwork, and continual thematic re-invention. All of their albums have been released on the Chicago-based independent record label, Thrill Jockey.
Their self-titled debut was recorded after just a few rehearsals back together, and contained instrumental, largely improvised versions of simple rock-oriented motifs based loosely on '70s and '80s bands like Boston, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Yes. The album was produced by John McEntire of labelmates Tortoise at Chicago's Idful Studios, and was followed by a short tour as Tortoise's opening act. The group released a self-titled EP in fall of 1996 which showed a greater reliance upon electronics. With early 1997's Surrender to the Night, Trans Am expanded that approach to album length, with nods to Kraftwerk, Can and New Order dominating, and only a few recognizable "rock" songs. Electronics also began to play a leading role in their live performances. Paranoid third album Surrender To The Night's more electronics-heavy material was performed live with trigger devices and MIDI-wired beatboxes.
Trans Am were included on the highbrow electronica label Mille Plateaux's double-CD compilation In Memoriam Gilles Deleuze. A fourth album, Futureworld, followed in 1999, for which a music video for the title song was filmed. The first side of this album featured songs with vocals for the first time in the band's career; the second side was all instrumentals, including the sprightly "Cocaine Computer," possibly a nod to the cocaine obsession of synth-rock contemporaries Six Finger Satellite. A year later, the group returned with its longest release yet, the double album Red Line, recorded in the band's own National Recording Studio. In 2002, Trans Am released T.A., complete with tongue-in-cheek promo photos featuring the band in boy band-esque matching white outfits and a metrosexual overall look. Though essentially a spoof of the electroclash genre, the album was almost universally panned by music critics. They released the politically-charged Liberation during the U.S. election year of 2004. Liberation is a rare example of an overtly (and cohesively) political instrumental album, a distinction in keeping with Trans Am's fixation on less than diplomatic subversion.
The album "Sex Change" was released in February 2007. It is regarded by many as a return to form after the previous two albums, though it includes some new aspects, especially the inclusion of prominent, "straight" vocals. Following the release, Trans Am did a tour of the United States with Zombi and The Psychic Paramount, and played the Thrill Jockey 15th anniversary show in Chicago, Illinois.