In search of the perfect melody
The five members of Transona Five sit comfortably in the living room of the Lower Greenville house that bass player Greg Morgan and drummer G.P. Cole share. Although still in their early 20s, the two have spent the last 10 years playing together in punk bands. They're quite a contrast to singer/guitarist Chris Anderson and guitar player Chris Foley, who are holding down the autumn end of their 20s and are bearded, and bookish with their glasses and careful, educated comments; this is Anderson and Foley's first band. In the corner, the diminutive, fresh-faced 17-year-old Rachel Smith--who also plays guitar and organ--is all quiet smiles.
"We're the Brady Bunch of bands," Anderson jokes about the age difference between the band members, who are all good friends: The air of congeniality is genuine and refreshing.
The room is cluttered with guitar cases and amps; one bears two stickers--the phrases "space rock" and "roots rock." Space is a buzz word that's been stuck in front of "rock" for longer than a year now, hoping to describe the effects-laden sound of certain bands; the word is something that the members of Transona Five discuss with equal amounts of giggles and skepticism.
"We consider ourselves roots rock instead of space rock," says lead singer/guitarist Chris Anderson, explaining that the band writes and plays songs acoustically, without studio manipulation and special effects.
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"We played this show at an art gallery in Denton and they had divided the place in two areas: one for roots-rock bands and one for space-rock bands. It was funny how people were separated," he recalls, adding that the organizers had meant it as a joke. Still, it caused quite a bit of chin-stroking among the crowd members.
"Wanz Dover from Mazinga Phaser (the well-meaning Svengali of Denton's burgeoning scene) came to me after a show last summer and said, 'You guys are not space rock but you know what space is,'" says Morgan, still perplexed by the comment.
The fact that space rock is a term that can be loosely applied to many forms of music including Esquivel's hi-fi meanderings, Hawkwind's intergalactic chemical trips, and the psychedelic rock of Mazinga Phaser means Transona Five has found itself lumped together with local bands like Bedhead and Comet.
Although they all sound different, these bands have a common desire to escape trivial rock and to do away with the staleness of grunge, the monomania of new punk and the miasma of corporate alternative pop.
Transona Five doesn't sound like anything on the radio, not because the band's songs aren't catchy enough or that they're dated, but because they refuse to fit any radio-friendly formula. Transona Five's languid guitars and summer-breeze vocals create intensely personal moments of fragile beauty and whimsy. It's the sound of indie record stores and obscure labels: melodic meditations on loss and longing played with fluid guitars, rare feedback outbursts, quietly primal rhythms, and Anderson's almost whispered vocals.
Part of the band's beauty is the sense of restraint the members exude; their songs win you over with their translucent quality and their quiet passages speak volumes, whether the mood is one of melancholy or euphoria. Rich in atmosphere and definitely heartfelt, tunes like "Scouting Album," "Starfucker," and "Mariposa" creep into the listener as subtly and sweetly as an anesthetic.
When Anderson and Chris Foley advertised that they were looking for musicians influenced by the Velvet Underground, Stereolab, Luna, and Pavement, they were looking for like-minded music lovers, the kind of enthusiasts who get excited when they discover a new CD by a band they haven't heard of before.
"Chris and I are long-time friends and we listen to the same music," Foley explains. "We used to watch 120 Minutes on MTV and go to shows and record stores like R.P.M. and VVV, checking out new music. Since we have the same ideas, we decided to put an ad in the Observer and look for other musicians."
"Greg, who took a creative-writing class with Chris, read the ad and recognized the band, so he came to the audition," Foley says. "It was funny because we were trying another bass player when he came in and I could see him already playing bass lines in his head while he was waiting."
As soon as he passed the audition, Greg told the rest of the band that he had a drummer for them "just around the corner." He ran home and brought Cole, an old pal who claims that the two of them have been the rhythm section of about 20 punk bands since their early teens.
"I can't believe how it all fell into place from the start and how easy it was," Foley enthuses about the band's inception in early '94. "I almost cried when I listened to the tape we recorded after the first time we played together."
The four bands that Anderson and Foley mentioned in their recruiting ad are present in Transona Five's songs; not so much as copies, but as points of departure. From the Velvet Underground, Transona Five inherited repetitive guitar grooves; from Luna, the pursuit of melody; from Pavement came the disregard for perfect structure; and from Stereolab, the metronomic sense of rhythm--and the name: "Transona Five" is a song off Mars Audiac Quintet. From there all the band had to do was throw its own passions and sensibilities into the mixer.
"Stereolab got their name from a '50s record label that was making high-quality recordings, [and] the band gave the name their own spin. Our name comes from a Stereolab song, but we decided we could give it our own spin," Foley says almost apologetically. "Bedhead is a movie title, for example."
Then again, finding an original name for a band is hardly necessary. "Western thinking tells you that everything has to be original, but Eastern philosophy tells you that universal truths are timeless," Anderson says.
Appropriately enough, Anderson and Foley are pop purists, searching for the eternal melody that will carry that timeless song. "We've always loved melody. Even the best punk songs had good melodies. Look at the Sex Pistols," Anderson says.
"When your song is good, you can play it with all kinds of effects," Foley adds, "or all kinds of noise; the song will show. The Jesus and Mary Chain can write a great song and bury it in noise, but the song is still there. If you have soul and passion, it will show."
For Cole, joining Transona Five was a departure from his punk style; it was also a reaction against the creative limitations of such bands. "Now I have to play quietly and it's very difficult," he says.
"To me it was a natural progression," adds Morgan. I've always loved melody, then I started getting into more pretty things."
Smith, who joined three months ago, quit her band after she saw Transona Five and wanted to be a part: "I just got out of a space-rock band called Stereo 51. It got kinda boring stepping on pedals all the time; and I always hated guitar solos," she says after being quiet for most of the interview.
"She's our estrogen," says Anderson tenderly. "She became part of our songwriting--all the songs we do, we write together as they happen." As if to prove a point, three days later he handed me a tape that includes two new songs the band wrote, impromptu, after the interview.
"Collectively we're so much better than we are as individual musicians," Foley says. "My personal goal is, when I'm done with music, I want to look back and say that I have expressed the full range of human emotion," he adds passionately.
"The universal truths are not gonna change," says Morgan. "Watch Amadeus! It's timeless. My personal interest in creating music is having some sort of philosophical or artistic nourishment for the soul.
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