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Interview with Phil Manley / Trans Am

img  Tobias Fischer

When did your interest in the work of Conny Plank start manifesting itself?
I discovered Conny Plank through the album Zero Set by Moebius, Plank, Neumeier. A friend of mine gave it to me and told me Trans Am sounded like that album. This was in the mid-90's. I began to see his name around on other records I liked. He recorded the early Kraftwerk records, I believe. I think his work stands out in a couple ways. One way it stands out is because he recorded so many great bands. The list is long and varied. Of the bands considered "Krautrock", this includes Cluster, Neu!, Michael Rother, Can, Harmonia, Kraftwerk, Guru Guru, La Düsseldorf, Ash Ra Temple, and A.R. Machines. Other bands and artists he recorded include the Scorpions, Flock of Seagulls, Devo, Eurythmics, Brian Eno, Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft and Ultravox. It seems like Conny Plank was in the right place at the right time. He had a great ear and and a great sounding studio and great bands wanted to record their records with him. The result is a lot of great records.

Which of his recordings in particular were an influence on you?

My favorites would be Neu! (s/t) and Harmonia Deluxe. I feel like I'm floating when I listen to those records. I find myself listening to them when I'm traveling. I guess it has something to do with the "motorik" pulse? To be honest, I'm not sure what Conny's ideas or techniques were, having never worked with him myself. I only know the end results. I am a fan of the recording technology of that time and place. I use a lot of 70's vintage German microphones when I can. They sound great. Also, I work in a studio that has an old German radio broadcast mixing board. To an extent, I can hear hints of the sounds achieved on the records Plank recorded. With that said, any engineer knows that the sound isn't in the equipment. It's in the heart and in the hands.

What, to you, is the ongoing relevance of bands like Harmonia, Can and Neu?

Their music is dynamic. It can be pastoral and beautiful at times, and at other times jarring and ugly. It can be propulsive and driving at times, and at other times like a lullaby. It was punk before punk existed. German hippies making cool music. Those bands were way ahead of their time. The cultural relevance of those bands is still soaking in. I lived in Germany for a while and I would ask people if they'd ever heard of Harmonia or other lesser know Krautrock bands and so few people knew what I was talking about. I would mention Kraftwerk and people would laugh and say: "Oh, you mean 'We Are the Robots'!" I guess most of those bands are still very underground. Most Krautrock isn't really pop music. It's highly experimental and spacey - druggy even.

Was your friend right about there being a connection between Trans Am and Krautrock?
I think Trans Am is more influenced by Kraftwerk and early electronica like Aphex Twin and Autechre than Krautrock. When Trans Am started, we were all really into the idea of melding rock music with electronic music. I was more interested in exploring the sonic possibilities of the guitar on this record. Guitar is my main instrument and I feel more comfortable behind the guitar than behind a synthesizer or keyboard. Electronica is more of a no-guitar-zone.

On Life Coach, there is an interesting moment, when Night Visions starts off sounding deceptively like Manuel Göttsching's solo-guitar-experiment “Echo Waves", but then takes on a meaning of its own through your personal way of working with the material. So it's not really an hommage, but it does stand by its inspirations.
Yes, I'm not interested in making an homage. But, I would be lying if I denied that "Night Visions" wasn't a direct rip off of Manuel Göttsching's Inventions for Electric Guitar album. I couldn't help myself. Generally, I just like this style of music and use it as a touchstone from which to make my own. Hopefully it inspires me to make something new sounding. In this instance you mentioned, the influence is pretty obvious.

When you set out to work on Life Coach, was it always clear there were going to be the Plank-references?
It is not a concept album and I did not know I was making Plank references going into it. I started recording the record in 2003. Most of the songs are excerpts from soundtracks I did for friends' movies. People would ask me: "make this part sound like Popul Vuh" or "make this piece like John Fahey". I was given direction and some of these songs are the direct result of that. If there is a concept, this would be it. Otherwise, I would say this is a collection of songs that I recorded on my own that I thought stood the test of repeated scrutiny over time.

In which does Life-Coach really allow you to express parts of your personality you couldn't with Trans Am?
Life Coach is definitely more personal for me than with the Trans Am records. There are some pretty heavy songs on Life Coach. "Work it Out" and "Make Good Choices" were both recorded during a dark period of my life. You might be able to hear some sort of catharsis on those tracks. I was actually "working it out" during the performance of that song. Working alone allowed me the freedom to address singular ideas without being filtered through other bandmates.

And yet, despite your activities as a producer, Life-Coach never indulges in pure sound effects. Why do you think this is?
As a producer/ engineer I like to keep it simple. I'm not interested in over production. It clouds the essence of the music. I go even further still - I don't even like to use equalizers and compressors if I can help it. These are more subtle processors than sound effects, but processors none-the-less. I'm trying to put the listener as close to the source as possible. I find that the music has greater impact with this approach.

When working with Trans Am, you mentioned you were into live composition. How does the process differ with regards to your solo material?

The approach is roughly the same. I set up and jam and record the jam and listen back and see what's good and what's crap. Usually there's about a minute of good material and you build on that. The approach is very similar with Trans Am. I did find it difficult to work alone, though. It requires serious self-discipline. With a band you have multiple people pushing toward the end goal of writing/ recording/ performing music. As a solo artist, all the responsibilities lie on your shoulders alone. I would say that it's hard to edit your own work. I took a really long time to make this record, so I had the luxury to be able to step back from songs for months or years even. I would revisit the material periodically and see if it still held up.


What did it feel like, working without the input of the other guys?
I missed the input sometimes, but it was refreshing at other times. For instance, it took me no time to do the artwork, for better of for worse, but with Trans Am, we often butt heads over the artwork. I was happy to have this part of the process streamlined. It's nice when things can be approved quickly without a fuss. Closer to the source instead of art by committee.


Were you, in a way, compensating for their absence by trying to create the feeling of a physical band?
I wasn't purposefully trying to create something that could be played by a band. This probably happened because I'm so used to working with this palette – bass/ drums/ guitar/ synth. It's a known quantity for me and I'm comfortable with this palette. I would have no idea what to do with a full orchestra. It seems daunting to me. I come from a set-up-a-few-things-and-jam modus operandi.  The equipment is definitely guiding the composition.  The 606 electronically triggers the Roland Juno 60 in a sequence, which will, in turn, trigger a response in me as the live musician in the system.


How difficult was it to recreate the “motorik" groove, very much the result of the combination between superhuman precision and tiny imprecisions, through a drum machine?
The "motorik" groove is harder than you'd think to achieve, and your right in saying that it relies on "superhuman precision and tiny imprecisions". I used an old Roland 606 drum machine which you'd think was very rigid, but it's not. If you look at the waveform of the recorded 606, the drum machine is slightly imprecise. It drifts ever so slightly. I like it for this reason. It has a slightly more human feel than a more modern perfectly rigid drum machine. What's even better is playing with a good drummer, like Seb in Trans Am. He's got the "motorik" groove pretty well nailed.

Some of the track titles may be tongue-in-cheek, but the music quite often conveys a feeling of great depth and profundity. In which way does spirituality inform your work?
Like I said earlier, some of these tracks are pretty emotionally driven. This is a spiritual element to the music - the expression of pure emotion through music is a spiritual expression. Another spiritual expression is the idea of believing in one's self. This is the main idea behind Life Coach. You can do it if you believe in yourself.

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Liz Caruana

Phil Manley Discography:
Life Coach (Thrill Jockey) 2011

With Trans Am:
Trans Am (Thrill Jockey) 1995    
Surrender To The Night (Thrill Jockey) 1997    
The Surveillance (City Slang/ Thrill Jockey) 1997    
Futureworld (Thrill Jockey) 1999    
Red Line (Thrill Jockey) 2000    
TA (Thrill Jockey) 2002    
Liberation (Thrill Jockey) 2004    
Sex Change (Thrill Jockey) 2007    
What Day Is It Tonight? (Thrill Jockey) 2009    
Thing (Thrill Jockey) 2010


Trans Am

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