The Madison post-punk institution talks with us about his upcoming Castle Face release.
Trin Tran's new EP, Far Reaches, is less than 15 minutes long, but represents several years of songwriting and gradual change for the project's founder, Madison resident Steve Coombs. Since releasing his last album of new material, Grows A Rose, in 2007, Coombs has been breaking out of Trin Tran's long-running one-man-band format, fleshing out Trin Tran's balance of tweaky post-punk rhythm, playful Kraftwerk-evoking synth hooks, and garage-rock aggression. (And, sometimes, sparing himself the difficulty and peril of handling guitar, drums, keys, and vocals all at once. The usual full disclosure: Tone Madison contributor Joel Shanahan has played a bit in the recent full-band incarnation.) On a trip to the Bay Area a few years back, he discovered that the prolific, golden-haired Ty Segall was a fan, and in 2012, Segall's GOD? label put out Dark Radar, a compilation of songs Coombs released on CD-Rs in the early 2000s. Another Bay Area connection, John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees, runs Castle Face Records, which is putting out Far Reaches this month.
Far Reaches manages to explore many facets of Trin Tran's personality over the course of six tracks. "Fashion Has Happened To Fashion" and "Eyes The Size" build on Coombs' knack for writing songs around just a few fragmentary lyrics—indeed, they might sound like maniacal jabbering if they weren't grounded in such pleasant, direct hooks. "Round Right" takes the marriage of pop and noisy needling one further, wringing lots of catchy phrases out of an especially wiggy, nasal vocal performance. "Your World" slows down to close the EP on a solemn note, giving Coombs' synth hooks a little extra time and space to ring out. As discussed in the interview below, Coombs has a bunch more Trin Tran stuff in the can, but this EP offers a surprisingly varied and current introduction to his music.
The EP is available through the Castle Face website, and for now you can stream it here. [Editor's note: The stream has since been taken down.] Trin Tran will celebrate the EP's release with a March 29 show at Good Style Shop with Mary Ocher and Spires That In The Sunset Rise. Below, Coombs answers a few questions about the new EP and Trin Tran's evolution over time.
Tone Madison: You've been recording and playing a lot of new songs over the past few years. How did you end up with this specific set of songs for the EP?
Steve Coombs: The songs on the Far Reaches EP were recorded on the most part live as a one-man band, but the difference between this record and the Dark Radar record was that for four of the six songs I recorded a few more parts afterwards. Some of these songs just didn't sound right to me, so I added vocals, or a second guitar part, and so on. So that broke with the tradition of always playing/recording stuff live. In addition John Dieterich (of Deerhoof) added a few noises and percussive things to some of the songs during mixing. John Dwyer and I picked out the songs that we liked best from the sessions that I did with Eric Landmark and Ricky Riemer and this is what we ended up with.
Tone Madison: What were some of the things you wanted to accomplish in terms of songwriting or arrangements/production on the EP?
Steve Coombs: I'm moving away from the more noisy, spazzy stuff that I did earlier but still trying to keeping it weird and interesting. Basically I want to record songs that I would like to listen to when I'm driving, and the stuff I recorded before was more what I would have liked to hear when I wanted to drunkenly convulse with some weirdos in some dude's basement, I guess.
Tone Madison: You've played shows with Coachwhips and Deerhoof and other Bay Area bands over time, but then over the past couple of years it seems that you have kind of a whole support base in that scene pulling for you and putting out your music and helping you make records. How did that come about?
Steve Coombs: Pretty much it has just been Ty and Dwyer over the past couple of years that have showed interest. Of course, those dudes are doing really well and have magic powers that allow them to put out records. I lived out in San Francisco with my band Xerobot for a little while, but when I moved back here in the early 2000's I started putting on shows pretty regularly at the Corral Room. I brought Wolf Eyes, Sightings, and Neon Hunk especially (Andy Puls of Neon Hunk now lives in Oakland and plays in the incredible A Magic Whistle), but also Sic Alps, Tres Ferocious, Le Flange Du Mal, and others from the Bay Area.
Tone Madison: Speaking of that connection, at recent shows I've sensed a bit of a garage-punk influence in the performance. Would you say that's people like Ty and Thee Oh Sees rubbing off on you, or is that something that you've always wanted to incorporate?
Steve Coombs: I would say that some of my earliest Trin Tran songs had that vibe but I think that it vacillates from synth punk to more garage-y stuff. I can't make up my mind, I guess. Lately the full band I'm playing with seems to be sounding more like a garage band, but that is probably an artifact of having a bass and guitar that can be properly played simultaneously instead of me acting like a spazz and going back and forth between instruments.
Tone Madison: I remember you telling me that Ty Segall discovered the Dark Radar songs from some obscure CD-Rs of yours. How has your relationship with him developed since then?
Steve Coombs: Ty's a solid dude. He's an incredibly nice guy and I'm headed out west in May and hope to get to hang with him, but we don't FaceTime every day or anything.
Tone Madison: The other thing about Dark Radar coming out was that some of the coverage, like the Pitchfork track review, didn't even mention the fact that these were mostly older songs, so I bet 'Far Reaches' will surprise some of the listeners who came to you through 'Dark Radar.' What do you think will surprise people the most about what you do next?
Steve Coombs: I don't think the Pitchfork review said anything at all, which therefore doesn't really qualify it as a review, so that was kind of funny. I think the songs I am planning on recording next are more in the vein of the Far Reaches EP—more fleshed out, fuller, less frenetic, but hopefully still interesting to people. I think BBlack DDiamonds said it best when qualifying what makes a good song—it has to be exciting. So hopefully it will be a record of exciting songs.
Tone Madison: A couple years ago you sent me an album's worth of songs, including "Itchy Gowns" and "Ko Ko De." A couple of them are on here but obviously not all. Are you planning on ever releasing the rest of them?
Steve Coombs: I'm not sure. If someone wanted to put out the material I'd be interested I'm sure. I do have a love/hate relationship with my recorded material after it's done, and if not for Ty and John this stuff probably would never have seen the light of day. I do think that the stuff on the EP is the best of those tracks.
Tone Madison: When you played with a full band at the High Noon in December, you were playing bass and you seemed to enjoy being a little more free onstage. It seemed to bring out a more aggressive side of Trin Tran. How is the band format changing your approach to your sound and your songwriting?
Steve Coombs: Somebody came to me after that show and said they liked it because they felt like "anything could happen," which I was surprised at, since I have played in punk bands where shit went awry and people got hurt and we were always a hair away from exploding in people's faces. I didn't think it came off as that aggressive, but it is fun not being chained to the TT machine, which is like some kind of medieval torture device.
Tone Madison: In the band your son plays guitar now. What has it been like getting to play music with him?
Steve Coombs: Fucking awesome. I tell people he's playing with me, and that he's 15, and they are like "oh, that's nice", and then they see him play and they are like "HOLY SHIT DUDE YOUR SON'S A FUCKING SHREDDER." They're right.
Tone Madison: I noticed you haven't bothered much with the hat/jumpsuit/whatever in recent years (not that I miss it or anything, just an observation). Do you think that you've outgrown the need to have the getup and even the whole "one man band" conceit?
Steve Coombs: I haven't worn the metal helmet for eight years. I wrote a song about the helmet that was like an elegy of that period of Trin Tran called "Hot Helmet" that was basically about the tyranny of a thing that was designed to not let you see anything when you are trying to play 6 instruments and sing simultaneously. I did it to try to create a spectacle, make something worth watching, but after a while I got pissed about not having the music sound the way I wanted, and chipping my teeth on the mic because I couldn't see a goddamn thing. I realized having the music sound better was more important, so I ditched it.