Interview: Publicist, synthesis of man and machine

We’ve managed to catch up with Trans Am’s drummer extraordinaire, ahead of his first solo gig in Belgrade, Serbia

Trained in drums, bass, guitar and keyboard, Sebastian Thomson is one of the founding members of the legendary post rock outfit Trans Am and an acclaimed producer/performer in his own right, especially with his latest solo project – Publicist, taking cues from rock, acid house, electro and Detroit techno. When performing live, unlike most electronic producers on stage, he sequences the synths but not the drums, preferring to play an electronically treated drumkit in the middle of the dance floor, adding an element of muscle and sweat to his performance.

His personal manifesto is based on the ancient Greek notion of “shared experience of dance and song, with no distinction between performer and spectator”, aiming to challenge the postulates of contemporary music industry and the “passive” role of the audience.

The manifesto concludes in two simple points:

“1. There must be a synthesis of man and machine to have a truly contemporary musical experience. There must be muscles and sinews and sweat, not just fingers pressing “play”, and also true music machines, not the laptops of the office, repeating in perfect rhythm the efficient and beautiful sounds. The instrument that cannot exist without muscles and sweat is the drum. We must turn to the drum and to the sequenced music machine.

2. There must be no artificial barrier between performer and spectator. There must be no more stages.”

With this in mind, we caught the man himself for a quick chat before his first solo gig in Serbia last weekend, powered by Belgrade’s Dis-patch collective.

How is your current tour coming along? Do you like traveling alone, as opposed to being on the road with your band Trans Am?

The tour will be three weeks long. I am currently in Berlin, where I have two days off, while so far I played in Paris, Golmare, Bordeaux, Berlin, Moscow and Lausanne in Switzerland. The experience is entirely different. When I am on the road with Publicist, I mostly ride the train or fly. With the band you are always in the van and mostly spend time with your bandmates. When I am alone I tend to meet more of the local scene. But still, getting up early after a long night of playing and drinking is still the hardest thing.

Publicist has been gaining more and more attention in the last years. Do you have that impression?

I released a bunch of EPs, but the irony of it is that I am regularly returning to Europe because the live show has a good reputation there. Each time I come back it gets better, I am playing better venues, more clubs than rock shows. Now I am thinking about where to go next in terms of labels, I have some new material, not entirely finished but I am already playing live a good portion of it.

On your website there is an interesting manifesto, saying that stages should be abandoned and there should be no division between the performer and audience. How seriously do you take this?

I actually take it very seriously. Although I am aware that the fact that I have a manifesto is pretty much outrageous. If people find some humour in it, that is fine too. I am inspired by many of the electronic musicians, but when I see them play live it is mostly not that good. That is why I wrote that. I play the drums in sync with my electronics, I think that is way more interesting format for the show than for me to look at a computer screen. Many musicians who do that still make amazing sounds, but the live shows tend to be boring.

You usually play in the middle of the room. Similarly to Dan Deacon or Lightning Bolt. Did you ever have any problems because of that proximity?

I had this image of the “drum clinic”, when a drummer goes to a conference and showcases gear alone on stage, like a public lesson. That is exactly what I want to avoid, I just feel lonely on stage. I know other act who do the same, and I think it is great, but I am not so much inspired by them. It is just the fact that I don’t want to be alone up there. The first couple of venues I played in did not even have a stage. I also try to evoke the warehouse party vibe, and no those sorts of parties there is just no stage.

Sometimes I was wondering if anybody would come up to me and make a scene, if they didn’t like the music or something. But it actually never ever happened. Not once. But other interesting things may happen. For example, I had women lick my back and my arms while I play. That is a pretty amazing reaction for a show.

What is currently happening with Trans Am?

We are still playing, the band is there and we’re preparing a new album. But it is a bit different now, the two other guys from the band got kids and are working, so things are really slow. I suppose we will need two years to finish the next record.

Do you have any memories of your Belgrade show with Trans Am in 2004? What can the audience expect this time, you will play in a party context?

Yes, I do remember. It was very exciting, everyone was glad we were there. Energy was excellent, and afterwards everything went on to be a crazy drunken night. For Publicist it is actually better to play parties, when there are other DJs too. Sometimes I am the “DJ”, if I play after another band, that can also work. But the best is if DJs do a nice intro and outro, which will be the case in Belgrade.

Do you feel close to the DIY scene in music, in terms of alternative performance spaces and such?

In America there are generally not so many DIY spaces. The law on property are so strict, property is almost like a holy thing. If you try to take over a space, police will be there in five minutes. Most of the early DIY shows in DC took place in church basements, that is where most of the HC shows in DC took place. Either way, this might be the best context for Publicist in terms of space, but any kind of room which has nice subs makes me happy.