Peace Is Elusive in Trans FX’s LP and Film ‘The Clearing’
Chris McDonnell and Scott Young, co-founders of Olympia, Wash., outfit Trans FX, take a broad view of band practice. They once developed film in a darkroom until it spurred a musical idea. Another time, they skipped rehearsal to craft a wooden effigy and, at a gig that night, they dismembered it with a buzzsaw. But most often they settled at a piano, plotting melodies and scenes for what would become an absorbing new multimedia statement, the three-part film and album The Clearing.
“In the early days, we referred to the band as a ‘project,’ and spent most of our time talking about ‘documents’ and ‘plans’ and other vague forms of secrecy,” McDonnell says. “We talked about it in a way that was sort of like a smiley face that knows it’s bad.”
The Clearing, out this week on Sister Cylinder Records, is a 13-song full-length flush with chintzy keys and twinkly guitar, breathy vocals and at-first beguiling samples and interludes, such as a shouting cop or a barroom sing-along. The Clearing is also a movie (premiering in three installments below), approximately 20 minutes long, that chronicles a gig and a botched robbery, punctuated in part two by idyllic, evergreen scenery.
“There [in part two], they’re in ‘the clearing,’ or they’re dreaming about it,” McDonnell says. “It’s magical, a peaceful place, and it’s sort of within them already. They don’t necessarily get to it in the story, but there are glimpses of it.”
McDonnell, 29, grew up in College Station, Texas, and retains a drawl that inflects his singing voice with an affecting, salty swagger reminiscent of the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn. (He uses “brother” as a term of endearment.) He got to know Young, 28, a Pacific Northwest native, when their bands, the Family Stoned and Pitted Youth, toured together in the late 2000s. And Transfix, as Trans FX was originally known, formed in the fall of 2010 when they were next-door neighbors.
“We wanted the songs to be simple and concentrated on synth and vocal melodies,” McDonnell notes. In earlier interviews, he cited the influence of goth and death rock. A 2012 garage performance on public-access show Your Daily Hour With Me captures Transfix as a foursome fronted by McDonnell, who, shirtless and wearing leather gloves, burns an American flag. “It was about overly sad lyrics that were satirical in a sense," he recalls. "Maybe less goth, more film noir — sort of staged.”
The early era yielded an eponymous album, released on Dutch Tilt in 2014. When McDonnell temporarily moved to Portland, he and Young continued collaborating remotely, which brought their electronic predilections to the fore. And by the release of Into the Blu last year, they’d adopted the Trans FX moniker in order to the signal their interest in becoming a “video group,” as McDonnell puts it: “We did four videos for Into the Blu, and I’m proud of them, but I felt like we could push it forward.”
Last summer, as Trans FX finished recording The Clearing — which features a host of local players, including Dave Harvey of Sex/Vid and Alex Coxen of Milk Music — Young left the city to travel indefinitely, parting ways with both McDonnell and his bandmates in Gag, the winkingly scabrous hardcore group. (Young, a visual artist, painted the wonderful watercolor on the cover of Gag’s America’s Greatest Hits.) That left McDonnell to write and direct The Clearing, which was shot by Matt Shanafelt on a French 16mm camera imported from Japan. “We’re both on the album cover, but Scott is exiting the frame,” McDonnell says. “It’s a commemoration to him.”
The album’s narrative emerged from the songwriting process, McDonnell explains, and the screenplay was adapted from the lyrics with certain friends in mind. (“I’m surrounded by people who I think there should be movies about,” he adds.) So, while the album follows two characters, the film focuses on a few different duos: Blaise and Lars, who fall for one another in part two; Chris and Felisha, who represent the aforementioned couple’s less rosy, more fugitive future; plus Chris and Brinn, who drive the action.
“Highland Ave.,” the first part of the film, depicts Chris, tousled in a fur vest and a cowboy hat, driving his silver Dodge Charger to the weathered home of his younger, long-haired protégé, Brinn. In an overgrown lot, they buy something in a brown bag — later revealed to be a gun — from a dour fellow attractively but needlessly clad in sunglasses and played by Milk Music's Coxen. And then they cruise downtown to a club, where they’re greeted with fanfare at the backdoor.
“Channel One,” the third part of the film, finds Chris and Brinn idling in the Charger outside of a Rite Aid. The brown bag appears, dashing the earlier sense of revelry, and the elder character dispatches Brinn, pistol in hand, to hold up the drugstore. A lone gunshot rings out — not a part of the plan. And then it’s a blur of teary goodbyes as Chris frantically flees town with his partner, Felisha (whose dulcet backup vocals also enliven The Clearing).
The mood of druggy languor and apprehension, along with the centrality of a car, evokes films set in the Pacific Northwest such as Mala Noche or Drugstore Cowboy; crime and vice abound, but at a pace slower than the stereotypical metropolis, and in between every tense moment is a pleasant, if gray, drive along the interstate. (The plot and certain shots also reference Earth’s sleazy “Tallahassee” music video.) To McDonnell, it’s all a veiled tribute to Olympia.
Chris picks up Brinn from a so-called “black house,” one of about a dozen matte-black homes around town that are owned, as locals will casually explain, by a “satanic dentist.” And “Highland Ave.” is based on downtown artery Fourth Avenue. McDonnell works there at the club seen in the film, Obsidian, which is across the street from the Well — an artesian spring where Young heard a homeless man singing the song that inspired The Clearing’s “Have a Nice Day.” “We take no ownership of that one,” McDonnell says. “It’s credited as an ‘Olympia traditional.’”
McDonnell explains that, on the album, “Have a Nice Day” pivots the main characters into a darker period — though they don’t necessarily realize it. “They’re headed for a crash, but they’re still so up, since that’s the nature of the drug world, pretty much,” he says. Referencing another song, he continues, “And then they surrender to being ‘Flowers on the Wall,’ who are the people I see downtown where I work, the people who congregate around the Well. They’re the ones who make you wonder, where did they come from? Have they always been on the street?
“It’s kind of like a Lifetime piece,” McDonnell adds with a laugh. “If I adapted the rest of the story on the album for further film installments, I’d want to come back to the same characters 20 years later.”