Anyone who's seen Trin Tran will confirm that Steve Coombs' creation sits alone. Playing synths, guitar, and sparse percussion all by his lonesome, the Madison musician has to keep all four limbs and his voice lurching in unison through skeletal pop that's easy to classify as new wave, perhaps, but really exists off in its own fidget-riddled little universe. When he dons one of his weirdo-mechanic jumpsuits and plays live, Coombs has the obvious advantage of standing out, but it's hard to figure out which artists, if any, are logical choices for him to play shows with. Even the many musicians in town who match or surpass Trin Tran's weirdness don't sound much like him. Consequently, Coombs always finds himself incongrously paired with the other acts on a bill, and that'll likely continue as he plays the new songs he's written to follow up his 2007 release, Grows A Rose. Before perhaps his strangest show yet this Friday at The Frequency—where he joins Birds Of Avalon, Spires That In The Sunset Rise, Peaking Lights, and even a magician—The A.V. Club asked Coombs about the some of the odd juxtapositions of his gigs in recent years.
January 2007: Opening for San Francisco's spaz-pop wonders Deerhoof at the Metro in Chicago
Steve Coombs: Just a sort of confluence of events made [this show] a complete disaster, but it was really fun anyway. It's really ridiculous.... I never started out thinking, by the way, that I wanted to do this one-mand band, which is a term I kind of abhor anyway, but it was really just the fact that I moved back to town and didn't really know anybody, but wanted to play. This friend of mine and I were trying to outdo each other for a while in thinking of ways to rig up things so you could play it all at once. There's just a shitload of stuff to manage. I'm hauling the equipment for a full band. I've gotta have my mixer close by, and I have pretty much everything running through that so I can adjust the three keyboards and their volume levels, and guitar and drums. The biggest problem is that it takes a long time for me to set up my stuff. If I get everything set up perfectly but forget to tune the guitar to the keyboard and then I start, then it's a disaster. The biggest concern is that it takes me so long to set up—that's why I so often volunteer to play first at shows, because it's easier for me to tear everything down really quick. If there's five or six bands, I can't just be the third band and take an hour and a half to set up and then haul it off after 20 minutes.
June 2009: On a mixed bill at the Corral Room with the flamboyant glam-performance-art-pop of SSION and Shane Shane and warped local rap act HomeOwnered
SC: That was super-fun. Totally different crowd, the SSION crowd, and there was kind of also this hip-hop element to it. It seemed like Trin Tran went over kinda well, which was interesting. Somebody was just telling me they thought that I had some hip-hop elements in these new songs. I just wrote about a dozen new songs. SSION is awesome... Cody [Critchletoe, SSION frontman] is just a fuckin' genius, if you ask me. It's just their whole stage show and the video stuff that he does... But that just seemed really right that that whole group of bands played that night. It is weird, because sometimes I'd play with three or four noise- or drone-type bands, and it's like, what the hell am I doing here? Are people gonna like this at all? And sometimes they don't. Maybe there's a bunch of bands I've overlooked, which is entirely possible, that I should be playing with who'd be better suited to my stuff. I'm not very social, that's part of it. That's why I couldn't find anybody to play with in the first place. When you're putting a band together, it's always seemed to me that the most important thing is, do you get along with the people and can you hang out with them? Then, if that works, well, then OK, what sort of music are you into?
October 2007: Opening for L.A. noise-pop act Health (shortly before they broke to wider national attention) on a rainy Tuesday night at the since-closed King Club.
SC: Yeah, they're huge now. They did that split with Crystal Castles, and I was talking to the Health guys about that. I was like, "How'd that happen, are you old friends or something?" "Oh, no, they just saw us on the Internet and asked to do this." It was like a total happenstance thing on MySpace or whatever.
The A.V. Club: That was one show that actually benefitted from being at the King Club—the bad acoustics were good for their sound somehow.
SC: That thing where they start the set chanting around the drums, that was really awesome.
AVC: The drummer was incredible.
SC: Yeah, he was crazy. It seemed like a personality who seemed improbable with that particular band, just a very severe kind of guy. I started to talking to him and the other guys, I thought they were sort of moving protectively like he might lash out at me because I addressed him directly. It just seemed like this inner rage, which is probably why he's such a good drummer.