A three-piece band built around the four limbs of one person may be a spectacle, but to Steve Coombs, it's much more than a musical stunt. It's an experiment in sonic improvisation.
Coombs is Trin Tran, the Madison solo artist who plays keyboard, drums and guitar simultaneously, and sometimes blindfolded. Even when Trin Tran records, the layered instrumentation is entirely live. There are no overdubs.
"The whole thing about playing music all at once is that you can exploit the tempo," says Coombs. "You can make rhythmic changes quickly and make it interesting. It's a principled thing for me. I want the improvisation to keep people interested. If I get up on stage, I want to do something that entertains and not just be some guy huddled over a laptop."
The electronic pop-punk Trin Tran has been creating since 2001 has a personal quality that computer-generated mixes could never achieve. Especially live. Coombs' hand-over-foot improvisation feeds off real moods and real body motions that exist in real space and time. That's something no motherboard could ever simulate.
Trin Tran is one of the best-kept secrets of the Madison music scene, but last year's CD release and a recent spate of shows are changing that.
Coombs released Grows a Rose in 2007. That disc is a quirky and angular set of synth-pop with a Devo-style art-punk edge. Still, the best track on Grows a Rose is a down-tempo dreamscape called "Far Reaches."
This weekend's show at the Corral Room (Friday, Oct. 3, 10:30 p.m.) follows a September Trin Tran gig at the Project Lodge. With a few more dates, Trin Tran's underground status may give way to a wider local following.
Coombs has been playing shows in Madison since 1994. That year, he began drumming for Xerobot, a project that included Dave Broekema and Eric Landmark. If you spent time hanging out at O'Cayz Corral in the mid- to late '90s, you might remember the no-wave blast of creativity and showmanship that was Xerobot.
After five years in Madison, Xerobot relocated to San Francisco in 1999. The move proved to be an overwhelming logistical challenge for the band. They broke up a year after leaving town. Broekema and Landmark stayed in San Francisco and formed a new band, Numbers, with Indra Dunis. Numbers was eventually signed to the high-profile Olympia, Wash., indie label, Kill Rock Stars.
Coombs returned to Madison, got married, started a family and created Trin Tran in his basement.
An event triggered Trin Tran's existence. Numbers played a Madison show in 2001, and Broekema and Landmark asked Coombs to open for them. At the time, Coombs had no band and no music that would justify an opening slot.
"I knew I didn't have time to form a band," he says. "And even if I had found the right people, we wouldn't have had time to practice and learn songs together."
So Coombs wrote 10 songs in six weeks, all built around the idea of a live one-man multi-instrumentalist. "I had to figure out how I could actually play drums and piano and guitar all at once," he says. "I had to figure out how to do things like attach a drumstick to a kick pedal."
With time, Coombs emphasized the novelty element of the act he invented. He constructed a freaky-looking metal helmet he wore to cover his eyes during shows. The blindfold made the dexterity of his four-limbed band that much more inspiring.
Coombs says he plans to take Trin Tran in a new direction next year. He's writing songs that put more emphasis on melody, less on jackhammer rhythms. But the essential ingredient of Trin Tran will remain. He's a 100%-live, one-man electro-rock band who replaces dubs with a human touch.
Coombs sums it up best: "I want this music to sound like my mood at the time."