Quasi are indie rock survivors. Cutting their early records on Seattleâ€™s legendary Up Records, first home to other soon-to-be legends like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, Quasi went on to produce touchstone indie rock records throughout the 90â€™s and 00â€™s with their signature Rocksichord-and-drums (and later, guitar-and-drums) sound.
Consisting of divorced couple Sam Coomes (keys and guitars) and Janet Weiss (drums), the band has slowed down a bit during the last decade as the pair explored new projects and concentrated on family. Sam Coomes played keys with old labelmates Built to Spill, played bass in Elliott Smithâ€™s live and recording band, and led other side projects like Blues Goblin and Pink Mountain, among others. Janet Weiss has been a major part of indie giants Sleater-Kinney and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks.
With the release of their latest album, American Gong, Quasi is planning a resurgence in activity. Theyâ€™re traveling the world in support of the new album, new bassist Joana Bolme it tow, and will be stopping by the Southgate House in Newport on April 30th. Quasiâ€™s new songs rock with the urgency of a debut album, and the band seems genuinely interested in reminding everyone why theyâ€™ve lasted so long already. Sam Coomes agreed to talk with Each Note Secure about this important time in the bandâ€™s life and what brought them here.
[Each Note Secure] Your new album, American Gong, is the first Quasi LP in four years. Was it the product of a long writing and recording process, or did you come together as a band after a long time apart? Do you find that the band membersâ€™ commitments to other projects results in limiting Quasiâ€™s activity and output?
[Sam Coomes] Well, we have always had multiple bands and projects going at any given time. It limits Quasi’s activity in a way, but it also makes it easier to appreciate what we can get out of the Quasi experience which we canâ€™t get elsewhere, so itâ€™s helpful in that way. I donâ€™t know if Quasi would still be kicking if we didnâ€™t have other stuff to balance out our heads.
I had to pull back when my daughter was born. At that point, I had been working a lot for years, and it was time to just do something else in life. Even with our last record [When the Going Gets Dark], I was ready to do more work than we had been, but for various reasons it didnâ€™t pan out. So with this [album] weâ€™re ready to do a bit more work, and when I say work I mostly mean touring. I think weâ€™re ready to go out and play more shows and reach more people than we have with the last several records. My daughterâ€™s older now so itâ€™s not such a burden on the family for me to be gone for an extended period.
[ENS] How did the decision come about to make bassist Joanna Bolme a permanent member of the band?
[SC] The last album before this one, When the Going Gets Dark, we tracked as a duo in the studio, but then we added bass parts & guitar parts over the basic tracks. So when we went out to tour for that, we felt like we needed a bass to make those songs work right. Then after touring around a bit with Joanna, we realized there was no turning back – we locked her in. Sheâ€™s been playing with us for the last three or four years.
[ENS] Quasi has long been noted for the intricate interplay of your keyboard and guitar work with Janet Weissâ€™s drumming. Has this interplay, both live and on record, changed since you added a permanent bass player?
[SC] Yeah, itâ€™s a little different. But Joanna and Janet also play in the Jicks with Malkmus, and there is a fair amount of improv in that group, so they are pretty well in tune. Joanna is also a long time friend, as well as…a peer, I guess is the word. She knows the deal with Quasi and understands the approach. Still, the equation is different, no way around it. You give something up, you gain something new. But itâ€™s worked out really well. I donâ€™t think we traded away much for what we got in return.
[ENS] Almost as important to the Quasi â€œfeelâ€ seems to be the interplay between lyrical lightness and darkness. A lot of music writers make a lot of the perceived anger behind the political songs on Hot Shit! especially. However, much of American Gong seems hopeful and even cautiously optimistic. Do you feel like your outlook on the world, evidenced through your songs, changes as you mature as a person and as a band?
[SC] Sure, you gain perspective over the years, I guess. But the thing is, if you are going to be totally honest as an artist, you have to admit at least the possibility of hope – the possibility that itâ€™s all worthwhile on some level. The only honest expression of hopelessness is suicide. So, short of suicide, you got to get some yang with the yin. But then, there’s no way around the darkness either.
Life has interesting twists and turns. My favorite lyric ever is â€œLife takes you by surprise, hits you in the eyes,â€ by Mark E. Smith [laughs] Thatâ€™s the reason why. You live your lifeâ€¦ the songs that are written during one part of your life might reflect your psychic state at that point, and stuff written at a different time might reflect your psychic state at another point. There ups and downs, twists and turns, but thank God, really, because thatâ€™s where the variety comes from.
[ENS] Iâ€™ve noticed that a lot of your keyboard parts sound a lot like guitar, and some of your guitar parts sound almost like a keyboard. Iâ€™ve never had the chance to see you live, so I find myself listening closely to Quasi records to determine whether Iâ€™m hearing keys or guitar. Was it your intention to blur the line sonically? How do you decide which instrument to use for a song or a part of a song?
[SC] I donâ€™t actually know how to play the keyboard! Thatâ€™s why it sounds like a guitar. But actually on the new record, itâ€™s mostly just guitar. Or piano on a couple songs. But no weird keyboard instruments. I actually just now read a review in Dusted [Magazine] where the [reviewer] was like, “same old sound, same old Rocksichord…” There isnâ€™t a Rocksichord in sight! Itâ€™s a guitar record. I actually wrote in to Dusted, basically saying, â€œWhatâ€™s with this guy?!â€which Iâ€™ve never done before in my life. But maybe Iâ€™m just getting cranky in my old age
Once we started playing with Joanna, it was pretty easy to decide which instrument to use – more guitar!
[ENS] Your keyboard and guitar playing is also interesting in that it seems rooted in free jazz at times, old-time blues in others, and even atonality in places (both Featuring â€œBirdsâ€ and When the Going Gets Dark open with dissonant keyboard work). Can you shed some light on your musical influences and how you struck on your unique sonic mixture?
[SC] Well, like I said, I donâ€™t really know how to play keyboard. But the types of music you mention – thatâ€™s exactly the type of piano I like. I mean, someone like Sun Ra, or Cecil Taylor, or I can go down the list, but these guys are ultra high level, from a technical angle, as well as just pure musicality. I donâ€™t have any technique at all, but this is the type of playing I listened to, as apposed to straight keyboard stuff. So instead of playing primitive approximations of Billy Joel (horrible!) I went for more â€œoutâ€ type playing. But actually most of the time Iâ€™m just trying to hold down some chords and rhythm – pretty simple.
Before When the Going Gets Dark, I actually worked pretty hard on improving my piano playing – I was practicing quite a bit. I doubt itâ€™s very obvious, though. Thatâ€™s all out the window now and Iâ€™m just happy to get back into the guitar.
[ENS] Youâ€™ve had a long history of side-project and session work, most notably with artists such as Elliott Smith and Built to Spill. Do you enjoy the experience of contributing to other artistsâ€™ visions as much as you enjoy tending to your own in Quasi?
[SC] Well, I definitely enjoy playing music with all sorts of people, and certainly you named a couple of the best. But I canâ€™t really quantify levels of enjoyment. Every project is different, and they are all pretty much worthwhile. If people ask me to do it, and I can, especially if theyâ€™re friends, Iâ€™ll probably do
Iâ€™ve done a lot of stuff with Built to Spill, for example, over the years, but itâ€™s usually pretty informal. Iâ€™ll get a call from Doug [Martsch, Built to Spill guitarist and singer], or run into him on the road or something, and heâ€™ll mention it. I think it comes more out of being friends than anything else.
[ENS] Quasiâ€™s had a long career. How are things different for the band now than they were earlier in your career? Where do you forsee it going?
[SC] Commercially, everything is different now. We come out of the old pre-internet days, when promotion wasnâ€™t such an issue. It seems like nowadays, promotion is almost the main thing, and playing shows and recording albums is almost an adjunct to promotion. Everyoneâ€™s making videos, theyâ€™re up on their computers, youâ€™ve got your webpage, youâ€™ve got your Myspace, youâ€™ve got your Twitter, youâ€™ve got your Facebookâ€¦ itâ€™s just constant. Thereâ€™s free downloadsâ€¦free uploadsâ€¦ every kind of loads you can think of. And so much energy is put into that now, which is pretty new for me. Itâ€™s been moving that way for a long time, but I never really paid that much attention until recently.
I think because weâ€™re ready to do more work and be busier with this record, suddenly weâ€™re confronted with the reality that you have to put all this energy into self-promotion. Itâ€™s a little bit disturbing, but weâ€™re trying to roll with it. We think that if we have at least a little bit of success doing that type of thing, perhaps new opportunities will come out of it.
Itâ€™s interesting when you take a few steps backâ€¦ it bothers me when I donâ€™t take a couple steps back. [Laughs] But on the other hand, there are a lot of nice things about it too. Things change; we try to change with it. You know, ride the wave.
interview by John Crowell