6 January 2014

IN CONVERSATION with QUASI


Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss of Quasi
Photography by Eleonora Collini

Quasi are one of the most underrated indie rock bands of the last couple of decades. It’s not only their music, but also their admirable perseverance in pursuing anti-corporate and DIY ideals that make them so unique.

Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss started as a lo-fi project in Portland, Oregon in 1993, and in spite of being busy with many other bands (Weiss was the drummer of Sleater-Kinney, and more recently Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks and supergroup Wild Flag, while Coomes played with Elliott Smith, Pink Mountain and his solo project Blues Goblins), they have been touring and putting out records quite regularly.

Their last album American Gong was released as a trio with Joanna Bolme (Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks), who then left the band a couple of years ago when Coomes and Weiss began working on Mole City, out now on Domino Records and Kill Rock Stars.

We spent some time together in London during their recent UK tour (photos) and they shared their honest opinion on the alarming state of the music industry, told me they still hope that many little changes can make a bigger one, and confessed how to them music is sacred and nothing is more important than the interaction with fans.


Eleonora Collini: You recently released Mole City, which is your ninth album, or eleventh if we consider the early self-released records. Where did you write it and record it?

Janet Weiss: We recorded in Sam's basement in Portland, Oregon which is a very small room. There wasn’t any specific writing. Sam came up with most of the music then I came in a couple of months down the line.

Sam Coomes: Before we even started we decided that we wanted to do a double record but we didn’t have any material at that time, maybe a couple of songs that we wrote just after the last album, but those were written still as a trio with Joanna (Bolme), so when we decided to go back to be a duo we just had to start all over again. I think between the time we decided to make another record and the time Mole City came out it was about two years.

Janet: For a certain period we were working on it daily and approaching it not as a job, but as an artistic commitment working on it for hours in a sort of loose fashion. We didn’t have any preconceived things, but we were just developing ideas as they would come up. For many records we worked in the studio where you pay money by the hour or by the day so you need to be prepared in advance and have organised ideas, whereas with this atmosphere we can sort of organise things on spot which is much more relaxed. It’s just more fun to see a song come alive and finish it when the sound is finished, rather than being rushed.

Eleonora: Do you have a sort of writing routine or does each song always have a life of its own?
Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss of Quasi
Sam: Every song is different. Typically like Janet said, if we work in the studio we prepare the songs in advance as a band. Sometimes when we record, the songs are already put together and have been played publicly. Sometimes we start with a little idea, sometimes we start with pretty much nothing like for Mole City.

Janet: Yeah this time we added things little by little, we would sometimes sit there for hours, with Sam adding keyboard parts, me drums and so on. The idea was just to make a personal record that showed our personalities. That's the way we started as a band, you know the early days of home recording, which allows you a big amount of freedom.

Eleonora: With 24 tracks and over 60 minutes of music, this is your longest and perhaps most ambitious album to date. Did you really conceive it as a double record since the beginning as Sam mentioned earlier or did you decide to make it so long as you ended up having more material than usual?

Sam: We didn’t have anything when we started. We just thought it would be a challenge to make a double album. For us it’s nothing new to just make another record, so this time we wanted to do something different and like you said more ambitious.

Eleonora: The album title refers to the underground music scene, and throughout the record there are songs such as “Bedbug Town” which reaffirm the right to be lo-fi and independent. What do you think of the current state of the music industry?

Sam: I am pretty horrified. I just think that mainstream, sort of commercial music is worse than ever, and underground music has been rotten and corrupted to the point of being very weak and not making sense anymore. Things haven’t evolved to my preference (laughs).

Eleonora: Is there not even one young band you would save?

Sam: I am sure they are, but at this point I just stopped paying attention as every time I hear something new it just makes me angry. We have recently come across some musicians that were pretty talented and occasionally opened for our shows, though they didn’t even have a proper band. But I kinda like that kind of thing.

Janet Weiss of Quasi
Janet: When we came up in the music scene, we were sharing common values with other musicians that were making similar music. Those values were anti-corporate, anti-commercial, anti-mainstream and that was also something we shared with our fans. The bands we saw taught us how to be together with the audience, the underground shows we went to in College were all about being with the crowd, you could reach out to those musicians if you wanted, the music was just about drawing people in. And that’s what we are: we get energy from the audience, we want them to participate and the music to be really special. So to us when a band sell their songs for a car commercial, their music is not so special anymore, it doesn’t feel like they're taking care of their music anymore as that's just becoming mainstream. To me music has to come from an inner place but then it has to be shared with the audience, which is what makes it so special. Music is the most important thing for me, and in my opinion it’s sacred and has to be protected. There are still bands that are doing that but I feel that they are less and less. Some people think that we are a bit too harsh and mean, but that's not about that, it's about us sharing our views and trying to protect our music.

Sam: When we play a show we call it a show and it’s known as a show but to me it’s not really a show, it’s real, we interact with the crowd and we are not putting out a show, we don’t have big production values and all the bands that have meant anything to me in the past also have not done that. We are not a 13-year old band. At that age I understand that you want to see big shows, but grown up people want to see a real thing, and that’s where we are coming from.

Eleonora: Do you think that media and the Internet culture are partially responsible for this situation?

Sam: Yeah, somehow the audience has got much bigger as it’s so easy to check out any band you want to check out in a superficial sort of way on a computer. Today everybody has a vague idea of what’s going on. But I think especially West Coast people still have the deep connection to a band which is what brought us into music when we were younger.

Janet: I remember going to the US Festivals put on by Steve Wozniak of Apple in the early 1980s. That was a huge thing. The Clash played. There were lots of fans. Today Internet killed it all, it kills your ideas. I feel like not having our scene, but our community, you have that gestation process when nobody is watching you and you can become yourself, you become a better musician and sort out your crap. Nowadays bands become bigger faster. But in the States we have all these great communities, like Portland where we are from, then Minneapolis, Athens, Seattle, San Francisco, and within those scenes you have your warm-up shows when for instance you still don’t remember the lyrics and everything is all over internet immediately, so you can’t really relax and be yourself as everybody is watching you. I hate to sound like a technophobe but I feel like there is no mystery left in music and bands. If people want to know everything they know everything or worse, but they can get it only from fractions of experience, so they get everything from a distorted view. And at the moment there is so much happening that’s overwhelming, you never seem to watch enough shows, to read enough news, you just can’t keep up.

Sam Coomes of Quasi
Sam: I think we just come from a different era. Nowadays you have to put out the first songs on onternet. People get very conservative as they don’t want the first songs to suck but if you don’t take the risk, if you don’t dare risk failure then you will never do anything but mediocrity which is part of the problem.

Eleonora: A lot of Quasi’s songs have strong references to contemporary politics. Do you believe that somehow music can change things?

Sam: A change happens when enough people make individual changes in their own mind. If you can just share how you feel with someone and they agree, and then they share it with someone else and they also agree, that’s already something. You can’t write a song and think that suddenly millions of people will go on the street with pitchforks. Changes don’t happen that way, they do happen in your own mind. If you hear someone say something in a way that makes sense, you can change other people that way. It’s not a big change, just many little changes, and that’s the only way a song can have any real impact. But even that is just magical, it’s weird how music can come out of nowhere and change things. But when I write I don’t expect anything like that.

Eleonora: Janet, earlier on you mentioned Portland as one of the greatest American music scenes. Recently it seems that more and more musicians are moving there and somehow it’s becoming a hipster phenomenon. How do you think the city has changed over the last few years?

Janet: Oh it has changed a lot. It used to be edgy, loud, aggressive a bit like neighbour Seattle. But now both scenes are very tiny, there is soft music with lots of funny instruments like accordion. There are still great bands there but it has changed a lot and like you said it’s way more hipster now.

Eleonora: You put out a covers EP that came with the first Mole City pre-orders, where you covered Queen, Marvin Gaye and Elvis Costello. Now you also just released a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War pigs”. These artists really don’t have much in common. What criteria did you use to choose those songs?

Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss of Quasi
Sam: I don’t know. We just had to pick some ideas and come up with something very fast so we just chose songs that we had played many times before and that we could record very quickly, and that was it.

Janet: I have always wanted to record all the covers we ever did at some point, but there are really so many of them (laughs) and some were really a long ago so we weren’t sure exactly how to go back to them so quickly. The ones we picked for that EP are covers we just really like at the moment, and we thought that they would just work together in a certain way. As for “War pigs”, that’s a song we used to do years ago and are both still very fond of. For some reason they are all sung by guys though (laughs). We should have covered some girls too.

Sam: Oh yeah I like singing female vocal parts!

Eleonora: You recently published a fanzine documenting your 20 years as a band with photos and musings by you two, and also Carrie Brownstein, Jon Raymond, Corin Tucker, Jon Spencer and more. How did the whole thing come about?

Janet: It’s interesting because usually today when you make a record you also do other things to go with it, like trailers, videos and things like that, which we have always preferred doing it ourselves, like a sort of art and craft. For our 20th anniversary we wanted to do something special so we thought of doing a fanzine. We had all those photos with our friends, especially from the early recordings, and when we started looking through all of them they were actually more than we had anticipated so we decided to make the book a little bit bigger. And then we decided to make it really nice (laughs), so we asked our friends that were in the photos to give a little insider view on our development as a band, and people wrote things for our fanzine without any hesitation. We are very happy about the way it turned out, it’s quite moving to look at it and see how many friends have influenced us and how we are all still here a few years later.

Eleonora: Do you ever write thinking about performing your songs live already?

Sam Coomes of Quasi
Sam: No, to be honest I really don’t think about anything when I write a song. But I would have never even started writing songs, if it hadn’t been for the fact that a band need songs to play, and as I wanted to be in a band someone in the band had to do it (laughs). I have never seen myself as a songwriter or it has never been an ambition of mine. It’s just something that has to be done and I just try to do it in the best possible way, but there wouldn’t be any point in writing if it wasn’t for performing those songs to fans.


Janet: But you keep writing songs, and though now you’re saying that, even if you weren’t playing live, you’d probably still write songs as they just come to you naturally which is sort of unusual. To me coming up with melodies, lyrics, instruments is such a special thing, it’s a gift. Not everybody has that and I am so happy to be playing with someone like Sam who has that sort of insight to write songs, it’s like making a commentary about being alive. It’s the best form of expression, to me it’s so beautiful, primal, exciting and interesting. I have been so lucky to play with Sam for so many years. And also his lyrics are intriguing, clever, smart, lots of things at once.

Sam: Aw, that was pretty nice, Janet. Thank you. You are pretty good too!

Janet: (laughs) It’s definitely been a pretty good collaboration. Especially on the last album I really enjoyed recording. I was touring all over and I was just looking forward to meeting up with Sam, having time to be there and seeing the songs come alive adding things little by little.

Sam: She can be very precise! (laughs)

Janet: And sometimes I’d been there working on a song for days and I would just ruin it, so we would just go back. But I even enjoyed that! I really enjoy the recording process. And I am very fascinated by the work of producers and engineers and how they can make something sounds the way you want it. During the mix you give them so many references but somehow they can still figure it out, and to me that’s so intriguing as I really don’t know how they can do that!

Eleonora: Joanna Bolme was your bass player for a while and you were officially a trio when American Gong came out, but now you are a duo again. Can you tell us the reasons of Joanna’s departure?

Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss of Quasi
Janet: She came on board when I was already playing in Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks…no actually that was later. She came on board when we wrote some bass heavy songs, so she was with us for a couple of tours and as we’d really enjoyed playing with her we decided that we would write music as a three-piece. That was really great as I was also playing in her band the Jicks, while she was playing in mine. But then when we started working on Mole City we just wanted to go back to be a two-piece as that’s what we’ve always been. But there is nothing personal, we are still good friends and she’s a very talented bass player. I don’t play with the Jicks anymore either and they now have a good drummer. It’s just evolution, really.

Eleonora: Janet, other than playing with the Jicks for a few years, you’ve always been busy with lots of other side projects too, the most recent and perhaps most interesting of which is Drumgasm with Pearl Jam’s Matt Cameron and Hella/Death Grips’ Zach Hill. How was working with them?

Janet: We actually recorded that years ago when Sleater-Kinney were doing a lot of touring with Pearl Jam and Quasi with Hella. So Matt (Cameron), Zach (Hill) and I became friends and we just thought “what would happen if the three of us played in front of our drum kits for a couple of days?”. So we just did that. The whole point was just to play very freely and let it all out which is not easy, you know being very playful and have no idea what will turn out. We just played it by ear, without doing any overdub or anything like that. That was very fun. Before we put it out, no one had heard it. They just knew the name of the project and everybody was really curious as this was something very different.

Eleonora: I also saw a recent video of Sleater-Kinney covering Neil Young at a Pearl Jam’s concert. Are there any plans for a Sleater-Kinney reunion?

Janet: We will see, we will see…….

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