Twenty years into the game, ex-husband and wife duo Sam Coomes (Donner Party, Heatmiser) and Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Wild Flag, etc) aka Quasi are the living, breathing definition of indie rock royalty. Formed in the hub of quintessential hipsterdom that is Portland in 1993, the duo’s uniquely infectious, incomparably insightful brand of indie rock has spanned nine studio albums and countless EPs worth of material.
Now, two decades into the game as U.S. indie rock’s best kept secret, we talk to the band’s frontman Sam Coomes about the Portland music scene of the early Nineties, his good friend and collaborator Elliott Smith and the advantages of never, ever compromising.
What are your early musical memories as a child and growing up? What drew you to making music and playing in bands?
“I didn’t come from a musical family – my parents were squares who listened to what they used to call Easy Listening or maybe some light pop by Neil Diamond or some equivalent. But even when I was pretty young I used to spend hours alone in my room just obsessively listening to the radio. I had a little plastic AM radio – this would have been in the early-mid 70′s – and I just tried to figure out what was happening in the songs – what the instruments were, who was singing, what it was about etc. It was just an instinctive attraction. As I got older I got into stuff that wasn’t as much on the radio – metal and other, weirder types of rock. That’s when I knew I wanted to create rather than just listen.”
Next year marks twenty years since your first self-released/self-titled cassette as Quasi. What are you memories of those early days of the band, before the release of Early Recordings in ’96?
“The original idea behind Quasi was that we would have an undetermined format and personnel – so every time we played a gig, we would have a different band and different material. Sometimes three or four, or even five people. But for recording it was just Janet and I in a basement. Eventually we just whittled it down to a two-piece performing band as well.”
You were a member of The Donner Party and, later, Mic City Sons era Heatmiser with Neil Gust, Elliott Smith, et al. What was it like juggling early Quasi’s early material and playing in Heatmiser?
“It was no problem, really. I didnt write the Heatmiser material; was strictly the bassist. I still find it enjoyable to be more of a role player in a band, rather than having a large share of the responsibilities. I don’t get the chance to do such anymore, though.”
A lot has been said and written about the Portland music scene in early-to-mid Nineties. What are your own memories of those early days, as you began to carve out your musical identity as Quasi with your then-wife, Janet Weiss?
“It was small and self contained… the earlier heavy drug-rock scene had given way to something a little more varied, but we still played the same venues, probably to more or less the same audience, which was ourselves! After Seattle bands started to get well known, there was a little residual attention given to Portland bands, but before that it was totally underground and proud of it.”
You were married to Janet up until 1995. Was disbanding Quasi ever on the cards at this time and how did find continuing the band having recently split as a couple?
“Well, certainly this was a possibility – we did go through a period where it was very difficult to work together. But this was also exactly the same time things started to get interesting for us as a band – we were finding our way musically and also people were starting to come out to shows, etc. For a musician, especially a young musician, this is really the main thing and everything else is secondary – even our personal emotions. In the end, being in the band forced us to eventually just leave all the bullshit behind and get on with it, which I think is why we’ve been able to continue working together for so long.”
Your third album, Featuring Birds, is right up there with the greatest albums of the Nineties. On it, you meticulously combined wonderfully existential lyrical content with melancholic and (unusually appropriate) upbeat songwriting. Did you feel that album marked your first real “vision” come to life?
“Well, honestly, making Featuring Birds didn’t feel different from making any other album – I mean, they are all different, but I can’t remember any one feeling more special than the others. Sometimes things come together, not only with the music but with the audience that is exposed to the music, in ways that doesn’t happen as much at other times. I really have no idea how or why.”
You always seem to skilfully draw on plentiful lyrical wells of fragility of “love”/expectation/ambition/failure/self-actualisation on Featuring Birds, Field Studies, The Sword of God and beyond. Your most recent album, American Gong, continues this trend. What do you hope to convey, lyrically, in general and how do you go about writing lyrics?
“I’m extremely ambivalent about the whole idea of being a songwriter. Starting out I had zero ambition or intention to be a songwriter, but if you want to be in a band, you have to have songs and circumstances drew me into being the guy who writes the songs. What I’m trying to get at is that I don’t really have a philosophy of writing. I don’t really strive to do anything other than come up with songs that Quasi can work with and aren’t obviously crap. If it were a matter of choice, I’d be writing surrealist poetry lyrics along the lines of Syd Barrett or Captain Beefheart, but this isn’t how the words work themselves out it my mind.”
Many great artists and sounds have influenced your work down the years. What would be your all-time biggest musical influences – particularly ones that endure today?
“I just mentioned a couple but at this point I’ve really settled with the fact that my heart is in the underground – most of my meaningful moments and revelatory musical experiences have come out of the musical underground in all its forms. I have no interest in commercial music, especially commercial music of the post-internet era. I admit I enjoy some commercial music from like forty years ago.”
Could you briefly explain how you play the rocksichord came about? It defines your early sound, and extremely well at that.
“I found one in a music shop for like fifty bucks and just started playing it. Pure chance, just like so many things.”
When writing the music for songs, is there any procedure you usually go through to arrive at a final product? I personally hear a lot of attention to detail – where the bass notes in accordance to runs/progressions, minor-to-major (or vice versa progressions); utilising the likes of diminished chords to create certain emotional effects.
“Here we are again – songwriting! There’s two things being addressed here: the basic chords and melodies of a song, then things like bass and drum parts, which a lot of the time fall more in the realm of arrangements. All those hours listening to my little plastic radio as a child probably has had a lasting effect on the process of arrangement. But the technical part of constructing chords is intuitive to me. I don’t actually know what a diminished chord is exactly. Maybe like a power chord? Technically, the construction of my songs is very basic, or if it isn’t, it’s accidental.”
When Quasi began to get started, your good friend Elliott (Smith) is off doing his own thing (Quasi, of course, providing him with a backing band on a few tours). How did you view his early music career compared to Quasi’s – were you aware of the harmonic parallels that many continue to associate between the two?
“I first knew Elliott from earlier Heatmiser stuff, which was loud rock. I didn’t know he was doing the acoustic stuff till later and it kind of surprised me, because I just thought he was a hard rocker. But really I mostly worked with Elliott because we were friends – I didn’t know he was going to be so successful. I actually have a policy of not interviewing about Elliott – the question I answered above is more than I’ve said on the subject in a long time.“
Quasi’s latest record came out in 2010, to a generally positive reception. What does the future hold in terms of future releases – anything on the horizon and, if so, what are we to expected?
“We have gone back down to a two-piece, whereas the last album we made as a trio. But as I was saying before, I’m clear in my head about my commitment to underground music and especially underground modes of working. So we are recording again, literally underground in my basement. But as usual we don’t have a pre-thought out plan as to exactly what type of album we are making. Actually, I had some ideas in mind, but now they are all out the window and we will let the album make itself according to its own needs, which is also normal for us.”
Will Janet be free to tour/record with Quasi due to other commitments w/ Jicks, Wild Flag, etc.?
“As I mentioned, Joanna (Bolme, bassist) isn’t in the band anymore – amicably. Even when Quasi was really busy, we were able to juggle all our other projects with the band. Now we are less active, so I doubt it will be a problem.”
How do you view your relationship with record labels down the years – Up, Domino, Kill Rock Stars, etc? Do you feel you’ve had the greatest opportunities relating to the quality of your music?
“I feel pretty lucky to have been associated with all the labels we’ve worked with – Up, Touch & Go, KRS and of course Domino. Great music on these labels, but also the people behind the labels are the tops – which might not be a coincidence.”
You have put out a record and occasionally perform under the title Blues Goblins. Is this your way of playing a type of music just not fitting to the overall Quasi dynamic and do you intend to put out any more solo stuff?
“Blues Goblins taught me that I don’t really enjoy working solo. But I have all kinds of projects going on at any given time – I love music.”
All of Quasi’s albums have something to offer. Is there any LP/song you’re particularly proud of?
“I’m not really nostalgic about my own work.”
Looking back, what are the highs you’ve experienced in Quasi or otherwise?
“When I was young, what I really wanted was to be in a band, play music to people around the world, make albums, hang out and work with rad musicians and live a musical live. Eventually, it all pretty much worked out. Pretty nice.”
What bands/music out nowadays grabs your attention?
“I like Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps, Wild Flag… there’s maybe a couple other current bands I try to keep an eye/ear out for. I don’t really use the computer at all as a source for music.”
Finally, how do you view Quasi’s two decades together? You must be very proud of all that you’ve achieved, whilst remaining, essentially, a semi-cult “indie-rawk” band (not that the latter is necessary perquisite for the former, of course).
“Well, I’m not very nostalgic about my music, but I do feel like it’s been worthwhile that we have managed to pursue our music for so long without ever severely compromising our ideals about why and how we do what we do. Can’t complain.”