Interview: Quasi

Page 1 – front cover imageThis Quasi interview was originally published in Issue 12 of DrunkenWerewolf Magazine, December 2013.

If you do not know who Quasi are, then feel shame and then forgive yourself, just a little. Sam Coomes(Heatmiser) and Janet Weiss(Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag) have been making uncompromising indie-rock and pop for twenty years now; and recently released their ninth album, a double, Mole City. Despite this longevity, they remain more or less under the radar, yet a respected and influential success - former Coomes band-mate Elliott Smith even covered one of their tracks live. Quasi haven’t had quite as much glory and perhaps that’s because they are not easy to pin down.

For all their mocking lyrics and head-turns on rock-music clichés - allowing a visage of 90s Portland identifiers - Quasi are many things. Yet they’re also their own; a true epitome of indie music. Lyrics from “I Never Want to See You Again”, taken from the celebrated Featuring “Birds”, provide an example of their confident and assertive tone: “We purchase pleasure, and pay for it with hurt, and we rarely get our money's worth.” hat’s refreshing, if a bit startling is - for what began life in 1993 as one of many bands for the once-married duo - Quasi might genuinely have produced their finest work in Mole City. It’s fantastic in its trippy and varied expanse, more than suggesting these dogs don’t really run low on tricks. DrunkenWerewolf talks with one-half of the duo Janet Weiss before Quasi stop by Bristol on their first UK date in support of the album.

“A Rock-si-chord is in fact a cool type of keyboard,” states Weiss, as if to dispel any misinformation about the archaic instrument. Featuring heavily on R&B Transmogrification from 1997, as well as 1998’s Featuring “Birds” and1999’s Field Studies, Coomes’ keyboard wizardry more than defines that era of their sound.

Weiss further articulates, perhaps revealing why it hasn’t been heard on later albums: “Invented in the late 60s by a company called RMI, it was intended to sound like a harpsichord used for rock music. Sam bought me the Quasi Rock-si-chord many years ago as a birthday gift, but wound up playing it exclusively himself in the band. Because of its percussive nature, this type of keyboard sounds gritty and gnarled through a distortion pedal. It’s also very sturdy and could withstand a lot of physical abuse. Sam abused ours regularly at shows year after year until it died beyond repair in the late 1990s.”

When it comes to her own abilities, Weiss is known for her drumming, especially as part of Sleater-Kinney who split in 2006: “I play several instruments badly: piano, guitar, recorder, but only the drums with any competency.”

Weiss often shares vocal duties too and Quasi’s male-female harmonies can be arresting. New track “R.I.P.” is sang by Weiss alone and is a rare elegiac moment on Mole City.

Bizarrely enough, Quasi’s first label-release was actually a compilation in 1996 aptly titled Early Recordings, which contained much of the material from their self-titled, self-released 1993 debut. Weiss recalls what one might consider their breakthrough moment: “I don't think of [us] as signed I guess. That seems reserved for bands on major labels. We have had business relationships with many of the great independent labels of our generation: However, Domino, Touch and Go, Up, Kill Rock Stars; but they have mostly been over handshakes. These agreements usually came about through word of mouth about the band, or developed out of friendships. Sam sent our second record around to labels in 1996 and heard back from Chris Takino at Up. That is how that happened.”

It seems harder to name-check contemporaries of Quasi than it would be with other bands, especially major-label players; even former associates Elliott Smith and Sleater-Kinney aren’t comfortable comparisons. Those acts were, however, more popular; but if the beautiful sonic disarray and no-mans-land direction of new album Mole City doesn’t express enough irreverence for popularity, Weiss reaffirms: “One thing I know after 20 years of being in a band is that worrying about popularity is a futile game. There isn't much rhyme or reason to any of what happens in regards to rock music. If indeed cult status is something we have, we would be excited about that. We don't relate to the mainstream for the most part, especially musically, so any underground excitement we can generate is a good thing.”

Despite generally favourable reviews for Quasi, Weiss isn’t too fussed about the critics either: “I try not to read any of it. A bad review will stay with you longer than a good one, so it’s best not to let those get in your head. You need a clean mind when trying to make something new.”

Weiss is fierce and determined just as much as she is relaxed about the future artistry of music: “At my age, I have heard rock is dead before. I am hoping that once again rebellious, scary, wild rock music makes a comeback. In the meantime, I have my records, and bands like Thee Oh Sees and Endless Boogie to keep the flame alive.”

Weiss adds, “Electronic music can be really cool and intriguing, but I'm not interested in watching someone on a stage hitting the buttons on their laptop.”

She tells DrunkenWerewolf she also likes “Body/Head, Ty Segall, Survival Knife, Hungry Ghost, Modern Kin and Mozart.”

Weiss goes on to assure, that she and Coomes won’t be selling out any time soon:

“The indie scene is way too commercialized for my tastes. Bands think placing their original songs in advertisements is great publicity to the point that now musicians are writing their songs with licensing in mind. Everyone is feeding right from the corporate hand and it is taking a real toll on the quality of our current music scene. If musicians don't value their own music beyond it being used to sell cars, how do they expect listeners to care enough to pay for their songs? Music has been terribly devalued.”

Quasi’s lyrics often cut sharp into society and politics, but more interestingly their music often belies their subject matter with tuneful pop sensibility underneath fuzz, resulting in something of a sarcastic bite. 2003’s Hot Shit! was cited as being especially vocal against American post 9/11 events.

“There isn't a rulebook for this line of work, fortunately”, says Weiss. “What we should and shouldn't do is solely up to the individual. I have nothing against someone expressing philosophies in interviews, this probably makes them a lot more interesting to read, but ultimately the music does speak for itself. Walk the walk as they say.”

The band is a two-piece again after a stint with Joanna Bolme(Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks)who played bass on 2010’s American Gong.

“Sam and I have similar musical values and goals, and a lot of mutual respect,” says Weiss on her and Coomes long partnership. Both seem tied together and to the Portland music scene, one wonders what the pair would do if they weren’t making music.

“I would rather be playing music than doing most other things. Finding the time isn't as difficult as finding resources.” She adds, “I would have liked to have been a veterinarian.”

Back to being a rock-star and Weiss discusses the process: “Rock’n’roll is a noisy, rowdy, messy endeavour. We want our music to reflect that fact. Pristine, tidy, palatable sounds are less interesting to us,” she expands. “As I mentioned before, there isn't a rulebook for doing this. If there were, we would break the rules anyway. The process I swear by involves making the best music possible; by hook or by crook. After 20 years of making records together, we try different approaches to keep things interesting. But mostly, we want the music to be fresh and loose - anything that facilitates that outcome is fair game.”

As regular co-writer with the ever-capable Coomes, Weiss cares about meaning, but accepts art becoming… Well, more art: “Original meaning is only part of the story. Songs take on another life once they are in the world, sometimes embodying opposite meaning. One can only hope listeners absorb the original message.”

Weiss is not overly precious about their music and suggests that Quasi feel they haven’t taken too many missteps during their two decades: “We don't play certain older songs for mostly logistical reasons... Some songs don't translate as a two-piece. There might be a few that don't fit us anymore thematically, but for the most part, we stand by those old songs too.”

Quasi also like to quasify others material; many who pre-ordered Mole City also received a covers EP: “We have covered a lot of great songs over our 20 year past. It would be really fun to record more of those, perhaps including "Paint It Black," "Classical Gas" or "Bennie and the Jets".” Interpretsincludes their version of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”.

Weiss is far less passionate about personal computers, especially when it might threaten the future of the band playing live: “I love touring, but it is getting more difficult to survive on the road financially. More and more people are experiencing music through their computers, less through live participation. This is bad news for me, as I don't get a lot of satisfaction from "likes" or retweets. Human interaction is much more substantial and meaningful to me than staring at a computer screen.”

Weiss talks more about touring and specifically coming to the UK soon: “We love our English label, Domino, so we are always happy to come over and support our records. Touring England can be both difficult and fun. The load ins are much more strenuous in the UK! New scenery is always a plus, however. We look forward to meeting people and seeing first-hand how they are responding to Mole City.” Weiss says of her own town, “Portland is a beautiful small city where it rains a lot of the time.”

Despite releasing a double album on their twenty-year mark, it’s not a sneaky yet generous goodbye and Quasi have no plans to split. Phew.

“We are currently touring the US and then we head to the UK for a 10 day jaunt. After that is anybody's guess.”

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