Quasi: Quality Controllers


Pared back to a duo, the critical-thinker exes of Quasi refuse to accept mediocrity.

“I have to be really careful of what shows I go to anymore. I end up being upset. It’s a problem with the audience. A band needs to be shown by the audience where they’re lacking. It’s not being done anymore.”

Sam Coomes is talking about the impetus behind some lines in “Bedbug Town,” from Quasi’s thrilling new double album Mole City (Kill Rock Stars). It’s one of a handful of songs—this one loping roadhouse blues—that directly addresses the “soul-sucking” state of music today and reaffirms the right to be messy, lo-fi and fiercely independent:

Now you’re back on the scene looking sober and clean/And now I’m the one who seems so dirty and mean/I won’t sing along to that soul-sucking song/No way, no how/I’m going back down to Bedbug Town/You do me one up and I’ll do you one down/I’m so tired of all the fucking around—blood from a stone!

For the past 20 years, Coomes, on analog keyboards and guitars, and Janet Weiss, on drums, have made passionate, raucous music in Quasi. In the beginning, their partnership was marital as well as musical, but it continued past their divorce and concurrent with their work in other bands: Coomes in Heatmiser with Elliott Smith when Quasi began, and later as a guest with Built To Spill; Weiss as a member of Sleater-Kinney, Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks and Wild Flag. Mole City is a culmination of Quasi’s many strengths: its oversaturated and distorted sound, its singsong and shouted melodies, its controlled abandon.

“I call it a rebelliousness,” says Weiss. “Sam and I are both fairly rebellious. We just grew up that way, listening to punk or punk-inspired music. Those do-it-yourself, anti-corporate ideals are very strong for the two of us. That’s partly why this union has worked for this long. You talk about relationships: You need to have the same ideas about money, the same ideas about where you want to live, the same ideas of religion or whatever. These things can make a long-term relationship. It’s easier if at the core your values are the same. With Sam and me, our musical values are still very much the same.”

Those values were present in the process of making Mole City, which the duo recorded on its own in the basement of Coomes’ Portland, Ore., home. It is also present in the lyrics, making Mole City—the title refers to the underground music scene—an existential statement of purpose and a reminder of the power of self-determination coming from a pair of veterans.

Get Coomes and Weiss talking about their ideals, and they tend to become passionate. Here’s Coomes on “Bedbug Town”: “I think there’s an attitude among younger people—there’s good things and bad things about it—but they’re much more accepting of things that were not acceptable to my generation. They have this expression: ‘It’s all good.’ You can get up there and play some mediocre music, and people don’t want to be harsh. They clap and say, ‘Great job.’ They were raised to be appreciative and supportive, which is wonderful, but I don’t think it’s doing anybody a favor in the music scene. Unconditional approval is great from your mom but it’s terrible for music.

“As a fan, I’m sitting at shows, and the band is just terrible. Well, they’re not even terrible—they’re just mediocre. And I notice fans, they don’t seem to be loving it, but after every song, they clap. I’ll talk to somebody afterwards and say, ‘What did you think? It was pretty horrible.’ And they’ll say, ‘No, they’re nice people and they’re trying and it was pretty good, and I liked it.’ I feel like there’s a lack of criticality among people. It tends to drive me a little bit crazy.”

“I feel lucky to have a collaborator who feels as strongly as I do about the co-opting of the human spirit,” says Weiss, laughing a bit at her own lofty language. “It seems like a big deal to me, but a lot of people don’t think it is. It’s something I talk about; it’s something I try to project in my music, in my decisions about whether or not to sell music to certain commercials. It’s an ongoing dialogue for me. I’m not saying I know everything about it, but I’m making decisions for myself and for my own band and trying to stand for something for people who are just starting to make music and are looking for people who don’t really want to be a part of the corporate commercial scene. We’re not making music to be in commercials, and we never will.”

Although Mole City’s 61 minutes fit on a single CD, it’s billed as a double album, and it has the expansiveness, diversions and thematic unity of, say, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade or the Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime. According to Coomes, the goal from the start was “to go big” and to present some new challenges to the duo.

“A lot of my favorite records are where bands were really able to stretch,” he says. “A double album allows a band to do that: You don’t have to edit out stuff that’s cool, but doesn’t necessarily fit in with a smaller group of songs. It allows a lot more creative breadth. We didn’t just want to make a double album that was just long. We wanted to make a double album in the way of Zen Arcade or some of the other classic double albums. Not to say that our work is on par with Physical Graffiti or Exile On Main Street, but that concept is what we were aiming for.”

The album boasts flat-out rock ‘n’ roll in guitar songs like “Blasted,” “Nostalgia Kills” and “Double Deuce”; it offers plenty of Coomes’ trademark Roxichord organ and piano, distorted into overdrive on the honky-tonk-style “Fat Fanny Land” and the rollicking “See You On Mars”; it has its share of oddball snippets and inspired experiments, such as the ominous “Loopy,” the squelchy “Chrome Duck” and the twangy “One & Done.” And it has the loose immediacy that’s always been part of Quasi’s best work—1998’s Featuring “Birds” comes to mind—with some unruly first-take performances.

“We always want to have that sort of liveliness—we want it to feel alive, like there’s actual humans playing it,” says Weiss, and indeed, the DIY creative process was important to the meaning of the work.

“We wanted to come down firmly on our ideals and reiterate in obvious ways what we stand for as a band, how we do things,” says Coomes. “I think a lot of things have changed in recent years. A lot of our ideals about not exactly the type of music we make, but the way we do it and how we try to conduct ourselves in the world as a band are no longer really taken for granted or even understood by a lot of people. So, we wanted to reiterate that in terms of process and kind of get back to that in a way we thought was kind of obvious. It was a musical concept to begin with, and kind of an ideological statement, too.”

When Quasi began sporadic work on Mole City two years ago, Joanna Bolme was still a member of the band, and Coomes had written some songs, later discarded, with the power trio in mind. Bolme plays bass in the Jicks with Weiss and, like Coomes, had played with Elliott Smith. She joined Quasi on the tour for 2003’s When The Going Gets Dark and was an official member for 2010’s American Gong. But the logistics for Quasi were difficult enough given Weiss’s other band commitments and even more so with a third person.

“There’s always problems in a band,” says Coomes. “I think what it came down to is whatever problems we’d had in the past, we’d worked it out from the perspective of two people, a duo, and when it became obvious that the album was going to be a protracted process, it was a lot easier, given that everybody plays in other bands and there’s all kinds of logistical problems getting this band together over an extended period, to pare it down to two and start all over again.”

“There’s no rules to Quasi—there’s not a playbook,” says Weiss. “It’s what we feel is best for the songs at the time. There’s definitely an energy that Sam and I have, just the two of us, that’s pure and unfiltered. When you add people—in any band, not just in Quasi—it detracts from the potency of personalities. You have to start compromising, and factoring in more things, and improvising becomes a bit more difficult because now there’s three parts instead of two parts. Sam and I have a real telepathy that’s sort of effortless when it’s working. So, I feel like at times it was probably difficult for Joanna to feel a part of what was happening with the two of us. I can imagine her feeling on the outside at times. We’ve been together 20 years. It’s an intense relationship, musically. We love playing with Joanna; she’s an amazing bass player. It was just the time for us to work together as just the two of us again.”

“The funny thing about Quasi: It makes its own demands,” says Coomes. “It’s a true band, even though it’s just a duo. It’s not really my band, and it’s not Janet’s band. It’s its own thing. We’ve never been able to reinvent the band. We have struck out in various new directions at different times, but it does tend to come back to just being Quasi. I think it has its own identity and it doesn’t work as well outside certain bounds. Luckily, the bounds are big enough to keep it interesting for us to make it worthwhile.”

Most of the album was recorded at the end of 2012, when Weiss found herself with a block of free time away from her other bands and projects, including the recent Drumgasm collaboration with Pearl Jam’s Matt Cameron and Hella/Death Grips’ Zach Hill. Weiss would go to Coomes’ basement studio everyday for four or five hours while Coomes’ wife was at work and his daughter in school.

“What we had was time; what we didn’t have was money,” says Weiss. “So, we just figured out a way to work with those resources.” Both she and Coomes compare the routine to clocking in at a regular job. It was a luxury, they say, to have the concentrated extended period of time and the freedom to work independently, without the pressures of studio time, even if Coomes’ tiny basement—which is another underground reference behind the album’s title—could become claustrophobic.

What Mole City is about, and what Quasi is about, are the defiant possibilities of independence. The album is filled with existential expressions of acceptance of the meaninglessness of life, of joy in the face of emptiness, of commitment to musical ideals against the realities of small expectations. It’s about forging one’s identity without compromising one’s ideals, even if it’s not a political album like 2001’s Hot Shit.

“I’ve given up on politics. That’s the end of it,” says Coomes, although a recent cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” might belie that claim. “I realized actually at heart, I’m an anarchist. If people could treat all other people with respect and compassion and treat the earth and other aspects of our environment with respect and compassion, we wouldn’t even need politics. And I was finding that when I started thinking politics and talking politics, it wasn’t possible for me to treat other people with respect and compassion. Even my own dear mother, she’d start talking politics, and I’d get all upset and I’d start being a jerk and I’d think, ‘There’s the problem right there.’ I think it’s just better to treat people with respect and compassion when you can, but politics doesn’t help you do that at all.”

But to treat people with respect and compassion does not mean being complacent and accepting averageness, like the passive, uncritical audience at a rock show. For Quasi, respect includes having high standards for the music itself and for the process of its creation.

“If you accept mediocrity, there’s nothing compassionate about that,” says Coomes. “You’re not helping the person to improve; you’re not enlightening them in any way. They’re not doing the band any favors by being uncritical. Music needs to be good. It’s not personal. You’ve got to weed out the crud.”

And how does Mole City fit into that standard, and into Quasi’s body of work?

“Maybe some of the records are more successful than others,” he says, “but I think over time we’ve maintained a basic level, a basic standard that I feel all right about. I don’t know if we’ve improved, but at least we haven’t declined.”

—Steve Klinge