Interview: Sam Coomes (Quasi)

Sam Coomes sings, plays guitar, keyboards, and whatever else might be laying around for Portland-based indie rock veterans Quasi, who have been cranking out remarkable music, that has unjustly flown under the radar, for two decades. Back to their roots as a two-piece – Coomes with ex-wife Janet Weiss on drums – they recently released an adventurous double album called Mole City which straddles the pop, indie, and avant rock universes.

While Quasi has been active, both principals have also made marks on other projects, Weiss as drummer for riot grrrl notables Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and Coomes as a guest with Built to Spill and with the late, great Elliott Smith both in the alt rock band Heatmiser and in his solo career. Along the way, Quasi backed Smith on some of his tours.

This interview was done for a preview article for Quasi’s long overdue Santa Barbara debut at SOhO on 11/14/13. It was done by email, with answers received on 10/28/13.

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming show in Santa Barbara?

Sam Coomes: What we try to do is bring a concentrated dose of our thing as a band into whatever venue we are in. No showbiz crap like projections; no pre-recorded backing tracks; no extra musicians – just two people channeling as much energy into a performance as possible. It’s very personal – we don’t have stage personas – it’s all about channeling a certain type of energy. We like to push it right to the edge of chaos & occasionally over it.

JM: Have you ever performed in Santa Barbara before, with Quasi or otherwise?

SC: It seems strange that in my 30 years or so as a publicly active musician, I’ve never yet played Santa Barbara. I have visited Santa Barbara, though.

JM: How, in your opinion, does Quasi fit into the 2013 musical landscape?

SC: Honestly, I’m far from qualified to comment on the 2013 musical landscape. We make the music we feel & it fits or doesn’t fit into the landscape of the moment. It’s not something I think about at all anymore. It has been many moons since we’ve been anything like a buzz band & we’ve found that it really doesn’t matter for our purposes, & luckily it doesn’t seem to matter to the people who come out to the shows either.

JM: Your new album Mole City is a double album, which is rare these days. What are your favorite double albums by other bands?

SC: Well, I think the best double albums are really the best albums, period. I’m into the well known classic doubles: Exile on Main Street, Physical Grafitti, Trout Mask Replica, Zen Arcade, Double Nickels on the Dime, Daydream Nation, London Calling…these come to mind pretty easily.

JM: My favorite Quasi album is The Sword of God. Can you give your
reflections on that particular album?

SC: That’s interesting that Sword of God is your favorite – to me it is a little inconsistent. We were so busy at that time: tour record tour record tour record… I feel like we didn’t take the time to hone the album down to the degree we should have. I’m certainly glad this one has its supporters, though. It’s more difficult to love the flawed character – so I respect that!

JM: How do your songs typically come together, or is there a typical?

SC: Typically I bring a rough draft of the song to rehearsal, then Janet will have at it – at that point it varies pretty widely, from no real changes to major revisions. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult.

JM: How did you get the gigs with Jandek, and what was that experience like?

SC: My friend Isaac Slusarenko runs Jackpot Records here in Portland, & he was reissuing some Jandek albums on vinyl. He asked Jandek if he would consider playing a show in Portland, & Jandek agreed as long as Isaac provided a venue & a band. So Isaac thought the Emil Amos & I would be an interesting band for the gig. I think the Portland show was deemed a success so we did it again in Seattle. Jandek has a pretty unique approach to music, so it was a pretty interesting experience. We never played together with Jandek before the soundcheck of the show, so it’s pretty spontaneous & we really had to be on our toes. Pretty fun.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

SC: I don’t think musicians need musical advice typically. But I will say that the biggest trap nowadays is the pressure to sell out your music & ideals to commercial concerns. In the pre-internet era, it was possible for non-mainstream bands to tour & tour & even make a little money from album sales & scratch out a living, but it’s more difficult to do these days. So many bands feel like licensing their songs to ad agencies & corporate commercials is the way make a few bucks. This to me just ruins the music – there is such an excess of commercialism & boring professionalism, & such a lack of character & subversion in rock & roll these days… my advice would be to formulate some real ideals & stick to them, then your work as a musician can have real value, beyond just dollars & cents.

JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?

SC: Quasi is going to be touring on & off through the early part of next year, so I guess that’s plenty to deal with for the moment. Janet & I both have other projects that or sort of on hold til Quasi takes a little break, so there is no shortage of musical opportunities.

JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about Quasi or otherwise?

SC: Nah, I’m not really worried about the record.

JM: Where are you responding from?

SC: Well we just finished a few weeks back east, & I’m home in Portland at the moment, before heading back out in a few days to get to points west. Nice because I’m able to respond with something more than 2 word answers to your queries.


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