Kickin’ it to the people
Critically acclaimed rock duo Quasi accentuates the positive on its latest tour
Sam Coomes is onstage dry- humping his poor Roxichord organ.
Behind him on drums is his ex-wife, Janet Weiss, also a member of heralded feminist punk group Sleater-Kinney, beating the skins like a woman possessed by the drunken ghost of Keith Moon. Fellow songwriter and sometime band mate Elliott Smith, for whom the pair is opening on this windy San Francisco night in ‘97, watches from the wings of the 7th Note Showroom stage. The set has moved from catchy pop hooks and lovely Lennonesque melodies to a grinding climax that sounds like an organ being shoved into an industrial wood chipper.
Suddenly, the gawky Coomes leaps over his instrument and trips on a cord (crashing to the floor), then instantly bounces up like a cartoon character, not missing a beat on the keys. The sold-out crowd goes wild. It’s all in a night’s work for the acclaimed punk-pop duo from Portland known simply as Quasi.
Named after a children’s book character, the band is fronted by the high lead vocals and chugging keyboard (and sometimes electric guitar) of Coomes, a talented songwriter on the West Coast indie-rock scene for the better part of the last decade, first as a member of SF’s Donner Party and later Portland’s Heatmiser (alongside now-canonized solo artist Elliott Smith, with whom Coomes still tours as bassist).
Currently, Quasi is touring the country in support of its latest album, the Sword of God (Touch and Go Records), an energetic burst of upbeat keyboard music and driving beats wedded to often bleak ruminations on topics ranging from mortality and showbiz ("Fuck Hollywood") to scientific technology (in “Genetic Science,” Coomes sings, “You got the human race, & you got Jesus, just in case/ You got your eternity: a few short years is enough for me/ I got my defiance—you got your genetic science.")
The Quasi van rolls into Chico for what is sure to be a rocking gig at the Brick Works on Thursday, Oct. 18. Also on the bill is another electric two-piece, The Magic Magicians, featuring “John from 764-Hero and Joe from Blackheart Procession,” as Coomes says.
The News & Review spoke briefly with the friendly Coomes while the pair was busy driving to a show at the legendary punk club Khyber Pass in Philadelphia (an irony not lost on him: “Yeah, I know, Khyber Pass—Afghanistan—and last night we played a club in Boston called the Middle East").
How’s the tour going so far?
Pretty good, it’s kind of a strange time. The attendance has been really unpredictable. But we had a good show last night in Boston, so everything is copasetic at the moment.
Have you noticed a lot of patriotism on the road?
Yeah, it’s pretty ubiquitous. The overpasses all have American flags. The other day we passed a woman driving a Volkswagen down the hot freeway and she had an American flag in the back of her car, an American flag on her dashboard, and she was clutching an American flag in her hand while she was driving. It was kind of like a mania.
How do you feel about the new album?
To me, it’s not that much different from any of our other records. In a way I wish it was, but that’s just the way it turned out. People seem to like it; we play the songs and people seem familiar with them. Some of the songs we recorded pretty much the same way we play them live. As a two-piece, it’s stripped down live—more raw. I kinda like it that way.
What about the lyrics?
Most were written within the same time period over a year. I don’t know if angry is that right word to describe them, but I feel like at the time I was reacting to a lot of things and that worked its way into the music. The way we do music is to just try and be honest about how we’re feeling at the time. We try not to pull any punches.
Has it been hard being in two successful bands?
Yeah, definitely—but it’s great to be able to work and travel around the world. Sleater-Kinney has been on a semi-hiatus, so I think Janet’s been able to manage the time better. I’m happy to work and play music, but too much is too much. I’m starting to think it may be time to rethink my focus [laughs]. I enjoy playing shows, but with touring the thrill is gone. As soon as the show starts, I’m happy. When it’s over, I’m back to work. But it’s hard to complain about it; a few years ago I was sitting on my ass waiting for something to happen—under-working. It seems like a feast-or-famine type of business.
How is living as an artist in Portland these days?
As far as I know, as good as ever. Since I started touring around a lot, working more, I tend to go out less ‘cause I like to be at home. I think the city stacks up pretty good to other places I’ve been.
Ever played Chico before?
I played there a couple of times with a former band, The Donner Party, many years ago. We played a couple of shows with Vomit Launch [Former Chicoan Larry Crane produced three tracks on the new Quasi album]. Both Larry and I have been recording about the same amount of time. … I probably picked up some stuff up from him.
Anything you want to tell the audience in Chico?
It’s a strange time in this country right now. A lot of people familiar with our records may think, ‘I don’t know if I want to see Quasi right now, it’s kind of a bummer, the lyrics are a bit negative." But live we try to emphasize more of the joyful aspect of it. We’ve had a lot of fun on these shows. To me, that’s where rock ‘n’ roll came from: It was devised by people who were poor, who didn’t have resources and just needed to kick it out and have a good time. That’s the roots right there, and we try to do that. I think people might enjoy it if they were disposed to come down at all.