Sam Coomes of Quasi: "The internet has demystified the idea of being in a band"

The Quasi front man on two decades in indie rock, noise and the coming apocalypse.

Back in March 1997, when P Diddy was still Puff Daddy and at the top of the US charts with his debut single, “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”, a Portland indie band called Quasi also released its debut – the album R&B Transmogrification. That month, Aerosmith put out its multi-platinum-selling 12th LP, Nine Lives; religious groups picketed Marilyn Manson gigs in South Carolina; in Britain, the Spice Girls were busy launching Channel 5 with a bastardised version of Manfred Mann’s “5-4-3-2-1” (rewritten as “1-2-3-4-5”). Quasi got little attention from the mainstream press but that seemed only fitting for a band that so perfectly embodied 1990s slackerdom – its suspicion of glamour, its high tolerance of noise and disorder.

Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss formed Quasi in 1993. They were soon better known as members of other bands – both played for Elliott Smith; Coomes was briefly a member of Heatmiser; Weiss drummed for Sleater Kinney, then Stephen Malkmus – but they slowly amassed a following with a series of raucous, always sharp-tongued records such as Featuring “Birds” (1998) and American Gong (2010). As they prepare for the release in September of their latest album, Mole City (Domino), I asked Coomes about two decades at the heart of the US alternative scene, how the internet has changed music and the chances of apocalypse.

It’s been 20 years since you formed Quasi. What’s changed?
Every possible thing has changed, several times over. Our lives collectively and individually have inevitably changed but also the music world now doesn't much resemble the music world of 20 years ago, mostly because it’s channeled through the internet. It’s a whole new ball game.

So: “The internet has killed the indie music scene.” Discuss.
Man, I could write a tome on this, but if we want to just keep it simple, it comes down to a massive watering-down process on both sides of the musical equation. On the one hand, the internet has demystified the idea of being in a band; at the same time, it’s made it much easier in purely practical terms. There has been an exponential increase in the number of bands and a simultaneous decrease in the intensity of being in a band. On the other hand, people interested in music from the listener’s angle now have instant access to whatever they want, in the more-or-less neutered form it assumes when filtered through the internet; whereas in the pre-internet days, the pursuit of non-mainstream music required a much more substantial commitment from the listener. So, on the listener's side, there’s been a similar expansion in terms of numbers and a massive drop-off in intensity. This really has affected almost all forms of music, not just indie music, or whatever one might have formerly considered indie music.

In the 1998 song “The Happy Prole” and, much later, “Master & Dog” (2003), you sing about class – and you explicitly criticise the Bush administration in the 2003 album Hot Shit! Do you think musicians have a responsibility to engage directly with politics?
Musicians have a responsibility to channel whatever honest feelings they are having at a given time into their music. If they are tripping on politics at that time, then sure. Otherwise, no.

What do you think of President Obama?
I voted for him the first time with enthusiasm. I voted for him the second time, also, but with no enthusiasm and huge reservations.

Quasi mostly consists of just you and Janet. Is there something about being a two-piece that appeals to you?
When Quasi first started, the idea was that it would be more of an open-ended project than a regular band. Every time we played, we played with a different line-up – as many as five, at one point – and a different set of material or, at least, different arrangements. But at some point, we found that the two-person format was the most interesting for us. It was much more unusual in those days than it is now.

Both of you work with multiple other bands – Janet has drummed for Sleater Kinney, Bright Eyes and Stephen Malkmus, while you’ve played with Jandek, Built to Spill and Elliott Smith.
Quasi can get pretty pressurised, like a lot of bands, I guess. It’s good to break out and work in other contexts. Also, economically, it's not really possible for most musicians to work in only one band.

Your US label Kill Rock Stars describes Mole City as a collection of “parlour singalongs for the last century”. What does that mean?
I think what this is getting at is that, among other things, the album touches on some kind of apocalyptic themes but it’s also melodically pretty accessible, for the most part. "Last century" refers to the final century of our current culture or society, rather than “last” in the sense of “previous” (ie, the 20th century).

Are human beings doomed?
What kind of time scale are we talking? Because ultimately, nothing is permanent – the human species, of course, is no exception. But the species will continue on for a number of generations yet, for better or for worse.

Mole City is a double LP. Did you set out to make a long album?
It’s a fairly big album. This was absolutely our intent from the get-go. We have made so many records, there needed to be a challenge in order to energise the process. At 20 years as a band, we felt we had to make a big statement or none at all.

Since When the Going Gets Dark, you’ve seemed increasingly interested in dissonance and noise.
Dissonance and noise have always been a part of our thing but it’s true that it kinda peaked a little on When the Going Gets Dark. We've tried to be a little more judicious with the dissonance on the last couple of records, because it became obvious, touring around that album, that a lot of people just don't like it – which was actually a little surprising to me, because I tend to love it. But when I am playing music for other people, I do try to factor them into the musical choices we make, up to a point.

You’re a Portland band. How accurate is Carrie Brownstein’s hipster satire Portlandia?
It sounds snobby but I don't actually have a TV and I don’t use my computer to watch TV, so I haven’t really seen too much of Portlandia. But from the couple things I’ve seen, I don’t think it’s an unfair portrayal.

What’s next for you and Quasi?
The album comes out in October, then a bunch of touring. Then, we will see. Opportunities may arise, or not.

Quasi's video for "You Can Stay But You Gotta Go":

Quasi's Mole City is released by Domino on 30 September

Yo Zushi's zine and album of songs "Smalltime" is available now. His video for "Something New" is on YouTube here.

Ready to rock: Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes of Quasi

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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