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 sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

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 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue