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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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.