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 Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue