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When you talk to Sam Coomes of Quasi you are talking to a true artist. This is a guy that's so talented that he could make a pop album and make a million dollars but he just doesn't want to. He's worked with Elliott Smith (who probably has a million dollars) and just about everyone else out of Portland, OR. Quasi's latest release, Sword Of God, as you will discover in the interview, just doesn't compare to them live. The show is like no other, kind of like G.G. Allin meets James Taylor. Sam Coomes is divorced from his drum player Janet Weiss (of Sleater-Kinney) but they still work together. I think the one thing I like most about doing these interviews is putting down bullshit rumors, check it out.

Sam Coomes: I'm ready now.

Dan Epstein: Sorry you didn't know about the interview.

SC : Several things could have happened. I could have very well been told about it and said "yeah cool" and then just lost track of it. Its just like we're on tour and we're kind of doing everything, we drive and tour manage. Just the two of us. So things get a little dense.

DE : Lets do it. Your album Field Studies was partly inspired by your interest in botany, what inspired Sword Of God?

SC : Field Studies wasn't really inspired in my interest in botany. If anything it would be maybe my interest in perhaps zoology, if you include human beings as y'know in the animal kingdom, y'know. Ha ha. Um, the inspiration for all the records is living life, looking around, thinking about things. There are no concepts behind them. It's our expressions of the process of being a human being and trying to deal with whatever happens.

DE : Why is Stanley Zappa the only guest musician on Sword Of God?

SC : I think the most people we've ever used on our albums, besides us, is one. Basically we just enjoyed working on our own and our schedule is usually such that it's difficult to get people involved.

DE : Do you record all over the country?

SC : On this record, we recorded at home. It was sort of that we worked on it when we had the time. We don't really record around the country. Before we recorded in a studio in Portland and Seattle.

DE : How come you don't have a backing band on tour with you?

SC : We don't need a backing band. We can't afford to pay a backing band and we enjoy doing things ourselves, that's the way we do it.

DE : How extensive is your new tour?

SC : We're touring the country for about a month on our own then we take a week off then we go out for another couple of weeks supporting Stereolab and then we're debating going off to Europe.

DE : Are you nervous about traveling to Europe?

SC : Yeah that's a big part of it, itís strange time to travel. Even in the United States. To travel abroad, it's difficult enough under the best of circumstances. Especially in Europe, we work twice as hard as we do over here and we don't make any money. And now added to the fact that planes are falling out of the skies and there is travel advisories and bombs are flying around.

DE : So you're not going to take Janet Jackson's lead and cancel your European tour?

SC : Well, we're not going to cancel our U.S. tour. We're still debating. Most American bands that I've talked to are canceling our European tours.

DE : How has reaction been to the new album?

SC : Pretty good I guess. Ya know, we've been getting people to come out to the shows and they seem to know the songs. We get a good reaction when we play, so I'm assuming people enjoy them. I don't really know, its kind of strange, you put the record out. I'm too old, we've done a number of records now, I don't read the press so I can only really gauge by when we play live and on that level. People seem to enjoy it.

DE : Why did you leave Up Records?

SC : Itís kind of a sad story. Up records was started and run by a by a friend, Chris Stekeno who died last year of leukemia. They're scaling they're operations back radically. They're maintaining part of their catalog and perhaps doing a few limited edition things but yeah we needed to find a new label. We were already kind of thinking about it.

DE : The second track on Sword Of God is "Fuck Hollywood". Why should Hollywood go fuck themselves?

SC : I mean, not necessarily the town of Hollywood, but the Hollywood mentality. I see Hollywood as being a massive propaganda machine for corporate capitalism and everything that gets cranked out of Hollywood; massive dollars are pumped into it in order to spread the gospel of conforming to a certain way of life and a certain way of looking at things. It's created a climate in which it's not really considered legitimate by a lot of people to create art on a human scale whether it's films or music or anything. If you're not a major label artist then nobody takes you seriously. Only a small minority of people usually the more intelligent people.

DE : They really don't understand artists like yourself who makes this really eclectic music that actually sells and sells out shows. It probably confuses them.

SC : Yeah, people like me in general. If they can't be co-opted by the Hollywood establishment then we're ignored, maybe that's fine to just go about it on our own.

DE : Motorgoat, the band you and Janet Weiss were in previously, broke up in 1993, why?

SC : In a way it didn't because it was just a three piece band with Janet myself and a bass player named Brad Pettennoff who moved back down to San Francisco where he came from. It just continued on with a differentÖ The chemistry of the band wasn't really working out too well; we made a couple of changes and continued on as Quasi.

DE : Are you happy with the re-release of your first album, Early Recordings?

SC : That record isn't my favorite, but in a lot of ways I think it's the most interesting. Because of the way it was put together and its kind of a compendium of disparate tracks that we kind of threw together. I happen to like those kinds of records and that's the only one like that that we have. So I'm happy and people seem to want it. There was enough people asking for it, so Touch and Go re-released it.

DE : How is Touch and Go, your new label, treating you?

SC : Touch and Go is great. They were the only people that we talked to when we were looking for a label. So we were happy it worked out with them.

DE : How did you first meet Elliot Smith?

SC : I've known him for years. We were both playing in Portland bands. Like ten years ago he had his band Heatmiser and I was playing in Motorgoat and we would play shows together. I've known him forever.

DE : What's it like playing with him?

SC : For the most part, my role has been just touring with him. We play bigger venues and we travel in a big bus and all that. I'm not really crazy about that type of touring personally; I like kind of having more control. It's a lot harder work to tour the way that Quasi does. Just driving ourselves around in a van playing smaller venues. But it's more satisfying to me personally. I love Elliot's music and it was great to be a part of that. It's a tradeoff I guess.

DE : Would you consider Quasi's latest release more accessible and was that your intention?

SC : It wasn't our intention to make it more accessible andÖ

DE : Its really different from the live show, that's for sure.

SC : Yeah, well I think our second album is probably closest to way we sound live, more stripped down, more distorted. After making that we never really wanted to do that again, even the record Featuring Birds is fairly close to the way we sound live. That's the one people seem to like anyway so we try to do different things to keep ourselves interested. And not really interested in reproducing our live shows. I'd be really interested in doing a live album, just a straight up live record. I think that some of the songs come off better live, stripped down and cranked up like that. But when you're recording, it's very difficult to recreate a live situation--there's so many intangible things. There's a different level of energy. We don't really try to recreate the live version of the song.

DE : The word Quasi is defined as to some degree or in some manner. How would you define the band Quasi?

SC : I don't really know, it's like our little art project, this rock and roll band. Some people say it's a pop band. We're not really trying to create hit records. In that respect itís not really pop music. It uses some sounds and structures of pop music. It's just a rock and roll band playing sort of personal music. It kind of depends on who I'm defining it for. If it's for somebody who isn't familiar with underground rock and roll and pop music, I would have to be a little bit more elaborate. But for someone who already listens to that type of music and understands the mentality there, there's not really a need to get too elaborate. I tell people we're a two piece keyboards and drums and thatís usually enough give people an indication that's it's a little bit of a different take on the basic rock and roll idea.

DE : You've been known to hurt yourself during your live shows, why?

SC : There's part of me that's just an entertainer and wants to give people a good show. But itís not a conscious decision usually. There's a couple of songs where I have a little bit more space to try stuff like that and if the show is going well and the energy's happening things just happen.

DE : Can you tell the show is going well if you decide to come out in your underwear?

SC : I have played in underwear once in my life; normally I'm a modest person.

DE : I guess it keeps coming back to haunt you.

SC : Yeah.

DE : Why did you name the name band after the animated film Quasi At The Quackadero (by Sally Cruikshank)?

SC : It was something from the back of my head. It wasn't the sole reason for it. Yeah it got into the press release because I thought it would be a nice way to attract attention to an animator that I like.

DE : Many people considered your release Transmogrifications a postscript to your divorce from band member Janet Weiss. What do you make of that?

SC : It's true that that record was done during that period, it was obvious that we were deep in that situation at the time. It informs that record, certainly a lot more than any other ones. This was years ago and people now still assume that that still informs our work as much as it used to. It doesn't but on that record it's fair to say that that was a pretty good factor.

DE : Its been said that when you sing some of your saddest lyrics it's been said that you wink at Janet. What does that mean?

SC : These kind of blinks and winks and kinds of expressions, that's the way we communicate on stage. It doesn't have anything to do at all with the particular lyric or song I'm singing. Its means that that was a good drum fill or are you ready for this part or let's do this. There's a lot of improvisation, in a small way. We're not a jazz band but we are loose and we have to give each other little signals in order to make sure we are in the same space and that's what that is all about.

DE : What is it like working with someone you're divorced from?

SC : I don't think about it anymore, this is like 6 years ago. We've both moved on since then, we've had other relationships. We've dealt with it. Perhaps it gives a somewhat unusual depth to our relationship and that we've gone through high highs and low lows together even in addition to the high highs and low lows that everybody in a rock band has when you're struggling. So maybe that enriches our rapport as musicians but its not something we consciously think about.

DE : Many people compare you to Ben Folds. Do you like their music?

SC : Not at all. I don't think we have much in common except that I play the piano. I don't play the piano very much like them. I guess there's kind of a melodic thing. I don't really hear it myself. I hear people say that, we have actually played shows with Ben Folds and I think if people actually saw Ben Folds and Quasi playing together they would hear and see that it's a very different proposition.

DE : For years you had an electric keyboard called a Roxichord. It hasn't been seen recently. Where is it?

SC : It's in the Experience Rock and Roll Museum in Seattle.

DE : That must be very exciting.

SC : Well they just opened it up a year or two ago. They were operating on a smaller level then trying to expand their collection. It got through the grapevine that this was the case. I happened to know someone who was working there and I mentioned that I have this keyboard that I can't use anymore. So it wasn't like they came up to me and sought me out and said "we really need to have this in our museum". I thought it was a good way for me to get a sum amount of money out of an instrument I could no longer use because it was broken beyond repair.

DE : That's from stomping on it, I assume.

SC : It broke multiple times. It fell over; it was beat up, stomped on, kicked. Partly by me, partly by airline employees.

DE : We have something in common, I also write in my head while I bike. Do you make up song parts while riding your bicycle?

SC : Oh yeah, they just come to you. You just find yourself in a certain state of mind and often bicycling is good for that, because you get into a rhythm and you just kind of float by and its good for daydreaming if you're on a peaceful road.

DE : If you're in a neighborhood you know it's kind of like you're on autopilot.

SC : Right. It helps me get into a state of mind where stuff just happens. I dint really make a plan like "I'm going to go ride a bike because I need to write a song". It just works out that way.

DE : How did you get involved with the Siren Music Festival?

SC : Somebody just called us and said they were putting this thing together and we said it sounds fun.

DE : You seemed to have a problem with many of the artists at the Siren Music Festival. Did Guided By Voices actually steal your dressing room?

SC : No. I'm a little bit pissed off about the person that did that interview. Because we talked to him for a while. He asked these questions like "who's your enemy", we liked everybody. We just started joking around and then he printed it as if it was true. Like Superchunk is the nicest and most amazing people in the world. If I was in Chapel Hill right now I would be staying at Mac (McCaughan)'s house. We were joking with him that we hated Superchunk and laughing but when you print that it doesn't come off that way at all. I don't know what that guy's problem was, he was just generating lies for his own purposes. I don't know why.

DE : How does your songwriting process work?

SC : I don't really have much of a process. The songs just kind of start to pop into my head then they fill themselves out and I sit down and work them out. It's a little different every time. I think the traditional idea of a songwriter who sits down at the piano with a staff of paper or whatever and starts building a song. That's not really how I do it. Usually I'm thinking about something or I have some kind of feeling I'm wrestling with. Ideas start to happen. I have to be in a certain state of mind to do it. I don't really have much control over it.

DE : What artists are you listening to now?

SC : Pretty much my favorite records at the moment are the Betty Davis records that have been recently reissued--not the actress.

DE : You just played the Knitting Factory in New York City. What's it like to play New York after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center?

SC : It's pretty strange. The Knitting Factory is just a few blocks away from there. Itís still smoldering. You can smell it in the air. We have to go through checkpoints to get to the club. The people are still pretty shook up about. I didn't know what to expect. The shows actually went really well. Two nights and they were both sold out. It was a strange show in some ways but it turned out to be pretty fun. I think that people who do want to go out to see shows are really grateful that they are still able to enjoy that. The Knitting Factory was closed for weeks and just the fact that its open at all is a certain amount of struggle on their part.

DE : What's next for you?

SC : I don't know. We're going to be on tour until December depending on Europe. Then itís holiday time. It doesn't make sense to plan much farther ahead than that.

DE : Thank you so much.

SC : No problem.


Email Dan at: danepstein75@hotmail.com

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