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
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
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
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
DE : Its really different from the live show, that's
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
DE : What is it like working with someone you're divorced
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
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
DE : We have something in common, I also write in
my head while I bike. Do you make up song parts while riding
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
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.
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