by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, August 2001
"Basically, I'm a guitar player," says Quasi's Sam Coomes. "I don't have training on the piano, but I found that with keyboards, the right hand is generally like the guitar and the left hand is like the bass. And if you put it through a distortion box and turn it up loud, you can almost have a power trio...but with only two people."
Quasi was founded on this simple principle, eight years ago. Originally a husband/wife act, Coomes and drummer Janet Weiss started recording in their basement as a duo, dumping guitars to let Coomes' buzzing organ riffs carry the music. At first, this peculiar sound was a hard sell, but five albums (and one divorce) later, Quasi has beaten the novelty-band stigma through the sheer power of Coomes' songwriting. Of course, the link to critics' darlings Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith has helped (Weiss drums for the former, Coomes plays bass in Smith's touring band), but Quasi's contrasting style assures them a separate circle of fans. It's a belated, somewhat bittersweet success for Coomes, who spent the '80s and '90s slogging through the indie circuit in bands like Heatmiser (which also included Smith) and the Donner Party. Today, he finds himself playing for a younger generation which barely remembers the pre-Nirvana years.
"It's nice if Quasi is considered hip," he says, "but it doesn't have much impact on me, except that I've been able to work as a full-time musician for the past couple of years instead of adding various day jobs. Really, I never thought I fit in, even when I was younger and more contemporary with other people. I was never necessarily part of any 'scene.' Certainly, I don't think we fit into any scene now. So, I don't feel that weird about it."
The Sword of God is Quasi's first release for Touch and Go, following three albums for Seattle-based Up Records (sadly, the switch became necessary when Up founder Chris Takino died of leukemia last October, thus derailing the label's prospects). The disc's 14 tracks are another batch of gnarled pop songs, fraught with tricky chords and oddball instrumental sections which casually defy formula. "Genetic Science" and "From a Hole in the Ground" are energetic and catchy, but much of the album is in a methodical, downbeat vein -- Coomes' increasing stress on grandiose, Lennon-esque balladry is obvious in haunting odes like "It's Raining," "Better Luck Next Time," "A Case of No Way Out" and "Fuck Hollywood." Those titles alone betray his weary cynicism, but Coomes swears his outlook has brightened: "The last record was fairly monochromatic, lyrically...all black! But this one isn't really like that. It moves around a bit, with a wider variety of emotions and ideas."
Coomes and Weiss opted to produce the new album themselves, a move which he regards as a major advance. This experiment didn't come without peril, however -- he readily admits that it was "a bit of a learning curve," and that jumping between the board and instruments became bewildering at times. Meanwhile, Coomes returned to electric guitar for a few tracks (notably, the slashing title tune), which added yet another set of variables. For a group founded on minimalist principles, Quasi has quite a few tricks at its disposal. Despite the bleak fatalism of his lyrics, Coomes is enthusiastic about the band's future.
"I feel like I've finally crossed over some difficult obstacles on a personal level, so I'm arranging my life better than I have in the past. That makes it easier to deal with things which come up in Quasi. We're in good shape, especially now that we've gone through this process of recording ourselves. We've accumulated so much knowledge with this last album, just as far as the craft of making records goes, that I think we're in a really good position to move ahead now."
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