Quasi’s Sam Coomes In ’01: ‘There Isn’t Any Point In Us Rushing’ Albums
Way back on October 4, 2001 – with the horror of 9/11 still damp in everyone’s minds – Quasi’s Sam Coomes took a few to talk with me about his band’s then-new album, The Sword of God.
“There isn’t any point in us rushing to get albums out quickly anymore,” he confessed at the time.
True to his words, it’d be an understatement to say Quasi haven’t been rushing their releases. On February 23, Quasi will finally drop their first proper studio album in a long four years: American Gong.
As fans rev up for the record, here’s a look back at the previously out-of-print Sword of God piece I wrote way back when.
[Go here for my previously unpublished full transcript with Quasi’s Sam Coomes on October 4, 2001.]
In the Hindu pantheon, the goddess Kali inflicts destruction and regeneration upon the Earth. Adorned with human skulls and dripping with blood, the vengeful goddess is on the one hand a source of utmost fear. On the other, her ability to rejuvenate and cleanse is revered to the highest degree by many worshippers of the faith.
Quasi’s fifth album, The Sword of God, concerns itself in part with the role of Kali; a painting of her appears inside the album sleeve. Songs like “Fuck Hollywood” and “Genetic Science” are respective jabs taken at vehicles of propaganda and modern technology. To an extent, band members and former spouses Sam Coomes (vocal/keyboard/guitar, bassist for Elliott Smith) and Janet Weiss (drums/vocal, Sleater-Kinney drummer) lust for the destruction and recreation of those enterprises.
At the same time, Coomes – on a cell phone en route from Philadelphia to New York – wants to ensure that his potent lyrics (“Birth by birth we’re cast out on this earth/ To a welcome of blood & screams”) are not misconstrued. In keeping with the Kali theme, he mentions the Thugee cult, which performed human sacrifice in the mid-19th century in the name of the goddess. “It’s possible for people to think that way if they get too literal-minded,” he says.
Needless to say, the perpetrators of September’s attacks exemplify a case of distortion as a result of literalism. Coomes ties in the song “The Sword of God” with today’s current affairs: “One of the things I was thinking about is probably in some ways similar to how the people who planned these attacks were thinking: Allah coming down to instill divine justice. That was one of the ideas I had … but of course I wasn’t thinking about it literally, destroying and killing innocent people.
“Psychotic people hear voices on the radio addressing them directly. Which is a hair’s breath away from that phenomenon of finding something directly relevant to what’s happening in your life at a given moment with some random song on the radio.”
It’s the art of the momentary impulse that Quasi has so perfected. Temperamental flights of thought mixed with rambunctious, flailing sounds distinguish the Portland, OR duo in a vivid light; The Sword of God (Touch & Go)’s brilliant, unheeded bursts of drum crash and keyboard panic characterize the album as one of the year’s best. But unlike you’re average indie rocker – giddy with the four-track and splattering together incongruent sounds into a hasty clutter, Quasi’s immediacy is actually a belabored product.
“It was fairly difficult for us to do the record, actually,” Coomes admits, “because we recorded it ourselves.” He continues, “I thought we knew a lot more about recording than we actually did. It took a long time to get it to sound good, let alone worry about our performances. When it was finally done, it was more like relief and not really elation. We were still mixing it like two hours before the deadline, put the tapes in Fed Ex and sent it to the mastering place.”
Since the duo devoted so much time and energy to production, developing a “new sound” took the backseat on The Sword of God. “Because it was so difficult for us, we basically started just aiming for … trying to get up to our previous standards, which was enough of a struggle.” More than the 14-cut record itself, Coomes says that learning the production process was what Quasi benefited from most during its creation.
“I have no idea what type of person listens to this,” he laughs. “It’s not even a consideration when we’re making music.” A minute later, he resumes that train of thought: “I’m happy when people like the record, but when they don’t I don’t see that there’s anything I can really do about it necessarily. I’ve been playing music for so long, and for most of the time nobody paid any attention, nobody cared. After awhile, I just realized that that wasn’t important to me, that I’d still play music even though nobody cared.”
Oh, but they do. Despite a widespread slump in concert attendance following the attacks, Quasi sold out shows in Chicago, Boston and Madison a mere few weeks afterwards. Coomes sounds enthusiastic about some of the gigs, but can’t help but mention his supreme road fatigue. “Each time I go out, it gets harder and harder. I enjoy from the second my hand comes down on the first chord of the first song till the time we stop. The rest of it’s pretty hit-or-miss. I envision we’ll continue to tour, but …” he trails.
Alas, there is no rest for the wicked. Quasi has already begun formulating ideas for their next record, which, in spite of the effort it took to churn out The Sword of God, Coomes says will most likely be self-produced. The next time, he maintains, will be different: “We’re going to work on it until we feel happy with it, however long that takes. There isn’t any point in us rushing to get albums out quickly anymore. We have five albums now, and just to make an album isn’t enough. It’s got to constitute some sort of an advancement over what we’ve already done.”
Coomes and Weiss have performed as Quasi for six years now, and though their ability to continue playing together despite being divorcees attracts the eyes of many, it’s not something Coomes says he thinks about much anymore. “There was a time when it was, definitely, one of the central emotional informants of what we do. But I don’t even think about it now … in interviews, it’s almost as if I’m reminded about it.”
Living the “alternative lifestyle” of a band, so to speak, is something that closely follows Quasi but rarely seems to concern them; “Fuck Hollywood” is a fitting glimpse of that attitude. Inspired by “American Movie,” Coomes says that the song is more about rallying against an idea than a place. “The Hollywood entertainment industry is so pervasive, and it’s used in this country more or less as propaganda: Tell people how they’re supposed to look, think and act. I’d like to encourage an alternative way of thinking about our entertainment.”
Originally published in The Big Takeover issue #49, early 2002.
• Bad Penny MP3 download: “Repulsion” (from American Gong)