Quasi’s Sam Coomes Transcript, 10.4.01: ‘I’d Still Play Music Even [If] Nobody Cared’

As I noted after chatting with Quasi’s Sam Coomes on October 4, 2001, “It’s impossible to do an interview these days and not have at least of it consist of war talk.”When I caught up with the feisty frontman that day, 9/11 was still damp in everyone’s minds, and some of our conversation naturally gravitated in that direction. Especially because, at the time of our chat, Coomes was headed to New York to continue his band’s tour.

“That’s going to be the strangest place, I think,” he told me.

Here’s the rest of our previously unpublished conversation:

[Go here for the accompanying story I wrote for The Big Takeover.]

SC: Especially when we first started [the tour], it’s a bit of a strange time to be doing anything, I suppose. Attendance at shows has been kind of unpredictable –some shows are really well-attended and sold out [Chicago, Boston, Madison], others probably less well-attended than we would’ve expected [Toronto]. But otherwise everything’s been going well. People seem to enjoy it, we’re playing well as far as I can tell.

KO: Are world events affecting your playing?

SC: I don’t think they’ve affected our playing, really. It just affects the way I think about what we’re doing, in a way that the audiences probably think about it, too.

KO: Are you playing all the new songs live? Some of them wouldn’t seem to work so well.

SC: [Some of them, we’re doing stripped] down, amped up versions of it. I think even some of them sound better that way.

KO: Were you elated when the record was finished?

SC: No, not at all. It was fairly difficult for us to do the record, actually, because we recorded it ourselves – it was the first time we sort of embarked on this type of a project on our own. I thought we knew a lot more about recording than we actually did. It took a long time to get it sound good, let alone worry about our performances, and it was sort of a struggle for us to make it. When it finally was 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.

Usually when a record’s done, I’m already thinking about the next one. And, of course, we finished it months ago, and then you have to wait for everything to be put together and the release schedules to be …

There’s so many things you never think about. We’ve been involved in recording quite a bit before, but we never dealt with the little details. There’s crazy things like phase cancellation … I can’t even remember the little ridiculous things you think about and it takes a long time to even figure out what’s wrong.

Initially, I thought, ‘Well, now we’re doing it ourselves, we’ll really push the envelope this time.’ But 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.

It’s not terribly different from our last couple records, as far as production goes – to my ears. But maybe it’s even a little better, though, cause we did have a little more time to work on it.

The thing I’m happiest about, or at least reservedly happy about, is actually the cover art, the packaging of the whole thing.

That’s a photograph I took in Mexico at a statuary shop. It was a big shop filled with stuff like that and I took a few pictures. That one seems to have a nice resonance to it. It’s kind of a strange photo. We had a different idea for the record cover for quite awhile before we actually had to come down and put it together. And we ended up changing our minds at the last minute, and that photo sort of came to mind. It’s not necessarily tied into the concept of the album at all, it just has a type of feel that we thought would go with it.

KO: What about the painting?

SC: That’s the goddess Kali. In my head, that had something to do with some of the things I was feeling when I was writing the songs. The songs are maybe negative or something … I don’t know how to characterize it exactly … but I was sort of imagining, like the whole idea of The Sword of God is tied into the idea of this goddess Kali who comes down and destroys things in order that other things may be built up. So she’s a destructive and regenerative force. It seemed to me vaguely related to some of the feelings I was thinking about when we were working on the record.

KO: Does the Omar story directly correlate?

SC: That’s sort of just a story we threw in there, again, to make the package a little more interesting. It’s kind of a story I had kicking around for a long time, but I never actually finished it up. I decided this was a good excuse to finalize it, shorten it, tighten it up quite a bit and use it for this purpose.

KO: What about the origin of the song “Fuck Hollywood”?

SC: What that song came from … have you seen “American Movie”? The guy, he borrows some money from his grandfather I think, and he gives him a cameo in his movie and gives him a couple lines. The lines are: “It’s all right, it’s okay/ There’s something to live for/ Jesus told me so.” And he can’t get it right – they do take after take and he can only just get the first two lines.

Those lines were just in my head for days. So I just started plucking around on the piano, and the words fell down onto the chords, and it just turned into a song. The movie, to me, is just an amusing movie, the antithesis of a Hollywood movie – being out of Hollywood, dealing with things Hollywood movies don’t deal with. The title I put later on when I was thinking about something else, but I thought it applied to where the song came from initially. It’s not Hollywood really, it’s the Hollywood mentality. We sort of work in a way that’s not the Hollywood way of making music. The song came out of a movie which wasn’t the Hollywood way of making movies … it’s a vague notion, I don’t want to set too specific about it, I’m not sure it necessarily touches everybody’s life the same way it touches mine. But it possibly could, because the Hollywood entertainment industry is so all-pervasive, and it’s used in this country as, more or less, propaganda. Tell people how they’re supposed to look, how they’re supposed to think, how they’re supposed to act. I’d like to encourage an alternative way of thinking about our entertainment.

KO: Would you ever consider signing to a major label?

SC: Probably not. I guess I wouldn’t rule it out. I don’t think anybody would be interested. But if they were to offer us quite a bit of money and I was able to retain as much as possible the creative aspect of it, I guess I would think about it. Some of my favorite records by friends of mine have come out on major labels, but I’m not sure that it would work for us. We’re certainly not looking for that, and because we’re not looking for it I think labels think it wouldn’t be that good of a deal for them. But I think that it’s highly unlikely we would do that, because so many conditions would have to be met. The only single good thing about major labels is money. … And there’s so many negatives. Whereas a label like Touch & Go, it makes more sense financially for the most part for a band like us, ’cause if we sell 20,000 records on Touch & Go, everybody would be ecstatic – that’d be more records than we’ve ever sold. Everybody would make money and we’d all be happy. But 20,000 on a major label … they’ll hire a hitman to get rid of you. It’s a huge loss for them, and nobody sees any money and we drop like a rock. It doesn’t really make sense for a band like us.

KO: Going back to the songs, can you talk about how “It’s Raining” was developed?

SC: Even when I wrote it, I actually didn’t think we’re all alone in this world. Sometimes I feel that way, but when I kind of step back out of my subjective point of view, I can see that that’s not really true. But I just let the song be because it was the way I was feeling at the time.

You’re around a group of people, but one of the people perhaps seems somehow unable to cope with the same situation that everybody else is forced to deal with and is handling it better. [He laughs.] That’s sort of what that song came out of.

It’s strange to sing a lot of these songs, in New York City especially, where it’s much more immediate to the people there. But I think people tend to enjoy our shows, even if our lyrics tend to be a little darker, melancholy or something. Our shows are a little bit rambunctious, and I think at the end people are actually happy and it feels good. I guess I’m just going to try to focus on that as we play.

I don’t think we’re going to modify our set. Even the song “The Sword of God,” it’s not very specific, even though one of the things I was thinking about is probably in some ways similar to probably how the people who planned these attacks were thinking. Allah coming down to instill divine justice. That was one of the ideas I had when I was thinking about that song, but of course I wasn’t thinking about it literally, destroying and killing innocent people.

It’s possible for people to think that way if we get a little too literal-minded about things. In some ways, that song hints at that, now, to me, in a disturbing way. But I think we’ll play it, throw it out there. I think it’s OK to throw things out there and have people have thoughts about it. If people don’t like it or think it’s offensive, I can kind of accept that too.

It’s funny how music … if you have some sort of an intensified emotional state, if you’re going through something, you can hear a song on the radio and it really sounds like it was written specifically for you, specifically about whatever you’re going through, even though it’s almost certainly not the case. And then psychotic people actually think they’re getting messages, they 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.

KO: Do you take the audience into account when you write music?

SC: I don’t really have anybody in mind at all. I have no idea what type of person listens to this music. [He laughs.] It’s not even a consideration when we’re making music.

Part of me likes to entertain people. When we play live, we try to put a set together that’s energetic and entertaining and that makes everybody, including ourselves, feel good. We have so many songs to choose from now.

That doesn’t represent any sort of a compromise, because there actually is an audience there and there’s interaction back and forth between you and the audience. But when you’re making a record, there is not audience really. You’re just putting songs on tape. You’re throwing it out there for the people who want to hear it, but it’s much more removed from the direct interaction you have with a live show.

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 [if] nobody cared. And it’s nice that at least a few people notice what we do and seem to like it, but we’re far from a household name or anything like that.

We don’t have a master plan, we just kind of move along and see what happens.

In general, I’ve become pretty tired of touring. 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, I enjoy that part of it. And the rest of it’s pretty hit-or-miss. I envision we’ll continue to tour, but … Quasi hasn’t toured as much as I have, because I’ve been touring with other things as has Janet.

It’s life experience, just like all other life experience. I’m not too sure. A concrete thing is that it has kind of destroyed my enthusiasm about touring, because it’s so much work.

When you see somebody you know who’s making incredible music, it kind of kicks you in the ass. But it’s more of an influence maybe than an actual influence.

A couple records back, it was more of an issue. But our breakup was years ago, so now it’s not really. But there was a time when it was, definitely, one of the central emotional informants of what we do. But I really don’t even think about it now. I think about it mostly because I’m asked about it in interviews, and then it’s almost as if I’m reminded about it – yeah, that was true, that was the case.

I don’t have an idea for the next record. Soon we’ll have enough songs to put something together, but I’m kind of thinking we’re not going to rush into it this time. We’re just going to work on it until we feel happy with it, however long that takes. It might be relatively quickly, it might take awhile. But there isn’t any point in us rushing to get albums out quickly anymore. We have five albums now, but just to make an album isn’t enough now. It’s got to constitute some sort of an advancement over what we’ve already done.

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