The two-piece, singer/guitarist and drummer combo is a tried-and-true institution of rock music by now, largely thanks to the overwhelming success of The White Stripes and other duos. But in 1993, when Sam Coomes (vocals/guitar/keyboards) and Janet Weiss (vocals/drums) started Quasi several years before The White Stripes were founded, such a minimalist musical arrangement was pretty unheard of, although the Carpenters were the predecessors in pop music. The comparison with The White Stripes is especially apt because, like Jack and Meg White, Coomes and Weiss were married during their band’s early years then divorced, but have continued to play music together. With keyboard added to the mix, Quasi’s music is much more multidimensional than the overdriven blues shtick of the Whites, which was as monochromatic as their clothes.
The musical careers of Coomes and Weiss are all the more astonishing for all the bands they also worked with in the interim—some of the key architects of indie rock from the 1990s onward: Coomes with Built to Spill, Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith and Pink Mountain, and Weiss with Sleater-Kinney, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Bright Eyes, Elliott Smith and Wild Flag, among others.
Somehow, at the same time they’ve kept up a fairly regular schedule of touring as Quasi, and recently released their 11th full-length recording, Mole City. It’s a double album tour de force, with 24 tracks ranging from fuzz guitar to ragtime piano to interstellar synth. Quasi is one of those bands you don’t hear as much about as some of these other mainstays of the indie scene, but the two have seemingly distilled their influences from everything else they do to make something seemingly effortless and celebratory, yet also possessed of very skilled playing and songwriting. You might be tempted to dismiss parts of it as scattered, but that’s that whole point—that they are able to deftly touch so many bases.
They answered a passel of SLUG’s questions with answers as enigmatic as their music.
SLUG: Why release a double album right now?
Quasi: The past is gone, the future is just a theory, so right now was the only time available.
SLUG: How does Quasi relate to other bands you both have been in—Quasi seems to exist in its own musical universe, what is that sphere?
Quasi: Well it’s the same basic musical universe as a lot of other bands—rock & roll. It’s a pretty big universe. But its true we are maybe a little bit more of an outlier than a lot of other bands. Not at all so far out as to seem like a totally separate universe.
SLUG: How much of your music is tongue-in-cheek?
[Note: that’s just what someone whose music is completely and utterly tongue-in-cheek would say!]
SLUG: How is Mole City a culmination of 20 years of experience with the band?
Quasi: You learn a lot over 20 years—we tried to bring this record in line with what our experience has taught us is important & minimize getting caught up in what experience has taught us is not important. This has more to do with intent & process than technical or stylistic stuff. But stylistically, the album does sort of cruise through a lot of territory we covered here & there on all the other albums.
SLUG: “See You On Mars” and “Blasted” both talk about going somewhere else—why the escapist impulse?
Quasi: “See You On Mars” is actually about digging weird music in sketchy little venues. “Blasted” is about getting out of your own hang-ups & head-trips. To me there is no escapism here. I’m not really against escapism, though.
SLUG: Not just that, but the idea of “going nowhere” comes up in several songs—where’s nowhere?
Quasi: Nowhere is right here, if you look hard enough. I’m just saying that’s fine.
SLUG: How has the experience of making music with an ex-spouse changed over time?
Quasi: When we were recently ex-spouses (a long time ago), it was relatively difficult. Now its relatively less difficult. We respect certain boundaries—not in the music itself, but in our personal lives.
SLUG: How do you fit in with the myth of trendy Portlandia, and how do you defy it?
Quasi: We just do our thing. We don’t think about how it sits in relation to Portlandia. It’s just a TV show …
SLUG: Some of your songs undergo a transformation—in the middle of the melody, even. What’s your songwriting process?
Quasi: That’s a good question. Every song is different, the way it originates & the way it eventually comes together is always a little different. I can’t really figure out what the process is. Throw some words & chords together, a little melody, then the band messes around with it till it feels good. That’s about it.
SLUG: What’s next after Mole City?
Quasi: Tour, tour, tour, then I guess we’ll see.
Some artists prefer their music to speak for itself, but then the music of Quasi speaks in riddles, gestures and jokes that really don’t carry their full impact until you see the band in concert. It’s all in the delivery.
Bar Deluxe is the little big bar in Salt Lake—they don’t seem to get the same press as other clubs or the same caliber bands coming through, but it’s a great space–open and inviting–and has a great view of the stage from all sides. Some great things happen there, like Ryan Ashley Workman’s 40th birthday party a couple years ago with Pink Lightning and other local musical luminaries. Occasional SLUG contributor Brian Kubarycz’s paintings on the wall add an aggressively artsy touch to the experience.
This weekend, there was a lot going on in Salt Lake. On Saturday, you might have seen people walking around downtown in running attire from the Salt Lake Marathon or cosplay get-up from ComicCon, as well as a number of bands playing local venues. But this show was a chance to see some touring acts as well as local noteworthies, especially a former local band making a name for themselves touring after a recent SXSW appearance.
Portland singer/songwriter Ike Fonseca was strumming an acoustic guitar and singing in a mid-to-lower register, and if he was reminiscent of acoustic arrangements of Social Distortion songs, it’s not surprising that he has played with Johnny Two-Bags of Social D. Some of his lyrics were similar as well: "The preacher man says I’m still going to hell…" and "Better not to sweat the small things…"
Local singer/songwriter Aaron Walcott is all about the small things, in a big way. His meandering songwriting style reminds me of Brooklyn indie balladeers Ida, Sea Change-era Beck, Nick Drake, and when his voice transitioned to an upper register, the late, great Jeff Buckley. Finger picking a classical guitar with nylon strings allowed for fuller resonation, and his set was poetic and romantic, as opposed to the Johnny Cash–influenced Fonseca.
There is a certain formality with the Spanish guitar, but it’s a poetic type of formality—one that feels emotionally lush and rich, and affords a vulnerability in the lyrics. "I’m writing you a letter…" is how he began a song about among other things seemingly left to the wind. He perhaps found a common note with the ComicCon crowd—not that there were any visible—in a song called, "Red Shift," in which he described a phenomena—"till you wouldn’t be able to see a star anymore." He promised a surprise, which, near the end of his set was "a fucked up elk tooth" he gave to a lucky audience member. Here’s somebody with a gentle yet affable way with an audience, who shows signs of some impressive talents to develop.
Callow, the headliner, took the stage third—as is seemingly the case with local bands (in this case, Tavaputs) willing to play later and the out-of-towner wanting to get their workday over with. Driving through the desert from a show the night before in Reno, the two-piece, originally from Salt Lake, is starting to make a name for themselves, with their second CD, Blue Spells, released late last year on Portland, OR–based NXNW Records. Last month, they played SXSW at Red Eye Fly, a non-official venue known for showcasing underground punk bands, to give a taste of what drummer/keyboardist/singer Sami Knowles calls "ghost western indie rock." Guitarist/singer Red Moses noted, “It was great to play for people from other countries; they responded really well.”
After the comparatively lush, vibrant lyrical landscapes of Walcott and Fonseca, Callow’s musical vistas seemed bleak, sparse and somewhat desolate. The song titles told it all: "Alone," "Hard Man, Old Horse," "Always About the Ones Who Have It All," "Dead To Me"—only seven in all, but enough create a worldview—somehow indigenous to the Southwest—with Moses’ slightly gravelly vocal tone, and a great guitar tone built of longing and disappointment. That might not be enough to sustain such a musical enterprise, but with the counterpoint of Knowles’ voice, they combine to rail against the darkness, emptiness of the great open spaces and solitude of the road. At times, his guitar thunders above her drums—at other moments, her keyboards add an orchestral atmosphere. Occasionally, the sound is like the ebb and flow of the tide—perhaps that water on the horizon is a desert mirage? They are actually anything but emotionally callow. It’s really about his voice and what he is saying with it, which is considerable.
The band Tavaputs, which has been playing around locally a lot, sounds very much like alt-country bands along the lines of Magnolia Electric Company. In fact, vocalist Matt Laser sounds remarkably like the late Jason Molina of MagElCo. This evening, Laser was ill and Ben Kilbourne took over vocal duties, and seemed to waver a bit on some numbers, but the band has the perfect alt-country sound, with the bassist and drummer even throwing in a few slightly porgy fills. Their open arrangements have an emotional tone that ranges from placid to intense. Like the plateau in Southern Utah for which they were named, the product of geological and erosion, like Callow, they find a way to create a sense of richness from an emotional landscape that is, at times, harsh and forbidding.