Playing the Field

Not all of Quasi's songs are about Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes' failed marriage. Just most of them.
John Clark

Janet Weiss might have been better off if she had just left Quasi when she joined Sleater-Kinney in 1996. She could have said goodbye to her ex-husband and Quasi partner Sam Coomes, his Roxichord, and his honestly caustic lyrics, and run off to be the star drummer in the much revered all-girl band. When her duties with Sleater-Kinney were done, Weiss could return home to Portland and enjoy her time off with her cat. Instead she stayed with Quasi and devotes that precious little free time to backing up Coomes, complementing his vocals, guitars, and keyboards with her tight harmonies and even tighter drums.

So far this year, Weiss has released two records -- Sleater Kinney's acclaimed The Hot Rock and Field Studies, Quasi's fourth album. She's toured twice with Sleater-Kinney and is now embarking on a grueling one-month tour with Coomes, making a loop along the U.S. coasts and borders playing 23 shows in 30 days. But to her, it's worth it.

"I would never quit," she says. "It's one of the most important things in my life, and I couldn't replace it. I would never leave it for anything unless we both agreed we didn't want to do it anymore. I didn't join Sleater-Kinney to get away from anything. It was a great opportunity to play with great people."

Weiss gets the same satisfaction from playing whether it's with Quasi or Sleater Kinney, drumming for Sarah Dougher, or touring with Coomes as Elliott Smith's backup band. And though her role in each is the same, her relationships with the people and the different emotions in the music make each experience different -- well, except for the rigors of touring.

"You drive, you eat, you sleep, you get coffee," she says. "Playing is really the only thing different. The two bands go back and forth, back and forth. I forget what I've done when with which band...Yeah, I've been really busy."

The rest of the year won't be any less hectic either. After the breakneck Quasi tour, she'll return to Portland for the winter to record with Sleater-Kinney and work on some new songs with Coomes, then embark on a second Quasi tour, during which they plan to hit several more states plus Europe. And though Field Studies has been out barely a month and a half, Weiss and Coomes already have several new songs and are ready to record again. If nothing else, the next record should go down much easier. "It was a harder record to make than Featuring "Birds"," she says. "The subject matter was harder to record, but it's much more fun to play live."

From 1996's Early Recordings to last year's Featuring "Birds" and now Field Studies, Quasi's music is misleading. On the surface, the songs are pop -- fun and catchy -- but dig deeper, and you discover there's quicksand underfoot. The lyrics are laced with dark humor, from subtle imagery to full comic stories, such as "A Fable With No Moral," in which Coomes discovers that he can't even trust the devil to pay him for selling his soul. He needs rent money, so he tries bargaining with The Man and even going below market value before Satan finds him, saying, "That's not yours to sell. You'll get your check tomorrow, and I'll see your ass in hell, so you better spend it well."

The words are ironic, witty, and sometimes sad, but always elevated by happy tunes and close harmonies. "Empty Words" sounds like a traditional duet, almost Tin Pan Alley-ish with super-close singing. It's a little disconcerting, like when you first found out what "Ring Around the Rosie" was really about. And though Coomes occasionally betrays himself, Weiss sings on, denying she's in on the joke at all.

Coomes writes and sings lead in most of the songs with Weiss taking lead on the compositions she writes, which is about one on each of the last two albums. Field Studies includes some sounds new to the band, such as theremin, piano, and organ pieces beyond the usual Roxichord, bass by Smith (who played with Coomes in Heatmiser), and live strings care of Brent Arnold, who also accompanies Built to Spill.

"We've sampled strings before or used strings from a keyboard, but real strings is something we've wanted on songs for a while as far as texture," Weiss says. "Real strings add that layered, sonic texture. We knew someone we wanted to work with. It's not like we had to track down an arranger and performer."

To Weiss, the album has a unique personality that shaped itself beyond their ideas of what they wanted to try and the directions they wanted to explore. "The way the songs sounded was already decided, and we just had to muddle through them and find how they were meant to sound," she says.

Though they haven't played most of the songs on Field Studies live yet, Weiss knows the audience might be more interested to hear the old ones. It's weird to think of Quasi as having "old ones," but after four albums in three years (including 1997's R&B Transmogrification), it does. It also has the fans to match, ones who will no doubt realize something is missing from this tour -- Coomes' trademark Roxichord, a 1970s half-size keyboard that died earlier this year. "It was devastating because we had built our whole band around its sound," Weiss says. "We did a lot of touring last year, and it just died. We knew it was going to wear out eventually."

Though the instrument's death could have been tragic, a replacement was soon found. The new keyboard module has the Roxichord sound programmed in along with several other sounds, such as piano, organ, and harpsichord. "It ended up being a good thing that we got it," she says. "We can do more with it and the new sounds."

The Roxichord's specific sound makes Quasi distinguishable from the first note of Field Studies with its harsh wah-wah tone and texture. It has an abrasive low register that gives the duo a full-band sound even when it's just a guy, a keyboard, and a drum kit onstage. "It makes up for not having a bass player," Weiss says. "It's very heavy and punctuating and really comes through the rest of the music."

If its death were ruled a homicide, Coomes would be the first suspect. He's known to assault it onstage, making playing a contact sport. He uses his feet on the keys, flailing over the keyboard and slamming against it while Weiss looks on from her drum kit. She's like the yin to his yang. When his voice goes deadpan to set the punch line or some great irony, her voice swells with emotion. When he arcs with a glare, she throws in a gleam.

Weiss and Coomes play off each other like a vaudeville duo such as George Burns and Gracie Allen. Their former marriage can be an asset. They write quickly, mostly from skeletons of songs Coomes brings to practice. "It's fluid and quick. We don't spend a lot of time on writing. We both have a good idea of how each other plays," Weiss says. It's also a sort of anti-gimmick: Oh, look at them. They used to be married, and now they're in a band together. Sometimes it becomes a bane, like when every lyric is taken as fact, a narrative about their failed marriage.

"We broke up like five years ago, but people assume we've had no relationships since then. Every lyric we write has to be about each other," she says with a definite annoyed tone. Then the trademark Quasi humor sets in. "Sometimes we just want to announce, 'It's all a hoax. We were never married. We just did it all for the publicity. And look what it got us: It made us rich and famous.'"

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