The eclectic duo known as Quasi have become a trio, altering the dynamics of their band but not in the ways you'd initially think. Janet Weiss talks to PopMatters about in-studio chemistry, why none of her bands should be considered "side-projects", and oh so much more.
Four years after the release of their last album, When The Going Gets Dark, indie-rock warhorses Quasi are finally back. What was once the inseparable duo of Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes has now become a power trio, bringing Steve Malkmus and the Jicks’ bassist Joanna Bolme to hold down the heavy end of things, a move that not only expands the band’s sonic potential, but allows for a rethinking what Quasi can be. Drummer Janet Weiss sat down with PopMatters to talk about their new album, their reimagined sound, working with a third musician in the studio, and the acoustic polyamory of playing with more than one band at a time. Yet with so much new in Quasi’s world, it’s hard to really know where to start. Luckily, Weiss has a good idea of what’s most important ...
“The biggest change for Quasi is that we have a bass player now,” says Weiss. “We are an official three-piece power trio. That happened right after the last album came out.” The addition of long-time friend Joanna Bolme means that fans can expect something of a sea change in Quasi’s sound on their latest Album American Gong. But what was it like for the long-established duo of Coomes and Weiss to bring another creative voice into the process? “We’d been a two piece for so long, and no matter how well you get along with someone, it’s just more fun to have another person there, especially someone we’ve known for so long and we get along with so well,” says Weiss. “Just having another human being in the room creates another kind of tension and another kind of creativity, and we all really play off of one another. I think in Quasi, that’s always been a very integral part of the band -- the telepathy between us and how we respond to one another on our instruments. So I think having another person just sort of broadens that scope a little bit.”
"A little bit" may be something of an underestimate. Bolme holding down duties on the bass “has definitely caused a shift in songwriting and the feel of the band,” says Weiss “It gives Sam a little more room to play guitar and ... frees him up to be a little more expressive in his playing, since he doesn’t have to hold down two jobs at once like he did with the keyboards. We were kind of seen as a keyboard band, and maybe now we can be viewed a little bit more as a guitar band, which I think is really Sam’s first instrument.”
The fact that the band’s early sound was so heavily influenced by Coomes’ heavily distorted keyboards was something of a fluke, Weiss points out. “We had the RMI roxichord keyboard that I think Sam actually bought me for my birthday. And then, Homer Simpson-style, he immediately took it and started playing it himself ...,” says Weiss. “The sound of that keyboard sort of informed the band, and I think that that sort of shot us off in a certain direction. We sort of mined that territory for a while, and it was a unique sound that hadn’t been utilized as much as a guitar had. That’s not to say that’s the only thing can do, obviously.”
That much is clear from even a brief listen to American Gong, an album that threatens to OD on what can only be described as badass riffage at multiple points and sounds more like a straight-up rock album than any of the bands prior offerings. “I think all three of us have our roots in a similar era. We all listen to '60s music and '70s music, kind of hard rocking stuff,” Weiss says. “That combined with the pop music that we love just seeps in. Even with the keyboard songs, they can be rocking, but there’s still a pop sensibility there, and we’ve retained that on this record.” That blend results in an album Weiss describes as wilder than what Quasi has been in the past. “It’s more structured as far as the songs go, but a little wilder in the guitar playing. There are numerous guitar solos, and Sam always sounds like he’s about to careen off a cliff ...,” says Weiss, who also points out that Quasi is really just like any number of other bands, taking cues from musicians who have influenced them, putting their own spin on it and evolving as a musical unit. “Basically, we are just playing traditional folk music, you know. We’re just passing through a tradition and trying to put our personality in there.”
When I ask Weiss (who is more well known for her work in Sleater-Kinney and currently plays with Steve Malkmus and the Jicks) whether this kind of relaunch for Quasi represents a leap forward from the band’s perceived side-project status, she’s adamant that Quasi has never been a side-project to her. “I’ve been in Quasi the longest,” Weiss points out. “We’re still standing!” For Weiss, there’s a definitive line between a side-project -- like the Shadow Mortons, with whom she plays a time or two each year -- and simply playing in multiple bands, something which feels very natural to her. “In my mind, if I’m in two bands, like I’m in two bands now, they’re equal ... with Quasi, we’re all 100% invested in it.”
How is it that splitting time between groups come so easily to Weiss? “It’s a learning experience being a musician in general, and I personally have a hard time being in just one band,” she says. “I’m not monogamous when it comes to bands…I want those experiences that you get with different players, and I want to play in bands with great musicians and great songwriters so that I learn how to play differently and how to play better and be more well rounded and sort of get out of my comfort zone.” This breadth of experience seems to keep Weiss moving forward musically, and gives her new things to bring back to each band. “When you’re in a band with the same person for 15 years, there is this natural comfort zone there,” she says. “You naturally hear a certain thing in your head, you go with what they’re doing, and sometime’s it’s important to drag yourself out of that zone and challenge yourself to play something different for you. I think that being in different projects can really help you do that.”
But not everything that’s new with Quasi is really that new. The band split amicably with Touch and Go Records, moving to Kill Rock Stars, with whom Weiss worked for years in Sleater-Kinney. The existing relationship is important to the band, but so is the practicality of proximity. “To have a label in our town, and one that we want to be on is just too good to be true, really. It’s just so convenient,” says Weiss. “Just the little things are so easy when they’re just five minutes away. Seeing Maggie Vail out at an art opening and having an actual relationship with the people that we work with feels right, and it feels very luxurious in a way.”