That Certain Something

Lessons on how to keep a great band together, compliments of Quasi

We could all learn a lesson in staying power from Portland, Ore., band Quasi.

When Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss formed the band 16 years ago, they were married. They aren't anymore, and haven't been for years. Coomes and Weiss have both been members of other, better-known bands (Heatmiser and Sleater-Kinney, respectively) that have long since broken up. But through it all, Quasi has endured, quietly releasing albums full of irreverent and energetic pop sprinkled with moments of chaotic noise and poetic calm, and playing raucous live shows featuring flailing limbs and plenty of productive instrument-bashing.

These days, Quasi is still going strong—stronger than ever, in fact. In 2006, the duo became a trio with the addition of bassist Joanna Bolme, and the band's latest record, American Gong (Kill Rock Stars), is the first one to include bass. Which means that American Gong is fuller, better and, to quote Coomes, "funner" than even 2006's excellent When the Going Gets Dark.

So what's Quasi's secret? How have they kept things together so well, for so long, even in the face of breakup after breakup?

"I think that no matter what other projects we end up doing, Quasi always has something that keeps us interested. I'm not sure exactly what it is," answered Coomes. "There are numerous points, especially if you're not making any kind of money, where you have to look at what you're doing and think, 'Is it really worth it? Why am I doing this?' When I come to that point relative to Quasi, it seems like there's always been something that I get out of it that I'm not willing to part with. And I imagine it's the same for Janet. But I'm not sure what it is, and it's something that seems to change over time, and maybe that's just the beauty of the band—that it's flexible, and that it gives us what we need at any given time, even if what we need is changing."

Interestingly enough, Quasi's style hasn't changed that much in more than a decade and a half—listen to songs from American Gong shuffled in with songs from 1999's Field Studies, or 2003's Hot Shit!, or even as far back as 1997's R&B Transmogrification, and, sure, there are changes in vocal and recording quality and instrumentation, but the songs all possess an attention to melody and structure that is undeniably Quasi.

Bands are in many ways living, breathing things, after all; they are relationships that are more than the sum of their parts, and, explained Coomes, realizing that early on is part of what's kept Quasi together, even through Coomes and Weiss' divorce.

"There was quite a while where it was difficult; there was a time when we were hardly even talking," said Coomes. "But when we started playing, all of that didn't really seem to matter. So when you have that experience, you realize that the band is something. It's not about us; it's something more than us as individuals. And I think because of the sort of rocky beginning we had, we had that realization, and it stuck with us."

On American Gong, the chemistry between Coomes, Weiss and Bolme makes an energy that former Sleater-Kinney guitarist and current NPR blogger Carrie Brownstein describes in the album's press materials as "a sonic storm" that "lurches and veers; it reels, resets, crawls and moans."

The first song, "Repulsion," showcases what happens when Coomes and Weiss blend vocals; the intro to the second song, "Little White Horse," demonstrates what happens when Coomes and Weiss throw Bolme's bass into the mix. Barely five minutes into American Gong, there's already been plenty of lurching and veering and crawling and moaning, and that's just a hint of what's in store on the rest of the album. The whole thing is an extended interval workout, with only momentary breathers and breaks that keep the whole album's heart rate up. The members of Quasi may be in their 40s, but age is irrelevant when it comes to the ability to rock out.

Well, maybe not irrelevant, but indicative of something other than stamina. Coomes, Weiss and Bolme are all seasoned veterans of the Portland rock scene. Their resumes are awe-inspiring, and perhaps that's also part of that "something"—having a deeper sense of the overall impact and importance of music.

"I've grown to really appreciate the privilege of doing what I do in a way that I think was a lot harder to grasp when I was younger," explained Coomes. "We just got back from Japan, for instance, and we'd only been there (once before), very briefly, and it was 10 years ago, and yet we go over there, and people show up, and they bring their albums, and they're so grateful that we're there, and everybody's happy—and this is on the other side of the earth. I realize from experiences like that, that it's an important thing to do.

"Even though we're not a household name, and we don't make a lot of money, it still has an immense value as far as I'm concerned, and I've just come to appreciate that more and more over time."

Quasi's awareness of a band as larger than the sum of its parts is apparent everywhere on American Gong. The name, for instance, can be read as a veiled political statement.

"In my mind, it was about the end of the American empire. You know: Gong! Get off the stage," said Coomes. But, he added, "This record is more about just daily life and less about the sociopolitical aspects of it."

The songs, though, speak to the need for optimism, new perspectives and giving up control for a new sense of freedom. Several songs have lyrical moments that ring with emotional truth: "Don't let them get you down," sing Coomes and Weiss on "Everything and Nothing At All," and on "Now What," it's, "Rise up, rise up, out of your hole."

They're the kinds of songs that people can get something out of—they're flexible; they can give you what you need at any given time, even if what you need is changing—and that is something.