Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Janet Weiss's Personal Best

07 April 2023, 12:30

Drummer extraordinaire Janet Weiss talks to Alan Pedder about 30 years of Quasi and the five songs from her repertoire that she’s most proud of.

When Janet Weiss was severely injured in a car accident in August of 2019, there was a real possibility that she might never be able to play the drums professionally again.

Left with a broken collarbone and two broken legs, Weiss hoped at first that she could rebound quickly, but when the reality of the long haul began to set in, that hope transferred to music. Filled with a renewed appreciation for her relationships and her bands, she was determined to get back into fighting form however long it took. As part of the recovery process, she meet her Quasi bandmate Sam Coomes at their practice space almost every day to "muddle through" bits of songs until, little by little, she started to get stronger. “I was becoming more confident all the time, and he had written all these great songs,” she explains. “I think Quasi became something that we both kind of needed again.”

It wasn’t certain that the pair would ever make another record after 2013’s Mole City. For whatever reasons, that album didn’t really land with much of an audience and the lack of a reaction was a little deflating. “It was such a sprawling, personal record that we put a lot of time and care and work into, but it was just not well received,” says Weiss. “Maybe it was just not the right time for that music and people just didn’t relate to it, or maybe they didn’t even hear about it, so it was just a little disheartening.”

That feeling eventually subsided when they began to book more shows and started to get into writing new material. Weiss describes Coomes in songwriting mode as “really a sight to behold”, and it wasn’t long before they had a critical mass of songs they felt energised enough about to go in and record. “At this point in our lives, there’s no reason that we have to make a record,” she says. “We’ll only do it if the songs are there and we’re excited about them.”

Released on Sub Pop in February, the tenth Quasi album Breaking the Balls of History is a major milestone. Not only in that it’s a testament to Weiss’s grit and determination to heal, but that it also marks their thirtieth year as a band. The pair originally came together in San Francisco to form short-lived guitar-and-drums duo Motorgoat, but were reborn a few years later as Quasi, ditching the guitar for keyboards for a less traditional sound. They were briefly married at one point, divorcing in 1995, but the band played on even as Weiss became more and more involved with Sleater-Kinney, propelling her into a whole new level of indie stardom.

Quasi sunglasses with tree

Of all the bands she’s played in, Weiss says Quasi feels most like home. “I feel like it’s in my blood, my bones, my skin, so to make it to 30 years is extremely meaningful to me, especially with our history. Sam is like my brother now, he’s my family. I feel really thankful that we kept it together and that we are still playing at a level that we both feel is worthwhile, and that it still feels fun and exciting and vital.”

That vitality will be on full display later this month when the duo kick off their latest run of live shows in the UK and Ireland. Though she can sometimes feel the screws in her collarbone (“It feels weird!”) and her kick pedal leg, which came off worst in the accident, is “still not back to 100%,” Weiss says she's in great shape for the tour. “If I notice my leg while I’m playing, I just ignore it,” she say with a shrug. “There’s a big chunk of metal in there, so it’s not going to fall off or anything!”

Weiss doesn’t often listen back to her old records, except when she’s stuck on building a setlist or wanting to check that the tempo of her drumming is somewhere in the ballpark of the recorded version. But she’s made an exception for compiling her Personal Best. “It wasn’t easy picking just five songs,” she says, laughing. “I feel like each one represents a category of a bunch of other songs that I really like, or songs that do particular things that I’m hoping for, and are successful… in my mind, anyway.”

“There are reasons I picked the songs that I picked. Things I'm definitely trying for that probably nobody else knows about but me. A song that I think is successful, drum-wise, might not be the best song on that particular record to most people, but I might have reasons why I am kind of attached to it.”

Let’s get into those now, then.

"Let's Call it Love" by Sleater-Kinney (2005)

JANET WEISS: When we were in the early stages of writing the material for The Woods, we were touring with Pearl Jam in these massive, 20,000 capacity stadiums. Huge, cavernous rooms with all this air and space. Playing our older songs, which were so fast, with so many beats per minute, it just felt like they were getting lost in those spaces. We had to kind of improvise, to slow things down and make things heavier. And in doing that we realised that the more space you put between the notes, the more impact you can have in that kind of setting.

To me, “Let’s Call it Love” is just a beast. We were in a really heavy, aggressive, desperate kind of zone at the time, but it makes me so happy when I listen to it. The song does a lot of things that I really love in drums. Having a drum pattern that repeats and having completely improvisational sections, within the song, and then having an actual jam that connects two songs that’s unscripted when you go into the studio. This song is one we had played live a lot of times before we recorded it. We couldn’t just have gone into the studio and played that right after writing it, so it’s definitely a product of playing live.

I feel like that's kind of the playing that I always want to get to. That feeling when you're lost in the song. When you've played it so many times that you don't have to think about the specifics. You don’t have to think about what’s coming next. You’re kind of just following your emotions. It’s the familiarity with the form that allows you to improvise in a true way.

All the drum fills in the first part of the song, in between the patterns, none of those are scripted. It’s like a performance in the studio and I really, really liked that. I'm always very excited when that works. I mean, everybody's firing on all cylinders in this song. Obviously I can’t do it by myself, so it really helps to be in these amazing bands with these amazing musicians.

BEST FIT: How much did the song change from when you first began to play it?

I can't even remember! I know we always had the singing part, and then at some point – I think during those big shows with Pearl Jam – we started connecting it with the song “Nightlight”, which comes right after it on the record. For us, that portion of the set for us was probably the most exciting. We’d be looking forward to it every night. To the connection that you feel when you're improvising in such a big, unfamiliar place. It was very thrilling.

No one really knew who we were, which meant that we didn't have a lot of pressure and we were sort of free to kind of experiment. I'm sure the song probably got quite a bit longer in the improvisational section, whereas the main part of the song pretty much sounded as it does on the record. But it probably got a lot tougher. I mean, it's just so ballsy and I love that. I really love it.

You had Dave Fridmann on production for The Woods, and he was maybe more of a ‘drum guy’ than other producers that you'd worked with. Did you feel some kind of kinship there?

Yeah, I did. I had actually met him on a Tape Op magazine panel that was a bunch of producers and engineers – I was there as the home recording person. I knew his work. I knew Flaming Lips. But meeting him, I just really liked him as a person. He’s very unique. He’s an individual. He's not a group follower guy. He has his own ideas. He does things his own way. Cool things like using headphones as a microphone. And I really liked that approach.

We recorded in western New York state at his studio, which is incredible. We went in the winter, so we were basically snowed in. It’s funny, I remember him saying to us, ‘You probably shouldn’t come for more than, like, two and a half weeks.’ We were like, ‘We’re fine, we’ll come for three,’ and then after two weeks we were going stir crazy. So we ended up going back later for mixing and overdubs and stuff. For me to hear my drums in that way – the sounds that were coming out of the speakers in the control room – was just so exciting. I mean, I had never really heard my drums sound like that.

So, yeah, Dave's totally a drum guy. You know, my whole life I wanted to sound like John Bonham, and listening back to what we’d recorded was like having an out of body experience. Like, who is that playing? That’s not me, that sounds incredible. I mean, not so much what I was playing but just the sound of it. I think the sound of what you’re hearing while you’re playing in the studio can sometimes really influence how you play. I think a lot of producers and engineers don’t realise that you have to get the playback sounding incredible so that the person feels awesome. And Dave is a person who really knows that.

[Breaking the Balls of History producer] John Goodmanson is another person who really knows that. He’s a drum guy too, in a slightly different way from Dave. He loves loud drums, he loves rock, and he would never be one to encourage me to tone that down. I appreciate his encouragement to just go for more and more and more. You know, some engineers don’t like drums at all, and they always want them to be quieter. Those aren’t the right people for me.

Cover of The Woods by Sleater Kinney

"The Rhino" by Quasi (2006)

JANET WEISS: “The Rhino” is another circumstance where I felt like the sound in the room was so amazing. We tracked the album in a studio that I don’t think that many people had used, but the room and the way the drums sounded in the room, even without headphones on, was so special that it filled me with confidence. Like, you would hit a tom and it would sound so incredible that you’d just want to hit it again, and that feeling kind of got me worked up.

I feel like this song is pure energy, and, to me, that’s what drums should be doing. Infusing energy and joie de vivre into the music. I feel like drums are the most primal instrument. They’re the most like your heartbeat, the most like your bodily functions. I think I was really exhausted at the time. It was a situation where I felt physically not great. But sometimes on tour when you’re not feeling quite right or when you’re on the edge of feeling bad, it sort of distracts you from all the other mundane things that are happening, and you can key into the music even more. People say that being sick on tour can actually make you play better, and it really sort of can.

When we recorded “The Rhino”, it was one of those situations where the stars just kind of aligned and we did this take of the song that was felt very explosive, very joyous. I’m so happy when I listen to it because I can hear that I am cutting loose. I can hear that I’m going for things that I might not have gone for if it hadn’t sounded so good in my headphones.

The song has stayed in the live repertoire over the years, mostly because it’s very fun. We can sort of stumble out of another song and stumble into “The Rhino”, and I think we both really like those moments in between the songs, when you’re getting from one to other. I call them ‘intos’ and I love them. I like for all the bands I ever play in to do them. To me, those are the moments where you stop playing the song and you start really listening to the other people around you. You're making something up in the moment, so you have to really acknowledge them and they have to acknowledge you for it to be successful.

With Sam it's easy, because there's just the two of us. It's so simple. I just look at him and he looks at me, and it's nimble like a little sports car. We can make things faster, slower, quieter, whatever. I think “The Rhino” allows us the space to do those things that we love to do. Plus, I like the words a lot. The song really feels like a part of Sam. I really feel like he's talking about himself, and I think it's cool.

BEST FIT: What was going on in your lives when you made that record?

Actually, I don't think we were getting along very well at that point. We've definitely had some ups and downs. There was a time when Sam wanted things to be very experimental and I was always like, ‘Just write a pop song,’ because I think he can really write the best pop songs and he’s such a great singer.

This tension has existed forever in Quasi, and I think the fact that we’re pulling in different directions probably makes us a better band. You know, I would always say to him, ‘When are you going to write a chorus? I want a song with a chorus!’ and I think at the time we recorded When the Going Gets Dark the tension was maybe a bit more pronounced, and maybe the record shows that.

It’s been a while so I don’t remember specifically what was happening, but I do remember that it was not an easy record to make. The studio had a lot of challenges, too, but then we sent the record to Dave Friedman to mix and that was incredible because when he sent it back it sounded fantastic. So, yeah, thanks Dave. Thanks for saving us.

Well, congratulations, you finally got a chorus on a Quasi album with your new song “Doomscrollers”. I didn't realise it was such a long battle. How do you feel now that you’ve won?

I’m so happy I got my chorus! Sam brought the song to me and said, ‘Okay, I wrote you one,’ and honestly, I love it. When we play it live, I sing along and I feel so happy. I’m just a really big fan of a good chorus. You know what they say, don’t bore us get to the chorus. So yeah, I do feel good about that actually!

Cover of When the Going Gets Dark by Quasi

"Real Emotional Trash" by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks (2008)

JANET WEISS: I actually can’t believe that we could make a song like this. It’s another example of a song having been played a lot live and it being a process of finding a path through the song then getting to the studio and trying to recreate that in the moment. There are so many turns and shifts and changes, and I feel like it’s such a graceful song. I like it when Steve gets sensitive, when he’s heartfelt in his singing and in his lyrics.

I just feel like a lot had to click for this song to work out, and it really did. I feel proud of my part in this song! I think that’s why I picked it, because there’s a lot on that record that is improvisational and shows how we as a band just played really well together. With this song in particular, there’s a lot of things that are happening and we somehow made it sound kind of seamless, and I think that’s like a testament to all of our experience as musicians.

It's really cool to hear myself in a band with musicians of that calibre, all of us kind of playing off each other and feeling the music, feeling the meaning and the song. Yeah, I'm super proud of that.

BEST FIT: You joined the Jicks after Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus in 2006. What was the thing that drew you in in that direction?

Well, I was friends with all of them, and I love them all as people. I love their music. They’re musicians who are at the top of their game, especially at that moment. I’ve always thought Joanna was an incredible musician. And Steve, of course. He’s an incredible songwriter, and his guitar playing is just unbelievable.

Really, the practices were the most fun. Steve would really cut loose at practices. I know sometimes it almost seems like he has this kind of ‘over it’ vibe, but he’s obviously just a lifer at music. For me, practice is my gauge for how much someone’s really enjoying themselves. Like, if they can get off on the music at practice, you know they’re really into it. And Steve is one of those people. He’s there with his head down swinging his guitar around, and it’s very cool.

When Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus and the Jicks immediately asked me to join the band, it was just a complete no-brainer. Like, who wouldn't want to be in the Jicks, you know? I'd be crazy to have said no. But you know, it was a really different setup for me, to be in this more traditional band. You know, I didn’t typically play with a bass player, and I was new to the situation where the songwriter writes basically all of the music. In Quasi, although Sam writes the songs we do collaborate a lot after that. But with Steve, he would demo out an entire song before it came to the rest of us. So I definitely had to figure things out, to figure out my place in that band. And I think I always just wanted to play too fast and too loud for them. They were like, ‘Settle down there, girl!’

Another thing I noticed when I listened back recently to Real Emotional Trash is how well Joanna and I play together. As I said, it doesn’t happen that often that I am a part of a rhythm section, so I feel like I really lucked out that it was with her.

And then you brought her into Quasi for a while, right?

Yeah. When we started writing more songs with guitar, they never really worked as well live with just me and Sam. We wanted to have those bass parts present at our live shows, so Joanna came into the mix and then we ended up writing the American Gong album together and the bass parts she wrote were killer. When we decided to do more keyboards, we went back to just being a two-piece. But we’re still very involved in each other’s lives. I feel like that was a really good time, having Joanna in the mix. Good memories.

Cover of Real Emotional Trash by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

"Wilder" by Slang (2022)

JANET WEISS: Slang is a band that started with me and my partner Drew. We kind of made this record in our basement, but we also went to some studios. We both had other bands and Slang was like our pet project, something we worked on together over time.

To me, this song, “Wilder”, fits in the category of songs with a repeating drum pattern. It was actually a toss-up between including [the Sleater-Kinney song] “One Beat” and “Wilder”, because I feel like they both achieve the same goal, which is to have a kind of repeating patten throughout the song but also have dynamics and to go through different emotions even with the same beat.

It's something that I repeatedly try to accomplish, and I feel like “Wilder” is a successful representation of that sort of one-beat approach. It’s very tough but it has a drum melody that you could hum. I like to write drum hooks that that are sort of standalone. Like, if someone sat down, they could just play that beat and it would sound like me. It’s a very personal thing.

At this point in my life, I just want to sound like myself. I don’t need to sound like anybody else. So that’s why I picked this song. I like the way it sounds. I like the way the drumming sort of moves the song. It can be a bit dominating to have just one repeating drumbeat, and I like being able to put a unique stamp on a song with the drums. It’s an experiment that I love to try, and sometimes it works out.

BEST FIT: Do you have any favourite songs that aren’t your own that kind of do the same thing?

Well, I really love the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”, which has a repeating drum part. I think about it a lot, actually, the way the song kind of shifts around that repeating pattern. That’s a great example of a song that inspires me to keep trying at this way of writing. I feel like I have ripped that beat of, like, a hundred times because I just love it so much. I mean, of course it’s my own take on it, but this song just proves that it is possible to have a song where the chorus and the verse are really different but the drums stay the same. It’s not like they’re just chopping wood, you know? They’re playing something unique. So yeah, that’s a great example.

With Slang, did the band come out of the relationship or did the relationship come first?

The relationship came first, and then we started playing music together. Then we made this record and decided to get a band together. We were like, ‘Let’s actually do this,’ so we got in Kathy Foster and Anita Lee Elliott to round out the band and now we're like a real rock and roll four-piece. It’s very cool.

Was the record basically done then, before you and Drew got in that car accident?

Um, I think it was done, but I can't quite remember. We were actually planning to do a Quasi / Slang tour of the west coast in the US, but we had to cancel that after the accident. It definitely sidelined our plans for a while, but now I feel like we’re going strong.

We've rejiggered our stage setup a bit so that we're more in sort of a line and can all see each other, and I think it’s made a profound difference to our performances. It’s really changed our ability to put the music into overdrive. Being able to look at the faces of my bandmates and to know we’re all in it together, it makes a huge difference.

It’s so weird, the idea of the drummer always being in the back. I don’t know why that is, because you can’t really see the singer right in front of you. For me, when I’m playing drums, a lot of times what I’m playing has a lot to do with how the singer is phrasing things and how they are singing. So it doesn’t make any sense to me to be looking at the back of their head.

That tour might have been cancelled, but you have done that thing quite a bit when you’re touring and playing in both bands on the bill. Is that something you really enjoy? To be able to play two completely different sets in one night?

I think it's more that you just want both bands to get to play, so logistics-wise it can be easier to take the opportunity to get that sort of two for the price of one deal. But I feel like I have to tone down my desire to do it, because I don’t get to truly enjoy either one. Like, the minute one is done I have to go to the other one, and then there’s all the setlists and the merch. It’s just a lot.

I’m thinking for one-off shows, it’s a fun thing to do, but maybe on a tour it’s probably better to just focus on one band and have it be more fun. I mean, a Slang and Quasi tour would still be awesome, because those are all my people. But then Slang is getting to the point where we’re stretching out more, we’re headlining a little bit more. But yeah, I always want to play double duty, even though sometimes it can bite me in the ass.

I’m tired just thinking about it!

Yeah. I mean, I love the physical part of it. I love that, because after the show I’m often like, ‘Let's go play again!’. Sometimes it feels like you just get warmed up and then it’s over. The playing is the part I really like. It’s just the rest of it that’s really busy, and that can be challenging.

Cover of Cockroach in a Ghost Town by Wilder

"Riots & Jokes" by Quasi (2023)

JANET WEISS: This is another song that’s sort of in the vein of what we’ve been talking about, where the performance in the studio is basically trying to replicate a live version. There’s a lot of improvisation. It’s very upbeat. I requires a lot of energy, so it’s a song I have to be in really good shape for, in order to be able to play it.

I think if we’d actually tried to make the album at an earlier time, I wouldn’t have been ready. I wasn’t strong enough. I hadn’t recovered from the accident enough. With this song in particular, I just couldn’t get it for a long while. It’s really demanding. I think when you listen to Quasi, in a way it should feel like, ‘Wow, they’re having the best time and it’s so easy for them,’ but it’s actually not that easy to make a record sound like that.

I picked this song not only because I like the message of the song, which is about women’s equality and empowerment – a message I find to be extremely important – but because it feels so strong and lively and visceral. It’s like a call to arms. The take on the record is actually the first take we did in the studio. We could never match it after that. It just sounded so special. I think it’s the only song on the record that we used the first take for, and it felt like I had finally got it after trying for so long at practice.

I feel like “Riots and Jokes” is in the vein of “Real Emotional Trash” and “Let’s Call it Love”, in that it’s not something you could just walk into a studio and record. It takes all this personal and physical development and connection with your bandmates to get to that point of culmination in the studio where it works and the song turns out just how you want it. There are other songs on the new record that I really like too, but for me, “Riots and Jokes” feels kind of like the centrepiece, and the most joyous, personal song.

BEST FIT: I listened to Sam being interviewed on a podcast and he said that when you were making the record with John, it felt like you were kind of on a desert island. Being in the studio with your masks on, being in a bubble. What memories do you have of that experience, especially working with John again at that strange time?

As a band, Quasi is pretty self-contained anyway. We don’t have a manager. We kind of do it all ourselves. So it actually really worked out that there were no distractions from what we were doing. We were just living in a rental in Seattle for those days and we’d just make food, make coffee, go record. It was very simple. I think we did eventually take the masks off once we could do tests, but the pandemic was scarier in the beginning, in the early days when we didn’t really know what this virus was. So my memories of recording are just of having a really great time, and I think that comes across in the music.

I love John. I really trust John. And I know that John is going to make everything sound good. Not too fancy, not too scruffy. He’s going to make the playing sound tough and present. I do think it was important for me to work with someone that I trusted after such a crazy experience. You know, being hurt and it taking a while for the playing to come back.

I think Sam and I both wanted to just be able to go in, to focus on the playing, and not have to worry about what everything would sound like. Not to worry if my kick drum sounds weird or if my snare sounds off. With John, I don’t have to worry about any of that. And he’s very quick. You don’t have to wait around for a day to get setup. Like, I don’t have to hit my rack tom for two hours. John is like a player’s producer, and I think the fact that it was just the three of us really worked to our advantage.

Your UK tour is coming up. When you get out on the road, what is the song from Breaking the Balls of Historythat you're looking most forward to playing?

I think “Riots and Jokes” is the one that we both look forward to most in the set, because there's so much kind of soloing that we have to really gear up for it. Like, ‘How it’s gonna go tonight?’

The song starts with Sam on the keyboard, so I get to take a few deep breaths and then off we go. There’s a lot of singing and a lot of robust playing. For me, it’s a real workout. I get real sweaty and winded, like when you get to the really hard part of an aerobics class. But, you know, it’s the challenge of it that make us look forward to playing it.

Cover of Breaking the Balls of History by Quasi

Breaking the Balls of History is out now on Sub Pop Records. Quasi kick off their tour in London on 27 April at Oslo in Hackney.

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