After almost 4 months of pretty much non-stop shows – a tour that saw Quasi in Japan, Canada, all corners of the USA and now Europe – Sam Coomes looks exhausted. When I mention that I’d been feeling the bass rumbles of their soundcheck for the past 10 minutes in the bar, he sighs, “We’ve been doing soundchecks like every day.” His eyes drift around the room throughout the interview but even as he seems to stare blankly into the table or the wallpaper, his answers are never dismissive. Much like how his frustrations are vented and thus put to the best possible use later when Quasi play their tinnitus-inducingly loud, fist pump-inducingly brilliant set (during which Coomes falls off a monitor into the crowd and does a backward roll back onto the stage with barely a second to spare before his next vocal line) it seems to work favourably during our chat. He is unguarded and speaks frankly about what seems to be, for him, a predictable reaction to the new record, and the fact that it seems to be mostly familiar faces in the crowd. It is not until bandmate Janet Weiss joins us later (“Mind if I crash?”) that Coomes perks up, relieved the focus is off him.
Although the show at Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen is frustratingly under-attended, the dedication of the fans there is evident when the band open up the set for requests at the end- the songs span every single one of their albums and are mostly shouted with desperation. One fan even feels compelled to walk up to the stage and hand Janet Weiss half a bottle of red wine, which she happily accepts. If Coomes is right and a record like American Gong can’t gain you a noticeable group of new fans after 17 years, you have to wonder what could.
So what’s the plan now that the tour is almost over?
SC: I’m gonna build a treehouse in my backyard, it’s family time. My daughter will be out of school and we’ll be hanging out. She’ll be 8 in a few weeks. I’ll probably work on songs and things like that.
If you were describing the new record to someone who hadn’t heard your previous work, how does it compare?
SC: People seem to sense that it’s a more optimistic record… that’s the word that I hear a lot. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, I mean there are the typical themes of death and armageddon and things like that, that we tend to sing about from time to time, haha. Maybe it’s a little bit more of an optimistic take on death and armageddon… perhaps. You get older and it just seems really pathetic to constantly be crying and moaning about, well, reality. I know a lot of the songs where I was the least optimistic and the most bitter… people actually seem to like those. They definitely have their place but from my point of view, you can’t stay in that perspective forever.
It seems like some of the most optimistic songwriters are the most miserable in their personal lives.
SC: It’s possible, yeah. That’s the Brian Wilson syndrome.
Quasi play a lot of covers, which is something a lot of younger bands do in order to find their sound and work out how to play together. What purpose does it serve for you and what do think of the idea of certain songs being sacred or uncoverable?
SC: Oh, I’ve never heard that. I mean, I imagine most musicians would want people to play their music. You mean, sacred from the point of view of the people who wrote the songs or the fans? The fans, yeah. Fans get really psycho about stuff sometimes. That’s normal. To me, music is sacred. I understand that. Essentially, music is my religion. But it’s not sacred like church, there’s no preacher telling you what you can and can’t do. So yeah, play the songs. Why we do it is for fun, really. And I remember many times, going to see shows as an audience member, and a band pulling out a well-timed and well thought out cover- it could be the highlight of the show. I know that it’s fun for the band and it also can be really fun for the people watching the show so why not? I mean it would be hard, for instance, to cover a song off of say, Raw Power, and do it properly. You might take a different slant on it. You can never match that- why would you play ‘Search and Destroy’ and do a shitty job of it? And that’s not because it’s sacred, it’s just because The Stooges were so rad and you’d better just let them… haha… you know. Unless you’re fantastic.
It’s different live too because it’s not set in stone.
SC: Live, spur of the moment, anything goes.
Has your audience changed much over the years? Has the new record brought in different kinds of fans?
SC: Maybe a tiny bit. I wish it were so. When I talk to people at the shows, they tend to people who know who we are and who have our records already and who have seen us play. Which is great. I’m glad they come back. I wish everybody would bring a friend that’s never seen us because, as musicians, we love to try and win people over and give them something they’ve never had before. I think that’s a struggle, for a band that’s been around for as long as we have, to interest people who haven’t already been interested.
We played in Brussels with Pavement and the audience couldn’t care less. It’s like, are we that far away from Pavement that people who enjoy Pavement can’t understand…? But then, the next day we were in Berlin and the place was packed out, and we started playing and people started screaming and cheering. Then, after the show, we went to the merch table and all kinds of people came by and asked us about the band and bought stuff. That’s exactly it, playing for people who’ve never seen us before.
I saw that you managed to catch a few sets when you were at ATP. Was that planned or did you just have some free time?
SC: I’ve been a fan of Mission of Burma since 1985 or 1983 or something and I had never seen them, so I was super stoked to hear that they were playing. You know how it is, especially when you’re younger and you’re into something, it sinks in to a deeper level. It tends to evoke almost a primal response.
We also managed to see The Cribs on our day off in-between ATP and the beginning of the European tour. It was a small place in The Hague and the audience were loud but they were so wasted… so drunk. I sensed a little tension and anger in the band. To the audience, maybe it’s not a great time, but to me it’s inspiring to see a band struggling and fighting, to see the whole give and take between a crowd and a band. We drove in, straight to the club, weaseled our way in because we didn’t have passes, and they were onstage, they were just starting. It was perfect, really. I felt good about starting the tour after that.
What inspired the move to Kill Rock Stars and does it change the way you work at all?
SC: In one way it did not is that the record was recorded – not mixed – but recorded before we started working with Kill Rock Stars. Financially, there’s not that much support, but while we’ve been touring, the label has been really on top of it. They supply all the legwork. They found a publicist. When you’re on tour, I realise that’s all important- someone to call up and tell the papers that you’re coming to town. Little things like that, they seem insignificant but they’re of huge importance. We had a great experience with them on that level. We’ve known them for a long time of course, Janet worked with them with her other band…
That other band.
SC: I can walk to their office from my house. It’s easy.
So have you guys been listening to much music in the van?
SC: We’ve been watching British sitcoms.
At this point, Janet Weiss walks over from the interview she’s been doing.
JW: Want me to answer something?
SC: We’ve been watching ‘Only Fools and Horses’.
JW: Haha! I just said that. She’s like, “What do you do in the van?”
SC: We’ve also listened to Shippo’s telephone.
JW: Alright! Reggae…
SC: Which has some reggae and funk on it, haha.
JW: Did you see this wallpaper? Little skulls, that’s so cool!
SC: It’s like, Mexican.
It looks so quaint from a distance but then when you get close…
JW: I know! I kinda just focused in on it like, woah! Skulls.
My band attempted a really bad cover of the opening credits from Only Fools and Horses.
JW: Oh really? I was asking about that, cause I asked our friend Gary like, somebody must cover this song.
SC: He’s like, “Nah, no one covers this…”
JW: I was like, I think someone’s covering this song. It’s a good song.
SC: We kinda started learning it, you know.
SC: He’s like, “I don’t know if you should, really.”
JW: No one in America would know what it was.
Do you put on a really bad accent as well? I mean… you might be really good at it.
SC: I’m terrible at it. Not at all. It would be terrible to have too good of an accent. One of my favourite things is hearing British people speak with an American accent.
JW: Theeey goohhh laaaa-eeek thi-eeehhhsss. That’s funny you say that, because Stevie Jackson, who’s singing right now, does the best American accent. Of anyone. Because he’s Scottish doing American. HEEEeeeyy THEeerreee GAHHHyyyys. He sounds like John Wayne, haha. Very cute.
SC: The worse the approximation of the accent, the more I like it. I don’t need Robert De Niro, know what I’m saying.
I was gonna offer up my American accent but I’m not going to…
SC: Yeah! Let me hear it! Can you do the last few questions in your American accent?
If I’d had one more drink, I would have… I do your accent perfectly. I was going to ask, if you could choose one band to play one of those ATP Don’t Look Back shows, playing one album in its entirety, which band would it be and why?
JW: I think I know what mine would be but the person’s dead, unfortunately.
JW: I would want to hear Minutemen - Double Nickels on the Dime. All the way through, start to finish. We could resurrect D. Boon, I guess. Or maybe like, Zeppelin IV, with Bonham.
Only bands with dead people.
JW: Haha! Ok, let me think of alive…
SC: You mentioned Double Nickels and that immediately… I would like to hear Zen Arcade. They’re all alive. They hate each other, but…
JW: Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade. That would be amazing. What else…
SC: I did see them back around that time. Again, like we were talking about before, primal freak-out! I think I would just, I would freak out.
JW: Even just… I’m trying to think of living people. Who are the living people!?
SC: There’s still a few of us around!
JW: I heard that Public Enemy did… uh…
It Takes a Nation of Millions, right?
JW: I would love that one, but I would rather see the other one. Um… God, Belle and Sebastian would be a good one, If You’re Feeling Sinister. That would be good all the way through, although I probably saw that.
Was it Fear of a Black Planet?
JW: Yeah! Yeah…
Did you see they announced the Rock the Bells line-up? They’ve got Wu Tang doing 36 Chambers and Rakim doing Paid in Full.
JW: Wow… that’s my era!
SC: Who’s going to do Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s parts?
JW: Well look at Queen, touring without Freddie Mercury. With the guy… Paul Rodgers, isn’t he the singer? That’s odd. I don’t think you can have Queen without Freddie Mercury. It’s like karaoke. Really good karaoke.
But you’re a big fan of karaoke, aren’t you?
JW: I was. I think I burned out. Haha, I do like it. It’s fun. I like it for a lot of reasons. It used to be a lot more low brow, there were more weirdos at the karaoke bar.
That was better?
JW: That was better. It’s not that fun seeing hipsters do Meatloaf, you know. It is fun seeing a woman who’s tone deaf trying to sing Radiohead. That’s funny. Down and out people who have a moment to be a singer. People love singing. It’s really heartwarming, sometimes. Sometimes, it’s just depressing. To me, the depressing stuff is what other people like. The stuff that’s really uplifting is what’s depressing to most people. It’s a little backwards.
Don’t they call that schadenfreude? Enjoying other people’s pain.
JW: But it’s not really pain, it’s like someone’s getting to live something that they probably never thought they’d get to.
SC: Occasionally, it’s these really dowdy looking types, turn out to be really…
JW: They get up there and they have great voices…
SC: It’s like the Susan Boyle trip or something.
So she made it over to America?
JW: I don’ t know, he watches that stuff.
SC: I’m into that level of pop culture, you know… a little, kinda.
My sister’s really into that. She’ll always have it on and I’ll watch it and end up crying.
SC: I heard about it after the fact and I was like, “Who is this Susan Boyle?” so I looked it up on the computer and… it was powerful. It really was. I teared up. It was kind of amazing.
JW: Yeah, you told me. It sounded pretty great.
SC: It really was a moment where pop culture transcended itself, I thought. And afterwards, I don’t really care about afterwards… that one moment was like, boom!
I think you’re best off not watching it and believing it’s great.
JW: I could watch it for a few minutes but I need to paraphrase, I can’t watch all the backstory.
The best parts are the audition videos, there’s some mindblowing stuff in there. I guess it’s similar to the karaoke…
JW: It’s probably a little bit like that, except that no one has any glory at karaoke. They’re doing it for themselves, they’re not doing it to be on TV. There’s no winner at all. If I weren’t in a band, I’d probably want to get up and sing.