The Coleman 2-person had turned into an EZ-Bake and I woke up cooking again. My face felt like sand had been dumped in to shrink it and I had a crazy bump on the middle knuckle on my right hand. No big deal… but Kim was convinced that it was some sort of bug bite that needed to be tended to, so I let her whip out her little first-aid kit and try to sanitize it or whatever she wanted to do. I was in this same campground 12 years ago, high on acid, and eating marinated chicken out of the same silver cooking bowl as a Rottweiler, so I’m clearly not as concerned about shit like Purel and antiseptics. I had a positive outlook about the final day and a really simple game plan: “Enjoy Myself.” No more drama. No more bullshit. I felt like I was adjusted to the format and the pacing of everything by this point and the lineup for the day was solid. Tonight would be the WEEN set and I was so happy drinking my coffee and thinking about it, that I hadn’t even noticed when Kim squeezed some crazy 1/2 inch stinger out of my knuckle.
Patrick made another delicious breakfast and Jesse mentioned how much the Pavement set and Malkmus had re-inspired him lyrically. He also seemed interested to finally check out WEEN and had mentioned that he was only familiar with two of their songs; one of which was “Your Party” from their most recent album, La Cucaracha. For some reason or another, I wound up talking about David Bowie‘s “Let’s Dance” era. As we sat around, ate, and talked, the morning seemed a lot more relaxed than the days prior. Monday was supposed to be the least attended day. My assumption was that any lower attendance was due to people having to work the next day, as well as them not really giving a shit. When looking for tickets, I did notice that people rarely advertised their sales by mentioning any of the acts that I wanted to see, so this clearly wasn’t considered a “big day” for everyone.
After breakfast, we all kind of separated back into our individual spaces to relax before the shows really began. The first band that I planned to catch was QUASI at 3:25 on the Bigfoot stage. I wanted to knock out the last couple of cigarettes that we had, so that we could quite again (and we did). As Kim and I were sharing one of our last Camel‘s I heard something that sounded like “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire coming from the Main Stage. I commented about it to Kim, but I didn’t think much of it until Patrick and Angel also popped out of their tent looking confused. Then Jesse and Briana came out of the van asking we were also hearing the same thing. Whoever was performing sounded as if they were playing one Arcade Fire song after another and, once Patrick confirmed that they were on their 4th in a row, we collectively decided that it was time to get the fuck down there and find out what was going on. “Did The Arcade Fire actually make a surprise appearance and fill in a set that early in the day?” We weren’t sure what was going on but, if it wasn’t them, then somebody was playing all of their material and, if I was going to review the festival, I better be there to catch wacky unannounced shit like this.
When I got to the media check-in I asked what the real deal was with all of the Arcade Fire music and was told that it was just The Seattle Rock Orchestra and that, by covering their material, it had been creating quite a commotion. A lot of people had the same idea and, for what was labeled as the least attended day, the crowd to get into the show was the largest yet. Some folks must have really been losing their shit earlier, because the wooden planks had all been smashed out of the fence next to the entry gate and everyone was just climbing through what was left of it. Once through, there was nothing more than a motionless herd to stagnate in. A couple of dipshits threw a football around in the crowd and it continued to smack people in the back until someone finally got a hold of it and through it out into the distance. I was wearing wearing a hoody and vest for the rain, but it was heating up now. A guy next to me commented by telling me that I “looked really hot” so I responded with a “thanks man” and explained that, although I DO try, it’s hard to ever know for sure and I appreciated the complement. As he stuttered and tried to clarify his intention, I cut him off with, “It’s cool. No, no… I get it. Adult men can complement each other. It’s 2010, don’t worry about it.” Then we were through the check point and finally in. We had wasted a lot of time in that crowd, but I’m glad that we headed in when we did because, after that huge delay, we were actually just in time for QUASI.
It’s easily been a decade since I’ve seen QUASI perform and I’m not really sure if their overall popularity has risen much since then. It’s not that they don’t deserve to be more widely renowned, because they do, and it’s not because they are past their prime, because they definitely aren’t. However, some of the exact same factors that have helped to gain QUASI some of their name recognition are also the factors that may have helped it to plateau. While all three current members are incredibly accomplished individually, the other high-profile projects that they have been involved with have often unfairly overshadowed the tremendous work that they’ve managed to create as a unit.
In certain ways, I view QUASI as the Portland equivalent of a band like Mudhoney, where many people have heard their name mentioned, but most of them aren’t quite familiar with their catalog or of exactly what they’ve accomplished. It’s similar to the way that people may reference MUDHONEY by saying something like, “Some of these dudes were in Green River with those guys from Pearl Jam” or, “You know, Matt Lukin lived with Kurt Cobain and he used to play bass for the Melvins.” What I’ve always found unfortunate about this type of pseudo-recognition for Mudhoney is that, along with Nirvana, I’d rather listen to their music above most of the bands that came out of Seattle during the “grunge” era and I feel that it is among some of the music which has held up the best over the last two decades. QUASI isn’t much different, especially in the respect that they are still going strong as a group, have continued to create great new material, and can still be accurately considered as an entertaining and high energy live act.
QUASI was originally a duo composed of drummer Janet Weiss and multi-instrumentalist, Sam Coomes. They essentially stayed that way until 2007, when they added bassist, Joanna Bolme as an official third member. After disbanding his San Francisco band, The Donnor Party and moving to Portland, Oregon, Coomes quickly formed the group Motorgoat with Weiss and bassist, Brad Pedinov in 1990. After Pedinov left in ’93, they reformed as a duo under the name of QUASI and self-released their self-titled debut the same year. A year later, Coomes also signed on as the bassist for the Elliott Smith fronted Heatmiser. As Smith‘s solo career continued to take-off, Heatmiser dissolved in 1996. That year QUASI‘s previously unreleased material was compiled with the tracks from their debut and re-released under the title Early Recordings. This is also the year that Janet Weiss became the drummer for influential riot girl trio, Sleater Kinney. In 1997, the duo released R&B Transmogrification on UP records, a label noted for releasing early pivotal works by Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. In fact, Coomes has been featured on every Built to Spill studio release since Keep it Like a Secret . Featuring “Birds” [UP] followed in ’98 and featured production work by both Elliott Smith and Joanna Bolme. Smith‘s involvement with the group continued over the years, with the songwriter providing bass work on their album Field Studies [1999, UP] and with QUASI even operating as Smith‘s backing band on multiple tours. In 2000, Stephen Malkmus created his post-Pavement project, The Jicks, with Joanna Bolme as the bassist. When John Moen left The Jicks to become the full-time drummer for The Decemberists in 2006, Janet Weiss stepped in to take his place. This means that QUASI shares the exact same rhythm section as The Jicks, only with a less recognizable frontman. With so many other names connected to and associated with them, the name “QUASI” often gets lost in the mix and, when it doesn’t, personal relationships can often overshadow their work instead. Bolme is currently married to Gary Jarman of The Cribs and is widely recognized for having a romantic relationship with the late Elliott Smith. Before the White Stripes burst onto the scene, Coomes and Weiss were arguably the most famous ex-husband and wife indie rock duo and Weiss has recently been linked to Erik Menteer of the experimental folk-rock group, Blitzen Trapper. Not to claim that their rich musical affiliations hold no bearing on their identities, because they do, but for anyone that takes the time to actually listen to their work, it should be painfully clear that they have a style unique unto themselves and are more than capable of standing on their own 6 feet.
The crowd for this show was sizable enough, but the energy was fairly relaxed. The weather would start out blazing hot and then the sky would begin to sprinkle, only to heat back up. A lot of folks sat on blankets and backpacks. Weiss was positioned to the back at her drumkit, while Coomes‘ organ sat off to the right unattended. On the opposite side of the stage, Joanna Bolme‘s shaggy hair covered her face like a member of The Way Outs. The addition of Bolme on bass has really freed up Coome‘s to incorporate his guitar skills live without losing the low end, but it was still a position that I wasn’t as accustomed to seeing him in.
They kicked the show off with “Ape Self Prevails in me Still” from Featuring “Birds” and then tore through a few tracks from their new release, American Gong. “Repulsion” starts off with a lot of guitar sludge but, just like “Ape Self“, it features some really nice harmonization between Weiss and Coomes. Harmonies have always been one of QUASI‘s strengths and something that contributes to them constantly being labeled as an indie-pop group. It’s not that the title is completely inaccurate, but it often feels like too simple of a classification for what they do. The static and chaos that QUASI creates with the instrumentation in many of their songs provides a film like layer that forces the vocal harmonies to penetrate and transcend then, in turn, helping the tracks to grow and expand in interesting directions. Whereas they have often relied on Coomes‘ prowess on the organ to effect their sonic girth in the past, this newer material showcases the group experimenting with other ways to pull off tweaks in their sound. Their next song was “Rockabilly Party“, which had often been labeled as “Never Coming Back Again” in performance footage prior to American Gong‘s February release date. This song is a lot better than it’s title may imply, focusing on longer stretched-out classic country notes rather than sped up rockabilly flash. The vocals have a nice old-timey country sound to them as well, but the real highlights come from Coome‘s squawking feedback-tinged guitar solos. “Little White Horse” contains a classic driving rock rhythm with a heavy Stooges– style drumbeat, but it takes a sharp left turn when in drops into a sluggish minimalist breakdown before coming back at full speed.
Eventually, Coomes took his helm behind the organ to play “All The Same To Me” from Field Studies. This is not only one of the tracks that’s recorded version features Elliott Smith on bass, but the vocal delivery is also very reminiscent to that of their deceased friend/collaborator. In general, Coomes vocals have often tended to land somewhere in an area where Smith and Doug Marstch overlap anyway. These are the type of things that would likely jump out at you if you’ve never listened to the nearly two decades worth of material that the group has managed to produce. You’ll probably hear a little Elliott Smith, some Built to Spill… maybe even a little Pavement, etc. You’ll not only hear aspects of the peers that have bled into their sound but also the elements that they have contributed to the sound of others and where the they all have managed to blend together. It’s true that Malkmus and Pavement originally hailed from Stockton, CA, but Coomes is from SF and Heatmiser originally formed in Massachusetts. It seems like most of the bands in Portland have migrated there from somewhere else, but there’s a specific Northwest sound that has developed in that area South of Seattle and QUASI has been an integral part of that development. Along with their contributions, QUASI maintains elements that are all their own and Coome‘s helped to demonstrate this point by transitioning from the highly melodic “All the Same to Me” into the crazy freak jazz intro of “The Rhino.” When the Going Gets Dark was the last studio album that QUASI released before American Gong and you can really hear the changes that have taken place since then. As the name suggests, the overall feel of the release was very dark and heavy, with the then-duo even venturing into territories bordering on” jazz metal (the song Presto Change-O” even has a Zappa meets early Yes/King Crimson vibe to it). It was released the same year as the self-titled debut by Coome‘s improv / noise jazz side-project, Pink Mountain, and is colored by that same feeling of experimentation and loosely reigned in chaos. When the Going Gets Dark is one of my favorite releases by the group, so I was really happy to hear them revisit that era by playing “The Rhino” and to see Coome‘s get the opportunity to maniacally cobra strike away at the keys, before smashing the shit out of them with his balled up fists.
They took another 180 by slowing it down with piano heavy “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler“, another track from the new album. Then, as the wind began whirling heavily, Coomes returned to his guitar for “Sea Shanty” [Field Studies]. Weiss worked a shaker,while sprinkling in her backing vocals, before picking up the beat on her drum kit and harmonizing for the second half. From “Sea Shanty” they went immediately into “Bye Bye Blackbird“, a stand out track from the new album and a perfect example of why I have mixed feelings about the title of “indie-pop” being applied to their work. This song has a chorus that could be considered the epitome of “indie pop” until it veers off into the Mudhoney circa Piece of Cake realm shortly and then back into something even poppier than before. What really works for this song is that it feels like an honest group effort with everything coming together and working to help it progress at all times. Bolme‘s solid basslines ground out the track when they needs to, but they also adapt to push the sound out, elevate it, and/or add a punch when necessary. It’s a fairly impressive composition that manages to take melodic, almost nursery rhyme-esque pop attributes and warp them into areas of mutated psyche rock, stamp them dead and then resurrect them all over again. During the space jam, Coome‘s haphazardly chopped away at his guitar in a way that suggested both precision and random chance. I always associate him with his keyboard work, but he’s a much more impressive guitarist than I had ever realized. I recognized a similar approach with Malkmus during the previous night’s Pavement show. They’ve been handling these instruments for so many years and in so many situation that, what some may perceive as laziness or apathy, just come across as being second nature for them to me. It began to rain during the sonic onslaught and then the trio brought it back to an upbeat finish with lyrics like, “I got no time to drop LSD. Oh, I guess I still got time for DMT.”
The show felt kind of short, but I thought that it sounded great and it was about as good of a start to the day that I could have hoped for. They played a lot of new material and it was good to hear it paired with a short selection of samples from the past, because the new stuff fit in seamlessly and the older material didn’t sound dated. If you’re new to their material and are interested in checking some of their work out further, I have a few suggestions. R&B Transmographications is a great album from their UP records period and provides a really distinct classic QUASI sound of melodies layered in grime. If you’re into really discordant experimental sludge rock accented with jazz, When the Going Gets Dark is definitely the way to go. I’m actually rediscovering that one for myself and will probably be listening to it a lot over the next few weeks. Finally, American Gong is actually a tremendous new output for the band and sounds surprisingly fresh, especially at this stage of their careers. This album is the first for QUASI to come out on Kill Rock Stars and I really like the way that the label has chosen to release it. If you pick it up on vinyl a download card is included so that you can get a full MP3 version as well. Another bonus with the download is that 2 bonus tracks are also included. KRS has actually started providing download codes with all of their vinyl and many of them, like their re-release of Deerhoof‘s Green Cosmos EP, also feature additional tracks, which is awesome.
[Additional Note: despite what the video and MP3s provided above may suggest,
not every Quasi song is based around some sort of animal reference]