Quasi on Playing Songs and Settings They Don’t Normally Play (Featuring “Birds” LIVE 6/27 at WCL)

Just last March we saw Quasi – Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes – return to Johnny Brenda’s in support of Breaking the Balls of History, both their tenth studio...

Just last March we saw Quasi – Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes – return to Johnny Brenda’s in support of Breaking the Balls of History, both their tenth studio LP and their first studio LP in ten years, in addition to their first for Sub Pop.  However, the Portland indie rock legends (who also celebrated their 30th anniversary last year) are already set to return to the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection this Thursday, June 27th, for something completely different.  Earlier this month Quasi kicked off a month-and-a-half of dates celebrating their 1998 third LP, Featuring “Birds”, which they’re playing in its entirety each night.  Their local stop will have them headlining the Music Hall at World Café Live for the very first time, a notable step up in size and let’s-just-call-it “sophistication” from the classic punk rock barrooms like The Khyber, Johnny Brenda’s, and Boot & Saddle that they usually haunt.  I recently got a chance to chat with both Janet and Sam via Zoom about this temporary transition into bigger rooms (along with a bigger crew) and get their current thoughts on the album that seems to be the favorite of fans and critics alike.

Izzy Cihak: You’re about to kick off a pretty extensive tour where you’ll be playing Featuring “Birds”, from front to back.  I know that you’ve never done this before, but you have had a number of songs from the record in live rotation throughout the years.  How did this idea originally come about?

Janet Weiss: I think I started thinking about it when I saw The Flaming Lips do the Yoshimi record.  And we toured with Built to Spill when they did Perfect from Now On, so I’ve seen these sort of high-level bands doing that and having it feel really great.  Those are both records I really enjoy and seeing it being done in an artful way, it just seemed like a way for us to get back on tour this year and try something different.  I mean, we’ve done a lot of things, but we’ve never done that, so it could be fun!

Sam Coomes: People really like this record and some of the songs are not practical for us to play normally…  When you put out a new album and you tour those songs, you’re kind of fighting for yourself in the moment and you’re trying to get people to like it and break through.  It’s a little bit of a battle, and you have this kind of warrior mentality.  But this kind of tour is not like that.  It’s like, “We already know you guys like this,” — because people have come to us over the years and told us — so, it’s not really a battle this time.  We’re just gonna celebrate the fact that we made this and you like it.  It’s a different type of mentality, going into it.

Izzy: How do you feel like this LP compares to your other albums?  I’m guessing it’s one of your favorites, in addition to being a fan favorite.

Sam: It’s not one of my favorites…

Janet: I think that a lot of the songs still really translate live.  So, I think my relationship to the record and to the songs becomes like a live situation.  The ones that translate live I tend to like more, because I have a connection with them that has lasted through all the decades.  There are quite a few on this record that we still play that still feel current to me.  But the record as a whole, I would say it’s one of my favorites…

Sam: I never listen to our old records, so my rating of the records isn’t attributable to actually listening to the record.  It’s just about how I feel about it, and that was a rougher time in my life, so I don’t have a lot of happy feelings about that time in my life.  Maybe that’s why the record is good and why people connect to it, because they can relate it to things that they’re going through.  So, maybe that changes my view of it a little bit.  Also, I’m a little defensive, like, “Why does everybody like that one and not this other one?”  I wanna defend the other children [laughs].  Like, this one got straight As and everybody likes them and the other kid that flunked out is really cool!  And I wanna defend those people, too [laughs].

Izzy: What are some of your memories of the writing and recording process of the album back in 1997?

Sam: It was just a haze kind of…

Janet: I think it was the first time we went into a recording studio to make a record…

Sam: That is true…

Janet: And even though it was just 16 tracks — it wasn’t like a big fancy Los Angeles studio, it was our own Portland version of a recording studio — I feel like there was a certain magical quality around that, as a music fan and someone who read the liner notes and knew about studios and knew about bands.  Home recording wasn’t such a thing in the ‘60s, so all those bands went into studios with these cool producers.  I felt like that, for us, was the first dipping our toe into, “We’re legit.  We’re actually a band, like our heroes, like The Kinks.  We’re going into a recording studio.”  I think that was like a lifechanging thing, even though when I look back on it now, it was so smalltown [laughs].  I do think it sounds great.  When I listen to the drum sounds, I’m like, “I don’t really need the drums to sound any better than that!”  And it’s like our first try at it.

Sam: Previous to that, we had recorded in basements on various types of home recording stuff.  But we did record carefully and pay attention to what we were doing.  And Larry, who recorded the record, had a little basement studio in his house and he was more serious about microphones, preamps, and all that stuff that we didn’t necessarily know about.  So, even though it was the first time, we did have a background in underground basement recording [laughs].  It wasn’t like we didn’t know what we were doing at all.

Izzy: I’m also curious to hear about some of the memories touring the album.  I know you did a tour with Elliott Smith, who was a dear friend of yours and collaborator.  Are there any things about that touring cycle that still really stand out, that you really remember as great memories?

Sam: There was a lot of chaos [laughs].

Janet: Very chaotic [laughs].

Sam: It was very hectic because we were touring all the time.  Janet was also in Sleater-Kinney, so Quasi would tour, Elliott would tour, Sleater-Kinney would tour…  There were a couple years where I was just hardly ever home…  That was at the beginning of that period.  At first, that was kind of fun and exciting.

Janet: I thought it was really cool.  We met a lot of people in other bands that I’m still friends with today, bands that would open and bands that would come to the show and we would exchange records.  We would talk about music…  I feel like each tour was kind of different.  Like, touring with Sleater-Kinney was different from touring with Quasi.  Touring with Sam and Elliott, it was like our own little gang [laughs].  There’s a lot of in-jokes and you’re just kind of really getting to know the people you’re with.  And we were younger, so it was fun!  It’s not like people think it is [laughs].  You’re really busy, especially when you’re playing in two bands.  You’re driving, selling merch, playing the shows.  There’s not that much time for the things that people think happen, like parties [laughs].  I don’t think we’ve ever been to one party on tour.  But I feel like it was a good time to make a lot of lifelong friends and see a lot of good music and just learn the ropes of being on tour.  Also, we didn’t really know about the fact that you can’t do it fulltime.  You’re gonna burn out.  We had to kind of learn that the hard way.

Sam: It was at the beginning of that tour that was before we lost our minds [laughs].

Janet: It happens to everybody!  Like, when things start going well, you get offered more opportunities, but then you feel like you can’t say no.  It’s like being freelance!  You’re like, “I can’t say no!  Because what if another job never comes my way?”  It’s like, “We gotta do that tour, even though we just got home yesterday from another tour [laughs].”  And that’s something that you learn how to moderate.

Izzy: On that note, you do have a lot of tour dates coming up.  Are there any shows you’re especially excited to play?

Sam: On this tour we’re playing venues that we normally don’t play.  I think there’s some idea that because this has been our most popular record that more people will come to the show.  Whether that pans out or not, I don’t know, but a lot of these venues I have been to or played in the past and some I don’t know at all.  It’s different from the circuit we have played on the last few tours.

Janet: I’m looking forward to playing Bowery Ballroom in New York.  We don’t usually play places that big, so that should be fun.  The Portland show should be great; it’s definitely bigger and I see a lot of shows there and the stage is big [laughs].

Sam: What’s the venue in Philly that we’re playing?

Izzy: It’s World Café Live, which you definitely haven’t played as Quasi.  It’s 650 capacity, but it has different setups.  Sometimes it’s set up as a listening room, but I’m guessing for you they’re gonna have the floor be open.  But it is definitely on the posh, ritzy end…

Sam: Right, it’s like a public radio station?

Izzy: Yeah, WXPN.  It’s in the same building and XPN puts on a lot of their shows.

Sam: I did play a radio session there, but that was just in a recording studio, so I don’t know what the venue’s like.

Janet: We really love the place we usually play there…

Izzy: Johnny Brenda’s.

Janet: Yeah!  We love it!  It’s awesome.  But it’s kinda nice, if you wanna keep coming back, to try some other things.  Like, we don’t know if we’ll get 650 people in there, that’s for sure [laughs].  But it’s nice for the fans to be able to be like, “I got to see them in this different scenario.”  Maybe the sound is a little bit better…  We’re just trying something new for us.  It keeps our interest.  It’s exciting to do something new!  When the tours are exactly the same, I feel like it’s Groundhog’s Day [laughs].  Like, you get there and it’s like, “Oh yeah, this place again…”  Some of those places are super great and you just wanna go back, but sometimes it’s like, “It woulda been fun if we were in a different part of town, try some different coffee, walk around, see a few different things.”

Sam: Yeah, how’s the coffee around World Café Live?

Izzy: I’m not a big coffee person, but I think there’s some good stuff around there.  It’s on the campus of UPenn and Drexel University.

Sam: Oh, sure!  Usually at colleges there’ll be a nice spot.

Izzy: I think I’ve seen you at Boot & Saddle and Johnny Brenda’s.  I was too young when you were still playing The Khyber, but yeah, it’s normally these like 150-250-capacity barroom setups, so it will, like you were saying, be something different.  How do you like playing these bigger rooms as Quasi?

Janet: I think we like it.  I think we’ve both, in Quasi and in other bands, played all different sizes and I feel like Quasi can handle a bigger space.  Our sound’s big and we’re into performance and we’re painting a backdrop [laughs].

Sam: We could pretty much play anywhere, from a living room to a big outdoor thing, and the sound will work.  I do think we’re the type of band where if you’re up close, we have more going on than a lot of bands because we’re not simply just performing the songs.  We have more of an interaction that, when you’re close up, you can see a lot more going on, and it adds a layer to the performance that you might not see at a bigger venue… but you might be able to see it, if you squint [laughs].

Janet: We don’t really have the resources to bring a bunch of crew and have projections and lighting techs.  We do it pretty homespun.  But we try to make it cool, regardless of the size.  I think our sweet spot is like 250, we could probably do that forever.  But this’ll be interesting to see.

Izzy: In revisiting the album and rehearsing, I’m curious if you currently have any favorite tracks off of it, or any that kind of surprised you that you maybe like more than you remember, or dislike more than you remember [laughs]?

Sam: I physically enjoy playing the song “Repetition” the most.  The last song on the record we had never played live at all and I’ve found that I really enjoy that one.

Janet: I’m enjoying the song “I Give Up,” because we’ve tried to play it in the past and we honestly do just give up, because we can never actually get it right.  It has drum breaks in it where I get to improvise and just play crazy craziness [laughs].  My goal is usually to try to get Sam to laugh.  Sometimes it goes off the rails a little bit [laughs].  But that’s part of our thing, that we’re actually communicating with each other.  I know he’s listening.  The audience is maybe distracted, but I know Sam’s listening, so if I go for something, I know at least one person is going to appreciate it [laughs].  Even just appreciating the attempt at something different is something that we egg on in each other.

Sam: I’m really interested to see how that translates to larger venues, whether that’s something that still comes across to the audience in general or only the people in the first couple rows [laughs], or those people rattling their jewelry, as they used to say in the ‘60s.

Izzy: In addition to the album being played front-to-back, what else can be expected?  I’m guessing there’ll be at least an encore…

Janet: We’re doing the record, and then we play some other songs, still in the set, so it’s kind of a long set.

Sam: We’re not just gonna leave after the last song, because that would be a pretty short set [laughs].

Janet: I feel like I’m not really ready for an intermission at that point, because I’m ready to cut loose!  Because we’ve done this thing in order and we’ve tried to be faithful to the recorded version of the record, and then I wanna cut loose a little bit.  So, then we have a section that’s a little more wild.  And then, if people want an encore, we’ll probably do it.

Sam: We have a lot of songs[laughs].

Izzy: This kind of a cheesy question, but we were talking about these “classic album” tours, which have become kind of a thing.  I’m curious if there are any albums that you would love to see performed front-to-back, whether entirely realistic or not?

Janet: I would love to hear London Calling front-to-back!  I would do anything to hear that!  Unfortunately, that will never happen [laughs].  I mean, it does happen when I play it.  It’s so sprawling and so many different kinds of songs and the sequence is so incredible.  That would be my choice in heaven [laughs].

Sam: Yeah and, of course, it’ll never happen [laughs].  Wouldn’t mind hearing Axis: Bold as Love front-to-back…

Janet: That’d be pretty good!

Izzy: I mean you do occasionally see these people do that, but where it’s only one member of the band or something, which I feel a little iffy about.

Janet: The Clash will never get away with it…  Although I thought that about Queen, too, and Queen plays without Freddie Mercury.  If Queen can play without Freddie Mercury, I guess The Clash can play without Joe Strummer [laughs].

Izzy: Finally, what’s next for you, whether relating to Quasi or one of the numerous different other things you’re each working on?  How are you hoping and planning to spend the fall?

Sam: We’ve got some more shows lined up and I think, at a certain point, we’re gonna start working on new material again.  That’s an assumption, but I think a 50/50 safe assumption.

Janet: Yeah, this year’s touring and then next year’s kinda open.  I think we’ll just see how we’re feeling.

Sam: We really hadn’t toured a lot for years, and once we started touring again, we found it’s still enjoyable, so we’re trying to just keep working on that.  I think, while we still have the ability to play at a high level, we’ll do it.

Izzy: Yeah, I was excited to see the tour, because I was at the tour last year, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you back-to-back years on different tours.  So, it’s nice that you’re staying out there.

Janet: I think that album tour allowed us to do that.  There was an excitement around that because people loved the album so much.  It’s a little bigger in scale.  Our scale is usually extremely small, like the two of us in a minivan.  That’s the only way we can afford to do it.  We sell our own merch, we set up all our own gear…  Our friend Joanna [Bolme] is playing with us and then our sound engineer’s coming, which is more than we can afford to do for a regular tour.  That’ll be kinda fun, too, because it’s just having more people around.

Sam: Playing the bigger venues has facilitated that.  We’ll have a little help and it’ll be different from the sort of guerilla touring that we normally do, like drop in, kick ass, then get out.  We’ll settle into a venue and we’ll have twice as many people, four instead of two [laughs].

Janet: I haven’t seen a band without any crew, even my friends…  When I say it’s just the two of us, people are like, “What?  What do you mean?”  Even pretty punk DIY bands, they still bring a sound engineer.  But, for us, that’s another room, and that’s sort of outrageous…  I don’t know, it works for us on a small scale, but it’s gonna be fun to bump it up a tiny bit [laughs].

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.