Quasi Vs. Dehumanization

The Portland duo’s thrilling new album, Breaking the Balls of History, is their first in ten years

By Jeff McCord

Few things are more soul-baring than solo and duo music performances. There’s nothing much to hide behind, and while most of these live in the acoustic domain, those trying to maintain vital rock energy find the spare setting even more challenging. 

Portland’s Quasi, made up of Sam Coombes and Janet Weiss, are pioneers in this area. Initially married, but long divorced, their 1993 start pre-dates more notables like the White Stripes’ bombastic debut. Yet while Quasi has flown a bit more below the radar, their music is equally powerful. 

Like many, 1998’s Featuring “Birds” was the album that first brought Quasi to my attention. Filled with guileless pop psychedelia, mostly made by overdriven keyboards and drums, the off-kilter harmonies imbued their music with a weird menace and edge. They’ve continued the pattern through numerous if somewhat infrequent recordings. 

Both Coomes and Weiss would take on other projects, backing Elliott Smith (Coomes was a part of Smith’s early band Heitmeiser), Coome’s Blues Goblins solo work. And Janet Weiss may have become well known as an indie rock a-lister, drumming for Stephen Malkmus and Sleater-Kinney, but my thought when I heard her name was always, ‘Oh yeah, from Quasi’. Other things took precedence, but for both of them, Quasi was always waiting on the back burner. 

Breaking the Balls of History Album Artwork

So when the band rolled through Austin on February 17th, touring behind their new album, Breaking The Balls Of History, I was on hand to chat with them after their Studio 1A session. It had been ten years since their last recording, 2013’s Mole City, so I started by asking them, um, where they’d been. 

“We never really departed.” said Coomes.”It seems [so] perhaps here in Austin, but we’ve been playing shows most of the time, local regional shows. We’ve even done a few tours. There were some reissues of some of our earlier records, and we toured for that – not as extensively as we are now, but we never just totally hung up the robe and went home.” 

Weiss concurred. We see each other a lot. Around and at shows and events or whatever and [we] just get coffee and Yeah, keep up to date. So it never quite feels like it’s totally on the shelf.”

It came close to being there, though. In 2019, Weiss made the decision to depart what had been her primary musical residence of the previous quarter century, Sleater-Kinney. It felt like a momentous move, but something even more serious followed: a bad car accident. 

“I broke both legs, one worse than the other,” Weiss explained, “And my collarbone. It’s funny because, for most people, 2020 was the terrible year. For me, 2019 was a doozy. It was a lot of… questioning. People talk about when they have big life events they appreciate things more,  and that’s definitely true for both of the big events that happened to me. I just had to sort of concoct a new approach to my life and to music.”

Not to mention the physical challenges. After such a bad accident, would she still be able to play the drums? Getting back with Sam seemed the perfect way to find out. 

Coomes recalls the time. “It was mental, an emotional therapy, but it was actually physical therapy, physically playing every day and seeing how far along she was going on the drums. And it seemed like we had a couple of songs and were moving in the direction of making a record.”

But by then, of course, the pandemic was upon them.

“We needed more songs and there wasn’t a lot else happening at that time. I was doing long walks with the dog and so forth, and the songs just started to happen because some door opened that opens up when that needs to open, I guess.”

What opened up was a look at these strange times. The lyrics flirt with the controversies of our times and our uncertain futures, states of “Inbetweenness”, “Doomscrolling”. The album opens with a “Last Long Laugh”. Breaking the Balls Of History emerges a decade after their last recording, their first for Sub Pop, and Weiss and Coomes, both in their fifties, are back out on a national tour in a changed landscape. How, and where does Quasi fit in?

They both laugh. “Yeah, that’s a tough question,” says Coomes. “Where does anyone fit in today’s world? It’s interesting being a band for so long, because we’ve been relevant, we’ve been irrelevant, and we’ve been relevant again and irrelevant again. And so we’ve learned to really not depend on the larger context, because sometimes it serves, sometimes not. But always, I’m very thankful. We’ve always been able to go out and play shows and have an audience. It might be smaller or bigger depending on where we are in the mind of the world at any given time. But it matters only in the math. When the audience is small and nobody’s paying attention, it’s hard to make the numbers line up.”

Weiss takes up the point. “We’ve been discussing it on these long drives, just Quasi as this alternative to things that are corporate and perfect and prerecorded and… you know, not human. I think we’re extremely flawed and human, and it’s like a visceral feeling that is created. It should be emotional and it should be raw. And, you know, more and more we’re hearing less and less of that. And so, we represent these things that we feel are really important. And whether they’re in the popular consciousness or not, I don’t know. But to us, it’s important to get out there and have a show that’s different from the show the night before and, you know, to play off each other and what we’re feeling in the moment. Sometimes it goes off the rails. And that’s part of it, too. We don’t just homogenize things or clean it all up.”

For a band that has been, for the most part, just two people (bassist Joanna Bolme was in the lineup for a few years), primarily just keyboards and drums, their recorded output has been remarkably diverse. 

“I do think with all the bands I played in, there’s always a concern about one record not sounding like the next record. It’s something that artists think of in most mediums,” says Weiss. “I do think that Sam often has an approach for each record early on. I think limitations are good for creating things. The songs for this record are all songs that we could play live, very minimal overdubbing and a representation of the two of us playing. I think that followed the period of time that we came out of – the writing that was very insular. You know, we had masks on for a lot of it and [were] very focused and contained space-wise.”

She nods her head in agreement when I mention that, on the other hand, most fans want one record to sound like the next.

“I do think that’s true. Like the bands are like, ‘I don’t want to repeat myself’, and fans are like, ‘we want that same thing again’.”

“You know,” Coomes says,  “you can never make the same record. It’s always going to be similar, but not as good. Always.”

The new record does have an immediacy to it and comes close to matching their liberating live intensity. Watching them perform, it’s like a magic trick. It’s hard to believe the force and power coming from just two musicians. Coomes blasts a sound like an angry nest of hornets from his Rocksichord. (Or a close approximation. I ask if it’s the original and he says “The Rocksichord died a long time ago and you can’t fix it really. There are no parts for it. So I started to try and approximate that sound over the years and this is the current version of that.”)

And Weiss? OMG.

“I think Quasi is unique,” she says, “in that it allows me to really express myself in and show off a lot –  just be loud. Like all the rules that drummers usually have, I get to break in Quasi and I’m encouraged to do so. It’s a freedom that I haven’t really experienced in other bands. So I think I bring my desire to have that freedom to a band where we’re equals, you know, built on respect.”

“We’re trying to excel musically,” Coomes continues, “but it’s a little bit more than that. We’re trying to use the band as a vehicle to live the values that we want to live. You know, in a typical job, you’re constrained from doing that. We feel like that’s an important part of what we do, just the dehumanization of life that everybody faces every day. At least with a peashooter, you gotta take potshots at that once in a while. You can only do so much against the tide of tech bros. But we’re doing our best.”

Set List: “Queen of Ears”; “Doomscrollers”; “Nowheresville”

Album: Breaking the Balls of History (Feb. 10, 2023 – Sub Pop)



Janet Weiss-drums; Sam Coomes-keys, vocals


Producer: Deidre Gott; Audio Engineer: Jake Perlman; Rene Chavez; Audio Mix: Jake Perlman; Cameras: Michael Minasi; Patricia Lim; Alyssa Gisselle Olvera; Jessie Curneal; Edit: Michael Minasi Host: Jody Denberg

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