Words by Jonathan Stout
It’s been a long ten years since Quasi (aka Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss) have released an album. For their newest release, the playfully titled Breaking the Balls of History (out now on Sub Pop), the band draws inspiration from the political and social chaos of the last few years, and does so with gusto. The collection of songs roll and tumble, pulling the listener in, one catchy hook at a time. Coomes lets off quite a bit of lyrical steam throughout, but instead of drenching the songs in a depressing sea of minor chords, Quasi makes talking about serious problems fun with a slew of uptempo, exciting rockers.
The songwriting of Breaking the Balls of History occurred during a unique period in the members’ lives. In the summer of 2019 Weiss got in a serious car accident where she broke both legs and her collarbone. By the time Weiss and Coomes began writing again, Weiss was not only still in physical therapy but a deadly virus had nearly killed off live music, leaving the future of the music industry unclear. With this context in mind, the amount of catharsis involved in the creation of these songs is palpable.
Off Shelf: Let’s talk about the title a little bit – what do you define the act of “breaking the balls of history”? How does the music on the album do so?
Sam Coomes: The phrase is just about not being stuck in outdated ideas & structures. You can take it at the social or political level, or the personal level. Or all three. It’s an idea to strive for.
OS: The new record’s lyrics reflect greatly upon the anxiety and fear of the uncertain times that we’ve all shared over the past few years. Do you feel more positively about the world around us now that most people have returned to normal activities or do things still feel just as bleak?
SC: Simply returning to normal activities isn’t a hopeful development at all, really. Things were going very wrong well before COVID. I mean, yeah, to be able to again experience live music both as a performer and also as a fan has been a major gift but I don’t see how it signifies a general improvement in this world… it’s obviously a mess. But being able to get out there and hopefully at least try to do something positive is a good thing, of course. So yes and no.
OS: Janet, in the summer of 2019 you got in a pretty bad car accident where you broke both legs and your collarbone. How long did it take you to recover? In addition to everything else, was there any concern that you wouldn’t be able to play drums anymore?
Janet Weiss: I couldn’t walk for almost three months which was very challenging. Once that period was over, it honestly took another two years to regain my strength and coordination. I was very concerned throughout the entire ordeal that I wouldn’t play again – not like before. And I lost so much muscle during the 12 weeks of inactivity, simple activities like climbing stairs or walking on an uneven trail were difficult. But I had to stay positive. Recovery involves a leap of faith. I had to let go of the worry and concentrate on small, incremental accomplishments, do my PT, and practIce drumming. Sam agreed to help me work through the process of healing, and we met at the practice space almost daily to play together. He started bringing in a lot of really cool new songs, which not only helped me motivate and stay on track, but became the basis for the new album.
OS: Although you incorporate other instrumentation, the Rocksichord has long been a critical part of Quasi’s sound. How many of them do you own? With such reliance on an instrument that has become relatively rare to find I can imagine that it would be pretty devastating if you only owned one and it became damaged.
SC: The Rocksichord I used in early records died a long time ago. At least a couple times someone has tried to hook me up with another one, but I don’t want it! When they break, it’s over. You can’t find parts to repair them. So I’ve been using different keys over the years to get a similar sound. The rig I have now I more or less designed using different elements I had sitting around – the idea of mimicking the Rocksichord sound I threw away a few albums back… I do try to keep the punchy, distorted feel, but it’s kind of just it’s own thing now.
OS: You’ve really zeroed in on a really unique tone over the past few albums, but especially on Breaking the Balls of History. You’re often able to warp the sounds of your keyboards to sound like guitars and other instruments. Would you mind sharing any of the pedals or pieces of hardware that you use to create the tones achieved on the new recordings?
SC: I run two sounds simultaneously through two pedal chains into two amps, so I can get low bassy sounds & higher more guitar like sounds at the same time. Sometimes we use one or two other sounds like organ or mellotron. But it’s just normal guitar pedals like overdrives & things like that. Having time away from touring & recording allowed me to develop this idea a little further for our live sound, and that’s the basis for the recorded sound as well.
OS: What brought you from Kill Rock Stars to Sub Pop for this release?
JW: I had such a wonderful experience working with Sub Pop when I was in Sleater-Kinney and thought it would be a great place for the new Quasi album. We paid for the recording ourselves so we had a completed album to play for them when time came to find a label. We are thrilled they liked it and decided to put it out. They have done a great job and we couldn’t be happier in our new home.
OS: How has it felt to get back on the road? Does touring feel different in the post-COVID quarantine era?
JW: Despite the many many challenges facing small indie bands like ourselves, it feels amazing to tour again. Quasi is a live band at its core and we get better the more we do it. We become adept and nimble when we play every night. It has been fun getting to know the new songs and being able to stretch out in our headlining shows. The COVID impacts seem a lot less these days, although there is the constant underlying worry one of us will get sick on tour and have to cancel shows. Financially, that is a hit none of us little guys can afford.
OS: At this point, Quasi has been a band for thirty years. What brings you back to this band even when you’ve often been busy with other projects? What do you enjoy most about being in this band?
JW: For me it is simple, I love Sam’s songs, and we share a similar ethos. Sure we disagree at times, but we both want to make music that is personal, unique, flawed, and exists in direct opposition to the corporate mainstream. And Quasi is fun, that’s important too.
OS: What does the rest of the year look like for you? Any more tours or special events coming up?
JW: We are on an east coast tour currently and then we go to Europe and the UK in April. Hopefully we can get to Japan and Australia at some point later in the year!