Quasi come late, in a hurry, at the Covo. With her characteristic energy, Janet Weiss starts loading cymbals and drums, frantically stirs well in the merchandising box, unstoppably industrious. All of that happens while Sam comes up and down the stairs, dangling with his load, still but in endless movement. We meet, some hours later, this couple of leonine etology, but we don't care. It will always be a ridiculous amount of time, compared to an entire life dedicated to music, to a passion which brings them, after all this time, hobbling in distant places with their instruments on their shoulders, among retired elders playing cards in a bar and children running around in a park.
I have read somewhere that you're coming to Italy after twelve years since your last date here. I checked, it was 1998, in Milan...
Sam: It might be true. [Janet laughs, Ed.]
Janet: We've been back, but not together.
Do you know what kind of day it is today? It's like the Superbowl of soccer...
[A chorus of amused "Nooo!", Ed.]
Janet: I knew it was a bad day to come!
So, our first real question is about your new record. "American Gong" shows a great chemistry in the band, because it sounds both direct and elaborate. Still four years have passed from "When The Going Gets Dark": what happened in between? How did the record come together?
Sam: Well, a lot has happened in these four years. We switched record labels and we made some other changes, with Joanna joining the band in that period. We were busy even without making a record, making a lot of changes, so... It took some time.
Janet: We played in another band, and that band put a record out... That takes a lot, one good year. As you make more records, usually there's more time in between them, as you get older. It's not like when you're young and you have a kind of back-catalogue of songs...
And how was it working with people like Dave Friedmann, Steve Fisk and Tucker Martin?
Janet: Uhm, some easier than others... I think we sort of get to handpick who worked on the record. You know, making a record is challenging, in a lot of ways. I think the tracking was really quite fluent and sort of effortless in a way, but then mixing was a little bit more... It was harder to get what we wanted, we just kept at it. We definitely had an idea of how we wanted it to sound...
In this change of sound we noticed a little change of perspective in your lyrics, you have always been characterized by some kind of bitter, intelligent irony. Maybe that is a little diminished in your last record: we noticed that it was substituted by a general disillusionment (or "repulsion", to quote from you), parallel with a more direct, rock sound. Do you agree? What influenced this change of perspective?
S: I think you might be right. I'm not sure what changed: people change, they travel through life. When you're a musician, especially. We made so many records, and, because there was a gap between the last record and this one, we took some time to think at what we are doing and rethink some things. I'm not saying we totally changed, we made some little changes. Me, personally? I don't know, maybe I'm just getting older, I'm not such a "cry-baby" anymore, I'm not such a fuckin' pussy about "Poor me! I don't belong in this world". There is a place for that kind of sentiment, and everybody feels that way, but... Yeah, I can't just keep doing that over and over.
Is there a strong theme binding together "American Gong" songs? What does the title refer to?
Sam: "No more empire".
Is that both the theme and the meaning of the title?
Sam: I wouldn't say there is a consistant theme lyrically. The theme is... uhm... rock'n roll.
Speaking of "No more empire", I wanted to quote from you: "Newspaper says: We support the Prez/The war on terror/Bombs away/How much is life?/And how much just are wars?/I can't say ", from "Hot Shit". Has something changed now? Does "American Gong" sound more optimistic because of your personal going-ons, or because you feel something is really changed, politically?
Sam: Well, there's still a war. People still dyin'. They're still sending drones to Central Asia to kill people, so honestly there hasn't been a substantial change. But actually when we were working on the record it seemed like there might be a change. Hasn't turned out that way...
In that record, with songs like "White Devil's Dream", for instance, you exposed yourselves in the most explicit way, politically. Did this bring you any problem, with the audience or with the press?
Sam: No, I don't think we have a big enough audience that it would be any kind of a problem.
Did you receive any criticism for your non-diplomatic views?
Sam: Possibly, but I think we stopped paying attention to criticism in a while because it's kind of unproductive, so I just don't really know about it if we did.
Speaking of your lyrical style, you always used a lot of fantastic scenery (vampires, ghosts...), apart from a rich compendium of beasts, to express contemporary anxieties. In our opinion, this is a big "added value" to your music. What can you tell us about it?
Janet [laughs]: I like that "added value"...
Sam: I like it, yeah... Well, that's perfect, really. To me, the core of music is a rock'n roll band, it's all of us together playing. Up to a point, it hardly even matters what the songs are about from that perspective. If you just love rock'n roll, you love that feeling, people can be singing about almost anything. So all the lyrics coming on top of that are "added value" if they're good lyrics, if you enjoy them, if you get something out of them, it's extra added value. If they're mediocre lyrics, it's not so much "added value". So you try to make some good words for people who are interested in it. But what I'm most interested in as a musician is the playing, the physical playing and creating of sound, as a band.
Speaking of your main characteristic, one of the keys of Quasi style has been your roxychord. With Joanna's bass and guitars, you have redefined your sound. Is this the suit you're gonna wear in the future, or will you bring more classical instruments to the band?
Sam: I think we're doing allright on this path, for now. We'll see what happens. But this something that just happens naturally. As we start working on some new stuff, we'll see what happens.
Is there a special ingredient in Quasi that you have never found in any other band? You had many collaborations...
Sam: Janet Weiss.
Janet: Really it's the people that make the difference. Sam's songs are like anybody else's songs. Joanna and I play in another band, with a different songwriter, and it doesn't feel the same at all. It's quite different. You apply different parts of yourself, and Sam requires certain things of me that I never really found they were needed in any other band. Still there are still things to explore about each other, after all these years.
A bit of interactive questioning: can you say what is your bandmates' best quality?
Janet [laughs]: There's too many to pick from!
Sam: I guess the most handy is... You know, we're not a heavy metal, or a hard-core band, we seem fairly mild-mannered, but we're tough, we're a tough band. We're been, you know, through anything, even during the last few days...
Janet: I'm trying to answer the question, you're trying to get out of it!
Sam: I truly value it! I think that's something that allowed us to survive as a band over the years... Mental toughness.
Janet: I think that a very good quality, especially for being in a band, is that they're both extremely fair, really honest and trustworthy. Completely 100% trustworthy. When you're out here and just travelling around, in places you've never been, things get really hard, you might lose your shit and go a little crazy and, if you're not with people that you trust... I feel like they would take care of me. That's pretty crucial, it makes it a lot more fun.
Another interactive question: if you have to describe Quasi in three songs, which would you choose?
Janet: You should do that one [pointing to Joanna]
Joanna: That's tough.
Janet: That's really hard. Off the top of your head!
Joanna: I would say: maybe "The Rhino"... "Clouds"... And... Ooooo, the 3, what's the 3 gonna be? I would say "Bye Bye Blackbird".
Janet: Good one, that's exactly what I'd have said.
Do you want to say yours?
Janet: No, I agree with those, those are good ones.
Sam: Yeah, let that stand.
Janet: Because you could have "Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler", but definitely "Clouds" covers that.
It seems to me that the flag of American alternative rock, American independent rock tradition is carried by more "aged" musicians, like you and Ted Leo and Robert Pollard and Stephen Malkmus... To this respect, what do you think of new bands and so on?
Janet: I think the shocking realization is that punk-rock is gone. You don't see it as prevalent in the younger generation. The young people seem a lot happier now, less rebellious.
Joanna: They have little gadgets... [Joanna gestures with an imaginary electronic device]
Janet: It's kind of non-confrontational and not particularly angry. Our generation was pissed off, and mad, we made a lot of racket... Now people seem a lot more content.
Do you think they just want to look happier?
Janet: Oh no, I think they are happier. [laughs] I would have blamed it on the Internet, pretty much, like, people are just content to be in anything that comes to them. It's not so necessary for things to be interactive as it used to be. It ‘s really hard for us to get our hands on things.
Joanna: People are easily distracted. Or to redirect their focus.
Janet: The element of surprise, as far as being in a band, is pretty much gone. You're gonna watch them on Youtube, you know what the setlist is before they even come to your town. So it's hard to get people involved, they're like: "I saw that already".
Speaking of new bands, can you name an artist which has impressed you in a particular way in the latest years?
Janet: Mmm, Joanna Newsom impresses me. [both laughing]
Is that a joke?
Janet: No, seriously. As far as being impressed goes, being a musician... But there are bands we love, I love Sic Alps...
So there is no one you would assign your legacy...
[General laugh, Ed.]
Janet: I don't think we have much of a legacy.
Sam: Yeah, we don't have a legacy to assign...
Janet: We're still alive!
Sam: We've managed to see some pretty great bands, just on this European tour, Sic Alps for instance. And The Cribs, whom we saw in Amsterdam right at the beginning of the tour, which was perfect timing, you know, inspiring, to kick shit...
Janet: I mean, they are actually one of the younger bands that still do carry the flag: non-perfection, emotion. You're really putting on a show, you don't just go out for a show, it really seems it could be their last. I could really relate to that and be impressed by that... Because a lot of people, under thirty years, just look really good, don't break a sweat. It's kind of silly in a way to me: you should be doing it, it should be your passion...
Do you follow Portland music scene?
Janet: Sort of. There's a lot of bands.
Joanna: Explode Into Colors are good.
Janet: Yeah, very impressive. It's three girls, a drummer, a percussionist and a guitar player, it's really inventive.
We have to get back to "The Sword Of God" to find a song which is completely sung by you. Is it because you don't find yourself comfortable in that role, or is it for some kind of "coherence" inside the band?
Janet: Well, I don't like my own words. I enjoy singing so much, I'm really just so self-critical about my own songs, to the point that I don't want to play them, it makes me squirm. But it doesn't mean it won't happen again. I like Sam's songs a lot better... Honestly, why going on with my songs when Sam's songs are better?
We have seen you playing live with The Jicks, Bright Eyes and now with Quasi. Will we ever be so lucky to see Sleater-Kinney again?
Janet: We came to Italy and played outdoor. I think it was a park [laughs¨. And no one came to see us, but there were people in the park [general laugh]. I actually sang a couple of songs, a couple of Sleater-Kinney songs, and that was funny... I can't remember where that was, maybe Milan...
But maybe someday, I'm not sure when.
Speaking about the Jicks, what will happen now with this Pavement reunion?
Janet: Uhm, taking some time off, we're still working on a new record, that's probably halfway done, for next year.
And, about the Blues Goblins project, was it just a kind of homage to the golden years of blues, or a kind of "relief valve" from all the rest? Will there ever be a sequel?
Sam: Oh, there might be. I enjoyed making that record but, when I went out, played some shows all by myself, I didn't really enjoy that so much. So the project kind of ran out of steam... But it might live as a recording project, when I have some little extra time... Thanks for asking.
And what about Pink Mountain and Crock? Sam: Wow. Well you're digging pretty deep. Pink Mountain will possibly come to Italy.
Joanna: We toured with an Italian band...
Sam: Oh we did tour with Zu... Fantastic band. I think we will do something sometimes, possibly even in Italy. Crock... I don't know. That's going real deep. There's some talk. I hear rumours.
What about this big world tour you embarked in, after many years. Did you get any new sensations or stimulations from it, being a trio now?
Janet: Well, some of the same challenges are still there. The world hasn't changed that much from 1998, as far as the rock club. It's pretty similar. Personally, I appreciate the good shows a lot more now. Like last night was so fun, with people cheering... You just can't take for granted that there's gonna be any body there, knowing who we are in music, so when they are, it's really very gratifying. And it always has been, but I think it's more so now.
Are you still convinced that "Rock'n Roll Can Never Die"?
Sam: Oh yeah. I stand by those words.
Last question: I read somewhere that, among the positive aspects of Quasi, you pointed at the fact that there has been no real "direction". So is it so hard to ask you how you picture yourself in five, maybe ten years from now?
Sam: Yeah. It's pretty hard.
Janet: The band?
Janet: I don't know why I just picture us ending up playing like Thursday nights in some bar [general laugh, Ed.], playing covers in a bar. Just having a great time... And, it could happen!
Sam: We're still having fun.
We couldn't have thought of a less appropriate joke than the one we tempted at the beginning of the interview. We do not know if Champions League final has to be blamed or not, still only thirty people or so show up at the Covo. Nonetheless it is shocking to see Janet stand up from her position to scold, publicly, a not overfocused Joanna Bolme - come on stage with a glass of beer, still not a rookie, for sure.Here's what Sam Coomes meant when he said: "Janet Weiss".