Q&A with Janet Weiss of Quasi
Since 1993, Quasi has released a series of albums underscoring the fact that sad songs don't have to sound like surrender. Instead, as Quasi's material often displays, there can be a feisty defiance to the inner grey skies and rain. The act comprises yeyboardist Sam Coomes, who played in Heatmiser with the late Elliott Smith, and his ex-wife, Janet Weiss, once a member of Junior High, and since a member of Sleater-Kinney, Bright Eyes and Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks.
If Elton John grown up twenty years later and been influenced by punk rock and prog, his music might've sounded like this. Weiss is a drummer of startling power and creativity and her abilities are on full display in this band. In advance of Quasi's upcoming show at the Larimer Lounge, we spoke with Weiss about the new album, how she first came to play the instrument that has earned her a reputation for being one of the most dynamic rock drummers around and the evolution of her home city.
Westword: How did you first become interested in drumming, and how would you say your style has evolved over the years and perhaps how your style changes, if indeed it does, between your various projects?
Janet Weiss: Oh, gosh, I started drumming a million years ago. A band asked me to go on tour when I was 22 and asked me to play drums, and I taught myself, so I could go on this trip with these people. The drums found me; I didn't find them. When I started playing, I realized how appropriate an instrument it was for me. I'd been playing guitar for a few years but I never connected with guitar the way I did with drums.
With every record, with each band, I just try to make a song good. I'm not so much focusing on my technique. There are a million better drummers than me. I try to adapt to the songwriter, I try to adapt to the situation and retain my sort of melodic power. My goal is for the band to be good.
WW: What about Quasi has brought you back to that band for the last seventeen years?
JW: I just think Sam's songs are great. There's a commonality between us; our musical intent, the reason we play music, is very similar. What we're trying to accomplish when we play music is very similar?
WW: What are you trying to accomplish?
JW: I'd say we're trying to communicate, to shake things up, to show people that you don't have to live life a certain way. You can create your own destiny and have freedom and power in your life. Every time we play live, we try to communicate that freedom and that expression.
WW: How did you come to play in Sleater-Kinney?
JW: Through a band I was in in 1995, actually, with Joanna Bolme, with whom I play now in The Jicks. We were in a band called Junior High, and we opened for Sleater-Kinney upstairs at this club called La Luna in Portland. We met there, and I remember thinking how much I liked the band.
A person I worked with knew them, and said they were looking for a drummer shortly thereafter. They just called me up, and I went over and met them at Corin Tucker's house, and we went in the basement. They said they had a song they were working on, and they played me "Dig Me Out." At that first practice it was instantly electric. It was obvious something good was going on.
WW: How did Stephen Malkmus recruit you into being in The Jicks?
JW: In a similar way. I was friends with Joanna, and I've known those guys for years. I'd known John Moen, their old drummer, since he was nineteen. I also knew Steve for years. He moved here over ten years ago now. So it seemed natural. Sleater-Kinney was breaking up, and John had left to go play drums in the Decemberists. It was an obvious fit.
WW: You've been drumming for over two decades -- are there particular drum arrangements and hardware you've come to prefer, or do you change things up a lot between your various projects?
JW: I pretty much stick with the same set-up. I play either a late '60s or early '70s Ludwig kits, for the most part. I only have two toms. I want a second floor tom, but until I get a roadie, I'm not going to get more gear. If someone can load in and out and set it up for me, I'd have lots of things. But when you have to carry it all up the stairs and carry it downstairs after a show, I can make do with what I have. I have a pretty light set-up: A couple crashes, a ride, a hi-hat, two toms and two drums.
Sometimes when I record I bring a different drum kit or a smaller drum kit. But for the most part, I feel like the drums sound like the drums -- there's not much you can do to make them sound that different, and some of the things that you do to make them sound different, I don't like.
I should probably mix it up more, but I love my early '70s kits more than anything. It's good idea when you're working on new material to work in a new piece of equipment just to sort of steer you in a different direction. With drums, it's a little bit harder. If you play guitar, you can buy a couple of new pedals, and it might really change your sound and your songwriting.
WW: Is there a significance to the title of the new Quasi album, American Gong? And are there particular themes that stand out as running strongly throughout the album?
JW: Well, I heard Sam explain the title. I don't know if you're familiar with The Gong Show, when a ridiculous act gets pulled off the stage with a hook -- I think he's referring, on a political scale, to America, the American Empire. It's time for us to back away and not present ourselves as such anymore. Enough! Sound the gong.
We have a lot of material that deals with isolation or loneliness. There are a lot of songs about feeling despair or finding your place --sadness. Contrasting to that, this time around, there's sort of a buoyancy there too, energy and a loud sort of rebelliousness.
WW: Obviously you've been living in Portland for a long time. What was it like before a large part of it was gentrified -- even Mississippi Avenue seems well on its way at this point? What do you think was lost in the process?
JW: Oh, Mississippi Avenue is gentrified. It's there. There's good and bad. I think it's very tastefully done in Portland, which is nice. The city is conscious about retaining a lot of park space and green space and developing within city limits, and trying to develop mass transit, and it's really bike friendly.
I think we've handled our growth quite well and a lot better than some cities, and there's not a feeling of sprawl. Though there is more traffic; they're definitely working on expanding the mass transit system. You can ride your bike to anywhere in Portland if you want to.
I think there was a charming underdog mentality when I first moved here in the late '80s that is definitely gone. People acted more like underdogs, dressed more like underdogs. Whereas now it's very stylish and hip and there are a lot more young people than there were when I first moved here. People coming here from other places.
There's more good restaurants and the art scene has improved. The music scene was always pretty good though it has changed. It didn't need a ton of improving -- it stayed really good. There were some cool things about what used to be called The Warehouse District - -it's now The Pearl. It used to be great-looking old warehouses and cheap housing down there. I don't want to romanticize that era. Part of it was just that I was young then. Kids who are young now, they'll have same experience of it changing and they'll look back and remember how awesome it was.
WW: You've been playing in rock bands for so long that some people might think that's all you've ever done. What are some of the more interesting or odd jobs you've had in your life?
JW: Well, this is definitely the best job. I don't mind if people think that this is all I've ever done. It's the most meaningful job I've ever had. I was a dog groomer, I delivered radiators, I was a photography producer. I typed classified ads for many years. It was my longest term job--years of typing classified ads while I was in bands. This is the most important job so far for sure. The most rewarding.
WW: You don't have to do anything else, I hope, at this point.
JW: Not at the moment. I could. But I'm just too busy to have a job because I'm always travelling or going to record. I could use a job right about now. I think a lot of people are not making as much money as they once did. I think everyone's making about half of what they used to. But, you know, work a little harder, cut down on cost, share a room with three people instead of two people and cut corners and try to make enough money to live.