Quasi: Real-Deal, Long-Term Indie Rock In rock and roll terms, the Portland-based band is a veteran act. When they started playing together 17 years ago, they had no idea the gig would last. Now, Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss have put out their eighth album, called American Gong.

Quasi: Real-Deal, Long-Term Indie Rock

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The band Quasi from Portland, Oregon has been around the indie rock block a few times. After all, it's 17 years old. The band's new record is its eighth and it's called "American Gong."

NPR's Jacob Ganz talked to the band about how they'd managed to stay in the game and how that game looks when you've become its elder statesmen.

JACOB GANZ: To understand Quasi today, you need to go back in time. A dozen years ago, the band was on their way up with a great sound.

(Soundbite of music)

QUASI (Group): (Singing) (unintelligible) underwater (unintelligible), fill my tank with oxygen, step outside our home.

GANZ: And a story you could tell in 30 seconds. Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss used to be husband and wife. Weiss also played drums in Sleater-Kinney, a band that Time magazine called the best in America. Coomes played with Elliott Smith. There was every reason to think that Quasi might make it, well, at least medium-big.

Mr. SAM COOMES (Lead Vocalist/Guitarist, Quasi): You know, when we were starting out, it was sort of almost the opposite of a career path. Really, you had to be a little bit nuts to really throw yourself into it.

(Soundbite of music)

GANZ: Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss have lived in Portland since 1989. Jimi Biron has been a fan of theirs almost that long. Biron books bands at a chain of local venues. He says that Quasi snuck onto the scene as a poppy harmonizing duo during the heydays of the Pacific Northwest, heavy, lethargic grunge obsession.

Mr. JIMI BIRON: Everybody had this kind of dirgey sound and there was no harmonies and there was a lot of screaming. And you had this group that was incredibly melodic and really fun.

(Soundbite of music)

QUASI: (Singing) Every day, is (unintelligible) day. But it takes its toll, (unintelligible).

GANZ: For a band where both members were seated behind instruments, Quasi made a lot of noise. Coomes on his crazy-sounding vintage Rocksichord organ; Weiss hammering off-kilter beats on her drums. By the end of the '90s, Biron says, the band was selling out venues that held 1,100 or 1,200 fans.

Mr. BIRON: It did seem that there was a point where they were, you know, neck and neck Modest Mouse and the bands like that that have gone on to huge platinum success while Quasi has kind of maintained this whole time.

GANZ: And then somehow, Quasi just outlasted the lifespan of the narrative, the expectations and the gimmicks.

(Soundbite of music)

QUASI: (Singing) The class is gone just like you said, but it's not really done. If you stir up the hornet's nest, both of us must get stung.

GANZ: Not to mention that signature Rocksichord sound, which Coomes dumped for electric guitar. And then Quasi ditched another feature of the original story: Weiss and Coomes quit playing as a duo.

Ms. JANET WEISS (Drummer, Quasi): The intensity of the two-piece, people respond to it but it doesn't just go away when you walk off stage.

Mr. COOMES: No matter how well you get along, especially given our accumulated history over the years, it's when you get just two people and you lock them in confined spaces for prolonged periods of time, it doesn't matter. Occasionally, it's just loggerheads (unintelligible).

GANZ: Quasi picked up a bassist, Joanna Bolme, a lifelong Portland native and friend of the band. But even if the lineup and the sound have changed, the philosophy behind the band hasn't. For Quasi, the idea of punk is still essential. Music is a loud, rambunctious form of social criticism that, in the words of writer Greil Marcus, draws lines between young and old.

Lately, Weiss and Coomes are finding themselves on an unfamiliar side of that line.

Ms. WEISS: It really feels sometimes like punk never happened. Like, I feel old. I feel my generation is old now and it's time for the kids to do their thing but it is pretty different.

GANZ: Indie rock has changed in the last 10 years. Where Weiss proudly says she's never played on a song that was used in a commercial or TV show, today, that's exactly what indie success has come to mean for many young bands.

(Soundbite of music)

QUASI: (Singing) Yeah, rise up (unintelligible) for someone to get (unintelligible). Rise up, say your goodbye and rise up. Rise up, rise up.

GANZ: Longtime fan Jimi Biron says he's not sure how Quasi fits into the new indie order.

Mr. BIRON: Quasi is a band that you root for and you want to see succeed, but you wonder if they want to.

GANZ: Quasi isn't tied to any licensing deal. Weiss and Coomes are playing smaller venues than they once did, and yet, after nearly 20 years, they're still making music together. There's got to be some benefit, right?

Ms. WEISS: We're rich.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEISS: Just kidding. But, yeah, definitely, the telepathy is a definite, definite plus.

GANZ: According to Coomes, that telepathy; more than a plus.

Mr. COOMES: That's been our saving grace really. When times get tough and you think, what are we doing; this is ridiculous. And those times, I really appreciate just the musical relationship that you get playing over time. It's difficult to cultivate that and it's valuable. And you don't want to just toss that out without a real good reason.

GANZ: The band itself might not have planned for it, and Quasi's long stuttering career might not seem like a perfect model, but for anyone searching for lessons on how to sustain a fruitful partnership over two decades, Quasi's a good place to look.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Ganz.

WERTHEIMER: You can hear music from Quasi's latest album and download a full concert recorded at South by Southwest at nprmusic.org.

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