Before the White Stripes and the Black Keys, there was a time in indie-rock when two-piece rock bands were an anomaly. And now with backing tracks and loop pedals, most rock duos these days can create a sound that suggests a bigger outfit. Not so with Portland’s Quasi. When the duo started 20 years ago, not only was their pared-down lineup rare, but they very consciously worked within the constraints of having only two people in the band.
“Limitations are good a lot of times,” says drummer Janet Weiss, who plays with Quasi on Nov. 15 at the Blank Club. “Because we are a two-piece, we had to find ways to fill out the sound. Sam developed the sound of his keyboard. He has this big ragged sound and I play a lot more notes than most drummers. There’s just a lot of space to fill up and I think it’s molded us into who we are.”
The band consists of ex-husband and wife Sam Coomes (keyboards/vocals) and Weiss (drums/vocals), who is also the drummer for Sleater-Kinney. Quasi has released nine albums, typically with dark lyrics, left-leaning politics and organ-driven power-pop melodies. Their 1998 album Featuring “Birds” is a particular gem. The songs describe Coomes and Weiss’ failing marriage and the hardships of working meaningless, low-paying jobs—all packaged in infectious pop tunes.
Quasi is known for loose arrangements and a propensity for improvisation. Even on their albums, in the middle of otherwise straightforward pop songs, the duo breaks into keyboard and drum jams. Featuring “Birds” opener, “Our Happiness is Guaranteed,” begins with a noisy drum-organ jam before launching into what is an ultra-catchy but dark anthem on life in modern day America. In between the verses, the duo returns to freeform bouts of noise.
However, between 2007 and 2011, Quasi performed as a trio, adding bassist Joanna Bolme to the mix. This lineup recorded one album, 2010’s American Gong and it’s glaringly different than the rest of Quasi’s catalog. The songs are serious and focused, with barely a jam or playful moment to be heard. Although the songs are strong, the album feels like listening to another band.
For Mole City—their first release since American Gong—Quasi returned to playing as a two-piece. Mole City is a double album that came out earlier this year
“There wasn’t an epiphany moment, where we said, ‘Let’s be a two-piece again,’ but I think that we wanted to get back to that intimate way of making music. We wanted to streamline ideas a little more. The more people you add, the more structured things get,” Weiss says.
Mole City sounds a lot like Quasi’s first couple albums. It’s a turbulent, jarring collection of songs, but it’s where Quasi seem best suited. In addition to their more typical ’70s power-pop influenced songs, there is a one-minute country ditty (“One & Done”), noise-pop (“Chrome Duck”), experimental jams (“Clap Track”) and bluesy boogie-woogie (“Bedbug Town”). Mole City, like their very first album, was recorded in Coomes’ basement in their spare time.
“No one’s forcing us to make a record,” Weiss says. “Certainly no one’s forcing us to make a double record. People probably would have advised us not to. There’s a certain freedom to being Quasi and that’s how we like it. We want our band to reflect how we want our lives to be. We feel like freedom of expression is a really valuable thing.”
Mole City was written and recorded over the course of two years. Weiss showed up at Coomes’ house when they had time and they’d write, record, retool and re-record all along the way, with the goal of recording enough songs to fill their dream double album. The album contains 24 songs in total.
“We really tried not to be precious with what we were making. If it wasn’t working, we’d throw it out. We wanted to work loose and not agonize over sounds, and mic placement. We just wanted it to be fun,” Weiss says. “After all these years, my conclusion is that this stuff doesn’t matter as much as material. Some of my favorite records were made on 8-tracks.”
The songs on the record, like their early recordings, do have bass, but Coomes overdubs it. But there’s no one on the album except for Coomes and Weiss, so it really captures just what people have always loved about the duo, warts and all.
“I want to hear their personality in the music. I want to hear who that player is. My favorite drummers have a personality. You hear Keith Moon playing on the radio and you say ‘that’s Keith Moon,’” Weiss says. “It’s so distinct. These people are unique. That to me is the best way to make music. That’s what I’m interested in.”
Quasi performs Nov. 15 at the Blank Club. More info.