Death Before Dishonor

Joan of Arc (left). Photo by John Clark

Sam Coomes spent most of his adolescence between home in Mission Viejo and sets by Black Flag and the Meat Puppets in Hollywood, and then left at about 18 for San Francisco and couldn't stop creeping north. Now he lives in Portland, where he spent his last day off before tour with his daughter and his last night off on the phone talking about Quasi—his band that started as a recording project with drummer Janet Weiss in 1993 and which has just released its biggest beast of an album yet. Hot Shit (2003) had wild loud songs like "Good Time Rock N Roll" and "White Devil's Dream," but last month's When the Going Gets Dark cracks open with liberty-bell guitar chords and a sleet of cymbal wash. Quasi pop in discord here: "Astronomy Domine" guitar lines in hazy trails over Weiss' famously dynamic drumming—as cavernously resonant as on her other band Sleater-Kinney's The Woods, thanks to shared producer Dave Fridmann—and Coomes' agile keyboards, switching between the palms-down hammer chords of the Plastic Ono Band's "Isolation" and the butterfly pianissimos of the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle. ("This Will Be Our Year": ripe for Quasi cover if not total Quasi absorption.) There's even a little Robyn Hitchcock in Coomes' madman piano mashing and cockeyed sarcasm: "There's somebody watching you everywhere/Except in your dreams, they can't see you in there," a line that wants to hop right into the Soft Boys' "I Wanna Destroy You."

Coomes and Weiss are famously catholic listeners and players—besides Quasi, Coomes played bass for Elliott Smith and has a solo blues project that sounds like Elizabeth Cotten through the Comets On Fire echoplex—and an empire in panicked decline suits them the same way it suited the Minutemen, offering sad millions of opportunities that a reluctant (Coomes says as a teenager he just wanted to play guitar in the background) but sharp songwriter might use to look both into and out from his own life. There's an anxious two-minutes-to-midnight sense of anticipation on songs like Dark's title track, where Coomes sings, "When you said 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em'/I was thinking, 'Death before dishonor'/I'll be Joan of Arc/When the going gets dark . . ." over the same auld-lang-syne chords Bowie used to start a song about five years left to cry in. Or on the second verse of the seesaw rocker "Alice the Goon": "Was I supposed to go down with the ship? I was not the captain/It was not my ship!" As someone who (like Coomes) watched the first air strikes of 2003 on a television during a sound check, it is a feeling I remember well.

OC Weekly: Are you still the all-time champion music trivia geek of Portland?

Sam Coomes: I don't think I ever lost.

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How do you train for that?

I'm a musician. And also a fan. Music's my religion, basically.

What's the least trivial thing you know about music?

Like I was saying—I wasn't trying to be glib at all—music is my religion. I imagine people who are part of more standard types of religion—the things they get out of that, I get out of music, you know? All the way from the social element—which is why a lot of people go to church—to that feeling of transcending. It can take you as far as you can go, for sure. I actually believe that there's something about music that is magic. It's intangible. The impact that some simple rock & roll tune can have on you or some other random person just doesn't make any sense if you break it down to what it is. It's just a magic thing. Music is magic, and music can change people. I've seen it change people, and it changed me, and people change the world. So if it all comes together right, I feel like some good can come out of it.

How do you write a song like "White Devil's Dream" that calls out the Bush administration by name and make sure it's not going to be stale in a few years?

I wish it would go stale. The most specific political songs I wrote were written at the beginning of the war. I remember exactly: we were on tour in LA, I think, sitting at sound check, and I look up and the bartender is looking at the TV and bombs are falling. And I gotta get up there and play these little rock songs and thousands of people are being slaughtered. Fuck. It's time to say something, or you feel like a schmuck. It makes you feel very irrelevant unless you step up and address the situation. And that was years ago. Those songs were from the album before the album before this album. Most of that stuff is very old, and it's still going on and nothing much has really changed. I would like nothing better than these more specific political songs to be totally irrelevant by now.

Didn't mean to make you get so heavy on your night off.

Heavy is good.

I've talked to people who like music but don't pay much attention to it—the benignly indifferent—about why there aren't more "political" bands, and I've said if a band is just trying to be as honest as they can, that's political enough.

It's easy to write some political song or any song that says anything. Words are cheap. It's what you do and how you live and how you conduct yourself more than what you say. Somebody who is "benignly indifferent" might not happen to notice that band X or band Y is political because maybe their songs are just love songs. But if they go down to the shows and see how the band comports themselves—Fugazi is a perfect example. Though they do have some political songs, if they didn't, you would still know. That's why they have the impact that they do. Not because they're railing against the system—plenty of massive corporate bands do that, and maybe they have their place too, but it's weird to be part of the problem and rage against the problem. There are legions of bands that aren't being honest—they're trying to write hits, trying to make money, trying to plug into that world that people like me are trying to avoid and maybe even take little snipes at. It's all just about honesty—it becomes political if you look at it that way.

Why is your old Roxichord organ in a museum in Seattle?

They've got it in some backroom. They were buying a bunch of stuff from local musicians of varying degrees of popularity. They've probably written it off now, but they thought if I made a big record, got famous and died, they could put it on display and someone would be interested.

That's morbid.

That's what museums are all about.


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