Friday, October 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Night Watch / Tom Scanlon

Duo, though divorced, still make beautiful music together

As cynical as it sounds, we know by experience that marriage isn't necessarily forever ... but is music? The strange case of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss suggests that music may be more powerful than even love.

Coomes and Weiss didn't make it for the long haul as a married couple, divorcing in 1995; yet they didn't let a little thing like a divorce stop them from making great music. Indeed, their professional collaboration has only grown more powerful and relevant after their personal split.

Perhaps you're thinking at this point, "Ah-ha — White Stripes clones!" Hardly, as the Coomes-Weiss duo of Quasi slightly pre-dates their Detroit counterparts. Though not nearly as famous as the White Stripes, Portland's Quasi is highly respected in the indie-rock community. And the band's reputation is growing yet, with the September release of the loose, unpredictable, funny but poignant fifth Quasi album, "Hot (expletive)." (The name is not appropriate for a family newspaper.)

With sharp cuts such as the title track, the bluesy rocker "Master and Dog" and the raucous "Drunken Tears," and with Coomes' chaotic keyboard leading Weiss' drums on an inebriated ramble, the album is getting high praise from national publications. Entertainment Weekly (Sept. 19): "Though things can get a bit maudlin, Quasi's tough-love hipster blues have a raw, lived-in charm." Rolling Stone (Oct. 2): "Somehow the whole thing remains shambolically tuneful and engaging."

Quasi is a musical moonlight for Weiss, best known as the drummer for the beloved trio Sleater-Kinney. "Sleater-Kinney is taking some time off. I'm pretty much in Quasi mode now," Weiss said, her voice a bit on the scratchy side the other day around noon.

"I lost my voice a little on tour, then went and did karaoke last night — that pushed it right over the edge," she said from her home in Portland, where the Hollywood native has lived since starting her musical career in San Francisco.

Weiss started playing drums while attending San Francisco State, and met Coomes on the S.F. music scene. "I was a huge Donner Party fan, his old band — I think I stalked him for a while. He came to a show I did with my second band, which was called Ed. A friend said (Coomes) was there, and introduced us."

The two hit it right off and, not long after, headed north. "I moved to Portland in 1989 — we wanted to have a yard and a dog and a house, and that's pretty impossible in San Francisco. It was like a lifestyle change." Weiss and Coomes played as Motorgoat "for about a year, that kind of morphed into Quasi."

"I like everything about Portland, it's completely my home. And I travel a lot so it's not like I'm stuck here all the time ... I do like Seattle as well — I can see living in Seattle. A lot of my good friends are there — my best friend lives in Seattle."

When Quasi starts out a new album, Weiss said "we pretty much hash it out in the basement." Asked if they live together, she laughed and said "that would be weird" — as if playing in a duo with your ex isn't! But Weiss talks fondly about Coomes, and it's clear their musical career is built on a deep friendship. "He has a 15-month-old little girl, I just adore his child. And his girlfriend is great — it's more like a family to me."

Weiss lives in southeast Portland, Coomes 20 minutes away in north Portland; they take turns playing in each other's basements.

Weiss and Coomes had a rough experience on their last album, 2001's "The Sword of God," which they produced themselves, figuring out how to use recording equipment as they went along and sweating over details.

If you notice a slightly more upbeat feel on the new album, you're probably right. Before recording it, Weiss said, "the main point we had made verbally was we wanted the record to be more fun to make than 'Sword of God.' We wanted to enjoy the process and not fret over the sound. We wanted it to be loose ... and not get caught up in the production. We wanted it to feel more joyous and free.

"Things are a little wonky at parts, but that's who we are as a band — frayed edges, things going awry at times. Slick is something we don't ever want to be. Or professional. ... 'Professional' — that's like an insult."

The name of this new Quasi album is anything but professional. Weiss explains: "It sort of represents the rebelliousness we were trying to convey on the record — rebelliousness about corporate music, sort of harkening back to our roots as musicians. When people did music because they enjoyed it." Plus, she adds with a snicker, "swearing on the title of your record is old school."

Quasi performs tonight at the Crocodile (10 p.m., $10). On tour with Quasi, and opening for the show, is a Sacramento duo called Hella. The low-key Weiss does not seem given to hyperbole, yet she sounds positively in awe of Zach Hill, the Hella drummer.

"The best drummer I've ever seen is Zach Hill ... get there early, you won't believe it. It's so revitalizing to travel with people who have the same passions about music.

"I'm partially filled with terror to have to follow the best drummer alive, partially so excited to play — he gives me the courage to go to the edge. ... The bar's gone — just think John Coltrane playing the drums."

Tom Scanlon:

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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