Portland was different when Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes arrived in 1989. People were arriving in pre-Nevermind clusters, looking for a small-town music scene. The city offered cheap housing, a gritty underdeveloped aesthetic, and quiet, uncrowded streets. One hundred seventy miles north, Sub Pop was becoming a brand; the better-to-burn-out credo was trickling down I-5. By 1994, Kurt Cobain was dead, and bands that put Portland on the indie map were dead or dying: Crackerbash, Heatmiser, Hazel and Pond.
From all of that, the experiment known as Quasi now stands alone as a vital (and local) model for independent musicians. And the presence of Sam Coomes--how he hears music, how he makes music, how he approaches the business of making music--says something about where Portland's been and, hopefully, where Portland's going.
"Pop musicians try and guess what their audience wants to hear and then try and give that to them. But we don't do that," says Coomes. "The sounds that we use come out of pop music but we're not a pop band...we just play what we want to play. You have to be willing to stand alone."
This makes Sam Coomes dangerous. Anyone needing evidence of this needs only to see him play live.
Sitting alone on stage, his thin frame hangs over an electric guitar. A wave of distortion delays and repeats in the audience's ears. The Portland musician runs his fingers through his beard and waits, listening. Noise reverberates in the amplifiers long after Coomes puts the guitar down and then he begins a brutally kinesthetic assault on the electric keyboards stage-right. Elbows banging and legs kicking, his amplified output is gnarly: melodic synthesized sounds flicker mnemonic flashes of proto-punks like Tom Verlaine, John Lennon's 1970 Plastic Ono Band, and dead Delta bluesmen.
Lightnin' Hopkins called it "air music"--as in, pulling musical ideas out of thin air. Sam Coomes understands this idea and the risks that come with it. Devils hang overhead with whispers of failure; it's creation by fire, and the Portland musician chooses fear over boredom.
In the Blues Goblins project, his solo record of traditional blues laments, Coomes runs solo and wild. He hears the blues--the music of people surrounded by maddening annihilation--and feeds it back with an emotional Hendrix howl. It's the sound of ragged bravado, and it's a sound that goes where it wants to go.
In Quasi, his experimental-rock partnership with drummer (and ex-wife) Janet Weiss, Coomes is the primary songwriter and vocalist, the guitarist, a Roxichord madman. "He can play anything," laughs Weiss. "I have to keep him off the drums so he doesn't just kick me out of the band."
There's no creepy manager to warn of trends or fashions, no monolithic record label pulling market levers. "He's the kind of guy who'd never need a producer," says Larry Crane, founder of Tape Op magazine and Jackpot! Recording Studios. "He never needs someone to step in and guide him." With Blues Goblins, not much is on the line for Coomes--the esoterica and screeching guitars reach only a small circle of die-hards. But with Hot Shit, Quasi's sixth and latest release, the sifting and shifting is bound to create a bigger Darwinian spectacle.
Where Quasi's last three records seduced listeners with lush sonic cushioning, Hot Shit is raging and raw. The record presents a twisting narrative thread and spoonfuls of psych-blues drama--Coomes hasn't stripped this naked since 1996's Early Recordings. The Roxichord is gone; the burning electric guitar is God.
Technically skillful without ever sounding slick, Coomes has a schizoid love of music that makes him an idiosyncratic songwriter. With hints of Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, prog-rockers Yes, nervous-breakdown era Pink Floyd, extreme Brazilian psych-pop, 1960s dub reggae and the Beatles, Quasi has never sounded this much like Coomes and all of his influences.
Hot Shit is a powerhouse, a great sonic divider. It's part Electric Ladyland-like mayhem ("Good Time Rock 'N Roll"), part Harrison/Lennon solar-psych wah ("Sunshine Sounds"), part protest record. Only a band willing to lose everything puts out a record like this. A record that compromises nothing.
"If you modify your music or your approach in order to fit in with a scene," says Coomes, back in Portland after a string of mid-September East Coast tour dates, "I can't see that being a long-term formula for artistic success. It depends on what you want.... If you're really interested in just playing music and--this is hard for some people to believe--you don't want to be rich and famous, then what's the point? You might as well just be where you are, and do your thing."
Quasi plays with Hella and Note Notas at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave.,
226-6630. 9 pm. $10. 21+.