by Kurt B. Reighley

Quasi
w/Hella, Brent Arnold and the Spheres
Fri Oct 10, Crocodile, 9 pm, $10.

The president is trying to boost his popularity by imitating scenes from Top Gun, and Conan the Barbarian aspires to reign over the magic kingdom called California. These days, it's nigh impossible to distinguish the silver-screen action heroes from their political counterparts, and vice versa. And Quasi have had their fill of both.

The Portland duo's last album, 2001's The Sword of God, opened with a succinct sing-along entitled "Fuck Hollywood," inspired by witnessing the streets of their city disrupted by the making of a Bruce Willis thriller. Now, with the recently released Hot Shit! (Touch and Go), multi- instrumentalist Sam Coomes and his partner, drummer Janet Weiss, take aim at Washington, D.C., via their trademark mix of (mostly) jubilant, off-kilter tunes and caustic lyrics. The jaunty "Master & Dog" laments the shortcomings of the two-party system. On "White Devil's Dream," Coomes literally tells Mr. Bush and his cronies to fuck off, sneering the name "Ashcroft" with so much vitriol it sounds like the filthiest expletive imaginable.

But Coomes, who played in Heatmiser with Elliott Smith and Neil Gust before forming Quasi in 1993, is quick to insist the group had no specific agenda for its sixth full-length. "We didn't have a band meeting and say, 'You know, we really need to get more political,'" he says. "It's simply a response to the times that we're living through now. I was more or less constantly forced to confront these types of issues, just because of how ridiculous the situation in this country has become, and that inserted itself into the consciousness of the record.

"I'm not proposing any particular platform in this record," he adds. Indeed, part of what makes Hot Shit! so compelling and au courant is the way the songs reflect the escalating frustration and confusion rippling across our country. Even as Coomes skewers the media and the "War on Terror" in "Seven Years Gone," he admits, "How much is lies/and how much just unwise/I can't say."

Musically, Hot Shit! finds Coomes and Weiss (who also plays in Sleater-Kinney) continuing to experiment with new sounds, including three cuts featuring live strings. The guitars of the title track bristle with a weird, uniquely American character, pitched somewhere between a scratchy Appalachian field recording and Sonic Youth Plays the Blues. "Good Times" begins with a sample of a gospel choir, then gives way to Coomes and Weiss singing over a herky-jerky melody rendered solely on tuned percussion, which in turn suddenly bursts into a fuzz-laden psych-garage romp.

Although both Coomes and Weiss were weaned on '70s radio pop, a more telling reference point is punk and hardcore of the '80s, when the division between the underground and corporate music worlds was much clearer. "That spirit still informs what we do," says Coomes, whose first band was the S.F. indie rock trio Donner Party, active in the mid-'80s.

"I don't know if technically, you would hear things rhythmically, melodically, or harmonically related to early '80s punk rock, but at that time, we were into bands like the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and Hüsker Dü. That was probably the tail end of the true influences on what I'm still trying to do."

Today, Coomes sees fewer bands willing to take risks on the same scale. "We're far from alone," he qualifies--citing Sacramento two-piece Hella, who have been touring with Quasi, as a notable example--"but it seems like a lot of bands start out with an underground approach, but you can tell that they're gunning for that big record contract. They just see the alternative, do-it-yourself method as a springboard into the more corporate-controlled realm that everyone seems to aspire to these days."

But not Quasi. The duo remain staunchly DIY, recording their last two albums in their modest home studios, and they recently set up their own tiny Thee Quasi label, which thus far has released a five-song EP (featuring two cuts from the Hot Shit! sessions that didn't make the final album), as well as a live offering from Coomes' solo project, Blues Goblins. Quasi are living a dream very few Americans even entertain anymore: They can pay the bills solely doing something they love, and in service of their own goals, not someone else's.

"We have reached a level that's very near ideal," concludes Coomes. "It involves a lot of hard work, and it's pretty marginal, economically, but, knock on wood, I've been able to make a living just playing music the past two years. I don't know that I'll be able to sustain it, but I would be quite content to continue in approximately the same economic bracket I now occupy." And even if their fortunes should increase dramatically, Coomes doesn't foresee Quasi making any drastic alterations in how they conduct their affairs. Except one. He cracks that he'd like to hire a roadie. "I'm getting too old to be loading heavy equipment every single night."

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