Dogs & Drums: A Chat With Janet Weiss of Quasi
What’s the music on your answering machine?
I’m playing “Swanee River” on the harmonica.
I wondered whether you were playing it or holding something recorded next to the machine.
People complain that when it hits the high note it gets kind of piercing. But I think I just put the phone down. I’ve never once left an answering machine message where I talked on it. My whole life it’s been some little music that I played on some weird instrument.
What are some of the good ones?
Well, I’m not sure that any of them are really considerable good. I try to keep them really short. Usually it’s a tune. I can’t play that many things on the harmonica. I had “Popeye” on there once. I maybe recorded something before and put it on there, some teeny little ditty. But I hate the sound of my speaking voice so there’s no way I would ever talk into it.
It’s not bad at all. You could be an operator. It sounds pretty clear.
It’s disconcerting. Something about it. It’s like hearing your spirit animal. It really kind of scares me. It’s disconcerting how similar it is to my sister’s voice. I talk to her all the time and then I hear my own voice and I’m like, wow, it sounds almost identical.
What do you think your spirit animal is?
It’s probably a dog or something sort of mundane but kind of cool. I’m definitely not a cat. Nothing graceful or mysterious. I’m definitely not any of those things. Not a mountain lion for sure. I don’t think I’m a monkey.
Dogs are pretty awesome. You can’t go wrong there.
They’re just, they’re dogs. They’re pleasant little creatures. For the most part.
A dog playing the drums. I wonder if there’s any connection there that we could figure out.
Well, I do like gambling. You know those paintings with dogs gambling around a table.
What’s your game?
Blackjack. I love gambling though. I love it.
Do you play by the blackjack rules of the table?
I do! I do. You gotta follow the rules. I mean there are times when you get ambiguous hands. But for the most part I try to follow the rules. Because I like to win more than I like to lose. I don’t mind losing. But I’d rather win.
Is there gambling up in Portland?
We do have the lottery.
You play lottery?
I don’t really play lottery. That kind of gambling, I’m not very lucky at any sort of raffle or lottery, or my luggage coming out first. That’s a different kind of luck I think. I do envy the type of people who get their luggage first.
Do you give them mean looks?
I’m just envious. I say, “Ugh, you’re sooo lucky!” It seems like I’m always down there first. One of the first few people off the plane. I like to sit in the front. And then I get down there and I have to wait. Although you know if you sit first class, your luggage comes out sooner. It gets a priority tag and it comes out early. Maybe I have a slight amount of disdain for those people. Lucky. Lucky bastards.
Are you traveling a lot lately?
A lot. We’re leaving tomorrow for England.
With the Jicks. It’s all Jicks stuff until we come to California. That’s the first Quasi thing we’ve done this summer. So that will be really very fun. We’ve got a bunch of new songs. I’m really happy with the new songs.
Are you putting together an album?
We’re working on it! We have probably seven songs. We need about three or four more.
When do you find time to work on this stuff? Do you do it at a distance or only when you’re together?
We’ve been fitting practices in. When the Jicks get home, Quasi will practice. The Jicks haven’t really had to practice so much because we’ve been playing so much. Both bands are working on new songs, which, for me, is just heavenly.
In what way?
I love practicing every day. I think five days a week would be ideal for me. But, people get busy.
Is that why you have your hands in so many bands?
Probably. I can’t be monogamous with bands, I guess.
You’re not a player, you just crush a lot.
It’s a rap lyric. Big Pun!—Do you find it hard to shift between bands? Do you have to change your outfit?
A different hat, I guess. I’ve become adept at being able to switch in and out. I think now that Joanna is playing bass in Quasi, at first maybe it was a little more challenging to jump back and forth but now she’s really good at it. We both love playing so much. It makes you feel that you’re becoming a better musician to play with different people. Lately it’s been very productive and I feel sort of inspired playing. I think that whenever my personal life is turned upside down, my playing becomes so much more complex and interesting. To me, drums are such an emotional instrument. A lot of what I play is improvised or comes out of whatever kind of mood I’m in. Not so much what I’m thinking about, but more just like deep down how I’m feeling on that day. If things are really settled I don’t have as many demons to get out.
So you advocate a more tumultuous life?
Just for me. Sam wouldn’t be able to function like that at all. His music doesn’t come from that place. His music is very spiritual to him. I don’t think what’s happening with him affects his productivity as a writer. He was born with these thoughts and ideas and melodies that just come out. It’s really interesting.
If you had to describe Quasi as a shape that comes together, what are the three pieces?
I think of Sam and myself, even literally the way we sit on stage, opposite, across from each other, I think we balance each other as far as music goes. But we’re also kind of similar to each other. Not that we’re balancing each other in opposite ways, but more that we compliment each other. We’re completely surrendering to the music, like we’re unafraid of it. We’re playing live. We want to be overtaken by something. And Joanna kind of anchors in the middle. She’s very strong and more introverted than we are. She’s more of a Viking. She’s a leader that people would follow. She’s very solid. She’s well contained. She’s not spilling out all over the place and making a mess. Sam and I really are doing that. So in a way it does make a neat shape. These two sides are flying out in all directions and there’s this strength in the middle, sort of like indulging us.
That’s so psychedelic of you.
I guess so. I hope so. We love to be psychedelic.
Are you just touring in California with Quasi?
We’re playing two shows in San Francisco. We’re playing the Camper Beethoven Campout in Joshua Tree, which we’re very excited about. I was a huge, HUGE, Camper at Beethoven fan in college. Sam and I, I think we actually looked at each other for the first time at a Camper at Beethoven show.
Who plans out the sets? Do you do that together?
Me. I’m always the set list maker. I think it’s because I care the most. I really think it matters and I kind of agonize over it. I’ll think about it for days in advance sometimes, for a big show. I really think it’s important. I think it’s oftentimes very overlooked by bands. And I think sometimes the show can kind of be lackluster because of it.
You mean how some bands pick a set for a while and do it over and over?
I would never do that. No band I have been in would ever do that. That’s boring. As musicians, that’s boring. I mean, certain songs kind of go together and you can sort of create interludes. I know with Quasi we often like there to be interludes between songs, improvisations that connect two songs. At least it adds this thing in between that’s different every night. I don’t think we’ve ever played the same set twice in a row. I mean if you play it once and it’s really good, the second time you play it, it wouldn’t be as good and you’d say, “Oh, why didn’t we just make a new one?” I like the process of sound check, you play on the stage, see what it’s like. Certain songs just work better in different environments. So I try to make a set list that kind of adheres to what the stage is like. Sometimes if the stage is really high, I tend to think those shows have less energy. You maybe don’t bust out your absolute rippers.
I read something about how you don’t really think of yourself as a woman in music type of thing.
Well, of course I think of myself as a woman!
In some sort of responsibility…
I know what you’re trying to say. I do think I have a responsibility. That’s for sure. I do think, as a woman, I have a gigantic responsibility to be the best musician I can, and not rely on my sexuality to sell myself as a musician. That to me would seem very unsatisfying. I like to be judged by my merit as do most people. At the same time, I know, from watching musicians, and watching women play music, how captivating it is. There’s something special about it. And there is something different about it. And something so cool. When you see a woman doing something that is outside of society’s image of her, there’s something really exciting about that. And even just on a primal level there’s something so awesome about women playing music! I don’t identify with any type of music that is typically feminine type of music. Oh do you play the keyboards? I like to see women playing all kinds of music, not just the Lilith Fair variety, which is sort of what’s expected of us. But I actually do get frustrated when I see a show and there’s four bands and there’ s no women on stage. I want to see women playing music. I think it’s sometimes just more interesting than watching men play music. There’s not as many clichés tied up in it. Women can sort of stretch out more because they don’t have those sort of expectations of being this cool guy in a band. That gets boring after a while. Unless it’s a guy who’s really pushing those boundaries as well, and then it’s extremely exciting.
You have contributed something to this narrative, or the breaking of the narrative of women in music or just music in general by being the way that you are and the way that you look at it.
People who know me know I feel really strongly about making my own choices and steering my own course as a musician and pushing myself and playing with people I respect, people are trying to say something with their instrument. As a woman doing that, it’s a huge part of it. That’s who I am and how I see things. I also don’t pigeon-hole myself like, I can only go so far because I’m a woman.
If you weren’t playing drums and making music, what do you think you’d be doing?
I’d like to say I’d be a veterinarian, but I don’t think I could have been in school for that long. Something involving animals. I’ve always wanted to be a vet or a marine biologist. I like animals a lot more than I like people on most days.
Do you have pets?
Two big dogs. If I had the discipline, I’d be a vet. That’s what I wanted to be since I was a little kid. I’d like to think that’s what I’d be doing. But I wasn’t planning on being a musician. It changed in a day. Drums found me and I’ve been lucky for sure. I haven’t had to work a real job in a while, which is such a luxury. I worked a real job all my life. I definitely appreciate that I don’t have to set my alarm clock every day. On tour I do. Tour is hard. It’s not nearly as glamorous as people think. I mean, you get to play music every day. There’s a shining moment in every day where you get to express yourself. When you have a real job you don’t get to express yourself at all. I am sure I’ll have to go back eventually. This can’t go on forever.
Maybe not. Maybe you’ll start Janet Weiss’s home for dogs and drum learning. “Dogs and Drums.” “Drums for Dogs.”
Bring your lab, come on over!
QUASI: THIS WEEK IN THE GREATER LOS ANGELES AREA & BEYOND
Quasi w/ Built To Spill @ Troubadour Wed 9/10
Quasi w/ Built To Spill @ Troubadour Thurs 9/11
Quasi w/ Camper Van Beethoven, Built To Spill & many more @ Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace Fri 9/12 (2008 Cracker & Camper Van Beethoven Campout)