Broken Keyboard Forces Quasi Into New Directions

Pop-rock duo explore variety of sounds on Field Studies, recorded after their beloved Rock-Si-Chord broke.

If Quasi's fourth album, Field Studies, doesn't sound like their

first three, you can blame the imperfect machines with which the Portland,

Ore., duo make their acclaimed pop-rock music.

"The keyboard we are accustomed to using broke right before we went into

the studio to record," drummer Janet Weiss said. "So we had to explore

other options."

The keyboard was a Rock-Si-Chord, a vintage instrument that approximates

the sound of an electronic harpsichord; it defined Quasi's distinctive

fuzzed-out soul-pop music on earlier albums. "I searched and searched

for another Rock-Si-Chord, but I couldn't find one," keyboardist/guitarist

Sam Coomes said. "Now, I'm using a device that has the Rock-Si-Chord's

sound modeled onto a memory chip that I play through another keyboard."

But Quasi went beyond simply trying to reproduce a lost sound in following

up Featuring "Birds" (1998), which included such songs as "Our

Happiness Is Guaranteed" (RealAudio

excerpt) and "You Fucked Yourself" (RealAudio

excerpt). Living up to the title of Field Studies, which

is due Tuesday on Up Records, Coomes and Weiss, who also drums for the

punk trio Sleater-Kinney, explored a variety of instruments and recording

environments.

"We wanted to mix it up a little bit," the 35-year-old Coomes said.

"Bon Voyage," for example, took the band out of the recording studio and

into a Portland church. "That was great!" Weiss, 34, said. "It's the kind

of place you can rent out, so it's not a traditional church at the moment.

It has a gigantic pipe organ that Sam played, and we set the drums up in

the aisle."

"I sort of didn't tell them we were recording a rock 'n' roll song,"

Coomes added with a chuckle.

"Good thing I like challenges," said Larry Crane, who produced most of

the tracks on Field Studies with the duo. "Sam had the idea that

'Bon Voyage' needed a huge organ sound. The church has really high ceilings

that create a beautiful, cascading reverb sound. Sam's songs are sad,

but that one is especially sad."

The cavernous sound of "Bon Voyage" echoes aching lyrics: "Same town,

same streets: different worlds/ Same bed, same sheets: different worlds/

Same cloudy sky over you and I/ Same tears: different eyes."

Quasi are a dichotomy; their upbeat pop-rock music is often offset by

anguished lyrics. "Under a Cloud" has a bouncy beat, but the refrain

laments: "I feel much better when I'm under a cloud." On the dissonant

"Birds" — not to be confused with the nature recording of the same

name on Quasi's Featuring "Birds" (1998) — Coomes sings,

"Free as a bird, or is that just a word?/ Oh, to be free — to free

myself from me."

"When you're unhappy you try to work through it, and songs just tend to

happen out of that state of mind," Coomes said. "I don't try to quash

feelings of unhappiness, although maybe I should!"

Overall, the album "does sound a lot different than Featuring 'Birds,' "

according to Crane.

On tracks recorded at Jackpot! Studios in Portland, Coomes and Weiss

used unusual instruments and strange effects. Coomes plays a theremin

— an early electronic instrument with an undulating, otherworldly

sound that is produced by waving a hand in front of an electrically

charged rod — on "The Golden Egg."

"The Star You Left Behind" features an unusual drum effect. "I wanted to

make the drums small and distant on that song, so we recorded them through

one microphone," Weiss said.

"It is a very sad, claustrophobic song," Crane said. "It had to feel

like it was drifting away into space."

Quasi recorded the lushly orchestrated "All the Same" and "Smile" with

producer Phil Ek (Built to Spill, Mike Johnson, 764-HERO) in a large

Seattle studio. "Sam was excited to add things like strings to the songs,"

Ek said. "They definitely know what they are doing in the studio. They

were very collaborative. It was really fun."

By contrast, Weiss produced and performed her bittersweet "Two by Two"

in her home studio. "It's a very small, basic studio, but I'm hoping to

do more recording in there," she said. "I have a bunch of songs, but Sam's

songs are all so good, I can't imagine bumping any of them."

Quasi are scheduled to take Field Studies on the road with a

Sept. 16 gig in New York as part of the CMJ Music Festival, with a U.S.

tour to follow in October.