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
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
"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
"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.