A conversation with Janet Weiss
Interview by Adam McKibbin
A few years ago, stalwart indie-rock duo Quasi became a trio when bassist Joanna Bolme (of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks) joined drummer Janet Weiss and singer/guitarist Sam Coomes. It was an important time of revitalization for the band, which had been kicking since the '90s and weathered the marriage and separation of its two principals. Weiss says that after 2006's When the Going Gets Dark, the band had spent some time pondering their future; long removed from their days of being the hot new thing, they'd seen crowds thin out a little bit and were wondering whether they were still vital - not just to their audience but to themselves.
American Gong answers the question with a resounding "hell yes." It's a classic and cacophonous indie-rock record that will probably sound like the good ol' days to anyone with a soft spot for the Pacific Northwest scene they helped propel.
Weiss is already regarded as one of the best drummers in music, having played on some of the most memorable albums of the past couple decades as a member of Sleater-Kinney, not to mention a still-growing catalog of impressive albums from both Quasi and the Jicks (and she has a new project in the works, too, though currently still under wraps).
Prior to the release of American Gong, she talked to The Red Alert about inspirational drummers, the art of the tracklist, and the making of this writer's favorite album from the last decade.
Drummers as a whole are a famously underrated lot. Who’s someone that you think has been overlooked?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Hal Blaine; he was part of the Wrecking Crew and played on at least 40 #1 singles in the ‘60s and ‘70s. These guys were like the rock kids and they’d come to sessions in T-shirts and Levis and the other session guys would be in suits and ties. These guys were looked at as hacks. But they got really popular playing on demos and records because they had so much spunk and personality. It was a much different time, obviously, and people were all recording live. Hal Blaine played on more records than you could imagine.
Even this morning, I made a list of 20 of his songs and listened to all of them, and it’s amazing how much of his personality is there in the songs. He played on a lot of Beach Boys and Phil Spector records – Sonny and Cher, The Carpenters, John Denver, the Brady Bunch theme. You think it’s going to be an invisible person, but he was making up all of his own drum parts and knew exactly what would go over what song. To me, he was really heroic. I spend so much time working on songs – what’s the right thing, what should I play? This guy just walked in and within 20 minutes had it totally dialed in, and not just chopping wood, but really amazing parts. I’m real high on Hal Blaine on right now. And no one really knows who he is – he isn’t really a household name for our generation.
You’re known for being the person who generally puts together a set list.
My claim to fame. [Laughs]
Yes! Does it extend to track lists?
It does. I’m pretty involved in that, too.
What was the process behind American Gong?
That was maybe the easiest record that I’ve ever sequenced. The band usually chimes in, but that one I tried to do on my own, and the one that’s on there was pretty much the first solid sequence I had. I had a conversation with my sister about how, in the ‘70s, the last track on the vinyl was the heart and soul of the record. That’s assuming that people get to the end, which you can’t really assume now. [Laughs] But I’d rather think of the album as a conceptual piece, as a work. That’s my choice, I guess, to be old-school like that. So I knew "Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouller" was going to be at the end.
I always think the first song should set the listener off into the new direction – hopefully there is some new direction that you’re taking. For this record, it’s a loud, raucous guitar record, for the most part, with the heart and soul being a piano ballad. [Laughs] So it’s raucous, but I also think Quasi has a lot of roots in the pop sensibility.
“Repulsion” just sounds like the beginning of a record, it’s the song we’d play first at a show. It’s not my absolute #1 favorite song on the record, but it’s definitely top three or top four. To me, “Bye Bye Blackbird” is my favorite song on the record; to me, that really sums up what Quasi can do. That’s us out on some sort of limb, just really being ballsy.
If this was the easiest, what was the worst one?
I think the last Jicks record. Joanna [Bolme] and I really agonized over Real Emotional Trash; there was no clear-cut starter, there was no clear-cut ender. I think it turned out really good, but we were on the Quasi tour just listening to sequences all day in the van as we were driving, just trying to figure out what worked.
I always say that it’s an undervalued art unto itself.
It’s hard, yeah! It definitely requires some patience and a certain amount of some weird skill that is totally not useful for anything else. [Laughs]
The Jicks are on hiatus for a bit. As far as reasons for a band to take a hiatus go, “Pavement reunion” is a pretty good one.
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t think anyone wants to take a year off – even Steve, I don’t think, wants to take a year off from the Jicks. He’s into the Jicks. And we have a whole new record that’s going to be awesome. But it’s time, and I think it’s obvious that it’s time. Quasi is actually opening some Pavement shows in Europe. I’m looking forward to it. And he’ll be ready to come back when the time comes, I’m sure.
And then people can stop asking him about it, which will be a treat.
I know! People can stop asking me about it, too, which is exciting. So exciting.
Then you’ll just get the Sleater-Kinney questions.
[Laughs] Yeah, well.
Which… I do have one question about Sleater-Kinney. We critics recently did a lot of reflection about the decade gone by, and I had One Beat as my #1 album of the decade. I don’t want to get into anything too particular, but just looking back at that album, what does it bring back? What does it evoke?
I think that was probably our most productive, open, really fun recording session. We recorded in Portland, we were home, we did some in my dining room, we did some at Jackpot, we did a little bit in Seattle. There were a lot of ideas and I felt like I was finally integrated enough to be like “Here are some ideas I have about the recording.” We’d worked with John a lot to the point where we trying new things. I have really positive memories of making that record – whereas some records, like Dig Me Out, it was snowing and freezing and we were covered in snow and wet and drying our socks on the heater. Every record has sort of a struggle to it, and I think One Beat had less struggle than any of the other records. I think in its way it has a joyous quality on there. The tension is a lot of what propelled that band, but on that record, there was more working in harmony. I still enjoy listening to that record; some of them I can’t listen to for whatever reason. But that one is not difficult to listen to at all; I don’t listen to it that often, but every now and then at the gym, I’ll put it on.
There is that jubilation, and it’s amidst such heavy issues. And they were things that people weren’t really singing about. I remember exactly where I was when I heard “Far Away” [and lines like "And the president hides / While working men rush in / And give their lives"] for the first time and thinking “Oh my god, this song is about 9/11.”
Yeah, and that’s maybe partially why we were so unified. We really believed in the songs, and there were things that needed to be said. It was easier to unify behind those things – like “this is really important to talk about, so this has to be a great song.” We had to make sure the music lived up to the lyrics. It was a very positive experience.