Janet Weiss reflects on Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag, and 20 years of Quasi
When is a side project not a side project? When it reaches the grand old age of 20, clocking up nearly twice as many years as your most popular, most revered work, that’s when. Janet Weiss is still best known for being the drummer in Sleater-Kinney, the Portland trio who emerged towards the tail end of the Riot Grrrl movement in the mid-90s. But her two decades as part of Quasi, the duo she formed with ex-husband Sam Coomes in 1993, eclipses the lifespan of that band by some margin.
Sleater-Kinney went on “indefinite hiatus” in 2006, their album The Woods and the subsequent tour making a case for them being the most successful product of a scene often accused of insularity, their audience unexpectedly started to swell as they de-bunked their precison-tooled dual guitar interplay for a looser, roughed-up approach. Since then Weiss hasn’t stopped, continuing to work on Quasi with Coomes and joining Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks for a stretch (as well as an ambitious drum trio project alongside Zach Hill and Matt Cameron) before reuniting with guitarist Carrie Brownstein in 2011 for Wild Flag, while singer Corin Tucker has despatched a brace of acclaimed solo works.
Sadly, Wild Flag, despite acclaim for their eponymous debut, are no more: “It was great but I think it just kinda ran its course," Weiss tells us. "It’s hard to have a band when you live five hours apart by plane.” But the hardcore have always hoped and suspected that Sleater-Kinney were taking an extended breather rather than calling it quits. After all, they were rock solid close and went out on a creative high. Brownstein has previously hinted at eventually getting back together.
"Bands have become more accepting of corporations. Google, Wikipedia, Apple: people relate to those huge companies like they’re family. I still feel like that’s dangerous" – Janet Weiss
We’re here to discuss Quasi’s excellent new record, the expansive 24 track Mole City; unsurprisingly, Weiss is more than happy to discuss her former band and agrees that they called it a day when they were seemingly catching a second wind. “That was a real step up, that last tour – certainly in the UK,” she recalls. “For some reason, people started coming out all of a sudden. It was weird!” It’s hard to resist asking The Question. Thankfully, Weiss takes it in good humour and laughs as she says: “Oh, you know, yeah, I wouldn’t rule it out. I don’t think we’ll be able to stay away from each other forever!” [As it turns out, a few days after she speaks to The Skinny, Sleater-Kinney temporarily reunite onstage in Portland, joined onstage by Pearl Jam and Peter Buck for an impromptu crack at an old Neil Young standard - ed]. Good enough. Now to the task at hand...
Weiss reflects on her lengthy tenure behind the Quasi kit with not so much surprise but a distinct warm joy. Their songbook is sizeable but this ninth album sounds more like a sprawling and youthfully hungry debut. Clearly the well of creativity is far from dry. It’s arguably their best work to date. “I feel the same way,” agrees Weiss. “We had few resources – we had a lot of time, we had a studio, a tiny rudimentary studio in Sam’s basement, we had mics and our instruments, and our abilities and our ideas. But what we didn’t have was money. So we just used the resources that we had and we tried to make a record that was different to the last record. We tried to make a record that was loose and less self-conscious – more fun, I think. We gave up the idea of a ‘good’ sound and a ‘good’ studio and all those things you’d perhaps have in a studio you’re hiring by the hour.” Do these kinds of logistical aspects eventually just get in the way? “Well they can overtake the creativity, they start to steer the project. You’ve got a certain amount of time to record a certain number of songs. This, though, was just open-ended.”
“We started working,” she continues. “Neither of us had anything else going on for a few months at the end of last year. We just hunkered down every day – for four hours every day. We’d meet at Sam’s house, have some coffee and just get to it. We just got to go in every day and play music, flesh out our ideas and it was just so much fun. I think it really sort of rejuvenated our musical connection. We realised what a language we have, the two of us, for communicating musically and for recording.”
Quasi, of course, were a duo long before it became fashionable, before a time of austerity made having two mouths to feed one of the driving forces. Weiss acknowledges there’s a price for the freedom the format affords. “There are some songs we simply can’t play live as a two piece. Some of them just don’t work, but there are a lot of them that have translated and I think they stand up. This album takes common threads that run through our twenty years and it’s becoming a fun record to play live. These shows have been some of our best, which is a good feeling.”
For an artist who emerged from a heavily politicised scene, it must be gratifying to have won such a broad level of respect. Weiss remains one of the best drummers in popular music. And you’ll not see that epithet qualified with ‘female’, either. To see her play live where her technique and crucially, her feel, make her stand out, remains a thrill. She dodges the compliment: “Well the funny thing about drumming is you’re never done. There’s so much more for me to understand about it. I still think of myself as still learning.”
You wonder whether someone so accomplished still needs to practise. “Yeah, I do! I feel like I’m still in the middle of my development. It’s like being an athlete or something. Drums is so physical. You can’t just put ‘em down for six months and come back and expect to have your timing and your intuition – all these things that need your daily attention. So I try to practise at least three or four times a week when I’m not touring. But if I’m getting ready for a tour, I try to practise every day. I don’t want to tour and then spend the first week getting in shape.”
With a career that bridges from that pivotal juncture of US alternative music to the increasing here-and-now sexualisation of pop and the suck-it-and-see disposability of what’s become an internet-driven industry, it must be difficult to see a way for young female musicians to replicate the communal, agit beginnings she was once part of. “I think the commercialisation, and the acceptance of the commercialisation, is the biggest difference,” she says. “You know, it used to be commercialised but we, as musicians, we railed against that. We were rebellious. We were angry and pissed off that the music world was becoming so commercialised. We were upset and we were banding together. We thought there was such a thing as selling out and that was real. It’s disappointing now that things have changed, and not necessarily for the better. Bands are more accepting of corporations. Google, Wikipedia, Apple: people relate to those huge companies like they’re family. I still feel like that’s dangerous, just like I did when I was young.”
She continues: “I’m not going to be the one to make a difference now, but I still have ideals. I feel so fortunate to have come up in music at a time when the things that I valued most as a musician were being addressed by the other musicians around me. It was such a uniting, powerful feeling to not only become a better musician with these people, but also to be talking about ideas and what we stood for – punk rock, ideals, DIY, all these things that now seem to have gone into the ether. These things really meant a lot to us. I just feel so lucky that I got to experience the pre-internet era of music, to experience the Portland scene and to be around such a great group of musicians who did so well and made such advances.”
It’s inspiring to hear a musician of Weiss’s stature speak so fondly, and so eloquently, about a time, a movement, that many tend to romanticise from a distance as observers. More importantly, it’s a joy to see her so energised by tomorrow and all its possibilities. “For me, music is the only avenue I have for connecting with people on that deep level,” she explains. “The most human I ever feel is when I’m onstage playing a song and I have that feedback from an audience. It’s timeless, you know? It’s really indescribable. And as far as Quasi is concerned, it’s still just so much fun. I have to say, I was always really excited about the future, and I still am.”