Comes with a Smile # interviews
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 by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Quasi by Paul HeartfieldIt's an unlikely alliance. If you're going to be in a band with your ex-wife wouldn't you need a couple of other players to relieve some of that tension? Not, it would seem, if you were Sam Coomes. And if you are going to draft in someone to help out with the live show, is it wise to recruit an ex-bandmate who's currently receiving worldwide praise and admiration for his solo work? But then Sam Coomes is a man so at ease with the situation that he will openly make-out with his keyboard in front of not only his one-time spouse but a Dingwalls audience who, for the most part, are witnessing the Quasi experience for the first time. Quasi is Coomes and Janet Weiss (she of Sleater-Kinney), a truly dynamic duo with an on (and off?) stage rapport second to none. And when the shuffling frame of Elliott Smith saunters on to flesh-out the sound with a little bass, guitar or keyboards, the resulting chemistry and sense of, well, love is enough to make grown men weep. At least it would be if the music weren't so damn 'up'. From the very depths of Coomes' beloved Roxichord come some of the most irresistible, catchy melodies to hit the eardrum in '98. In the absence of Weiss a tired but lucid singer parks himself in a Wandsworth café alcove and entertains a few questions.

Your version of The Zombies' This Will Be Our Year was a highlight of the Dingwalls show. How did you stumble upon that one?
That was, like, a spur of the moment thing. Maybe last time we were on tour with Elliott we were driving down the road and just started getting off on the song and thought we should play it, it would be fun. And we did, but we never actually play it unless Elliott's there 'cause I never figured it out on the piano!

The list of cover versions you've been known to play includes a lot of other British bands. Bowie, Black Sabbath, Duran Duran, George Harrison.
I guess it's probably not coincidental. When I was growing up American music was more like Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, and British music was more Pop, which I was more interested in. Even the British Metal, when I started listening to that, was better than the American stuff. With a few exceptions.

Do you believe Happiness Is Guaranteed to be an accurate depiction of the future?
I had an elaborate scenario in my head when I wrote it that would have required a really long song. It's about, you know, in the future everybody lives in a space-pod or a dome underwater where everything's controlled and safe and everybody's happiness, up to a point, is guaranteed. But there's people who can't fit into this structured, controlled environment despite it being a moderately happy experience, so they live where we live now, on the surface of the earth which is fucked up and has all kinds of problems. Much like it has today, but they prefer it despite all the trouble. It's written from the perspective of somebody who lives in one of the controlled environments but I think I would not be interested in that. I'd be back down with the rest of the ne'er-do-wells and black sheep on the surface. So, that's an elaborate exposition of a short pop song!

Emotionally it sounds pretty sterile.
Those are tendencies that have always been around anyway, as technology increases we'll have more and more chances to go farther and farther in that direction. But there's always people that want safety and stability and willingly clamp down on any freedom or individuality in the pursuit of that. And then there's those of us who feel we have to resist that.

There's a recurring theme of Man Vs Machine in your work.
I use the machine and robot imagery because of the times we live in. If I was writing a couple hundred years ago I woulda used some other thing. It's like the old TV series, Star Trek, where you have Spock and Kirk and Kirk is the passionate, impulsive ... kinda hideous in a way, ha, ha, but very human as a person and Spock is very machine-like. Sometimes, for instance, for most of my life I've had to work crappy, service-industry type jobs where it's required of you to be very machine-like quite often. And so your behaviour is regulated by the Company. You're told what to do, how to act and what to say. Inside the human part of you is going 'Fuck this! Let me out!' and so things like that exacerbate those dichotomies.

Are you hoping music will mean never having to do that kind of work again?
I never want to go back! Ha, ha, ha! I'm gonna be busy for a while now. It seems like I've been able to grab a passing car on a rollercoaster. Let's see how long I can ride it out. It was kind of a long time coming.

Your lyrics have come under a lot of scrutiny. An example would be Poisoned Well with its supposedly Elliott Smith inspired line "You won't live long, but you may write the perfect song." It struck me that it's just as likely to be about you.
Or anybody really who's a troubled musician, you know what I mean? It's not limited to Elliott or me. I don't mind that people scrutinise the words. I wrote them on the inside of the record. I'm also a listener of music and I read the lyrics and I think 'that's probably about this'. And I might be right and I might be wrong, that's the interesting thing about it. It's not like a philosophical tract or a mathematical formula; it's open to all kinds of interpretation. It's not in my interest to pin it down and print my own definition on it.

Will the smoothing out of your relationship problems with Janet prompt a change in direction for your songwriting?
Possibly. We were playing music before we had our split, during it and after it. It's fairly distant now; we've gotten over it. I have had, and probably will have, other relationships. These are insoluble problems, basically, ha! So it was maybe a little more intense at the time, but there's no shortage of things to write about inside the human being or in the outside world.

Did you ever imagine ever playing these songs with anyone besides Janet?
Besides her being one of the best drummers around, when we were not getting along at all we were still working together very well and both of us knew that. It's very difficult to get to the level that we're at where we can kinda communicate with our eyes. It was hard won for us. It's not something I'm thinking about at all, to not play music with Janet. But I played music before I met her and I'll play music until my dying day!

So, you're playing with your ex-wife and ex-bandmate. Are you the most well adjusted man in rock?
No! Far from it. I'm well adjusted to living a maladjusted life, maybe? Which is what's required working with the rest of the maladjusted people I work with.

CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue