Scott Pinkmountain chats with musician Sam Coomes, an elder statesman of indie rock who definitely doesn’t want to be James Taylor.
Sam Coomes has had a musical career spanning nearly three decades. It reaches back to his early work with the Donner Party in the early ’80s—well before the term “Indie Rock” was in common parlance and before a great many of the folks who show up to hear his current band, Quasi, were even born. Such longevity of creative relevance (which included stints in Heatmiser and Elliott Smith’s band) is rare and affords Coomes a de facto Elder Statesman status that he would likely shrug off dismissively.
The dismissive shrug would be his signature gesture if it weren’t counteracted by a genuine openness and optimism. These dueling sentiments can be found in near equal amounts throughout Coomes’s work. The most recent Quasi album, American Gong (2010), ends with “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler,” a deeply moving plea for the recognition of spiritual unity, rendered in Coomes’s soulful, broken croak, complete with horn section and angelic back-up vocals, simultaneously undercut with the confession that his offerings are nothing more than a “piss in the ocean,” and “the receding taillights of a teenage dream.”
He ends Featuring, Birds (1998)—his most critically championed effort to date—an album full of songs with titles like, “I Never Want To See You Again,” and “You Fucked Yourself,” with a joyful major-key instrumental almost as if to say, “Let’s put the negative words behind us and just feel okay for a minute.”
This is of course my projection, but it aligns with many conversations I’ve had with Coomes. (Full disclosure: he and I are in the band Pink Mountain together). He will often follow a caustic or cynical outburst with, if not a retraction, the observation that not only is there another, brighter way of seeing things, but it’s sort of our job to find it. It’s that cold realism coupled with an energizing hope, a skeptical positivism, which I believe gives Coomes’s work such evergreen appeal.
I sat down with Coomes backstage at the Café Du Nord in San Francisco while we had some time to kill before a Pink Mountain show. If you’ve heard him sing, then you’ve heard him speak, which is to say, there are no airs or affectations. He’s exactly the same on or off stage, with or without a microphone in front of him.
Scott Pinkmountain You were saying recently that you thought songwriting was a racket. Can you elaborate a little on that?
Sam Coomes It’s just a bunch of dudes, (they can be female dudes too) trying to sell their ego to the world. I know because I do it.
SP Are there people writing songs that you think transcend the racket?
SC Sure. Everybody transcends it. Everybody potentially transcends it. That’s the power of music, that despite this disparaging light I see it in, at the same time, I can sometimes feel even the most crassly commercial music—it takes me out.
“Oh, I’m so sad, I’m so angry, or I’m so crazy, or I’m wounded, or I’m a party animal.” Everybody’s got this myth of themselves that they’re trying to construct through their lyrics. It’s rare when it doesn’t fall into some sort of commercially driven . . .
SC Sure, and everybody hates that. But it’s the reality of our culture. The beauty of music is that despite all that, it just happens, and sometimes it transcends. Even if you’re crassly commercial, you can still make something amazing despite yourself. So after a while, you just do what you do and you try to leave some room for the magic.
SP Listeners seem to connect to you as a lyricist.
SC Well . . . it’s possible. I don’t know. I’m not so sure about that.
SP What makes you say that?
SC I just don’t value lyrics much in the overall mix of music. They’re an important ingredient, but you can get by with not-that-great lyrics. It can’t be actively horrible, but luckily you don’t have to be Bob Dylan to write a good song.
You can write the simplest song, a few words repeated over and over again, and that can work too.
SP Why do you think that can work, where it can’t really work on the written page?
SC Because music is visceral. The written page is mental. You take in the vibrations—they go into your eye and into your brain. But with music, it fills the atmosphere, it penetrates your body.
I’m an avid reader. I’m not knocking the written word, but it’s a totally separate experience from music. Music’s not only physical, there’s something else in it too that seems to be attached to the physical, but separate from the physical, which is, I don’t know, soul. That’s similar to the human body. You’ve got something that seems to be attached to your body in some way and yet is not your body.
Music, to me, is the creative format that’s able to convey that super-physical or extra-physical something. At the same time, just pure physicality can be pretty powerful too. You can’t get that from reading a book or even listening to somebody talk.
If I hear something for the first time and I’m not hit by the music, I’m not going to say, “Well maybe the lyrics are good. I should give this a chance,” and then read the lyrics and see if they’re good and then go, “Oh yeah, it’s actually a really good song." (laughter)
When I toured with Elliott [Smith]—because he was considered to be a singer/songwriter, and I guess he was, more or less—often the shows were opened by singer/songwriters. So for years, night after night, week after week, I saw dozens and dozens of singer/songwriters. None of them were bad, objectively, but I don’t remember any of them, any of their music now, because it all just blends into a general idea of somebody strumming an acoustic guitar and singing. But listening to the lyrics I’d think, “This person is ten times the songwriter that I am, and most of the people I know.” And if you read the lyrics, it would probably be impressive on a certain level, but . . . ahhh. . . I just don’t like.
SP Why does that term have such a negative sound? “Singer/songwriter.” We all sneer at that phrase. No one I know wants to wear that label.
SC Because 9/10ths of that music is awful. (laughter) It’s the selling of your ego to the world, stripped away from all the good things that can make you forget that that’s what the song is.
It’s like totally shining a bright spotlight on the most deplorable element of . . . (laughter)
SP So then what do you call what you do, if not songwriting?
SC Oh, it’s songwriting. I do it, and the reason why I do it is because I want to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band and play rock ‘n’ roll, and there’s got to be songs. And it just fell to me somehow.
When I was like, 13, 14, I didn’t think in my head, “I wanna be a singer/songwriter. I wanna write songs!” I never thought that for one minute. I always thought, “I wanna play rock ‘n’ roll.” So you pick up the guitar, you start playing, you get together with some people, and it’s like, “Alright, where’s the songs? Can you write one?” “Well, I’ll try.” “That’s terrible. What about yours? Well, yours is not quite as bad. I’d play that. Ok.”
SP Over the past few years, your writing’s changed from a more personal point of view to a more cosmic (I would argue) point of view. If not cosmic, then just getting away from your own personal experience. Was that change precipitated by anything specific, like having a kid?
SC It started happening before that I think. At a certain point, I don’t know if this happens generally to people, but to me there was a huge turning point: the A me and B me. The unhappy, unfulfilled, self-centered, whiny A me—which is interesting to other people when they’re young and going through the same thing.
SP Like the cliché of the artist?
SC Sure. You can’t string that out forever, so you turn a corner and then if you want to write about the things you feel, you don’t feel that way anymore, so your songs change.
SP It seems to be such a fertile place to write from for so many people, that torn up, emotionally distraught, love-sick, whatever. Do you ever feel that it’s a danger to be happy, that you might become less interesting or less productive if you’re content?
SC Well, I used to. Yeah, I definitely thought that when I was younger. I thought I can’t be happy. I have to be fucked.
SP Because that’s what artists are?
SC Sure. I just won’t have anything to write about, and my career will be over. That’s really common. There’s so many musicians who willfully fuck themselves up with substances or stupid things, and I think a lot of it is fear that that’s what makes you special: that you’re more fucked up than everyone else. So you’re special, so you’re an artist, so you can write songs.
At some point I decided, well, I’ve spent enough time doing that. Maybe I should just try to get it together (laughter) and not be like that. And if the songs happen or not, I’ll find out. Maybe it sounds stupid now, but at the time, it felt like it was one of the most courageous decisions I ever made: “All right. I’m gonna be different. I’m gonna let go of the fucked up, neurotic weirdo that I’ve been pumping up.” Which in reality is a small part of me, but I was boosting it up to be the main part because I thought I was an artist and that was what artists were. If the songs dry up then they dry up, but it’s better to have a good life. Or at least try.
And now, sometimes you have to sort of dig around and unearth the fucked up weirdo (laughter) to get a good song, because . . .
SP You don’t want to be James Taylor?
SC Well no, I certainly don’t want to be James Taylor, and his music is deplorable, but he seems like he was possibly a kind of a fucked up weirdo. (laughter) I don’t know. There’s plenty of terrible weird neurotic freaks who write terrible music too. You can’t equate it strictly with artistry.
SP If songs don’t come fast and furious anymore, they come when they want to, and you don’t necessarily seek them out, where does the next project come from?
SC It just happens. I don’t know. I never really had a plan.
SP Do you have artistic goals? Whatever that means.
SC No. Not really. No. (laughter)
Scott Pinkmountain (aka Scott Rosenberg) is a musician and a writer living in Joshua Tree, CA. He’s recorded and performed with Anthony Braxton, Arrington De Dionyso, Eugene Chadbourne and many others. Pinkmountain also works as a music analyst for Pandora Internet Radio.