Don’t Fear the Weezer
Adrift for five years, Rivers Cuomo and crew returned in 2001 with Hash Pipe in hand and giant “W” flashing. Somehow, a new generation of kids with poor eyesight embraced them as if they’d never left. Now, after firing their staff and refusing to shave, Weezer unleash an album of “sheer rock power.” Is this the new face of punk?
This story first appeared in the July 2002 issue of SPIN.
Cello Studios is in the eastern part of old Hollywood, where the air feels heavy and greasy with smog on windless afternoons. As with every local studio that hasn’t been converted into a minimall, rumors abound that the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, Pet Sounds, was recorded here. A framed cover of that album, as well as portraits of group visionary Brian Wilson, line the dimly lighted walls. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are currently recording, and Petty’s nasal snarl bleeds from an open studio door. The Hall of Famer has an undeniable presence, but it’s safe to say that no fan will ever start a brutal message-board debate regarding the status of Petty’s facial hair.
The frequent subject of such fervid discussion, and the oft-suggested heir to Wilson’s California pop dreamscape, Rivers Cuomo, occupies a nearby Cello studio. Playfully riding a scooter around a shabby chill-out area (threadbare couches, laptops, herbal tea, toasted bagels and jam), the newly bearded, 31-year-old Weezer leader is looking more ZZ Top than Buddy Holly.
And that’s exactly the way he wants it.
“Before, there was always someone around telling me what to do; now, suddenly, there’s nobody telling me what to do,” Cuomo says with equal parts pride and amazement, after a long pause. He always pauses before he says anything. “I could have sworn last night while we were doing the video shoot for [the recent single] ‘Dope Nose’ that somebody was gonna make me shave. But nobody said anything!”
That’s because most of the people who used to tell him what to do have gotten the sack — including the band’s longtime manager and publicist. These days, Cuomo is Weezer’s unrivaled dungeon master. He personally placed the calls to Spin in the weeks leading up to (and after) this interview. Apparently, the only thing he doesn’t do—and he probably would, if he could—is represent himself in court when the band gets sued. And Weezer gets sued a lot.
“Every time we release an album it happens,” Cuomo says. The latest suit is over back royalties purportedly owed to founding bassist Matt Sharp, who claims to have cowritten several songs on the band’s first two albums (an assertion Cuomo says is “completely without merit”).
Though he may develop an ulcer one day, for now Cuomo handles each Weezer trauma with the steady voice and inner calm of Leonard Cohen after a stay at the monastery. And so far, his plan is an unqualified success. Weezer’s self-produced latest—the skillfully constructed Maladroit—may be their biggest hit, even though it moves further away from the band’s classic, quirky pop in favor of punching riff rock (like last album’s MTV fave “Hash Pipe”). In late April, Weezer went on tour before Maladroit was even released, but fans already knew the songs, and the savvy ones already owned them. Realizing the Net community is the ultimate focus group, Weezer posted songs from the album via MP3s on their website (weezer.com), asking for fan feedback. But the band’s label, Interscope, was aghast and had the songs removed. Tracks from the fifth album, which is almost finished, have already been posted, label be damned.
I: RETURN OF THE SUPERPUNKS
The compulsive desire to eliminate the middleman is nothing new to rock. But what about a decade-old, multiplatinum, major-label band that wants to operate like an in-the-van Dischord Records punk act?
“I think Weezer is kind of the most punk band in some ways,” says Pat Wilson, a little sheepishly. Weezer’s founding drummer (and the other original member with corrective lenses) shifts in his chair. “We just full-on make songs and show ‘em to our fans for free. It’s like the punk ethic. And I can’t tell you how many levels of irony are wrapped up in that. When we were coming up, all of us had a severe self-image problem. We knew that Fugazi was the shit, and we thought, ‘We can never do that.’ But at the time, we didn’t really examine their methods. Now, Maximum Rocknroll will put us on the cover, saying ‘Weezer is superpunk!’”
Adds Cuomo: “I’ve had those [punk] feelings all along; it’s just taken a long time for them to become reality. We’re gradually cutting people out of our lives who are annoying. It’s really tough to maintain any kind of creative output if you’re constantly forcing yourself into some kind of act that doesn’t come naturally. Right now, we pretty much do whatever we feel like. And we’re ten times more creative than ever.”
And 20 times heavier. On Maladroit, Weezer sincerely indulge in a once-ironic fondness for shredding—“ooh-wee-oohs” and “doo-wahs” are scarce, guitar solos are everywhere. They’ve even bestowed official Weezer status on touring bassist Scott Shriner (auditioned for Ozzy, lots of metal tattoos, former member of Vanilla Ice’s rap-metal “band”). “I never thought in a million years that I would fit in with those guys,” Shriner says, dragging badass-style on a Camel in one of Cello’s storage rooms. “I was just being myself, and that was the sound they were looking for.”
Confound your label, fire your reps, change your sound, give that sound away for free. The words “career suicide” would come to mind if it weren’t for several factors: First, the record industry these gentlemen are politely raging against is at its most clueless in modern history—see stripping Weezer’s MP3s. Secondly, Cuomo is writing actual rock anthems, and the joy he gets from riff-tastic, AC/DC-style nastiness (what he refers to as “sheer rock power”) is infectious. Call Weezer the sensitive arena-rock gods. That huge “W” logo that used to hang in small clubs is now proportional to the huge stages the band plays. (Some think it’s a takeoff on Van Halen’s famous “VH”; more tellingly, it’s virtually identical to the emblem on Wonder Woman’s chest.) While almost every other member of alt-rock’s class of ’94—Beck, Bush, Hole, Veruca Salt…the list goes on — has already lost relevance, Weezer are more powerful in every way.
“Last year was like the Twilight Zone,” says guitarist Bell, 33, of Weezer’s seemingly effortless ascent to the Top 10 after five years of total silence (save a few shows in which they performed Nirvana covers under the moniker Goat Punishment). The most stylish Weezer, with his lank hair, pegged trousers, and vintage polyester shirts, Bell reclines in front of the studio’s massive console. “We went away, and it felt like we never left. There’s still the same age bracket of fans at our shows. We were like, ‘These can’t be the same people! That was five years ago!”
Back then, it was common for a smart rock band to shrink in horror from success. Overwhelmed and exhausted after Weezer’s self-titled debut (referred to as the “Blue Album,” for its blue cover) went triple-platinum, Cuomo retreated into the music-department study halls of Harvard. Now he confesses that he digs the hugeness of it all. “Playing arenas is where it’s at,” he says. “I want to conquer far and wide in the name of Weezer.”
II: BEHIND BLACK FRAMES
As goofy as he looks wearing a Yngwie Malmsteen T-shirt and holding Eddie Van Halen’s classic red-striped guitar on the cover of Guitar World magazine, Rivers Cuomo interacts with society in a way that is unmistakably rock star. People shut up when he enters a room, and they watch his moves carefully. His slow, hushed voice and harsh pronunciation of every consonant eerily recall Kurt Cobain’s speaking voice. When he grins or offers a self-deprecating shrug, he’s instantly warm and charming. But behind those black frames, his eyes go from sparkling to steely very quickly. Trust me, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of such a glare (as I was, thanks to a contentious item that ran in Spin’s May issue). It’s some withering shit. Cuomo’s intense moods have given rise to some of rock’s strangest rumors:
- He once spent a month bouncing a Superball against a wall.
- He writes five songs a day, every day.
- He likes Asian women to spoon-fed him. (His doting assistant is indeed Asian, but Cuomo uses his own utensil…I’ve seen it.)
Bell and Wilson have remained Weezers (second bassist Mikey Welsh left last year amid drug rumors) because they’ve developed a way to coexist with their slight, and slightly odd, alpha male. They know who’s team captain and when the playing field is covered with eggshells. Cuomo clearly trusts and depends on them. While both Bell and Wilson lead their own bands (Space Twins and the Special Goodness, respectively), they remain in awe of Cuomo’s songwriting. Says Bell: “It’s hard to beat Rivers.”
This spring, however, Cuomo encouraged his bandmates to sing their own compositions on the still-untitled fifth album. The move shocked both of them (and probably kept Weezer interesting for Cuomo). “If anyone knows our history,” says Wilson, “it’s less than smooth. So it was supercool, playing a song, and no one’s like, ‘You’re not playing it right.’” Wilson worked up a mellow number called “It’s Not So Bad”; Bell’s contribution is a Nirvana-esque rager called “It’s Nice to Meet You” (with the Cobain-like chorus “Go away from me, go away!”).
“I’m really committed to having coherent albums,” says Cuomo, “so I didn’t understand a way to have other people and have it make sense. But now it’s starting to feel natural.”
Cuomo’s jones for the natural (a theme he returns to again and again during our interview) might be the by-product of classic commune-style hippie parenting — he grew up in “various little farm towns” around Connecticut. “It had the ironic effect of making my brother and me completely straitlaced growing up. I never did any drugs or drank or even smoked a cigarette until I was in my twenties, which is extremely rare for American kids.”
As we talk, Cuomo excuses himself to retrieve some “chemical refreshment” and returns with a cup of coffee, the only one he allows himself all day. “I hardly ever have caffeine,” he says. “I tweak naturally.”
III: LET’S TALK ABOUT GIRLS, RIVERS
With all the changes, one thing is constant and crucial to Weezer’s appeal: They still sing about crushes on girls. And as with Meg Ryan romantic comedies, there’s always an audience for silly, hummable love songs (even when they shred). “Oh girl, well, I’m in love with you / Keep fishin’ if you feel it’s true,” Cuomo pleads on Maladroit. He’s made numerous, similar pledges to groovy muses over the past decade. As a result, Weezer’s boy fans obsess over his mysterious girls. And Weezer’s girl fans want to be Mary Tyler Moore to his Buddy Holly.
Cuomo seems acutely aware of this winning formula. Fans who read too much into his personal life be warned. Most of Cuomo’s heroines only exist in the coffee shops of make-believe.
Spin: What do you do for fun besides play music?
Nothing at all?
You don’t go to the movies?
A lot of your songs are about girls.
None of our hits, though. None of our singles.
Still, you’re a very romantic lyricist. Let’s talk about girls, Rivers. Who are they? Is there just one? Do you ever see someone on the street and write about her?
Well, the “Green Album” [Weezer’s self-titled 2001 comeback] was mostly fake girl songs. I was just singing off the top of my head without it actually being about someone in particular. But most of my best songs are about a very specific person in a very specific situation. [Long pause] But I can’t remember any of them. [Laughs]
Do you consider yourself a romantic?
I think I’m actually a very antiromantic person.
I just see things very clearly and very realistically without my emotions coloring things. Of course, I have feelings like anybody else, but rather than let them ruin my life, I like to exploit them and use them for my purposes.
IV: “EMO” AND THAT ALBUM
Because of a phenomenon called Pinkerton (which Cuomo doesn’t like to talk about), Weezer are loved by a generation of kids who were about eight years old when 1995’s “Say It Ain’t So” and “Undone — the Sweater Song” were hits.
“Maybe young fans were looking for something that was more honest,” Wilson says, fumbling for an explanation. “I guess they just wanted something that was more like how they felt, and that record did it for them.” Compared to almost any 1996 rock release, Pinkerton was a bold album. The subject matter is extra heartfelt. Too heartfelt for Cuomo, who varies from being somewhat proud to being super-embarrassed by how much he revealed. “At one point,” says Wilson, “Rivers was like, ‘I’m gonna get control of that record, and I’m gonna take it out of print!’”
When Pinkerton was released, it bombed—bad. People were dancing to ska. The masses didn’t want weird songs about a fucked-up, heartbroken guy who fell in love with lesbians (“Pink Triangle”), cultivated a fetish for Japanese stationery (“Across the Sea”), hated himself for being a slut (“Tired of Sex”), hated himself for not being a slut (“El Scorcho”), and ended up chasing butterflies (“Butterfly”). At first it seemed like the only people who bought it were employed by the Pinkerton private detective agency. (Yes, they sued too.) Cuomo took the rejection hard. He left L.A., moved east, and spent days alone, living inside his head.
“There wasn’t a lot going on,” he says of the self-imposed rock exile. “I started to withdraw more and more and…” His long pauses grow even longer. “I think I was just trying to get my confidence back. I got happy and excited about studying things on my own and getting emotionally tough. Learning how to keep a positive outlook. Every waking moment of every day I was thinking, ‘I wanna make another Weezer record.’ But I was just waiting and learning how to be confident.”
His bandmates started indie side projects and watched a lot of Friends episodes. Says Bell: “I called him every two weeks to find out, ‘Are we still a band or not?’” While Weezer waited to get their groove back, the ugly duckling called Pinkerton somehow became every tortured youth’s favorite swan: a sonic touchstone for an entire culture called “emo.” A late-teens/early-20s bunch that craves the rush of punk along with the diary-ripped introspection of the Smiths, these kids enjoy being called “emo” about as much as Cuomo likes talking about Pinkerton.
“I don’t hang out with teenagers,” Cuomo says, shrugging off the cult phenomenon. “I don’t really know what [emo] means. I don’t have a feel for what’s going on.” But what he does know is that somebody is screaming for Pinkerton songs at every single Weezer show.
V: “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?”
Weezer now play songs from Pinkerton in concert. If they didn’t, they might incite early-’90s, Guns N’ Roses-style mayhem in the parking lots of America. See, Weezer’s fans, even the shy kids, are a little excitable about “their” band. Pensacola, Florida, to name just one pocket of fanaticism, recently hosted a Weezerfest (weezerfest.com) with tribute bands and a memorabilia swap meet. “Our fans are so devoted,” Bell marvels. “It’s like an underground, Internet-based secret society.”
Weezer.com webmaster Karl Koch has a news page, “Karl’s Corner,” which has received nine million hits since 2000. There are also the unofficial sites, like the “Rebel Weezer Alliance” message board, where the band’s every move is harshly judged, especially by diehard Pinkerton fans who feel that “Green” was a sellout. Koch, 32, a bespectacled former guitar tech, says “The ‘Green’ backlash was heavy, but at the same point, our board was also being joined by a ton of people who were just getting into the band and loved ‘Green.’ So there were feisty debates for months!”
Weezer fans have been especially outspoken and possessive since the earliest days. “We were playing the Stone Pony in [Asbury Park,] New Jersey,” Bell says, recalling the band’s first tour in 1994. “I looked out the window and there were about fifty people on the ground, spelling out WEEZER with their bodies!” The “Blue Album” was released about a month after Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide, and Koch theorizes that “a lot of kids and even adults were looking for something to hold on to, and Weezer fit for a lot of them.”
Sisters Mykel and Carli Allan were most responsible for nurturing this energy into a massive community. Before Weezer signed with Geffen in ’94, the Allans baked cookies for the band, mailed out handwritten lyrics, and invited fans for post-show dinners. They ran Weezer’s first fan club, and Cuomo paid tribute with the song “Mykel and Carli” (B-side to “Undone”). But in July 1997, the Allans (along with their sister Trysta) were killed in a car accident en route to a Weezer show in Salt Lake City. The “Green Album” is dedicated to them. “Mykel and Carli fostered the feeling that these fans were extra-special,” says Koch. “I get this sense that no matter how big the band gets, it’s still sort of underground.”
There was a time when Cuomo encouraged the lovefest, and the band exulted in the fact that every word of every song was sung by the crowd. Cuomo’s screen name was his real name, so he was not hard to find online. But his availability was often misinterpreted, and many fans acted as if they were members of Weezer too.
“I feel like the audience is part of the whole work,” Cuomo says. “I’m overseeing the project, trying to keep everything organized, listening to the voice of the audience and the band. I’m soaking in everyone’s point of view. But my instincts are the final arbiter. I could have a million people telling me to go left, but if I wanted to go right, ultimately, I’d go right.”
Cuomo’s in-box, once full of warm and fuzzy electronic mash notes, is now more like a dumping ground for outrageous, often hostile advice on how to be “Rivers Cuomo, lead singer of Weezer.” Unsurprisingly, Cuomo has stopped surfing the Net. “Things got totally out of control. I just felt like this mob was rising up, so it was very easy for me to press ‘power off.’” Cuomo may not visit his band’s site, but 37,000 fans do every day, logging in, obsessing together. Nobody’s ever really figured out why.
“I’ve asked them, ‘What the fuck do you want from me?’ point blank,” says Cuomo, laughing a little nervously. “And they ask themselves that same question. They’ll be like, ‘Why the hell are we still here? We hate this music! We hate this guy! And yet we still come here every day.’”
VI: SUCKER MC?
Spin: Do you see yourself singing “Buddy Holly” at 50?
Cuomo: I hope not.
“We don’t care about hit singles anymore,” says Bell.
This is a good thing, since album five might finally kill off Weezer’s remarkable career. Interscope execs with weak hearts might want to stop reading now.
“I’m gonna be rapping a lot more, by the way,” Cuomo says, flashing the first smile he’s shown all day. He appears to be extremely serious. “I think that was one of the main causes of the falling out between me and the Internet audience.” Adds Koch: “One guy came on and predicted that this signaled the final coming of the apocalypse.”
Cuomo—favorite MC, Jay-Z; prized hip-hop possession, an N.W.A. album signed by the late Eazy-E — won’t demonstrate his rhyme flow upon request. “I can’t really freestyle,” he admits. But he insists that he’s gonna rap…because he wants to. And if anyone tries to stop him, there might be a lyrical beatdown, punk-rock-nerd-style.
“I’m really getting into dis songs,” says Cuomo. “I’m not trying to write so many songs about girls anymore.”