Odder Than Hell
He use to look just like Buddy Holly but these days alternative-music icon Rivers Cuomo prefers to be compared to Ace Frehely and Van Halen. In an exclusive interview, Weezer's rugged individualist explains his need to shed his sensitive-guy image and rock like a hurricane.
Rivers Cuomo has decided not to leave his hotel. Normally, this wouldn't be an issue- the Weezer front man deserves to do what he wants to do on a rare day off from the group's current arena-hopping Hyper Extended Midget Tour 2002. On this day, however, Cuomo is scheduled to be at New York City photo studio for a Guitar World shoot. The guitarist, who essentially manages Weezer himself these days, is fully aware that he agreed to the appointment, but he has suddenly changed his mind. Guitar World can still photograph him, but it will have to be done in the hotel. And that, as they say, is that.
Sheeny Bang, Cuomo's harried assistant- the person through which virtually all communication with the singer occurs- is appropriately apologetic but goes to great pain to stress the finality of her boss' decision. "He just doesn't want to leave the hotel", she says. "And I know him well enough to know that he's not going to change his mind". None of the normal rock star excuses- sore throat, extreme fatigue- are proffered. Rivers has spoken, and in the world of Weezer, what Rivers says is law.
"Too many musicians kiss
the industry's ass and are led around by their managers or record
companies, which I think will eventually kill a band",
Rivers explains following the shoot, which like our interviews,
takes place in the hotel room. "We focus on what we do:
playing Weezer shows and making Weezer albums. Everything else is
just kind of an annoyance.
For most bands, this sort uncooperative behavior would have devastating results. But Weezer exists outside of the system. In the decade since it first convened in a Hollywood rehearsal hall, the band has amassed an army of fanatically devoted fans who allow the group to make Platinum records and fill arenas without having to resort to traditional promotional measures and undue boot licking.
Not that any- least not the band members- could have predicted Weezer would have attained such success. Following the 1996 release of their sophomore album, Pinkerton, it seemed the band was doomed to follow an all-too-predictable career aCuomo:. Weezer's 1994 self-titled debut had become an unqualified smash on the strength of two bubbly singles, "Undone (The Sweater Song)" and "Buddy Holly" and their novel Spike Jonze-directed videos. Like many musicians who are thrust ill-prepared into the spotlight, Cuomo found himself rattled by success and worn down by the vicissitudes of life on the road. When his promotional duties for Weezer were completed, he retreated from the rock world and enrolled at Harvard University, where he majored in music. Weezer record Pinkerton during breaks in the academic year, but the aggressively noisy, heartrending disc failed to generate any enthusiasm at radio stations or in the industry upon release. Cuomo was devastated by Pinkerton's failure and the lesson it taught: that an artist could bare his soul- indeed, scream at the top of his lungs- and no one in particular will bother to listen. Adding to Cuomo's burdens was the ire of his bandmates, who felt that his refusal to repeat the fun-loving song and video-formula of the first album was costing them their career.
"When the second record didn't do so well, everyone wanted to blame someone, and the person to blame, obviously, was me" Cuomo recalls. "Everyone formulated their own theories as to why I was an asshole, and one of the guys (original Weezer bassist Matt Sharp) even left the band. Since then I've gained a lot more confidence. I can stand up for myself and basically say, "This is the direction I want to go in. I don't care what happens in terms of album sales, but I'd love to have you come along".
The confidence that Cuomo now wields can be attributed to the fact that, in the five years following its real and its commeCuomo:ial failure, Pinkerton enjoyed something that seems almost impossible to achieve in this day and age of overexposure: a slow burn. While Cuomo retreated into academia and the remaining original members of Weezer occupied themselves with a variety of musical projects, the album that had been written off as a flop continued to sell and sell, largely by word of mouth. Half of a million copies later, it has been a corner stone for a new brand of nice-guy guitar rock (some call it emo) that wears its heart and sweet sentiment on its sleeve.
Buoyed by the grass-roots support for Pinkerton, Cuomo slowly reactivated the band. Says Bell, "I knew that when Rivers came back from Boston and was ready to work again we were going to kick all kinds of ass." He was right: a 2001 tour sponsored by internet giant Yahoo! sold out almost immediately, and Pinkerton's long-awaited and untitled follow-up- referred to as the "Green Album" by fans and band alike- reestablished the group as a commeCuomo:ial entity to be reckoned with, even while it clocked in at less than 30 minutes and lacked the fire and depth of the group's previous albums. "That record was about reaffirming what Weezer is", Bell says as a way to explain what some might view as the album's shortcomings. "Now we can move forward".
And they certainly have. After an extended period of hibernation, Weezer- with new member Scott Shriner on bass- have become downright hyperactive. No later then one year since the group released the "Green Album" the group is poised to release Maladroit (Geffen), a new album that eschews the sugary sheen of the Green Album for growling-hard rock infused riffs, squeaking guitar solos and lyrics that dole out equal doses of pain and pleasure. Cuomo grew up on commeCuomo:ial hard rock outfits like Van Halen, the Scorpions and Kiss, as well as progressive hard metal bands like YnGW:ie Malmsteen (which explains why he was more than happy to wear a Malmsteen t-shirt and hold a genuine Van Halen guitar for his Guitar World photo shoot). And, as it happens, he's been itching to introduce hard rock histrionics and hot licks into songs like the bone crushing "Fall Together' or the sinister "Take Control". "This record is all about my desire to let the guitar fly", he says with a devilish grin.
And what if Maladroit's edgier sound fails to propel Weezer to the top of the charts? Cuomo, it seems, would rather have it that way. "I never wanted to get bigger than we could control", he says. "I like the feeling that we have our nice, happy little routine down, where we're exploring creatively and there's no pressure on us to have to meet or exceed sales figures based on some tremendous hit. Right now everyone's it, and everyone's having fun".
GW: After not releasing a record for nearly half a decade, you've drastically increased the speed of your output. Do you feel you're making up for the time you lost during Weezer's hiatus?
Cuomo: I haven't really thought about it. I never really peCuomo:eived it as going on hiatus. I was working the whole time, woodshedding and working on sonGW:riting. Now I feel like I've reached a certain level of craftsmanship, and I don't see any reason to hold back. I'll probably release an album every year from now on. Look at the Beatles- they were just cranking it out. They weren't over thinking what direction they wanted to go in; they just got on a roll and went for it. They did two albums a year, at least. I think the only way classic albums will get made is by cranking them out.
GW: It seems that the strategy of most record labels and bands these days is to promote albums for almost three years. Is your label alarmed by the speed of your output?
Cuomo: I don't really know how they're gonna take this. I haven't talked to them about it yet.
GW: Maladroit is much more riff-driven than the "Green Album". Did you deliberately set out to make something more aggressive?
Cuomo: No, it wasn't deliberate, but I think that after you've made a record that's pretty straight pop stuff, you kind of want to bust lose on the guitar a little bit. It's just something you feel in your bones. I opened up my playing during the writing process, and this is where we ended up. This is probably as far as I'll go in the riff direction, though. I've already started working on the next album, and I've got back into writing personally expressive songs. So the riffs are kind of tamed down a bit because I need to leave more room for vocal expression.
GW: So if things go according to plan, you'll follow Maladroit with another album next year?
Cuomo: Yeah, that record should be done in a couple of months. We've already started it.
GW: On "The Green Album", virtually all the solos restate the melody of the song with little to no deviation. Were you trying to keep your lead playing as succinct and economical as possible?
Cuomo: I don't know what the hell I was thinking. I prefer shredding.
GW: On this record, you've made a total about-face, and all of your solos have total metal vibe to them. It even sounds like you doubled the leads.
Cuomo: Yeah, I did
GW: Was that an homage to Randy Rhoads, who doubled all of his solos?
Cuomo: I'm not really sure why I did that. I wasn't that influenced by Randy Rhoads. You know what? I don't think about the past at all. I don't really think about my influences anymore- that's just how I play. But then I can look back on my solos on Maladroit and say, "That really sounds like the Scorpions." But I never think about that when I'm playing. It's exactly like the Scorpions, though.
A big inspiration for me lately has been Stevie Ray Vaughan. Not that I ever sat down and learned his solo notes for note, but I just love watching his DVDs- how into it he gets, how emotional a player he is.
GW: I've never seen anyone expend as much energy per note- with his fingers and his face- as Stevie did. Do you think he was hamming it up a bit?
Cuomo: I never doubted him a second.
GW: Did you do any preparatory guitar woodshedding for this record, or is that under the hood all the time?
Cuomo: Yeah, it's always there. I would never want to play something that is difficult for me or that doesn't come naturally to me. Every note I play, every note I sing, is effortless. I don't want to have to practice scales every day before I go onstage. I mean, I did all that stuff when I was a teenager, but I don't need to do that now to feel like I'm expressing myself on my instrument.
GW: it's always seemed to me that level of chop you keep in reserve is much higher than what you display in your leads. Is that rue?
Cuomo: I don't dumb down, but my point in playing lead is not to show the extremes of my technique, it's to try to say something melodically. But if you put a gun to my head and said, "Shred!" I could blow some motherfuckers away. It would probably be shocking. (laughs)
GW: What's it like playing arenas? Is it hard to maintain your audience's focus?
Cuomo: I guess it is, we just never really thought about it. It's just been so gradual for us. We first came out seven years ago, and it's taken us that long to get to arenas. It's just developed so slowly and naturally that I think we're comfortable. A huge part of our show is the audience, cause everyone's singing along. It just feels like one big sing-along party. It's almost like we don't have to necessarily be the total center of attention all the time cause everyone's just having fun together.
GW: Do you think that kid in the cheap seats way up top is being serviced?
Cuomo: Actually, I don't ever really think about it. It seems to me that everyone's so happy to be together, to be among other Weezer fans. It just feels like a big party.
GW: Is there a typical Weezer fan? Can you characterize that person at all?
Cuomo: They're tough to characterize because they're all sorts of different people. Probably what they have in common is that there are other people around them that also like Weezer. They feel like a minority and they care about us a lot. They probably encounter a lot of frustration in their lives because everyone else around them doesn't care about Weezer. So when they come to big arenas that are filled with people like them, they're stoked.
GW: If you were growing up now, would you be into Weezer or nu-metal?
Cuomo: I would think Weezer were a bunch of fags. (laughs) I know I'd be into System of a Down, or whoever had the oddest time signatures and the most beats per second.
GW: Even though you have a million fans, they're a million fans who feel for you in an intense way usually reserved for underground bands.
Cuomo: Yeah. We have a lot of fans but we're not really in the mainstream. We're not in all the magazines. We're not on MTV or radio stations. I think they can tell we're not faking anything. We're experimenting, trying to come up with the best music we possibly can, so our motivation is pure. We're not just trying to cash in. So think people are willing to check us out every album just to see what's going on.
GW: It seems that on the "Green Album" you made an attempt to avoid any musical or lyrical bad vibes. Now you seem willing to readdress the full range of emotions again, like you did on the first two album. Do you have any trepidation about opening up again?
Cuomo: Oh no, no trepidation. I'm really excited at seeing what I can come up with. It's basically just a process of allowing personal experiences to initiate the sonGW:riting. On the "Green Album", I totally cut out my personal experiences from the process.
GW: Was that at a necessary step at that point just to get a record made?
Cuomo: I don't really understand my motivations. It was just something I really wanted to try.
GW: To write pure "pop" songs that aren't autobiographical or confessional in nature?
GW: Alternative rock music fans are obsessed with self-expression. They forget that some of the greatest rock and pop has nothing to do with hand wringing and pain.
Cuomo: The same expectation was put on me, especially after Pinkerton, which was a very personal expressive record. Everyone was expecting the "Green Album" would be like that. I wanted to do the exact opposite.
GW: And are people accepting of the choices you made?
Cuomo: No, our fans are totally pissed off. They feel betrayed, let down, disappointed, angry.
GW: How do you deal with that in concert?
Cuomo: It's tough, man. There are really rough nights where the whole crowd starts chanting for one of the Pinkerton songs and I just don't want to play it.
GW: Do you play any thing off of it?
Cuomo: One or two songs, begrudgingly. The rest of the night we play all these fluffy pop songs, and they get pissed off. There have been some really scary shows, where I thought violence might break out. Like, me against 10,000 people.
GW: Cause you're just like "Fuck you, I'll play what I want to"
Cuomo: Yeah, I've never resorted to actual profanity. I'll Fuck with them sometimes. I'll start to play one of those Pinkerton songs and they start to cheer and then I'll bust into one of my gay pop songs.
GW: Are there two factions of Weezer fans: the hostile and the adoring?
Cuomo: No, they're one and the same. The ridiculous thing is that they're so angry with me and they hate my songs so much, and yet they're all still there on all the message boards talking about me every day, and they care so much about it. It doesn't make any sense. Maybe they see some potential in us and they're doing everything they can to help bring that out.
It's a really strange, extraordinary situation with us and the fans, and it's stressful for everyone, I think. Our style has evolved to the point where it contains elements of all the different directions we've explored. I think it's all gonna cohere eventually and everyone will be happy and satisfied. But we have to allow ourselves the space and the time to spread out in different musical directions and face the anger of older fans. I don't think our previous records really say all that we want to say musically, so we still have to do a bit of feeling around. That's why we ignore managers and record companies and the industry as a whole, because they just want to sell as much product as they can. They don't want to allow you the space to develop.
GW: Is that why you decided to take on the responsibility of managing Weezer?
Cuomo: I just realized that I don't want those sort of people telling me what to do or trying to influence me. Their motives are all wrong. Who knows Weezer better than the four of us? So we just went on our own.
GW: Is it a stress you feel comfortable handling.
Cuomo: It's way less stressful. When I want to do something. I do it, and when I don't, I don't. I don't have to deal with somebody whispering in my ear, "You ought to do this because the record company will be happy." I don't have anyone telling me what to do. I don't feel like I have to do deal with anything I don't want to do now and I don't really do anything I don't want to do. I don't even really feel comfortable saying I manage the band. Basically we're unmanaged. What I've done is just cut the industry off from access to us. We're in our own little bubble here That's my management philosophy: "Leave us alone!"
GW: Aren't there an awful lot of things to keep track of?
Cuomo: Yeah, but over the past year we've really cut a lot of the bullshit out of our operation.
GW: Speaking of things that Weezer has cut out, you guys totally removed all amps from your live rigs for a while and toured using only Line 6 POD Pros. How the hell did that happen?
Cuomo: It came about because we were doing what we called the Hooptie Tour-playing places like bowling alleys and roller-skating rinks, 7-11 parking lots. We realized that we didn't want to have any sound level onstage because it would bleed into vocal mics and cause general chaos in the mix. We wanted to have a really tight, clean sound. We tried out the PODs, and we just got addicted to them. Then, when we went back to the arenas and brought some amps back out, the PODs still sounded better. I know that's blasphemy, and it's really been hard for me to accept that PODs sound better than amps. Still, every day we go to sound check and compare amps and PODs and the soundman says, "I like the PODs better"
GW: I can see how it would b difficult to accept this box as the souCuomo:e of your tone
Cuomo: It's very difficult to accept tub when you're in show you don't care about where your sound is coming from; you just want the best sound possible
GW: Do you use the POD for recording as well?
Cuomo: No. When we record I always use Marshall amps and Gibson guitars. But I'm having the worst growing pains with my gear right now: I love the sound of this (Gibson) Explorer that I use on most of Maladroit, but I hate the way it looks. I'm not sure what I'm gonna do. I'm trying to get my Strats to sound like the Explorer. It's a real conundrum, but I have confidence that this will be sorted out naturally.
GW: Weezer seems committed to supplying their fans with a lot of cool web content, like studio demos and tour diaries. In turn, the fans seem to be communicative on the net, and the amount of activity on the Weezer boards are staggering. Do you ever go up there to see what's going on?
Cuomo: Yeah. There are a ton of different message boards, so I'm not on all of them, but I do go on quite a few. Some of the people know who I am, some don't. I don't try to deceive anyone.
GW: Are you trying to find out what people are thinking?
Cuomo: I'm trying to pick up girls, basically (laughs nervously)
GW: Have you met any via the net?
Cuomo: Yeah, it's cool!
GW: I guess it's a good way to screen them.
GW: Does the feedback you get on the boards ever alter the way you perform a song or play a part in your sonGW:riting process?
Cuomo: Yeah, definitely.
GW: Are there any specific ways that Maladroit was affected by the input of the fans?
Cuomo: Sometimes a person will say, "This solo is gay". And then they all gang up on me and so I go, "Okay, I guess I can do better". I never would have thought to put the song "Slob" on the record if the fans did not request it.
GW: Do they other members of Weezer also have this ongoing dialogue with the fans?
Cuomo: It mostly goes through me. The rest of them have social lives.
GW: You really have no social life?
Cuomo: I don't do anything but music all the time. That's what my life is.
GW: It seems that earlier in your career you were reluctant to commit to a life that revolved solely around rock and roll. Didn't you attend Harvard because you couldn't find life in a rock band stimulating enough?
Cuomo: Well, originally my role in the band was much smaller. It was, "You're the singer and the sonGW:riter. Don't concentrate on any of the business stuff, don't concentrate on the big picture, just sing your songs". That got boring for me real quick. I went to school and took up other things just to keep myself challenged . But now I've kicked everyone else out of the top of the organization, so there are plenty of challenges for me. Weezer is a huge multifaceted venture. It's not just about writing two-minute pop songs.
GW: Are you able to put any barrier at all between you and Weezer?
Cuomo: Sometimes I wish I could. It seems that every barrier that once was has eroded. I'm pretty much constantly obsessed with the world of Weezer and whatever problems are going on. So it can be a bit stressful, but I have a very high tolerance for stress. It's the kind of life I like. If everything was all peaceful and happy, I'd probably freak out. I wouldn't know what do.
GW: The song "Slob" reflects a bleak state of mind. Do you frequently feel a sense of desperation?
Cuomo: That kind of song was written in a very emotionally extreme moment. It's not often that I feel that way. Maybe once a week or something I'll get overwhelmed by a situation in my life and write a song about it. If I were to put all those songs on an album you'd think I have a really bleak life, or I'm an emotional wreck or something. But really, I only feel that way for an hour or two. Most of the time I'm a pretty cool character.
GW: I think some of the fans expect you to be distraught 24/7
Cuomo: Emotionally extreme. Yeah, I think most of them would be shocked if they met me, because I'm pretty bland
GW: Sometimes, when, you meet the fans, do you feel that they're disappointed because you're even-keeled?
Cuomo: I never meet fans.
GW: You never meet them?
Cuomo: Never. I like talking to them over the internet, but that's it.
GW: You guys don't do in-store record singing or after-show meet-and-greets?
Cuomo: Hell no! Fans are annoying. They all want something.
GW: Whether it be asking you to sign something or expecting you to act a certain way...
Cuomo: Yeah, or asking me to play a certain song. They're all little bitches, so I avoid them at all costs.