Weezer: River's Edge

Originally published in Guitar World, January 2011

As alt-rock’s most prolific songwriter, Rivers Cuomo keeps Weezer moving full steam ahead with two new albums—Hurley and Death to False Metal—and deluxe reissues of the Nineties classics "Blue Album" and Pinkerton.

Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo is quite a character.

He’s eccentric, enigmatic, frequently exasperating, yet disarmingly engaging, particularly when he’s writing or singing one of those tuneful, pop-savvy, doofy-yet-clever Weezer songs that have embedded themselves deeply in pop culture’s memory circuits in the years since Weezer’s self-titled 1994 debut disc, a.k.a. the “Blue Album.” The man who gave the world “Undone—The Sweater Song,” “Buddy Holly” and “Hash Pipe” moves in mysterious ways. Earlier this year, Weezer released their eighth album, Hurley, which was also the band’s first release on its new label, the celebrated indie/punk imprint Epitaph. Hurley is an unassailably solid album, brimming with the killer hooks, tight song structures and rousing choruses that have always been Weezer’s strong suit.

But now Cuomo and the band seem to be doing everything in their power to undermine sales of the disc. Weeks after Hurley’s release came deluxe reissues of the “Blue Album” and Weezer’s much-loved 1996 disc, Pinkerton, complete with the usual slew of previously unreleased bonus tracks. Sure, it was a rearguard action by Weezer’s former label, Geffen, to generate one last round of sales from its departing act. But Weezer themselves seem intent on helping their former label trip up their new label. They began performing the “Blue Album” and/or Pinkerton in their entirety, from start to finish, in concert, with an air of reverence heretofore reserved for albums like Sgt. Pepper’s or The Wall.

Now comes yet another Geffen Weezer release, Death to False Metal, a collection of previously unreleased and formerly unfinished tracks from prior album sessions that Cuomo has finished up with bandmates Brian Bell, Pat Wilson and Scott Shriner, along with Weezer’s most recent producer, Shawn Everett. There are some great tunes on the album, but it’s all a bit overwhelming for the average consumer, who’s left to wonder which disc to buy, which is the real new Weezer release, and which album represents the band’s definitive statement for the year 2010?

“Well, I guess now we get criticized for putting out too much music,” says Cuomo with the put-upon air he often assumes, “and for not having big hit records that last a long time. But that’s kind of the old model of working for us. This is just a very low-key release of songs that we’ve accumulated over the years. We really love them, and I think people who are really super-interested in Weezer—the core fans—are gonna be real interested to hear them. It’s obviously not the next Pinkerton, or whatever, that people are most looking forward to hear from us again. But we think it’s really cool anyway. I think it’s fun to share this stuff.”

Yeah, but isn’t the timing a little bit screwy? Why bring the thing out now? Cuomo is a slippery interview subject, often dodging the real issue at hand to serve up vague, feel-good “it’s all for the fans” generalizations that satisfy bloggers and fan web sites but frustrate the hell out of professional journalists. He’s especially cagey about his use of co-writers, such as industry tunesmiths Desmond Child, Linda Perry, Tony Kanal, Ryan Adams and country music singer-songwriter Mac Davis, all of whom contributed to Hurley. Journalists at the time were cautioned not to ask Cuomo about his co-writers or any of the album’s frequently fascinating bonus tracks. Gee, thanks.

But if Cuomo is crazy, he’s crazy like a fox. He’s got a keen understanding of Weezer’s dedicated fan base, which is heavily internet-based and almost religiously devoted. For this audience, there’s no such thing as putting out too much music. As Cuomo himself points out, big album releases, hit records and definitive statements from major rock bands are “the old model.” The new model is an endless sea of digital “content,” with little or no mechanism for discriminating the old from the new, the good from the mediocre. These days, everyone—from the biggest rock star to the kid with GarageBand and a $100 guitar—is just another mook putting up tunes on his or her Facebook page. Cuomo is okay with this. Only he’s got way more “friends” than most. Death to False Metal ’s lead track, “Turn Up the Radio” was written collaboratively with fans as part of a YouTube project called “Let’s Write a Sawng.”

“It turned out to be a lot of work for me,” Cuomo says, “which is strange, because I was really delegating most of the songwriting to YouTube. I was just kind of facilitating and saying, ‘Okay, now we’ll go and write a melody over the chord progression.’ But it was a lot of work listening to all the suggestions, picking my favorite one and figuring out what should happen next. Even though I ended up with only a small cut of the song, I had to do a ton of work. It was also interesting that, even though there were so many people contributing to one song, and only one of them was me, it still ended up sounding like a Weezer song.”

The YouTube experiment resembles Cuomo’s method for working with Weezer, to some extent. Band members rarely sit in a room with him to hash out song ideas; instead, they record their ideas on their own and Cuomo either accepts or rejects them. In many regards, the YouTube contributors had more input on their project than Weezer band members typically get on theirs. Cuomo spent most of the sessions for Hurley and Death to False Metal alone in the studio with Shawn Everett and, in some cases, whatever semi-anonymous co-writer was involved. “On most of the songs, I went in the studio and took the song as far as I could on my own,” Cuomo explains. “In some cases I was playing drums. In some cases I was playing keyboards, rhythm guitar. And in some places I was playing leads. Then Pat came in and he did the same thing. It seems like we can all play all the instruments. So sometimes Pat would replace parts that I did on guitar. Other times he’d add a whole other layer of guitar or keyboard. Then Brian came in and did his.”

“Rivers is a pretty quiet guy,” Wilson says. “He keeps to himself. A lot of time I didn’t even see him in the studio. I’d just be in there with Shawn and we’d be making ourselves happy. Occasionally, something I played would make it all the way to mixing, which is kind of fun. I think I was only in the studio for four or five days. I played a bunch of drums and guitar. Sometimes I’m not really sure where Rivers’ stuff stops and mine starts. But most of the ideas are pretty much Rivers’. He knew pretty much how he wanted the songs to go. He and Shawn sat in the studio with Pro Tools and edited what they were really excited about.”

Everett is a fairly recent addition to the Weezer fold. “It’s really hard to get into our inner circle,” Brian Bell says. “But once you’re in it’s even harder to get out. Shawn started as an engineer and now he’s producing. And I think he deserves it. We like his vibe. Working with a producer who is quite a bit younger than us is good.”

Hurley was recorded at a home studio in the upscale Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood at the home of an undisclosed rock star. “It was a great environment, very homey and laid back,” says Bell. “And this guy has an amazing guitar collection. It was really neat to see a ’59 Les Paul hanging on the wall that you can grab at any time. And there was everything else from trombones to a sitar.”

But when asked the identity of this musical retreat’s owner, Bell clams up like an inside trader at a senate inquiry: “I don’t know if I’m at liberty to say.”

Besides Cuomo, Wilson is the only member of the original Weezer lineup who is still with the group. Band members have come and gone, and at least one ended up in a psychiatric hospital, although Brian Bell has been in the picture since 1993, joining a year after Weezer’s formation. Bell and Wilson are dissimilar types, but both are good foils for Cuomo. Wilson frequently references classic rock icons like Zeppelin, AC/DC and Free. He wishes Weezer could go back to laying down basic tracks as a full band, live in the studio in the time-honored rock and roll manner. “Pinkerton was like that,” he says. “It was just us in the studio being completely out of line with our instruments.”

As for Bell, he talks an awful lot about music theory and “inner chord voicings” for a guy in a power-pop band. Gearwise, Bell is a vintage man, favoring guitars like his 1967 Gibson ES-330, 1964 Gibson SG and recently acquired 1954 Harmony Stratotone. He goes for boutique-style combo amps like the Matchless 2x12. Wilson is almost the exact opposite, playing a Charvel San Dimas most of the time and eschewing all amps in favor of the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx digital system. Cuomo falls somewhere in the middle, playing a Gibson SG Junior through a Diezel amp. He says he doesn’t know what year his SG Junior was made.

If Cuomo scores big with the internet nerd crowd, it’s because he is himself one of rock’s archetypal dweebs. His early Weezer hit “Buddy Holly” referenced the original bespectacled rock star of the Fifties. Cuomo could well be Holly’s alt-Nineties reincarnation. Weezer’s frontman pretty much invented the emo archetype—the intelligent but emotionally fragile guy whose cowering manner seems like some form of passive aggression. Cuomo studied music at Harvard but doesn’t come off as an egghead. On the contrary, his most successful compositions—like “The Sweater Song”—have been willfully dumb, albeit coupled with the vague suspicion of some implied ironic subtext. More recently, Cuomo took up the study of Vipasanna meditation and devotes every February and March to a 45-day solitary retreat. While this is hardly calculated to enhance Cuomo’s already dubious social skills, he grudgingly admits that the practice has had some positive effect on his creativity. “I feel more spontaneous and less methodical,” he says. “More experimental, brave, curious and excited. I can concentrate better and go deeper more quickly.”

Interviewing Rivers Cuomo, particularly by telephone, is a painful process. Even the simplest of questions is greeted with an agonizingly protracted silence. The silence lasts so long that the questioner starts to fear that the line has gone dead or, worse, that perhaps Mr. Cuomo has. The response, when it finally comes, can be a disappointing “Uh, I don’t know,” followed by another profound and lugubrious silence. Is that it? That’s his answer? Is he trying to think of something else to say? Is the silence the signal to ask another question?

At other times however, he’ll produce a perfectly reasonable and sometimes genuinely interesting answer. There’s no way of knowing in advance what kind of result any given question will yield. And even if he can be coaxed into opening up on any given topic, he may suddenly pull back and clam up, like a man who has been tricked in some way. But an early morning interview seems to produce the best result. Perhaps he’s fresh from meditation then. Not long after the dawn of a recent day, Guitar World got lucky and was able to obtain that most rare of exchanges: a candid and thoughtful Rivers Cuomo interview.

GUITAR WORLD Why did you release Death to False Metal so soon after Hurley? Was there a final obligation to your old label?

RIVERS CUOMO Ah, well…do you mean are we putting out a record of substandard stuff just so we can get out of the record deal?

GW I’m not implying a value judgment on the material. Leaving that aside, was there a contractual obligation?

CUOMO Well, no. There was a seven-album deal with Geffen, and Raditude, which came out in 2009 and was our seventh album. In that sense we were out of our deal and have already released a record on another label—Hurley on Epitaph. However, we did at one point agree with Geffen to put out a rarities collection. We came to terms on that about a year or two ago, I think. But it’s something I’ve had my eye on since the beginning of our career. I always thought it was cool when a band put out a collection of outtakes and stuff fans wouldn’t normally get to hear, like the Who did with Odds and Sods. I also thought about that [1998] Oasis album called The Masterplan, although that was a little different because that was B-sides. But I just like it when a band puts out what is essentially leftover material and it’s still great.

GW How incomplete were the songs that ended up being on Death to False Metal? Did you have a lyric or a melody for them? Were they just instrumental tracks?

CUOMO Some of the songs were totally complete and already mixed, like “Losing My Mind” for example. With “Blowing My Stack,” we had recorded the basic tracks, but I didn’t like the chorus; the chorus was really a letdown. So I put it down for a few years, came back recently and wrote a new chorus for it. So I had to re-record the new chorus parts over the drum tracks. And while I was at it I threw on a few more harmonies, guitar fills and stuff like that. The songs “Everyone” and “Trampoline” were really good, but they each had just a verse and a chorus, so I composed a little bit of new music for an instrumental section and then threw in the guitar solo, added some more [vocal] harmonies and stuff like that. The one song we started writing from scratch was “Turning Up the Radio.”

GW Which is a great song, and which was written with your fans via the YouTube “Let’s Write a Sawng” project. Did that whole process teach you anything about songwriting or give you any new insights?

CUOMO I would say there’s one thing I learned, besides what a labor-intensive way this is to write a song: I was struck by how many hooks and additional stuff could be stuck into a song. ’Cause I kept thinking we were done, yet there were 100,000 people listening to it, and a handful of them are always gonna have another idea: “We gotta extend the chorus and add this extra little melody.” And some of them were good ideas! So it just kept going on and on, getting better and better. So I made a mental note for when I’m writing by myself to make sure I’ve exhausted every option and opportunity to make the song better.

GW You said that “Losing My Mind” was complete but you hadn’t released it. Is that because the lyric was a little too “naked”? It’s perhaps the most personal song on this album. It’s pure depression, despair, whatever you want to call it. It’s not like you’re creating a metaphor for your feelings or casting them in some kind of clever form.

CUOMO No. I’ve tried every which way for writing lyrics—everything from using really bizarre imagery and metaphors, sort of obscuring the facts of what I’m singing about, all the way over to a song like “Losing My Mind,” where you’re just reading my thoughts as they’re occurring.

GW Is that why you hesitated to put it out? Did you feel it was a little too direct?

CUOMO It wasn’t that. The song existed in two radically different versions. The other version is called “My Brain Is Working
Overtime,” which I released in 2008 [on Alone II: the Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo]. So it didn’t seem like I could put out both at the same time. But they sound so different that I don’t think anyone would make a connection. They’re different enough that I feel justified releasing this one, because I feel some people will be interested in hearing this one too.

GW But both songs come from the same seed, as it were.

CUOMO Oh, it’s the same chord progression through the whole song. But the rest of it couldn’t be more different.

GW The guitar solo component on this album is really strong. Did you make a conscious effort to beef it up this time?

CUOMO Well, a lot of the songs happened to have guitar solos already. The solos were either already in place or the songs had a place where the guitar solo was going to go. So I just finished it off. But yeah, I mean we’ve been criticized a lot in recent years for not having enough guitar solos. And in a sense, this record feels like a response to that criticism by having something like nine guitar solos. But I don’t remember doing that intentionally. It just happened to work out that way.

GW What’s the significance of the album title, Death to False Metal?

CUOMO Well, there’s not a ton of significance, at least not consciously. I was just talking to my brother recently about our metal days, when we were teenagers. We used to use that expression, “Death to false metal.” And it just reminds me of the strong identity we had around the music we loved. It was really more than just musical composition; it was our religion and our community. It gave so much more support to us than just musical entertainment. So that phrase stuck in my mind when it came time to think of a title for this record. We were tentatively calling it Odds and Ends, which is a literal description of what the record is. But I just felt like we needed something more interesting and poetic.

GW Given your prowess as a pop tunesmith, it’s hard to believe that you were initially a metal guy.

CUOMO Well, I found that so many people in the music business started out as metalheads in the Eighties—whether they’re songwriters, producers, engineers or executives, and no matter what they look like, with short hair, suits or whatever. I feel like my generation of metal kids really tends to populate the music world to a large extent.

GW So what converted you over to a more pop approach?

CUOMO [after an unbelievably long pause] I think the first step was moving from the backwoods of Connecticut to Hollywood in 1989 and passing out demo tapes of my progressive metal band, Avant Garde, and just feeling the reaction of people. Most people don’t really need to hear a six-minute guitar solo that modulates between five keys and time signatures. What they want is a good song. So the first time I started hearing that was when I moved to L.A. after high school. And once you start playing the clubs and competing with all these other bands that get a good reaction from the crowd, you just tend to gravitate toward what gets the crowd off. Over time, that pulled out whatever songwriting instincts we had within us.

GW Sure, by 1989 the hair metal era was definitely coming to an end.

CUOMO When I first got to L.A., the Sunset Strip [metal scene] was still a thriving place. It was a dream come true for me. But it didn’t even last a year after that.

GW There’s kind of an irony in naming your new album Death to False Metal in that it isn’t at all a metal album.

CUOMO Yeah, I can’t figure out exactly what the title means in relation to the album. Are these songs false metal and we want to kill them? Or are we killing everybody else’s false metal and these are the true metal songs? But wait—these songs aren’t exactly metal. I’m not sure what it means, but I really like it.

GW You’re good at doing that—writing songs that give the listener a sense of irony without making it explicit.

CUOMO Yeah, that’s exactly what it is! Often I think, This is the right title, and I have no idea why.

GW I had that feeling about “The Sweater Song.” I always wondered if it was some kind of ironic reference to the frayed thrift-shop sweaters that Kurt Cobain wore at the time and which became a standard fashion accessory. It was like everybody went to their local thrift shop and got one.

CUOMO No, definitely not. I wasn’t thinking of that. But yeah, you’re right. It seems connected. Actually I wrote that song in 1991, and I don’t know if he was wearing those kinds of sweaters at that point. I don’t remember seeing him that way then, but maybe… Was he wearing one in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video?

GW I can’t recall.

CUOMO ’Cause I wrote that song right around the time of that video.

GW Musically, too, the song has quiet verses with a clean, chorused guitar, that explode into big choruses, which was Nirvana’s stylistic hallmark. So I always figured you were referencing Nirvana in some way.

CUOMO Not intentionally. The lyric came from a lecture by an English 101 professor in college. He used that image. I don’t remember what the point was, but he said something about holding a thread of a sweater as someone walks away, and the sweater unravels. And I thought, That’s gotta be a song!

GW So would you nonetheless definitely cite Nirvana as a major influence on Weezer?

CUOMO They’re one of my favorite bands of all time, combining anger, intensity, distorted guitars and screaming vocals with beautiful melodies, chord progressions and pop song structures.

GW Did you catch on to them fairly early on?

CUOMO Yes, I did. And I think that was very fateful for Weezer. I was living in L.A. and working at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in 1990 and ’91. So I was surrounded by people who were way more musically educated than I was. Luckily, I got turned on to Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Pixies a few years before that whole thing broke big. And because of that I think Weezer got its act together and we were poised to enter the game at the right time.

GW How do you assess your own role in helping to establish the emo phenomenon and aesthetic of the Nineties?

CUOMO I’m not even sure what emo means and who those bands are. I dunno, it feels weird. I don’t feel like we can take credit for anything. We just copied the characteristics of the artists before us that we liked. It’s funny that anyone would hear that in Weezer and think it was coming from us. ’Cause to me it just sounds like it’s coming from the stuff that we liked.

GW What’s it like to revisit your first album and Pinkerton and play those albums all the way through in concert? Is it fun or painful? Is it like, “Oh God, I could have written that better”?

CUOMO Well, it’s been a lot of fun in rehearsal. The songs sound really good—really chunky and heavy. The melodies feel really good on my voice. But I know it’s all about getting in front of an audience. ’Cause I know they’re going to flip out when they hear a lot of these album tracks that they never got a chance to see us perform live before.

GW How did the idea originally come up to play those albums live in concert?

CUOMO Three individuals thought of it separately at around the same time. I knew we had a Pinkerton reissue coming up, so I was thinking we should at least do some shows that were all Pinkerton. And my manager was thinking the same thing. Then our agent called and said he was thinking of doing two nights in one city and playing both of those first two albums because he was looking for a way to make the shows more of a special event. In these tough times, financially, it’s really hard to get people out to shows now. And we’ve toured a lot. So all three of us were thinking along the same lines at the same time, coincidentally. I think that was a sign that it was probably a good idea.

GW Same question as before, though: Does this tend to undercut Hurley?

CUOMO Yes. [laughs] But with Hurley, it doesn’t feel like we’re swinging for the fence or hoping to have a big hit record. You could say that so much of what we’re doing, and not doing, promotionally is undercutting the success of Hurley. But we’re just not expecting that record to be a big mainstream success. We love it very much, and we’re happy to hear our fans think it’s a big step in the right direction. But I don’t know. It just feels like we’re in a very alternative frame of mind creatively right now. We’re not going to expect to have big, mainstream success like some other artists, or like we’ve had at times in the past.

GW And there’s probably something relieving in that—not pinning every hope on the new release, like, “Oh God, this is gonna be the one.”

CUOMO Yeah, you know what? There definitely is a sense of relief once you accept, Okay, this is how things are now. We’re not gonna sell records! [laughs] And yet we’re surviving. We still have a big fan base that loves us. Let’s just concentrate on our relationship with our fans and enjoy that and feel secure in that. And make sure we’re happy and our fans are happy. Then it’s all good.

GW A rabid, internet-driven fan base is a hungry fan base. They always seem to have an appetite for new material.

CUOMO Yes. And that’s wonderful for me as an artist. I don’t wanna make one record and tour off of it for two and a half years. I like getting right back in the studio and coming up with more music. And our fans seem to totally support that type of productivity.

GW But where is the creative juice coming from for you to do all this work? It seems like it’s just pouring out of you.

CUOMO [laughs, then a long pause] I don’t know.

GW Maybe this will help: Is this the way you’ve always been, but couldn’t be because of the way record company release schedules were in the past? Or is this a new burst of inspiration?

CUOMO No, I definitely was not always this way. There were times when I just could not finish a song. But I just feel like I’m experienced enough now. I’ve been working for so long that I’ve dropped a lot of self-defeating habits. It seems to feel very natural now. I don’t know how to explain it better than that. But you’re right, I feel increasingly productive. I don’t want to say it’s easy, because it’s not. Sometimes there’s some really hard work involved. But I look forward to going into the studio every day so much.

GW In performing the first two Weezer albums live, does it feel like you’re riding some kind of wave of Nineties nostalgia?

CUOMO It does feel that way a little. I’m starting to wonder if there’s a whole generation of people now in their twenties who have a real craving for what they were experiencing in the Nineties when they were teenagers. I think that’s what I’m feeling when I hear about all of the excitement around these shows we’re doing. I wonder if there’s this new feeling of nostalgia and craving for the Nineties aesthetic that’s behind some of the enthusiasm for some of our shows. And by the way, that’s something I don’t share at all. I don’t really look back on my twenties nostalgically. Like a lot of 20-year-olds now, I look back on my teenage years during the Eighties. So it’s curious and amusing to see people feel nostalgic about the Nineties.

GW I guess it doesn’t matter what was going on when you were a teenager, good, bad or indifferent. Because when you’re in your teens, generally speaking, it’s a very exciting time. Your hormones are erupting. You’re discovering all kinds of wonderful new stuff.

CUOMO Yeah, that’s when music really hits you the hardest. The bonds you make with those records when you’re 14, 15 and 16, they’ll never be broken, and nothing will ever be as strong as that.

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