Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo: “Like a lot of the other bands around that time, we were a little uncomfortable with the sound of our first album...”

(Image credit: Sean Murphy)

It stands to reason that, as one of the bands that helped pioneer and define it, Weezer are synonymous with the boom of bubbly and buoyant, ultra-melodic pop-rock of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. But while that’s where the Californian quartet’s mainstream esteem may have peaked, it’s undoubtedly today that Weezer’s flame burns the brightest. 

Since roaring back to life from their second hiatus with 2014’s ripping and rousing Everythingt Will Be Alright In The End (on which they treated old-school fans to an onslaught of booming hooks and earwormish choruses), they’ve struck gold with everything from doughy ‘60s-revering surf-rock (on 2016’s White Album) to polarising avant-garde pop (on 2019’s Black Album) and even tongue-in-cheek covers of yesteryear’s cheesiest FM hits (on 2019’s Teal Album). 

But as they near 30 years of their reign as the rightful kings of pop-rock, it’s become crystal clear that Weezer have, until now, only scratched the surface of their powerful and polychromatic potential. Even for a band as unpredictably quirky as them, nobody could have foreseen Weezer’s 2021 output: an introspective, orchestral-backed album of ballads and Broadway‑esque showtunes, and a slamming, shred-heavy bombshell of ‘80s hair metal-channeling rock anthems – the admirable efforts of a band that is truly unhinged.

And then there’s Weezer’s 2022 slate – because if two career-defining, critic-stunning albums isn’t enough for one year, how about four? Starting shape as a mental exercise to keep frontman Rivers Cuomo sane as he trod along through last year’s pandemic-incited lockdown, the Seasons saga quickly blossomed into an ambitious four-disc epic, taking Weezer to a quadrant of very distinct, individually inspired corners of their musicality.

This is Weezer’s age of recklessness: they’re doing what they want to do, living their wildest musical dreams and embracing the most whimsical corners of their imaginations – all with absolute creative authority. As he gears up for one of the biggest and busiest chapters of the Weezer story, we caught up with Rivers to vibe on Van Weezer and OK Human, what we can all look forward to from the Seasons project, and everything else going on with one of rock’s most idiosyncratic characters.

We’re only halfway through 2021, and it’s already been one of the biggest years in Weezer’s history. What’s the vibe like on your end?
Well, I just get so absorbed in whatever I’m doing that I kind of forget about everything else. So I could answer a lot of about the Fall album right now… I’m probably going to struggle on Van Weezer [laughs]. It doesn’t exactly feel hectic, but there’s just so much material – thank goodness for modern technology and spreadsheets. I don’t know how people did it before they had technology to help them keep track of everything.

Some of the stuff on Van Weezer goes back to the days before this band even existed, right?
Yeah. I don’t care when something was written or what it’s from, I just want the best possible bits; I just want to put it all together and make a great song. It doesn’t matter where any of it came from. I’m pretty agnostic about that stuff – a lot of times, I forget when something was even written. I just go searching through my Dropbox folders and go, “Okay, I need a great verse, give me a great verse… Okay, here’s a great verse!” And I’ll get to a point where I realise, “Oh wait, that was from, like, 25 years ago!” 

What’s the method to the madness when it comes to how you save, collate and draw from your stable of ideas?
Ultimately it’s just what feels right, but I do have tools that help me narrow down the field. I just made this really cool app called Demolisher – it’s this big panel with all these switches I can flip, and it’ll search through all my thousands of demos to give me exactly what I’m looking for. Depending on which switches are flipped, it will give me, like, only choruses that start on the one chord in major key, between 120 and 130 beats per minute, and that are a particular genre – and then I’ll be faced with ten options instead of 1,000. And then it’s just a matter of trying them all out and seeing which ones feel the best for a song.

And you developed the app yourself?
Yeah! I love all of that stuff! That’s half the fun right there. I got into computer programming in 2015, and I spend hours on it every day. I just love it. But even before that I had spreadsheets, and before spreadsheets there were notebooks and graph paper. I’m just always trying to keep track of everything.

How many albums worth of viable song ideas would you say you have?
I don’t know… I guess the time-consuming part is putting them all together, that would be the limiting factor to figuring that out. There’s a lot of pieces in there. Obviously I have my phone with me wherever I go, and several times a day an idea will pop into my head and I’ll record it in a note, and then it automatically gets uploaded to Dropbox, and then there are scripts that go in there and analyse tempo and put other tags on it, and then it’s easy to filter and sort.

I like that you’ll sometimes use the fans as a sounding board, like via your forum Mr. Rivers’ Neighbourhood.
Yeah, it’s really great! I just love their tastes so much – they’re so similar to my own tastes, and they share a lot of my core values. So sometimes when I’m working on something, if I’ve gotten distracted or confused by other forces around me, I can see what the fans’ reactions will be and go, “Oh yeah, that’s what I like!” [Laughs].

Let’s riff on Van Weezer – pun intended. Where did the idea for this record come from? Have you always had a soft spot for ‘80s hair metal?
Yeah! I mean, that’s what I grew up on. I never would’ve called it ‘hair metal’ at the time, though, it was just metal – heavy metal. That’s what real music was to me when I was a teenager. That’s how I learned to play my instrument, by learning how to play heavy metal songs. But right around the time Weezer got together, just about all the musicians in LA did an about face – we all went from being metalheads to alternative guys, so we changed our guitar sound, we cut our hair, and we made our first album. But all those heavy metal instincts are still in there, in our souls and in our fingers, and they’ve just been waiting to come out all these years.

So why was now the right point in time for that to happen? I know the initial rollout plan was very closely tied to the Hella Mega Tour – was it a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario?
Yeah, that’s exactly right. We actually were working on OK Human first, and we’d mostly finished working on that, but just as we were wrapping that one up our manager called and said, “You guys got booked on the Hella Mega Tour with Green Day and Fall Out Boy. It’s going to be Monsters Of Rock all over again, you’re going to be shredding stadiums all around the world.” And we were like, “Uh oh! We just made this introspective singer-songwriter album with pianos and an orchestra!” That’s like the worst kind of album you could put out before a tour like that. So we put OK Human on the shelf and said, “Alright, I guess it’s time to unleash the beast!” Because y’know, if we’re going to go out every night and have to compete with Green Day, we’ve gotta bring some serious rock riffage.

I read on a forum that Van Weezer went through some changes after it got delayed. Is there any truth to that?
I guess the change was just that as we were finishing up on Van Weezer, the Hella Mega Tour got postponed because of the whole lockdown situation, and we realised that Van Weezer was the worst type of album we could put out during a quarantine. We couldn’t even be in the same room together, let alone go out and promote a rock album. So we put Van Weezer on the shelf and focussed our attention back on OK Human. I don’t remember going back and making any significant changes to Van Weezer, though – do you remember what you heard?

I think the big thing was that some of the tracklisting got changed around.
Yeah, I mean, I’m gonna tweak up until… Well, even ’til after the album is on shelves. But it was nothing major – taking an old song off, putting a new song on, that kind of thing.

Do you think there’s potential for Van Weezer to not just be a one-and-done sort of concept?
Yeah. I mean, we’re very responsive to the people in front of us every night when we’re playing. We want to get that applause, so whatever people are responding to, that’s what we’re going to gravitate towards. 

What guitars were you jamming on in the studio for this record?
Well the album is called Van Weezer, so obviously everyone is going to focus on the ‘Van’ part when we’re talking about it – because that’s the new thing, that’s the interesting thing – but really, half of it is still classic Weezer. So in the spirit of that first part, I did try out a couple of crazy ‘80s guitars, but it seemed to be overdoing the schtick a little bit. So I just ended up going back to the same guitar I’ve always used, since the Blue Album, which was Ric Ocasek’s late-‘50s Les Paul Special. That’s the meat of the record right there.

What is it about that LP Special that’s made it your ride-or-die?
Well, I never use it at a show, because it’s actually kind of delicate. But something about my right hand and my pick crunching into those strings, on that guitar with that pickup, jamming a powerchord through an overdriven amp… It just sounds like music. It’s an unmistakable sound. It’s thick, but it’s punchy at the same time.

Are you much of a pedal-head as well?
Not at all. In fact, going back to our first album, I don’t think there’s a single effect on anything. Sometimes people will go, “Oh, we’re doing ‘The Sweater Song’, it’s got that cool, clean riff – let’s put a flanger on it, let’s put some chorus, let’s do this and that…” But  it’s like, no, you don’t need any of that. It’s already built into the riff, just play the riff!

Do you find that going straight into an amp helps you capture that raw, authentic Weezer energy?
Yeah. The spirit is in the notes. It’s not so much about the sound of them, I just want to get the notes across to the listener’s ears.

Which I suppose is how OK Human works so well as a Weezer album despite there not being a single riff on it. Where did the idea for that record come from?
The idea originally came from the producer, Jake Sinclair. I went over to his house one day, and I wasn’t expecting to start a project – I was going over to say hi, but he said, “Oh, I’ve got an idea for your next album. You should do something like Nilsson Sings Newman, this obscure album from the early ‘70s.” He gave me a copy of it and said, “The jist of this is you sitting down at a piano – no guitars – and write totally personal, non-commercial, weird, quirky, Rivers/Weezer songs; then we’ll back you up with a full orchestra instead of distorted guitars.” And I was like, “Woah, that sounds like a lot of fun!” I wasn’t used to writing on a piano, so it was a real new experience for me.

Did that songwriting process take you very far out of your comfort zone?
It was pretty darn comfortable, actually. It was incredibly fun! I love classical music, I love Beethoven and Bach and all of that stuff. I’m a total amateur, but I love trying to explore that side of music composition. So I wouldn’t say I was creatively out of my comfort zone at all – but technically speaking, for sure. I had to practise quite a bit. We recently played a concert with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra at Disney Hall, and I practised for three weeks straight – every single day, practise, practise, practise – so I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself in front of these amazing musicians. 

What was it like working with an orchestra for the record?
Sadly, I had no contact with them. Because y’know, mid-pandemic and all, if you’re not absolutely required to be there, you can’t be there. But I would pop in on Zoom and check it out, and it was an incredible thrill. I’d never heard my music played by an orchestra before, and I was just blown away. I had a lot of the basic ideas for their arrangements, but I had just pumped them out on a piano. To hear them all played back by a full orchestra… It’s such a thrill.

The lyrical themes on OK Human feel so timely. Did the concept for the record grow as it came together?
Yeah. There actually wasn’t an intended concept to begin with – it was more just like, “Write whatever you’re going through on any given day. Just whatever happens to be troubling you. And don’t write for anybody else.” So that’s just what I did, so I guess it ends up sounding a bit like a day in the life of Rivers in the middle of a pandemic.

Do you think there’s potential for an OK Human tour with an orchestra behind you?
I sure would love to do an orchestral tour! But it seems so incredibly expensive – there’s just no way we could pull it off, unfortunately. But hopefully we’ll come up with something. At the bare minimum, maybe just a few special concerts like the one we just did at Disney Hall. Maybe we could do one in Sydney at the Opera House. That would be amazing!

Have you thought about how some of the back catalogue might translate to an orchestral setting?
At the concert we just did, we did OK Human in full and an additional six songs, and we got the same arranger and conductor to rework those songs for the orchestra. I played an acoustic guitar and Pat [Wilson] was still on the drums, but it was basically like OK Human versions of classic Weezer songs… And a Toto song [laughs]. I haven’t heard the concert back yet, but to be standing in the midst of an orchestra, hearing “Island In The Sun”… It was so beautiful.

Speaking of what you’ve got coming up in the pipeline, are there any plans to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Pinkerton this year?
It hasn’t been discussed – not yet, at least. I did recently uncover a song from 1995 which was written right around the same time as “El Scorcho”. It’s a song I never demoed – I never recorded it, but I had it written down, and I only just recently made a demo of it. Right now it’s slated to come out on the Winter album in December of 2022, but maybe we could put it out later this year as a little gift for the fans in celebration of Pinkerton’s anniversary. And maybe we’ll do some Pinkerton shows later in the year – it’s all up to the pandemic.

When I was growing up, my exposure to Weezer was through songs like “Island In The Sun”, “Buddy Holly”,  “Beverly Hills” – those really catchy, or for lack of a better word, safe kind of songs. So when I got around to hearing Pinkerton, it was so unexpectedly rough and angsty – and evidently it was the same for people in ‘99, hot on the heels of the Blue Album. Was that part of the intention, to really dismantle what people knew of and expected from Weezer?
I don’t think we intended to be unsuccessful [laughs]. I think we all thought it was going to be a huge record, honestly. But like a lot of the other bands around that time, we were a little uncomfortable with the sound of our first record. That’s not exactly who we were when we were playing in the clubs. We were much rougher and more aggressive – we weren’t meant to be this polished, major label alt-rock band. So we kind of swung back the other way and produced the next record ourselves, and that was a lot more true to what we thought Weezer was supposed to be.

You’ve done that a few times since throughout the Weezer timeline, to varying degrees of success – whether that’s making a pop record like Raditude or going really experimental on the Black Album, or working with a 38-piece orchestra on OK Human. Do you see a value in subverting fan expectations every so often?
Not really. It’s basically me just wanting to try something – I just get excited to try new things. I’m not really thinking about how the fans are going to react.

There’s not a balance you have to strike between passion projects like OK Human and fan-service projects like Everything Will Be Alright In The End?
Everything Will Be Alright In The End was definitely a case of us saying, “Hey, what if we made an album just for the straight-up hardcore fans?” But I guess as the years go by, nothing seems to really matter anymore. We can do whatever we want, and it doesn’t really change the course of this giant ship that is Weezer – it’s just going to sail on into the distance.

I think Weezer is one of the few bands that can truly do whatever the f*** it wants and get away with it, because that’s just the core ethos of Weezer.
I mean, it’s not like that for other bands?

To a degree? Most bands don’t have fanbases that expect the unexpected in the way your average Weezer fan would.
Sure. I guess AC/DC is the big counter example, right? You pretty much know exactly what you’re going to get from a new AC/DC album. It would be really trippy if they just totally changed it up and dropped a pop album.

Imagine if AC/DC did a record like OK Human.
I mean, I’d check it out! An introspective piano-orchestral album with their style of vocals on top? That would be wild.

What can you tell us about the Seasons project you’re working on right now?
I actually just finished doing some stuff for the Fall album. There are four albums in the series, and each one is based on the season its named after. Each record has a predominant emotion that I have in mind as I’m writing. Spring is on the happy, chill side, and Summer is indignant, youthful rebellion. Fall would be anxiety, and then Winter is sadness and loss. In terms of the sound, Spring is kind of like “Island In The Sun”, and Summer is kind of like a crunchy Beach Boys – I guess a bit like the Blue Album. Fall is the most risky direction of all\〝 that’s going to be dance-rock, like Franz Ferdinand. And then Winter is all ‘90s singer-songwriter, a bit like Elliot Smith.

So will that be the next project to surface after Van Weezer?
It’ll start on the first day of Spring 2022, when the first album comes out. I’m excited for people to hear it!

Is all your creative energy focussed on Seasons, or are you still tinkering away on other bits and pieces?
I have a few other projects which are just starting to pick up steam, but they involve other collaborators and forms of media, so it’s a very slow process – I’m just waiting for my role to kick in. So I’ve given myself this four-album project to tide me over. There’s some kind of musical drama that I’m working on at the moment called Buddha Superstar. I don’t know if it’s going to be a Broadway show or a movie, but apparently that’s going to be, like, a five-year process.

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…