Music

Interview: Rivers Cuomo of Weezer

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Weezer headlines Madison Square Garden tonight, Wednesday, September 24. Tickets are still available here.

“I have a spreadsheet that documents every show we’ve ever played, and how much we got paid, and what was the capacity, and then how many people actually attended. I was looking back at ’94 and ’95 and just comparing where we were playing then to where we’re playing now. And it was peanuts, man.”

Still ridiculous

After pretty much pleasing everyone with their eponymous debut (call it The Blue Album–still their best seller at three-plus million copies), Weezer embarked on a hit-or-miss relationship with domestic critics (we hate Pinkerton because it’s weird! we love Pinkerton because it’s weird!) that continues to this day. But over time the band has steadily grown as a live draw and tonight, for the very first time, Weezer and its mega-watt “W” will headline the world’s most famous arena.

The solitary saga of Rivers Cuomo, the band’s lead singer and primary songwriter, is nearly as complicated as the band’s connection with musical scribes. After much-publicized exercises with a self-imposed, extended period of celibacy and living alone (again by choice) in an apartment with covered windows and (paint it) black walls, Cuomo’s now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t regimen has conjured a persona that, if boiled down to a single adjective, might be best described as “eccentric.”

But then again, his hide-and-seek routine with the musical press also means that the opportunity to discuss songwriting with the still-boyish (assuming he’s shaved the Giambi-esque moustache by now) Cuomo is a rare opportunity. Even if it only lasts for 15 minutes. —Rob Trucks

We talked three years ago when Make Believe came out and I’m going to refer back to that conversation in just a second. But in any case it’s good to talk to you again.

Cool. I like some sense of continuity in my life, and referring to the past. I dig that.

Now since we last talked, you got your college degree, you released Home Recordings, and you’ve gotten married.

And had a baby.

And had a baby. Congratulations.

Thank you. That’s a big one.

Absolutely. So is that the biggest change for you personally since Make Believe?

Is it getting married or having a child? I think it might be having a child.

I’m thinking that having a child provides the bigger schedule adjustment.

[laughs] Yeah. It also just makes you feel saturated in happiness and peace and contentment. And there’s really not a whole heck of a lot you have to do besides just be with your family at that point.

The stereotype is that having a child is the best thing that could ever happen to you and that your life completely changes. Is it all of that and more?

Well, I didn’t think I would really feel any differently once I had a child because I was just so focused on my work. I knew I could be a good dad but I didn’t think it was really going to have that much of an emotional impact on me. But I walked out of the hospital a different person than I walked in. It’s just . . . I just fell so deeply in love with this little girl.

That’s great.

Yeah. At the same time, though, I will say on a practical level my life has not changed all that much. I’m still playing in a rock band, which I’ve been doing since I was 14. I’m still, you know, pretty much keeping the same routine.

Is meditation still part of the daily routine?

Yeah, it’s been very consistent since 2003. An hour in the morning, an hour in the evening. Every year I go to a long course. Yeah, I think that’ll pretty much be with me for the duration.

We talked before about the lengths you had to go to in order to maintain your meditation schedule with the band and touring and all. You even told me that you did a session in a closet at the Playboy Mansion while you were there shooting the “Beverly Hills” video.

Yeah.

Has the new baby complicated the meditation schedule more than the band?

Well, I’m really good at planning my life and writing out the schedules and communicating with my wife and my bandmates and making sure that I can do everything I want to do and that everyone’s taken care of, so it’s complicated but it’s not unmanageable.

When we talked before we discussed how Rick Rubin had talked to you about being less isolated as a songwriter. Is that still an issue? Or with the communication with the band, and the marriage, and the newborn baby–is that even a concern anymore? I mean, you’re kind of out in the world again now, aren’t you?

Wow, there’s a lot of questions in there.

I’m sorry. Pick the one you want and I’ll shut up.

[laughs] Okay. I still like to have a lot of time to myself, and I find that to be really artistically sensitive I need to close myself off from much stimulation so my feelings rise up to the surface and I can write about them. But at the same time I know that I also have a desire to play with the band, to be out in the world, to have fun, to be social, and even to be in the spotlight a little bit. So, you know, I have all of these desires and it’s just a matter of figuring out what the right balance is. And also factoring in everyone else’s needs too. And once you calm down and start thinking about it rationally and discussing it with everyone, it’s really not that big of a problem to figure it out. You know, the other guys have families, too. My drummer has two kids. And they all want to be writers. They all are writers too.

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Do you feel like you have a good balance now? Are you close to balancing those private versus public desires?

Yes. When I was younger I would go from one extreme to the other, a year totally by myself in isolation–I’m simplifying now, I guess, but I guess it’s fair to say that–and then the next year I’d be out touring and partying. I guess I’m just not so extreme anymore. Each day is a little mix of everything I love. We’re talking about taking off three months out of each year to just get away from the band, and when we tour now we don’t try to pack the days with promotional activities and, you know, playing Letterman and Howard Stern and doing the magazine covers. It’s just kind of a light and easy and manageable routine that we can maintain.

So the balance is getting there.

Yeah. It’s taken 15 years but . . . [laughs]

For Make Believe, Rubin gave you songwriting assignments.

Yeah.

I think on the whole you weren’t all that pleased with the process, but “Beverly Hills” and “Haunt You Every Day” came out of those assignments. I know that you’ve tried all kinds of approaches to songwriting and it’s human nature to stick to what works. Did you take on any assignment songs for The Red Album?

I did not. I did not do any assignments that were given to me by anyone else. Oh, actually, that’s not entirely true. “Pork and Beans” was written when the album was done already and we listened back to it and collectively we realized that we needed a song that had a few particular qualities. And I wrote down those qualities and I went into my writing workshop here and that was my assignment. To write a song with those qualities.

What were those qualities?

Yeah, it had to be within a certain tempo range. We had too many slow songs on the record so I was looking for something in the range of like 112 to 138 beats per minute. It had to have a certain rebellious quality to it, and fun quality to it. I wanted it to have a guitar riff in it. Not just be strumming chords but an actual riff. It had to be something that could be played on the radio.

With the assignment criteria that you’ve mentioned, I think you might be able to give yourself an “A” on that one.

But, of course, the other criteria, just as important, is that I have to love it. It has to feel completely honest and exciting to me. And challenging. And so that’s what made it even more complicated and an even greater challenge. So I worked on it quite a lot over a three-week period and played successive versions for the team, for the guys in the band, and continually refined and steered in the right direction. And yeah, I’m just amazed at how well we hit that nail on the head.

Last time out we did a kind of dissection of “Perfect Situation” and you said, ‘I think the best songs have parts in them, or at least germs in them, that were created emotionally and spontaneously.’ It doesn’t sound like spontaneous happened with “Pork and Beans.”

Well, the way I write now, I’m bringing different pieces together, a lyrical idea that I had at one point, a guitar riff from another period. So there’s all these different sources of inspiration, and different types of inspiration, and I just keep cooking them in my workshop until it all comes together. And really the most important ingredient, the most important part of this process is just to keep listening and asking myself, ‘What do I want to hear? What can I change here?’ And just to stick with it.

It sounds like a very craft-like, as opposed to art-like, process.

Well, I don’t know if I’d say that, because without all those seeds of inspiration the craft is worthless.

I think I was just referring to the culling process, pulling the lyric from one time period and pulling the music from another. It sounds a little like the work of a mad scientist.

Yeah, and I’ll tell you, a lot of what I’m able to accomplish now is because of my computer [laughs]. Nearly every idea that I’ve had that I have not yet used is in my computer and it’s easily accessible. You know, anything musical is recorded and filed away in iTunes in a playlist called Ideas, and I can sort that playlist by the various fields, beats per minute or I can search for different tags. Like I can sort for a chorus or a verse or a bridge.

That sounds like a whole hell of a lot of fun.

It’s so fun, yeah.

Let me ask you one last question. You’re headlining Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena. And to a lot of folks, that’s a good symbol of knowing you’ve arrived. Is Weezer at the height of its artistic powers or are you just more popular than you’ve ever been? Or more simply, is there a relationship between art and commerce?

There’s not a direct one-to-one relationship between art and commerce. In fact, I just happened to be looking over, once again, on my computer. I have a spreadsheet that documents every show we’ve ever played and how much we got paid and what was the capacity and then how many people actually attended. I was looking back at ’94 and ’95 and just comparing where we were playing then to where we’re playing now and it was peanuts, man.

[laughs]

We were playing like to a thousand people every night and just barely making enough money to pay our expenses on the road, and yet that first album, The Blue Album, is incredible. So, you know, The Red Album is also incredible and I’d have to say it’s definitely one of our peaks, and yet we’re just so much more commercially successful now. Like you said, headlining Madison Square Garden. You know, there’s a lot to be said for just the continued work over the years and then just a great manager helping us to make the right decisions and press the right buttons and not shooting ourselves in the foot [laughs].

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