Interview: Rivers Cuomo of Weezer
The indie frontman writes his own rock-star manual.
By Sharon Steel
I want to tell you about my first Weezer show on August 25, 2000, at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
I think that was the day Karl [Koch, the band’s webmaster] broke his front tooth.
Right. During the three-hour wait, I got so sick that I threw up in my hands.
Because it was incredibly crowded, boiling hot, and there was no AC in there. But I refused to lose my spot.
Oh man. That’s terrible.
Do you expect the shows on the Memories tour to be that crazy?
No. Everyone’s a little bit older now, and less willing to endure those kinds of conditions. But I think it is going to be a very joyous and nostalgic experience, and it’s going to be an intense feeling of camaraderie.
How is touring different from The Blue Album and Pinkerton years for you?
Touring now is far more pleasant. We have more buses, more space, better hotel rooms, more time off. We have our families with us and the tours are shorter. It feels more like something we do for fun than this incredibly psychologically damaging grind that goes on month after month, year after year.
Is that how the older tours felt to you?
Yeah. They were emotionally, mentally and physically destructive.
Do you see yourself as more of a grown-up?
I’ve always seen myself as a grown-up. Since I was a little kid.
What do you do to pass the time now?
Um, I have no spare time. [Laughs] I practice piano, practice guitar, study Japanese, do meditation, spend time with my daughter, spend time with my wife. Of course, [there’s] tons of songwriting and recording with Weezer and with other musicians. And volunteer work.
I know that you’ve gotten progressively more and more interested in meditation and the ways in which it affects your songwriting. Can you talk a little bit about what your routine entails?
I meditate an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. Once a year I go away for a long retreat. And overall, I just feel more comfortable in my own skin and less anxious, less sad, less fearful.
Why do you think more rock & roll isn’t produced this way? Do musicians have the wrong idea, relying on sex, drugs and alcohol?
It’s hard. There’s that famous line from Kurt Cobain that there’s no rock-star manual or whatever. It’s true, at least for me. When you’re starting out, you basically have all these assumptions about what it means to be an artist, or how to be a rock star. It took me years, through trial and error, to figure out what does work for me. So much of it is counter to the myth of the rock-star life.
You originally said you were scared to do it, because you’d become disconnected from the angst you thought you needed to produce anything creatively worthwhile.
That’s exactly right. It seemed very counterintuitive that by calming down I could become a better artist, because for me I thought I was always creating out of my unhappiness.
You’re about to share journal entries, letters, etc. in The Pinkerton Diaries, which is being published this month. Do you feel comfortable being open about personal stuff in a direct way like this?
There’s an awful lot that I don’t share, and what I do share, yeah, I do feel comfortable about it. Often it’s the most intimate stuff that I’m most excited to share.
Why is that?
I guess I’m just a born performer or artist or sharer. I find the intimate details of my life compelling and interesting. I guess that I’m assuming that everyone else does too. [Laughs]
Was that where the impulse to put out this book came from?
That was a big part of it, yeah. I feel like those few years of my life especially…they all just seem so dramatic, like a really compelling story. Like the last few years of my life, I see no point in sharing most of it or putting out a book. My sense is that [the book] going to be really meaningful and exciting for Weezer fans to sink their teeth into.
When you listen to the music you love, do you see a pattern in the songs and the bands you gravitate toward?
On the one hand I’ve always liked very emotional music with very big, romantic melodies. I’m thinking of Puccini now. Then I have this other side of me that likes almost, um, a little more cerebral and less emotional and more contrapuntal music. And I’m thinking of Bach.
On the Pinkerton reissue, you included some previously unreleased tracks, like “Tragic Girl.” Why include that song now?
To me it’s a very tragic story, because I felt like I had the song 85 percent written, and I was struggling to finish the other 15 percent. You can see it in The Pinkerton Diaries, pages and pages of rewriting the lyrics and trying to figure out how to finish it up. It came to the point where you have to turn in the record now or it’s not going to come out this year. So I had to let go of the song and set it aside. It wasn’t until many years later that I came back to it. Once I heard it, I immediately knew how to finish it up. That happens sometimes. You have to set things aside.
Do you still practice celibacy when you’re working on something important?
Uh, no. [Laughs]
You seem to put a lot of thought into the ways in which you can relate with your audience, whether it’s having people write a song with you or having people play instruments along with the band at a show.
I’m looking for ways to make it exciting and fresh for me. I just ask myself, Well, this feels boring, what can I do to make it crazy? What feels phony here and how can I make it more real? That leads to, Well, I don’t want to do another phony radio promo tour, so let’s have our audience bring their own instruments, and that became our Hootenany tour.
Do you feel like people get you wrong?
Yes, definitely. From Day One. It’s so often that I’ll create something with a certain intention and then the audience takes it the opposite way. I remember we turned in our first record to Geffen in ’93, and at that time I had an image of me and Weezer as the next Nirvana. That would make me the next Kurt Cobain. And we were going to be taken very seriously. Our A&R guys took me to lunch and said, “You realize people are going to think you’re really goofy and really funny?” And I was just stunned. I didn’t hear us that way at all. Take “The Sweater Song,” for example. To me it was a song about depression. They said, “No. People are going to think this is really fun and really funny.”
And did that happen?
Absolutely. We were definitely pegged as a fun and funny band when we first came out. That was pretty much the opposite of my intention.
Is there a more recent example of your intentions becoming warped?
Yeah, the song “Beverly Hills.” I thought it was a very brave, personal admission of my base craving for celebrity status and to be included in that community and to marry another celebrity. A totally personal and sincere statement of my desire. A lot of people took it the other way around, that I was being ironic, and mocking the whole Beverly Hills culture.
I loved learning about the huge binders you kept, in which you tried to analyze what exactly made songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” so great.
It’s funny, I just had my mom bring them all over. They’re sitting right here in front of me. There are several. This is from a one- or two-year period of my life; I was in a very extreme place. Unfortunately, people have come to identify that place with me, and to me it seems like this bizarre little detour I took. I was probably 29.
Do you feel like you figured it out-what makes the perfect pop song?
Have you come close?
No. I don’t believe there is any one way to make a perfect pop song. You could argue that there’s no such thing.
Weezer plays the Roseland Ballroom Dec 17 and Dec 18.