A conversation with Rivers Cuomo
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Published in abridged form on Metromix
Weezer’s self-titled “Red Album” finds the geek chic heroes testing new genres and embracing democracy, as Rivers Cuomo is no longer the sole singer and songwriter. But lead single “Pork and Beans” played right to the strengths that made Weezer ubiquitous on college campuses in the mid-‘90s: hooky power-pop and clever videos. This time around, they were joined by a motley crew of viral stars, from Chris Crocker to the “Numa Numa” guy.
Right before kicking off Weezer’s fall arena tour, Cuomo talked about fighting irony, finding trouble and rubbing elbows with the YouTube elite.
Were there any viral sensations that you wanted for the “Pork and Beans” video that you couldn’t get?
Yeah, I think we all really wanted to get the Star Wars kid. When I saw that clip, I identified with him so much, and it evoked this really strong emotion—I couldn’t even put my finger on it. I wanted to reach out to him, but I don’t think he wants to have anything to do with his clip anymore.
What was the green room like that day?
It was mind-blowing to be there and to see all these characters together in one room—and just to hear Tay Zonday [of “Chocolate Rain” fame] in his dressing room, singing my song over and over all day in his baritone voice. It was surreal.
In “Troublemaker,” there’s a line about not being able to work a job like any other slob. If you did have to go back to the clock-punching world, what job do you think you could tolerate?
I guess being a teacher. Maybe conducting a high school orchestra or a high school choir—that would be fun.
None of your real pre-Weezer jobs made the cut, huh?
No. The job I was thinking of when I wrote those lines in “Troublemaker” was my job at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, the year before Weezer got together. I was fresh from the sticks in Connecticut and had just moved out to Hollywood. I was still into speed metal and shred metal; I got my job at Tower and I was exposed to the Pixies and Sonic Youth and Beach Boys and Nirvana—before “Nevermind” broke. It really changed my relationship to music…[Weezer] could not have happened without my job at Tower. However…it was definitely mind-numbing to work retail eight hours a day for minimum wage.
Did you take crap from fellow metalheads for enjoying poppier music?
I didn’t even understand my appreciation for pop music. I knew that when I was with my friends, I listened to Slayer and Metallica—but when I was driving in my car at 16 or 17, I guess I didn’t have a tape player, and I’d put on pop radio and I found myself really digging Debbie Gibson and Madonna and that kind of music. I didn’t really share that with my metalhead friends, though. [Laughs]
“The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” is almost certainly the most varied song in the Weezer catalog. Was that always conceived as a single piece?
It was almost entirely conceived as one piece. I was tired of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge songs, and I wanted to write something with a completely different structure. I remembered a form from classical instrumental music called themed variations, where the composer would start with one theme that was given to him – a popular song of the day or whatever – and he would write a series of variations. He’d try it faster or slower or in 6/8 times or in the minor instead of major key – any way he could imagine to vary the same theme. So that’s what I did with “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” – I started out with this one theme on piano and then reinvented it through a number of different styles. So you hear everything from a Slipknot type of approach to a Jeff Buckley type of approach to the same theme – there’s some Nirvana and even some Weezer thrown in there. I went through 11 or 12 different styles of playing that same theme and kept revising and refining until it really flowed and sounded like a coherent song.
That must be a fun transition to the stage.
Yeah, we probably spent half of our rehearsal time working on that one song and really polishing it. It’s very challenging to play and maybe for that reason, it’s so fun to play live. And there’s a lot of drama, so our lighting guy can get into it, too. It’s just a blast.
Producer Rick Rubin worked on your last two albums—as well as the new Metallica album. Metallica said that he basically instructed them to make the second part of “Master of Puppets.” Did he give you marching orders, too?
He did give us marching orders, but they were not the same ones he gave Metallica. Rick could have said, “Remember the 'Blue Album’? Why don’t you make ‘Blue Album, Part Two’?” That certainly would be a valid thing to say. But for some reason, Rick doesn’t react in the way that other Weezer fans might. His directive to us was to eliminate what he didn’t like about Weezer’s original sound. The word he gave to what he didn’t like was “irony.” So his original marching order was, “Let’s get rid of the irony.” That was something I worked with and struggled with for the couple years we worked with him—trying to understand what he meant and how I could still be myself and have that little twist that made Weezer Weezer.
Weezer has always made a concerted effort to engage and interact with their fans. Is there a fan tribute or interaction that stands out as your favorite?
Well, the [recently completed] Hootenanny tour was just an amazing experience. It was terrifying going into it because we invited hundreds of fans to come down and bring their instruments—regardless of what the instruments were or how well they could play them. We had no idea what to expect, and every night was a total adventure and totally unique. We had a full mariachi band come down and participate. We had various ethnic instruments—a samisen, a Vietnamese mouth harp. We had some really incredible musicians. It was really fun.
You have the “Blue Album,” the “Green Album” and the “Red Album.” Do the colors signify anything?
That shade of blue was always my favorite color growing up; I painted my room that color when I was a kid. There was a Beach Boys cover that had that color in the background, and I thought it was so beautiful. On the “Green Album,” we printed out a bunch of different colors and put them in CD cases and brought them to the store and set them in the racks and then stood about ten or 15 paces away and just looked to see which color popped out the loudest—and it was green. For the “Red Album,” there was only one primary color left. Perhaps serendipitously, it was the perfect color for this album—it’s such a bold and brave and loud album. Red is the car color you associate with the greater likelihood of getting a speeding ticket; that’s exactly what this album feels like—breaking musical laws and getting in trouble. [Laughs]