Addicted to Noise Interview with Rivers Cuomo - 1996
Weezer Revealed: The Rivers Cuomo Interview
By Clare Kleinedler & Michael Goldberg
Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo doesn't give many interviews. Usually he lets guitarist Brian Bell, drummer Patrick Wilson or bassist Matt Sharp handle the press. The most infamous example of Cuomo's distaste for doing these sorts of things was when he stood up Rolling Stone last year.
Weezer's first album, Weezer, fueled by two hit singles--"The Sweater Song" and "Buddy Holly"--made the group international stars. This fall saw the release of their sophomore effort, Pinkerton. The album is a more sophisticated and challenging work that finds Cuomo growing as both a songwriter and producer, with the rest of the band keeping pace with him musically.
When Addicted to Noise first requested a Weezer interview, we were told that at least one member of the band would talk, but there were no promises that we'd speak with Cuomo. However, just two days prior to the scheduled "mystery band member" interview, we learned that Cuomo himself had agreed to grant a rare one-on-one with ATN.
Mid-afternoon is the time and ATN photographer Jay Blakesberg's San Francisco studio is the place. The group is in town to perform at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium. Showing up unfashionably on-time, the four men that are Weezer stroll into the studio for a photo shoot. Everyone is a bit shy and extremely well-behaved. When we make a drink run during a break, the Weezers request very un-rock star beverages: apple juice, orange juice, herbal tea and coffee with just cream, thank you. And even through the hour-long shoot of close-ups and blinding lightning-bolt bulb flashes, there is not one complaint.
After over five rolls of film are shot, it's time for the interview. Bell, Wilson and Sharp load into the limo to head for sound check at the Fillmore, leaving Cuomo to face the task alone. Nervous at the sight of a video camera, he makes a bee-line for the tour manager.
"Um, who approved the video cameras?" asks Cuomo, trying to keep his voice low as not to be rude. "I don't like cameras."
Without another word, the camera is put away.
Cuomo, ATN contributing editor Clare Kleinedler and editor Michael Goldberg head into a small office. Cuomo sits on a couch opposite the two of us, and immediately tilts his gaze towards the floor. That's where it stays for most of the hour-and-a-half interview. Visibly strained, Cuomo answers the questions with intense thought, sometimes taking over two minutes to think before speaking. His voice shakes and cracks at certain points, but through it all, Cuomo expresses his feelings with a sincerity that is rare of anyone, much less a rock star...
The rest of the band has plenty to keep them busy while Cuomo takes a sabbatical.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Clare Kleinedler: Last fall [Sept. '95] you took a break from the rock star life and returned to college. You made a point of concealing that you were a member of Weezer. How was it being unrecognizable at school?
Rivers: Well, it was a real tough year for many reasons, one of which was the crash of coming down from being a rock star to being a scum bag, which is basically what I was. I had a really long beard and a really strange looking apparatus on my leg. And I walked with a cane and most people thought I was just a freak. And it was really cold and I didn't have any friends. So it was a really tough year.
Kleinedler: Did you not want to make friends with people at school?
Rivers: I really wanted friends but I made very little attempt to make any. I don't know if it's just because I'm shy or if... I don't know. I went there with the intention of being a hermit.
Michael Goldberg: You were tired of everyone wanting a piece of the rock star?
Rivers: [long pause] I don't totally understand why I do things. I think that's probably part of it. For the previous year and a half, I'd done nothing but hang out and do photo shoots and play shows and drink. And I just wanted to crawl into a hole and be alone and think and write songs for a while. Plus the fact that I was probably in a really anti-social mood because I was crippled and felt very strange about meeting people under those conditions.
(After the release of Weezer's first album, Cuomo had an operation to lengthen one of his legs, which has been shorter than the other since birth. For months he wore a steel brace connected to rods inserted into his leg that Cuomo had to turn himself four times a day in order to to stretch out the shorter limb.)}}
THE THING WITH THE LEG
Kleinedler: Do you still feel like the whole thing with the leg was worth it now that it's over or is it totally over? Are you completely healed?
Rivers: The bone's completely healed but my leg is still...the muscles and the tissue are all still really weak so I can't really run yet. But hopefully it will improve in the next six months. [long pause] Yeah, it was worth it.
Kleinedler: Did you know before you went into it what it was going to be like?
Rivers: I had no idea that it was going to be like how it was. It was pretty intense.
Kleinedler: I saw some photographs. It looked pretty painful.
Rivers: Yeah, it was.
Kleinedler: Did you have to turn the screws yourself every so often? Is that how the thing worked?
Rivers: Yeah, four times a day I had to turn these four cranks, which lengthened my leg. It's pretty medieval.
Kleinedler: So it actually does work? It actually did lengthen your leg?
Rivers: Yeah. It just took a lot longer than they thought it would, they being the doctors. I always call them "they."
COMING OF AGE
Kleinedler: The first Weezer album had kind of a boyish charm to it. It was the kind of album people would buy for their nephews. The new album has a much stronger, almost manly sexual presence. Do you feel like you've changed a lot between the first album and this one?
Rivers: Yeah, I think I changed as a result of writing the songs for the second album. And also from the experiences I had. It's all so intertwined. I can never separate it. The past two years in my life and in my writing, I've been trying to get in touch with that masculine part of myself that I was completely in denial of before. And so, yeah, the first record sounds kind of wimpy and emasculated almost. And the second record sounds like the masculine part trying to bust out, although it's not altogether successful. It doesn't sound like a Pantera record or anything.
Kleinedler: Did you write the songs to kind of help you grow into that?
Rivers: I never really have a goal. Writing songs is just a way of understanding myself. I'm not really trying to grow or change or anything. Usually there's some kind of crisis in my life, some conflict that I can't stop thinking about. I'm usually very confused about it and then I write a song about it, which tries to completely capture the whole conflict. And then usually if the song successfully captures the conflict, I end up being able to move on or change or grow or whatever, but that's never my goal.
Kleinedler: How was it making such a personal album? I know that you said in the past that you find it very difficult to talk about yourself. And writing an album that opens yourself up to the world, your feelings, your experiences, how was that and what was that like? Why is it easier to write an album knowing that millions of people are going to hear that?
Rivers: Well, when I write the songs, I'm never really conscious of the fact that millions of people are going to hear it. Usually when I'm writing, I'm so inside myself and completely unaware of the rest of the world and so that fear of being exposed is never an issue. That only happens afterwards when I have to do interviews [laughs] or when I hear a song on the radio or something. I feel so much more comfortable expressing myself with music and lyrics than I do in normal conversation because I feel that the music does much more justice to my experiences and conflicts. Because when I just talk about it, I listen back to what I said or I read what I said and I think, oh, that's just a one-dimensional version of the experience or it's just really selling the whole thing short. But when I listen to a song I wrote, I think, yeah, that's exactly how I felt. That's 100% of the feeling right there.
Goldberg: I wanted to ask you about the song "The Good Life" and what inspired that one.
Rivers: I can try. But here's where I run into that problem, where when I talk about it, I just feel like I'm selling the whole thing short and I feel like if you just listen to the song, you'll probably get a much better understanding of what my life was really like at that time. But I can try and describe what was going on. I had been completely out of the spotlight for eight months maybe and it was very cold. My leg hurt a lot. And I didn't have any friends where I was. I didn't have any girlfriends, especially. Probably hadn't even really talked to girls in a long, long time. And I was becoming really frustrated with that hermit's life I was leading, the ascetic life. And I think I was starting to become frustrated with my whole dream about purifying myself and trying to live like a monk or an intellectual and going to school and holding out for this perfect, ideal woman. And I was really frustrated and lonely. And so I wrote that song. And I started to turn around and come back the other way.
Kleinedler: There seem to be in the songs real women that you've had experiences with. Do the women that you write about know that you're speaking of them in the songs?
Rivers: Yeah, I think I'm just now starting to deal with the consequences of including other people's private lives in my songs. And it's probably the one thing I feel worst about. I don't mind exposing myself so much but I feel bad that other people get drawn into it. On the first record, my lyrics were so weird and twisted and obscure that I think people couldn't tell how personal the songs really were. And that's why I use much more direct language on the second record. But there are consequences of that.
Kleinedler: Are you getting a lot of phone calls or something?
Rivers: [laughs] Well, there's really only two important girls on the record. I probably shouldn't even talk about it at all. It'll just make it worse.
THOSE HALF-JAPANESE GIRLS...
Kleinedler: Okay. There's a lot of references to Japan and Japanese people....Madame Butterfly, the cover art is Japanese... Why is that?
Rivers: [laughs nervously] It's so hard to talk about this stuff without making myself sound like a complete asshole, which I suppose I am. Well, I suppose that halfway through writing the album, I started to realize or become aware of a pattern in my life that I seem to be having a lot of disastrous encounters with half Japanese girls. And then it developed into disastrous encounters with Asian girls of all sorts. Yeah, I suppose it's fair to say that I'm fascinated by Asian girls [grimaces]. For some reason, they're particularly beautiful to me. I don't know why. And when I became aware of that and also the fact that it was the masculine part of myself that I was learning about in these songs, I remembered the story of Madame Butterfly and the story of the character Pinkerton in that opera. And I decided to use or refer to that story as a means of unifying the record. And so I kept that in mind as I wrote the second half of the record. Pinkerton is the ultimate character representing male id who goes to Japan as an American sailor and hooks up with this 15-year-old Japanese girl and gets her pregnant and then abandons her. He's thoroughly despicable. [long pause] But I can't deny that there's some of that in me.
Kleinedler: Why do you have that view of yourself? Is it something that's just purely internal or what other people have told you? You keep referring back to that and I don't really understand why.
Rivers: Yeah, a lot of people are really surprised that I would look on myself like that. But mostly that's people who don't know me. It's people who just know my image from the last album and the videos and they think of me as a harmless, little teddy bear type of guy. All I can say is, you don't know me. And if you really pay attention to the lyrics on this album, I think you start to realize that there's at least part of me that's pretty despicable.
Goldberg: Don't you think that everybody has a dark side, so to speak?
Rivers: Yeah, I think so. But I'm not trying to make a statement about male nature or humanity or anything with this album. I never think of the big picture at all. I'm always just looking inside myself. But of course, I don't think I'm really that unusual at all. I think I'm a pretty normal guy so what I find in myself is probably in every guy, to a certain extent.
Kleinedler [who is half-Japanese]: I hope this isn't one of your disastrous encounters with a half Japanese girl.
Rivers: [laughs nervously] Not yet.
A SAD AND BEAUTIFUL PLACE
Goldberg: You write beautiful melodies. Where do they come from?
Rivers: Sometimes when I'm alone for a long period of time and I'm quiet for a long time and I'm sad and lonely, I can just connect with something inside myself. I can't turn it on. It just happens and the melodies come out and I'm amazed by them. I feel blessed or lucky. But they make me feel so good. I feel like I'm connecting into this really beautiful, euphoric feeling. I wish I could be there all the time.
Kleinedler: The melodies definitely seem to be completely opposite from the lyrics. The melodies are very uplifting except for a couple of songs on the album. And a lot of the words are very somber.
Rivers: Well, those melodies come from me being in the mood, that is the source of the lyrics also. They come from the same place, just this sad and beautiful place that I can connect to. It's a feeling of longing and contentment at the same time. I don't know. It's so hard to talk about. Now you know why I don't want to listen back to this [laughs].
Kleinedler: Were a lot of the inspirations for the last album similar to this album, but you just handled it in a different way? If you just listen to the songs, they sound totally different but I get from you that a lot of the inspirations were the same. Did it just come out in a different form?
Rivers: Yeah. Ultimately, songs always come from the same type of experience. I'm just obsessed with thinking about something and the only way I can understand it is to write a song about it. The songs on the first record were about a broader range of experiences. The songs on the second record are more focused in content. But still, it's from the same type of obsession over some conflict in my life.
IT HAPPENS TO EVERYONE...
Kleinedler: The press release says that the songs on the new album are sequenced with two exceptions. What are the two songs? I thought it was "Tired of Sex" and "Pink Triangle."
Rivers: "Tired of Sex," you're wrong [laughs]. That's the oldest song on the album. I think it's a good starting point too, because that's when I'm saying that I want to rid myself of the rock life. I want to find the ideal woman and get married. It's a good starting point. And then on the other side of the tape it starts with "Good Life," which is me turning around and going the opposite direction. And I start to try to come out of my shell in "El Scorcho" and "Pink Triangle." But I probably shouldn't tell you the two songs. They're minor adjustments. But really, the album is in chronological order.
Kleinedler: Well, "Pink Triangle" was what threw me off because I felt like there was one or two people that you were talking about on the album and then that one really confused me because it seemed like it would have been a pretty short experience.
Rivers: Yeah, you're absolutely right. That was about a random girl. But really, it was someone I never even talked to. The actual girl isn't so important. It's more what was going on in my mind, this ideal that I was dreaming of. The good old-fashioned girl, the sweet and floral print. I never actually talked to any of these girls until the end of the record. And then when she became real, the whole thing fell apart.
Kleinedler: I was going to say that it kind of ends on a somber note. Did none of the relationships work out?
Rivers: [long pause] That's true.
Goldberg: With "Pink Triangle," what actually happened or inspired you to write that?
Rivers: I had a really intense crush on a girl and then I dreamed about her all through the fall semester. And then I found out she was a lesbian.
Kleinedler: I was hoping it wasn't someone you were dating for two years and then...
Rivers: [laughs] No. It was someone I never even talked to.
Kleinedler: How is it performing these kinds of songs live? Do you re-live the feelings that inspired the songs every time you play it live? Do you find it hard to play it to all these people?
Rivers: I rarely think of the details of the experiences. I just go into kind of a pre-verbal trance where I drink a lot and close my eyes and go inside myself and sway back and forth and get in touch with a much more fundamental, purely musical part of the songs. The pure feeling part of it I'm not really thinking of the details of the experiences which are related in the lyrics.
Goldberg: You produced Pinkerton.
Rivers: It didn't seem like a big deal to me because I've made so many home recordings. And when we went to make the first record, it felt most natural to produce that one ourselves but the record company encouraged us to get somebody else to help us out. So we chose someone who was really first and foremost a great songwriter rather than a big producer [former Cars leader Ric Ocasek produced the group's debut]. And then, when it came time for the second record, we had, I think, earned enough respect in the record company's eyes that we could produce it ourselves so it felt totally natural, not like we were taking on some big added responsibility.
Goldberg: Do you like the results of the second album better than the first?
Rivers: I like them both. But the second album feels much more like us. And it feels much more like me, which is really important for an album that's so personal. It sounds more like the recordings that I would make in our garage.
Goldberg: Before you made this album, had you demoed up most everything yourself?
Rivers: No, that was a big change in the way we worked. I decided not to make any demos and instead just to write the basic melodies and chord changes without orchestrating everyone's parts at all. So we went into the studio without really knowing what was going to happen. And it gave everyone a lot more room to be creative and spontaneous on their instruments.
KISS, THE CARDIGANS, DEBBIE GIBSON AND SCHUBERT
Kleinedler: I read that you guys all grew up on heavy metal. What specific bands were you into growing up and have you found it to be an influence on what you're doing? Your music is completely the opposite of Kiss or...
Goldberg: One of you put Zeppelin on today before the photo shoot. You don't think of Zeppelin when you listen to Weezer.
Rivers: Well, we all had different types of heavy metal interests. Pat was the Zeppelin guy and Rush and stuff like that, which never appealed to me. I was first into Kiss and Quiet Riot and Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Yeah, shit, I don't know what ever happened to those influences [laughs]. I think it's there somehow because we still play with loud distorted guitars. We play power chords and guitar solos and we have that real basic enjoyment of playing through Marshall amps, playing loud power chords. And I think that's from heavy metal. But probably, that's where we depart. We part ways with metal. And as far as melodic and lyrical contents, it's 180 degrees.
Kleinedler: What kind of music are you listening to these days?
Rivers: New albums that I really like are the Cardigans and the Sebadoh record and Schubert piano CD. Actually that's not a new record obviously.
Goldberg: The craft of your songs and the pop sensibility...did you listen to a lot of Beatles and Beach Boys? How did that get into what you do?
Rivers: Well, the same time as I was a devoted heavy metalhead, I was also listening to pop music, just plain old pop radio. Madonna and Prince and Debbie Gibson and all of them. And listening to Beatles and Beach Boys a lot and other '60s pop music. So I think spiritually I was a metalhead in my teens, which is really sad to say. But musically, I've always listened to everything. I've always listened to classical music. All through high school, I was in lots of classical performing groups. So while I was really rallying behind the headbangers cause, I always had an open mind to everything else that I was exposed to.
Kleinedler: I kind of hear some Violent Femmes and Pixies influence on the albums. Are those bands that you're into?
Rivers: I've never really gotten into the Violent Femmes. Usually I don't seek things out. I'm not the type of person that's always looking to be the first to discover some band. I'm always the last one to discover something. So usually I just listen to what people turn me on to. And no one's really pushed the Violent Femmes on me yet but I'm sure they're good.
Kleinedler: "El Scorcho" reminds me of Violent Femmes a lot.
Rivers: But definitely the Pixies are one of the bands that really blew my mind when I first moved to L.A. and started to discover cool music.
MUSIC FOR THE MASSES...?
Goldberg: When you made that first album, did you have any idea the kind of success that you were going to have?
Rivers: No, because we were altogether unsuccessful in Los Angeles in our club days. We saw all the popular bands were much more in the grunge/metal vein and we would always be last slot on the bill at 1 a.m. when everyone was leaving. So we had really low self-esteem. I think our music on the first record was written to be heard by a smaller, not quite as mainstream audience, kind of a post-modern audience that had been through the whole punk thing and was again willing to accept some more innocent pop-sounding music and be able to listen to it with a sense of irony. Now when those songs are heard by millions of people and on all the radio stations and MTV, they take on a totally different meaning which they were never really meant to have. On the second record, I think we left behind some of that irony and we're speaking more directly to an audience that we're more familiar with. And we're aware that it's not just going to be 20 people in a club in L.A.
Goldberg: What's an example of a song on the first album took on a whole different meaning when it was played heavily on MTV, etcetera?
Rivers: Well, "Buddy Holly" for one. It was supposed to sound like a super pop hit and instead it became a super pop hit. And that's kind of annoying when you have to hear it all the time. And when you hear 7-year-old kids singing it, it takes on a totally different meaning, when it was written in the context of 20-something L.A. hipster type of audience. Well, essentially all these songs still are just parts of myself. So how they're perceived is kind of irrelevant to what the songs really mean. But really, I'm trying to communicate how I feel so it's important to me to try and do my best to communicate in a way that people can understand. That's part of the reason I'm doing interviews, is so I can steer people in the right direction. Because it's probably really easy to misunderstand what we're doing. [laughs] I'm probably not helping either.
Goldberg: I think you are actually.
Kleinedler: In what way do you think Weezer's been misunderstood in the past?
Rivers: Well, the thing that most consistently aggravates me is people think...[pauses] Actually, I just read this in a Rolling Stone review. It says we're something like a fun and sun band that sings 100% happy songs to make people feel better. Like I said, these songs were written in the dead of winter when I was in a lot of pain and very lonely. When I listen to the records, I don't get that feeling of happy pop at all. I don't feel like we're lugubrious or wallowing in our sorrows at all or entirely pessimistic. There's some kind of blend of pessimism and optimism but I think it's really easy to overlook that. And a lot of people have, including Rolling Stone. Instead they see us as just a one-dimensional, silly pop band.
Kleinedler: I know that your lyrics are from experiences and for most writers, they're influenced by either other artists' lyrics or literature. Are your own lyrics influenced more from literature or other people's music?
Rivers: Lyrically, I think I'm influenced by very few other musicians. Maybe Lou Barlow and Brian Wilson and some of his later songs. They just seem very direct and honest and unpretentious. Other than that, I think I'm hugely influenced by comic books. Especially the autobiographical comics like Joe Matt's Peep Show.
Kleinedler: Speaking of Brian Wilson, there's a lot of comparisons between the two of you. How do you feel about that?
Rivers: [pauses] Well, I'm flattered but he's just a very rare talent. I don't think of myself that way at all. To me, he's one of the standout talents of the century or of our culture. I think I'm a pea in comparison. But I certainly emulate him as do countless others.
Goldberg: What's your favorite Brian Wilson song and what's your favorite Beach Boys album?
Rivers: It's so hard to say because I feel like so many of those songs are all him connecting to the same source. It's almost like they're not different songs. They're just different ways of connecting to that same source of beauty. Pet Sounds: I Just Wasn't Made For These Times. It's the most ultimately beautiful pop music.
Kleinedler: What's going to happen when you go back to school in February?
Rivers: Hopefully I'll write some more songs.
Kleinedler: How do the other band members handle having to put aside this for you going to school? Do you feel guilty or is it just an understanding that you all have?
Rivers: I don't feel guilty because I don't really feel like I even have a choice in the matter. I can't write songs when I'm on the road. So if we want to keep going, everyone understands that I need to take time off and be alone and think and write. And they're perfectly happy to have time to work on their other projects.
Goldberg: Do you have a sense of where your music is headed? Or is it much more like, write the next batch of songs and....
Rivers: I always get big ideas and then they never come true. So I could tell you what I'm thinking but I think I'd probably be wrong. I always end up far more conservative than I think I'm gonna be. So I think in the future, we could probably expect more Weezer pop music but maybe a little less annoyingly poppy and maybe a little deeper and more complex. You can probably hear my trajectory by listening to Pinkerton, because those songs were written over two years and they're in order. They're in the order they were written. So you can hear the difference between the first songs and the last songs. Actually the first four songs were written a long time ago, before the first album even came out. And then there was a big space of a year and a half where I didn't write anything. That's when we were touring. And then the next six songs were written mostly this spring. And you can hear they're totally different from the first four. They're written post success and post leg and I was just in a completely different space.
Goldberg: What about as a producer in terms of the musical part of it developing, evolving?
Rivers: I really like the sound of this record. I like that it sounds so natural. Maybe my taste will change by the time I have another 10 songs. But I think my tastes are kind of leveling off and becoming more consistent so maybe the next record would sound similar. I never have any idea.
Goldberg: I feel that Pinkerton is just a deeper album than your first one. It's the kind of album that you grow into. For me, those are always the kind of albums that are much more lasting.
Rivers: I hope we continue in that direction. I'm just so addicted to pop music and I'm so far down that road...it's really hard to turn around and let go of that instant gratification style. I do feel the need to find a style that's a deeper expression. Three-minute pop songs can only go so far. I feel like I've really stretched them as far as they'll go [laughs].
Kleinedler: Do you see yourself doing this indefinitely?
Rivers: [long pause] Yeah.
Goldberg: What has been the most difficult thing in terms of just dealing with the success that you have experienced?
Rivers: Constant criticism. It's really difficult to take because it's really myself that I'm putting out there for everyone to judge. And usually when someone doesn't like it, it's because they don't really understand it or haven't really looked into it deep enough. But it's so difficult to be criticized so constantly and to be under the pressure to perform well or be criticized again. It's really not in my nature.
Goldberg: It doesn't seem to have brought you much happiness so far.
Rivers: I'm very happy with creating. Writing and completing this album was very satisfying. And that's why I'll keep doing it. But then to have that creation torn apart by people who don't really care or understand is painful but not so painful that I'll stop creating.