Alternative Press interview with Weezer - May 2001
Hide and Geek
How does a two-hit-wonder major-label band of self-admitted geeks blossom into an underground-rock touchstone? David Daley revisits the land of Weezer and finds the same pop nerds coming to terms with self-confidence and their hipster status.
This looks like a place where Hollywood dreams come to die. It is the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue, and although it is only a couple miles from here to the Capitol Records building at Hollywood and Vine and the glittering and gaudy celebrations of showbiz superstardom—the Walk of Fame, Mann's Chinese Theater, the Ripley's museum—these streets seem sorrowful. The Le Sex Shoppe across the street doesn't exactly share clientele with Frederick's of Hollywood. The dismal JOE Casino Training Center couldn't be farther from the bright lights. Some of the hotels look too seedy even for a desperate Robert Downey, Jr. bender.
But it is here, in the neighborhood's Music Grinder studio, where the finishing touches are being placed on one of the most unlikely of alt-rock comebacks, that Weezer gather for the final sequencing on the their third record. Tomorrow morning, they travel to Austin, Texas (twas a great show, btw) for something equally amazing - the start of an American tour that has been sold-out since tickets went on sale last year.
Such a triumphant return once seemed as unbelievable as EMF topping the charts again. After scoring this with "Buddy Holly" and "Undone (The Sweater Song)" from their 1994 debut (frequently referred to by the band as The Blue Album), it was the band themselves who came undone with their 1996 disc, Pinkerton. Intraband squabbling over image, direction and songwriting belied singer Rivers Cuomo's insecurity over whether Weezer's success was due to his songs or Spike Jonze's clever videos, coupled with bandmates Pat Wilson and Matt Sharp's growing desires to be rock stars instead of Geek Nation icons.
So, after an opening sting with No Doubt (hey, that was a big deal in 1997) failed to recharge flagging Pinkerton sales, the band took a lengthy hiatus. Cuomo studied English at Harvard while Sharp departed to concentrate on his own band, The Rentals. During these last three years, the only thing anyone heard coming from Weezer were bizarre stories in Spin and Rolling Stone, where Cuomo was portrayed as either a homeless lunatic or a crazed Brian Wilson-figure tearing studio tapes into tiny threads.
During Weezer's period of self-destruction and inactivity, something strange happened. They became legends. Legends on the internet, where a cult following swapped MP3s and bootlegs of Cuomo's two solo shows in Boston. Legends to teens who came of age when the Geffen imprint was synonymous with Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth; to '90s kids for whom Weezer played the same role as the Violent Femmes a decade before - an angst-ridden gateway into the rest of the alt-rock world.
Some of those fans spawned today's e.mo scene, as bands like the Promise Ring and the Get Up Kids embraced Weezer's heartfelt turmoil, melody and energy, and channeled them into their own frenetic, punky pop, while Weezer remained blissfully unaware of the entire scene. Weezer became legends to a new generation of fans on last year's Warped tour, where the punk-rock audience gave them bigger cheers than they gave Green Day and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and they upstaged beloved hipster faves like Jurassic 5 and the Donnas.
"It's perplexing. It's amazing," says Wilson.
"We did nothing, " says guitarist Brian Bell. "And somehow we're more popular than ever."
It's such a strange turn of events that even the band members can't explain it with any more than a shrug and a grin. They're not especially talkative on this Sunday afternoon. Maybe it's the gray weather, perhaps its the impending stress of an album to finish tonight before a tour that starts tomorrow. Or maybe it's that too much self-reflection in these very same pages nearly four years ago started the band's public unraveling.
In A.P. 102 (Jan. 1997), Wilson said Cuomo ran the band like a "selective democracy," and admitted he stayed in the band because "I make a shitload of money." Wilson and now-departed bassist Sharp also distanced themselves from Cuomo's songs with titles like "Tired of Sex," and blamed Cuomo's unwillingness to make another video like Jonze's Happy Days homage "Buddy Holly" as one reason why Pinkerton would never be as successful as their self-titled debut. Cuomo doesn't say a word for the first 15 minutes of the interview, preferring to sit at a table wearing black glasses a size too large for his face and a khaki sweater pulled tight to his slight frame. New bassist Mikey Welsh is just as quiet. Bell does most of the talking early on, mostly in the form of clichés and short responses.
Why reemerge with the Warped Tour?
"It felt like the right time. It was a good offer."
On the Internet community keeping the band alive during the downtime: "It could have played a role, for sure."
On going back into the studio with former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, who produced the first record: "Any time you can spend with that guy, it's a quality experience."
But after some long, uncomfortable silences, Wilson breaks the tension by bursting into Rush's "Free Will," complete with air-drum solo, and slowly the story of the last three-plus years begins to emerge. Bell downplays the long layoff, but it is still clear that the band members never expected that they'd ever be talking about their new record as anything more than a pipe dream.
"First, we had to audition bass players. That took about a year," says Bell, explaining the band activity in 1998, after Sharp's departure. Soon afterward, the infamous ubermerger of Geffen into the Universal Music Group made many bands free agents overnight.
"That was a weird time, too," Bell continues. "Everybody was being dropped. People kept asking, 'So, you guys got dropped?' But no, we didn't. I felt kind of guilty. Two bands stayed—us and Beck—from the whole Geffen roster as far as alt-rock. That call could have come any day, but it never did, so I felt pretty secure. I knew we'd eventually do it because all the songs that Rivers was coming up with were great. I knew when he was ready, it would be great."
On those infrequent times they did get together during 1998 and 1999 (Wilson still lived in Portland, Oregon; Welsh and Cuomo had to relocate from Boston), they played mostly cover songs - lots of Slayer, even Hank Williams, but not a lot of "Buddy Holly." Cuomo, having spent 1997 as a year of self-described rock-star excess, decided not to return to Harvard for his fourth year. He moved back to L.A. And holed up writing songs, spawning rumors that he'd gone off the deep end.
"Like anybody else, part of me was thinking 'I think there will be a third record,' and part of me was thinking, 'Well, clearly there's not going to be a third record," says Cuomo, who opens up more when he's not speaking in front of his bandmates. "Part of me was just thinking, 'Damn, I hope there's going to be a third record.' Probably all those thoughts and feelings are going through your head at the same time.
"1999 was a pretty bleak year," he admits. "1999 was mostly spent by myself, every day, working. Writing. Actually, not working. Mostly just sitting around and not working. Playing soccer."
In between all that time on the soccer field, however, Cuomo wrote some 350 songs. He filled notebooks and demo tapes. And most of them will never be heard, because the band recorded only the newest 20 for the new album. He blames the soccer for the "Rivers-is-homeless" stories, suggesting someone tipped off Spin after he showed up at the studio sweaty after practice.
"It sounds insane," he says of his prolific song output. "Maybe I'm a crazy person and that's all I do. But if you think about it and do the math, that's no that much over four years. It's maybe one or two songs a week. And it only takes a half-hour to write a song. I swear, it had nothing to do with creativity or going insane."
Rivers Cuomo is happier now - a lot happier. But it has been a journey back to that place. It took some time to mourn Pinkerton.
"I was surprised that it wasn't successful right off the bat," he says. "I was truly excited. I thought we had come up with a great new sound. It seemed important and meaningful and I thought people were going to like it. Instead, it seemed like everybody hated it. So I was totally disappointed."
He's thought a lot about why things were different for Weezer in 1996 than in 1994. Radio changed over those years. There was the ska kick and the swing revival. And then there was Lilith Fair.
"It was the year of the woman," he says, a little ruefully, but also with a little smile. "That rudely interrupted our whole scene. In retrospect, I don't blame anyone for not playing Pinkerton on the radio. It seems so unradio-friendly. I don't why I expected it to do anything."
While Cuomo was feeling sorry for himself, Pinkerton really was getting played on the radio. Well, sort of. By the late '90s, while Modern Rock radio went from novelty bands to rap-metal, the punk-pop hybrid of e.mo-core was cornering the college-radio underground, and the bands that secretly and not-so-secretly thrilled to Weezer were at the forefront.
"I can only speak for myself," says Get Up Kids co-founder Matthew Pryor. "I was a Weezer fan from the get-go, and when Pinkerton came out, I was just as excited. We'd get interviewed for the fanzines, and (the writers) would ask us who we listened to and we'd mention Weezer and a couple other bands. Underground cult successes happen all the time; look at The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
But it was interesting to see a band who were dismissed by many as spent radio-fodder access a fanatical underground following. When ultra-obscure photocopied fanzines with names like 3rd Arm Electricity say things along the lines of "We know [Pinkerton] is on a major label, but it's completely fantastic," it flies directly against the grain of indie-land's hardline major-labels-are-evil rhetoric.
"Good music transcends all boundaries," opines Pryor. "People tend to forget about their political convictions against the industry if the really like a song. And that's what Weezer's about - liking the songs and having a good time. And there shouldn't be anything wrong with that."
Cuomo and Bell readily admit they don't know anything about emo. They seem to be a little mystified by the embrace. "I don't know exactly what that genre entails, says Bell. "I thought it meant like Fugazi. I liked the first two Fugazi albums, but I certainly don't think we sounded like that."
As for bands like the Promise Ring and the Get Up Kids, "those are bands I haven't even heard," says Bell. "They're one of my sister's favorite bands, though. I'm going to get to hear the Get Up Kids every night because we're playing with them, too."
They're bringing a young emo band, Ozma, on the road as well. And while Cuomo has bought some of the indie records that have earned Weezer comparisons, he's just as confused as his bandmates about the whole thing.
"I don't really know what it means, either," he says. "I think most of those bands really have their own identities and strong characteristics independent from us. Maybe I can hear a little influence, but it's not like we're Nirvana spawning the grunge generation or anything. I think it's a lot more subtle than that."
Had Cuomo known what was going on, he might not have been so down. Instead, his first step back from malaise was moving to Los Angeles.
"I'm really happy here," the Connecticut native says. "L.A. is just so congenial to my nature. The air is brisk and you feel alive. Whereas back in Connecticut and Boston, you're either dying from the cold or the heat and humidity. You're just fighting to survive. Here, the air is always invigorating. You feel like kicking ass. When you think about it, say out of the the last 10 years, how many important bands have come out of the Northeast compared to the West Coast? Think of a handful? Think of any? It's just so much more conducive to creativity here."
The songs spurred the band to take the nervous plunge back out there and playing shows again says Cuomo. "Put it all on the line. Get all the criticism and get all the praise. That's when you fell like the gun is at your head and you'd better get your act together. That was the catalyst that really made it all happen."
Weezer's appearance on last year's Warped Tour wouldn't have happened if their manager hadn't gone to the tour organizers to try to sneak them on the bill. Cuomo says this was the deal: They wouldn't get paid and they had to travel in a van.
"Believe me, it was torturous," he said. "It was downright terrifying going out there the first few times, because our self-esteem was at an all-time low, combined witht the fact that that's not really our crowd. That's a punk crowd and they're notorious for voicing their opinions if they're not into you. When we showed up the first day, Lunachicks were on. The announcer said, 'Coming up later, Weezer,' and the whole place went crazy. That's when we knew we were going to be safe.
The Warped crowds were delirious. An entire generation of fans for who Weezer were a legendary, seminal band actually got to see a group they never imagined would play live again.
"Yeah, well, you can't blame them if they thought that," Cuomo says. "We were just as happy to see them."
Buoyed by the Warped success, Cuomo decided he was ready to make the third record, and the band spent much of this winter in the studio with Ocasek. Still terrified of the Napster file-sharing service, the band's label made only six songs available to this writer for a one-time only listen. But the songs suggest a fine melding of the two albums: as poppy and vibrant as the first, as immediate as the second.
"I suppose we're going to be asked this question a lot," Cuomo sighs, when asked where the new album falls in relation to the first two. "I don't think there's an easy mathematical answer. I guess maybe it's halfway between the two records, but a little closer to the [first] record."
The songs have titles like "Oh Girlfriend," "Don't Let Go," "Hash Pipe," "Gimmie Some Love," "Starlight" and "Island in the Sun." But while the sound is instantly recognizable, what's different is the lyrical perspective. Whereas Pinkerton sounded like Cuomo's therapy sessions, this as-yet-untitled album is a little more vague, and certainly not ripped from his personal journals, a la Pinkerton's "Across the Sea." The sentiments here are much less specific: "I'm lost without your love": "I miss you/And I wonder how you feel about me too"; "It makes me feel so fine."
"Lyrical themes? I don't know. I guess I'm still writing about the same stuff. No growth there," Cuomo observes in a moment of self-deprecation. "'Hash Pipe' is about being a transvestite prostitute, which is something I've never written about before. That's the first time I ever wrote a song telling a story from a fictional point of view instead of a real life experience. I mean, yeah, it's definitely less personal."
"Except 'Hash Pipe,'" interjects Karl Koch, the band's longtime roadie and fifth member.
"Fucker," retorts Cuomo, proving that he's funny when he wants to be. Maybe that was what I did in 1999. Yeah, now I remember....
"I don't know if [my songwriting] has moved forward," he continues. "It's moved to the side. There's always going to be something special about [Weezer]. There's always going to be something special about Pinkerton. I'm just happy that it has slowly gotten some respect. It's weird. I almost feel like now that Pinkerton has become kind of successful, it's almost like we have to deal with the pressure all over again. Nowadays, I think I like challenges. I fell like we're up to it now. After The Blue Album got so big, something felt wrong to me—like we weren't good enough to deserve that much of a spotlight; we needed time to get our act together—me as a songwriter and us as a band. Now I feel like we're a lot better in ever facet of our band. I'm looking forward to the challenge of the spotlight."
Do you feel the band have something to prove?
"I just feel extremely grateful that we have the chance to do this again. I feel very relieved that it's not over."
But have they ironed out their internal issues? There is still some tension lingering, it seems. Asked how he and Cuomo sorted out their difficulties, Wilson gives an elliptical answer that makes it clear that he might now be doing this if his own band, Special Goodness, had taken off the way he hoped four years ago.
"Everybody just wants to work you know," he says. "So we're all on the same page in that regard. Because it's cold out there."
That's not exactly a vote of confidence for band unity. One of the contentious points during Pinkerton concerned videos. There was a time when Wilson and former bassist Matt Sharp—tired of dull videos after the more vibrant Spike Jonze clips—told Cuomo they would only do another video if they could appear in bear and bunny suits, respectively.
So how about it? Any bunny-suit @#%$ forthcoming?
"I don't anticipate wearing a bunny suit," Wilson says, seated next to Cuomo. "But we're also the kind of band that listens to what other people are saying. If the director says, 'Hey, do this,' I think we're much more likely to do it than we were before. We've been able to recognize people we should respect. That's a good thing, because I don't think we used to do that so much. Whatever anybody wants to do is fine by me. That's my attitude on almost everything we do."
Adds Cuomo, "A lot of it comes down to the songs, too. On Pinkerton, they were such personal, autobiographical songs, so I didn't want the videos to just totally contradict what the songs were about. I still feel the same way, but now the songs are different. They're not so autobiographical. They're more universal. And I think we can accept some more outside input, and some more things like bunny suits."
"I think we're also a lot more practical than we used to be," says Wilson. "Look, face it, shit's changed big time in the last five years. I mean, it's a business. What are you going to do? Tell your record company, 'No, I don't want to do that?' We're in good shape and all. We're not going to do anything we don't want to do. At the same time, we realize you've got to make some sacrifices in some way."
At that particular moment, Cuomo speaks with more firmness and less hesitation than at any time in the day.
"I disagree. I don't sacrifice anything for the record company."
"Well, you're lucky to be in that position," says Wilson.
"They do exactly what we want [them] to. We've hired them to sell our record," Cuomo says.
"Well, that's not exactly true," Wilson retorts. "If they didn't want us to make a record, they could prevent it from happening. In one sense, I agree with you. In the other sense, you have to see they could be a huge problem if they wanted to be."
It's here, however, where there's a real difference between the Weezer of old and the band who are here today. Cuomo's confidence—in himself, in his songs, and in his bandmates—seems to be at such an all-time high that nothing is going to get in his way.
Beneath the shyness and the reserve, the slight frame and the oversized glasses, now lies the quiet determination of an artist who has found strength and grown a tougher shell. Will that help him transcend the urges for the Brian Wilson-styled self-destruction and defeat the second-guessing and self-loathing in an effort to achieve songwriting genius? Or will it cover the emotional rawness that made Pinkerton stand out, and make Cuomo a more distant, less direct and therefore, less notable songwriter?
Stay tuned. The good news is that the Weezer story is no longer undone. There will be answers to these questions.
"The cool thing is now I know there's gong to be a fourth record," says Cuomo. "I just have so much faith in our quality that I don't fear anything. We're totally in charge.
"I'm very optimistic about the future," he says with a wide grin. "Now that I've got my groove back."