Billboard interview with Rivers Cuomo - December 05, 2008

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The Billboard Q&A: Rivers Cuomo
December 05, 2008 01:06 PM Lavinia Jones Wright

A Jermaine Dupri song about partying excessively seems a far cry from a Brian Wilson song about sweetly loving a girl. The tie that binds these polar opposites of pop music is the ever-eccentric Rivers Cuomo.

As the frontman for Weezer, Cuomo has sang wistfully about time spent alone in the garage, and with the arrival of "Alone II," his second album of rare and unreleased solo tracks, it's becoming more and more obvious he spent that time recording heaps of music.

The DGC/Interscope album debuts this week at No. 2 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart with U.S. sales of 6,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The first volume in the series, released almost exactly a year ago, started with 14,000 and has gone on to sell 43,000.

During his decade-plus in the spotlight, Cuomo has learned not to take himself too seriously, as evidenced by the mullet-ed photo of his high school-era self on the new album's cover. But the old, fastidious Cuomo is never far away; check the extensive and surgically precise liner notes outlining each song's genesis for proof.

Either way, between the success of Weezer's "The Red Album," released earlier this year, and its recent crowd-inclusive "Hootenanny" tour, "Alone II" comes at a time when it seems like Cuomo is ready to party.

Billboard: Did the timing of the release of "Alone II" have anything to do with the longevity of "The Red Album?"

Rivers: Well, my first priority is Weezer, and I don't want to do anything with a solo project that would hurt Weezer. So, I made sure to discuss it with Weezer's manager and a little bit with the band also, to make sure that I'm not doing anything to harm Weezer. But Weezer's manager, Dan, thinks that releasing the album at this time could only help "The Red Album." I'm not even really sure how it works. But my motivation is not to promote Weezer -- my motivation is that I have all these songs I love that have just been sitting around, and I want to get them out there.

Billboard: Had you planned since you released "Alone I" to release a second set of songs?

Rivers: Well, I knew I had a lot more recordings that I wanted to share with the world, but I wanted to wait and see how "Alone I" was received. It's sold about 50,000 worldwide now and it seems like a lot of the audience really likes it. That makes me really happy and made me want to do another one. I actually don't need a lot of encouragement from the audience because I love making these albums. I love the process of listening to all the old recordings and picking my favorites and going through my old journals and seeing what I was thinking when I was writing these songs and going through the old photographs and then putting it all together and telling the story. It's just fun.

Billboard: It's like musical scrap-booking. What's the oldest song here?

Rivers: The liner notes have, I think it's like an 11,000-word essay, which talks about the origin of all the songs and it's in chronological order. All I have to do is open the book and I can see that the first song in here is "Paper Face" which is from April of 1992.

Billboard: How does it feel to listen to all these old songs again? Do you still feel connected to them?

Rivers: Yeah. I mean, there're just so many recordings that occasionally I'll hear a recording that I don't remember at all. And sometimes that's the most fun, when you find something that's great that you don't even feel like you can take credit for, because you have no recollection of it. But on a lot of these, I hear that I'm the same man, even when I was just 21 years old. I still hear that that's me on there. Something about my personality has remained consistent.

Billboard: Do you think that having these newer songs and older songs crunched together on one album highlights the changes that you've gone through as a songwriter? Or brings to the surface any particular changes you think you've made?

Rivers: The thing that I think that I noticed was the similarities. The thing I hear throughout the entire "Alone" record, not just "Alone II" but "Alone I," is the sense of someone striving, trying to figure out how to write great songs, how to create art that he loves, trying to figure out what it is he loves about music. And I hear that in everything in these records. And I must say that there are songs on here that I'm just as proud of as anything on the Weezer records and that are just as satisfying. And I know that they won't reach the masses, but I love them just as much as "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" and "Pork and Beans" on "The Red Album."

Billboard: Are there a lot of unreleased Weezer songs that you might consider putting together in a collection like this?

Rivers: Yes. Weezer is putting together a collection of songs we've recorded. It's just like this. They're great songs, great recordings, but for some reason they didn't make the final cut for a record. And like the "Alone" record they span a vast period of time from the very beginning of our career in the early '90s right up to the present day. The working title of that is "Odds and Ends." But I have no idea when that would come out. It's just another fun project to do.

Billboard: On the Hootenanny tour, did people bring horns and things other than guitars?

Rivers: Oh yeah. There'd usually be about 30 guitar players and about 10, 15 percussionists. But then everybody else brought every instrument you could possibly imagine, from the Vietnamese mouth harp to a Mariachi band to the didgeridoo and the normal orchestral instruments: woodwinds, strings, horns.

Billboard: What else are you working on with Weezer?

Rivers: We have another tour coming up next spring, possibly with Oasis. We hope to make another video for "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived" with Spike Jonze, and we just recorded six Christmas carols that will be downloadable for the iPhone game "Tap Tap Revenge."

Billboard: Are they original Christmas carols or classics?

Rivers: They're the classics. My favorite is "Oh Holy Night." I love them.

Billboard: What do you think is so satisfying about performing someone else's song, especially in the case of the Brian Wilson song you covered for this record?

Rivers: On "Alone II" I did a cover version of "Don't Worry Baby." I did that in 1993. I grew up on heavy metal and then I got into Jane's Addiction and the Pixies and Nirvana, and a lot of those vocalists have great rock voices. They can scream and they don't necessarily have to have a big pop melody -- they can just scream and it sounds great. But when I started writing songs I tried to do that, and I just didn't sound very good because I have more of a choirboy voice. So I had to learn how to write hard rock songs with the big crunchy guitars but with more choirboy-like melodies.
I discovered the Beach Boys around that time in 1992-93, and to help me learn how to write those kinds of melodies and harmonies and chord progressions, I would learn their songs and record my own versions of them more like Weezer-style, with distorted guitars. So, that's what we have here on "Alone II."
I love Brian Wilson's melody when he's saying, "Well, it's been building up inside of me for oh, I don't know how long." I love the lyrical innocence. It's just like a straightforward pop song, singing about a girl as opposed to something like the Pixies, where the lyrics were pretty abstract. And I love the big harmonies in the chorus -- actually five-part vocal harmonies -- and I carefully transcribed them in my bedroom on my tape player. But then I added the element of the modern crunchy guitar sound. And that's what really helped me figure out what I wanted to do as a songwriter and a performer in Weezer.

Billboard: Do you think that a bright, poppy melody is a good place to hide a lot of emotional content?

Rivers: Hide isn't the word I would use. For me the emotions come out in a big, broad, romantic poppy melody.

Billboard: So maybe it's a way to express it in a bigger way?

Rivers: Mmmhmm.

Billboard: You worked with Jermaine Dupri and sang a song that he wrote, "Can't Stop Partying." Was this one of your first times singing a song that someone else had written for you?

Rivers: I'm taking partial credit (laughs). He sent me a demo that was kind of like a half-finished song. I absolutely loved it, I thought it was totally fun. But it was just a little too much about partying and being ecstatic. I don't know ... I like it when songs have kind of conflicting tones in them, so I tried to change the lyrics, and I just couldn't. Every line I came up with just sounded stupid compared with his, so I went back and changed the music, and gave it some very sad chords filled with longing. That changed the meaning of the lyrics. I managed to change some tension in the lyrics without changing a word. He said he loves it.

Billboard: Are you planning to do a lot more collaboration in the future?

Rivers: I am planning to do a lot of collaboration. It's something I'm very excited about right now -- writing with the guys in the band and then also writing with other people. I just wrote a song with Aly & AJ that was incredibly fun. It was such a blast to remember how teenagers approach songwriting. Their minds just work so fast and they have no fear and no ego. They're just constantly pouring out ideas and trying different things. They're just completely unafraid. It was very inspiring.

Billboard: Was it bringing out memories of a teenage Rivers?

Rivers: Yeah. I remember being 14 and 15 and sitting in my bedroom with my best friend Justin and trying to write songs together. Of course you have no ego at the time because you've had no success and there's no expectations. Who cares if what you're suggesting is stupid -- you'll just come up with something else in a minute. So I feel like I'm able to bring some of that back to how I'm writing with other people, including the guys in the band.

Billboard: Do you think that becoming a family man has had an effect on you desire to collaborate and to open everything up?

Rivers: Maybe so. I feel like having a family now, being married and having an 18-month-old amazing daughter has just made me feel so content. Kind of like now I have everything I want, and I've achieved everything I need to achieve, and everything from here on out is just fun and icing on the cake. I've written some of my most innovative and bold songs after my daughter was born, actually. "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived" from "The Red Album" -- a five-minute, epic, bizarre experiment -- was written right after she was born.

Billboard: What are the chances that there's going to be an "Alone III?"

Rivers: I still have about seven hours of music I could pick from. It just depends on what the demand is. If people are enjoying what I'm putting out, I'll keep doing it. I love doing it.