Boston Globe interview with Rivers Cuomo - May 8, 2006
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Boston Globe page 17, May 8, 2006
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|May 8, 2006
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Rivers Cuomo, the rock star, is craning his neck to follow Lynn Festa, the English professor, who is delivering a whirlwind lecture in Harvard's Holden Chapel. The course is called Sex and Sensibility in the Enlightenment, and Cuomo's desk is piled with lined paper, on which he scribbles calmly and constantly. His signature thick-rimmed glasses have been replaced with an understated pair of wire spectacles. In his running shoes, baggy trousers, and striped T-shirt -- and in his drive to score an A from this notoriously tough prof -- Cuomo is indistinguishable from his classmates.
The 35-year-old frontman for the rock band Weezer, Cuomo is finally going to graduate from college. Right now he's in the final weeks of an ambling undergraduate odyssey that's unfurled piecemeal, between world tours and million-selling album cycles. Every few years he moves his spartan collection of belongings and an acoustic guitar to Cambridge and knocks off another semester. This spring Cuomo's taken up residence in Cabot House, where each day he studies for 10 hours, sleeps for six, and meditates for two. With the exception of one A-minus and a B-plus, major disappointments he'd rather not dwell on, Cuomo is a straight-A student.
He eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the Cabot House cafeteria, and after class on a recent weekday Cuomo exits the buffet with falafel, potatoes, quiche, carrots, and milk. It will be followed shortly by a plate filled with numerous desserts. When he was on the road last year touring behind Weezer's fifth album, the Rick Rubin-produced Make Believe, Cuomo worked out every day on a treadmill, fully-loaded iPod in hand. Now he's forsaken all physical activity and listens to piped-in Doobie Brothers.
"Magic one-o-six point seven..." Cuomo is singing the soft-rock station ID between bites. "Hash Pipe" it's not.
He likes to linger in this room, which doubles as the hub of his extracurricular activities. "My social life consists mostly of meals in the cafeteria, which is fun." says Cuomo, who is soft-spoken and preternaturally boyish. "I don't go out. I don't go to parties. But I've made a lot of friends right here. I'm really working toward a space where I'm not so self-conscious, where I just walk up to people and introduce myself."
Cuomo has indeed been working hard, and not just on his social skills. Recent projects include his spiritual journey, his love life, and his English degree. Since discovering meditation several years ago Cuomo has become a devout practitioner, so devout that in 2004 the musician took a vow of celibacy, which will be ceremoniously broken on June 18, Cuomo's wedding day. Ten days prior to tying the knot with Kyoko Ito, Cuomo will don a cap and gown and -- with his mother, father, and brother looking on -- accept his diploma at Harvard University's 355th commencement ceremony.
"Graduation is huge for me," he says. "Obviously I'm not 21, and I don't have my whole life ahead of me, and I do already have a stable career, so in one sense this accomplishment doesn't mean as much as maybe it does to some people. But I'm really excited about doing the smart and responsible thing, to finishing what I started after 15 years of work."
Cuomo, who was raised on an ashram in Yogaville, Conn., began his higher education in 1991 at Los Angeles City College. He was living with bassist Matt Sharp and drummer Patrick Wilson, the three of whom would form Weezer the next year. At that point the plan was to stay in school and play music, and considering Weezer's studiously geeky aesthetic, the idea of simultaneously hitting the books and hitting the clubs wasn't such a stretch. Nobody imagined that David Geffen would sign the band in 1993 and that three of the tracks from Weezer's Ric Ocasek-produced debut -- "Undone (The Sweater Song)", "Buddy Holly" and "Say It Ain't So" -- would become modern-rock radio hits.
"If we hadn't gotten a deal I would have just gone through school and worked my way through academia, like my brother," says Cuomo. "But I was really hoping to be a rock star. I wanted the girls and the screaming crowds and the money. Then as soon as that became available to me, when we became successful, I had a strong aversion to it. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say I was aware of a real moral problem. It was more of a shyness. I was very attracted to it but it felt out of character."
So began a decade of extremes, as Cuomo toggled back and forth between the rock world and the hallowed halls. He applied to and was accepted by Harvard as a second-semester sophomore for the fall of 1995. (Cuomo famously posted his application essays, for the initial transfer as well as subsequent readmisssions, on his website.) He bought a house near Fresh Pond, completed the 1995-96 academic year, and then left to record Weezer's darker sophomore effort, Pinkerton, returning to Harvard in the spring of 1997 for another semester. After that Cuomo sold his Cambridge house, moved back to LA, made another pair of albums, and didn't return until 2004 for another brief academic tenure, this time in Cabot House. Following yet another break, to record and promote last year's chart-topping Make Believe, Cuomo moved back into Cabot House earlier this year for his final semester.
It's enough to give a guy whiplash.
"I definitely want to stop swinging from one life to another. I want to be stable, and I think having a family will help me with that," says Cuomo, who met his bride to be, a Tokyo-based translator for a web magazine, in 1997 after a show. In his dorm room after lunch, Cuomo sits down at his computer and pulls up a satellite map of the LA neighborhood where he and Ito are house hunting. Just opposite his desk, on a small bookshelf, sits a copy of the Bible, several books about Buddha, a Jane Austen novel, and Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae. Cuomo reads the Paglia book to counteract the ideas he's fed in his Sex and Sensibility class, he says. "I'm really looking forward to getting married."
The relationship with Ito, like Cuomo's academic career, ran hot and cold for years. But his desires to settle down and to finish college both came into focus in 2003. That's when, after falling into "a life of ego and vice" following the less-than-stellar performance of Weezer's 2002 album Maladroit, Cuomo reluctantly took Rubin's advice to try meditation.
"I was in creative trouble. I was becoming less sensitive and my songs were getting worse," says Cuomo. "I had these self-destructive mental patterns, and as soon as I started meditating I felt those loosening up. I dove in really quickly." A prerequisite for attending advanced meditation workshops was being in a committed relationship or celibacy. "I'd tried promiscuity and that wasn't getting me anywhere creatively, so I was happy to try it."
Newly grounded and thoroughly inspired, the musician headed back to his love and back to campus. The irony of a celibate man finding his mate -- not to mention spending countless classroom hours contemplating the invention of pornography and the discipline of desire -- is not lost on Cuomo.
"It's funny, I know," he says, chuckling. "What a Fool Believes" is wafting out of the speakers. "And it was an elective."