Guitar World interview with Rivers Cuomo - November 2014

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Weezer Heads Prevail

By Tom Beaujour

Unfazed by perennial reports of rock's death, WEEZER carry on with EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT IN THE END, their ninth, and latest, studio album.


Weezer's 9th studio album, Everything Will Be Alright in the End, opens with these two dire statements, both uttered before the opening riff of "Ain't Got Nobody" kicks in. "All those voices you hear on the record are the voices that we've heard in our lives and in our careers in recent years,” explains Rivers Cuomo, Weezer's primary songwriter, lead guitarist and vocalist.

Thankfully, it seems that Cuomo and the rest of the band—guitarist Brian Bell, drummer Patrick Wilson and bassist Scott Shriner—chose to ignore the naysayers whispering in their ears. “Ain’t Got Nobody” is unabashedly rocking and guitar driven, and if anything, Everything Will Be Alright in the End sounds more like a rebirth for Weezer than a last gasp. Hard-edged numbers like the declamatory “Back to the Shack” and the pounding “I’ve Had It Up to Here” are arena-ready anthems, while more emotionally raw numbers like “The British Are Coming” and “Foolish Fathers” feature the plaintive yowl that turned the band’s second album, 1996’s Pinkerton, into a celebrated emo-rock cult classic years after its release and initial commercial failure.

Everything Will Be Alright in the End also marks the return of producer Ric Ocasek, who previously worked with Weezer on their 1994 self-titled debut (known by fans as the Blue Album) as well as on their also-eponymous 2001 comeback (dubbed the Green Album). The band spent three three-week stretches with the Cars frontman at Los Angeles’ storied Village Recorder studios, and according to Cuomo, this third-time collaboration was a charm.

“Recording this record felt like much more of a creative process than making the first album,” he says. “Because when we made that record, we’d been playing the songs for a year and a half in the clubs and there had been several rounds of demos. It felt like the songs were pretty much done and there wasn’t room for much more creativity once we got into the studio. And then when we made the Green Album, I didn’t want to hear from anyone. This time, there were a lot more unfinished parts, and there was a lot more work left to be done, so it was wonderful to have this amazing creative talent sitting there right next to us in the trenches.”

Guitar World: A lot of the lyrics on the new record seem to explore Weezer’s relationship to their fans and how that relationship has evolved over the years.

Rivers: We’ve gone through many different phases. Even when we made our second record, Pinkerton, I already had a feeling like, Well, we’ve established this amazing style on the first record, but already I want to do something different. And I assumed that everyone was going to come along with me. But a lot of the fans of the first album were not fans of the second album, so then it became this whole issue of, What am I supposed to do here? I have this instinct to try all of these different things and to go off in all of these crazy directions, but at the same time, you can’t really take for granted this amazing connection that happens between us and an audience. I mean, we were really lucky to have that kind of experience on our first record and touch the heart of an audience in such a profound way. And you can’t really take that lightly and just say, “Well, maybe let’s do a hip-hop album next time.” And ever since then, we’ve related to the question of how to find balance in different ways. At times we’ve rebelled and said, “Well, we’re not going to care about anything we’ve done or what anyone’s saying around us; we’re just going to go off and do whatever’s striking us at the moment.” And that was definitely a big part of our process—figuring out how to balance all of the different things that we value.

GW: Did you approach songwriting any differently for this album? Some of the tracks have really expansive arrangements.

Rivers: I wrote a lot of the more exploratory music on piano, and the foundation of the song would be one long extremely emotional jam—a rough outline of the emotion—that I would record on a Dictaphone. I’m not very good at piano, and that limitation can be a strength for me, as I don’t have muscle and finger memory and playing habits like I do on the guitar. Also, the piano is wonderful because you’ve got two hands that have equal power to do rhythm, melody and counterpoint, so they can both go off and do whatever they want. Counterpoint is my absolute favorite part of music, so that was extremely liberating.

GW: Does the formal musical training that you received in college come into play when you’re devising the contrapuntal movement?

Rivers: In those moments of composition, it’s all very much flow and not doing things because I was taught them in counterpoint class. But I think there’s a part of my brain that is at least aware when I’m doing parallel or contrary or oblique motion. So part of my mind is watching the process as it’s happening. And I do feel that while I have a natural instinct for counterpoint—a real enjoyment of it—I also have learned a lot in school and from books as well by playing contrapuntal music on both piano and guitar. I have some good books of Bach keyboard music transcribed for guitar, and there’s always a nylon-string guitar hanging on the wall in my house and a bunch of classical guitar books to grab. I kind of do that just for fun.

GW: It also sounds like you’re really having fun playing lead guitar on this record. There’s an almost subversive nature to the way that you pepper the solos on songs like “Ain’t Got Nobody” with dissonant phrases and chromaticism.

Rivers: The trick for me was how to make it sound new and not cliché. Rock guitar has been around for decades now, and there are so many strong traditions, and so much of it is just burned into my fingers. So, nine times out of 10, when I pick up the guitar to jam something, it sounds pretty cliché. One way that I get around that is, before I even pick up the guitar, I record myself singing the guitar solo, and then I go back and I learn it on guitar. I sing things that I would never think to play with my fingers. On the solo to “Ain’t Got Nobody,” which I really love, it actually took me a long time to learn how to articulate what I had sung, and I ended up doing some really nontraditional, non-guitaristic things.

GW: The guitar tones on this record are gnarlier than the tight, controlled sounds that you employed on the last few releases. They're reminiscent of those from your 1994 debut, the Blue Album.

Rivers: Well, I returned to the guitar that I used on the Blue Album and the Green Album. It's Ric Ocasek's Gibson Les Paul Junior.

GW: Did you go back to the amps from the Blue Album as well?

Rivers: The Mesa/Boogie head from the Blue Album disappeared early on, so this time I had my Diezel, which is what I use live, a Marshall JCM 800 and an assortment of smaller amps. But I would say that the meat and potatoes of my sound live and in the studio these days is the Diezel.

GW: How has your relationship with Ric Ocasek changed over the years? Now that you have a two-decade career and a string of hits under your belt, do you and Ric relate more as equals?

Rivers: I don't think that anyone in Weezer would consider us equals to the Cars. Their first record sold something like six million copies in the U.S. alone! When we first went to Ric's house in 1993, we saw these massive plaques of Platinum and Gold records on his wall, and it was kind of discouraging, because we felt like, Wow, even if this record is successful, even if the band goes on to be huge, we're never going to be as big as Ric and the Cars. And I think we still feel that way.

GW: As a guitar player himself, does Ric have a lot of helpful input for you when you're searching for just the right part or sound?

Rivers: Ric is a really great partner for guitars, because he came of age in this new wave era, when all of the old-school rock stuff was passé, and he has a completely different point of reference than me for poor taste. I'm still trying to break away from my heavy metal upbringing, and I'm always afraid that it will sound too much like Iron Maiden with the third harmonies on the solos. But if he hears something that he doesn't like, he'll say, “Yuck, that sounds like Styx." He also has some great techniques for getting fresh-sounding guitar solos. For example, on “Back to the Shack," I was originally just doing a very typical Kiss-style pentatonic blues solo, which seemed appropriate to me. But Ric suggested that instead of doing my rock jam, we basically loop the solo section and that I should just keep shredding and shredding and try a bunch of crazy different things, as long as it wasn't the blues. Then we compiled the best parts of every take, and it truly sounds like nothing else I've ever done before.

GW: Do you really think everything will be all right in the end? Or do you worry that guitar bands might be on the way out?

Rivers: We're all endangered species. Ultimately, all genres, all styles-all artists-are passing into oblivion, and even the biggest band of all time will one day be just a footnote in the music history books. [sighs] But Weezer fans still really want new music from us and they're still listening to our previous records a ton as well. So it seems like we're not quite extinct yet.

Bell Weather

As Rivers Cuomo's sonically savvy guitar partner, Brian Bell gets plenty of chances to shine

Ask Rivers Cuomo about Brian Bell, and he's quick to point out that Weezer's second guitarist is absolutely integral to the Weezer sound. "For lack of a better term, Brian has a lot more style, sonically and feel-wise, than I do," Cuomo says. "So when there's a lone guitar that isn't just chunky power chords, that's usually a spot for him to shine. A perfect example would be the beginning of 'I've Had It Up to Here,' on the new album [Everything Will Be Alright in the End). I tried to play it a hundred times, and it was completely technically correct, but it was just dull sounding. Brian did one take and it was just perfect."

"I don't have a back catalog of classic rock riffs that I fall back on," Bell says when asked how he keeps his parts fresh and exciting. "I try to make my own riffs that hopefully could become classic...if I could be so bold!"

When it came to choosing guitars for Everything Will Be Alright in the End, however, Bell relied on a pair of classic vintage instruments to record the bulk of his work. "I have an amazing 1964 Gibson SG that I used a lot on this record," he says. "And then, when the parts call for it, I have a beautiful 1967 Tele Thinline that I've had since the Pinkerton years. Those are basically the two axes that I've been using in the studio."

Bell relied on a pair of vintage Silvertone 1485 amps when recording the new record. "I have one with a 2x12 cabinet that overdrives in exactly the right way when you crank it up, and another that's a 6x10 that I usually just keep on the vibrato [tremolo] setting," he says. His main live amp, a Matchless, also figures prominently on the album.

"I always like combo amps, which is good, because Rivers is more of a closed-back-4x12-and-head kind of guy," Bell says. "I like the extra top that I get from the combos, and it works with the fact that the chord voicings in my guitar parts are often in a higher register. I'm always looking more at the top of the chord and at whatever more interesting inversions are available to me. Then, when I can sneak them in, I will!"