L.A. Weekly interview with Rivers Cuomo - June 9, 2005

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I, Songwriter
Rivers Cuomo and the search for the perfect hook.
By Kate Sullivan

Eccentricity is a great rock tradition, and usually tolerated with some affection. Jack White can post his surgery photos online, John Frusciante can freely discuss talking to ghosts, and Ozzy can strangle his wife during a blackout — it’s all good. Somehow, though, Rivers Cuomo’s brand of eccentricity brings out the mean streak in journos, and overtakes almost everything that’s written about him. Most recently, Weezer’s Rolling Stone cover, marking the release of the band’s fifth album, Make Believe, followed the received template for Weezer articles: With the headline “Rivers Cuomo Hasn’t Had Sex in Two Years, and Boy, Is He Ready To Rock,” the article portrayed Cuomo as a nutjob who treats his band like shit, lives in a closet and doesn’t own a car in L.A.

Cuomo gets a hard time in part because, unlike regular rock stars, he’s built an iconography as a befuddled mortal, a kid who sits in his garage and dreams of being Ace Frehley. Cuomo stands in for every boy who ever had a metal cover band, dressed poorly and couldn’t talk to girls. There’s enormous freedom in that position, but the price is that Cuomo simply isn’t allowed to do the same things rock gods do.

And unlike other rock stars, Cuomo talks openly about his quirks. He once confessed his fondness for Asian prostitutes in Rolling Stone. And about a year ago, he posted an essay online describing the moral extreme makeover he’d begun in recent years: rigorous meditation, selling his house and car, volunteering at a food bank serving HIV patients, and taking a vow of celibacy. For all his claims of shyness, Cuomo invites attention to the extreme cycles of his private life. That candor is admirable, but does make his protestations of misunderstood normalcy a little tough to buy.

Nevertheless, it’s time to admit that, yes, Cuomo’s kind of a strange guy, and no, that’s not even remotely strange. Because what gets lost among the clichés is a more useful story, and the real reason people care: Cuomo’s music, his band and, specifically, his songwriting process. Cuomo is a deeply devoted student of songwriting, and has gone as far as anyone in the quest for the perfect pop song: seclusion, drugs, meticulous charting of Nirvana songs, attending Harvard to study classical composition. To some, this may seem as bizarre as a vow of celibacy, but, on this count, they’re wrong. Perfect pop is a sacred god, and as anyone who’s ever tried to write a hook can tell you, all sorts of sacrifices seem appropriate when you’re courting the muse. She can be a bit of a bitch, you know.

Just off the road from supporting Make Believe and looking forward to a 10-day meditation retreat, Cuomo spoke to L.A. Weekly from his grandparents’ home in Peachtree City, Georgia.

LA Weekly: So how’s it going? How was the tour?

Rivers: It went really well. I’m coming back to playing with a totally different mind state than I’ve ever had before. So it’s been a real learning experience figuring out who I am, how I want to be onstage. It’s been really fun.

LAW: You mean different from when you were touring Maladroit?

Rivers: Yeah. Every time you come back it’s different. I feel very calm and concentrated [these days] — I can get into the zone a lot more easily, and stay there a lot more easily. And not get knocked off by negative thoughts — you know, the inner critic telling you that that note was flat, or that lyric’s no good, you’re a faker — those sorts of things. I shut that guy out a lot better now. That’s the goal of any performer or athlete or artist — to just concentrate on what you’re doing and not analyze it too much.

LAW: I can see that in terms of the songwriting process, but I imagine that when you’re onstage the smoke and crowd and noise would drown that out more than when it’s just you alone with your guitar.

Rivers: It’s more extreme having the crowd there. When you’re on, you’re really on, you’re really excited, and you feel everyone’s watching you and giving you their energy. But then if the critic gets the upper hand, it’s like the crowd takes sides with the critic, and that voice gets so loud it can be unbearable. You can look out in the crowd and just happen to see the one person that looks like they’re not having a good time, and then your inner critic will latch onto that image and magnify it and shove it in your face. And then you forget about what you’re trying to do. You forget about the music you’re trying to make. And the enemy has overpowered you. [Chuckles.]

LAW: Do you think those bad voices are just some weird evolutionary flaw in the way our brains are structured?

Rivers: You know, that’s a very interesting question, and up till a year or two ago I definitely would have pondered it. But now, I don’t really care. All I know is that it’s a maladaptive behavior to think like that, and I don’t want to think like that anymore, and I’m just going to stop.

LAW: Is it the same thing when you write songs?

Rivers: Yeah, it’s the same thing when you’re writing songs, it’s the same thing when you’re giving an interview and you think, "Did I just say something stupid?" That critic’s gotta go. He’s not helping!

LAW: Do you ever fear if you totally let him go you’ll have no standards of quality?

Rivers: I remember having fears like that maybe when I started the meditation. So I went into the practice [of meditation] not being convinced — it was just a trial. But I gave it a sincere shot when I started, and I immediately noticed that my ability to concentrate when I was singing or writing or playing a guitar solo was a little bit better. And it sounded a little bit better, and it wasn’t just me that thought that; it was the people around me. With each step I take I see that my ability to perform gets a little better. So until it starts getting worse, I’m going to keep moving forward.

LAW: One fear I have is that if I totally open up my creativity I’ll be blown away by what might come out, and lose my sense of who I am.

Rivers: [Long pause.] Blown away. Well, that actually sounds kinda cool! [Laughs.] But those creative moments never last all that long! Even at your best the creative moments are still kind of fleeting. But even if that happened, it sounds kind of cool to me.

LAW: I heard you didn’t like that Rolling Stone article — was there anything you wanted to say about that?

Rivers: I don’t remember. [Laughs.] I always loved the L.A. Weekly. I totally looked up to it when Weezer was starting out and I always wanted to be in it, and they always totally ignored us! [Laughs.] They never gave us any credit. I thought it would be cool to do this story — I think I was probably still upset about the Rolling Stone article at the time.

It’s strange, too, because during the [R.S.] interview it seemed like the writer was really empathetic, and she said things to my manager like “The interview went really great; he’s not weird at all.” And then I read the article, and I was totally shocked. It was just another one of those Rivers is...what’s the phrase she used? Mentally deranged. One of those “Rivers is crazy” articles. I was really hurt on a personal level.

LAW: Maybe the editors thought, it has to be splashy and catchy and blah blah blah.

Rivers: Right. I totally understand that. And you know what, they’re probably right, too. The article she wrote is probably far more interesting to most people than the truth. So I understand. [Laughs.] However, I have to go on and live the rest of my life now with people thinking I’m nuts. And my mom reads that, my grandparents read that. And it’s not the truth. So I think it’s wrong.

LAW: On the other hand, it’s hard as a journalist not to focus on that — you’ve always written about struggling with your brain. And you actually sing on this album, "I’m so obviously insane."

LAW: [Laughs.] That’s true. [Pause.] All right, you got me. [Laughs.] But I’m not, like, really insane!

LAW: This is something you may have to deal with for the rest of your life — people seem to find you interesting.

Rivers: I’m not! I’m sitting here at my grandparents’ house, sharing family stories and going for walks, stuff like that. I think you people are the weird ones.

LAW: You people?

Rivers: Yeah. Meaning everyone else. I’m the normal one.

LAW: With the Green Album, the conventional wisdom was — and I think you even said this — that you were going into the math of songwriting, and didn’t want to be known personally in your music. With this album, it seems like you are really revealing yourself emotionally — is that true?

Rivers: Yeah. On a song like "Hash Pipe," I definitely did not sit down and say, 'All right, what am I feeling now, what am I thinking, how can I express this with music or lyrics?' I just took a couple shots of tequila and started rocking out. Whereas on Make Believe I just kept digging deeper and deeper to figure out how I felt about things, and I wouldn’t rest until I’d captured it in a song. And there were a lot of false starts.

LAW: What about "Hold Me"? How did you write that song?

Rivers: I really love that one. I... [laughs] I hesitate to tell the story of some of these songs, because it’ll just perpetuate the Rivers-is-crazy myth. But you know, at times I’ve resorted to pretty extreme methods to inspire myself. But I think it’s something anyone would do if they felt like they had to write a really powerful, emotional song on demand. Anyone would resort to extreme experiments — no, I don’t even want to talk about it. [Laughs.]

LAW: I don’t want to cartoonize you, but I think all the songwriters that read this might feel some recognition in knowing what you do to write. It’s not that unique that people do weird things to get the bad voices to go to sleep.

Rivers: Yeah — that’s the key. I think the important thing as an artist is to reach a really extreme state of concentration where you’re just one with whatever you’re creating, and the inner critic is utterly silent, can’t get a word in.

Artists have discovered countless ways to reach that state of extreme concentration through extreme emotions like anger or sadness. Other artists have resorted to taking drugs to shut out the critic. And two years ago I was still resorting to those extreme methods when I wrote that song, and I was self-consciously experimenting with ways to enter those states of mind. That particular experiment involved fasting. I think I just hadn’t eaten in 24 hours or something like that. I felt really sad [laughs], and I really pitied myself, and I felt a lot of loss, and of course I was really hungry. I think because of low blood sugar, whatever extraneous mental activity I usually have kind of quieted down, so I entered into this very concentrated state of extreme longing, and started playing that song. And that music made me feel really good.

The reason I hesitate to describe that is because I don’t advocate those kinds of experiments. It’s crazy, and it can’t be sustained. If you’re relying on extreme emotions, you just become a wreck, and it’s tough for other people to live with you. And it’s just not a good life. Who wants to be constantly cultivating anger and sadness? Not me. Same thing with drugs. After a while you build up a tolerance to them, and you start having to take more to reach the same level of inspiration. It’s just a bad road to go down.

LAW: Same with alcohol — it works for a while, and then it just doesn’t work the same way.

Rivers: Yeah, it can’t be sustained. But all that led me to discovering meditation. Which is just the exercise of concentrating your mind. You’re not relying on any emotion, you’re not relying on a drug, you’re not relying on fasting, you’re not relying on locking yourself in a closet for a week. And when it’s time to concentrate and write a song, you can do that. You can go to the depths, real deep, and go quickly and stay there and dig out some real inspiration.

LAW: In the past, you had some disdain for what you did as compared to other forms of music. Do you still hold classical music above rock or pop?

Rivers: When I was in my mid-20s, after we put out the Blue Album, I had a huge inferiority complex about being a rock musician. I thought my songs were really simplistic and silly, and I wanted to write complex, intense, beautiful music. That’s why I went to Harvard — to learn how to be a classical composer. And I started studying it, and I realized that I didn’t really like any contemporary classical music. And I very quickly started missing being in the band, and I wanted to go back to that. And since then I’ve gotten a greater appreciation for what pop artists do.

Yeah, the music isn’t necessarily as involved, but the art itself is so much more multifaceted than just music — it involves lyric writing, collaborating with other musicians, some improvisation, and the art of overseeing the persona of the band and who you are, how you act and dress, how you move onstage. All of these things are integrated into a very multifaceted art that moves a lot of people and is important, and relevant to our culture in a way that serious classical music isn’t right now. I do have a lot of appreciation for what pop artists do now, and see that they can have an important and beneficial effect on the world.

LAW: Rock music has been around for a while now, and the quantum leaps of its invention happened decades ago. The majority of rock music now is about individuals like yourself adding your own twist on forms that are pre-existing. Do you ever feel cheated that you didn’t get to be there when somebody decided to take the chords to "Louie Louie" and turn them into a rock & roll song?

Rivers: I did! I used to feel cheated, ’cause it seemed like in the ’60s those musicians and songwriters inherited this vast wealth of opportunities musically. There were so many doors to be opened, and they opened them all really quickly. It must have been a very exciting time. We come up in the early ’90s, and music and culture is so fragmented and decadent in so many ways — so many things have already been done, and so many resources have already been exploited, and it was frustrating and confusing at first. But really what it means is we just have a different task set before us. And it’s challenging and rewarding in a completely different way. I feel like maybe Weezer’s job is to look back on what’s happened musically over the decades and try to make sense of it all, and tie it together as best we can. And not worry so much about being innovative and breaking new ground.

LAW: Do the other guys have a greater role in the creation of the music now than people seem to think?

Rivers: Yeah, the general conception is that I’m the genius-slash-tyrant that dictates to everyone what they’re supposed to do, and that’s totally not the truth. Starting on Pinkerton, for sure, there was a lot of collaboration there, but then on Maladroit — although the songwriting on my part wasn’t great — the other guys’ contributions as far as background vocals, countermelodies, guitar lines and stuff like that were really outstanding, and they just picked up where they left off on Make Believe. They bring influences from all over the musical map. There’s hardly any need for me to give direction.

The problem is that some journalists get so fixated on me that when they call the other guys to do an interview, they don’t think to ask them about their contributions. They ask for weird stories about me. If I were them, I would get irritated. I can’t blame them for sniping at me sometimes in their interviews, because I think the world does not give them enough credit. I know, because I’m on the inside. I see what they bring to the albums. Another way they contribute is by giving me guidance. I’d be lost without them; they’re really my anchor. Sometimes if I’m in the studio for a long time I’ll completely lose my perspective. They have to sit me down and say, "What are you doing? That sounds really stupid!" And I’ll say, "Yeah, I guess you’re right." And a Weezer album is born.

LAW: I think Pat [Wilson] is a grossly underappreciated drummer.

Rivers: It’s ridiculous. He’s the most amazing musician. He’s so subtle and so understated that the average person doesn’t realize how important he is to this band. But there have been times over the years when Pat wasn’t available, or I wanted to play with someone else, and we got someone else for some rehearsals or something. We played with some of the best drummers in the world, supposedly, and it always felt horrible. Anyone except for Pat — it just doesn’t feel like Weezer.

LAW: Do you ever give yourself songwriting assignments?

Rivers: Rick [Rubin] actually gave me some assignments over the past couple years. Like he said, "Write a Billy Joel or Elton John type of song," and I just took that to mean, "write a song on the piano." And that was part of the inspiration for "Haunt You Every Day," which closes the album. And he said, "Write a song with the beat from 'Pour Some Sugar on Me' by Def Leppard," and that was part of the inspiration for "Beverly Hills." He told Tom Petty the same thing, and Tom Petty wrote "It’s Good To Be King."

LAW: Oh, that’s funny. When I hear "Beverly Hills," I get "The Joker" by Steve Miller in my head.

Rivers: Yeah yeah yeah! That was the other example he gave us.

LAW: Speaking of which, “Surf Wax America” reminds me of a Cure song.

Rivers: No — I remember thinking, 'this is way too close to something else, there’s no way I can get away with this.' But at the time we were nobodies; we didn’t have a record. I thought, no one’s going to sue us. I can’t remember what the song was, which is probably for the best.

LAW: I think it was “Caterpillar” — it has a keyboard line that’s similar.

Rivers: Oh! Maybe that’s what it is! I wasn’t aware it was the Cure — you may be exactly right. But you know what, it’s also one of those piano pieces by Erik Satie, the Trois Gymnopedies.

LAW: Oh my gosh, you’re right!

Rivers: And you know what, in a few years someone else is going to use it, and that’s cool.

LAW: At one point during the recording of Make Believe, you said you were working with Rick Rubin in a sort of removed way, where you would send him CDs of songs and he would text-message you back or something.

Rivers: Yeah, I hung out with him a lot in the first phase when I was just writing, and we would watch music DVDs together and listen to records and talk about music, and he was just really pushing me to dig as deep as I could and write some lyrics that would be interpreted by the average person as being sincere, whereas a lot of our older records he thought were perceived as being kind of jokey and ironic. And then in the second phase, we got together with the band in a rehearsal studio, and he was just like one of the guys in the band throwing out ideas — also, doing his best to improve the communication between us and making sure everyone felt safe to voice their opinions, and that we would try anything.

And then in the third phase we actually got in the studio . . . I would bring him a CD every week, and he’d listen and give some input or send me text messages. Through the whole process we were texting each other like crazy, which I think he does so he can have several records going on at once, just texting like a madman. It sounds kind of dubious, but it really works. He made a huge difference in this recording and in the band.

LAW: And he had you guys in group counseling.

Rivers: Yeah, well, I guess the idea came from him, but we were all very excited to try it. [The counselor] was called a "communication coach." She just taught us some techniques for talking to each other in a more compassionate way, and also listening in a more compassionate way. Communication is difficult, and we’re still working on it, but I think we all feel much more comfortable now voicing our opinions. We have band meetings every show day. Before sound check, we get together for a half hour or 45 minutes and talk about whatever. To me it seems like everyone’s super happy.

LAW: That kind of thing, and maybe even the meditation thing, also sound like training for a relationship.

Rivers: Yeah, for one thing, I have complete confidence in my ability to be faithful now, ’cause if I can be with no one for two years, then I can certainly be committed to one person. And because of the meditation, I’m so used to watching these feelings of dissatisfaction or anger or longing or sadness come up inside of me, and then pass away, that now I know when I find a woman to be with, I’m not going to blame her for those feelings. ’Cause I know it’s just junk inside of me.

LAW: Who is your musical hero?

Rivers: Pat. ’Cause I’ve been playing with him since we were 21, and just about whenever I’ve been making music, he’s been right there next to me. My style has really evolved around him. And he just has that heavy-yet-sensitive touch that I really admire. And emulate.

LAW: Do you mean musically or personally or both?

Rivers: It’s reflected in everything he does. But you can really hear it in the way he plays. He has a lot of power, but it’s never harsh. It’s always sensitive, and dynamic, and it’s always expressive in a subtle way. And I see that in everything he does, whether it’s juggling a soccer ball or rapping.

LAW: A few years ago you said you wanted to make a rap-metal album. You do some rapping on "Beverly Hills," but what happened with that?

Rivers: I kind of feel like that’s what we did — in the approach of writing vocal parts that are much more lyric-oriented. I would just write out a bunch of words and start singing ’em without worrying about where the melody was going. It’s more about the rhythm of the words, and you can hear it on "Beverly Hills," or "Across the Sea" on Pinkerton, or "El Scorcho," or even on "Buddy Holly," and that’s what I mean when I say rap-metal.

LAW: Do you have a working definition of love? Or what it means to be in love?

Rivers: The feeling of wanting to give something expecting nothing in return. That’s the kind of love I strive for.

LAW: Do you do good deeds knowing no one will ever know about it?

Rivers: [Laughs.] I try to. I want to do nothing but good deeds.

LAW: Any good deed you’re particularly proud of?

Rivers: There’s no point in gloating about it, even in a secret inner way, because you lose the benefit of having done the good deed!

LAW: You live in a one-room place, right?

Rivers: I’m living in a guest house right by the ArcLight — it’s one room, but it’s really nice, and it’s a loft.

LAW: And you don’t have a car?

Rivers: No. First of all, I’m hardly ever in L.A., but when I am, everything I need to do is within walking distance of my apartment. And we have [an assistant] who can drive me, or one of the other guys in the band. But there’s no real reason to have a car. It’s not ’cause I’m some weird ascetic freak — there’s just no need. If I end up in a situation where I need a car, I’ll get one! [Laughs.]

LAW: Has living in the city, in L.A. specifically, affected you at all creatively?

Rivers: I suspect that L.A. has had a really good influence on me musically. When I was a teenager living in upstate Connecticut, I was on a real bad trip musically, stuff that hardly anyone could relate to. Then I moved to L.A., and pretty quickly I figured out how to make music that would have a broader appeal and mean something to a lot of people. Then I went back to Boston and wrote Pinkerton, which didn’t have as broad an appeal. It has the sound of someone who’s not really in touch with other people, and I don’t know if that’s good. It also sounds very much like a winter album, which I don’t know if I would make in L.A. So I like L.A.

LAW: This friend of mine said that novelists tend to rewrite the same story over the course of their careers. What’s your story?

Rivers: There’s themes I’ve noticed, like feeling guilty and beating myself up and saying I’m sorry, being alone... it’s starting to feel a little bit old to me. [Laughs.] I don’t think I can really write a new kind of song until there’s some big changes in my life. That’s why I’m kind of excited and curious to see what might happen to me if I find somebody. What if I can’t write the "I’m shy and lonely" song anymore? It’ll be something else. It’s exciting.