Rolling Stone article - September 13, 2001
Weezer's Cracked Genius
Is Rivers Cuomo the weirdest man in rock, or the coolest?
by Chris Mundy
Posted Sep 13, 2001 12:00 AM
He's happiest when he's alone, away from everything but the sounds in his head. Usually, he listens to them in the morning, but they're always there. "Beautiful melodies," Rivers Cuomo calls them, and he transcribes them from his brain in forty-five-minute bursts or until the purity of the moment feels lost. After that, Cuomo finds, it's usually best to ignore them.
"Most of the day, I'm just sitting there," says Cuomo of his regular routine. "It makes me so happy."
At the moment, the Weezer frontman is in a downscale French bistro near his home in the Hollywood Hills. He's dressed in too-short khakis, a long-underwear shirt and a soccer windbreaker. Now and then, as passers-by seem to recognize him - from an image of him performing "Hash Pipe" in front of a flaming, Van Halen-style W at the MTV Movie Awards, perhaps - Cuomo will remove his trademark Buddy Holly glasses to let his features melt into the cream-colored walls. Time and again, however, he puts the glasses back on to face the crowd. These days, Cuomo is much more willing to share.
Case in point: Weezer (the group's debut record of the same name is referred to as the Blue Album, and this one is commonly known as the Green Album), the band's first record in five years. And then there's the fact that Cuomo has begun to parcel out musical responsibility to his band mates, with whom he has squabbled on and off for years. All of which has ensured that the Weezer story continues. It is a twisting tale, punctuated by separation (original bassist Matt Sharp left in 1998) and large enough to encompass success (the triple-platinum Blue Album), rejection (the commercial flop of record two, Pinkerton) and redemption (Pinkerton's resurrection as a cult phenomenon).
Through it all, the only constant has been the songs in Cuomo's head, hundreds upon hundreds, which he catalogs in an elaborate decimal system with a calligraphy pen. They are surprisingly simple tunes - as if the sentiments of the early Beatles were being backed by the muscle of Cuomo's favorite band, Nirvana - and they are surprisingly compact. "Smile," "Island in the Sun," "Simple Pages." In all, it takes the Green Album only twenty-eight minutes to insinuate Weezer back deeply into our musical consciousness. It is, in every way, a crisp reintroduction to Weezer's resident shut-in.
"We actually recorded nineteen songs, but they all sounded so similar that it started to get boring," says Cuomo.
A waiter stops to take his dinner order. Cuomo orders a hot chocolate, leaving the man to walk away muttering "This is a French restaurant" to himself in clipped, accented English. Cuomo goes back to answering a question, unaware that anything strange has taken place. It brings to mind the warning that guitarist Brian Bell received just before joining the band. He was about to fly to New York, where the group was recording the Blue Album, when drummer Pat Wilson got on the phone.
"I'd never even spoken to Pat," recalls Bell, former bassist in the band Carnival Art. "He got on the phone and said, 'Dude, you're in Weezer - that's cool. You're going to think Rivers is the weirdest person you've ever met.'"
"I don't have any friends."
It's Saturday night when Cuomo makes the comment and, considering that he's currently heading to a party to hook up with Kevin Ridel, a friend since the two were high school band mates, you decide to play along.
"What about Kevin?" you ask. "Isn't Kevin your friend?"
"Do you mind if we don't have any music on?" asks Cuomo. And the music goes off.
Car silent. Game over.
"Rivers does have a nice, strange personality, which I like," says Ric Ocasek, the producer of both the Blue Album and the Green Album. "He can be very communicative, depending on what he wants to talk about. He's definitely in his own world, but he's logical about stuff. He knows what he wants to do, and he'll go after it. When he needs to be verbal, he certainly can be." Cuomo is smart, curious, surprisingly warm, and there are moments - like saying he has no friends while on the way to meet up with his friend - when it's clear Cuomo enjoys tweaking his nut-job image. There are other times, however, when he simply seems like a nut job.
You ask him about his upbringing. The standard line is that Cuomo spent his childhood moving around northeastern Connecticut with his stepfather, brother and mother, a massage therapist. You wonder if there was much calling for massage in what is a very rural part of the state.
"You have to realize, we were living in an enclosed community of Hindus," says Cuomo. He pauses to let the words sink in. "We lived in an ashram," he continues. "Isn't that insane?"
And then Cuomo fills in the details. How his mother and his "original father" were part of the Zen Center in upstate New York until he was five. How his mother simply drifted until she ended up in the ashram. And how she remarried in the ashram and Cuomo lived there for the next eight years before he moved to Storrs, Connecticut, home of the state university and a classic-rock-addled student body that didn't quite know what to make of the Cuomo boys, Rivers and Leaves.
"We got the crap beaten out of us," says Cuomo. "I think it made me very shy."
True to his word, when he arrives at the small party, Cuomo keeps mostly to the fringes. After only a few minutes, his eyes begin to dart around the room. "Do you wanna go see some music?" Cuomo asks, and he's out the door before there's time to incorporate your answer into his attention span.
These days, even Cuomo's family isn't likely to penetrate his field of vision. He has drifted, he says, so caught up in living his dream that he doesn't even see his brother, who is just a shuttle flight away in Seattle. "He's an extremely bright guy," says Cuomo of Leaves, who is now a college professor.
"I'm so proud of him. And he's married. That totally blew my mind. We've both always been very anti-relationship, especially anti-marriage. And then one day he just sent me an e-mail that said, 'I got married.'"
Cuomo steps inside a small rock club. The band Ivy is onstage, a hypnotic melody snaking its way to the ticket counter.
"It's twelve dollars," says the woman at the desk.
Cuomo stares at the floor, as if mustering courage. "Umm...I'm in Weezer," he finally says.
"Oh, right," says the woman. "Someone here was looking for you."
Cuomo begins to step inside.
"It's twelve dollars," the woman says.
Cuomo pays and shuffles inside. A few minutes later, before he has even heard a complete song, he heads for the exit. A few songs later, you realize he's not coming back. When you step outside, Cuomo is waiting on the sidewalk.
"Do you wanna go to a club?" he asks.
And you realize, if you're going to spend time in Rivers Cuomo's headspace, you better be ready to change directions in a hurry.
For all the success of the Blue and Green albums, it is the middle record, Pinkerton, that is truly the center of the Weezer story. The period leading up to Pinkerton was not an easy one. At the height of the Blue Album's success, Cuomo applied to Harvard and entered as a freshman, isolating himself from his band mates. On top of that, he had surgery to lengthen one of his legs (which had been too short since birth), and the operation left him bedridden for two months, after which he was required to wear a leg brace for more than a year.
"Rivers was on painkillers," says Bell of the period. "He had this painful contraption on his leg. It was painful for him to hold his guitar up a certain way, so most of those songs are written in the first position [on the fret board]. I would almost have to egg the songs out of him." Pinkerton, the record he named for a character in his favorite opera, Madame Butterfly. It was a deeply personal album, full of stories of lying girlfriends and confessions of being tired of sex and of masturbating to the image of a high-school-age fan touching herself. It was musically bold, emotionally raw and, evidently, not ready for radio airwaves. Sales were dismal. Cuomo was despondent.
"At that point, Rivers had no confidence," says bassist Mikey Welsh, who joined Weezer shortly after Pinkerton. "That started a really dark period for us. We really withdrew from each other and became pretty unsure of what was going to happen."
And then Pinkerton began to take hold with a new wave of younger fans who obsessed over every nuance of the record. Sales crept above the gold mark. By the time the Green Album was released, Weezer - dormant for five years - were bigger than they had ever been. None of which leaves Cuomo feeling vindicated.
"The most painful thing in my life these days is the cult around Pinkerton," he says when asked of the record's new status. "It's just a sick album, sick in a diseased sort of way. It's such a source of anxiety because all the fans we have right now have stuck around because of that album. But, honestly, I never want to play those songs again; I never want to hear them again."
His band mates disagree.
"I think it's a brilliant record," says Welsh. "But the way it was received was really hard on Rivers. He'll say he doesn't want to play any of it, but I think he was just so hurt by the way people responded to it."
The band reconvened in the studio in 1998, but the songs - dreamier tracks, along the lines of Spiritualized or Radiohead - were eventually shelved at Cuomo's insistence. He dropped out of Harvard with just two semesters remaining and moved back to Los Angeles. And there, shut away, he began paying heed to the melodies. Day after day he would wake, walk to his garage and write songs in short bursts.
"Forty-five minutes or an hour a day," says Cuomo. "All your senses have to be very fresh so you can really be open to feel what the next note is supposed to be."
The results were the Green Album, an anti-Pinkerton all the way down to aping the title and cover of record number one. Where Pinkerton was band-produced, the Green Album returned to Ric Ocasek; Pinkerton was deeply personal, but the Green Album is a monument to vagueness; and while Pinkerton veered wildly in its styles, the new record keeps its focus steadfastly straight-ahead. "He could go anywhere with his songs," says Ocasek. "He's extremely, extremely talented. Even instrumentally, he's way beyond what he plays. He pulls it way back. He does some amazing things in the studio that would really shock people. He does all his guitars in one take. He can do the most intricate things in one take and then say, 'Let me just fix the second bar in the third verse.' He's amazing." Ironically, the only song that deviates at all is "Hash Pipe," the chunky, riff-heavy gem written from the perspective of a male prostitute, which Cuomo personally chose as the first single.
"It's obviously not our favorite song," says Cuomo of the album's breakout hit. "The rest of the record is better. But 'Hash Pipe' - there's just something about it. I wanted to come back with a weird statement like that."
The message of the remaining songs is abundantly clear. With the powerful bursts of Beach Boys harmonies, hand claps and Cheap Trick-laced love, Rivers Cuomo is letting you know he wants you to want him and he's got the chops to make it happen.
"This record is purely musical," says Cuomo proudly. "There's no feeling, there's no emotion."
By the time Cuomo arrives at Club Bang, on Hollywood Boulevard, you're able to anticipate how he moves when he feels alone and invisible. You walk quickly, almost hugging the wall as he sees a crowded mob go-going to classic Brit pop, ducks into a tranced-out chamber blaring techno and finally passes through a small bar belting out "Green Onions," by Booker T. and the MG's. The entire process takes maybe four minutes.
"That was great," says Cuomo as he steps outside and heads up Hollywood Boulevard. "I'd definitely go back there."
These days, Cuomo is managing Weezer, and you can't help but wonder how the rest of the band has taken to his frenetic fits of concentration, especially considering that Cuomo's control has been an endless source of band tension. The main source of animosity has been his fight to keep his band mates from indulging in side projects. "Rivers would hate that we did things on the side," says Wilson, "but that feeling made us want to do things on the side even more."
The issue came to a head in 1998, when Matt Sharp rebelled by bolting Weezer to work full time on his other group, the Rentals. Today, both Bell and Wilson write songs in other bands (Space Twins and the Special Goodness, respectively), a task they are not granted in Weezer. And even though Cuomo has come to accept their other projects, each is hesitant to mention the groups in the context of a Weezer interview. It's a tenuous acceptance, they know, and they do not want to jeopardize it or the recent decision to let band members work out their own parts to Cuomo's songs.
When the next album rolls around, members anticipate that the results will bring the group a mixture of Pinkerton's daring with Blue/Green power. "I think we're a lot stranger and more talented than people can ever realize," says Bell. "I think we're far more valuable to the musical community than people know."
Cuomo concurs. As he strolls down Hollywood Boulevard, apropos of nothing, he says, "I have such an amazing band. They're such incredible musicians."
You ask how they're responding to him as the group's manager.
"I think everyone's in agreement that it makes the most sense," says Cuomo. "It's weird for me to separate songwriting and the rest of my career ambitions. It's all part of the same dream."
He glances at the ground, to the parade of names that fill the stars along the Walk of Fame. "I wonder what it takes to get your name on one of these if you're a musician?" he asks, and then, seconds later, he's silent for the rest of the walk.
It's after 1 a.m. when Cuomo reaches his final destination. The locale is the Palace, an old-school Hollywood venue that morphs into a radio-sponsored dance club every Friday. A line of beautiful bodies stretches around the block. Cuomo approaches the bouncer.
"Excuse me," he says quietly. "I'm in Weezer."
The bouncer ignores him.
Cuomo produces a laminated backstage pass with his picture on it.
"I believe you," the bouncer says, staring at Cuomo's long-underwear shirt and windbreaker. "Problem is, we have a dress code."
Eventually, managers are summoned, names are dropped and Cuomo is let behind the velvet rope. Inside, Cuomo pumps his fist in victory as twenty-year-old scenesters wander past like refugees from a fashion runway.
"I used to come here alone when I first moved to L.A.," he says. "I'd just sit on a couch, straight as a board, and people would walk by and hate me. It was so much fun."
He walks into the main ballroom, keeping to the wall as a techno track throbs. After a fast loop, he moves upstairs to a salon-style room where a DJ spins a meld of hip-hop and twisting Middle Eastern melodies. He nods appreciatively, heads back downstairs and is out the door in under five minutes. As he hits the pavement, he all but bounces.
"I'm so happy to be back in L.A., I can't believe it," he says.
There is a spike of confidence in Cuomo these days, a combination of the Green Album's success and the simple fact that the braces Cuomo got in 1999 have recently been removed from his teeth. You ask if he has any plans to finish his final two semesters of college. Cuomo shakes his head. "I think my days of frustration and jumping from path to path because I don't know what to do are gone," he says.
To that end, there are plans to record the next Weezer album in December. If all works out, Ocasek will once again be behind the board. The question is whether the Pinkerton mafia will abide another collection of smoothed-out pop. "It's so weird being at total loggerheads with your fans," says Cuomo of the Pinkerton obsessives. "I don't know how to deal with it. I don't want to say anything that would sound condescending, but those fans are probably younger and they probably just want to hear that extreme emotion from moment to moment. They need to hear that excess."
Just not from Cuomo, not just now. He is happy, both with his band and with the way the songs have shaped themselves to fit his mood.
"I think the biggest misconception about me is that I'm sad or depressed," says Cuomo. "I'm living the dream every waking minute."
He cuts down a side street and stops in front of his ex-girlfriend's house. The lights are out, and Cuomo pauses for a moment before he continues walking. "I think I'll treat myself to a little cough syrup with codeine when I get home," he says. And with that he's off toward the hills, away from the stars of Hollywood Boulevard, alone, as usual, except for the melodies in his head.
[From Issue 877 — September 13, 2001]