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Blender interview with Rivers Cuomo - Jan/Feb 2006

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Dear Superstar: Rivers Cuomo
Sex, drugs and rock & roll: Rivers Cuomo has only one of these left in his life, and even that may be on its way out. America's highest-charting ivy league undergrad subjects himself to our readers' pop quiz.

By Steve Kandell
Blender, Jan/Feb 2006

Any student entering the final semester of college is bound to experience a bit of anxiety about his future. But unlike most students entering the final semester of college, Rivers Cuomo (Harvard University, Class of 2006) is also the 35-year-old singer of a rock band that's sold over seven million albums and has a fortune lying virtually untouched in his bank account.

Cuomo greets Blender wearing a rumpled sports jacket but, curiously, not his trademark Buddy Holly horn-rims. Though it may be unwise to glean significance from this break in sartorial form, both Cuomo and his band are currently standing at a crossroads — or a precipice, depending on whom you ask.

Weezer's fifth album, Make Believe — equally riff-heavy but more introspective than its immediate predecessors — is an unequivocal hit, but ask Cuomo about any plans past spring semester, when he'll finally complete the three classes he needs to earn the English lit. degree he abandoned 15 years ago for rock stardom, and he instantly gets cagey. "I want to go to school, and after that, I want to get married and have a family," Cuomo says, speaking barely above a whisper. "And it doesn't seem like being on the road or working with a band is going to allow that to happen."

Cuomo's ambivalence about Weezer's future is especially puzzling given that he credits his recent immersion in the stringent form of meditation called Vipassana for making him feel more at ease with his songwriting, his bandmates (guitarist Brian Bell, drummer Pat Wilson and bassist Scott Shriner) and, you know, the universe in general. And it is this newfound sense of inner calm that has led Cuomo to a swanky Philadelphia hotel lounge, picking at a fruit plate while wilfully subjecting himself to probing and prodding on behalf of Blender's readership. Namaste, dude.

What was the hardest part about maintaining the two-year vow of celibacy that was part of your meditation training?
It's been two and a half years now, actually. The vow is over but I wanted to keep cruising. Abstinence doesn't require as much self-discipline anymore. It's a combination of the old crazy Rivers and a belief that a serious meditator should just stick with one partner or be celibate. My teacher doesn't even recommend this technique. But I am an extreme type of person. We never had serious groupies, anyway. Our generation got screwed.

When I saw Weezer live, you guys came out to the Monday Night Football theme. Are you secretly jocks?
I don't think it's a secret: We love sports. We've come out to a lot of different things, whatever gets us stoked. Right now, we come out to Pinocchio singing "When You Wish Upon a Star." I think our favorite one of all time was the Magnum, P.I. theme song in 1997.

MTV made you change the words to "We Are All on Drugs," so you now sing "we are all on love" instead. What were other ideas for replacement words?
Pat suggested "hugs" first, but that sounded too quirky. See, the whole thing is my fault — when I wrote the song, I wasn't thinking carefully enough about the words I was choosing. Some fans have told me that their children hear me saying "we are all on drugs" and they take it literally because they don't know any better. And that makes me feel horrible. I never wanted to write a song that would offend anyone or encourage anyone to use drugs or harm themselves in any way. In my mind, love and drugs are the same thing — we're all numbing ourselves or stimulating ourselves with intense relationships or TV or movies or music and we use these like drugs. So to me, there was no artistic sacrifice or compromise and I was happy to change the word. Brian thought of "we are all on love." To me, that's an even better line than the original lyric. It's still a good rock jam, though.

What do you remember most about playing the Sunset Strip with your metal band when you first moved to L.A.?
I just remember how exciting it was, truly the heavy metal dream I had growing up. We'd go down on weekends and pass out our flyers. I thought of a clever marketing gimmick: We affixed a stick of gum to each flyer, so hundreds of people would come from all over the Strip and grab ours so they could get a piece of Big Red or Juicy Fruit.

What's the most ridiculous, decadent thing you've ever bought?
I give a lot of money away to family and friends and charity. The rest is just waiting in the bank for the day I have a family. I never think to spend my money except to give it away. Well, other than school — that's expensive. And I give big tips, which freaks people out sometimes. When I bought a house, I had to get all this furniture to make it look lived in, then realized I didn't really need any of this stuff and it means nothing to me. So why not move to a little apartment and get rid of it all? Now I live in a one-room loft.

You've admitted using drugs to help your songwriting. What's the most extreme thing you've ever done to be creative?
I don't really like to talk about the extremes — they're the least important to me, yet that's what people like to focus on the most. The important thing you're looking for with any stimulus or inspiration is concentration. You're looking for something to demand your attention so strongly that you can write a coherent statement about it lyrically or musically. Ritalin, or even coffee, can help that. I wrote "Dope Nose" and "Hash Pipe" with a combination of three tequila shots and Ritalin. There are other side effects specific to each kind of stimulant that affect the tone of what you write. It's very scientific, finding the right balance, a lot of trial and error. A lot of error.

Who came up with your Van Halenesque "W" onstage logo?
If I remember the story correctly, our webmaster Karl took some tape and put a "W" on the back of my jacket while I was wearing it. Pat looked at it and put the wings on to make it more like Van Halen.

What was it like growing up on an ashram?
That's a very large question. I was at school there from third through fifth grade, and every day we did yoga and meditation and deep relaxation exercises, we did all our own cooking and cleaning, we did all kinds of chores. It wasn't all that fun at the time. That was some serious work for kids, or anyone, really. From my earliest memories, my mom instilled in my brother and me that we were different and special and the rest of the world was "normal" and uptight and not in touch with their feelings. And we were this special, unique enclave of sanity. Deep in my heart, I knew there was a lot of value to the environment my parents were raising us in; however, around age 11 or 12, a lot of us kids in the ashram school started rebelling and fantasizing about being normal and having our own desks. We all took normal names. I changed mine to Peter Kitts — that was my stepfather's last name. We started teaching ourselves how to swear. School colors, a school mascot, to be on a football team — all those things seemed really attractive to us.

When your second album, Pinkerton, bombed, you took the criticism hard. Is that still painful to think about?
Back in 1997, I took that personally, yeah. We sent "El Scorcho," the first single, to a radio station and they said it was the worst song they'd ever heard and they wouldn't play it. But I don't have my own ego wrapped up in the album anymore. There are Pinkerton fans who come to our shows, so we're always sure to play two or three songs every night. The audience divines it.

How did you get into this hardcore meditation routine?
In early 2003, I felt like I hit a roadblock with the songs for Make Believe and I just knew I wanted to dig deeper into myself and come up with better songs. [Producer] Rick Rubin suggested meditation. As soon as I started trying it again, I knew this was it. Vipassana is a less well-known form of meditation in this country and I'm not sure why that is. I think so far, the press has misunderstood the purpose of the apparent austerities. The belief is that two meals a day are enough, especially for someone who's just sitting there. It's all about moderation. Things appear extreme, but the motivation behind all of it is solely to help you concentrate.

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your body?
I guess my hands are my favorite. I'm sometimes unhappy with my right leg, which was operated on because it was shorter than the other. The bone was broken clean in half and I had to turn these screws so the gap between the halves of the bone would get wider, which was actually kind of satisfying. But I'm trying to love all parts of my body equally and not generate negative feelings toward myself.

Did you hang out with Hugh Hefner when you shot the "Beverly Hills" video at the Playboy Mansion?
I didn't hang out with Hef. But I know it was asked of him, "What do you do on a normal day when there isn't a video being shot in your house?" And he said, "I do the same thing: I sit here around the pool with the Playmates and play cards."

What's the most metal thing about Weezer?
The guitar sound. I don't really think it's changed much from my metal days, and I don't think that came from any other influences — it had to come from the Scorpions or Judas Priest. And also guitar solos. We suddenly realized we're one of the only bands that play guitar solos. I couldn't imagine not having a guitar solo; that's just what happens after the second chorus.

Now that you've almost got your literature degree, what's your favorite book?
Books aren't very important to me. When I was 20 and first going to college, I was really into literature and that's why I chose that major. I'm not gonna be a professor, I'm not going to be a writer, I'm a rock guy. But I believe in finishing what I started. I enjoy school but I'm not, like, a serious reader.

You played in a Kiss cover band growing up — which one were you?
My ego was already apparent even at the tender age of 14 — I was singing Paul Stanley's parts and played Ace Frehley's leads. Our makeup looked more like Mötley Crüe, though. We thought of ourselves as an original band that was going to make it; it didn't occur to us that a band had to write their own songs. I was also in a Metallica cover band, an Yngwie Malmsteen cover band and an all-'80s metal cover band. All I did in high school was play metal songs.

Didn't you try to calculate the mathematical equation for a perfect pop song?
That's a pretty gross oversimplification. I've always deconstructed music and tried to figure out the order in which the parts were put together. In what order did the writer come up with the various elements? Did he start with the music or the riff or the melody or the beat? It wasn't out of a desire to find one particular formula that would always work for anything I did but rather just to get a sense of all the possibilities that are out there. When I write a song, I'm just going on my instincts and when I'm writing at my best, it's different every time. I remember asking Billie Joe years ago about some of the songs on the first Green Day album, ones with some pretty intense guitar riffs at the root, and he didn't write them on a guitar, he wrote those in his head. I don't remember exactly what my theory was on those songs, but I know I was surprised. Another one that really blew my mind was "Bridge Over Troubled Water," this really beautiful piano song, right? I read that it was written on guitar. I think it was one of the pillars of my theory that piano songs are better than guitar songs.

How does a rock star like you usually meet girls?
I don't. I'm almost more of a rock star at school than on the road, although they treat me pretty normally. I live in the undergraduate dorm, I go to the cafeteria three times a day, I go to the library and the fitness center and hang out with people in my hall and have normal relationships. I forget that I'm 35 and a rock star … until I look in the mirror.

You've mentioned recently that you've gotten into cooking. What's your favorite meal to make?
I don't really have a signature dish and I can't remember the names of anything, but it's all vegetarian. Cooking started out of necessity — I had to eat and I didn't have anyone to help me. I bought a cookbook and was really putting some effort into it. I still have a problem dealing with people, so I'd rather eat cereal every day than order in.

Do you still live in a one-room apartment with the black walls and blacked-out windows?
Not anymore. That was also about focus. Twice a day I close my eyes and meditate, and that's really all the concentration practice I need. I find that my mind's getting stronger in any situation.

Is Make Believe going to be the final Weezer album?
Well, any album can be the last one for any artist. In the band, we're definitely all aware that there's this place in me that for some reason is hesitating to commit to future plans, and none of us is really sure what that's about. I feel like I have to settle down and have a stable life. It's painful because whatever's going to happen is going to happen; there's no point in stressing about it now. I have some hang-up and that's causing anxiety for the band and for the audience. I think they're handling it very graciously and not giving me guilt trips or anything.

In the current Ozzy Osbourne vs. Iron Maiden beef, whose side are you on?
Well, I don't know enough detail to take sides, but I guess I would take both sides and hope there's a way they can work things out so they're both happy. But I was definitely more of a fan of Maiden growing up than Ozzy.

Whatever happened to Homie, the album you made with your Harvard pals?
Never finished it. We did all the basic tracks, but no overdubs. That was around 1997. I have plenty of unreleased songs, but no interest in putting them out. There's too much garbage out there already.

Are you a tit man or an ass man?
I don't remember.

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