Guitar World interview with Rivers Cuomo - March 1995

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Man of Steel

By Tom Beaujour

His black, horn-rimmed glasses and mild manner notwithstanding, Weezer's Rivers Cuomo may just be power pop's next super hero. Rivers Cuomo is peeved. In three hours, he and his Weezer bandmates will be performing for the first time ever at New York's Madison Square Garden. Also on the bill are the likes of Green Day, Candlebox, and yes, Bon Jovi. So what's to be peeved about? Earlier in the day, Weezer were forced to postpone their sound check five times as brawnier, more established bands bullied their way onto the stage. “It sucked” says Cuomo, Weezer's vocalist/lead guitarist/songwriter. “Richie Sambora was up there noodling for like an hour!” They sort of tacked us onto the bill, so we're definitely the low band on the totem pole.” Rivers, dressed in a cardigan, a plaid shirt, and a very sensible pair of brown moccasins, looks like a collegiate chess enthusiast; it's easy to see why ever-beefy Sambora and his equally broad-chested bandmates didn't think twice about cutting in front of Weezer. Yet, despite Cuomo and Co.'s understated appearance and bashful demeanor, they are a musical force to be reckoned with. Weezer (Geffen), the bands infectious debut, is a sharply focused pop statement where, “all of the songs were written around a clear idea of what the whole album should be like,” says Cuomo. In Weezer's case, artistic merit has translated into commercial success; on the strength of the minimalist “Undone-The Sweater Song” and “Buddy Holly” a heartfelt paean to rock's prototypical nerd-genius, Weezer has been certified gold and continues to scale the charts. Rivers Cuomo has never been one to shy away from a tough decision. A self-confessed ex-shredder and metalhead, he moved to L.A. with his high school band at the tender age of 19. After that band's demise, Cuomo made the drastic (and timely) decision to renounce his aspirations as a shredder and sever his metal roots. In an equally intrepid (and unusual) move, despite Weezer's current string of hits, he plans to take time off from the band to hit the books and return to college for a semester. Like a rock and roll Clark Kent, Rivers Cuomo is a man who conceals his powers well.

Maybe Richie and Jon should be more careful about who they push around.

Guitar World: Are you aware that you were among the leading vote-getters in the Best New Talent Category of this year's Guitar World Readers Poll?

Rivers: I heard. That's pretty cool.

GW: Do you find it ironic that you did so well, years after you gave up shredding?

Rivers: It's so ironic, I laugh about it all the time. My whole band is laughing at me, because at one point, getting in one of those polls as a “Hot New Guitar Player” was probably what I wanted more than anything else. Now, I just use the Guitar as a tool to tell me what notes to sing; it gives me a little background. I don't really care about my reputation as a guitar player at all.

GW: When you're up on stage, don't you ever feel like letting loose and shredding?

Rivers: Yeah, if I'm in a bad mood or if I feel like punishing the audience. We've been known to play {Iron Maiden's} “Run to the Hills”or {Quiet Riot's} “Mental Health”-any number of old classics.

GW: You've done “Mental Health” live?

Rivers: Yeah, just about every night, actually.

GW: Were you the type of guitarist who practiced at least five hours a day?

Rivers: Yeah, totally. I locked myself in my room and went (sings a flurry of notes), with a metronome and all that stuff. Then, when I was 19 or so, my priorities changed. I got more interested in writing songs and dropped the guitar altogether for a long time.

GW: Did you pick up another instrument?

Rivers: No, actually, I was going to college as an English major. I'd pick up the guitar sometimes, just to strum chords and come up with a melody or something, but I stopped practicing. I mean, I haven't practiced a scale since the Eighties.

GW: Do you feel that the time you spent practicing was wasted, or do you rely on what you learned once in a while?

Rivers: No, I don't rely on it. But I don't think it was time wasted, because it's still with me to a certain degree. I almost wish it wasn't there, since it's probably more detrimental than anything else.

GW: Who were your formative guitar influences?

Rivers: Well, the first one, of course was Ace Frehley. He was just God, because all of his solos were so memorable and singable. They had form to them; they'd start out low and go up high...They were just great, compact little emotional things.

GW: You're only 24, so you must have gotten into Kiss a little late in the game.

Rivers: I was totally secluded as a kid and didn't know about pop music at all, except that somehow I got hold of Kiss' Rock and Roll Over when I was seven. From there, I got interested in all their records. Pretty much all the music I listened to was Kiss. I started listening to the radio a little later on. Back in 1982 or '83, the classic rock stations would occasionally playIron Maiden or Judas Priest, and I was like, “Wow, this sounds great!” so I got those albums, too. Those guitar players ripped my head off- they were great. And then eventually I discovered some of the cooler stuff when I got out to L.A., like Joey Santiago from the Pixies. Obviously, I've ripped him off a lot.

GW: What other, for lack of a better word, ”alternative” guitar players are you into?

Rivers: Well, the Velvet Underground, of course. And I dig Brian May.

GW: Do you think it's important for someone who's just starting out to go back and explore the past, to supplement their diet of new bands like Weezer?

Rivers: Oh, totally. Well, I don't know, actually. If you want to be really wellrounded, well-cultured 13 year old, yeah, I guess so. But if you're 13, and you're just picking up the electric guitar, you should just go crazy. At some point, though, you've got to go back and listen to the classic stuff.

GW: Where did you grow up?

Rivers: I grew up in rural Connecticut.

GW: What do your parents do?

Rivers: Well, at the time they ran a massage school. [laughs] They're basically ex-hippies, so I'm the son of ex-hippies. In rural Connceticut, you basically have classic rock and that's about it. And classic rock just wasn't hard enough for me. But Tuesday nights at eight o'clock, they'd have the crunch hour on WCCC - Deep Purple and stuff like that.

GW: As ex-hippies, were your parents able to identify with the music you listened to?

Rivers: I tried to turn my mom on to Ace Frehley. I'd play her the “Shock Me” solo from Alive II because I just thought that was the greatest. She told me that it sounded like a dying cat. [laughs]

GW: How old were you when you actually started playing the guitar?

Rivers: I can't remember. I think it was right before the ninth grade. In eighth grade, I saw my friend's band play for class night. They played “Metal Health” and man it just blew me away. So I went out and got a guitar for my birthday.

GW: What kind of guitar was it?

Rivers: It was just a crappy Strat copy, kind of like the one I have now, actually. Then I went through a bunch of metal guitars, like a guild flying star, which is possibly one of the worst guitars ever made. It kind of looks like a B.C. Rich ironbird. What a terrible, terrible instrument. And then I got a Charvel Model Two. I liked that, but I hate it now of course.

GW: Were you a cool kid in school?

Rivers: No, I had a very small group of really close friends, and we were all metal heads-the only ones in the whole school. Those four years were really trying, what with the jocks and what we called the grits-the VoAg people...

GW: What's VoAg?

Rivers: Vocational Agriculture. It was huge at my school. We had one of the best departments in the country. But anyways, the jocks and the VoAg kids all hated us because we had long hair and wore ripped up jeans and Metallica patches on our denim jackets and stuff. They despised us!

GW: I gather you didn't play sports.

Rivers: Well, that's an interesting story: In our senior year, that close group of metal head friends I mentioned got together and said, “Lets play a sport, Dammit. It's been four years and we haven't done anything.” So we formed a lacrosse team. None of us had ever played lacrosse before, of course, so it was a disaster. We only got to play two games and they were against like junior varsity teams or whatever, and they killed us. It was really awful, but it was a lot of fun.

GW: So by then you must have had at least 10 metal heads in your clique.

Rivers: By senior year we had spread the word.

GW: Do you have siblings?

Rivers: Yeah. One of those close friends is my brothers, Leaves. He's a year younger than me. He actually just came up on stage in Cleveland and played a song with us.

GW: Does he also play in a band?

Rivers: No, not any more. He's just going to graduate school at the University of Michigan, studying environmental science. But we were in bands together as teenagers. Our first band we called Fury, and we played all Kiss covers. We did it album by album. First, we learned all of the songs off the first record and played only those songs, and so on.

GW: Did you play all of the songs in the sequence of the album?

Rivers: I don't think we went that far. But somehow, I got to play Ace Frehley's guitar parts but sing Paul Stanley's rhythm parts. There are certain advantages to being the older brother.

GW: What's a “Weezer”?

Rivers: I don't know. People ask me that all the time.

GW: You must know where the word came from.

Rivers: Well, I mean of course I know where the word "Weezer" came from, but I can't tell you.

GW: Is it a band secret?

Rivers: Yeah. [laughing] You've got to have something.

GW: Will you take it to your grave?

Rivers: Yeah I think so. But if I was going to reveal it, it would be in Guitar World.{We suspect the name was lifted from a Little Rascals character-GW ED

}

GW: Why did you move to L.A.?

Rivers: That's where all the cool bands were coming from. [Smiles] For example, Ratt, Motley Crue, and Quiet Riot.

GW: When did you move?

Rivers: I arrived there March 5, 1989.

GW: Did you move out there with your band?

Rivers: Yeah, we all moved out there and played a couple of shows. Then we fell apart really quickly.

GW: What happened?

Rivers: It's really harsh. Just getting out of high school and moving to a crappy one-room apartment in L.A. with 50,000 roaches. Five guys in one room with no money. It was really hard. Some people just gave up and went back to Connecticut. That's when I got the crazy idea to starting to sing and write songs, instead of just being a guitar player. I started to do that on my own.

GW: What was the band that you moved to California with called?

Rivers: I'll never tell you! [laughs] That's an even darker secret than the origin of Weezer.

GW: Just give me a hint-did the name have misspelled words in it, like “Slik” with a K?

Rivers: No, no it wasn't that. In defense of our horrible style, at least we weren't glammy. We were heavy and aggressive.

GW: What well-known bands were you most influenced by?

Rivers: That's as far as i'm going to go... Well I'll give you a hint. There's another metal band from Connecticut, who still are actually around-still making records and going on tour. They were a big influence on us because they were from Connecticut.

GW: A well-known band?

Rivers: You've probably heard of them?

GW: What, like Krokus? No, Krokus were Swiss.

Rivers: Not as big as Krokus was. They were on Metal Blade for the longest time.

GW: Vain?

Rivers: NO.

GW: Oh, Fates Warning.

Rivers: You got it! I took guitar lessons from Jim Matheos, their guitar player.

GW: What was that like?

Rivers: Kick-ass. I would try and figure out all their songs, and he'd just write them out in tablature for me.

GW: Would you recommend the move to L.A. for other aspiring musicians?

Rivers: I would, because you get exposed to all different kinds of music. If you're way out in the middle of nowhere, you could be doing something completely stupid and no one will ever tell you, because they don't know the difference. If you're in L.A. and you're doing something stupid, everyone is going to tell you. It's really hard and humiliating , and it's tough to get it going, but it helps to be in a major musical center like L.A..

GW: When was Weezer formed?

Rivers: Our first rehearsal was on February 14, 1992. Me and [drummer] Pat Wilson had been writing songs for a few months before that. We wanted to write a bunch of tunes before we even played together, so that we could have an idea of where we were heading before we started wasting our time and money paying for a rehearsal studio. I didn't want to get back into a band until I felt like I had a bunch of songs that were good and that had cohesive style. So I just wrote songs and didn't play at all for a long time. “Undone,” “Jonas,” “Only in Dreams,” and “The World has Turned and Left Me Here” were all written before we even played together.

GW: One of the things that makes Weezer songs more interesting than most is that you don't rely exclusively on root/fifth chords. Instead, you use thirds and other intervals to create voice leading melodies. Is this a conscious effort on your part or more the result of a happy accident?

Rivers: It is a conscious thing, but it's not like we've studied our voice-leading rules; it's more just what feels neat under the fingers. We try to keep all the voicings really low to give us a crunchy sound. A lot of times, the most important thing is the bass note-the lowest note on the guitar or what the bass is playing; instead of the root, it will be the third or the fifth. We'll throw in a walking line or something to give the bass line a little more interest and to make it not sound so “duhn-nuh-nuh-nuh” [sings typical punk/hardcore bassline, resembling the Offspring's “Self Esteem”]

GW: Was it difficult to be an “alternative” band in L.A.?

Rivers: It was really strange at first, because the whole Sunset Strip scene, which was basically bands just arriving from Idaho who play like Poison or Guns and Roses, was still happening. The whole rest of the city was copying the Seattle sound, so it was really hard to find a We'd end up playing with all these other bands that sounded nothing like us. We'd play a gig every week without fail, and it was really depressing because we just weren't building a following at all. And then record companies started coming even still before we had a following.

GW: The labels just got wind of you?

Rivers: Yeah. The way it works in L.A. is as soon as one company finds out and comes to check you out, they all find out and go crazy.

GW: Was Weezer the subject of a label bidding war?

Rivers: No, I'm not saying that the labels are willing to give you a lot of money. They're just willing to take you out to dinner, kiss your ass, and make you feel like a rock star. But as it turns out, 90 percent of those companies hear your tape and see you live and say, ”You guys suck!” They express all kinds of interest, and suddenly they just turn around and act like they never knew you. One of the very few companies to actually stick with it was Geffen.

GW: What kind of music are you listening to now?

Rivers: I don't know why it is, maybe because I'm constantly surrounded by all this modern rock and pressure to write new songs, but for some reason I only listen to classical.

GW: In our last interview [Tune Ups Dec. 94] you said that you stayed in college right up until you recorded Weezer.

Rivers: I was still in school on May 10, when the record came out. I brought it to class and said, ”Look everybody.” They were all like, ”Yeah, cool, whatever.” I was at community college in Los Angeles. I'd finish up my two years and was going to transfer to U.C. Berkeley, but I got a record deal.

GW: Do you miss college?

Rivers: I really do. I just applied for fall '95 to U.C. Berkeley. I was an english major, but since then I've really gotten into classical music, so maybe I'll do music.

GW: Is the rest of the band upset that you're planning to take time off?

Rivers: No! We're all really looking forward to a break, because we've been working non-stop. Everyone has solo projects that they're really dying to get working on.

GW: Why did you choose Ric Ocasek to produce Weezer?

Rivers: The record company was really pushing us to work with a producer, so we figured that if we had to have somebody in the studio with us, it might as well just be someone who writes good songs-and the Car's first record just rules.We sent Ric a tape and he called right back and said, ”You guys are great, I want to work with you.” Ric was also one of the only producers who had any interest in us at all, so it was kind of an easy choice.

GW: Was working with him everything that you had hoped for?

Rivers: Well, we weren't asking for a lot, actually. We were just looking for somebody to give us advice if we needed it, and to not get in the way. And that's what he did. He was always right behind me, to my right. And if I was ever stuck, and needed an idea, I'd say “Ric, what should I do here?” And he'd always have a good suggestion.

GW: The guitars on Weezer achieve maximum crunch without sounding harsh or buzzy. How did you get that sound?

Rivers: After trying every possible combination, we found that we got the best sound when my amp was nearly inaudible and the mic's level was cranked up to compensate for that.

GW: Were all your tracks recorded with one amp?

Rivers: Yeah, just this Mesa amp. A really old 50-watt thing. I don't even know what it's called. It's not even a boogie; it just says Mesa Engineering. As far as guitars go, I used Ric's Les Paul Junior- a '58 or '57 or '59. I think the record sounds incredible, especially if you turn it up. Our record was mixed to sound best incredibly loud, where as most records today are meant to sound good at a low volume, like if you just hear them casually on the radio or something. Our record sounds like crap if you have it low.

GW: Were the early-eighties-style keyboard sounds on the album Ric's idea?

Rivers: No, everyone thinks that's Ric's fault, but it's really mine. In fact, he hated the keyboards and asked me to take them off. I said, “No way, I know they suck, but they're staying on there.”

GW: You recorded Weezer almost a year-and-a-half-ago. At this point are you tired of playing those same 10 songs every night?

Rivers: I was sick of playing them before we did our record! We practiced every night and played them out for a year before we even got a deal. Once you play a song a hundred times, you're pretty much sick of it. But tonight we're playing Madison Square Garden-There will be twenty thousand people singing along to “The Sweater Song.” It doesn't bother you so much when you hear all those people getting excited.

GW: Are there any plans to record a second album yet?

Rivers: It's not looking good; we're planning to tour through most of '95. Then if I go to school in the fall, I don't know when we'll record. Maybe next winter. In any case, there are some good songs on the album that could still be singles and I'd rather not pass up any opportunity to release them because most people only know a band through their singles. And if you're releasing singles, you've got to be touring.

GW: Between quirkiness of “ The Sweater Song” and the goofiness of the “Buddy Holly” video, do you worry that Weezer might come to be viewed as a humor/joke band?

Rivers: Yeah, that would be a bummer. But I think we're going to release “Say it Aint So” next, and hopefully that'll help. The thing is, when you go to do a video, you start out with a serious idea and you think the song is serious. But then something happens, and your video just goes crazy and ends up being really funny. If you take a video too seriously, it just comes out like crap. I don't know if there has ever been a good serious rock video. I guess some people like “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam, but that couldn't be us. If we did that it would be terrible.

GW: Was it your or Spike Jonze's idea to film “Buddy Holly” as though it were an episode of Happy Days?

Rivers: That was Spike Jonze's. He also directed the ”Undone” video. He doesn't suck, unlike every other video director. We asked him to do the “Buddy Holly” video. He called up a couple days later and said “I got a good idea.” And he told us the idea and it's like, ”Yeah, That rules.”Now Henry Winkler's going to introduce us at our next show in L.A..

GW: Are you going to call your next album Weezer II?

Rivers: [laughs] We've thought about it. Actually, we thought about that and Back For More, Back for the Attack...

GW: Dokken!

Rivers: Return to the Scene of the Crime, Repeat Offender, names like that.