Guitar World interview with Rivers Cuomo - March 1997
By Tom Beaujour
After Weezer went multi-Platinum, guitarist Rivers Cuomo took a year off, grew a beard and went to college. Now he gives a lesson on the making of Pinkerton, the band's raunchy sophomore outing.
"If we all stay cool and follow the rules, we'll have a great time!"
It's lunch period at Shore Crest High School in Seattle, Washington, and Weezer are about to play an "unplugged" set to a cafeteria full of giddy students. Despite the dismally un-rock-and-roll introduction they have just received from young Lad Martin, a Shore Crest freshman who won a "Have Weezer Play at Your School" contest sponsored by a local radio station, the band is in good-enough spirits. As they work their way through the all-acoustic gig, the audience—except for a few burly jocks in the corner whose disdain for Weezer's ultra-clever power pop is as large as their oversized Rage Against the Machine T-shirts—screams and howls its approval and support of frontman Rivers Cuomo and his bandmates, guitarist Brian Bell, bassist Matt Sharp and drummer Pat Wilson.
At times, the students' enthusiasm takes on a downright eerie quality. During the bittersweet "Pink Triangle," in which Cuomo laments the fact that the girl he has a crush on turns out to be a lesbian, the students of Shore Crest seem completely oblivious to the song's narrative, but whoop and holler wildly each time the naughty "L" word is pronounced in the chorus. It's a reaction that could be expected from such a young audience; unlike so many grunge poets who tap into teen angst for their subject matter, Cuomo's lyrics are essentially autobiographical and as such very much geared toward the 20-somethings of this world.
"Right after the show, a girl came up to me with a little tape recorder and asked me, 'Why do you think high school students relate to your music?' And I was completely stumped. I didn't say anything," Cuomo recounts later, nestled in the comfort of the Weezer tour bus. "I think they probably just relate to it on a more pre-verbal level."
Cuomo, however, is one of the most verbal rock musicians in current circulation, an avowed bookworm who took a year off after he finished touring behind Weezer's double-Platinum 1994 debut to enroll at one of the nation's most prestigious Ivy-League schools (the identity of which he insists on keeping a secret). If going back to school at the peak of one's career seems like pure insanity, Cuomo explains that for him, there was no possible alternative.
"I knew it was what I had to do, creatively," he says. "I had to take time off and do nothing except be by myself and think and read and write songs. And I can't do any of that when I'm on the road because I'm having fun—there's nothing to write songs about. But as soon as I get off the road and I'm in school, I'm lonely and miserable. Then I start writing."
The songs Cuomo penned during his recent college stint are textbook Weezer: classic power-pop riffs, ferociously catchy hooks and anthemic choruses, all topped with habitually blunt lyrics that bubble with wit. The new album, cryptically entitled Pinkerton (a reference to the morally bankrupt Captain Pinkerton, a character from the Giacomo Puccini opera Madame Butterfly), is a loose, raunchy production, a far cry from the radio-friendly slickness that producer Ric Ocasek imparted to the band's debut.
"I like the way that both albums sound," says Cuomo, "But I think that Pinkerton is a lot truer to our vision of what a Weezer record should be, which is one of the reasons why we produced it ourselves. I love pop music and I feel that if I have any talent, it's in pop music, so those are the songs I write. But then when it comes time to record them or play them, if they're done too slickly, it just sounds terrible to me. You've got to fuck with it a bit."
How would you describe the typical Weezer fan?
Our hard-core fans are...shit, I don't know! It seems that they're of all ages; from seven to 27, if not older. I can't really pin it on one particular age group. We have a really good base of hard-core fans that are all nuts. They're very devoted and they hang on every word in the lyrics and they really get the music. They really understand. And on top of that there's a lot of people who just saw the video and bought the record and don't really give a fuck.
Your lyrics are essentially autobiographical, and as such, quite age-specific. They very explicitly describe the experience of a 25-year-old.
Yeah, that's totally true. I find it so strange that younger people relate to the lyrics. I know that when I was eight and listening to Kiss, I didn't understand what the fuck they were saying. I mean, "Me, you in the ladies' room." That went right over my head. It's only now that I'm in my mid-twenties that I realize the genius of all those lyrics. But back when I was a kid, I definitely related to the music, and I loved it.
Who do you think the best Kiss lyricist was, Gene, Paul, Ace or Peter?
I think Gene. Especially now, the song that touches me the most is "Goin' Blind."
After finishing the Weezer tour, you shelved the band and went to college for a full year. That's an unusual decision for someone who's just had a double-Platinum album. Why did you feel such a pressing need to go? Were you burned out on rock and roll?
I had an all-consuming obsession with the idea of moving back to the Northeast, going to an Ivy League school, practicing piano a lot, not partying, not rocking and finding a really nice, pure girl to settle down with.
The heartache and romantic frustrations that permeate Pinkerton suggest that you didn't find that girl.
Well, I found such a girl, but at about that time, I started to get the urge to rock again. [laughs] And so I turned around and here I am again, rocking harder than ever. I think I'm just gonna go back and forth.
So you may or may not be in the music business for the long haul?
I don't have any long-term goals. I just like being in school. I don't want to be out in the real world with a job or anything like that. I want to stay in school for the rest of my life alternating with being a rock star.
It certainly seems like a pleasant juxtaposition.
I don't know how long I can maintain it, though.
Were the other members of the band upset by your decision to go back to school?
No. I think that they were really happy that they could have time to do their own things. We were all pretty much completely burnt on this whole thing.
How long did you end up touring behind your last record?
A year and a half straight. And the year leading up to that was spent doing nothing but playing the same songs in the same clubs in L.A. So we needed to take some time off to regain the eye of the tiger...
...And the thrill of the fight.
And we've got it now.
How about the record label? Did they put the screws to you when you told them you were splitting to go to college?
No. When you think about it, the normal thing to do when you're done touring behind an album is to take time off and write songs for the next one. That's all I did. If I hadn't gone to school—if I had stayed in Los Angeles and hung out at the Viper Room and partied—I surely wouldn't have written the songs on Pinkerton, and the songs I would have written probably would have sucked. I wouldn't have found the inspiration.
As Weezer's leader and songwriter, do you feel a responsibility for the livelihood and well-being of the three other members of the band?
I never worry about livelihood for myself, or for anyone else. But I do feel an enormous amount of pressure to write good music and to make a good album. How well it does commercially doesn't really matter so much anymore. Of course, I say that now, when we're successful, but maybe a year from today, when we're all starving, I'll have a completely different point of view. But at the moment, at least, I could care less about commercial success.
In college, were you pretty much anonymous or were you "That guy from Weezer?"
I was totally anonymous and that was completely important to my ability to write songs. I saw people with Weezer shirts on walk right by me and not even notice me. And while that was probably for the better, and I'm glad it was like that, it was like a hard crash coming down from being a rock star to being a normal person again—having to wait in lines and stuff.
When you saw people in Weezer shirts, were you tempted to blow your own cover?
Yeah. "Hey it's me! Give me some attention!" But they didn't notice.
The lyrics to Pinkerton tell the story of someone who's having real difficulty connecting with anyone on a deep emotional level. There's always something getting in the way, be it your rock music, your own hang-ups, or, in the case of "Pink Triangle," the other person's sexual orientation. Was your year in college really that frustrating?
That's pretty much what my life is like. It's probably what life is like for a lot of people, actually.
Are those feelings of isolation exacerbated by the fact that you're also a rock star?
For most people, the initial impetus to becoming a rock star is to cure oneself of loneliness. I wanted to have this feeling that millions of people love me to charge me up and make me feel secure. The frustrating part about becoming a rock star is realising that the loneliness doesn't go away. Then you start to think, "If I can sell a couple million records and I'm still really lonely, that just makes it all the more depressing." Especially when I still have all the exact same problems. I'm still really shy. I can't talk to girls. That was particularly frustrating this past year at school It was like, "I've got a Platinum record and I can't even say hello."
And you never even pulled out the "Weezer card" to open the door?
Well, for several other reasons, I was really incapable of talking to anyone. I had this big metal cage pinned into my leg which I needed because I had my leg broken to have it lengthened. I was walking around with that and a cane. I had a really long beard. I looked really weird, and people gave me a fair amount of distance in the hallways.
Pinkerton is only about 35 minutes long, which is unusually short by today's standards.
Hey, Van Halen II [WarnerBros., 1979] was shorter than that.
Did you want to make a short record or was that all the material you had?
I had quite a few other songs, but I really wanted the album to tell a story, so any song that I wrote that didn't further the story didn't really fit.
Would you describe Pinkerton as a concept album?
Yeah it is, in a subtle way. It's not like 2112 [Mercury, 1976] by Rush or anything, but there is a story. The songs are sequenced in the order that I wrote them, so you can kind of hear the evolution of my personality over the two years. I wrote some songs that were about totally random things, so I didn't include any of them. They're good, but they just weren't part of the whole Pinkerton saga.
The album was recorded in three separate sessions spanning a year. Were you completing each song as you went?
No, we just recorded the basic tracks first. "Why Bother" was recorded in September, right before I started school.
Was it disorienting to do overdubs on six-month-old basic tracks?
No, it wasn't weird at all. I was really excited. I did a lot of my overdubs during spring break, by which time I had total cabin fever. I wanted to get back to the good life. I wanted to rock.
Was "The Good Life" recorded during those sessions?
No, that song was recorded right after school let out for the summer—right after I had finished finals. I was really on a roll at that point.
Despite the extended span of the recording, the album has a very live feel to it.
Most of these songs had very little preparation going into the studio. I flew out to L.A. for Christmas vacation, we rehearsed for a couple of days, I taught the band a few songs, we worked out our basic parts and then just went into the studio and pressed the record.
While that method can yield spontaneity, recording songs right after you've just learned them can also lead you to rely on your old stock riffs and default patterns instead of working out special parts for each song. Did you find that to be a problem?
That was an issue, but that's the beauty of modern technology. You can go back and record over something that sounds too lame. But I still think spontaneity wins out.
Especially in the vocal delivery.
Well, we recorded the vocals with all of us in the same room, singing at the same time around these three mikes. That also had its good and bad points. If one of my band members sang a really sour note, it also ended up bleeding heavily onto my track so that in order to keep some of the tracks of myself that I really liked I had to accept that there would be come pretty strange stuff in the background. But I think that overall it was way worth it, because there's such a live, fun vibe about the whole recording.
Why did you decide to produce this album yourselves?
I've never really wanted to be a producer. I just feel that the best way for us to sound like ourselves is to record on our own. For the first album, the record company felt very strongly that we needed somebody, so we asked Ric Ocasek, who I really view more as a great songwriter than as some hot-shot producer guy.
Did the label want you to have a producer this time as well?
No, I think that this time, they thought we could handle a big studio on our own.
I guess a certain freedom comes with moving a ton of units.
Yeah. And then it's probably taken away if you don't move those units.
Were there any albums by other bands whose production you tried to emulate?
I don't know that we were modeling Pinkerton on anything in particular, but we really like some of the stuff Steve Albini has done, like the Pixies' Surfer Rosa [Elektra, 1988] or Nirvana's In Utero [DGC, 1993]. We were also really into the Flaming Lips—and above all big drum sounds.
Some of the guitar sounds are really abrasive.
Some of that was running, like, four distortion pedals into each other and trying to get something that sounded completely insane.
You said earlier that you aren't really concerned with commercial success anymore. Yet you must have known while you were making this album that you were making a really raw record that wasn't exactly radio friendly.
Yeah, I was aware of that, but I always have such confidence in good songs. I feel that if the song is great, people will like it, no matter how it's recorded. I think that maybe I was just hoping that the songs on this album were good enough so people would like them even though they aren't totally polished. Whenever a song like "Buddy Holly" is loved by millions of people, they're probably not connecting to the smart part of it so much as they are with the more gimmicky parts. So maybe what attracted such a large audience to our first album was the gimmicky parts.
Pinkerton, however, is gimmick-free.
Yeah, we trimmed that part of ourselves—it was the natural thing to do. So I think we're also going to trim some of our audience, which is unfortunate. We were never one of the top bands like Green Day or Offspring anyway; we were always a notch below. Maybe now even two notches below. Yeah it's a bummer, but I don't really feel like I have a choice in the matter. I've got to do what I've got to do, and right now that means not making the gimmicky video and not using language that's quirky. It means speaking more directly. Maybe the audience will be smaller, but at least they'll be liking us for the right reasons.
What guitars and amps did you use in making the record?
I think I used Gibson Les Pauls. I don't remember whose they were, where they came from, what kind of specifications they had—but I know they were Gibsons. For amps I used Marshalls. I also used a Big Muff quite a bit. It as about as standard a setup as you could have.
Especially on the album opener, "Tired of Sex," you really let your metal chops fly [Cuomo is a reformed shredder who once studied with a member of Fates Warning--T.B.]
I think that's the lead from the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane"—note for note, if I remember correctly. It's either that or "No One Like You." Can I get sued for that?
Did Ric restrain your guitar playing on the last record?
No, I restrained myself. Now I feel that all the different influences—metal and other—in my guitar playing are starting to come together more. I don't feel like I have to control my playing so much anymore. I can just let it all hang out. Sometimes it comes out sounding like "Rock You Like a Hurricane."
Who are your main lead playing influences?
The Scorpions, without a doubt—and Ace Frehley. My formative years were spent learning all the hot licks of the metal masters. Later on, I got turned onto people like the Pixies' Joey Santiago. I took that in, but it could only go so deep. I had already been moulded. Hot licks are in my bones.
Rock needs more guitar solos these days, anyway.
It's undeniably great to be on stage and to play an electric guitar. It's fun.
A lot of the solos on Pinkerton are very melodic and thematic. I assume they were worked out ahead of time.
I worked the leads out in the studio. I'd start to play and I'd hear the beginnings of a cool idea, so I'd go back and play it again and try to develop that idea. Usually it would take me about an hour before I came up with a full solo that was musical from beginning to end. Many times I would sing the complete melody onto tape first, or write it down on paper. A lot of times, I would have the whole solo written out before I would even play it. That was the method for the more melodic solos. On other stuff like "Tired of Sex" I just went out there and jammed--and then what do I get? "Rock You Like a Hurricane."
Was it difficult for the band to work out differences without a producer to mediate?
We worked together better than ever—better than with a producer. It was like being in a dream band. We would all stand around and have input on each other's parts and our egos weren't so big that we refused the input. It was really healthy and productive.
When push comes to shove, are you "the boss?"
There's a certain amount of executive rights that I have because I write the songs. If there's a disagreement that we can't resolve, I think that there's just a general understanding that I have the ultimate right of approval. But I almost never have to exercise that right because we all have the same goal: to make the songs as good as possible.