Harvard Crimson interview with Rivers Cuomo - April 26, 2006
Rivers' End: The Director's Cut
Published On Wednesday, April 26, 2006 11:04 PM
By ABE J. RIESMAN Crimson Staff Writer
The Harvard Crimson: When have you been at Harvard, exactly?
Rivers: I transferred in as a second-semester sophomore in the fall of ’95.
The Harvard Crimson: And you were there for the semester after that, the spring semester of ’96?
The Harvard Crimson: Were you there for fall semester of ’96?
Rivers: No. “Pinkerton” came out on September 24th, and we toured that fall. And then I came back at the end of January.
The Harvard Crimson: Okay, and you were there for that semester.
The Harvard Crimson: Okay, and then in fall of ’97, you came back to Cambridge, but you didn’t attend?
Rivers: Right. I backed out at the last second.
The Harvard Crimson: So that was it for a while, and then you came back in Fall of 2004?
The Harvard Crimson: What do you think your favorite course has been, since you’ve been here?
Rivers: So many. Music 51 immediately comes to mind, with John Stewart.
The Harvard Crimson: Why?
Rivers: I feel like I got a lot out of that class that is gonna stick with me for the rest of my life, just because he stresses learning through experience so much. Everything we learned, we learned on the keyboard and we practiced over and over. So, all those little chord progressions and voice leadings—they’re in my bones, as well as my ear. So, I just feel that I got a tremendous amount out of that class.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you think a lot of that went into specific aspects of your music that weren’t there on the Blue Album?
Rivers: Well, I think one thing I got out of the class, one specific thing, was maybe an even greater attention to counterpoint, which is having one melody move in a different direction and a different way than another melody. And in pop or rock music, that’s expressed mostly in the contrast between the vocal melody and then the bassline or the chord progression. A lot of rock music doesn’t pay much attention to that—a lot of times, the guitar line and the vocal line move together But some rock musicians—myself, included—really try to have there be a counterpoint there. And I was really into that on “Pinkerton”. So, that could be an influence from Music 51.
The Harvard Crimson: Are there any professors you’ve had a close relationship with?
Rivers: Yeah, I had a very close relationship with my Expos teacher, Naomi Steven. We were very close throughout my first year at Harvard, and we’d have lunch all the time and just talk for hours. At that time, I was working on the “Pinkerton” songs a lot, so I feel like she was, in a way, a collaborator and an influence.
The Harvard Crimson: Which Expos class was it, out of curiosity?
Rivers: I think it was just called “The Essay,” Expos 17. Yeah, she was involved in that whole process.
The Harvard Crimson: So, would you go to her with lyrics you’d been working on, and she’d critique?
Rivers: No, it wasn’t like that. It was more like, I would discuss with her the emotional and romantic situations in my life, and we’d also talk about ways to express that in art, and what ways other artists have expressed that. [pause] I can’t be too specific, because it involves other people’s private lives. But one example is, in “Pinkerton”, in “El Scorcho,” two lines in the song are actually taken from someone else’s essay in my Expos class. Because at one point, we had to do a little workshop thing, and we each got assigned to review someone else’s essay. So, I reviewed this one person’s essay, and I liked some of the lines in it, so I took them and used them in the song.
The Harvard Crimson: Can you tell us which lines?
Rivers: Well, if you look at the printed lyrics, two of them have quotes around them, so those are the ones.
The Harvard Crimson: Have you told the person?
Rivers: Oh, yeah.
The Harvard Crimson: And they’re cool with that?
Rivers: Mm-hm. Yeah. They were at the time. There’s actually a whole lot more drama behind the whole thing, but I just can’t get into it.
The Harvard Crimson: Behind the whole album, or just that particular song, or the Expos?
Rivers: All of it.
The Harvard Crimson: Are there any physical spots on campus that have particular significance for you?
Rivers: I think this cafeteria. Yeah. I obviously eat here three times a day and take long meals and just hang out with people, and this is like, this is where I live, apart from my room, which is where I do all my work. So, I have a lot of great memories here.
The Harvard Crimson: How about from previous times when you were here, before you were living on campus?
Rivers: Well, I didn’t live on campus.
The Harvard Crimson: So, you didn’t spend much time on campus? You’d just go to class and then commute back home?
Rivers: Yeah. Sometimes, I’d hang out if I had a break between classes.
The Harvard Crimson: But the campus wasn’t terribly significant for you, physically, at that point?
Rivers: Well, it was, but I don’t remember one place in particular that was significant.
The Harvard Crimson: What surprised you most about your experiences at Harvard?
Rivers: I was very surprised at how friendly people are, and at how outgoing and nice and good-mannered people are. I guess, growing up, I just assumed people would be kind of snobby here. And I was amazed when people would just come up to me and start talking. They just seemed very unpretentious.
The Harvard Crimson: So, when you were coming here, were you hoping for people to be pretentious? Or were you expecting that? You had your pick of schools to go to, so if you expected people to be like that…
Rivers: I think that, before I came here, I was thinking that I wasn’t gonna have any social life at all, and I didn’t care. That wasn’t why I was coming here, so it didn’t matter to me.
The Harvard Crimson: Is there anything that’s been disappointing for you about Harvard?
Rivers: [Long pause] Like everyone else, I feel like there’s a lot of things that I would have loved to have done while I was here, but I just didn’t have time. And so, there’s a feeling of, “Aw, man, if only I had another semester...”
The Harvard Crimson: Like, classes you’d want to take?
Rivers: Classes I wanna take, or extracurricular activities, or musicals, or the choir.
The Harvard Crimson: Actually, I wanted to get to that—I read somewhere that you auditioned for a choir when you first got here. What was that like, and what happened?
Rivers: I think there’s this one general audition you take, and they tell you which choir you’ve gotten into, and I had my heart set on Collegium Musicum, which is just, like, the standard choir, but it’s pretty good. Whereas the other one is just, like, they let any joker in. And I…I didn’t get into the good choir.
The Harvard Crimson: So, I assume that was a disappointment
Rivers: Yeah, I was disappointed, because I’ve always loved singing in choirs. I’ve been in them ever since 8th grade. I was in the Connecticut All-State Choir in High School, and obviously, I sing for a living.
The Harvard Crimson: Right—you’d think they’d let you in, automatically.
Rivers: Well, they didn’t know who I was, which was good. Because I’d want to be let in on the merits of my singing, not reputation.
The Harvard Crimson: Are there other extracurriculars you did end up doing?
Rivers: I don’t think so. When I was here in the ’90s, I was really busy outside of school, playing music with local Boston musicians. I have a lot of friends in bands around here, and I was going out to clubs and that sort of thing. And this time, I spend a lot of time on meditation, and that seems to keep me occupied.
The Harvard Crimson: Is there any part of the Harvard life that you really wish you’d been a part of? You said musicals—would you have wanted to do theater here?
Rivers: Yeah. If…Yeah, I get stage fright, though, so I don’t know if I could have pulled it off. And I can’t dance. But yeah, it would have been great to be in a musical. I was in “Grease” in high school.
The Harvard Crimson: Right, you were Johnny Casino. Have you gone to any musical performances on campus? Do you have friends that you go see performances of?
Rivers: Yeah, I have friends in C-Sharp, and I think they’re great. I really love those songs. If there was one group I would join, that would be it. But, I don’t speak Chinese, so it would be tough.
The Harvard Crimson: How has this semester differed from Fall 2004?
Rivers: Yeah, I’m really different, and I think the main difference is I’m engaged. And, in 2004, I was looking for somebody. So, I seem to be less concerned with meeting people this time. Like, I’m happy to meet people and hang out and have fun, but I don’t feel, like, extremely driven to do it. So, a lot of times, people will send me emails—“Hey, there’s this party, we’re going out to this club, you should come,” and I just kinda say, “Enh.” I gotta stay in, do work. Because I feel content already.
The Harvard Crimson: So, wait, when you were here in Fall 2004, were you dating? Were you going on dates with students?
Rivers: I wasn’t dating, but I was just…I was…I definitely had my eyes open. But, I don’t think I technically went on any dates. But, you know, I’d have dinner in the dining hall here.
The Harvard Crimson: Typical date for a college student—eating in the dining hall.
The Harvard Crimson: What’s an average day in your life like, these days?
Rivers: It’s really simple. I get up at 6 and meditate for an hour, and then, throughout the rest of the day, I’m either in class, or I’m in my room studying, or I’m in the dining hall. And then, I meditate again at 5:30.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you meditate with anyone?
Rivers: It’s just by myself. But, once a week, I go to a group sitting.
The Harvard Crimson: Is it students?
Rivers: It’s not students. Although, there is one guy in Cabot, who has taken a Vipassana course. I don’t know him.
The Harvard Crimson: Have you been writing at all, in terms of prose or songs, while you’ve been at Harvard this semester?
Rivers: Yeah, before Spring Break, I was working on some songs, but since I got back, I haven’t had time.
The Harvard Crimson: How do you make friends here? Do people come up to you? Do you actively seek people out?
Rivers: Yeah, it’s great—that’s the best part about being famous, is that people want to get to know me, so all I have to do is sit down, and then people come up to me and introduce themselves, and I make friends, and then I meet their friends. It seems like I have a very happy and comfortable social life, which is something I never had when I was younger.
The Harvard Crimson: Are there any awkward situations you've been in, where people have tried to be your friend, but have been too nosy, or you haven't gotten along with them and had to avoid them?
Rivers: No. I mean, sometimes people are a little nervous or awkward at first, but once they calm down, then they're generally pretty interesting and intelligent people here.
The Harvard Crimson: How close do you feel to the friends you've made here? Do you plan to keep in contact with them after you graduate, or are they just fun people to be acquaintances with while you're here, and then you're going to go back to your LA friends and your bandmates?
Rivers: [Long pause] I don't know. I guess that'd be a good question for any graduating student. I guess I'm totally open to it, and my friends will know how to get in touch with me.
The Harvard Crimson: So, do you discuss your life's work with people here? Do people know that you're “Rivers?” Or are you just Rivers?
Rivers: Well, I don't know what people know, unless they tell me.
The Harvard Crimson: But, among your friends, does your life's work come up a lot, or do you just talk about school?
Rivers: I think people feel comfortable asking me about anything, but my nature is a listener, rather than a talker, so I think we usually end up talking about their lives. But I'm totally open to talk about anything.
The Harvard Crimson: Have there been any instances when somebody's asked a question that's too personal, and you've had to deflect?
Rivers: I think I used to not want to talk about the band sometimes. Not because it was personal, but because it was a source of anxiety and tension for me, and when I came here, I wanted to leave it behind and take a break from it and focus on something else for a while. So, when someone brought it up, it would be painful for me. But now, I'm relaxed about it. It doesn't bother me.
The Harvard Crimson: In your initial days at Harvard, you sounded conflicted [about your anonymity at Harvard]. Which was the more dominant emotion? Feeling isolated, or feeling glad to be isolated?
Rivers: [Laughs] I think I was probably…[Pause] Thinking back on it, I can see how silly I was, but, ultimately, I think I was happy that I was isolated and going through tough times, and in pain.
The Harvard Crimson: Happy to be in pain?
The Harvard Crimson: Both mental and physical, right? You were in a leg brace at the time—what was that like?
Rivers: It was literally like having, I think, about seven arrows lodged into your legbone, and then having to walk around with them lodged in like that for thirteen months, with only Advil.
The Harvard Crimson: Was it only Advil? Were you taking other painkillers?
Rivers: I think the first two months, I had Demerol, but, they warned me to get off that.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you think that affected either your experiences at Harvard or your songwriting at the time, or was it just another cherry on the top of all the pain you were going through?
Rivers: Well, I think physical pain, long-lasting physical pain like that, can really sweeten a work of art. So, I think it did have a big impact on that second album. And it affected me in school, because I was far less comfortable getting to know new people. I looked strange, and I was handicapped.
The Harvard Crimson: Was that what the line in “The Good Life” is about? Having to walk with a cane?
The Harvard Crimson: I always thought that was a metaphor. You speak about your time working on “Pinkerton” that your pain sweetened the process of making a work of art—
Rivers: Not sweeten the process. Sweeten the result. [Laughs]
The Harvard Crimson: Do you look back on the days when you were working on the second half of “Pinkerton” with a certain kind of wistfulness for that pain?
Rivers: No. Not at all.
The Harvard Crimson: But how do you balance the fact that you feel that the process sucked, but that the end result was, as you say, a sweet work of art? Do you still have to go through that kind of pain, in order to produce something?
Rivers: [Long pause] Ah…no, no I don't think…I don't think you have to suffer. But, at the same time, I don't think you can be indulgent, either. You can't just load yourself with pleasures.
The Harvard Crimson: Sort of a middle path?
Rivers: Yeah. I think…my theory is that…detachment will yield the best results.
The Harvard Crimson: From both pain and pleasure?
Rivers: Yeah, and ah…I want to…I think the only way to gague this hypothesis is to look at the music it results in. If you like the sound of “Pinkerton” better than what I'll come up with in a more detached state of mind, then you should conclude that, yeah, suffering is necessary to produce good works of art, but that may not be the case for everyone. I mean, it's one of our least successful records, in a way.
The Harvard Crimson: So, do you think you succeeded in being more detached in the songwriting for, say, ’’Make Believe’’?
Rivers: Well, I was moving in that direction. I started moving in that direction. But still, the song “Hold Me,” for example—I was putting myself through difficulties.
The Harvard Crimson: Intentionally how?
Rivers: In that case, I was fasting. It was that similar kind of physical pain and suffering that lent a certain sweetness to that song.
The Harvard Crimson: But, at that time, you'd started meditating, no?
Rivers: No, that was right before I started meditating.
The Harvard Crimson: So, the work that you've been doing right now—do you think you're getting closer to that detachment?
The Harvard Crimson: But when you say “detachment”, do you mean detachment from your personality?
Rivers: No, I mean detachment from the pleasant or unpleasant sensations of my body.
The Harvard Crimson: So, purely physical?
Rivers: Well, the body and the mind are interrelated.
The Harvard Crimson: But one of the accusations that's been made is that, since The Green Album, your song topics have become less and less vividly about personal experiences. Do you agree with that assessment, or is that just in the ear of the beholder?
Rivers: No, I would agree with that, for the most part. The Green Album and Maladroit were, very intentionally, not about me. Not about what was going on in my life, at least in a conscious way.
The Harvard Crimson: And “Make Believe”?
Rivers: It's more about me again. But not so much about the details of my life. I would try to write about the experiences of my life in a more universal way; using more universal language, so it probably still doesn't feel as personal as ’’Pinkerton’’.
The Harvard Crimson: Getting back to “Pinkerton”—would it be at all appropriate to call “Pinkerton” “The Harvard Album”?
Rivers: Well, the first four songs were not written here. “Tired of Sex”—that's an LA song.
The Harvard Crimson: From back in the Zoom days?
Rivers: No, it was written in LA, after the Blue Album was recorded, but before it was released, at the time when Weezer was becoming kind of popular in the LA clubs. But we didn't have an album out yet. “Getchoo” was written in Connecticut. “Why Bother” was written in LA. And what's the other…? Oh, right, “No Other One.” That was actually written in Long Island.
The Harvard Crimson: But then, the subsequent six…
Rivers: Yeah, the other six songs are very much Harvard. They definitely feel born of this atmosphere here.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you feel that, if you hadn't come to Harvard, you would have ended up putting out “[Songs from the Black Hole
Rivers: No, that was scrapped before I got to Harvard.
The Harvard Crimson: I guess, then, more generally—do you feel that your experiences at Harvard in 1995 and 1996 changed the direction of the album? Was it going to be a different album, and then being here shifted that?
Rivers: Absolutely. Yeah, the people I met, the experiences I had that year.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you think it would have been a more—and I hate this word—”upbeat” album, if you hadn't come to Harvard?
Rivers: No, I think wherever I was, I would have ended up in a similar emotional space, probably.
The Harvard Crimson: So, getting to the songs—could you tell me about the experiences that led you to write “El Scorcho”?
Rivers: Yeah, I'd love to tell you all the juicy details, but I…I'm not concerned for my own privacy, but for someone else. I know she doesn't want anyone to know anything. So I can't say anything.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you keep in contact with her about it?
Rivers: [Pause] I try.
The Harvard Crimson: Is that still painful?
Rivers: Um…I want everyone to get along and to be happy, and so I do everything I can to make that happen, but if it doesn't happen, I'm not gonna cry about it.
The Harvard Crimson: Well, not so much interpersonally, but for you specifically—when you play “El Scorcho,” does it hurt to remember those periods?
The Harvard Crimson: How did you move on from that? Was it just time, or was there a point when you said, “You know what? Half-Japanese girls don't bother me, anymore”?
Rivers: Um…Well, the overriding emotion in that experience, and in that aspect of my personality, I think, is guilt. That was the main source of pain, was a feeling of guilt. That's what that album is about. I think, yeah, ultimately, I just have to forgive myself, and try to be happy and peaceful now.
The Harvard Crimson: So, have you forgiven yourself?
Rivers: I think to a large extent, yeah.
The Harvard Crimson: Obviously, “Pink Triangle” seems to be about a different girl—are the six songs about just those two, or were there a number of girls that you were romantically intertwined with?
Rivers: Yeah, ah—that was a different girl. I think that was the one I noticed first, when I got here in ‘95. We weren't exactly “intertwined”—it's just, I saw her in class and I had a crush on her. And I think we were hardly even talking. And actually, that's the best phase of a relationship to write songs—before you even really know anything about the person! Actually, I don't know that. Because now that I'm in a serious relationship, I guess I'll find some things to write about.
The Harvard Crimson: Have you been writing about your fiancee?
Rivers: Lately? No.
The Harvard Crimson: Really?
Rivers: Yeah, no I seem to be interested in all kinds of things, but not that, so far.
The Harvard Crimson: But most of your oeuvre, being modern pop-rock, is largely about girls and romance. So, what are you writing about, now, if not that?
Rivers: Well that's interesting, because I think the same way about myself—that I primarily write songs about girls. But, when you think about it, think about the songs that people really know—think about “The Sweater Song”. That's not about a girl.
The Harvard Crimson: It's not? How is that not about a girl?
Rivers: What does it have to do with a girl? It's got nothing to do with a girl!
The Harvard Crimson: Everybody interprets it that way! You know, “If you want to destroy my sweater, hold this thread as I walk away”…
Rivers: Is there a girl mentioned?
The Harvard Crimson: No. I guess it's just implied?
Rivers: No. It's about, at least in my mind when I wrote it, it's about existential despair. It has nothing to do with a girl.
The Harvard Crimson: I guess “My Name Is Jonas” has nothing to do with a girl.
Rivers: “Say It Ain't So” isn't about a girl. “Hash Pipe” isn't about a girl. “Buddy Holly” is about a girl, but it was a platonic thing. “Island in the Sun” isn't about a girl…
The Harvard Crimson: It's not?
The Harvard Crimson: I guess this is all just up for interpretation.
Rivers: “Beverly Hills” isn't about a girl. “Perfect Situation” is about a girl.
The Harvard Crimson: That's true. “We Are All On Drugs” isn't about a girl.
The Harvard Crimson: “Keep Fishing”—is that about a girl?
Rivers: I don't know! It's just—I don't know what I was saying. Maybe it was?
The Harvard Crimson: So, I guess you're just left with the last six songs on “Pinkerton” and a few others.
Rivers: Well, sure, there are album tracks, and B-sides.
The Harvard Crimson: Okay, so getting back to the original question: What are some of the topics that you're writing about, now, in that case?
Rivers: I'm working on a song called “Pig,” which, ah, follows the life of a pig, from when it's just a little piglet on the farm, playing with other animals, to a point where it's grown up and married and has kids, but then it eventually [laughs], it gets slaughtered!
The Harvard Crimson: Hopefully, this isn't semi-autobiographical?
Rivers: Not intentionally, no. And ah, but he's singing to the farmer at the end of the song. He's forgiving him. As he's going to be slaughtered.
The Harvard Crimson: That's very appropriate for Easter, I suppose.
The Harvard Crimson: So, have you written any songs for your fiancée?
Rivers: I have in the past. I wouldn't say “for” her, but about her, about us.
The Harvard Crimson: When did you meet. Was it while you were at Harvard?
Rivers: Yeah. Er…
The Harvard Crimson: Or was it when you were not at Harvard, but doing solo shows in Boston?
Rivers: Yeah, I think it was that fall of ’97.
The Harvard Crimson: So, you've met, but you've only recently gotten engaged. Did you guys lose touch between then?
Rivers: We were friends for many years, and then she moved back to Japan.
The Harvard Crimson: Is she Japanese, by birth?
Rivers: Yeah. She lives in Japan.
The Harvard Crimson: Tokyo? Kyoto?
Rivers: Actually, a small city in Southern Japan.
The Harvard Crimson: She's not the “Across the Sea” girl, is she?
Rivers: No. Well, I don't think so.
The Harvard Crimson: So, why did she end up at this Rivers Cuomo solo show back in ’97?
Rivers: Well, I assume she wanted to see me perform!
The Harvard Crimson: But what was she doing in Boston?
Rivers: Oh, she was studying at a language school in Boston.
The Harvard Crimson: So, do you ever run songs by her? Use her as a pre-critic?
Rivers: [Long pause] Um…no, no I don't think I have. I think I'd be too shy to play something for her.
The Harvard Crimson: Is it that you think she'd be too critical?
Rivers: Um…[pause]…I don't know. I just don't like performing!
The Harvard Crimson: So, you'd never do a campus performance? A coffee house?
Rivers: I thought about it. I went to the coffee house here a few times, and I came close to going up there, but…I just…I don't like feeling nervous!
The Harvard Crimson: Why do you still feel nervous, after all these years? Are you nervous of being judged? When you're about to go on stage, what is the little devil on Rivers Cuomo's shoulder saying to him?
Rivers: Ah…[long pause] I don't even really know. I guess I haven't analyzed it that much, but, it's just like a physical feeling of fear. It's the fight-or-flight response. Whatever those chemicals are, they just start pumping through my system, and I don't like it. It's not comfortable.
The Harvard Crimson: What's more nerve-wracking—an exam, or a show?
Rivers: The most nerve-wracking experience is an oral presentation in class. And right under that would be doing “Saturday Night Live” or “David Letterman.” One of those shows.
The Harvard Crimson: So, does meditation help that fear?
Rivers: It's supposed to help that, for certain, but this particular kind of meditation, instead of repressing all your pain, it brings it up to the surface. So, you're incredibly aware of it. And, by doing that, you slowly purify it, and you're free from it forever. Not all meditations work like that. Most just repress the pain. So, maybe I just haven't progressed far enough to where that fear has been dissolved, but I'm definitely more aware of it than ever.
The Harvard Crimson: That's not the image people have of meditation—we usually think of sitting in a lotus position and clearing your mind of questions.
Rivers: That's the opposite of Vipassana.
The Harvard Crimson: So, what's the basic task of Vipassana?
Rivers: Observe physical sensations with equanimity.
The Harvard Crimson: When you say you bring the pain to the surface, are you supposed to think about everything that makes you uncomfortable?
Rivers: No, you don’t force it. It just happens. And, again, you’re not focusing on the level of thought, so much, but more on the level of sensations. How your body is reacting. You just observe that.
The Harvard Crimson: Are there any particular fears you’ve managed to rid yourself of with Vipassana?
Rivers: I think most all of my pain has been attenuated. My fear and sadness and anxiety and anger—all of those things have diminished, noticeably.
The Harvard Crimson: And you started Vipassana in 2003? Rick Rubin introduced it to you?
Rivers: Well, Rick introduced me to meditation, and then I discovered this particular technique on my own, just by doing Internet research.
The Harvard Crimson: Are there a lot of Vipassana practicers in the Boston area?
Rivers: I think there’s about 200-something people on the Yahoo! news group for Vipassana in the Boston area.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you know of any fans or friends of yours who have started Vipassana because of your experiences with it?
Rivers: My mom!
The Harvard Crimson: Now, your mom was involved with Eastern healing techniques since way back, right? I mean, you were raised on an ashram…
Rivers: Yeah, so it’s not that much of a jump for her. But my fiancee’s gonna do a course with me this summer.
The Harvard Crimson: Well, she’ll be your wife by that point!
The Harvard Crimson: So, you’re getting married in LA?
The Harvard Crimson: And you’re going to live in LA?
The Harvard Crimson: Do you ever plan to come back to the Harvard campus? Will you come back for your 25th reunion?
Rivers: I might? The sad thing is that, each time I come back, it’s changed. So many of my friends are gone, and I feel like I don’t belong, and then slowly, I get to know people again, and I feel great. But I suspect that, in a few years, if I come back, everyone will be gone!
The Harvard Crimson: So, would you say that your main connection with Harvard is to the people, not the institution? Would you ever want to come back to the campus and revisit old ghosts and memories, or would it not mean anything to you because the people are gone?
Rivers: No, I would. I’d definitely like to walk through and remember experiences I’ve had. That can be…heavy. But, at the same time, I don’t want to develop that ego of knowing I’m a Harvard graduate. That’s not where I wanna go.
The Harvard Crimson: So, if one of your main concerns is with ego, why did you decide to come back to Harvard? Do your friends, your bandmates, your fiancée look at you differently because they know that you go to Harvard?
Rivers: Yeah. I think that there’s a lot of baggage attached to the Harvard name. I can’t deny that there was some trace of wanting to puff up my own ego in coming here. And I just hope that wasn’t the only reason. I hope I had some purer motives, too.
The Harvard Crimson: Why did you decide to come back in 2004?
Rivers: I always have a tough time with “why” questions. There are probably several reasons for coming back in 2004. One of them was definitely wanting to find somebody.
The Harvard Crimson: So, you weren’t involved with your fiancée at that point?
The Harvard Crimson: She was living in Japan at the time?
Rivers: Yeah. You know, I wonder if I was engaged at that point, maybe I wouldn’t have come back to school.
The Harvard Crimson: So, it wasn’t particularly out of a desire to finish your degree?
Rivers: Well, that was there, too. A desire to finish what I started, and also just a level of learning. A desire to take a break from music.
The Harvard Crimson: You’d been going at it for about three years straight at that point, right?
Rivers: Yeah. It was a lot of work.
The Harvard Crimson: So, school’s a break for you?
Rivers: Yeah, it’s always felt like a break.
The Harvard Crimson: You started out as a Music concentrator, but then you switched to English. I’m surprised to hear you say you had such a powerful experience with one of your music classes—I’d assumed you left Music as a concentration because you were frustrated with your classes. If you weren’t frustrated with them, why did you switch?
Rivers: I…[long pause]…I felt like I didn’t really know how to play an instrument.
The Harvard Crimson: What do you mean?
Rivers: Many of the other people in the Music department are prodigies at the piano or the violin or something like that, and then they go into composition in a modern style. Back then, it was 20th Century style—but not anymore, I guess. [laughs] So, I’ll just say “Modern Style.” But I didn’t know how to play those instruments, and I wasn’t really familiar with modern Classical music, and the little I heard wasn’t appealing to me. I originally got into studying music more because of the music of the 18th and 19th centuries. So, at that time, I didn’t really see a place for me in Music. And, I felt like, although I haven’t been playing a serious musical instrument for all my life, I have been working on English. I’ve been in English classes, reading, thinking critically, and so that’s something I kind of have a lot of training in, and I’m relatively good at it, so I decided to do that.
The Harvard Crimson: In your interview with the New York Times a few months ago, there was a quote, and I have a feeling that it was taken out of context—
Rivers: It was.
The Harvard Crimson: Which, the one about saying—
Rivers: What I’m “best at.”
The Harvard Crimson: Right. What were you trying to say, with that?
Rivers: Well, the question she asked was, “At school, what is your best subject?” And, taken out of context, it makes it seem like I’m disregarding anything I’ve done with the band, which, to me, I mean, it’s obvious that it’s been much more valuable to me. The musical work I’ve done, more than anything I’ve written for an English class.
The Harvard Crimson: What’s been your favorite English class?
Rivers: Oh, wow. Well, I loved Creative Nonfiction Writing with Kyoko Mori. I loved Shakespeare with Gordon Teskey. And I’m really getting a lot out of my classes, this semester, with Lynn Festa. I find them really challenging.
The Harvard Crimson: What classes are they?
Rivers: “Sex and Sensibility in the Enlightenment,” and “Travel Literature of the 18th Century.” I feel like my brain is being stretched in new directions, and it’s painful, but I think it’s a great experience.
The Harvard Crimson: Are the classes affecting your songwriting? “Pinkerton” had a lot of Puccini in it, so do you find that you want to write about travel literature by Voltaire, now?
Rivers: [Laughs] I haven’t done enough writing lately to know how it’s influenced me. I’m sure that it will influence me, as everything does. I can say that, ah, we’re reading a book—“Colonial Slave Society”—and a lot of the descriptions of the treatment of the slaves in this book are very moving, and it’s very likely that that could result in a song that’s an observation of the slave-master relationship. I was thinking maybe, like the structure of that Cat Stevens song, “Father and Son”—do you know it? He sings two different characters: in the low octave, he sings the voice of the father, and then he jumps up an octave and sings the voice of the son. So, I could do that same thing with the slave and master.
The Harvard Crimson: That would be an unexpected turn for Weezer.
Rivers: But, you know, sometimes, I’ll write a song about a specific situation…you know, like “The Sweater Song”—I’m writing about existential despair, and everyone takes it another way, that I’m singing about a girl. So, if I write about slave and master, it may come out in a way that doesn’t seem like a dramatic shift for us. It might seem like, “Oh, he’s just writing another girl song.”
The Harvard Crimson: There is a stereotype about you, that you have a certain affinity, both in friendship and romance, for Asian girls. Do you feel that you’ve gotten any understanding of that here? Or with your fiancée? I think you even wrote a blog entry recently about having finally “found your half-Japanese girl”…
Rivers: Oh, what I meant was, maybe I’m gonna have a half-Japanese daughter, because my fiancée is Japanese. I forget what the line was. What did I say?
The Harvard Crimson: I have it here, somewhere. I was being a bit of a MySpace stalker on your blog, I guess…
Rivers: Well, that’s what it’s there for!
The Harvard Crimson: Here it is: “Perhaps someday I’ll have a girl. A half-Japanese girl.”
Rivers: No, yeah I was talking about my daughter.
The Harvard Crimson: But it’s interesting that you chose to phrase it that way…
Rivers: Yeah, I wanted it to be ambiguous.
The Harvard Crimson: So, that brings us back to the question: What is this fascination with women of Asian descent?
Rivers: [Laughs] No idea.
The Harvard Crimson: You haven’t come to any conclusions about that?
The Harvard Crimson: Do you ever worry that people think of you as a fetishist?
Rivers: Um…[pause]…I guess I don’t know what people think about me, and I guess I don’t worry about it that much. If somebody said something, that’d be different. It never occurs me to dwell on what other people might be thinking.
The Harvard Crimson: But you’ve said in the past that it’s still difficult for you to deal with written criticism. So, it’s only hard for you to deal with it when people actually voice criticism?
Rivers: I guess it would bother me if I knew what people were thinking, but yeah, I guess that’s accurate.
The Harvard Crimson: So, you don’t sit in your room, paranoid, thinking about what Harvard kids think about you?
Rivers: [Laughs] I don’t think so! Too much homework!
The Harvard Crimson: Do you have any security protocols that Harvard sets up for you?
Rivers: I don’t know. I never requested anything, but I think they labeled me as some kind of “special person.” If you look me up on a computer in their system, it probably says something like, “Don’t give out any information on this guy.”
The Harvard Crimson: Were you ever approached and asked if you wanted security?
The Harvard Crimson: So, you’re walking to a seminar, you’re running late, and someone walks up to you and asks for an autograph. What do you do?
Rivers: Well, if it’s something I can take care of in a few seconds, then I’ll take care of it. But, if they want a significant amount of time, I say, “Shoot me an email, I gotta run to class right now.”
The Harvard Crimson: How often do you respond to emails and Facebook messages?
Rivers: Less and less. In 2004, I responded to everyone. No matter who it was, or how many emails I would get, I would respond to everybody.
The Harvard Crimson: That must have been enormously time-consuming.
Rivers: Well, you know, it probably couldn’t have taken more than a half-hour every day. Just, do it all at once. But, this semester, I’ve kinda stopped doing that.
The Harvard Crimson: Just because you’re not looking for somebody anymore?
Rivers: I think so. I just…enh. Which is pretty selfish, I guess.
The Harvard Crimson: You’ve made your AOL screenname available on Facebook, and you’re online quite a bit. What do you do when you’re online? Do you actually chat, or does it automatically come online when you turn the computer on?
Rivers: No, I don’t have it set to turn on automatically. So, when I have it on, it’s because I’ve chosen consciously to be online. It’s usually set to where I’m not visible to anybody except my Buddy List. So, the reason you’re seeing me is because you’re on my Buddy List.
The Harvard Crimson: I’m honored. So, is that how you keep in contact with your fiancée?
Rivers: No. We talk on Skype. But AIM is mostly for my friends at school. Mostly for my friends in Cabot, actually.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you feel uncomfortable with people coming to your room?
Rivers: I think, this semester, maybe only once or twice, somebody’s come to my room. But it’s not really a great place to hang out. I mostly hang out in the cafeteria. A lot.
The Harvard Crimson: How do you think your MySpace blog has affected your life and your privacy? Are you speaking genuinely? Do you run through drafts and edit them?
Rivers: It’s really tricky, because I’m not only exposing my life to the public, but I’m also exposing the lives of the guys in the band and everyone around me on tour. So, I have a general rule that I don’t wanna say anything that is gonna bum anyone out. So, I just make sure that, sometimes I have to revise a blog several times before I post it. Sometimes, I’ll even run it by the other guys, and if it makes them feel bad in any way, then I have to revise it.
The Harvard Crimson: So, if you’re going through revisions, why bother keeping a blog?
Rivers: [Laughs] There you go with the “why” questions, again!
The Harvard Crimson: Sorry—but it’s sort of a big question, isn’t it? That’s where you announced that you were engaged, you put your Harvard application essays up there…obviously, you put some personal stuff up there. So, does something happen, and you just say, “I wanna write about that?”
Rivers: I think there are several layers of motivation, again. One of them is kind of a flirtation, a way to meet girls, a way to find somebody. It’ll be interesting to see if I continue writing blogs, now that I’m engaged. I think I’ve written once since I got engaged. But then, also, it’s just like a way to put out songs and get positive feedback from people. A feeling of approval and praise, and feeling like you’re communicating your innermost self to people.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you feel that you express things on your blog that you can’t express in song?
Rivers: The new songs are actually, kind of “bloggy.”
The Harvard Crimson: How so?
Rivers: More personal details, and just a lot more information. Just a lot more detailed information.
The Harvard Crimson: Do people’s responses to your blog posts make you realize what you were really trying to say in the entry?
Rivers: Oh yeah, all the time.
The Harvard Crimson: Can you think of any particular instances?
Rivers: Well, there’s one, I think, called “The Man,” writing about Scott. I don’t remember the anecdote, but I was in a situation with Pat and Scott, and I was trying to say how great Scott was in how he handled this situation, and what people took away from it was, “Wow, what a dick Pat is!” And I realized that I’d been using Pat as a foil to Scott, and I had to smooth that out, somehow. The blog is like a big workshop.
The Harvard Crimson: How so?
Rivers: Well, like, in Creative Nonfiction Writing with Kyoko Mori, I’d have to bring in my essay, and then everyone would read it and write their critiques, and then we’d all discuss it, and that’s kind of what’s happening with the blog.
The Harvard Crimson: What did you write about in the class?
Rivers: I wrote an essay about my experience with celibacy, and then I wrote one essay about my ex-girlfriend, and by the time I ended up revising them, they were two completely different essays.
The Harvard Crimson: That was because of comments?
Rivers: Somewhat. I mean, it’s such a painful experience that I basically decided to scrap those essays and start over.
The Harvard Crimson: So, you’re trying to rid yourself of pain, but it sounds like this was a really powerful experience because of the pain that you went through. Do you feel like you still want to stick a knife into yourself, emotionally?
Rivers: No! No more knives!
The Harvard Crimson: Not metaphorical or physical? So what do you do to motivate yourself to write, now?
Rivers: Well, you’d be surprised. As you become more detached from your inner pain, then you have so much mental energy and sense of freedom and love of experimentation and all your routines, and methods just dissolve away, and it’s just fun.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you have a quota for yourself—“I’m gonna write a song each week,” or something?
Rivers: No, nothing like that at all. Just, when it happens, it happens. I started a new song, called “East Coast or West Coast.”
The Harvard Crimson: That sounds significant! Who wins—East Coast or West Coast?
Rivers: Well, I don’t make it clear in the song. But, the West Coast did end up winning. When I was in my last meditation course, I was obsessing about “Where do I want to live—East Coast or West Coast?” And so many thoughts would come up about either coast, and I said, “Hey, I should write a song about that.” So, what it’s gonna be, is I’m gonna be in the center speaker, wondering what I should do. Then, Brian’s gonna be in the left speaker, arguing on behalf of the West Coast, and Scott will be on the right, arguing on behalf of the East Coast. And we’ll all just be singing and rapping to each other.
The Harvard Crimson: Have you been feeling more comfortable with your bandmates, lately? There were well-documented periods of tension.
Rivers: Well, it’s just like any other family. We’re really close, and none of us are perfectly enlightened beings, so sometimes there’s tension, but it’s sooo much better than it used to be. I mean, in the early days, we were really young, and suddenly, we were successful, and we all developed egos, and it was really difficult, but you know—how were we supposed to know how to handle all that? Over time, we’ve just gotten so much more comfortable with each other. They’re going to be my groomsmen at the wedding.
The Harvard Crimson: Who’s the Best Man?
Rivers: My brother.
The Harvard Crimson: Leaves?
The Harvard Crimson: Along those lines, I have to point out—the Rivers who is talking to me right now doesn’t sound like the Rivers who, posting on the Weezer message board circa 2002, said that "Only in Dreams" was "GAY! GAY! GAY! DISNEYGAY!”
Rivers: [Laughs] That’s so great that you remember that! It’s amazing that that information’s still out there!
The Harvard Crimson: Well, it was in the unauthorized biography, “Rivers’ Edge”—have you seen it?
Rivers: Oh, right. I heard that it wasn’t very accurate.
The Harvard Crimson: Have you tried to suppress it?
Rivers: No, I just didn’t want to participate in it, but apart from that, there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
The Harvard Crimson: So, the Rivers that I’m talking to now doesn’t sound like the Rivers who would be combative with fans or interviewers in the past. Do you feel like you’ve changed, or have you put on a mask?
Rivers: I feel like, in my core, I’m pretty consistent. But, in different times in my life, I go through different phases. I guess it’s like trying different approaches to life, and seeing what works.
The Harvard Crimson: So, it’s like trying something and seeing whether it sticks?
Rivers: Yeah, and I’m making it sound like it’s a conscious thing, but I don’t think it is. It’s more like, just, I feel an instinct to read certain books and try different social techniques, mental techniques with myself. Some phases have been pretty painful, not just for myself, but for people around me.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you feel any sort of kinship with alterna-rock peers like Stephen Malkmus and Beck, who, like you are getting married and having kids?
Rivers: I guess I’m not very aware of what other people are doing, but I can say that, within my band, that’s what’s happening. Scott just got married and they’re trying to have kids. Pat and his wife just had a kid. And yeah, my friends around me, children and wives.
The Harvard Crimson: Did you feel pressure to say, “I need to get married—Here’s a girl, let’s do this”?
Rivers: I don’t know if it was pressure, but it definitely seems like marriage and babies are kind of contagious. It seems like it’s happening all of a sudden to a bunch of us. An example—2002, I went to the World Cup with my good friends, Justin, Todd, and Ivan. Justin had a girlfriend at the time, but the rest of us were totally single, going out on the town, the whole deal. Justin certainly wasn’t married, either. But this world cup, we’re basically all gonna be married, and Justin’s gonna have a kid. Just in four years—bam.
The Harvard Crimson: I guess that’s what happens in your mid-30s. You described in your blog that you view your decision to get married as something close to choosing a lifestyle, rather than being swept up with emotion. Is that still how you feel? Do you have doubts?
Rivers: I think I’ve been skeptical of violent passion for a long time. I think “Pinkerton” is about that, a lot—seeing how, every time I’ve felt really passionate for someone, as soon as I “acquire” them, or feel like I’ve acquired them, the passion goes away. That’s how that album concludes, and I just don’t feel secure in that, for a life. I want to build my life on something more stable.
The Harvard Crimson: But I assume you do feel romantic affection for your fiancée? How would you characterize your relationship? Do you have to justify it?
Rivers: You know, so far, no one’s really asked me about it. This is the first time. I don’t think anyone’s asked me about it.
The Harvard Crimson: I guess I only know about it from your blog posts.
Rivers: I don’t have enough perspective on those posts, yet, but I feel like that was, in a way, me breaking off this long flirtation I’ve had with Weezer fan-girls.
The Harvard Crimson: Like, that was you declaring, “It’s over, folks?”
Rivers: It was in a very gradual way. Post by post, I’d reveal a little bit more. Like, “Alright, it’s kinda looking like something’s gonna happen! If you wanna try to stop me, now’s your last chance!” That sort of thing.
The Harvard Crimson: But do you feel that your relationship with your fiancée is based largely on trying to get rid of that past?
Rivers: It’s a very instinctual thing. I just feel like I reached a very calm and stable place within myself, relatively speaking, and suddenly, this instinct came up that she’s the one.
The Harvard Crimson: And she felt similarly?
Rivers: I wouldn’t say she felt similarly.
The Harvard Crimson: Did you have to convince her?
Rivers: Well, at that point, I started calling her again, and going to see her, and I think we both had to take it step by step and make sure that it was, indeed, right. But I think that with each step we took, it just felt more right.
The Harvard Crimson: When did you get engaged?
Rivers: Right before Christmas.
The Harvard Crimson: And was that in Japan.
Rivers: In Japan, yes.
The Harvard Crimson: Now, you’re saying you want to break away from Weezer fan-girls, but wasn’t she a Weezer fan-girl? What was she doing at this solo concert back in 1997?
Rivers: I presume she was a Weezer fan, yeah.
The Harvard Crimson: So, she hasn’t talked about that?
Rivers: Well, I know she was a Weezer fan, and I presume that’s why she was there.
The Harvard Crimson: So, has that dynamic ever interfered with your relationship?
Rivers: Thankfully, I haven’t thought along those lines very much. I just kind of forget how we met, and she’s just my woman. And I just don’t even really question it. I suppose, if I wanted to torture myself, I could! [Laughs]
The Harvard Crimson: If Rivers, as of graduation, could go back in time and talk to Rivers, as of matriculation, what would he say to that other Rivers?
Rivers: “Meditate. Everything else will take care of itself.”
The Harvard Crimson: Has Harvard humbled you or made you more self-assured?
Rivers: It’s humbled me, massively. Yeah. But, self-assurance isn’t so essential, once you’ve really been humbled. There’s not as much to be assured about.
The Harvard Crimson: That’s interesting, because copies of your grade transcripts are online, and you were getting all A’s, at least in the ’90s. So, obviously, if you’re on par with other students, how has Harvard humbled you?
Rivers: Well…[pause]…hmm. I don’t know that I am intellectually on par with everyone. I have gotten really good grades, but, perhaps, like a lot of people here, I feel that I’m not…[laughs]…I’m not as smart as everyone else. I’m just constantly amazed at how smart everyone is, and how articulate they are, and how insightful…it’s very humbling.
The Harvard Crimson: In interviews from 1995, you were reluctant to say what school you went to. Why?
Rivers: I was probably worried that people would think I was showing off by saying “I go to Harvard” in an interview.
The Harvard Crimson: Did you decide to come here on a whim?
Rivers: Not really. I was in community college when Weezer was playing, and I intended to transfer to UC-Berkeley.
The Harvard Crimson: And you got accepted there, right?
Rivers: Right. And as soon as we took off, I became very uncomfortable with that lifestyle, and I had these really intense fantasies of going to an East Coast college, an Ivy League college, and getting married and settling down there and living a really quiet life, an intellectual life, and being as anti-rock as I could.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you feel that you’ve accomplished part of that goal?
Rivers: Yeah, I think a lot of the good parts of that fantasy have become a reality for me, and so far, I haven’t had to leave behind the good parts of the rock life, either. So, Weezer was touring through Boston, and I came and just walked through the campus in what must’ve been, like, ’94, and I just picked up an application. I just felt like, “Man, I gotta get in!”
The Harvard Crimson: You also used to say that you liked the anonymity. Did people really not know who you were, when you were here in the ’90s? I mean, The Blue Album was pretty big, and you had the “Rivers Cuomo glasses” and everything—you must have been kind of hard to miss.
Rivers: You know, it’s hard for people of your age, I think, to remember at that time, but even though Weezer was popular and had a very successful album, I wasn’t singled out as a celebrity. We were kind of a faceless band. I mean, you point out the glasses, but I didn’t wear the glasses in the “Buddy Holly” video, and I didn’t wear them on the cover of the album, either. Or in the “Say It Ain’t So” video. So, I walk into Harvard with pretty long hair and a really long, bushy beard, glasses, and walking around with a cane. And, on top of that fact, our album was not successful with college kids—it was successful with ten-year-olds!
The Harvard Crimson: Really?
Rivers: Yeah. Kids loved it. But college kids didn’t. It’s interesting, because the same thing is happening now. The people who loved “Beverly Hills” are primarily younger kids.
The Harvard Crimson: That makes sense, given that people of my class were about 10 when the “Buddy Holly” video came out, and by the time you guys started to resurface, we were all on our way to college, so we thought of it as “college rock.”
The Harvard Crimson: One last question—You’ve talked in a lot of interviews, and in this interview, and in your blog, about being frustrated with yourself, frustrated that you are frustrated with yourself, frustrated about trying to achieve perfection…these sound like very typical Harvard traits.
The Harvard Crimson: Do you feel like a Harvard man, because of that? Do you feel like you fit in here, as you leave this place?
Rivers: Yeah, I really do. Especially my friends here in Cabot. I feel a real bond with them. I think we have a lot in common. I see a lot of similar traits—people are really hard on themselves here, and they could definitely stand to ease up on themselves a little bit.
The Harvard Crimson: So, do you plan to come back? If you’re touring Boston, will you just come back to the campus?
Rivers: Oh, I definitely will. But I suspect that no one will notice me.