Pitchfork Media interview with Rivers Cuomo - October 27, 2008
Rivers Cuomo Talks Alone II, Weezer, That Hair
By Paul Thompson
Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo is nothing if not well-organized. Less than a year after the release of demos collection Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo - and some six months after his band of a decade and a half put out its sixth LP, the so-called Red Album - Rivers will issue the spoils from yet another trek through the archives in the form of Alone II. The collection is now officially due from Universal Music Group's DGC Records on November 25.
The second Alone set finds Rivers taking on the Beach Boys, re-imagining a randy refrain from the personal cache of Jermaine Dupri, and further cementing his position as one of pop's more thoughtful - if occasionally inscrutable - songwriters. Like the first Alone, the disc is coupled with expansive liner notes that offer up even more insight into Cuomo's time by his lonesome. It's an impressive package, made ever more so by the fact that Cuomo put it together during what can only be described as a busy year at his day job.
We rang up Rivers late last week to talk about the tunes on the second Alone, the current collaboration-friendly atmosphere around Weezer, and that nearly unbelievable cover art.
What are you up to right now? I guess you're in between shows at the moment, huh?
We just got to the venue in Houston, and we do have a show tonight.
Any official duties left before the show? Soundcheck?
Yeah, we have soundcheck. Apart from that, my main job is just to lie here on the couch.
That sounds pretty lovely.
Actually, it is essential to the show for me, because my body and my unconscious mind just know to go into conservation mode all day before a show.
So when I hit the stage, you know, my entire day's worth of energy comes out in those two hours.
For years I fought that instinct to rest because I thought I was being lazy, so I tried to keep busy all day and take on different projects. Now I'm just like, "Ah, I see, I am supposed to rest."
What would you do instead?
Oh, I've done all kinds of things. From being a manager of Weezer to trying to write songs or trying to be a partier. I've tried it all.
Yeah, but this is the best? This is the optimal Rivers mode?
Excellent. So you've got yet another collection of demos coming out next month. You did an interview with us around the time of Alone I's release, and you mentioned how there was an hour's worth of commercially viable stuff that you had just sort of waiting in the wings to be released like this. Is Alone II that?
Yeah. That would be what we have here. I would have to say though, I was really surprised when I put Alone II together and listened down to it. I was really surprised how great it was. It makes me wonder if I have more good stuff on my hard drive than I thought I did. This one is not a step down in any sense.
No, it's not. I actually prefer it, I think, to the first one.
Yeah. I almost said that, but I love Alone I. It's just surprising, both times we tried to pick the best songs I had. For some reason, you would think number two wouldn't be as good, but it seems to be better, if anything.
Sure. How well cataloged is all this stuff? How do you go about making the selections?
Well, iTunes has just been huge for me. I have it open right now... and so I have a playlist folder called "Alone". And then I open that up and I have something, like, 12 "Smart Playlists", which go through my whole library and pick out files according to various search criteria and rules. So I've opened up one here [right now]. It's called "1991-1992 The Yeast Master" and it's got about ten rules here. One is that the year is in the range 91-92. Another is that in the comment field it has the comment "DA" - which was my original indication for "Demo Album". I started adding that notation about two years ago. And the comment says it's not been used, which means it was on the previous Alone album or it was put somewhere else. And the rating is not one, it's not two, it's not three, it's not four, which means it lets me do anything with a rating of five. Or no rating. So then I can look in that playlist and see all my best songs. And I have a bunch different "Smart Playlists" divided by year. It makes it pretty easy and fun to go through it all.
Sounds like a blast, really.
And since the first Alone record was put out, I found an old drive and some other old demos so they got thrown in the pool. That helped out.
What's interesting to me with these compilations is that, even though they're obviously meant as a trip through the vaults, they're not presented chronologically. It seems to have been sequenced in a way for maximum listenability.
Yeah, I'd love it if I could [put] them together chronologically and it would be the best listen, but that's not the case. I mean, my first priority is to make sure it's a great album if you're just listening to it and you don't even know who it is, or what their story is, or [in] what order the songs were written.
There's a statement in the liner notes, which are terrifically expansive, that I liked a lot for putting your work into some more perspective. You mentioned when you were listening to a lot of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, you say that you "found the kinds of melodies and chord progressions that [you] loved the most." It does seem that although the lyrical content of your songs has changed a great deal over the years, there are certain elements that have carried through until now, certain shapes and ideas. What is it that drew you to that music? And what keeps you coming back to that in your own writing?
That's a good question. It's interesting because as a musician, I cut my teeth on heavy metal music, which is, like, a lot of guitar riffs and fast scales, a lot of intense instrumental music, but not so much of the soaring romantic melodies in a major key. So when I started composing my own music in my late teens and early twenties, at first it was more like the metal music. I guess it was decent, but for some reason it just wasn't coming from the real me that I had yet to discover.
I think hearing the Beach Boys' music really helped me key in on that. I think it's just a natural propensity I was born with. Or maybe it has to do with the musical quality of my voice. Like, what I'm actually best at singing. I'm not sure. But, yeah, I was born with a slightly different propensity than what I was actually drawn to listen to as a teenager and play on guitars as a teenager. And I didn't discover that until I was 21, 22.
Sure. The other thing that particularly struck me was a comment you made about your difficulties writing songs in the wake of Pinkerton. Anyone who's heard that record knows how personal it was, but you seemed a bit destroyed by the reaction to it, which was less kind at first than it is now. Anyway, you mention that you had to learn to write songs "that worked without any personal meaning... so compositionally perfect, no one could deny them."
Mm hmm, that's what I was thinking, yeah.
That seems to be a very significant shift, and you can hear it in the Weezer records. It's something I still hear in, say, the lyrics on the Red Album songs.
My songs on the Red Album don't have that personal meaning?
Well, not that they don't have any at all, but there's certainly less of you laying yourself out bare now than there was 10, 12 years ago.
I don't know if I would agree with that. Well, take a song like "Pork and Beans", to me that is entirely about experiences in my life. Intense emotional experiences that I was feeling in the moment, and I put them in the song. Now, I may be filtering a little bit, or twisting things or using symbols or using a persona, which I did not do on Pinkerton. But the seed feeling is entirely personal, which is different from the Green Album, in which case I was writing songs literally. I was writing lyrics without having any subject in my mind. They were words coming out of my mouth; I didn't know where they were coming from.
Have you felt like listeners have responded in some way to that change in your writing style? And do you see a difference between fans that maybe came up on your first few albums as opposed to the ones who have come to you through your more recent stuff?
I don't know what the heck our fans are thinking [laughs]. You know, there's all kinds of people at our shows and some are so passionate for one group of songs, and then there's another group that feels the exact opposite way. So, I really hesitate to make generalizations about our fans. They're a mystery.
Clearly you have as many fans now as you ever have, and probably more. Do you ever feel as though you have factions within your fanbase? Is there a struggle to please the whole of your audience?
Yeah, you know what, I think it's probably true for any band. It's tough to get a group of 10 to 15,000 people together, and have them completely agree on every aspect of a show that's two hours long. So you know, it's just a matter of - it's not compromise - it's almost like a conversation you have, that involves everyone in the band and as much of the people in the room as you can. And you try and come up with creative solutions that makes everyone happy, including us in the band. [Pause.] I don't know if the set looks like the set that any one faction would have come up with on their own.
Sure, makes sense. I'm particularly interested in "Can't Stop Partying", the song that you sort of did with Jermaine Dupri. You mention in the notes that he just called you up, out of the blue. Are you two pretty familiar now?
I think what happened was, I was a big fan of his song, [the Mariah Carey-sung] "We Belong Together". I think it was on one of my year-end lists, and it was a big inspiration for my song "Heart Songs" on the Red Album. I particularly like how conversational the vocal was. There's so many lyrics, it just sounds like somebody talking to you. But at the same time, it's sung, so there's a great, catchy melody there - something I've always admired about certain composers going back to Pinkerton. And then I think his manager was somehow related to my manager, and somehow they started talking, and next thing I know, I'm getting this song from Jermaine, and we're talking on the phone.
Do you know if anything is going to come of it beyond it showing up here?
It certainly could be on a Weezer record. Right now there are two versions of the song: there's Jermaine's original version, then there's the version with my music on Alone II. So it could go either way, I'm not sure. It depends on how the band feels about it. Also, like I say in the liner notes, I would have some qualms about singing it the original way, where it's clearly about doing drugs and drinking [laughs]. Which, at this point in my life, I can't really sing without qualm. ["I gotta have Patron/ I gotta have the E" et al - Ed.]
Is his version of it a solo song for him, or is for someone else?
I don't really know how he works. My impression is that he just makes these demos, and then he tries to get other artists to re-record them and put them on their records. But my sense is that he probably has this gold mine of his personal demos that - if they're anything like the one I heard - they're just so cool. It's really cool to hear one of these really slick, like pro songwriter guys, but like before he's had a chance to have it done professionally or polished up. It kind of sounds like his version of Alone, it's just him jamming out wherever he jams out [laughs]. And he's singing, and he's not a real singer, so it sounds kind of cool and funny.
It's interesting that you mention that he's a professional songwriter, since that's sort of your job as well. And it's interesting to read you writing about craft and things in these very particular ways, since a lot of songwriters don't get into process much. It's obvious - it's been obvious for a long time - that that's been a major function of your songwriting in Weezer. Do you ever consider writing songs for other people, like Prince? Not for Prince, of course, but like Prince?
The idea crosses my mind occasionally. I just wouldn't know - writing a song for me, now, is so personal. It's so singular to me, or it's so idiosyncratic. I wouldn't know how to make it great, and for somebody else. So much of what I like about my songs are the parts that make it specific to me. Songs with an area I could grow in.
Are you thinking about songs for the next album? Are they going through the same process of you recording them at home and then bringing them to the studio or the practice space?
Well, it's - no, we're still focused on ideas to promote the Red Album. We're coming up with a lot of cool stuff. Hopefully, we're going to make a video for "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived" with Spike Jonze. Then do some more touring next year and... what the heck else are we doing? I know we have a list of cool stuff, but it's in my mind [laughs]. But we really believe in the songs, and we want to live with [them] for a while before we move on.
There was a report a little while back where they were saying you were planning to record immediately after this tour is over. But Brian [Bell, guitarist] gave another interview and said something like "that's not true, we want to get the most out of this record as we can." That's very interesting to me; to want to live with the songs for as long as you can. In so much pop music now, there seems to be a constant struggle to keep putting out material to keep one's profile up, but that was almost a rejection of that.
Well, I don't know. The Red Album feels like this is something that can be part of our lives for a minute here. Come up with some more videos and cool things to do. An album now is a breeding ground for other creative projects, you can really start digging into it. There's just so much you can do nowadays.
Building on that, the video you guys just made, the "Troublemaker" video where you broke all the records, how did you guys get all of that organized?
I have no idea.
You don't know?
No. I never know how they make these videos happen. It's a miracle to me. I just show up, and there's Al from Happy Days. There's a bunch of wild animals - chimpanzees and panthers that we're hanging out with. I don't know how they make it all happen [laughs]. But that's one of the great things about being in a rock band. You get all these weird experiences.
So this was the director's idea, largely? To set all these records and do all of this stuff? Or was it the band's idea that you sort of brought?
I think it was somebody at our management company. And I think it originally came from some of the projects that we were involved with, like the Hootenanny tour. One of them was in L.A., [for] something like 270 people, and at that point we were thinking, "Man, we must be breaking some kind of record here [laughs]!" That led to the idea of the video.
Or the "Let's Write a Song" project I'm doing on YouTube, we're close to - it's at 20 now, and, you know, so many people have contributed, I started thinking, "Man, the songwriting credits on the song are going to be so long, maybe we're breaking some kind of record here." "Most Songwriters on a Song". It was things like that that led to the idea for the video.
Speaking of working with a number of songwriters, has it been at all difficult to adapt to the fact that now you have other songwriters on these Weezer albums? Does it feel at all strange to relinquish some control in that way?
I'm trying to think of a specific example... well, so far, the one song I really co-wrote with one of the other guys on the album was "Cold Dark World", and in that case, I did write all the lyrics. So that didn't feel that unusual. I'll tell you though, I really am exciting about collaborating now, for some reason, with the guys in Weezer, and also with other people. I just feel like learning from other people, and just being put in new, strange boxes I have to get out of artistically. It's probably just the same as everything else I've gone through, but it does feel like something I am really into at the moment. Reaching out to other writers.
It seems from what I've gathered, that the plan for the next record - however tentative - is to maybe split some of the songwriting duties even further. Is that accurate, or is it way too early to tell any of that?
I don't have... I really don't know. I wouldn't say that with any confidence at this point. I will say though, that in one way or another, I think that Weezer is evolving towards a more free-flowing and collaborative, synergistic mode. I don't know if it's totally lame to use the word 'synergistic' but I can't think of another one at the moment.
I like that word, that's good.
So I don't know if that means necessarily "songwriting", but you definitely see the guys singing a lot at shows now, and we're trading instruments and playing different kinds of roles.
So between the four of you then, not necessarily - I mean you're bringing in all these other people to do the Hootenanny shows, and the video, but you're talking specifically within the band.
For me as a writer, though, I am interested in reaching out to different people outside of the band. Everything from, you know, just opening up to the world on YouTube, to trying to do something with Jermaine... right now I'm writing a song with this songwriter in Japan that my wife turned me on to, so I don't know, man. I'm up for trying anything.
I want to do a really cool event to promote Alone II on the day of release. It's basically another Hootenanny, but it's a little different. Anyone can come, you don't have to bring an instrument, but if you want to, you can bring an instrument, and you the audience will pick the songs we play, and it can be anything. And I'll just print up the lyrics right there on the spot, I'll have to have a computer there or something, I'll get them off line, off the Internet. It can be any of my songs or any cover, and so, in some cases, it might just be one person [who] says, like, "Oh! Let's play this obscure B-side!" or something, some song from [unfinished Weezer disc Songs From] the Black Hole, and he may be the only person in the room [who] knows it, besides me, and then it will just be me and that person giving a concert to the rest of the room. And then the next song, there might be 20 people who know it. So that will be a very dynamic event, and very fun for me. And I won't have to bring a guitar [laughs].
It seems as though your public persona has changed quite a bit in the last nine months or year, where you've really come to embrace this "bringing fans into the process" even more than you ever did before. Did something happen?
No, I don't think so. Red Album is album six for Weezer. We've been doing this since '94, and when we started out, we just did things the same ways that all the other bands did 'em. And that was okay for a while, but at this point, when it's time to promote another album, I have to ask myself, "Do I really want to do this the same old way again?" Or, "What would make this fun for me? What would make it exciting? What would be a new challenge?" Once I start asking myself those kinds of questions, then I start coming up with ideas, like, "Oh man, it would actually be really fun if I didn't have to play the guitar. If somebody in the audience came up and played with me, there would be some element of spontaneity and uniqueness to each show, to each event."
You're bringing fans into the mix in the most recent shows, too, right?
Yeah, there was a big question before this tour started, whether Hootenanny would work at all in a giant arena. It works great in rooms of 200 people. So we thought about it for a while, and then we eventually decided to try it. The local radio station in each town [rounds] up about 30 Weezer fans, and they bring their instruments, and they come up on stage, with a little preparation before the show. Mostly it's people [who] have never met each other, and they've never played with us, obviously, and we play "Island in the Sun" and "Beverly Hills", and it's pretty cool. The crowd enjoys it, and they root for [the fans onstage], and sometimes it's really magic when you see this guy with his trombone, and he's getting to shred the solo with Weezer on "Beverly Hills" or something [laughs]. It's real special.
I can imagine. I remember myself being a young Weezer fan, and I think that would've been pretty cool at the time. And now, too.
Yeah. It's cool for us, too.
My last question is about the Alone II cover art. That hair... that's real?
That is a real photo, and there was not an ounce of irony in the room when that photo was taken.
Can you remember anything about that particular moment?
For some reason, I missed the photo session in my high school for my senior portrait, so I had to go to a photo studio in Willimantic, Connecticut. I didn't really have any ideas: the guy just did his thing. And this is what he came up with [laughs]. But it's from the same session as my high school picture.
Do people that you're close with, are they familiar with this photo, this... phase in your development? Because it's pretty remarkable.
Oh, yeah. This was my look in high school. I was, you know, somewhat famous - or infamous - in my town for looking like this [laughs].
Well, it's really something.
Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo:
01 Victory on the Hill 02 I Want to Take You Home Tonight 03 The Purification of Water 04 I Was Scared 05 Harvard Blues 06 My Brain Is Working Overtime 07 I Don't Want to Let You Go 08 Oh Jonas 09 Please Remember 10 Come to My Pod 11 Don't Worry Baby 12 The Prettiest Girl in the Whole Wide World 13 I Can't Stop Partying 14 Paper Face 15 Walt Disney 16 I Admire You So Much 17 My Day Is Coming 18 Cold and Damp 19 I'll Think About You