Rolling Stone article - June 20, 2002
How the Weezer frontman cracked the code of the perfect song
Rivers Cuomo stares at the screen of his laptop, its glow reflected in the lenses of his black-rimmed glasses. "Want to see my list?" he asks, and boots up an elaborate color-coded spreadsheet that catalogs all the songs he's written in the past three and a half years. Scrolling down, he shows off the latest entry -- number 377. There's pride in his voice, but he seems more excited about the spreadsheet than the prolificacy it documents.
This isn't the only chart he's kept: A few years ago, he started keeping a notebook of every song Kurt Cobain wrote. In it, he dissected the songs in as mathematical a manner as he could. "He figured if he could home in on Kurt's formula, he'd figure out his own formula," says Todd Sullivan, Weezer's A&R man. "That way, he would be a never-ending supply of songs."
"It wasn't only Nirvana," Cuomo says, "but also Oasis and Green Day." He still keeps a three-ring binder he calls "The Encyclopedia of Pop," full of his analysis of different artists. "I'm probably just a natural-born scientist. I like taking notes and analyzing things."
Thirteen of Cuomo's own tunes appear on Maladroit, Weezer's fourth album. Within a year, Cuomo -- who acts as the band's de facto manager and publicist -- hopes another dozen or so will land on a fifth Weezer record, already in the works. As for the rest, "most of them will rot in obscurity," he notes. "Which is probably where they belong."
"We're always trying to figure out when Rivers writes," says guitarist Brian Bell. "He's like a yin and yang of constantly working but procrastinating at the same time."
Today, Cuomo is conducting Weezer business out of an East Los Angeles recording studio that resembles a college dorm. Batik tapestries hang on the walls, alongside posters for campy horror flicks such as The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. On a glass-top coffee table, zip-lock bags full of autographed Weezer CD booklets are stacked in neat piles, and Cuomo's assistant, Sarah Kim, is working at her laptop in the other corner of the room.
It has been said, not unjustifiably, that the Weezer frontman is socially awkward. Painfully shy. Reclusive. Unfriendly. Maladroit, even. He grew up strange -- raised on an ashram in rural Connecticut by hippie parents (his mom was a massage therapist), obsessed with sports, comics and guitars -- and got stranger. "His family life didn't really prepare him for social situations," says childhood friend Justin Fisher, who has known Cuomo since the seventh grade, when he transferred from a parochial school to Mansfield Middle School. "It was his first time in public school. It was really scary for him to hear people insult each other. Kids can be evil, and to be thrust into that is tough." Fisher describes Cuomo as shy but still oddly charismatic: "He always had cool ideas and was always able to talk people into things. He's actually gotten more introverted, maybe because when he goes out, people relate to him as Rivers from Weezer."
After the success of Weezer's 1994 debut, Rivers withdrew from the world and enrolled in Harvard as an undergraduate. There he spent much of his first year with his left leg in a brace, following an operation to make it as long as his right leg. Weezer's second album, the raw Pinkerton, suggests that Rivers was repulsed by the world and himself. And things only got worse after the album flopped. (Today, to Cuomo's chagrin, Pinkerton has become a touchstone for emo bands and a cult favorite among Weezer fans.) In 1998, Cuomo holed up in a Los Angeles apartment, painted the walls black, covered all the windows and disconnected the phone. "I didn't have any good new songs," he recalls. "It seemed like my entire life had fallen apart."
January 1st, 1999: It's the date Rivers says marked a new start. "There was no one there to pick me up," he says. "It was up to me to learn how to do that for myself or forever go under. I realized that I had to accept responsibility for my life." Not coincidentally, it's also the date of the first entry in his spreadsheet.
Rivers is an odd character, but not as odd as you might have heard. There is something warm and inviting about this eccentric rock-star geek, sipping a Mountain Dew, instant-messaging his "cybergirlfriend" and playfully arguing with his band mates about who's better: Boz Scaggs or Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
The difficulty communicating with Cuomo is that it's often hard to tell whether he's being facetious. When he says he likes Drowning Pool and Limp Bizkit, I accuse him of being full of shit. "No, I'm not!" he says, but he seems to be suppressing a smirk. "I love how Limp Bizkit manage to combine metal and rap and pop so seamlessly. I really see us as moving in that direction. I have no interest in emo. I'm all about rap metal."
I tell him that if Weezer made a Limp Bizkit-y album, people would think they were being ironic. "People always think I'm sarcastic," he says, slouching in his chair. "Because they have this preconceived notion of who I am that's so different from who I actually am. I'm the guy who says something seriously and everybody thinks it's hysterical. And I just have to go along with it, because at least I'm getting some attention."
"This band, its entire existence, walks a very thin line on irony," says drummer Pat Wilson. "I don't think any of us actually know when we're being cheeky."
"We're not going to sound like Limp Bizkit," Bell says firmly. "We're Weezer. What Rivers might be talking about is the intensity we want to exude when we play." If you ignore Cuomo's vocals -- there is no mistaking that voice -- Maladroit is the most un-Weezer of Weezer records, packed with big, heavy riffs and showy guitar solos.
Cuomo is deadly serious about unleashing his inner metalhead, which was, in fact, his outer metalhead as a teenager. In high school, he had long hair (like, down to his nipples) and was obsessed with Metallica, Judas Priest, Kiss and Slayer. But when he moved from Storrs, Connecticut, to Los Angeles after graduation, Cuomo got a job at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard and started listening to bands like the Pixies and Sonic Youth. Suddenly, he says, "metal seemed kind of dumb, so I consciously repressed it. I still feel like I'm trying to work out that conflict and integrate the music I grew up loving with what I think is cool now."
His newest obsession, he says, is goth. He holds up his hands to show off black fingernail polish, silver rings and leather wrist cuffs. "I never noticed goth before," he says. "But then I got really fascinated with this one girl. A music style just gets wrapped up with the vision of the girl, and it overtakes your consciousness."
The most potent of creative inspirations -- romantic idealism, sexual frustration, goth chicks -- are preferable to even the best drug cocktails. Three shots of tequila and Ritalin spawned both "Hash Pipe," from Weezer's Green Album, and Maladroit's first single, "Dope Nose." But those songs lack the soul-baring intensity heard elsewhere on the new record; "Slob," "Death and Destruction" and "Slave" are some of the most beautiful, miserable songs Cuomo's ever written.
"You need to be under some kind of intoxication to create anything," he says, pausing to read an instant message that goes unanswered for now. "But different kinds of intoxication create different effects. My favorite is emotional intoxication. Probably most anyone doesn't go through a week without getting upset about something. And that's what I do. I wait for those moments, and then I pounce."
[From Issue 898 — June 20, 2002]