WFPK interview with Brian Bell - February 8, 2021

From Weezerpedia
Brian shows host Kyle Meredith his electronic sheet music thing.

91.9 WFPK Louisville, Kentucky
Kyle Meredith with… Weezer

Kyle Meredith

Weezer’s Brian Bell joins Kyle Meredith to talk about OK Human, the band’s latest LP that finds them working with an orchestra on a seamless thematic piece. The guitarist discusses playing the acoustic guitar and organ since the record has no electric instruments, the importance of human voices, and using the Fibonacci sequence in one of their songs. Bell also dives into how the band continues to work on multiple records at once, gives the update on the delayed Van Weezer LP, drops the news on a classic-Weezer-inspired Weezer album that’ll be included in a four-part album series, and the possibility of a streaming performance of OK Human and full album celebration of 2001’s The Green Album.

Kyle Meredith: I am honored to have as my guest today Brian Bell. How are you, sir?

Brian: Doing pretty well, slept very soundly I guess, after the Super Bowl. I just wanted a good game, I wanted a close game, and it wasn’t that at all. It’s always kind of a bittersweet time, because this is the last game of the year, and either team I didn’t really care about, because I live in Los Angeles now, and I root for the Rams, and they weren’t in it, obviously. All that aside, you still wanted maybe a really competitive— you wanted to see a comeback or something. It just wasn’t that, you know.

KM: Just another seeing Tom Brady win one more time.

Brian: Kind of went to bed early, then slept, yeah, whatever. Football season’s over, life goes on.

KM: Yeah. I read the commentators saying “this game is gonna be one for the ages”. But then…

Brian: Oh yeah, they way overhype that stuff. What’s “one for the ages” is the fact that the 2020 season happened at all.

KM: That’s true. So it goes.

Brian: But this isn’t about football, is it?

KM: It’s not about football, and in fact I can only take it so—

Brian: Because you are in the South, and I know how much we love football in the South because I am from the South. I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and my dad now lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is the third largest city in Kentucky, I found out from you before we started.

KM: It’s true. Third largest city, home of the likes of Cage the Elephant, which. I know you know the guys from Cage and everything.

Brian: Yeah, I do know Cage, Matt Shultz. What’s odd is also I grew up in the third largest city of Tennessee, so maybe that’s what my dad is drawn to, whatever the third largest city of any state is.

KM: Wherever he goes, it’s gotta be the third largest city of that state.

Brian: Can’t be the second, or the fourth.

KM: No, it’s very specific. I appreciate that.

Brian: Yeah, very specific.

KM: The commitment…

KM: Congratulations, man. OK Human.

Brian: Oh, yeah.

KM: What a cool little record. I say little record— what a cool massive record that you guys have done.

Brian: Well, it’s little in the amount of minutes it plays, but… I don’t know about your attention span, mine is— really, one side of a record, and why I like vinyl so much is that I believe that side A/side B of an actual LP is the perfect amount of time to let music play and become one with music. You can focus for that long. When you sit and meditate or something like that, do you go over 20 minutes? I know I certainly don’t. It’s like, let me take you on this journey for 15 minutes, that’s all we’re asking, and just enjoy it. Let whatever images and feelings come to you and then if you want to, go up, stand up, and flip the side. Don’t go to your phone and press—you know, something. I don’t know, I don’t really like listening to streamed music that much. I do as like educational purposes, “Oh I want to hear this song,” it’s super convenient to pull it up and listen to it, okay, but there’s something about either the sonic quality or even the visceralness of putting a record on yourself and dropping the needle and going to sit down and it’s kind of interesting how that works. OK Human, I believe, is best heard on our vinyl record. But hear it however you want to hear it, and it’s barely over 30 minutes, but I feel some of our best work is only over 30 minutes. I think same with Pinkerton. We never really liked too much extraneous fluff in our music, in general. Ok, you’ve said it, how many times does this need to repeat? Something needs to happen, it needs to grow, even if it’s a repetitive chord progression— which most all songs are— something new needs to happen or be subtracted. Delineation, something to keep you interested, or drop out here, and just building a nice composition that way.

KM: Well, I think that’s what’s all the more impressive. I mean, 30 minutes and there’s so much happening in this record. It’s a seamless album, if you do happen to hear it on streaming, it really never stops. One thing leads to the next.

Brian: I just haven’t heard it on streaming, but I’m sure it’s fantastic.

KM: I wonder, when you guys write this, because it does play as one piece, almost one circular piece. Now let me start with this, the concept is birthed and as we’ve heard in other interviews it sounds like it comes from your producer who pushes Rivers to say “Why don’t we try this,” but at what point does this get presented to you all? Like “OK, this is gong to be an orchestral record concept album”?

Brian: I remember the moment, this is gonna sound pretty douchey, but we were on a private jet flying somewhere, and Rivers asked me— it always happens while we’re working on something else, while there’s something else being worked on with him, it seems like all of a sudden his focus shifts from the record we were working on to something new which probably has already shifted to something, which I know it has. And I’m just getting my head wrapped around what we’re doing now, and there’s something new coming down the pipeline? He told me about the orchestral stuff, and he said he wasn’t sure how he saw— because he was not foreseeing electric guitars— how he foresaw my role in this. He kind of I guess wanted me to know that I might not be needed. And internally I’m thinking, “fuck that!”, so that made me work really hard. Maybe it was some sort of psychological, what’s that that therapists do on you, reverse psychology.

Brian: I mean I work hard on every record, try to come up with at least three or four ideas for each song for the producer or whomever to pick whatever you think works the best, I don’t even care, I just want to give you as many ideas as I can come up with. For this album, I was more in communication with our producer on what to play, and he’s like, “How do you feel about acoustic guitar?” “Well, I love acoustic guitar, I think I play that better than electric guitar.” And also, the organ. Which I started off playing keyboards anyway, and I think I approach the guitar somewhat pianistically and with the capabilities of voice leading, and how things lay out on the keyboard, I do think of a guitar that way too, which is not very guitarists. And I can come up with I think some pretty interesting things because of that. So when he said organ, I said, “Well, I know that I’m pretty good at keys, at least competent, but being an organ player is a whole different monster. You have to control a volume pedal and a vibrato knob, and all these— there’s so many levers that control the overtones and the sounds and stuff. I really don’t own a real organ, I own one of those digital things, and I play an acoustic piano at home.

Brian: But luckily, our producer is very talented and gifted and he got connected with this magical studio out in the valley that the owner’s name is a total mystery. Which he won’t tell us. Because he has all this gear, it’s literally a museum. We used the mellotron from “She’s In Rainbows” from the Stones, there’d be Keith Richards’ Telecaster there, there’d be the most amazing J200 Gibson, I don’t know whose it was— could have been Cat Stevens for all I know. For some reason everything had some sort of— we mixed on the console that they did Dark Side of the Moon, which was at EMI Studios and there’s a picture of Paul McCartney back in I don’t know what period of Beatles with that exact console. So who this guy is that collected all this stuff I don’t know, but the gear was incredible. You see it in our album in-sleeve, you’ll see a picture of the place. The point, though, is we had a really good Hammond B-3 organ with a Leslie speaker.

Brian: So I came up with a lot of, I thought, cool parts and I was a little bit nervous. Like, “ok, now it’s time for organ parts.” And we recorded in a very assembly-line fashion, where I was given almost clinical— Thursday between 10 and 2 is your time, or something like that. So I would come in almost like a doctor. I’m trying to show you, it’s probably not plugged in, basically I have this electronic sheet music thing and so I would come up with the ideas and like a surgeon come in because I had such limited time. “Here’s my idea. Let’s get this one: check, check, check.” And then after the fact, in the mixing process, a lot of it was taking stuff away, including the strings. There’s a lot of strings we didn’t use, because otherwise it sounded too pompous. That was my main fear of an orchestral album, was making it sound stodgy. But back to the organ, when I played the parts I knew musically the notes work great and whatever, and the sounds— he was able to get the sounds that he liked, I’m like “great, you’re the producer, get the sounds you want, that’s a great sound, it works,” and I thought it worked incredibly well with the strings as far as sonically goes. But as far as being able to control the volume pedals and swells and all that, we basically had to have my two hands playing it, Jake’s brother on the ground controlling the swells as it would happen, and then Jake would decide sometimes where he thought vibrato should go. So we had six hands working on the dang thing. In a way, that’s a collaborative effort. He loved the parts, and then he would decide, or we both decided in the mix process what should go where and I said I would like to be able to perform this live if we have to. So there was just so much, I played guitar over all of it, I played organ over all of it. We are going to have to stream it back a little bit in how would I approach this live? I would have to be able to switch instruments. So there’d be sections where it’s just acoustic guitar, sections where it’s just organ. It still would be very hard to live switch in time, but that was the thought process on what got chosen when. And sometimes we actually would put two acoustic guitar parts on top of each other because they worked like a nice mosaic fabric against everything. They were mixed quite low, and so were the organ, and so were the background vocals.

Brian: The background vocals then I would sing ideas, like here’s my ideas, and then I didn’t realize how good he was at vocal harmonies. He would come back and three-part almost everything I did. And he wanted the other guys to sing it, meaning Scott and Pat. I’ve always wanted to get Pat to sing a lot more and I knew it’d be difficult to do and and to get him to do it and a lot of work was required to hear these parts. So I asked him to sed me separate vocals of all of them and then I notated them all out. I know that those guys can read music well enough to hear it and then see how it goes against a bar line or whatever. So that was kind of me helping just the—I just really believed in this album and I wanted to push to get it done. Because what else are we gonna do right now? Like, why not go full throttle into this? And he did great. I was really impressed with Pat sang and I know Scott always could sing well, and how these parts blended together, and I love the sound of our human— that human element. It’s three voices, even though they’re low in the mix and I believe they’re mixed in mono, so they’re definitely not featured, but they’re just the right amount of touch to go, “remember humans’ voices?” When you think about it, there really was no electric instruments other than an organ that was plugged into an outlet and then obviously microphones and all that kind of stuff. We kind of use the theme of a human-sounding record and that’s how we thought about it.

Brian: Now, I could tell by Rivers’ lyrics that there were themes of technology and whatnot, and sometimes there’d be lyrics where I would raise a— like, “Do we have to have that?” And sometimes those get looked at and sometimes they stay. Like a song about his dirty hair or something. I was like, “Do we have to have this, like, so personal?” But some of those things that are— if you take it away— yeah, they might turn some people off or whatever, or some people might love it, but that’s Rivers, you know. He can be polarizing to people, especially in the critics, when you see write-ups they would latch onto certain lyrics. But who else is going to think of that? That’s kind of the beauty of Rivers. “I’ll tell you, Rivers, what I think people might respond negatively to, but you can sit with it if you come up with something else, or leave it, I’m just letting you know,” because sometimes I feel like he’s very stream of consciousness when he writes and he just lets it flow out and that’s great, but also sometimes it helps to edit a little bit. Me and my producer would have lengthy conversations about one word sometimes. Sometimes in the demo he’ll say something that came up stream of consciousness like “oh my god, that’s genius!’” but it gets changed in some way and then you have to fight to get it back to the original word. That’s how much we care.

Brian: There’s a moment in Numbers where I”m singing backgrounds and there’s a little breakdown— da, da, da— it was this quarter note pulse. And I’m like, well obviously I’m going to say some numbers. But I realized that the only way that numbers that I came up with are going to make the record, make the cut so to speak, is if they meant something. So I did something— the Fibonacci sequence, where you add the— so I was saying 0 1’s and stuff, like binary numbers. So I started 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5… like it went all the way I think to 13. I don’t know what kind of math nerd is gonna notice that, but I had to present it that way. Like, “You understand? I’m saying the Fibonacci code here, so it’s like a little Easter egg!” And then it’s like, “ah, that’s cool.” And there was also a moment too in La Brea Tar Pits at the end where Pat answers his phone. And I was kind of appalled by that at first. Like, “What’s he doing?!” Because that’s before all the instruments got put on it, and that’s— answering the phone during a take? That’s so Pat! Sometimes he gets distracted and he plays great but then loses interest toward the end of the song. This time he answers his phone, and you can hear him talking, and then he puts it back— picks up the sticks again, but it almost worked, and we made the music work in that moment, or at least mixed it that way where it almost sounds like this was meant to happen. Because of the theme of the record being organic and humanized, there was such a — and technology, there’s such a human moment where the phone is controlling us even while we’re working and recording. If a phone goes off or a “Euh!” Like a robot. [monotonously] Must— answer— phone. So it might seem like, wow, that was almost like it was written in a script or something, to do that. But that just happened, and one of those things that we kept because of that. When I thought of it that way, it was certainly actually kind of cool, isn’t it? but there were moments where like, “augh! that shouldn’t go there.”

Brian: But it was a really fun record to make. Thank— we had the time. We were chipping away at it before the pandemic started, so we had I think the basic tracks were done already. So then it was just a matter of “let’s just do this”. Nose to the grindstone. And as we were finishing Van Weezer, too, ‘cause now that one is in the can as well.

KM: Juggling those two, right there, and it sounds like even— Rivers is always moving onto the next concept on top of that— how do you keep track of all that for one? Because there’s so much, it seems like Weezer, especially in the last decade, there’s so much coming out. How much of it is overlapping at once? Because this record is so specific in its sounding, and I’ve complimented half the songs on here. I bring up a solid, "Dead Roses", and a few of the things like that it’s like straight up out of the 60’s, like you were talking about that analog gear. But with Van Weezer, were these overlapping at the same time?

Brian: Yeah, they kind of were overlapping. We knew— it does help to have, we had different producers, for one, so they both had their own sonic take on how it should go. But we know that what Van Weezer was was a stadium rock album, and the only reason we didn’t release it is because of the pandemic, which we were slated to tour with Fall Out Boy and Green Day on something called the Hella Mega Tour. Europe, Australia, the U.S., we were super stoked about it and then of course this happened and we postponed it— hopefully we’ll get to play some of these dates in 2021 and we really hope we do, and we really hope we can still release this album, because it’s such a stadium rock sound and flashy lead guitar work. Which I don’t really play, I play more of the fabric, the figures and secondary counter-melodies and things like that against— usually I use Rivers’ vocals as what’s called a cantus firmus, which can never be altered, and you work against that. That’s kind of my secret of how I get the parts to work. I don’t try to flash them and be “look at me instead.” But we knew what Van Weezer was, and we also wanted a tour to support the album. So that’s why it didn’t come out, because the tour didn’t happen. And I know a lot of fans are like, “Why are they putting OK Human out now?” “Well, that’s because if you notice, there’s a pandemic, and it’s kind of pointless to put out a rock album like that without a tour to support it.” This kind of record, we hope maybe to do some sort of filmed streaming performance of it with the orchestra and all that, that is a goal of ours. Whether that happens or not is lots to be determined, but it’s one of those things I think that might be the best presentation of that album, is something like that. I’m talking about OK Human. That would be great. I’m ready for it, just let me know when, just give me about 10 days to prepare. Did I answer the question?

KM: Yeah, you did, in fact you did. You just talked about all of these records, and I want to quickly bring up because we’re already talking about the records that come after these two, what’s getting put in the press?

Brian: I know! We have a problem with that. I think we’re just so excited by creativity and making music, and… you realize that any artistic endeavor you work at, was it a movie or whatever, you’ve had the idea for years before people actually are hearing it for the first time, or seeing it for the first time. We’ve lived with it for a long time, working on it. Like the ins and outs of all of it, every note, every word, etc. So it’s not that we’re ready to move on, I’m very excited that it’s out now for people to hear, but it doesn’t mean that we should stop working and creating. What’s most important are ideas, and I knew that there is new stuff on the way. I have the two— I have a couple of key phrases of the sound of two different records, and now I hear there’ll be four of them?

KM: [laughing] I like that you’re hearing that when we’re hearing that is what it sounds like.

Brian: Well, I might hear it— I’ve heard it heard it before you, but you have a point, yeah. I’m not there inside his head as it happens, so when he’s ready to bring us into it he’ll of course let us know. Then I can decide what I need to do to prepare for that. I have an idea on how to prepare for certain conceptual moods or whatever that we want to portray, or a feeling that we want to portray in some of these future records. So I’m going to try a couple things on getting my actual internals to feel that before I present something, otherwise it’s all academic.

KM: Well, it’s interesting, because I know a couple of those records that we’re talking about, this seasonal concept that’s been put out there. I think one was like Elliott Smith-inspired, one was Franz Ferdinand-inspired, that’s at least what’s been told. Do you know what the other two are, if there are specific bands like that? Has that been laid out like that?

Brian: Well, Weezer is one of them. [laughs]

KM: That’s good! That’s real good.

Brian: And I ain’t joking.

KM: What does that mean, then? For a Weezer-inspired Weezer album.

Brian: A Weezer-inspired Weezer album, we sometimes refer to “Island in the Sun” as a sound, as a thing. One of my favorite quotes form Pat, from when Rivers got all into co-writing and stuff, in the Raditude period or whatever, is Pat goes, “I want him to co-write with the guy who wrote “Say It Ain’t So”! [laughs] So yeah, we know some of those periods… like “Let’s have a pop experiment!” Just trying— not trying to stay relevant so much as just staying interested. “Island in the Sun”, if we could figure out what that was, sometimes those things just happen and it was beautifully produced by Ric Ocasek who’s no longer with us. We know what vibe, musically, that evoked, and also lyrically it was a little bit of a departure as far as it wasn’t so personal, it was more universal feeling. So we do think about those things, and it was like, it was our biggest hit in France. And when I think about that, I was like, “Oh, a different language. Because it’s so simple, it has a sound and it’s a feeling anyone can relate to.” Sometimes personal things, while they can be very interesting and create a picture, may not be so universally felt.

KM: I’ll wrap up with this actually, I know you’ve got to go. The Green Album that you’re hitting on right there. That’s the one that’s celebrating the big round anniversary this year, it does turn 20. You all have done the anniversary shows for Pinkerton and Blue; do you— with so much new music coming out, would you even see yourself fitting in something like that for The Green Album?

Brian: I know that I will try to push for that because it’s one I think is a very underrated album as an album, even though it had one of our biggest songs on it and also “Hash Pipe”. To me, the record is its own work of art. The way it’s all very similar other than those two songs, songs like “Knock-down Drag-out” and “Smile” and Glory… I think it was “Glorious Day”, and there’s a song called “[O] Girlfriend”. There’s just a sound to it that we definitely hashed out in a rehearsal space, and then hashed it out again with Ric in pre-production, then knocked it out in the studio and it just had kind of a glorious, energetic sound of the time, of that period for us. I don’t know if we’ve ever played some of those songs live, and I just think the songs would really lend themselves well live. And I don’t think that record’s 30 minutes, it’s no more than 30 minutes. To do like we did the Blue-Pinkerton shows, why not The Green Album too? So I’m sure it’s already been talked about, maybe in our management office or something, and getting everyone on board, I guess. Even though Rivers is always moving forward, he’s gotta have a place in his heart for The Green Album, in general. It’s also Mikey, our bass player for that one record who passed away way too early. That would be a nice homage to his memory. So I would love to do it, but because the pandemic, we might have to do it in a different way. Like, let’s do it record it somewhere interesting and then let people hear it and see it and then critique it and whatever they want to do after that.

KM: I’d love to see it. It’s so fun watching what you all do and keeping up. You’re one of the most interesting bands of the past 30 years. Thank you for continuing to keep it interesting out there, Brian. Congratulations on OK Human: It is a masterpiece, I think we’re going to be talking about it the way we talk about Pinkerton, I kind of get that feeling. It’s a great record, congrats.

Brian: Aw, thanks. I love it, I appreciate that. It’s… been telling people for at least a year, like “just wait, just wait.” And also, the fans who keep going like [slurring] “Oh, Blue and Pinkerton, these are the only ones,” I’m like, “Oh, yeah?” I mean, they’ll find something to say negative, which is so bizarre, but they’re still our fans, and you gotta love ‘em for that, I guess. I like music that you can listen to six or seven times and hear new things every time. That’s what gets me. And I think that’s why a lot of music from the 60’s and 70’s stands the test of time, is because there was so much thought that went into it and string arrangement stuff that doesn’t hit you over the head but is in there, or when the Beatles were around, those recordings will always last because there’s always something new to discover. And I hope that’ll be the case with OK Human.

KM: I think it will.

Brian: Well, thank you for your time.

KM: No, it’s been great talking to you, man. Hopefully we’ll see you out there on that tour circuit sometime, but in the meantime, you keep throwing studio albums at us, I’m gonna be just as happy!

Brian: Alright, it’s all we can do! Thank you, bye-bye.

KM: Alright, take care, man. Bye.