Yahoo! Music interview with Jason Cropper - May 9, 2019
Only in dreams: Meet the founding member who became the 'Pete Best' of Weezer
Lyndsey Parker, Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
May 9, 2019
On May 10, 1994, Weezer released their self-titled debut, popularly known as The Blue Album, which went on to sell 3 million copies and establish the Rivers Cuomo-fronted L.A. indie-rockers as one of the most important and enduring bands of the 1990s’ alt-rock revolution. But shortly before that landmark record’s release, founding guitarist Jason Cropper learned his girlfriend Amy was pregnant — and that bombshell, along with growing tensions between him and then-bassist Matt Sharp, led to his dismissal from Weezer.
However, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment 25 years later, Cropper seems to harbor no resentment or bitterness. “It's weird to be this generation's Syd Barrett or Pete Best. But it's pretty cool too,” he chuckles.
Cropper’s first child, daughter Kiefer, whom Cropper describes as a “force of nature,” was born on Jan. 8, 1994 — four months before The Blue Album’s release, and after Cropper had been replaced by former Carnival Art member Brian Bell, who still plays with Weezer to this day. (Bell appeared on the album’s iconic blue cover art, but Cropper’s original guitar parts on The Blue Album were actually rerecorded by Cuomo.) “I was excited to be a dedicated father, which I have been since then. Longer than The Blue Album has been out, I've been a dedicated father. I've always had a home for my kids to live in and been there making dinner and paying the mortgage or the rent. I knew then that I wanted to be able to say that now, and to own it. And it's been great. … I wouldn't trade Kiefer for Weezer!” Cropper asserts proudly.
Cropper met Cuomo and Weezer drummer Pat Wilson in 1991, when their mutual friend Patrick Finn convinced him to move down from Northern California to L.A. to pursue music. "He said, ‘Jason, you should move with me to Los Angeles. We'll write some songs and play in bands and get a record deal. It'll be great!’” Cropper recalls. “I was like, ‘I'd rather do that than go to college!’ So, I threw all my stuff in his car.” Finn set Cropper up with a roommate situation in Hollywood with Cuomo, Wilson, and Sharp, sleeping on a spare couch, and Cropper later worked with Sharp and Wilson at a telemarketing company selling dog shampoo and then alongside Cuomo at an Italian deli in West Los Angeles.
It was during these struggling early days (“I remember shoplifting for food”) that Cropper and Cuomo quickly bonded, especially after they found out that — in either a bizarre coincidence or a case of kismet — Cuomo’s “most important role models in life,” whom he’d met at an ashram in Connecticut, turned out to be Cropper’s aunt and uncle, godmother, and godfather. (“That was a cool synchronicity,” Cropper muses.) Cropper soon took notice of Cuomo’s genius, first when he heard demos of Cuomo and Wilson’s pre-Weezer band, Fuzz. “They were like the Pixies, but with more testosterone,” he says. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, these guys are awesome.’ I really looked up to them, and I was like, ‘Man, I wonder what's going to happen next.’”
The answer to that question came when Cropper and Cuomo were working at the Italian restaurant one night and listening to the kitchen’s radio. “The radio station format till that point had been Guns N' Roses, AC/DC. Literally we were there listening to the radio station the minute the format changed [from metal]. I remember Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came on the radio and we're both working, and the radio's between us — he's washing dishes and I'm cooking. I looked at him and I said, ‘You could write that kind of a song.’ He's like, ‘I could totally write a song like that.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ We both just felt this moment of ‘this is going to happen.’”
Witnessing Cuomo making home recordings for future Blue Album classics like “Undone (The Sweater Song)” also motivated the young Cropper. “I got to see the inner workings of River's creative process. It was astounding. It was like, ‘Wow, this cat is deep. He is organized. He is dedicated.’ Not in a curmudgeonly way — in a very fun but disciplined way. It was inspirational.”
It was around this time that Cropper contributed a distinctive finger-picking guitar lick that would make it onto The Blue Album and secure him his only songwriting credit on the record. “I got home from work [at the Italian restaurant], and I remember I was still wearing my cook's outfit. I picked up the guitar and played that first part of what became the intro to ‘My Name Is Jonas,’ and Pat [Wilson] said, ‘Stop. Just do that. Just don't keep going to different chords, just do those three notes, those three chords!’ And he puts the mic in front of the guitar, and I do it. And then he's like, ‘OK, give me the guitar.’ Then he took it and wrote the rest of the music, I believe, and then gave it to Rivers, who wrote all the words and all the melody and finished the song. That was typical of the creative process. It was like I maybe got to just throw a penny's worth of information into what became a full dollar bill.”
Eventually Weezer developed enough of a following gigging around Los Angeles to attract the attention of several record labels, including DGC/Geffen, their first choice “because it was Nirvana's label, of course.” After signing the deal, Cuomo and Cropper were so excited that they frolicked in the famous water fountains on Century City’s Avenue of the Stars before taking the bus back home. But when the band went to New York in 1993 to start recording The Blue Album with the Cars’ Ric Ocasek producing, the trouble started, eventually leading to Cropper’s ejection from the band.
“There was definitely some tension between me and Matt at this point, and I think it was starting to bother Rivers. I think I just irritated Matt, I don't know. I love Matt, and I'm grateful for everything — every experience in that whole thing, positive and negative, because I mean, nothing's perfect. ... So I think Matt and Rivers and Pat and I were all alienated from each other a little bit because of the reality of the [recording] process, however it showed up. And then there was Amy being pregnant, and me and Matt competing for second fiddle, if you will.
“At this point, the mother of my three children was pregnant with my first daughter,” Cropper continues. “Amy Wellner was at least in the first trimester with Kiefer. And that was a bummer for Rivers. I think Pat was with it, but I think Matt was also disappointed in me for starting a family so young, when it was like, ‘No, dude, we're not here to do that. We're here to go out there and rock the world as this band.’ [They were concerned] that [fatherhood] would be a liability and that I would not be able to show up at some point, that I would flake out on them. And I didn't; I kept up as best as I could. But I saw that Rivers was going to achieve his goal, and I could see that I had kind of put a doorstop in there somewhere.
“That definitely was a poop in the punchbowl — not Kiefer, but the pregnancy in the context of the band. And so, I had to own it. I remember there was a point where it was [an attitude of], ‘Well, how about you just leave [Amy], and there'll be other women and you'll have a couple of babies out there. Maybe you'll raise that kid, maybe you won't. But be a rock star. Come with us.’… It was the mindset of: ‘If you're starting a family, then that overlaps. We're the family. The band is the family.’”
Cropper says the final straw came when Wellner showed up unannounced in New York during The Blue Album’s recording sessions, despite Cuomo’s insistence that the Weezer members’ significant others should stay away so that the band could focus. “She showed up anyways, just because she wanted to be together. She didn't want to lose me. I think she was concerned that I was going to move on,” says Cropper. “And that was when I was given my notice.”
Cropper remembers his firing as “very sad and very unfortunate. They had me come into the hotel room, and Rivers said, ‘This just isn't gonna work. You'll go back to L.A. now, and when we get back there, we'll all be friends. But we're going to replace you. Thank you. And if anything ever happens, we'll all be kind to each other. Hopefully we won't ever need lawyers to sue each other. We'll just negotiate if there's ever any money on the table.’ He was gracious and professional, as he always is. I remember some of the things that Matt said, which weren't so kind, which I won't repeat here. I think he was angry with me. He felt really disappointed in me; it's the only way I can really understand that. And I don't want to really go too deep into that. But it was hard. It was a sad and difficult separation.”
Cropper confesses that even after The Blue Album became a hit, he felt a combination of both relief and sorrow that he was no longer in the band. “I felt missed the bus and dodged a bullet at the same time. … I remember thinking, ‘OK, I'm glad that's over’ and ‘I'm really sad that I can't do that anymore.’ Both at the same time. Because it was hard. I wasn't having fun being in band with Matt. I was having fun being in a band with Rivers when we would work one-on-one, and I was definitely having fun in the band with Pat no matter what. But I wanted to write my own songs, and so I was excited that I could get started on that.”
In fact, Cropper says his biggest regret was that he didn’t get to develop as a songwriter within Weezer, as that was starting to happen during the recording of The Blue Album. “I wanted to have the chance to do that, and it was just too soon in the band's development, and my exit precluded me from getting to that point with them further down the road. So that was, for me, the most disappointing thing. Rivers and I spent a lot of time in the upstairs attic — I think it's called Studio 3 at Electric Lady Studios — without Ric [Ocasek]. He just let us go in there alone. And we played the s*** out of the guitars, and things like the solo for ‘My Name Is Jonas’ came out of that, and things like the tremolo underwater guitar at the beginning of ‘The Sweater Song’ came out of that, and some other little magical things that were just like little flowers of frosting on the Blue Album cake. We had a really special and magical time playing together in that context, when it was just me and Rivers. His songwriting was so inspirational to me at that time. It still is. I'm a big fan of his work.”
Cropper and Wellner got married and eventually had two more children (the couple divorced around 2005), and they started their own powerpop trio, Chopper One. That band signed to Restless Records, the first label that had courted Weezer back in the day, and released one album, 1997’s Now Playing, with a photo of their daughter Kiefer on the cover. “I was thinking to myself, ‘OK, people keep listening to me and wanting me to play my music, so I must be doing something right. So I'm going to keep doing it.’ But then, when it wasn't as anywhere near as successful as Weezer, of course it was a disappointment,” admits Cropper. “But then it was like, ‘Yeah, but lightning doesn't strike twice. It's OK. Don't take it personally.’ There was a time when I felt competitive towards [Weezer] in a way, but they were completely out of my league.”
For about a decade, despite Cuomo’s assurance that he and Cropper would remain friends, the two were estranged, though Cropper takes some responsibility for the rift. “There was a point when [Weezer] were getting ready to make [their second album] Pinkerton, and I was broke. And I went to them, and I was like, ‘You guys have got to give me some money!’ The lawyers were negotiating [over royalties] and it was taking too long and I got impatient, and I got angry. And so, I scared them. I said something mean. I just was aggressive that one time. And I regret it. I want to apologize to Brian [Bell] about that. That was not necessary. If I could take that back, I would.”
Eventually, though, Cuomo was “doing some just personal housecleaning and taking stock” and reached out to Cropper to repair the friendship; Cropper even attended Cuomo’s wedding in 2006. “He came to me and basically said, ‘Hey, we were kids. We were doing the best we could at that time. If it wasn't good enough, or good, I'm sorry.’ What more could one hope for from a friend?” says Cropper. “We talked at length about it, and we were able to really just be honest and open and emotional with each other about how it was, how it is, how it might've been, and — hopefully, maybe, who knows — how it could be again. I mean, I would love to collaborate with them in any way that they would have me. I would jump at the opportunity to do that.”
A full-on Weezer/Cropper collaboration hasn’t happened, but last year, at two separate San Francisco shows, Cropper played guitar with Cuomo onstage, much to old-school Weezer fans’ delight. Cropper says those nights were “very special.”
While Chopper One was short-lived, Cropper has stayed in the music business. By day, he works at the musical equipment rental company Vintage King. “Weezer has been very fair to me, and very generous with me,” he says of the royalties he’s received. “I have a regular job. I work hard. I have to make a living like anybody else. But they're gracious and generous, and it's fair. It's not anything that I didn't earn, you know? It’s not enough to stop working and retire on, but that would be f***ing boring. I don't want to do that anyways. I need to stay busy, or else I'll go crazy.”
Cropper has also played in the pop-punk supergroup Fliptop (featuring the Vandals’ Josh Freese and Face to Face’s Scott Shiflett), sung the theme song for Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and produced various indie bands. (He says he’d love to work on a “yet-to-be-made Weezer album that I produce in my studio here in Oakland, Calif.”) However, he’s kept a relatively low profile, explaining, “I think part of the cost for me of being the equivalent of a ‘Syd Barrett’ in Weezer's story is that I did have to back up from my emotional involvement with my music, and music in general, in order to not be sad about this missed opportunity.”
That being said, Cropper reveals that sharing the stage with his old bandmate and friend has lit a new fire under him. “I have to say that playing those shows with Rivers inspired me last year. So, I started writing again, and I think I'm going to put out a record this year. … I'm playing a show on June 27, my birthday, in San Francisco at Bottom of the Hill, the same club where Rivers got me up onstage. I’m going to do mostly originals. Maybe some Blue Album stuff. Maybe.”
Overall, Cropper isn’t bitter about what happened 25 years ago, or regretful about his life decisions, and he still considers himself to be a huge Weezer fan. “It's so much better to just love their music than to be like, ‘Oh, I'm the guy who got cheated,’” he says. “I mean, we all have to make choices about how we show up every day.”