Rivers Cuomo: Still looking for the edge
Rivers Cuomo has no problem admitting that he sometimes still feels like a teenager. “Maybe I haven’t matured in some ways that other 40-year-olds have,” the Weezer frontman said in a recent interview. “Or maybe I’m more willing to honor those immature voices inside myself that other 40-year-olds aren’t.”
He certainly isn’t very age-appropriate when performing, which is a good thing for a rock star, even one who’s now married with a kid and a degree from Harvard. Back in August, Weezer played the headlining spot in the concert series attached to the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach. The event attracted thousands of swimsuit-clad kids to a makeshift arena extending right to the edge of the Pacific — including many very tan, semi-naked, spirited women, babes of the kind over whom Cuomo has fretted in dozens of songs, all the way to last year’s "(If You’re Wondering if I Want You To) I Want You To.”
Cuomo jumped into that sea of bodies every chance he could. “Welcome to Southern California!” he shouted. “The land of sun, surf and alternative rock!” He bent his slight frame back to mirror the curve of the giant beach balls he flung into the audience. He was joyful, unhinged. No one would have suspected that this was Weezer’s 21st show this year, midway through a schedule that’s ranged from a prime spot at Bonnaroo to gigs at casinos and county fairs.
A week later, Cuomo was all friendly business at the Lair, a recording studio in Beverlywood, arriving promptly for a morning interview scheduled after his daily meditation session. With producer Shawn Everett hovering nearby and Julian Casablancas, singer for the Strokes, popping in midway to prepare for a collaborative session, Cuomo was in his element, relaxed and forthcoming. He was on hand to discuss Weezer’s eighth studio album, “Hurley,” which hits retail stores Sept. 14, and his nearly 20 years as rock’s definitive frustrated young man.
He got wide-eyed when asked about Weezer’s surprisingly still awesome live show. The babes aren’t the point, it turns out. It’s the act of performing.
When Cuomo formed Weezer, he was 22 and he knew what he wanted: “I was trying to get as simple as possible,” he said. Now, he’s undeniably grown up, with a comfortable life raising his 3-year-old daughter, Mia, with his Japanese-born wife, Kyoko Ito, and a daily Vipassana meditation practice that he says has improved his creative process. Yet he says he feels more uncertain than ever.
“In so many ways, I feel like I’m just starting,” Cuomo said. “Like these are my first shows. I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing — there are all these challenges, and I feel like I’m seeing the audience for the first time.”
Cuomo has ample reason to insist that his own spirit — and Weezer’s — is being born again. The band is releasing “Hurley” through the beloved Southern California indie label Epitaph, after spending its entire career on various imprints of the major label Geffen. The new material came in several quick sessions, with the rest of the bandcoming in to “bang it out,” as drummer-guitarist Pat Wilson describes the process, adding to Cuomo’s rough demos.
For all their deliberate mess, the “Hurley” songs epitomize Cuomo’s gift for compact , simple songwriting. “That’s a great question — how do you make this old structure fresh?” he said. “It’s so important to me that I feel like I’m doing something that’s never been done before, whether that’s in the show, or I’m writing a song. I can exist in this little box here, but I have to do something new with it.”
Cuomo and his bandmates have earned unflagging fan devotion by doing something that seems almost facile, but is in fact fairly rare. Within rock’s evolution, a central role belongs to sticklers such as Cuomo, obsessed with what makes the genre work at its most basic structural level. Such artists are disciplined in ways both musical — concentrating on a few chords, an amplified voice, a distorted guitar part — and emotional: teasing out every nuance of rock’s great themes, like horniness and heartbreak and the kind of self-doubt that can suddenly turn a grown person into a teenager.
In a phone interview, Epitaph founder Brett Gurewitz made the obvious comparison between Cuomo and Buddy Holly, the rock pioneer whose name served as the title of one of Weezer’s earliest hits. “He’s the awkward genius everyone can love,” he said. But then Gurewitz came closer to the point. “Part of a great pop song is universality,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to be obtuse to be smart.”
Over Weezer’s long career, Cuomo has shown how a rock singer can be both direct and intelligent; both enthusiastically juvenile and somehow pretty deep. Credit his fascination with song forms, which led him to study music composition at Harvard (after he had become a rock star in the mid-1990s).
“When I was a teenager, I was doing much more progressive music,” he said. “I was into progressive metal. Weezer’s ‘Blue Album’ (the band’s self-titled 1994 debut), which sounds in a way kind of simplistic and innocent and traditional, structure-wise, was a very self-conscious reaction to the excess of my metal years.”
Metallica’s “really straight-ahead, grinding guitar chords” remained a major influence as Cuomo turned toward melodic pop. Thrash metal was his own personal Wall of Sound.
“I was trying to get as simple as possible,” he said of that period. Then he got bored with that, and shifted into more expansive territory for Weezer’s much-loved second album, the heady “Pinkerton.” A commercial and critical flop upon release, “Pink” has since become a cult favorite; its sex-tortured, psyche-mining music has been credited with inspiring the inward-looking emo movement within punk. The album will receive a deluxe reissue in November, with copious liner notes by Cuomo.
After “Pinkerton,” Weezer’s albums went back and forth between strict hookiness and wide-ranging experimentation. By last year’s “Raditude,” Weezer had even started trading rhymes with rappers such as Lil Wayne.
Though Cuomo’s still interested in all forms of song craft — “Magic,” his single with the Atlanta rapper B.o.B., is currently in the Top 10 — “Hurley” returns Weezer to the business of sharp, aggressive rock. Hitting hard with meaty power chords, its 10 songs home in on Cuomo’s favorite themes of romantic struggle and painful self-examination, packing plenty of jokes and addictive choruses into each bright sonic flare.
“I always like balance,” he said. “If I’m playing rock music all the time, chances are I’ll start craving some lighter, poppier stuff, both to listen to and to play. I compare music to massage. If someone’s been working on your back for a long time, you really want them to move down to your legs or something.”
Instead of working again with Dr. Luke and Jermaine Dupri, the beat-conscious producers featured on “Raditude,” Cuomo sought out peers he knew were adept at power pop for “Hurley.” Ryan Adams cowrote a song. So did former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson (no relation to Pat), who’s found success aiding stuck stars, including the Dixie Chicks and Josh Groban. Cuomo even penned a tune with country-leaning Top 40 veteran Mac Davis.
For Cuomo, collaboration is not a compromise — it’s another way to impose useful structure within the songwriting process. He might have fit in well at a hit factory like the Brill Building, where tweaking formulas was a respected and profitable art. A child of the rock era, he went with a band — one that’s proven to be durable. Major conflicts with members now departed are a distant memory. The current lineup of original members Wilson and Cuomo, guitarist Brian Bell and bassist Scott Shriner has been together for half of Weezer’s life.
Longevity like Weezer’s can lead to problems, not only within a band but also in terms of what fans expect. “Whenever a band hits a nerve with the populace … the clay starts to cool a bit and people decide what you should be,” Pat Wilson said in a phone interview, adding that every long-lived rock group comes to resemble Spinal Tap on some level. “Simply by being around long enough, you’re constantly being measured against what people want from you.”
“Hurley” may have come about because Cuomo needed to massage some new pressure points, but it also gives Weezer’s longtime fans the sound they love best. Weezer’s first two releases remain its most popular; the band is even planning an upcoming tour in which it will play the self-titled “Blue Album” and “Pinkerton” in their entirety. And though interest in its whole catalog remains solid, “Raditude” was its least commercially successful release. “Hurley” reconnects with the basics that have made Weezer beloved, and its strong punch complements the band’s live sets, still among the most energetic and spontaneous on the rock circuit.
Weezer’s live approach is liberating for Cuomo. Crediting the in-ear monitor and wireless microphone that let him roam deep into the audience, Cuomo says he’s still finding new edges to walk as a frontman.
“I’m right on that line of if I get any crazier, something bad’s going to happen,” he said. “But if I’m any less crazy, it’s not going to be as cool. I want to lose my inhibitions just before that point of not being safe.”
That’s the other motivation for the straightforward mood on “Hurley”: In front of a crowd like the one in Huntington Beach last month, Cuomo was able to take these songs somewhere. “I feel so much feedback in a very profound way from the 10,000 people who are listening to me, watching me,” he said. “I just get this deep sense of what works and what doesn’t work. And as soon as you abandon familiar structures, you’re making it harder on yourself.”