It’s not ‘Pinkerton.’ But Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo gets pretty emo on ‘OK Human’
The first time Weezer stayed off the road for as long as it has during the COVID-19 pandemic, the triggering catastrophe was the less-than-enthused reaction to 1996’s “Pinkerton.”
Today that album is universally regarded as an emo classic. But at the time of its release, two years after the Los Angeles band’s hit self-titled debut known as the Blue Album, fans and critics jeered Weezer’s shift from clever, streamlined power-pop to a messier, noisier sound built around frontman Rivers Cuomo’s psychosexual confessions.
“Those were the earliest Amazon customer reviews I remember seeing,” the singer says. “A lot of people were repelled.”
The cool reception drove Cuomo from performing, and when Weezer returned in 2001 it was with another punchy self-titled record, this one called the Green Album, that set the template for the next two decades of the group’s career: polished rock-candy production, hooks within hooks and lyrics longer on jokes and wordplay than on self-revelation.
Now, 25 years after “Pinkerton” — and as the band’s involuntary break from touring enters its 12th month — Weezer is finally revisiting the introspective terrain of its beloved cult fave with “OK Human.” The new album due Friday sets Cuomo’s inner thoughts against lush but faintly haunting orchestral arrangements.
“It’s really trying to capture the anxieties of my everyday existence,” he says, drawing a distinction between his approach here and the various narrative devices (including cut-up poetry and characters’ voices) he used in recent years.
Unlike “Pinkerton,” though, “OK Human” didn’t come from a place of emotional trauma. In fact, Cuomo, 50, is thriving in quarantine.
“I’m perfectly happy to stay at home,” he says. “It means I don’t have to come up with excuses for not going out.”
It’s early December, and Cuomo and I are sitting 6 or 7 feet apart in a Zen-garden situation behind his home in Santa Monica. A sliding glass door opens into the plant-filled studio where he’s been livestreaming lately on Zoom and Instagram — intimate virtual gigs, including one a few months ago in which he crushed Whitney Houston’s “All at Once,” that he says represent some of the finest performances of his life.
Cuomo was wearing a mask when I arrived, but as we sat down he took it off, revealing a neatly trimmed mustache with heavy ’70s-dad vibes. (His turtleneck sweater and corduroy trousers strengthen the effect.)
“I don’t love shaving,” he says, “so whenever I don’t have to — like when there are no shows — a beard happens.” The mustache started as a goof, but he gets a kick out of it every time he catches himself in the mirror.
With his extra time, Cuomo has gotten into web programming; he recently developed an online store for his website where he’s selling downloads of old demos. The site is almost comically utilitarian in appearance — “amateurish,” he admits with a laugh. “I don’t really care what it looks like. I’m interested in just making stuff work.”
Among his other pandemic activities: He plays ping-pong with his wife, Kyoko, whom he married in 2006 and with whom he shares a 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. Kyoko is “a serious ping-pong-ist,” he says — she played on her school team growing up in Japan. “She beats me every time, but the tension is incredible.” They play every night after dinner, he says, then adds of his marriage: “We’ve gotten super-close — closer than ever.”
The only thing Cuomo seems troubled by is that he’ll have to leave home in a few weeks for his annual 10-day silent-meditation retreat. First exposed to the practice as a kid growing up on an ashram in Connecticut, he’s been committed to meditating daily since 2003. Although he says it’s essential to his creativity, the extended stretch of silence is something he likes having done more than he likes doing.
“Sometimes I’ll look forward to it if life is really chaotic,” he says, to which you have to ask: 2020 didn’t qualify? He shrugs as he takes a swig of electrolyte water.
“Life right here is pretty peaceful,” he says.
So why explore his deepest misgivings? Cuomo says the idea came from his producer, Jake Sinclair, who previously oversaw another self-titled Weezer LP (2016’s so-called White Album) and has also worked with Panic! at the Disco and 5 Seconds of Summer — popular young modern-rock acts operating in a lane Weezer helped create.
“Jake loves to think of me as this tortured artist,” Cuomo says. The frontman isn’t sure he agrees with that assessment: “I think everybody has some of that in them. So I was just channeling that.”
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The anxieties he probes on “OK Human” aren’t the same as on “Pinkerton,” which toggles between Cuomo’s carnal appetites and the guilt he feels about using his rock stardom to satisfy them. Here he worries about the effects of his daughter’s screen time and laments how closely he tracks his follower count on social media; “Aloo Gobi” wonders whether a couple’s routine is getting dull — “What’s playing at the Aero? / Some French noir flick” — while “La Brea Tar Pits” has a caveman calling for help as he sinks into the ooze of that L.A. landmark.
“I know there’s a lot of conjecture about peeling the layers of irony away from Weezer — that it’s like an onion,” says drummer Pat Wilson. (Weezer’s other members are guitarist Brian Bell and bassist Scott Shriner.) Over the years, Cuomo has pulled all kinds of left-field stunts to keep things interesting — sometimes to widespread scorn, as when he drafted Lil Wayne for an iffy guest verse in 2009, and sometimes to surreal acclaim, as when the group topped Billboard’s alternative chart in 2018 with a straight-faced cover of Toto’s “Africa.”
“But what I hope people hear in this album — especially the diehard people who love ‘Pinkerton’ — is Rivers speaking through his lyrics and the music,” Wilson continues. “To me, there’s a direct line between the two records. This one is like a portrait of Weezer as a middle-aged man.
“Which is a terrible selling point,” he adds with a laugh.
To frame these age-appropriate musings, Weezer dialed down the crunchy electric guitars of hits like “Buddy Holly” and “Beverly Hills” and hired a 38-piece orchestra — another idea that came from Sinclair, who says he envisioned “something like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ meets ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’” The producer guided Cuomo toward “Nilsson Sings Newman,” the wistful 1970 LP on which Harry Nilsson performs tunes by Randy Newman.
Cuomo wasn’t familiar with the album — he grew up idolizing Kiss and Van Halen — but loved it as soon as he heard it. “I’m so jealous of that guy’s voice,” he says of Nilsson, who died in 1994. “It seems like he can open his mouth and sing anything, and just the sound of his breath going through his vocal cords is beautiful.
“Right away, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so excited to do this.’”
That all-in attitude is typical of Cuomo. Yet what’s interesting about his obsessions — and what sets him apart from any number of ’90s-rock veterans — is the ease with which he moves between them; for him, no creative tactic ever serves as repudiation of another.
Indeed, “OK Human” is just one of two albums Weezer plans to put out this year. The other, “Van Weezer,” is a detailed homage to the ’80s metal of Cuomo’s adolescence, loaded with the various peacocking techniques — “palm muting, whammy bars, artificial harmonics, two-handed tapping,” per the singer’s rundown — that Weezer consciously rejected as it set out in the dressed-down age of grunge.
“Back then, we weren’t exactly sure who we were, but we knew who we weren’t,” Cuomo says. The showy “Van Weezer,” set for release in May, is an eager experiment: “Let’s bring those things back again and see if we can still be Weezer.”
As earnest as it is, “OK Human” bears traces of Cuomo’s slipperiness. “I’ll give you an example,” he says. “It’s super-disillusioning, but I think it demonstrates that a song can be both totally personal and have a writerly twist that deceives the listener in their interest.”
In “Playing My Piano,” the narrator sings about resenting Zoom interviews because they cut into the time he has to make music; in Cuomo’s mind, though, the interviews actually represent the music that’s distracting him from the programming he says he’d rather be doing.
“Here Comes the Rain” is another: a seeming account of self-encouragement that Cuomo wrote for his friend Sam Harris, the button-pushing author and podcast host, as Harris was getting beaten up online for some outrageous statement or another.
“I felt like I have more experience dealing with the internet and trolls because all that arose right when we were making our most controversial records,” Cuomo says, thinking back to 2009’s “Raditude,” for which he recruited pop studio pros such as Dr. Luke and Polow da Don.
“I wanted to explain to Sam how to not get sucked into it.” The song’s original chorus, he claims: “Don’t go on Reddit.”
Then there’s the new album’s “Grapes of Wrath,” in which Cuomo sings about blissfully falling asleep to the sound of an audiobook — only he doesn’t say “audiobook” but specifically name-checks Audible in a bit of product placement that would’ve horrified any self-respecting ’90s kid.
“It never occurred to me that that’s a weird thing to say,” Cuomo insists, and of course it’s true that the lyric’s precision makes it more real. But he also has a twinkle in his eye as he says that his managers have been working on a cross-promotional gambit with the folks at iRobot.
“To have our voices coming out of a robot vacuum somehow promoting an album called ‘OK Human’” — the title riffs on Radiohead’s technophobic “OK Computer” — “to me that feels less like brand integration than a work of art unto itself,” he says.
Cuomo’s feelings have evolved over time (and as bands have stopped making serious money from record sales). So too has the level of control he feels he needs to exert over the recording of any new Weezer album.
On the Blue Album, he recalls, he battled with the LP’s producer, the late Ric Ocasek of the Cars, about where microphones should be placed in the studio to record Wilson’s drums. But for “OK Human” he was happy to entrust much of the process to Sinclair, who he says “is very careful to limit my power over the final outcome, which I think is really smart.”
He’s similarly que-sera-sera in regards to the Hella Mega Tour, a rock roadshow starring Green Day, Fall Out Boy and Weezer that was supposed to play stadiums across the U.S. and Europe last summer before COVID shut down live music. At the moment the rescheduled tour is set to kick off June 9 in Vienna, which given the bumpy vaccine rollout “seems like kind of a long shot,” Cuomo says.
“Either way, I don’t care,” he adds. “I don’t mind staying home more.”
Besides, he’s got plenty to keep him busy, including a movie musical he’s working on about the life of the Buddha — it’s called, uh, “Buddha Superstar” — and two more Weezer albums after “Van Weezer.” The first, tentatively titled “Happy Chill,” is in the style of the band’s mellow 2001 single “Island in the Sun”; the other evokes Franz Ferdinand or the Clash, Cuomo says — “dance music, but it feels like a band.”
Looking even further, he’s beginning to imagine his first real solo record, which he describes with two unexpected words: “Barry” and “Manilow.”
Singing “All at Once” and another great Houston oldie, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” on Instagram in recent months got him wondering why nobody does songs like that anymore: complex, grand-scaled ballads that avoid neat four-chord progressions to summon a real sense of romantic abandon.
“And that’s when I thought of Barry Manilow,” he says. “I always loved Barry Manilow. I’d love to do what he does.”
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