Black Album bio - November 2018

From Weezerpedia
As I mentioned over in this thread, I wrote the bio for the Black Album that gets sent out with the record to journalists, promoters, etc. — obviously I couldn't put everything in the bio, so here's the transcript from our conversation. I interviewed Rivers and Dave Sitek together back in November 2018 — at this point the only songs that were complete were "Can't Knock The Hustle," "Zombie Bastards," which at the time was called "Die, Die You Zombie Bastards" and "Living In L.A.," which at the time was still called "This Girl." ("California Snow" was already released at this time but I do not believe it was planned to be on Black, which is why I didn't really ask about it.) "High As A Kite" was the next song that was finished, about a week or so after our interview. I trimmed out a few things from this conversation that don't really matter at all (sometimes you attempt a line of questioning that goes nowhere), but more or less, this is the whole thing.

Anyway, here's "Wonderwall."

INTERVIEW: Scott Heisel

Scott Heisel: Where are you at with the album?

Rivers: We’re still tweaking stuff. There’s 4 or 5 songs totally done. The other 5 are probably 60% done. I hope it’s done this month. It’s all written, we’re just waiting on Sitek to get back from working on the Grouplove record. It should go pretty quick.

Scott Heisel: What’s the biggest piece of the pie yet to be completed?

Rivers: I’m not 100% sure because I haven’t gone over there yet. I know the guys have been recording a lot. I think most of the basic tracks are done.

Scott Heisel: When do you know a song is done?

Rivers: I like to work really hard on my own at my house, in my studio, and I get feedback from my manager and Dave and the guys in the band. I’ve been getting feedback from Michael Beinhorn recently, he’s been giving me a lot of good advice. Then we go into the studio and keep asking the questions, “Could this line be any better? Is there anything about this track that’s bothering me?” Just keep refining it and making it better. By the time we get to the mixing stage, I’m a little more hands off. Actually with each step along the way, I get less involved. I’m 100% in on the writing, and then when it comes to producing and tracking, the ball’s more in Dave’s court and the guys in the band. As for mixing, I may have a comment, that’s all. By the time it gets to mastering, I’m already working on the next record.

Scott Heisel: Do you look forward to that point in the process, where you can let go?

Rivers: I dunno. I have such a strange perspective on things now. I can’t even relate to what it used to be like to be in a band. Things are so different now. I don’t know if it’s changed for everybody or just for me. But the way things are for me, I’m working on so many different records at once. EPs, singles, different kinds of collaborations. There’s all these different irons in the fire. All these different fires going, and I’m tending to all of them. I don’t have this feeling like a single album is my universe anymore. If one egg hatches, then it doesn’t really change my overall picture. There’s still a whole mess of eggs to nurture. And there’s always new ones coming along.

Scott Heisel: The first time you mentioned Black was before White even came out. How far back does this idea go? Has it always been intended to be a response to the White album?

Rivers: The two were kind of born at the same moment. We were performing at some TV show, and my manager came in the dressing room and said, “All right, you’re not gonna like this, but how about we call this album the White Album?” and I kind of groaned. And then he said, “And that means the next album can be the Black Album!” and I was like, that’s cool, I’m in. That’s all it was.

Scott Heisel: Is there anything on Pacific Daydream that had been earmarked for Black, or vice versa?

Rivers: Yeah, it’s hard to keep track. The whole Black album got scrapped. I really liked it, my manager really liked it, but nobody else on earth liked it. So we ended up having to shelve the whole thing. I performed one song live called “Cardigan Disaster,” so some fans have that acoustic version. I think I managed to re-work some of those ideas for the new Black album. This album was known as the Sitek album for most of the time we were working on it, then we just decided to take the Black title and stick it on this one, and it fits pretty well.

Scott Heisel: How far back does the songwriting for this album go?

Rivers: I do a lot of cut-and-paste now. I’ll take a verse from here and a chorus from there. I have everything organized so well in my computer and in Dropbox. I have this app called MP3 Tag that I can see all my music files on there, and there’s like 50 different tags I have so I can look for a verse at 83 beats per minute where the melody starts on the third scale degree and the mode is not mixolydian or phrygian. I can get super-specific. I can draw on music ideas from anywhere in my history. There’s bits and pieces from any Weezer decade on this album.

Scott Heisel: You re-tooled “Burning Sun” into “Weekend Woman” on Pacific Daydream with this approach, right?

Rivers: I would consider something like a “Burning Sun” fair game for this record. Yeah, it did leak 20 years ago, but it’s fair game. I would definitely make use of that kind of bit if we needed it.

Scott Heisel: Dave, when were you first approached by the band to work with them?

Sitek: Jonathan had asked me to take a listen to some stuff, and they sent me some stems and I kind of just riffed with it. I always feel like I’m the wrong person for the job. The valley between the Blue Album and Pinkerton shows me an elasticity for this band, and when I was asked, I was like “Well, I know they’re flexible, so let’s see how far I can stretch it.” I fully expected them to tell me I was out of my mind, but they loved it. And that was “Can’t Knock The Hustle.” That was four, five months ago.

Scott Heisel: Weezer’s worked with some pretty big name producers who have left their mark on the Weezer sound — Ric Ocasek, Rick Rubin, Jacknife Lee. Are you weighing yourself against other producers or can you divorce yourself from that?

Sitek: Those are gigantic names, and I would feel silly putting myself in that category. But my allegiance is to the speakers. My starting point is always, “What’s a way to take something we know and turn it into something we couldn’t imagine?” Despite who they worked with before, because that would be full of crushing intimidation — Rivers had said to me, “Take everything you know and throw it out the window. Make it sound like you think you should sound, and then we’ll be able to figure out what the path is.” I was intimidated, in a healthy way.

Scott Heisel: Rivers, what led you to Dave?

Rivers: I wasn’t really familiar with his work, though I had a general idea of what his aesthetic was. It was cool and dirty and freaky. I thought, “Let’s mate with that and see what comes out.” If we hadn’t had to take a big break over the summer, we would’ve finished this super-quickly. But we had to tour and Dave had to make another record. But from the moment we first heard “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” we were like this is so cool and weird and interesting, he’s gonna take us into a new direction. Not only did I like it and the suits liked it, but the other guys in the band were really excited as well. It’s cool when everyone gets excited like that.

Scott Heisel: Between “Can’t Knock The Hustle” and “California Snow,” which is more indicative of the Black Album?

Sitek: I think they both suggest the same thing, which is how elastic can we be and still sound like Weezer. I view the album as a rubber band and each finger is a song, and it pulls it apart and snaps it back into place. I think there’s certainly fidelity or instrumentation choices that are wildly different, but if you step back further, I think that can be said about life. You’re still going through the experience in the same vehicle. If I do my job right, you’ll be able to look at this as a complete body of work. “Can’t Knock The Hustle” has some aspects to it — the thread is the identity of the song — the fidelity of the song is quite different in each one. When I sent over “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” I fully intended to be fired on the spot. When I wasn’t, I figured they were into taking chances. There’s a lot of moments lyrically that speak to the Weezer that I knew, but they also speak to people who don’t know who Weezer is. Let’s service those people too. I kind of make drug music for drug people. I try to preserve that sense of wonder. I wasn’t pressured in any way by anyone to sound by anything.

Scott Heisel: Switching up instrumentation, too — having Pat play guitar and Scott play keyboards — using the same brain but in uncharted territory.

Rivers: Oh, and I did everything on piano!

Sitek: The best guitar player I know, and he didn’t play any guitar on the album! It’s kind of hilarious.

Rivers: I’d write the songs any old way, but I’d send Dave the basic MIDI piano and vocals, and he’d take it from there for the other guys. I hardly play any guitar on the Black Album. I didn’t play much on Raditude, but I went in during the final mix and played guitars over a bunch of stuff. I don’t think I’m gonna do that this time.

Scott Heisel: How will these songs sound live?

Rivers: We are who we are as live musicians. There’s only so much we can change on the spot onstage in front of 15,000 people. So I think it will get pulled a little bit in a more traditional Weezer direction when we’re playing live.

Scott Heisel: You had originally announced the Black Album would be released before your summer tour with Pixies. Was the album actually delayed because of “Africa” or did you just not like how it was sounding?

Rivers: I don’t remember what I said, but I’m pretty sure none of it was true. [Laughs.] That being said, I know we were about to release “Cardigan Disaster” which was to be the first single off what we were calling the Black Album, which was a totally different album, and then “Africa” came out and blew up in our faces and it put that other single on hold indefinitely. Now we have a much cooler record and cooler single. The trajectory of our lives has been forever changed by Toto’s “Africa.”

Scott Heisel: How will the Black Album affect the way you present your band live?

Rivers: Well, what I’ve been saying in recent years is the records are for us and the show is for the audience. We’re gonna make whatever records we wanna make, and then the audience gets to decide how many of those songs they want to hear at the show. If they’re telling us they want a whole bunch of new songs, then we’d be happy to play ’em. If they’re telling us we’re here to hear the old ’90s jams, then we’ll play those. I just want the highest possible number of goose bumps in the room. So whatever that takes. The fun thing is we play all different kinds of shows. We’re doing this Pixies tour, we’ll get a sense of what those people want, then we’re playing Coachella, so that’ll be a different kind of crowd, then I play these small acoustic shows for diehard Weezer fans who don’t want to hear the hits, and at that point it’s fun to play a bunch of album tracks from any album.

Scott Heisel: Dave, had you seen Weezer live before? How did that inform the recording process?

Sitek: Well, much like today, I was on drugs and in outer space when I saw them at the Wust Music Hall in Washington, D.C. in 1994. I went there to see a totally different band, Live. Then a few years later, I heard Pinkerton for the first time in a friend’s car. I’ve managed to preserve one thing in everything I do, and that’s what does a 16-year-old version of me think something should sound like? I’ll either get fired or the band will be like, “Right on, teenage dude!” So I just tried to tap into that feeling I had at that show, and also how when I would listen to Pinkerton, I found it way more interesting than the Blue Album, and that valley between those two albums really excited me. I kind of felt like Weezer was one of those bands whose songs were strong enough that you could make wild transitions within the albums.

Scott Heisel: Are you still recording everything piecemeal, and are you still happy with that process?

Rivers: Yeah. I write the songs, and record piano MIDI and a bunch of demo vocals. I send them to Dave and he whips up his own take on it. Then the guys come in one by one and go crazy. They’re not restricted to one particular instrument. Whatever they feel like doing, they do. Dave sorts through it all and picks the best bits and puts it all together. Then I come over and do a bunch of keeper vocals and maybe some finishing touches musically if I hear anything. It’s really fun, and it always sounds really different and inspiring. I just started with a basic piano demo, and if I were to flesh it out, it would probably just sound like the same old thing with power chords. It’s not that exciting at this point. It’s really a treat to go into the studio and hear what they’ve done. I love working with great, creative people, and seeing what they can do.

Scott Heisel: How much of the album was written solely by you? Did you collaborate with anyone?

Rivers: The album isn’t totally finalized yet. I’ve been working on a song with Brian called “The Prince Who Wanted Everything,” and that might make it. It’s very cool. I go back and mine bits and pieces from old songs. Some of them involved other songwriters. Oh, here’s two old bits you might interested in: “Too Many Thoughts In My Head,” that chorus is from 1997. I wrote that at Cole Rehearsals. It’s amazing it survived this long and now it’s getting used, maybe. “I’m Just Being Honest” is from one of my Japanese albums. The verse and chorus from that.

Scott Heisel: It feels there has definitely been a new direction in the band stylistically since the end of the White era. It sounds like the band is modernizing itself and trying less to explore traditional rock and more of seeing what the future could hold. How much of it is a conscious effort, and how much is a happy accident?

Rivers: Like Dave said, we’re just always trying to blow our own minds with music. At this point, that means doing things we’ve never done — in some cases, things that no one has ever done. That’s just really getting us off. That might change next year, I dunno. But that’s what feels exciting at the moment.

Scott Heisel: What is left that you want to accomplish with Weezer?

Rivers: I do have a goal, and it’s become super-clear and focused in my mind, and it’s the goal for most any album I work on now, which is I want to get as many songs as possible into our set. I want them to earn a slot in our set. That’s really hard to do, because any new song is competing against songs that have been around for a couple decades and people have been listening to them their whole lives, and it might be their first time seeing Weezer, so you gotta have a really big, important song for our following to want to hear that over something old. That’s my goal.

Scott Heisel: Dave, any final words?

Sitek: I would just elaborate on the pioneering spirit about it. I think it’s not that we’re moving away from traditional rock; it’s that we’re exploring… rock ‘n’ roll covered a much wider spectrum in earlier times. When things started getting really psychedelic, there was a potential to really explore different fidelities, and I think hip-hop really does that now, in particular, where it has all these different elements. There’s things that I know and there’s things that I couldn’t have imagined. That’s rock ‘n’ roll. This record was more like, “Why mess around when you could fuck around?” Let’s really pull from the threads of traditional rock ‘n’ roll but use the fidelity of the experimental eras in rock ‘n’ roll. I could point to everything from Pink Floyd to Can. I draw a lot from that personally. This is a band that almost gave me too much freedom, because they’re all incredible musicians. What are some chances I can take to rise to the occasion?

Rivers: The one guy we talked about the most was Kanye West.

Sitek: He took subject matter that no one did and made a whole genre out of it. The ability to have a really small sound and a really giant sound sitting at the same moment in the same eight bars, that’s an incredible delibracy. On every stroke of this record, I’m kind of going for that. I’m spending a lot of time doing subtractive EQ to make sure there’s just the right amount of distance and not a lot of extra stuff. I think that’s what’s really been steering this whole thing. Like, how do we make these broad strokes, but they’re dynamic? When you just have rock guitars chugging, it eliminates the space for those things to occur, and Kanye’s a master at that.