CMJ article - April 2001
All That You Can't Leave Behind
Story: Jon Regardie
Weezer was your guilty pop pleasure of the early '90s, the angst-ridden and endearing geeks who reminded you why melody mattered. Then they upped the ante, made a difficult second record, and pop fans ceased to care. Lead weeze Rivers Cuomo dropped out of sight, grew a beard and hid out at Harvard. Five years later, the band still sells out shows. They have a new record with hooks galore. But will the little girls understand?
Ask Weezer's mercurial capo, Rivers Cuomo, about his expectations for the band's first album in four and a half years, and he lets his angst flow: "I think it will fail on a commercial level and also alienate our fans."
"Do you really think that?" asks drummer Pat Wilson, as if it's something he forgot to check during the recording. After all, the group is already finishing up mixes on this January afternoon in L.A.
"It's my fear," answers Cuomo, steadily enough to indicate that he's not joking. Pressed to expand, he adds, "When we put out The Blue Album [as the bands '94 self-titled debut is known], I never thought it would do anything, and it was huge. When we put out [the '96 follow-up] Pinkerton, I never thought it would fail so miserably as it did. So you shouldn't ask me."
Welcome to "Weezer's Theater," an unpredictable drama in which a talented, if tortured, lead and his three supporting players encounter unbridled success in the first act and then face critical success (and commercial failure) in the second. Always intriguing, often ironic and occasionally comedic, the group, whose seasoned members are all pushing or past 30, find themselves at the opening of their third act.
Surprisingly, the show continues to draw a crowd, even though the group made its splash back in the early '90s with two striking videos: the canine-filled "Undone - The Sweater Song" and the '50s-via-'70s nostalgia of "Buddy Holy." As the band rekindles its peppy, melodic pop for a grand entrance, they encounter a musical landscape dominated by growling, villainous rap rock. Despite the fact that Weezer again seems to be in the wrong place at the worst of times, they boast a devoted cult following.
Flashback to the band's guest slot on last summer's Warped Tour. The audience of young skaters came to see Green Day, NOFX and Face to Face, yet Weezer shocked the house, earning a tremendous response from both the other bands and the fans.
As the curtain rises, the audience wonders if a band whose only platinum effort came out in 1994 can bring the rest of the nation into their rabid fanbase. How did they do it the first time?
Act I: Poor Band, Rich Band
If ever a band seemed destined to fail, it was Weezer. Formed on Valentine's Day in 1992, the band began with Cuomo, who enlisted bassist Matt Sharp, drummer Pat Wilson and guitarist Jason Cropper. Playing around Los Angeles, they eventually built up a following big enough to capture Geffen’s attention. Guitarist Brian Bell replaced Cropper and Weezer’s self-titled first album (produced by the Cars’ Ric Ocasek) arrived in May of 1994, just a month after the death of Kurt Cobain, when grunge outfits like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden ruled radio.
As the album’s first single, a goofy, infectiously tuneful track with the unwieldy title of "Undone – The Sweater Song," trickled to radio, the group hooked up with a rising, visionary video director named Spike Jonze.
"The treatment for the video was 10 words," remembers Joy Ray, who produced the video for Jonze. "It said, ‘A blue stage, a Steadicam, a pack of wild dogs.’ We had Bernardo Bertolucci’s Steadicam operator. We had about 25 dogs that were released onto the stage and we filmed the whole thing in one shot." As for the band, Ray recalls, "They were very unassuming. They were like, ‘Oh golly gee whiz. A live video.’"
"Sweater" found an audience, cueing the entrance of the next single, the irresistible "Buddy Holly." Jonze returned, this time crafting a video that cleverly mixed mocked-up band footage with clips from the TV show Happy Days, making it appear as if Weezer were at Al’s entertaining Fonzie, Richie, Potsie and friends.
Weezer exploded on MTV, and "Buddy Holly" won four Video Music Awards in 1995. "Sweater" hit number six on the Billboard modern rock chart, and "Buddy Holly" climbed to number two.
"They came up with this pop sound that was very unlike grunge," remembers Lisa Worden, music director of influential Los Angeles radio station KROQ, an early champion of the band. "It stood out like a sore thumb in a great way."
A third single, "Say It Ain’t So," followed, and Weezer reached number 16 on the Billboard Top 200, en route to selling more than 2 million copies. Yet while the band reveled in the attention, it also encountered stereotyping. The record’s innocent, often bittersweet songs—especially "In the Garage," an ode to playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to KISS albums—saddled the group with a geek-rock tag. Magazines harped on the Revenge of the Nerds theme. To make matters worse, culture vultures accused Weezer of orchestrating its image.
"There was a lot of people who thought we were kind of shticky, kind of geeky, like it was all a big plan. It just wasn’t true," insists Wilson. "At the time, there was a certain Gen-X culture critic that was so typical, cynical, hated everything, except the most impenetrable, noisy rock… I remember at the time, [zines like] Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll and Ben Is Dead would all bemoan the corporate approach. They would see these guys dreaming up our shtick. And it couldn’t have been farther from the truth."
When it comes to examining the past, the cast of Weezer is analytical. Wilson is the most balanced, as he mentions the joy of hearing his music on the radio and seeing crowds increase at shows, and then qualifies it: "It feels bigger now than it did then." Cuomo, an often contrary figure, professes to be completely unsatisfied with Weezer and Pinkerton. "I’m never happy with anything in the past," he says in his measured tone. "It’s my nature. I feel really optimistic about the future, but God, anything I’ve done, it’s embarrassing."
In similarly individual ways, each member seems to have defined his role within Weezer. Wilson, dressed in grandpa pants and a hipster-ish short-sleeved brown shirt and with his hair slicked back, plays the joker, the showman, a guy prone to bursting into falsetto song. He’s the rare drummer who not only talks, but does so thoughtfully.
Bell, impossibly thin inside a thrift-store orange-red leather jacket, wears his bangs unkempt. He’s the most stylish and quiet of the characters, though ready to offer a positive comment. Mikey Welsh, who replaced Sharp in 1998, sports tattoos, floppy hair and a scary cop mustache. (Cuomo, who has a similar mustache during the interview, loses his before our photo shoot). A former Bostoner and ex-member of Juliana Hatfield’s touring band, Welsh speaks slowly. He’s the friendly, able to backup for the crew, content to let someone else star.
Then there’s Rivers. More on him later.
Act II: The Tempest
If ever a band seemed destined to achieve monster success, it was Weezer. Even though Cuomo had taken time off after the first album to study English at Harvard, the group had the momentum of three hit singles and a double-platinum debut disc. With their wit and proven ability to deliver vivacious hooks, the members of Weezer were destined to be heroes.
When Weezer triumphantly returned to the studio in 1996, they left Ocasek behind, electing to produce the record themselves. The result, Pinkerton (named for a character in Cuomo’s favorite opera, Madame Butterfly, not the detective agency), traded The Blue Album’s overwhelming pop sensibility for caterwauling guitars and fewer singalongs. The lyrics also turned more aggressive: "Tired of Sex" concerned a narrator no longer thrilled by his ability to bang a different woman every night, a theme that sounds far more like backstage rockstar antics than the previous album’s lovable geek pastimes. In other tunes, Cuomo wailed about the girls he could not have and the girls who would hurt him.
"It’s definitely an aggro record," sums up Wilson.
Pinkerton’s more complex arrangements received many positive reviews, and it was even heralded by the burgeoning emocore movement. But radio virtually ignored it, a fact that infuriated Cuomo.
"I thought we’d come up with something, a really cool new sound and passionate, heartfelt music, and radio seemed to turn in the exact opposite direction at the time," he says, admitting that he understands now why the record wasn’t embraced by the radio or record buyers.
Although Pinkerton sold only a fraction of what Weezer did, the band members claim they actually saw little difference at the shows. They filled 1500-seat houses with a fanbase that would stick by the band. Pinkerton resulted in the shift from mass to a somewhat smaller acceptance. And the band members reason that a selective audience may not be a bad thing.
"There was a time when there was mass hysteria over ‘Buddy Holly’ and all that," says Wilson. "But I don’t think those people are fans of bands in a serious way. They’re more like ‘Music, that’s cool.’ Which is fine. But we didn’t really drop off, I don’t think, among people who were legitimately into seeing bands."
Then Weezer’s atmosphere shifted, as Cuomo changed venues and decided to focus on Harvard. Press reports said he lived a hermit-lie existence, spending large chunks of time alone and growing a thick beard. In early 1998, the band convened in an effort to record a new album, but Cuomo was unhappy with the results, and the recordings never saw the light of day. (It’s rumored that, when Cuomo began the third album for the second time, he had 100 songs written.)
The other players found different outlets. Bassist Sharp abandoned Weezer for his other project, new-wavey outfit The Rentals. While in Boston, Cuomo played a handful of solo shows, and back in Los Angeles, Bell performed with his group Space Twins and Wilson dabbled in an act called Special Goodness.
"There was kind of a need to do something else," Wilson says. "At the same time, if we could have been doing Weezer, we would have been doing Weezer."
About the Space Twins, Bell begins, "It was a whole different thing—"
"It’s a Weezer interview," interrupts Cuomo forcefully. "We don’t need to talk about the other shit."
I laugh, thinking Cuomo is joking. It quickly becomes apparent from his stone expression that he isn’t. I start to say that I think its an important subject because it involves the way the band arrived at their new album, but I only get half of the comment out before he cuts me off.
"That’s fine," he seethes. "But we don’t need to talk about it." He’s almost like a husband who doesn’t want to discuss his wives’ affairs. Maybe he hopes to quash any discussion of rumors that his autocratic tendencies produced tensions within the band that almost caused a breakup. Maybe it relates not to the others’ musical interludes, but to his own: Who knows if during those solo shows in Boston, Cuomo found that he actually needed Weezer, that to make music he requires this specific adoring cast?
After an uncomfortable silence, I ask if he will at least explain why he won’t discuss the interim period?
Rivers Cuomo was born on June 13, 1970, and raised in Connecticut by massage-therapist parents. At age 18, he moved to Los Angeles with hopes of starting a music career, but Weezer didn’t come together until he was 22. He instantly became the Weezer auteur, a role the others allowed him to assume. Cuomo wrote every song on the first two albums (he shares credit for two songs on Weezer) and when discussing the band’s musical process he says, "I write all the songs and bring them to rehearsal and we play them." His statement is undisputed - no other member tries to take any responsibility.
Cuomo, a slight figure wearing red-and-blue leather Nikes and draped in two winter jackets (even though this is L.A.), prefers to remain quiet when possible. He often seems uncomfortable discussing his music. When he does talk, he often proceeds like there is a tax on words; he gives short sentences and must be pushed to say more. He regularly ponders before speaking and there’s often an uncomfortable period of dead air between a question and his answer.
Act III: A Rivers Runs All of It
If ever a band seemed to be on the brink of either skyrocketing or crashing, it is Weezer. There are equally compelling arguments for the quartet’s upcoming failure or success: On the negative side is the long absence and a marketplace where angry nu-metal slurry commands the radio dial.
Arguments for success begin with the rabid fanbase. A handful of recent "secret" shows in Los Angeles, under the nom de rock Goat Punishment, were packed. In addition, KROQ’s Lisa Worden notes that even today, listeners consistently request the hits off Weezer.
The most compelling evidence of future success, however, is the new album. The band has returned to producer Ocasek. Says Cuomo, "We know him. We feel safe with him. We know what we are going to get."
The recording process was exceptionally quick, about one month from start to finish. With Welsh on bass the songs are heavier than in the past, says Cuomo. Yet he also describes the sound as closer to the first record than to Pinkerton. "It doesn’t try quite as hard," says Cuomo.
"The songs are very infectious," adds Bell. "The one you hear last is the one that sticks in your head the most."
Indeed, the song "Don’t Let Go" instantly recalls The Blue Album, with its big, exuberant pop hook suggesting quintessential Cheap Trick. The peppy number expands with harmonic "ooooh-whoa-whoa" sing-along refrains. It makes curious sense when the band says the song feels like it could be from a John Hughes movie. (Not Home Alone, Wilson stresses. "The classic stuff, Pretty In Pink.")
"Island In The Sun" meanwhile carries a lighter, dreamy flavor, and with lines like "It makes me feel so fine," it seems Cuomo is more upbeat than the last go-‘round. Yet the singer claims the words are the album’s weakest element.
"The lyrics suck," he states outright. "I wanted to concentrate on other things, like the structure, the melody, that sort of thing, and something has to take a back seat. This time it was the lyrics."
He labels the words to "Don’t Let Go" "super generic" and claims not even to understand the topics of some other songs.
"The lyrics are so subconsciously originated," he says. "I didn’t sit down and write a song about something. Just whatever came out, came out…They’re more like early Beatles songs, where the lyrics are just kind of fluffy and they don’t really matter all that much, but the songs are great."
Weezer has scheduled about eight months of touring, taking them across the U.S. several times and also to Europe, Asia and Australia. Now on Interscope Records—they survived Universal’s acquisition of Geffen and other labels several years ago—they feel they have the publicity machine behind them.
As optimism abounds, Cuomo admits to a fear, one different than the outright failure he described earlier: He is scared of too much success.
"I don’t want it, for some reason, to get really popular in a crossover way that pisses off our fans," he states. He mentions that when Weezer plays with acts deemed "sell-outs," the fervent fans mount Internet campaigns and in other ways let the group know that they disapprove. Cuomo says he is wary of corporate-sponsored tours (though they just did one with Yahoo!) and too many magazine covers, commenting, "All these things can add up and really piss off our fans."
Despite these comments, there is still a hole in the story. Why has Weezer returned at all? Why has Cuomo decided again to draw open the curtains, play shows and make records? I ask him why, as he sits looking bored, clipping his fingernails. His reply: "I don’t know. Why not? It’s fun."