Entertainment Weekly interview with Rivers Cuomo - May 25, 2001
Older & Weezer
For years, Rivers Cuomo played his weird and woolly side close to the vest. Now the cracked and reclusive frontman returns to Weezer wiser.
By Rob Brunner
Rivers Cuomo answers the door to his swank Palm Springs, Calif., hotel suite, shirtless and scrawny, freshly showered and impressively bespectacled. He projects about as much dark rock-star aura as Steve Urkel. "Let me brush my teeth," he says, pulling an olive camouflage T-shirt over his pale torso.
Mild appearance notwithstanding, this well-scrubbed 30-year-old has slogged through a pretty harrowing half decade. Six years ago, he was frontman for one of the country's biggest bands, the author of the polished alt-pop hits "Buddy Holly," "Undone — The Sweater Song," and "Say It Ain't So." Three years later, Cuomo suffered something of a breakdown, holing himself up in a depressing Los Angeles hideout while his life and career seemed indefinitely derailed.
Now Weezer, his band, are back in a big way. They've touched down in this moneyed golf-and-tennis mecca to co-headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, a one-day concert featuring Jane's Addiction, Fatboy Slim, and more than 40 other acts, which has just kicked off on an immaculately manicured polo field in nearby Indio, Calif. A new album (self-titled but referred to as The Green Album) hit stores May 15. The first single, "Hash Pipe," is already climbing the charts, and its sumo-wrestling-themed video is shaping up to be an unlikely TRL hit amid the teen pop and rap-metal clogging the show's playlist. And the band's fan base—which somehow became more fanatical the longer Weezer were away—is on the brink of a major growth spurt.
Seated in his room's kitchenette, Cuomo, killing time several hours before Weezer are set to take the stage, is at a loss to explain his group's comeback. An awkward, introverted guy with an intense distaste for talking about himself, he in fact seems reluctant to explain much of anything, and piecing together events of the past six years is no easy task. His most common response to even innocuous questions is an icy stretch of silence followed by a deliberately cryptic answer. ("I don't answer 'why' questions," he declares at one point. How come? "That's a 'why' question.")
Slowly, however, the story emerges. Most fans lost track of Weezer after the release of 1996's Pinkerton, the flop follow-up to their self-titled, triple-platinum debut (known as The Blue Album). "That's where I lost track too, unfortunately," Cuomo says, staring glumly at his knuckles. The confessional, self-flagellating album was widely slammed as crude and indulgent, an ego trip from a novelty act that should have faded away gracefully. "Everybody hated it," says Cuomo. "Critics, the majority of our fans, most of my friends and family, the other band members...Everyone thought it was"—he pauses, letting the thought hang—"an embarrassment. One of the worst albums of all time."
For a kid who grew up in the tiny Connecticut town of Yogaville dreaming of Kiss-style rock stardom, the rejection was agonizing. Cuomo's downfall was as sudden as his rise to fame—Weezer formed in Los Angeles in 1992 and signed a major label deal after only a few months of local club gigs—and it's an experience Cuomo obviously doesn't like to dwell on.
"[Pinkerton is a] hideous record," Cuomo says. "It was such a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to happen on a grander and grander scale and just won't go away. It's like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone and feeling incredibly great and cathartic about it, and then waking up the next morning and realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself."
Unexpectedly, Pinkerton is now seen as a minor classic, a failed album that has, ironically, revitalized Weezer's career, winning them a new, younger audience and some genuine musical credibility. Exactly how this happened is a source of no small mystery (especially to Cuomo), but certainly it has something to do with Pinkerton itself, a raw-sounding angst-fest that caught critics and the Weezer faithful off guard but has gradually won a reputation as one of the '90s' great lost albums.
At the time, however, Cuomo—then 26—was devastated by the negative response. "I got very sad," he says. "I became very unsure of my instincts." After touring halfheartedly in support of the chart-toppler, Cuomo retreated to Harvard, where he'd enrolled between The Blue Album and Pinkerton. "I didn't know how people were going to react to me, if they were going to ridicule me or harass me or fawn all over me or whatever," he says. "But then I was shocked and disappointed to find out that they all ignored me completely. Eventually, I got to the point where I was like, 'S---, doesn't anyone want an autograph?'"
For a while, Cuomo led a pretty normal student life, studying music history and poetry and writing papers on topics like "Stravinsky's attitudes toward Wagner and Romanticism and extreme emotionalism in music." But two semesters shy of graduation, he dropped out. "I just got excited about doing something else," he says. "I'm fickle."
In 1998, Weezer reconvened in L.A. to start work on their third album. It quickly became clear that Cuomo wasn't up to it. "This is where the gruesome part of the story begins," he says, squirming in his chair. The band had rented a pad directly underneath the 405 freeway. "It was right across from a cement mixing plant—just the most lifeless, lame apartment," says Cuomo. "That's when things really started to fall apart. I became depressed. I was saying 'I don't know what I want to do, I don't know who I want to be, I just want to be alone.'"
Frustrated by the lack of progress and Cuomo's dark mood, the rest of the band packed up and left. "At first we were excited, like 'Okay, we're gonna play again!'" says drummer Pat Wilson, 32 (the other band members are guitarist Brian Bell, 32, and new bassist Mikey Welsh, 30). "But then three hours a day turned into one, and three days a week became one day a week. Rivers definitely withdrew. I just figured, 'Look, that's how he wants to be,' so I let him be that way. What else can you do? I knew he'd figure it out. But finally I was like, 'I don't know why I'm here. I'm just gonna cruise.'" Bell and Welsh followed suit.
"Then," says Cuomo, "I was just there by myself. I painted the walls and ceiling black and covered all my windows so that no light came in. And I rested. By the end of any day, I'd start to have some of the darkest thoughts and fears and feelings." Rumors quickly circulated that Cuomo was in bad shape. "When I'd hear things that other people were saying, I'd think, 'Man, maybe I'm never going to get out of this.'"
Concerned friends started calling to check up on him. Cuomo disconnected his phone. Says former Geffen A&R man Todd Sullivan, who signed Weezer in 1993: "I'm not sure how you help someone out of that. You have to let them search through it for a while. It was very dark. But did I think he was suicidal? No. It wasn't that dark." Why did he avoid the people who cared about him? "That's a 'why' question," Cuomo replies, then pauses for several long seconds. "I guess ultimately I just didn't want to talk to anybody."
No kidding. When it's suggested that there was apparently some truth to the rumors of emotional distress that had been circulating at the time—rumors that until now, Cuomo has routinely downplayed—he pauses. "I mean...it's true that I would go for months without talking to another human being, which is a very intense experience. It was f---ed up. And when you [finally] do speak to somebody, it's physically difficult, difficult to form words. But it's not true that that was something negative."
In fact, Cuomo believes the experience was cathartic. "Being by yourself when you know that only a short while ago you had thousands of girls screaming at you, and now you have nothing—that crash can make you tough. Really, it was a chance to recharge and think, to do some emotional weightlifting. Over the months I gradually calmed down and started writing." Not that his songs from that period were MTV-friendly. An unreleased tune called "My Brain Is Working Overtime," for example, features lines like "My parents think I'm lazy/But damn, I'm goin' crazy/I can't help my mental state."
Cuomo's isolation lasted nearly two years, but by August 2000 he'd built up enough strength to get back to work. The band reassembled in L.A. and started on what would become The Green Album. They played some secret shows under the name Goat Punishment, then hooked up with the Warped tour for a successful run of second-stage appearances. "We thought we would get killed because we're not a punk band," says Cuomo. "We expected the absolute worst. We had the lowest collective self-esteem you could imagine. But as soon as we started playing, our confidence picked up. We realized that people really missed us."
The band entered the studio with former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek—who'd produced the first album—to record a collection of relatively torment-free tunes with cheerful titles like "Smile" and "Glorious Days," all written just a few weeks before recording began. It was as if those two years had never happened. "Everything about this band is the weirdest thing that could ever be," says Wilson. "It used to p--- me off, like 'Why can't we make records like regular people?' But now we're making up for it. We have, like, 100 songs that are of the same quality as the new record. We're gonna keep pumping 'em out." Let's hope so; the new album clocks in at a meager 28 minutes. "We kept whittling it down," says Wilson. "We whittled pretty good."
But that wasn't quite the end of the drama. The first single, the sing-along riff-fest "Hash Pipe," is a "totally insane song about a homosexual transvestite prostitute," says Cuomo. Not unexpectedly, Interscope, the band's label, balked at making it Weezer's big comeback moment. Cuomo insisted. "They wanted something more straight-up. Man, it was a huge fight. I got up in a meeting with all the executives and I was screaming."
Eventually, Interscope acquiesced, and the tune has taken off. Characteristically, Cuomo's still gloomy. "Of the millions of people who've already heard [the album], they all say that it sounds totally different from either of the first two; we've lost what made us great. They hate it. Go on the Internet."
If those online grumblers do exist, they don't seem to be among the 35,000 people in attendance at Coachella. Cuomo and Co. are met with warmth and affection as they perform old hits and new tunes in front of a giant, Kiss-style lighted W. Conspicuously absent, though, are most of the tunes from Pinkerton. "It's tough," Cuomo says. "The fans have given us this miraculous career, and it's all because of Pinkerton. That's all they want, that's all they care about. It's so frustrating, because I don't want to turn my back on them, but I sure as hell don't want to do Pinkerton. I have to face the fact that I'm going to completely p--- off all these fans who have been so good to us over the past few years." Sounds like a perfect career move.