FILTER interview with Rivers Cuomo - July 2002
Talking to some people makes you wonder why anyone asks questions about anyone, ever. Questions are perhaps best left to find out specific things like driving directions, because at least you'll get somewhere. Questions are the only ammunition of the young--kids who ask their fathers why the sky is blue, or where babies come from. Questions without answers stretch the brain to ponder the unknown, only to slacken again and find comfort in the concrete. Ask enough questions and you'll either find God or an absolute-zero nihilism, both of which are designed to make you stop asking questions. So why am I about to enter this room with this stranger Rivers and subject him to a barrage of queries that I'm not even sure I need to know the answers to, especially if he's not even sure he's committed to the truth of his answers? What is the value to this kid of information? I don't know the answer and I'm guessing Rivers doesn't either.
There are numerous reasons why Tucson, Arizona is the perfect place to subject yourself to the Weezer experience. This is where you'll find the truest Weezer fan--abandoned in the middle of a dusty oblivion, subjected to the bright melancholy dryness of a land that rejects water. This is a place where you wait for someone from someplace else to vocalize your innermost yearning and to lift you from your languor, even if it's just for the duration of a three-minute pop song. If Rivers Cuomo is a voice speaking for the adrift and vulnerable teen, you'll find most of his brethren within the confined of this municipality.
The band is in town to play one of a series of low-profile amphitheater shows before they get to the "real" venues and launch the "real" tour in support of their fourth full-length, Maladroit. The venue is bathed in the colors of the desert. If it's not tan brick or brown paint, it's beige cinder blocks and off-white sheet-rock walls. The most colorful decorations are provided by the red vinyl Budweiser signs advertising the five-dollar, 12-ounce, show-enhancing nectar of said brewery--a liquid that will be off-limits to about eight-five percent of this evening's crowd.
Before I'm shuffled off to the myth-laden exclusivity of the backstage area, I notice that some of the die-hard kids have already pressed themselves up against the fences, necks upward like birds in a nest, craning for a glimpse of their heroes who have made this unlikely stop in their town. The big black Cadillac I'm riding in is quickly mistaken for a limousine, and when my eyes make contact with these kids, you can see the disappointment slacken their stares at the sight of little old anonymous me. I even feel sorry I've let them down and wish I was somebody, anybody they'd want to meet; not for my ego, but purely for their fulfillment. As it is, I can't give them anything.
But maybe I can. I'm being allowed access to the inner sphere of Weezer and the opportunity to speak with their reclusive ringleader, Rivers Cuomo. The kids might arrive four hours early to stretch their necks limp to just get a glimpse of him, but I get to pick his brain for an hour. I'm filled with new purpose. I need to suck some truth out of this Howard Hughes of rock and spread my bounty amongst the children of Tucson and beyond.
Much of the potency of my melodramatic sense of purpose wanes in the duration of time I spend staring at the buffet table, awaiting my cue to enter Rivers' dressing room. But when I'm finally gathered up by his assistant and led into his backstage lair, I feel the warm draft of an intangible eccentricity waft over me like pot-smoke drifting out of a dorm room's open door. It is so quiet in here, you could hear the sound of a soggy Jack Purcell shoe drop. After hesitant introductions, I reach over to place my tape recorded on the desk in front of him, and he intercepts it, turning it over and over again in a slow inspection, as if I just handed him an armadillo carcass collected from the sprawling deer outside. It passes the test and he places it gently in front of him, next to his open laptop computer which will command more of his attention than I will for the next hour.
Maladroit isn't much of a departure for Weezer. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but early feedback about the record repeatedly referred to it as the band's "metal album." But from their very first record, it was apparent that Rivers grew up on a diet based largely on the "big riff." He's admitted in the past his early affection for bands like Van Halen, Iron Maiden and even Quiet Riot. So, why the surprise if there's a few noodling guitar passages here and a couple of caught cymbals there? New songs like the first single "Dope Nose," or the steady sonic laceration of "Slob," are really just slightly more distorted versions of the band's usual fare--great swelling vocal hooks fighting their way above a clamorous backdrop. Weezer's never really been about the guitar anyway. With Rivers, it's all about the melody. It's that voice of his, rising and falling over words about incompetence or the futility of love that you carry away with you. It's the melody that bends whatever the band is playing securely into the category of unapologetic pop music.
"We don't really pay attention to categories."
Rivers isn't even looking at me when he says this. He's transfixed by his laptop, tapping away at the keys in an apparent search for something. After many minutes spent talking to essentially myself, cringing and enduring answers like, "No, not really" (to questions about if he went through his usual personal crises to find the inspiration for Maladroit), I hear the sound of a piano concerto come tinkling out of his computer's tiny speakers and he finally turns to face his inquisitor. It gets me to thinking that this is a man who prefers privacy and that if he's going to open up, why not set a mood he feels comfortable with? And with the mood set to classical music, his answers become a bit more expansive.
"I don't like meeting new people," he says when I ask him if he ever gets used to spending time with strangers like myself. "I have a ton of friends. I have a thousand relationships over the internet. So it's like, I don't need any more pope in my life. There's enough. I normally avoid new people. I started making a lot of friends a few months ago on the internet. That's less invasive."
He admits to spending "all day, every day" maneuvering himself through chat rooms and talking to fans who are very aware of whom they're chatting with. It's a process of connecting with his public that Rivers takes very seriously. "They're my best friends," he says, with no hint of insincerity. As he sits across from me on an office chair outfitted with wheels, he slowly orbits his laptop, reluctant to roll too far away from its glowing portal.
"I think [the internet] suits my nature very well," he offers, "because I have to travel. I'm in a different city every day and yet I can maintain and develop relationships with the same people, no matter where I am. Before I had the computer on the road with me, it was like, I'd have to go out and meet fans after the show, or something. Every night, it was a whole new batch of people. I'd have to start from square one all over again--say, "Hi. What's your name?" and all that garbage. There's no time for the relationship to develop. Now I don't bother with that anymore. I just hang out with my internet friends."
There's no sense that Rivers feels he's playing the oft-performed role of the reclusive rock star. In fact, his enthusiasm for this kind of indirect connection with his fans, to him, is opening up. He almost has a legitimate argument that meeting fans physically after a show is almost more impersonal, yet without the internet, he'd be subject himself to the traditional meet-and-greet because, as he admits: "You get lonely on the road, especially when you're putting your ego on the line every night performing. You want to talk to people and feel some kind of response, some kind of reward or reassurance if you've had a terrible show. Apart from the music, I think I have a lot in common with Weezer fans."
Rivers Cuomo has a seemingly contradictory relationship with humanity, not just his fans. On the one hand, he'll say he doesn't like meeting new people but will admit, "I don't believe in privacy. I'll tell anybody anything. I lie occasionally when I feel that it will be entertaining, but never to protect my privacy." When asked how much trust he invests in other people, he'll steadfastly claim, "I don't trust anybody, but it doesn't bother me. I don't feel the need to trust people. I feel secure enough that I can move amongst society without trusting them at all and still feel secure." And if you ask him if he derives any happiness from people liking his music, he'll respond, "I guess a lot. I guess that's why musicians do what they do--to get that approval from the audience. I suppose it's never enough, though, and that's what keeps you striving for more." If you're keeping score: Rivers doesn't like meeting people, but he doesn't believe in privacy; he doesn't trust anybody, but their opinion is what inspires him to continue making music.
Refreshingly enough, I don't think Rivers thinks of himself as a rock star. With all of his orchestrated mystery, I'm not sure he realizes that it gives off the familiar-scented aura of the self-indulgent exclusivity that's usually exploited by the people of his profession. People in his position are usually idolized, adored, or worshipped--fans gathered at the front of a stage, praying that a drop of sweat from Jim Morrison will land on their skin and the genetic mingling of that minute amount of fluid will somehow mix into their anonymous bloodstream and elevate them to the Dionysian status they've impressed upon their hero. Nobody, not even the president of Weezer's fan club, would want Rivers to sweat on them. There's none of that elevation that a Bono enjoys. It's the exact opposite--Weezer fans feel like they're looking in the mirror when staring up into the lights of his stage. That's them. It's kinship not worship. If the relationship is ever less than equal, it's probably just fascination, or as Rivers puts it, "It kind of feels a bit like the car-wreck fascination. So I don't know how I feel about that." When I remind him that some people in the press have compared his everyman appeal to that of the late Kurt Cobain, he shrugs it off with, "It's cool. It's cool to think I'm important to people. I think [those writers] are probably exaggerating, but it's a nice thought. I don't think Kurt Loder would cry on MTV if I killed myself."
Yes, but would the remaining members of Weezer fight in court over the royalty checks? How much of a band is Weezer anyway? During the time I spend backstage dodging roadies and cart after cart of wobbling sandwich triangles, I overhear guitarist Brian Bell discussing with bassist Scott Shriner what cover songs he might be able to play, while drummer Pat Wilson weaves in and out of their conversation grinning and chatting effusively on his cell phone. The three of them never exactly hug or feed each other grapes from the vine, but there is a sense that they might share a drink together now and then. Where is Rivers?
"There's definite camaraderie," he says when pressed about the nature of his relationship with the other Weezers. "We've been together for the better portion of the last 10 years. We see each other every day and play music every day and think about whatever's on our mind every day. That being said, I like solitude a lot, so I spend a lot of time by myself."
It's that preference for solitude that makes the union of Weezer seem so tenuous. It's been just over a year since the Green Album was released and the band has followed that one up with Maladroit in the shortest amount of time in their career. But what's to prevent another Rivers Cuomo five-year hibernation like the one between Pinkerton and the Green Album? Why does it feel like the band is completely at the mercy of Cuomo's general state of mind, that the band could disassemble at any moment? Cuomo's faith in its stability is surprising.
"I can't foresee [breaking up] ever happening," he says with pure conviction. "I can't imagine that happening. I've been doing this since I was 13. I mean, all kinds of distractions have come up for me and I always end up falling right back into this same path. I feel that Weezer is more my own name than my own name is. I identify with it so completely. And of course it's going to evolve and maybe even there will be radical changes at some time, but I can't…I just can't…I don't even understand what breaking up means."
"I think most people think I'm kind of unpredictable and they don't really have much confidence in my ability to persist along a path," continues Rivers, in what is by far his longest strain of uninterrupted conversation this afternoon. "So I think [the band], along with everyone else, isn't really sure what's going to happen tomorrow, much less a few years from now. But I've never stopped pushing in this direction and I can't ever see myself stopping. At some point, people are going to realize that I will persist. And I will overcome obstacles and distractions as most other bands fall apart, or give up, or die, or break up."
I find it strange that the rest of his band, the one he apparently shares so much "camaraderie" with, is in the dark about the stability of Weezer as much as the rest of the general public. "I think they're starting to believe it," he says about his conviction to keep going on as Weezer for an indeterminate eternity. So, he's unloaded his General Patton speech about carrying on in the face adversity on me, but lets the rest of the band pace up and down the hallways chewing their fingernails. "Yeah, it's weird," he admits. "I don't really express my thoughts or feelings to people that are close to me. I only do it with complete strangers."
Being a complete stranger myself, I take that as my cue to ask the most personal question of the afternoon. I'm not close to him (Not even physically. I'm halfway across the room, sprawled out on a leather couch while he hovers near his computer), so I figure maybe he'll open up to me like he's never opened up to whomever he considers his closest friend. And that's exactly what I ask him. If he calls his "best friends" the fans he chats with on the internet, if he withholds vital information about the band's future from the band itself, and if he doesn't communicate with those who are closest to him; who is the one person in the world he feels closest to? Halfway through my question, he wheels himself back to his laptop and starts typing feverishly.
"Here's one of my internet friends," he says grinning. "His name is DJ Funks. I asked him if he'd like to say something to Filter Magazine. He said, 'Weezer is still better than most of the bands out there, but I await the old Weezer's return.' That's a very common sentiment amongst these freaks." Freaks? I thought these were his best friends. "Oh, we have a very tempestuous relationship," Rivers says, smiling again. "We're constantly criticizing each other."
When his assistant's head peaks through the now half-opened dressing room doorway, I take it as my invitation to wrap things up. Rivers has his back to me once again, returning to the electronic forum of his illusory friends. Later that night, I'll be amongst the crowd of giddy youths who've finally made their way through the gates they've been gripping and climbing all afternoon, trying to catch a brief glimpse of their anti-hero. During one song, I can't remember which, confetti will shoot out of cannons, the kids will erupt into squeals of delight, and some of them will even run and leap and catch the tiny bits of paper, shoving them into their pockets with the satisfied glee of boys catching foul balls at an All-Star game. I want to tell each and every one of them about my encounter with Rivers. I want to play the tape in my pocket over the public address system. I want to give them the myth of the reclusive rock star and Rivers wants me to give them that myth too. After all, these are his best friends in the world, so the myth is exactly what they deserve.