Mondo Sonoro: Interview with Brian Bell - March 3, 2021
The following interview has been translated from Spanish.
Original article: https://www.mondosonoro.com/entrevistas/weezer-entrevista/
"WE’RE A BAND THAT POLARIZES PEOPLE"
After listening to OK Human (Crush/Atlantic, 2021) and speaking a bit about it, via Zoom, with guitarist Brian Bell, two things are very clear: that bands with the status and baggage of Weezer just release albums with the simple excuse of playing live shows, and that their labels and management offices are extremely conservative, always refusing to change or deviate from the original script.
Luckily, something as unforeseeable as a pandemic changed the plans of these north americans, prioritizing a theoretically secondary job, an ornate pop (chamber, even), supervised by the loyal Jake Sinclair (who’s been working with them as a producer since 2016) and with the participation of arranger Rob Mathes (the man in charge of the strings in Springsteen’s High Hopes - 2014 - and A Celebration of Ending Things - 2020 - by Biffy Clyro). An organic record, in which keyboards and acoustic guitars thrive instead of the electrical ones, that, against all odds, makes for one of their best records of the last few years.
"I WOULD NEVER THINK ABOUT HAILING THIS RECORD AS THE NEW OK COMPUTER (1997) OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT."
- If I’m not wrong, you worked on an album at the same time called Van Weezer, which is coming out in may of this year, and it’s an 80s hair metal homage, a project entirely opposite to this OK Human (2021). Given that the album deals with isolation, alienation and reclusion, and how we relate to technology (according to your website), was the pandemic the think that made you prioritize this album and release it first?
- I think I spoke about this record right after the Black Album (Atlantic/Warner, 2019), with a Spanish journalist in Bilbao, when we played there a couple of years ago. We’ve been talking about this album since then. It’s been exciting to work on two completely different albums. Luckily, our work was ahead of schedule and we practically had both albums finished before the pandemic got us. We were very excited with our 2020 Summer tour with Green Day and Fall Out Boy, the Hella Mega Tour. And we thought about presenting Van Weezer live. Once the tour was delayed, our label thought that there was no need to publish a rock record without a rock tour to support it. So they thought that we should get to work on OK Human (Atlantic/Warner, 2021) that was going to be published after Van Weezer. In fact, we had to convince our management that this album was really good because when we showed it to them at first there was no clear single and they thought “How the hell are we going to sell this?”. Given our situation, we were confined and with no concerts in clear sight, we had nothing better to do. In a way, the pandemic helped us, because it gave us a lot of time to work on a very tidy schedule, like an assembly line, which I know is a very proletariat term (“blue-collar”), but it worked. Everything was like “Ok Brian, your time will be from 10 AM to 3 PM, does that work for you?”, “Yeah, that’s fine”, so it was very efficient. When you have a day and time, you get more disciplined compared to having all the time in the world. And even then that isn’t what really happens, because studios, like sound engineers and producers, cost money. But this record was very organic. I mean, I believe in inspiration, but also that conscious time management is good for art. There’s nothing wrong with different composers having different times, that might improve the team's routine. Having everything programmed helped us finish it. We were listening to it while we were completing it, because no one knows when Covid-19 is blowing over, but we didn’t want to delay it more than we needed to. It’s true that the virus altered some lyrics, and made them about our current times, even making us delay the release until things blew over a bit in our country, because of the presidential elections and the crazy vibes that that thing created, we decided to wait until the new president sworn into office, to get more hopeful times. That’s very important at the time of releasing a record, and besides, things are very different in the music industry nowadays. Normally, the buzz around a new release would last at least three months, as the bare minimum, and now everything is changing, and the industry is adapting to newer times and whatever works for their standards, we believed that 3 month lapse between OK Human (2021) and Van Weezer (2021), is reasonable. The virus allowed us to have time to focus on what the album needed. Without the pandemic, we would’ve finished it anyways, but worse. Sound weird, because you can’t really see the positives at the start of a pandemic, but it’s like that.
- Is the title a funny nod to Radiohead’s Ok Computer (Parlophone, 1997)?
- Totally (laughs). We consider it a masterpiece, and it connected with what was happening in the world in 1998, and it's still doing that. We weren’t making it sarcastic, not at all, we just wanted to adapt that title to the themes of the album. It will probably polarize people, in fact, we’re a band that polarizes people. I would never think of hailing this record as the new Ok Computer (1997) or something like that. It’s not even trying to be an Ok Computer (1997) made by humans, no way (laughs). Love it or hate it, I think it’s a good title. Obviously, you need to know Radiohead’s record to get OK Human’s (2021) meaning. It’s funny
"MOST OF THE TIMES A BAND EMPLOYS STRINGS ON A RECORD, IT’S AFTER EVERYTHING IS RECORDED. IN MY EXPERIENCE IT’S LIKE PUTTING MAKEUP OR DOING A LIFTING TO THE SONGS."
- You hired a 38-piece orchestra. How did you make this choice? Was this something Jake Sinclair wanted, with whom you worked before, or was it something Rob Mathes wanted?
- Actually, it’s a smaller orchestra, the 38-piece thing was promotional information that spread as a rumor, but that’s wrong. It was all intentional, we wanted to sound like chamber pop. We took a lot of time and effort so the songs didn’t sound supercharged, my worst fear was sounding pompous or indigestible. Luckily, that wasn't the case, I think. I wasn’t part of the first conversation Jake (Sinclair) and Rivers (Cuomo) had about it, but I think Jake was the one with the idea of the string arrangements. He knew the arranger, Rob (Mathes). I played the hammond organ and the acoustic guitar.
- That project is parked for now, because during Covid-19 I started studying and acting, I’m giving lessons on Zoom, and it’s something I want to keep doing even while touring: it’s very cool to do it through Zoom because it allows me to do it on the road. It’s still possible that this album is related to The Relationship since I’m playing all the guitars, and I play this way inside Weezer’s pattern: it’s unbelievable in Van Weezer, you’ll see. It’s possible that this is related because of the organic instruments, like the hammond and the acoustic guitar, which is what this album needed.
- There’s a lot of talk about Paul McCartney, and, above all, Brian Wilson’s influence in this record. But it also reminds me of 90s bands, when you started, like Zumpano or Ben Folds Five.
- I’m convinced that every band that came up in the 90s was influenced by those first two. Nowadays, everyone can access music very easily, and it’s almost impossible to not be influenced by the things you grew up with. It's in your DNA, and the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson were always our favorites, but we aren’t trying to copy them. It’s flattering that you would even consider us in the same vein as Paul McCartney or them. To me, this record is closer to more modern stuff, like Beck’s Sea Change (DGC/Interscope, 2003). I think we had a similar mindset. Most of the times a band employs strings on a record, it’s after everything is recorded. In my experience it’s like putting makeup or doing a lifting to the songs. Sometimes it’s not worth adding something because you run the risk of sounding bland. But in our case, this was the opposite: we put the strings first, which is unusual. It’s very organic. It was challenging. When we started to work on the string arrangements, we didn’t feel like “Jesus Christ, this is a cacophony”, you know? The arranger, Rob Mathes, did some good work, of course.
- I imagine you really want to go back to play live shows, I’m guessing you’re gonna play songs from this record, right?
- I really want to play live. I’m also very scared, because it’s like when you go to those restaurants that are still open in Los Angeles, where there were 40 people there back then and now there’s only 4. It might be a bit overwhelming. We need to pick that live schedule back up, but it would be nice to play OK Human (2021) live at least once with a full orchestra, and get it recorded. Getting that live sound recorded, and not necessarily stream it live, but just to see how it would sound. It would be amazing. We’ve talked about it, and it might happen. I’m prepared for that. It’s best to be prepared.