Request article - May 1, 2001
50,000,000 Weezer Fans Can't Be Wrong
Before it finds a cozy place in the annals of rock mythology alongside Ozzy's bat-biting, Rod Stewart's stomach pumping, and Mama Cass' deadly ham sandwich, let's make on thing clear: Rivers Cuomo is not insane. He doesn't smell, his hair is neatly groomed, the time since his last shave can be measured in hours, and he did not turn into Jell-O in a recording studio last year.
A published report that spread like a sinister computer virus throughout Weezer chat rooms last year had a disheveled, uncommunicative Rivers Cuomo pulling a Brian Wilson at a rehearsal last year - ignoring musical concerns in favor of hitting a ball against a wall for hours upon hours. The mercurial lead Weezer says it's (mostly) not true.
"I came into the studio after soccer practice," he explains, "and I was totally filthy. My hair was messy and sweaty and everything. I probably came in looking really spaced out. I used to kick the ball against the wall all the time just to practice my touch."
OK, so he isn't crazy. But his too-quiet demeanor and perennially awkward appearance are evidence with his lingering unease with the business of self-promotion. Make no mistake: Cuomo is a mild-mannered Clark Kent in a world of muscle-bound, cartoonish rock superheroes; a regular human being with regular problems and insecurities. He just happens to share them with the rest of us in the form of profoundly catchy guitar-pop gems. This may be why, in spite of his band's inactivity for the better part of four years, Weezer's legion of fans seems to have swelled. What's more, the fans' long-suffering patience is finally being rewarded with the band's first new release in more than four years (still untitled at press time).
"Fans feel a lot of empathy for these guys," says Karl Koch, Weezer's aide-de-camp and fan liaison, who faithfully maintains a daily band diary called "Karl's Corner" at www.weezer.net. "[Fans] think, 'They're just like me. They're depressed about girl problems or this thing or that.' They come across as vulnerable, yet they get up on stage and they make these rocking albums. They don't have the rock-star aura."
Regular guys they may be, but Weezer did fall prey—in a big way—to the familiar rock-star pitfalls of band acrimony and post-platinum apathy. If not for an unexpected offer to perform in Japan last summer, it's likely there would have been no reason at all for the lads to give it another shot. Miraculously, once they hit the road again, Weezer came alive. Fans force-fed a diet of mookish @#%$-metal were starved for melody, for rippin' guitars, for a brand of rock 'n' roll that didn't revolve around porn-star cameos and breaking stuff. To the band's surprise, its summer 2000 road trip was a sold-out lovefest, which revitalized the quartet as it entered the studio to record a long-awaited third album.
"I think the loyal fan base gave us the most motivation to get back out there and continue as Weezer and make another record," guitarist Brian Bell says. "If we didn't have that, I think we might have gone our separate ways."
If nothing else, the response to Weezer's phoenixlike return has sent two very clear messages to the band: 1) No love has been lost among die-hard Weezer devotees; and 2) Success can be an intoxicating panacea. Though it's unspoken, all four members are aware of the scarcity of second chances in the music business. "How great is it that enormous amounts of people are spending tons of resources trying the make the band I'm in successful? It's fantastic," drummer Pat Wilson says.
As before, the business of being Weezer is a full time job. On a hectic Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles, the guys yak among themselves about the pre-tour schedule and where to squeeze in last-minute mixing between the photo shoots and interviews that fill the day before they hit the road. Wilson picks up a magazine, looks at the cover, and contemplates joining Destiny's Child; flexing non-existent muscles, Bell playfully models retro silk-screened Weezer t-shirts; and bassist Mikey Welsh (who replaced Matt Sharp in 1998) marvels at the latest merchandizing item to come off the assembly line. "Oh, my God, my dream has come true! Look at these Weezer necklaces," he yells, eyes widening. "They look just like the Van Halen ones. How rad is that?"
Though older and more pragmatic, Weezer retains the nerdish charm that sparked bona-fide hits like "Buddy Holly" and "Undone (the Sweater Song)," unlikely anthems that seemed to suck the gloom of grunge from alternative radio and MTV back in 1994. The L.A. quartet wasn't a bunch of cooler-than-thou rock stars, but merely grown-up kids who sat in the back of class drawing KISS logos on their Pee-Chee folders. The band's self-titled, Ric Ocasek-produced debut possessed a levity sorely lacking in the flannel-wearing zeitgeist. With it, suddenly pop music was fun again. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Spike Jonze-directed video for "Buddy Holly" was a brilliantly crafted, heavily rotated piece of eye-candy.
"Nirvana was huge. There was still that extra-aggro Northwest vibe," Wilson recalls. "Next to Mother Love Bone, Weezer looks like the Beach Boys. Even though, in a lot of ways, how we play our instruments is kind of similar—rock music with Marshall amps—except the sentiments behind the music were a lot different."
In 1996, however, Weezer's outsider neuroses were replaced by a creepy diary of Cuomo's sexual obsessions in the form of Pinkerton, the band's uncomfortable, self-produced sophomore release. Though it's now considered something of an emocore template and continues to be a steady catalog seller (more than 500,000 units sold to date), Cuomo perceives the album as a failure on almost every level.
"That is the most personal record of all time," he says. "That personal quality of [Pinkerton] caused total problems in every segment of my life. It was a total disaster."
It would get worse. In 1997, Mykel and Carli Allan, close friends of the band and founders of the Weezer fan club, were killed in a car accident on their way to a gig. Next, following the completion of touring obligations after Pinkerton, bassist Sharp quit to focus on his own band, The Rentals, which had a minor hit in 1995 with "Friends of P."
Weezer spent the next three years in self-imposed purgatory. Cuomo's own ambivalence about the pop life drove him to the East Coast, where he found his solace in his on-and-off studies at Harvard. It took a full year to replace Sharp with Welsh, who'd played with Juliana Hatfield's touring band. Meanwhile, Bell and Wilson bided their time with their own projects (Space Twins and the Special Goodness, respectively). The band reconvened in 1998 for a round of demoing, but all that emerged from that period was "Velouria" a track for the 1999 Pixies tribute album Where is My Mind?
"Our heads were just so screwy at the time," Mikey said. "We all had different ideas about what we should be doing. We were just struggling a bit with trying to get songs together, and what kind of sound we wanted." In 1999, Wilson took to the alt-weezer newsgroups, stating directly that, "we didn't have much in common, creatively or personally."
As 2000 began, Cuomo says the band was at its lowest ebb, communicating only via management. It was then that the offer to perform in Japan came. "That seemed to kind of kick Rivers' ass," Wilson says. "I don't think we would have done anything if it wasn't for that show." Weezer resumed rehearsing, and soon felt good enough to accept a spot on the 2000 Warped Tour. The hysteria surrounding these shows was so remarkable that the band decided to remain on the road throughout the summer.
Given pop music's built-in disposability and the transience of fandom, Cuomo himself is all but shocked himself by the patience and resilience of Weezer fanatics. "We certainly haven't given them much to stick around for," he says.
"It's rather extreme," Koch says of the fans. "[Weezer] is treated like a lot of the indie bands, which have intensely loyal fans. So many, in fact, that the Yahoo-sponsored tour in February and March of 2001 sold out almost immediately, with no new product to shill.
Koch and the band still give much of the credit for persistent Weezermania to the late Mykel and Carli Allan, who created the fan club, published the Weezine newsletter, and stayed in contact with other members via e-mail and phone calls. "They set the precedent of how to treat fans and how to be nice to them," Koch says. Weezer paid homage to the pair in a b-side called "Mykel and Carli."
Perhaps a little too protective of their idols, many followers expressed dismay at the band's apparent corporate sellout when it signed on for the 2001 Yahoo tour. The dominant dot-com's sponsorship kept ticket prices down, but Cuomo empathizes with his fans' skepticism.
"I understand why they would be bummed out," he says. "We're not going to do one again. It's just kind of creepy: 'Yahoo! Outloud featuring Weezer.' It just kind of creeps me out."
Stoked by the overwhelming response to the summer 2000 jaunt, Weezer returned to an L.A. Studio in December to record the tracks for the new album, with Ocasek again working the boards. Unlike the chaos of sessions past, "This time, we were focused like Ninjas," Welsh says.
Bell attributes the improved chemistry to Welsh's presence. "Mikey doesn't have the crazy inflated ego Matt [Sharp] had," the guitarist says. "Matt's probably pretty humbled by now, I would imagine. I love him to death, God bless him."
"This one is really businesslike," Wilson agrees. "It's like show up, play, make sure you don't suck - not too much drama."
Cuomo entered the two-month long session boasting hundreds of songs from which to choose, and new tunes emerged daily. None of them, he notes, are as personal as the ones on Pinkerton. "It's not too hard to succeed at being less personal than Pinkerton," he says. "It came out very much like the first record, a refinement of what we've already been doing."
Indeed, the record is chock full of melodic, lean 'n' mean pop with very little fat on the bone. In a rock landscape once again littered with angst-fueled laments, Weezer may be expected to make the world safe again for humble - and hummable - misfit pop.
"The kind of music on the first two records is fairly traditional rock band playing pop songs that have melodies and harmonies and guitar solos," Wilson explains. "That's the kind of thing that's not a fad or a trend but is very basic and pure and something that I don't think ever goes away."
Still, Wilson casts a wary eye on those who expect Weezer to be the awkward underdog that saves pop music. "I don't feel to close to any conceptual ideas people have about Weezer. I've always been surprised about the way people glommed onto characterizations and categorizations about the band."
Besides, the album packs a few uncharacteristic surprises, like the tropically flavored "Island in the Sun," a song Ocasek pushed the band to record. "It's kind of a Caribbean sound," Bell says. "Then the chorus kicks in with distorted guitars. It's my favorite one because it takes you someplace else."
And though the bandmates initially resisted hiring a producer, preferring to do it themselves a la Pinkerton, Cuomo is ultimately happy with the results. "It's a weird thing because you're basically hiring someone else to disagree with you," he says. "If [Ocasek] wasn't around, I would have done things exactly my way and I think it wouldn't have come out as good. When it's all done, I thank him, because I think he was right on a lot of counts."
The sessions were so fertile that there's even talk about returning to the studio right away. "I've been writing songs every day, and I think the next record is already half-written," Cuomo says. "I'm just so excited about these new songs. I can't wait to do them."
Having weathered enough failure and out-and-out tragedy to fill an episode of Behind the Music, Cuomo is unusually optimistic about his band's future. "The worst that can happen has happened, and we're still alive" he says. "That gives us confidence that we're going to be able to last. If those sorts of things can't sink us, I don't know what can."