Rockzone: Interview with Brian Bell - 2019
The following interview has been translated from Spanish.
Original article: https://www.rockzonemag.com/entrevista-a-weezer-canciones-desde-el-agujero-negro/
SONGS FROM THE BLACK HOLE
Few groups maintain such an intense love/hate relationship with their fans as Weezer. That’s why, even though some believe that their latest records are lazy, their performance on the Bilbao BBK Live is one of the must see dates of the summer, even after 15 years of their last performance in Spain. With Brian Bell holding our hand, we’re going into the inscrutable world of the band.
TEXT: JORDI MEYA/PHOTOS: DR
On an occasion, a member of Radiohead defined the internal functioning of the band as a benevolent dictatorship. In Weezer’s case we could talk about a friendly tyranny. Since its inception, Rivers Cuomo has guided the path of the group and it's even very obvious that the success of the group during its more than two decades is owed, in big part, to his songwriting talent. But the personality of the group wouldn’t be what it is without the contribution of the rest of the band, Brian Bell’s guitar and backing vocals, the economical drumming of Pat Wilson or the musical multiplier that bassist Scott Shriner gave them when he came into the band in 2001. It’s by no mere chance that their best records are when they sound like a band and their worst, like their latest Black Album (Crush/Warner), when the band gets relegated to a secondary role. Despite his introverted and dweebish character, Cuomo forces his leadership on every discussion, something his bandmates have accepted resignedly like some employee that doesn't want to get in trouble with their boss and ends up saying he’s right, even though they know he’s wrong.
Truth is, even with their hits and misses, Weezer is one of the few 90s rock bands that still maintains itself as part of popular culture. Without going any further, they got a song back on the charts last year, even though it was a cover of Africa by Toto, they were the joke of a sketch in Saturday Night Live starring Matt Damon, their tour on the United States next to the Pixies is a hit, and their still hailed by the younger generations. Despite that, some fear surrounds them when a new record is announced.
Thanks to their performance on the Bilbao BBK Live festival, we had the chance to interview the group and even though, naturally, I would’ve loved to speak to Rivers, I had to speak to Brian Bell, who eventually ended up being almost or even more interesting. His testimony, after some generous 50 minutes, uncovered that being a member of Weezer is almost as complicated as being their fan.
- Brian, it’s a pleasure speaking with you. Despite not being the typical old school fan that thinks that everything you’ve done since Pinkerton is worthless, I still find it confusing to be a Weezer fan at times. Would you say it's as confusing on the inside?
- Wow, I like how you spun it around (laughs). Conusing is a great word… Of course being in Weezer is… interesting. Sometimes it's a bit frustrating because you aspire to make music that the fans love, and even after you know how much work there’s behind every song, every note, but as an artist you can't always be making the same thing. I'm proud of this band and all our achievements. We want to be a formation that keeps going forward and that isn't stuck in the past. I think the only group people don’t want to see changing is AC/DC. But we like to experiment, with songwriting, recording, recording in a separate room, recording in the same room… because that always creates a different end result. There’s some stuff I would’ve loved to do differently, but I’m not the only person in the band, there’s three more people, and then we have A&R, our producer… Everyone gets their opinion in. In the end it’s a collaborative work and every opinion is taken into account.
- But the impression we get is that you’re all at the mercy of Rivers’ whims. If he’s obsessed with current pop, you’re on that same path, if he wants to make a guitar album, you do that… Really, how much weight do Pat, or Scott or even your opinion have?
- Well, the truth is, not much (laughs). But in the end, no one knows what's going to work and what isn't. You can repeat something that succeeded and maybe next time, it won’t work. It’s very unpredictable. For example, the Teal Album is selling better than the Black Album. And that album was all recorded by Pat, Scott and I, Rivers just sang the vocals. That might be a formula. But now we’re touring and Rivers is enjoying guitar solos and maybe that will influence our next work. I don’t know. We’re all conscious that Rivers is the brain of the band and my work is trying to find a way to fit into his scheme. This is what keeps me on my toes.
- Yeah… We’re all full of contradictions (laughs). What I do know is that, if Africa wasn’t a hit, we would’ve never recorded the Teal Album. And I use the word hit very relatively, because that depends on what you compare it with. But in any case, it was a popular song, probably because it was a hit before; the original song was successful in the 80s. I think, in part, our Africa’ was a hit for the story behind it. You know, this girl, Mary, asked us to record ‘Africa’ through Twitter… National media made this news and they even had Steve Lukather (Toto’s guitarist) and Ringo Starr talking about it. So people see that and think it’s interesting. But that stuff is unplanned, they just happen. That’s what pushed us to record an album full of covers. At that time we were also recording the Black Album and it seemed like a lot of effort to learn those songs in depth just to record them. But the truth is I learnt a lot. We all did. Rivers recorded all the vocal harmonies, and there were a lot, and he did a great job. I think that could help us when we face our next record.
- You don’t think those covers could be a bit more Weezer-y?
- They’re faithful covers, almost copies, but I also added synth or guitar parts that weren’t originally there and they sound as if they were always there. They’re buried in the mix, but they’re there. I’m not someone that likes to show off on guitar, I like to work with what is required. My focus for this album is compared to when I rebuilt my house with a spanish style, I wanted to keep that 70s beauty but to also make it feel modern. To me, that was the Teal Album.
- I don’t know. It’s my least favorite period of the band playing live. I don’t have anything against Josh because he’s a great drummer and Pat a great guitar player, but that felt like another band. To me, Weezer’s secret sound is Pat playing drums. The thing is, he’s a great musician and very anxious. And that period coincided with Pat being bored of drums and Rivers wanting to stop playing guitar. They proposed to change the lineup and Scott said yes, and I… didn’t say anything. My song on that record, Thought I Knew, has Rivers on drums. It felt like we were changing stuff just because, not because it was better. It was a weird experience.
- You counted on the buzz that the Africa story generated but something you can’t deny is that Weezer has something to make stuff viral, are those ideas coming from the group or management?
- Truth is most of that stuff just happens. The Mary story, the Saturday Night Live sketch… those things are unplanned. In fact, I spoke to one of the writers for SNL and they told me they had that written as far back as the year before, and they wanted Jonah Hill for it, but it didn’t go through. And even if they aired it back then, it would’ve had no effect because we weren’t promoting anything. But then they recorded it with Matt Damon and it got a lot of buzz because we were on the headlines again with Africa. That sketch was the perfect announcement for a new album. The best part is that they weren’t making fun of us, but of our polarized fans (laughs). But deep down, the fact that someone even bothers to write that, shows the passion that we unleash (laughs). It’s like Yelp negative comments: they’re funnier than the positives (laughs). Most viral things just happen by chance, but we’re also under new management and they have smart people that offer us new things, even if we’re doubtful, like posting trailers before an album comes out. I guess they know how the music business works nowadays better than us. Truth is, it feels good to know someone has a plan. When we released the Blue Album, I knew that was a great record, but there was no plan. Every band in the 90s had a contract and the label released the records and saw which stuck and which didn’t. We were lucky that ours did, but there were a lot that didn’t. I can’t remember the year, but there was a time where Geffen got rid of all their artists, except Beck and us. A lot of artists' dreams went down the drain but… I think I deviated from your question.
- Don’t worry, it’s interesting. I was going to say that in a certain way you were viral even before the internet with your videos. You were always very creative. Of all of them, which is the one you have the best memories of?
- The Buddy Holly video was magical from the moment I stepped into the set and saw the Happy Days decor. I couldn’t stop smiling through the entire recording process. When we did the first take I knew it was going to be a hit. Spike Jonze’s greatness, the way he incorporated Happy Days footage into the video… I knew it was something iconic. The funniest part is that Rivers barely knew about Happy Days and when the bridge was interrupted by the “To be continued…” sign he was furious and asked for it to be removed. But I begged him to leave it on because it was very funny and they left it up. Nowadays, we’re using the introduction of the video for our concerts. It’s very funny. Weezer always had that sense of humor, even before I joined the group, and even that rock and roll entry point from the 50s in songs like Susanne or Buddy Holly that just make me feel good. Maybe people think its a bit nerdy, but it’s also cool. And I think that’s our secret, that we’re the best and worst at the same time (laughs).
- Do you think Weezer was an antidote for grunge?
- We showed up at the end of grunge, in 1994. Kurt Cobain killed himself, everyone was depressed… We were too. I remember being at our rehearsal room very sad because he died in April and our record came out in May, which meant that he never got to listen to it. We always thought that he would’ve loved it. Even then, I think our happier side is what got us all the attention.
- Speaking of Buddy Holly, you’re playing an acapella version just before the set.
- Yeah, can’t get more real than that. It’s like going back to… I don’t know… the 1910s (laughs). That barber shop style preceded the do-woop groups. I remember that when I came into Weezer we spent over four hours working on vocal harmonies with a piano and I was thinking “No one else does this”. So I’m very happy to come back to that. Not only is it fun, but it's also very musical. You need to listen to everyone, and the human voice isn’t perfect, so when you do it live, the audience changes the duration of the song, the pauses, because it all depends when they clap, you need to wait for the silence. I wish that music overall was more like that. It’s scary in a way, because you’re totally naked, but it's very comforting.
- That’s why I’m so shocked about the Black Album, which is the entire opposite of that. It has a very modern production, instead of looking for something more organic.
- I know… Maybe we should remember that on the next record. We shouldn’t forget where we come from, rock and roll.
- Besides, you had Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio fame, I was expecting something darker and experimental. But the end result is very light and safe.
- I mean. Dave ruined The Prince Who Wanted Everything by giving it a swing beat (laughs). I don’t know why he did that. It was the only song I co wrote on the album and I couldn’t stop telling them that I didn’t want the song on the album because they changed it so much and trusted in someone else’s criteria. But I think the album is experimental for Weezer. There’s sounds we wouldn’t have used if not for Dave. I don’t know, the better musician you are, the less you agree to stuff you don’t like, but you also want to get played on the radio, you know? It’s not an easy balance for me. To me The Prince Who Wanted Everything was a straight forward song, animated, cheery and fun, but they put the swing beat and it’s lighter now.
- In the 90s I used to show my songs but it was an uphill battle to make them play it and even more if I wanted them on a record. It was all Rivers for the longest time. But on the Red Album I snuck in Thought I Knew and ever since I started to introduce more songs, but I needed to listen to what we were cooking to know what could fit. And after Rivers started working with external songwriters I thought “If they can, why can’t I?”
- It’s a shame because I think you and Rivers have great chemistry when you play. I think you could do great things if you collaborated more often.
- I agree. But some stuff you just don’t have to force. Rivers follows a strict method. First I need to show the songs to management, then to the producer, and if I get greenlit, they get to Rivers. It needs to go through all these filters before he even listens to them.
- That’s what I think is insane. You guys have been playing for 25 years. Can’t you just show him a song?
- Yeah… It’s like getting an appointment with the president, not everyone can. Rivers has collaborated with hit writers, and I don’t have hits. Until I get a hit, no one will come ringing at my door to see what I can offer. I’m not complaining though. I guess it sounds crazy from the outside, but things just work like that.
- I’m guessing the songs that don’t end up in Weezer albums end up with The Relationship. You have some great songs there.
- Oh, thank you very much. But I’ve disbanded that group. I’m trying to put my energy into other stuff. I did some acting lessons and I loved them, so I started acting. As for music, I prefer to focus all my attention into Weezer, instead of two groups. One of the reasons why we could make the Teal and Black Albums so quickly was because I was focused on Weezer. The Relationship was fun, but it cost a lot of time and money. I released two albums with them and I’m happy that I did, but, I’m now, possibly, at a moment where I’m most satisfied with Weezer like I’ve never been before. I needed a parallel project before to feel satisfied, but that’s not the case anymore. I want Weezer to be as good as we can make it.
- In fact, you’re preparing two new albums. What can you tell me about them?
- Yeah. We’re working with Jake Sinclair, the producer of the White Album, but he has his own method and no one is listening to anything we’re recording, not even Rivers. I don’t get it… but it’s another experiment. I think we don’t get to hear anything until we get to record our final parts, because he wants us to react spontaneously. I don’t know. Maybe it’s cool, maybe it’s terrible. And then we’re making another album that would be called Van Weezer, I guess that’s going to be more traditional.
- You have recorded your last three albums without even being together in the studio. Do you like to do it that way?
- Sorry… My arm fell asleep, I’m going to change positions… Okay (laughs). I think everything has its advantages. Recording together is cool because you’re all staring at each other, and stuff happen that would never happen if you recorded by yourself. The other way is also great because I get really prepared for a song and I get like nine or ten ideas for them. Being alone with a producer allows me to try them and see what sticks. Or maybe you can try idea 3 with idea 9. When I record alone, it’s my day, everything revolves around me and I like it. Sometimes, if everyone is on the studio, it’s harder to do something productive, because you spend half a day listening to an amp sound, then, you go have lunch, and then, you want to take a nap (laughs). It’s not easy to keep a high energy level expecting something magical to happen. Last time we recorded all together in a room was for Everything Will Be Alright in the End with Ric Ocasek. I’m going to try to manipulate the recording process to see if we can do it again. Pick up that barber shop spirit and put it on a rock record (laughs).
- Would you like to work with Ocasek again?
- Never say never.
- How aware are you of Weezer’s influence? Pinkerton was a very influential record for emo, but you have groups like Wavves and Pup, or Fidlar, that sound like you.
- I’m more or less conscious, and I’m proud, but I don’t think our band should get all the credit because it’s a combination of a lot of stuff. But it makes me happy.
- To end like we started, speaking of confusion and contradiction. At the start you said you didn’t want Weezer to repeat sounds, but you tend to only focus on your hits live. With how many great songs you have, I think it’s a shame you don’t change your setlists more often
- I know, I know… That’s because of the concerts we’re playing and the audience we’re playing for, which is more causal. We might get a Pinkerton song here and there, but nowadays, the industry is very guided by metrics, and in the end our most popular songs on Spotify are Island in the Sun, Hash Pipe, Buddy Holly, Say It Ain’t So, Perfect Situation, Pork and Beans… So that’s what most people pay to hear.
- Maybe you should play three hour sets to make everyone happy.
- (laughs) Maybe. Believe me: before this tour, we made a list of the 75 songs we should play at any given time. And I spent a lot of hours learning every song to be ready. But in the end, we played our usual set.
- Brian, thanks a lot for your time. I’ll see you live on the Bilbao BBk Live, but I hope you play smaller gigs again.
- Same for me. I would love to come back soon and play deep cuts.