Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A Conversation With...Rivers Cuomo of Weezer

In this month's issue of Chicago Innerview, I had the chance to speak with Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. Due to the word space I had to work with, I had to cut down my Q&A with Cuomo in order to fit the assigned space I had.

The following conversation is my complete interview with Cuomo, which took place on November 19, 2009. This posting is dedicated in the memory of Jerry Ayre.

Chris Castaneda: As being the principal songwriter for the band now, nearly twenty years, what would you say best describes a Weezer song? Musically and lyrically?

Rivers Cuomo: Great melody, funky guitar, some kind of twisted lyrical perspective…I think it’s usually in a major key or at least a diatonic mode, if that’s not too technical. I think if you’ve got all those things, you’ve got a Weezer song.

CC: If you had to choose just 1 song from each album that you felt strongly about and that best captured the essence of Weezer at that time of the album, what would they be?

RC: Weezer (The Blue Album) – “Buddy Holly.” Pinkerton – “Across The Sea.” Weezer (The Green Album) – “Island In The Sun.” Maladroit – “Dope Nose.” Make Believe – “Beverly Hills.” Weezer (The Red Album) – “Pork and Beans.” Raditude – “Can’t Stop Partying.”

CC: In the past two years, you’ve opened up your vault of demos on the Alone CDs, I and II. What prompted the idea of returning to those demos and sharing them with the public?

RC: Over the years, fans have heard about these songs. They’ve always been requesting and pressuring me to release some of them, but, most importantly, I have so much strong emotions for these demos. They were recorded just as I was writing the songs and just as I was in the heat of the moment or situation that inspired the song. I recognize that these are not broadly commercial recordings, but they have the depth and feeling that I really love. I wanted to share with those hardcore fans out there who can also appreciate that feeling.

CC: Will there be more home recordings released in the future?

RC: I do have more music that I’d like to release; at least another hour. Well…maybe two or three hours more of home demos that I’d like to release. It seems to me that the compact disc or the full length album is becoming a thing of the past. I’m not exactly sure that my home demos will come out in that format.

CC: What was your earliest approach to songwriting when you first began writing? How has it changed or developed over the years?

RC: When I was a teenager I was trying to play harmonic minded scales as quickly as I could. Then I got into songwriting around age 20. My values at that time came to be melody and straightforward lyrics that have a little twist on it…the chunky guitars. Those are the kind of values that you hear on Weezer’s first album. I still hear that on our latest record, Ratitude, and on every record in between. It just feels like who I am as a songwriter.

Now, recently, I’ve been very excited about collaborating with other people, especially people from different backgrounds; learning different approaches to songwriting. Not only that, but, I’m just making new friends and learning about all different kinds of things, like production techniques or where to send your kids to school, how to set up your home studio…getting exposed to all different kinds of ideas, which is really great.

CC: There’s a lot of collaboration with other songwriters on Ratitude. How has it been for you to have that added input from other people and to have Pat (Wilson), Scott (Shriner) and Brian (Bell) present songs on recent albums?

RC: It’s challenging, but that’s what I love about it. Someone else will put an idea on the table that’s different from something that I would have come up with, and it takes me a minute to figure out how to work with it. I have to think outside my usual routine, and that, to me, is very invigorating.

An example is that song “Can’t Stop Partying” on Ratitude. I was writing with Jermaine Dupri, who’s from a hip-pop/R&B background. His idea was to write a song that’s purely about partying and drinking. It was really fun, but it’s not 100% who I am. So, I struggled with that for a while and eventually realized that I could change the music, put it into a minor key and give the music a very sad feeling which undercut the party vibe of the lyrics. It turned into a song that neither one of us could have written on our own. I’m very proud of it.

CC: As you near 40 years old, how do you stay connected to the songs that you wrote in your early 20’s?

RC: Well, for one thing, I don’t feel like my musical values have changed all that much. I still love those early songs. It’s some of my favorite music of all time. Playing live is so much fun to play those songs to the audience because for a lot of the people in the room they’ve never seen us play before, and they’re just so excited. I just enjoy connecting to them.

CC: All rock critics are different. I have my own opinion about the new album. Everyone else has opinions, and I’m sure you’re well aware of most of the opinions out there. And I say with all due respect: do you feel, at all, that Weezer has in any way become a one dimensional band?

RC: What do you mean, specifically? I’m not sure what “one dimensional” means.

CC: I guess…if anything, the one criticism that will come to mind is this “We’ve heard this before” thinking. From The Blue Album up to now…over time a band will develop its own sound, and there will be elements of that band and its sound that will forever drape whatever work it presents. I guess what I’m trying to ask is: are you vigilant to make sure the band doesn’t fall into a routine? I know some bands are very adamant about making sure they never fall into certain ruts, and other bands are happy to keep kind of going along the same path. I was just interested in what your thoughts were in terms of the band.

RC: I do feel, by nature, I’m an adventurer, an explorer. Looking back on our career it seems obvious that I constantly have to be doing some crazy new experiment because I like the feeling of being excited and trying new things. I think that’s what has kept Weezer vital. We’re not stuck in a rut. We’re taking chances and risking losing some fans by trying new things. It’s more fun than ever to be in this band.

CC: Well, I appreciate the response. I hope I clarified it, too. I might have stumbled a little bit.

RC: I don’t know if we got to the question you really wanted to ask, but I answered what I understood to be the question. I hear that you’re trying to be tactful, too, and I appreciate that.


Actually, on the day of the interview, I was almost thrown out of bed by the latest Weezer single, "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To." I didn't remember how loud I set my clock radio, so, when the alarm went off, Cuomo's vocals (at the very moment of the chorus) blasted and freaked me out. He got a laugh out of the story.

Asking my final question was a last minute toss up. I wrote the question down that morning and debated asking it. That question could have easily been interpreted the wrong way (i.e. So, how come your band turned sucky?). I think it was mutually appreciated that there was some room given to expand on my question. In listening back to how nervous and sensitive I was about clarifying myself, I think what I was going for was to highlight how Weezer songs, in terms of sound, have become repetitive.

When speaking to Cuomo it was clear that the Weezer sound we've all come to love (or grow tired of) is the sound he is most in love with, and I can't fault him for that. Afterall, he's the one in the studio doing exactly what he wants and getting paid to do it...I'm not.

Being a frustrated Oasis fan, I was going to draw a connection between Weezer and Oasis during my interview. The day after I spoke with Cuomo, I bought Alone II - The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo. The liner notes by Cuomo are great! I'm always a fan of good liner notes. In those notes, my Oasis connection was given some validation by Cuomo's diary entry of July 31, 1997, "Not melody, not lyrics but STRUCTURE, like Noel Gallagher's songs. / Learn all the Oasis songs."

Gallagher may have figured out the best qualities of song structures by the Beatles and Neil Young (and in the process re-writing classics to build his own songbook), but he could never quite hold onto the hook, which is such a strong component to Cuomo's work. In some ways, Cuomo is the Rick Nielsen of my generation (which is to say I hope most of my peers have appreciated the glory that is Cheap Trick).

I believed Cuomo when he said Weezer is still taking chances, but, if Weezer is really taking musical risks, it's certainly hard to hear.

Finally, on a personal note, I mentioned at the start of this posting that this was dedicated in the memory of Jerry Ayre. Jerry was an old grammar school classmate from St. Victor School in Calumet City, IL (yes, where the Blues Brothers are from). He was a really good guy that I was lucky to grow up with him between those years of 1st and 8th grade. We were in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and on the basketball team in 7th and 8th grade. In our last year, he and I shared the lead role in the school play in which he played a 1950s high school nerd. I was his alter ego in the form a rocking and rolling werewolf (you had to be there).

I thought of myself back then as a shy guy, but, compared to Jerry, I must have been considered more laid back. He wasn't really part of my core group of friends growing up then, but he was never thought of as not good enough to associate with...he wasn't in the "cool" crowd just as I wasn't. Therefore, it was easy to connect.

When the opportunity was finalized to interview Rivers Cuomo, I instantly thought about Jerry. One of my memories of him was wearing a blue Weezer t-shirt around school when we had a "dress down" day, taking a break from the Catholic school conformity of dress code appropriate uniforms. The Blue Album was released near the end of our 7th grade year. Jerry was probably the first Weezer fan I knew around school.

In 1995, Jerry moved to Florida after we graduated 8th grade. I never saw him, again, after the graduation parties quieted down that summer. To me, he was a good grammar school friend that if I ever ran into down the road would have stopped and caught up on all the latest life news. In the summer of 1999, after graduating high school, the news was dispatched throughout my old grammar school connections that he died of meningitis.

At 18, it didn't register with me that this cool guy, whose biggest music favorites were Weezer and Green Day, was simply gone. I still remember the service held at the school's church and playing my acoustic guitar with the small assembled choir. It's never the way you want to be reunited with people from your childhood past, but there most of us were from that graduating class. If anything, it spoke volumes of how we all felt about Jerry. I don't know the kind of guy he became during his high school years, but I can't imagine the good qualities that made him easy to get along with changing a whole lot. And I don't know if he ever got to see Weezer in concert (I hope he did)..but he would have been the first person I would have shared the news with about my interview. "Hey, man. I'm going to talk to Rivers!"

Thanks, Jerry.

Photo Courtesy of Weezer (MySpace)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Extra! Extra!

The December issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online and print. In this month's issue, I interviewed Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Brian Berkowitz of local band Oh My God and contributed a write-up on local band Soft Speaker.

Please click on the links below to be directed to the pages for:


Oh My God (available online ONLY)

Soft Speaker

Also, I recently interviewed John Wesley Harding for Lumino Magazine before his upcoming show at Schubas tomorrow night. That Q&A feature was just added to the magazine site yesterday. Follow the link below: