Rivers Cuomo on His Metal Roots and the Magic of Debut Albums

Rivers Cuomo on His Metal Roots and the Magic of Debut Albums

By Chris Steffen

Jul. 24, 2015

Rivers Cuomo has been through a lot; his band rapidly rose to stardom coupled with an image that began to define everything they did, he reacted by releasing a nakedly personal album that was raked over the coals, brought him embarrassment, and then became hailed as genius, after which he ducked out of the spotlight for several years, then brought back Weezer as a suddenly prolific pop-rock machine. There's less apparent turmoil going on in Cuomo's life these days; his band puts out albums like clockwork and tours when and where they want. Weezer's latest album, last year's Everything Will Be Alright in the End, simultaneously examines the band's roots while digging even further back to Cuomo's love of complex, multi-part hard rock and heavy metal songs from the 70s and 80s.

We caught up with Cuomo to talk about the 70s and 80s rock influence creeping into the world of Weezer, what he's learned about what makes a band's first album special, and some of his biggest "eureka!" moments as a music fan. Weezer's currently on the road for a series of festival dates, and just released a new video for "Go Away," featuring Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast.

AllMusic: Since the release of Everything Will Be Alright in the End, you've been doing a pretty even mix of festivals and headlining shows. Do you treat them differently?

Rivers Cuomo:
We love mixing it up, and it’s been kind of 50/50, back and forth between playing festivals for a very general, alternative rock audience, who are most familiar with the big hits, and then the task is to convert them to be real hardcore Weezer fans and check out the new album, and we’re sure to mix in some of the crazy deep cuts like the “Futurescope” trilogy, or “Go Away,” as well as a single like “Da Vinci” into the set of the classics, like “Beverly Hills” and “Buddy Holly” and “Island in the Sun.” And then we’ve played shows where we play the whole new album, an acoustic set of rarities, B-sides and Pinkerton, as well as album cuts from later albums, and very little of the hits that people associate with Weezer, and we'd go from there to Everything Will Be Alright in the End, and turned on the full production.

It’s the most incredible high for us to be playing all this new music and be playing in a packed venue full of these crazy hardcore fans that love to hear this new music from us. They go as far as to bring Rocky Horror-style props, releasing balloons when I say “Don’t wanna end up with as much edge as a balloon” in “I’ve Had It Up to Here,” or wearing a Cleopatra headdress or a British redcoat costume, these are all taken from lyrics for the album. We hear all the time from these fans that they’ve seen Weezer maybe 20 times, and those were the best Weezer shows they’ve ever seen, which is so remarkable, given that it doesn’t have the songs that you associate with Weezer’s high points, like “Say It Ain’t So,” “The Sweater Song,” or any of the other hits, or even the usual cult favorites, like Pinkerton. Not only that, but these are our longest sets, up to 100 minutes. Not long by Springsteen standards, but that’s a long time to play really intense, loud alternative rock music. It’s a real different animal from the festival shows, and we love to do both.

AllMusic: When you played the KROQ festival last year you were enthusiastically posting on social media about watching other bands that made their mark in the 90s, like Smashing Pumpkins and No Doubt. Do you still feel a kinship with those bands?

The KROQ show was unusual, that featured a lot of older bands, anything from No Doubt, who came up around the same time as us, and we toured together in ’97, and it was an incredible feeling of nostalgia for me to stand there, basically in the same spot I was standing in ’97 watching them. They’re phenomenal, I can really see why they have maintained their position for so long. Then a band like Smashing Pumpkins, who came up about five years before us, which, in retrospect, doesn’t seem like that big of a difference, but at the time it felt like they were completely established veterans, and they were a very big influence on us. We were in our late teens when they first came up, we were all at a very impressionable age, and it was a treat for me to see them. And then there was also Tears for Fears, who came out years before that, I guess only a few years, but every year makes such a big difference when you’re a teenager.

That was a very unusual treat, that show. Apart from that, we’ve been doing a lot of festivals around the country, mostly playing with a lot of the greatest new alternative rock bands, and there’s a feeling of camaraderie there, and it feels like now, more than it has in a long time, that there are so many great, relatively young bands, and it’s been a pleasure to hang out with them backstage, in the hallways and the dressing rooms and get on the side of the stage while they’re playing and talk shop.

AllMusic: You mentioned the "Futurescope" trilogy from Everything Will Be Alright in the End, which you've referred to as a "guitargasm." How much does that type of playing tie back into your 80s heavy metal roots?

I definitely grew up on amazing instrumental-based bands that a lot of times didn’t have a lot of singing, the music was just so incredible. That’s really how I learned to play my instrument and to compose music, was by copying that stuff. It took a real act of suppression to come up with an album like Weezer’s first album, the blue album, and really pare it down to bare-bones, three-chord type of songs, where you’re not using most of your compositional tools, and that was kind of a reaction to how maybe we’d gone as far as we could, at that time, in the late eighties, as far as stretching music to the limits of what we could do, and we wanted to get back to the essence of communicating with an audience, and we were inspired by bands like the Pixies and Nirvana, but also going back further to the Velvet Underground and the early music of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, songs that were very simple but still very powerful. But the love of highly-developed instrumental music is in me in a very deep place, and sooner or later it’s going to come out.

AllMusic: Do you still dig out any of your old metal albums?

Actually, I basically went back through my entire memory and made a Spotify playlist for every year of my life, and these are publicly shared, so if you want to see what I was listening to in 1983, for example, you can go check out my Spotify playlist. If for some reason before a show I’m warming up and I’m in the mood to hear 1989, I’ll go ahead and play that playlist.

AllMusic: When you were on WTF with Marc Maron you talked about hearing Metallica's "Battery" for the first time and how important that was. What are some other "a-ha!" musical moments that you've had?

I remember the first time I overheard Slayer’s Reign in Blood album, I was really, really scared of it, it was just frightening and felt super evil, I was scared of it, and it took a long time of accidentally overhearing it before something in me started connecting to it and saying, “Heck yeah, I want to hear this and I want to rock out to this.” So something in me had been expressed through that music.

I also remember seeing a kid at summer camp who had a boombox, and he was playing one of Run-D.M.C.’s early tapes, and that was the first time I heard music like that, and I was terrified of that, it took me a while to get into it. N.W.A., the same thing, probably 1990, I had just moved to L.A. and at my apartment they were playing “Fuck tha Police,” and I was so scared. Of course, I ended up loving it.

AllMusic: Once the heavy metal seeds were planted in my mind from that podcast, I couldn't help but draw parallels between some of your more complex material on the new album and something like Judas Priest's Sad Wings of Destiny, adding in piano and multi-part songs.

We were all into that, I think it was probably 1983 or ’84 that we started listening to Judas Priest, so it was a bit after that album came out, but we definitely listened to it all through high school. I remember Unleashed in the East, probably being a junior, and it was the springtime, so it was starting to get nice in Connecticut again, and I'd be there in the early morning, blasting Unleashed in the East in my room and doing my hair.

AllMusic: Priest also would dig out a few left-field covers, like "The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)" and "Diamonds and Rust." Did their variety of choices help motivate you to take on unlikely songs like "Unbreak My Heart" down the line?

I just went back recently and listened to the Joan Baez version of “Diamonds and Rust.” But no, I don’t know if I really understood how it all worked or what a cover was or whose song it was. I heard the Judas Priest version first, and for a long time that’s all I knew, and then at some point I became aware that there was a Joan Baez version, also. But to me, it was just a Judas Priest song.

AllMusic: Part of early Weezer lore includes secret shows under the name Goat Punishment, where you'd play mostly covers. There's one where you did Nirvana's Bleach that's fairly well-documented, and there was supposedly another one where you played Oasis' Definitely Maybe. Do you remember that?

Yeah, I forgot that we only did the first album, but I think it was just the first album. We also did an all-Nirvana set, we did two of those, which also leaned heavily on their first album. That was a real learning moment for me, because the original intention was just to do an all-Oasis show or all-Nirvana show, not focusing on their early albums, but when we got into rehearsal and started playing through all their songs, we really gravitated towards the first albums, and even though they weren’t necessarily our favorite albums to listen to, they were definitely the most fun to play as a band. Much riff-ier and fun to play as a musician.

AllMusic: Could you pick up a guitar right now and remember how to play "Married With Children"?

I’d have to listen again, but I think it would come back to me pretty quickly.

AllMusic: Did you keep up with Oasis through their career or did you lose track?

The last album I bought and loved was Be Here Now, which for a lot of people, that was where they went wrong, and I actually love it, I have no problem with that album at all. I don’t know what people are talking about. I’m happy to hear that younger people can still appreciate Oasis. Even for my generation, when they came out, there was something very retro about them. Of course, they were huge and everybody loved them, but there was a feeling that there was nothing cutting edge about this, so it’s kind of cool to see that younger people now can still appreciate it and it doesn’t sound dated.

AllMusic Editor Chris Steffen is likewise totally on board with 'Be Here Now'