Rivers Cuomo has Peter Parker syndrome. The diminutive leader of Weezer has great power, but he routinely struggles with the responsibility that comes with it — to himself, to his fans, to this amorphous idea of carrying the torch of rock ‘n’ roll. From the very first notes of the Blue Album, Weezer songs have been some of the most sturdily, meticulously constructed in rock, yet their charm is that they sound like happy accidents. Likewise, Cuomo is as studious and disciplined a musician as there is, yet a lot of us still prefer to think of him as the naïve belter of “Only in Dreams.” Cuomo, himself, frequently waxes nostalgic for those days. (“Memories make [him] want to go back again,” you see). This is Weezer’s great dilemma and, also, what makes them so great: They’re suspended in a state of post-adolescence, uncomfortable in their own skin, and suspiciously expert when it comes to expressing that discomfort.
Everything Will Be Alright in the End revels in all of the above. The band’s been on a kind of walkabout for years, working with the likes of Lil Wayne and Dr. Luke on 2009′s Raditude or releasing the seemingly tossed off Hurley in 2010, a record largely and not inappropriately judged by its cover. For EWBAITE, their ninth studio effort, they’ve reunited with producer Ric Ocasek (of the Cars), who helmed both the Blue and Green albums, and the new songs sound effortless again, like the former’s “Surf Wax America” and the latter’s “Island in the Sun.” Earworm choruses abound, as do a clutch of the band’s signature ’70s hard rock riffs. Cuomo sounds like he’s having fun again, like he’s not trying too hard, which probably means he’s trying harder than ever. Lyrically, Cuomo’s always treated this band like the couch in his shrink’s office, which has led to some trying moments you sometimes feel like he should be paying you to listen to, but here, for the first time in a while, he sounds less petulant, more penitent. Even his jabs at fans are somehow inviting.
Wondering Sound recently caught up with Cuomo to talk about Stephen King, dying in obscurity and the new record.
This record is already being framed as a comeback. Does it feel that way to you?
We were putting out at least an album a year there for several years. And then when we decided to do this album it was very intentional. [We said], “Let’s take a lot of time and make a deep, complex, classic album that the whole Weezer community will love and that we’ll love for the rest of our lives.” I don’t know if “comeback” is the right word, but maybe a departure from what we had been doing.
You could have released the album independently, or self-released it. You guys decided to get back on a major. How did you make that decision?
It’s true. We were out of our deal with Interscope and we considered a number of different options. And, really, the goal was to create this classic album and part of that we felt was getting behind it in as big a way as possible, and that meant getting support from a major label, and their ability to get songs on the radio, and get songs synced up in other ways. We felt like it’s our obligation to the record, to the music, to fight for it as hard as we can.
What do you think about artists’ decisions these days to market music so differently than the traditional options?
Well, at the end of the day, we don’t really care that much about how music is marketed or distributed, promoted or released. What we really care about is the music itself. So many conversations now are about how the music is released. And that’s not really on our radar as something we care about.
The record is divided up between songs about fathers, songs about your fans and songs about girls. Can you talk about how you structured the songwriting that way?
A lot of the larger scale structure that exists on the record wasn’t so much intentional or conscious. Pretty late in the game, we realized that these structures were emerging and we took advantage of that and changed a lyric here or repeated a theme, perhaps sequenced the record in such a way, or developed the artwork or the webisodes to take advantage of the themes that were emerging. Most of the time, when I sit down to start a song, I just have to go in with no preconceptions and just be very instinctual and accept whatever comes. If I force a large scale concept on my day-to-day songwriting, it can get a little bit weighed down and not feel natural anymore.
Does it feel like some of the characterizations in terms of the themes on the record happened after the songs have been written then?
If I had to put a number on it, I’d say maybe when we were two-thirds of the way through we started to listen to it as a whole and developed the themes and the big picture of it. Actually, this reminds me of a book I read when I was in the middle of writing this record. I read this book On Writing by Stephen King.
I love that book.
He has a section in there on themes. And it’s basically what I just said, which is he doesn’t plan things out too much. He just starts at page one and writes to the end and then he goes back and rereads it and, lo and behold, certain themes have emerged in his writing unconsciously, and then he goes back and revises the book accordingly to take advantage of that theme.
There’s a line in “Back to the Shack,” and it’s echoed elsewhere and it goes, “If we die in obscurity/ At least we raised some hell.” Do you worry that Weezer will die in obscurity?
Well, we’re all headed to obscurity. Some [people] at the point of death and some years later, maybe centuries or millennia, but eventually we’ll all be forgotten, utterly. It’s not something I worry about too much. It’s interesting, though, that you pointed out that line because our manager hates it and begged me to change it.
What does he hate about it?
His point is, “Who’s going to want to sing along to that?” You turn to rock music to give you this feeling of power in a powerless situation, to make you feel better, and you want to sing along and feel good and here I am, it’s the climax of the song, saying, Oh, and by the way, we’re all going to die in obscurity. But, hey, that’s me.
I feel like you’re the kind of person who’s torn between the obligations of what traditional rock music is supposed to do and the kind of subjects you want to write about as singer-songwriter.
Yeah. Sometimes I feel torn, but at the end of the process, I’m always grateful for the tradition and the things it needs to say through us artists. And at the end of the day I feel like songs always turn out better when you obey those voices and those instincts from traditions that say, “You know what? You’ve got a really cool idea but this is where we’re going as a civilization and a community of artists. And you need to include some of this and you need to steer a little this way.” There’s always that interplay between what I need to say as an individual and what the tradition and the genre expects.
There’s a line in “I’ve Had It Up To Here” that goes, “I tried to give my best to you/ And you plugged up your ears.” And there’s another line that says, “I don’t wanna be mass consumed/ I’m not a Happy Meal.” When you’re writing that song, do you ask yourself, “Is this going to turn off our fans, to express my true feelings about our relationship?”
I don’t think it actually crossed my mind. The problems that I sing about in “I’ve Had It Up To Here” are, I think, in the minds of folks who are fans. They’re aware that these are the kinds of questions and issues that Weezer has grappled with over the years. Not only is there no point in denying it, it’s a great juicy subject to delve into. And I think most fans are going to be very happy to hear us thinking it through and to hear that we’ve reached the conclusions that we have.
I want to ask about “The British Are Coming.” The sample at the beginning about the Literati and keeping the tradition alive…I’m going to interpret it as a metaphor for keeping rock music going in the face of a changing music industry.
You’re not totally wrong. I would throw in, not just rock music, which one can translate as like, Bill Haley and the Comets or Chuck Berry. The origins of rock music were, you know, not from the intelligentsia. I might modify the tradition of rock to maybe also include like a tradition of thoughtful, intellectual, deep art, as opposed to just very shallow superficial thoughtless fun music.
There’s a part right at the end of “The British Are Coming” where I think you hit one of the highest notes I’ve ever heard in a Weezer song.
Thanks. You might be right. That might be the highest note I’ve ever hit in a Weezer song.
I mean this in the best possible way: It reminds me of “More than a Feeling” by Boston.
That’s awesome. It’s one of those songs that I know is going to have a limited audience. Not a lot of people are going to love it, but the people who do love it are definitely going to appreciate it and I’m definitely one of them.
I saw on Twitter you mentioned you’re a fan of surgeon and author Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto. What’s your regimen as an artist?
After [Gawande and I] were communicating with each other, we started an email correspondence and we’re actually going to meet when Weezer plays the Sinclair in Boston. I’m super excited to meet him. I’ve been reading his stuff since 2004. I just love how he writes and how he thinks. That being said, this is what I told him: I told him to keep our conversation off the record. He has this expression in his book, something like, surgeons have this belief that they need to appear audacious, daring experts, basically who would never need the help of a checklist. And what I told him is that artists are pretty much the same way, maybe even more so, that we have to preserve this illusion of being someone who would never need a checklist. Unfortunately, I can’t share any of my cheat sheet with you.
It’s not a big secret that you’re extremely disciplined, whether it’s meditation, or writing your morning pages.
I definitely have a reputation for studying music, the craft of music and trying to learn and apply what I’ve learned to my own craft, and that’s true, but it’s also true that no amount of book learning or note-taking could help you write a song if you’re not open to your unconscious mind and just letting things flow and accepting these inspirations from who knows where. I’m striving to have a mix of all my faculties. I actually read that in a book by Igor Stravinsky once. He has no interest in any art that’s not created by a man who’s using all his faculties: His intellect, his unconscious, whatever tricks you accumulate along the way. That’s the kind of artist I strive to be.