“Awkward and difficult.” That’s Rivers Cuomo, lead singer of Weezer, telling me about a pair of flippers he recently wore with a wetsuit. Asked if that meant the flippers were autobiographical, he laughs heartily and says, “I guess so.”
I’ve known Rivers for seventeen years. We met in 1994, when I was an editor at Details (an American men’s magazine) and Weezer were enjoying the first flash of success with ‘Undone – The Sweater Song’, an anthem that laid out the band’s template: loud guitars, catchy melodies, and lyrics that seemed inscrutable (“If you want to destroy my sweater”) but on closer inspection, were emotional and revealing. I edited two articles he wrote for the magazine about life on the road. (Sample excerpt: “‘How many emotional outbursts are we allowed?’ asks Pat, our drummer, on the shuttle to another terminal. I give him my estimation: one major irrational outburst per 250,000 records sold. Although this means we haven’t even earned our first outburst yet, Pat says he’s going to go ahead and freak out now.”) I learned that Rivers was sly and quick-witted, but also shy and awkward. Raised on an ashram, he sometimes seemed unfamiliar with the conventions of human interaction. Onstage in those early days, he usually let bassist Matt Sharp do any necessary bantering with the crowd.
Since then, Weezer have released eight more albums and sold ten million records worldwide. I’ve stayed in touch with Rivers by interviewing him periodically (albeit with long breaks, such as the five years he put Weezer on hiatus so he could attend Harvard). Whenever we see each other now, neither of us can believe that we’re still in our respective lines of work – journalism and rock, respectively – let alone talking to each other, again. I haven’t been around for some of his blackest days – like 1998-1999, which he largely spent alone in an apartment with the windows covered, compulsively writing songs – but over the years, I’ve gradually seen him become more comfortable in his own skin.
At 9am on a Monday morning, I meet Rivers at a recording studio on the west side of Los Angeles, California. “Where are Weezer recording today?” he asks the receptionist, who doesn’t recognise him – understandably, since in his specs and chinos, he looks more like an engineer than the lead singer of a band. Before we start our interview, he sends a few emails and complains that he is constantly putting together sentences with words in the wrong order.
While Rivers once oscillated between celibacy and the aggressive pursuit of groupies, he is now married (to Kyoko Ito, a Japanese native who he met at one of his shows in Boston) and has a young daughter; at age forty, his life is happier and more balanced. But he still has lots of unusual thoughts and obsessions bouncing around his skull, as revealed by his Twitter account. Since July 2009, he’s posted over 1,200 tweets, from “Caught my wife looking at nudie pictures of dogs and horses online” to “The reason for my massive, continued success? I have no ego.”
In an indicator of the collapse of the music industry, Cuomo has 542,063 Twitter followers on the day of our interview – a number about five times greater than the sales of Weezer’s 2010 album, Hurley. Although many of his tweets are deliberately cryptic or out-of-context, Cuomo is happy to explain them at lengths greater than 140 characters. (I’ve preserved the original spelling and punctuation of his tweets.) “I’ve been wondering when someone was going to use my tweets for an interview,” he says, settling onto a couch in the studio lounge. But he has one warning before we start: “I don’t know what the point of Twitter is.”
Where did all my weird thoughts go before I had twitter? (8 April 2010)
Every day, a really weird thought comes to my mind and I put it out there – and now I have this long list of weird thoughts. I must have been thinking them all along, but there was never any reason to write them down. I actually go back through my tweets to look for lyric ideas. A fair amount of songs in the last couple years started on Twitter. ‘Smart Girls’ on Hurley was originally called ‘Where Did All These Hot Girls Come From’. That was a tweet. I didn’t give any context for it, but I was talking about girls tweeting at me – where were they when I was single? And a line in ‘Runaway’: “Is it us making love in the Milky Way?” – that comes from a tweet where I asked if the Milky Way made anyone else sad.
Has anyone you’ve ever had sex with died? (8 January 2010)
One of my girlfriends had just died from cancer. This is a girl I was going out with around 1995; she had a daughter just a year older than mine. Death is so strange. It’s just a mystery. I composed another tweet around that time and never posted it because it was too bitter. I have a whole list of tweets that I held back for various reasons. One of the lists is too dark, too negative, too jaded, too cynical, that sort of thing.
Veggie burger technology has come a long way. (6 November 2009)
That’s true. And life in general for vegetarians has gotten a lot better since I was a kid. Growing up vegetarian in upstate Connecticut, it was definitely inconvenient and the options were limited. So I’m happy for my daughter’s sake.
Playing soccer at Robbie Williams’s house! (7 May 2010)
Around the age of thirty-two, I had pretty much hung up my boots and resigned myself to getting fat and dying. But when I was about thirty-eight, I got invited to play in a celebrity soccer match. And I saw that my favourite player, Landon Donovan, was going to be in it too. As out of shape as I was, I had to do it. So I got back into it and from there I started playing in this weekly Sunday match and exercising a lot again and it’s been wonderful for me. It’s mostly British guys that I play with, and Robbie’s associated with them. And sometimes during the week we go up to his house to play. It’s not a full pitch; it’s about five on five. I played soccer with him yesterday – he’s an amazing player.
So excited for World Cup! What’s the best pro-US place to watch on the west side? Who’s got a bitchin’ TV? (7 June 2010)
When it comes to soccer, I’m pure fan. It’s been valuable – learning what it’s like to be a fan again helps me as a performer. I’m thinking of a World Cup game in 2002: the US upset the mighty Portugal 3-2. It was a really surprising and wonderful win for the team. Me and my friends, we were freaking out in the stands, just coming out of our skin. Before the players walked off the field, Frankie Hejduk, who was the right back, took off his shirt and came over to us and went, “Aarrrrrr!” [Screams, grimaces, pumps fists in air] It meant so much to me like, ‘Yes! That’s how I feel! He feels it too!’ Ever since then, I’ve done that with the Weezer crowd whenever I walk offstage.
My soccer trainer had to cancel today so if anyone wants to kick the ball around please meet me at Clover Park at 9:45am. (5 April 2011)
This really interesting guy showed up, named Jesse. Turned out he’s a professional poker player. So he was telling me all about that and we kicked around for a while and then he asked me what my trainer usually did and said he would play that role for me. So I got a good workout.
Most of the times I’ve been successful it’s because I’ve been completely misunderstood. (14 April 2010)
From the very beginning, I thought we were a serious, emotional, powerful band in the tradition of Nirvana. And the first meeting with the record company after turning in the album, they said, ‘Well, you do understand that people are going to think you’re funny, right? They’re going to think this is a silly, jokey type of band – because that’s what you are.’ And I was deeply insulted and shocked.
But then that was what the reaction was. No one took us to be the next Nirvana. If I had set out to do a fun band, I don’t think it would be what it was. When I try to be really serious, other people think it’s funny and somehow that works. On Pinkerton, I tried to make sure nobody would think it was funny. And it didn’t seem to resonate – as immediately, anyway, or on as big a scale.
The Memories Tour last year was a real revelation to me. Playing the Pinkerton songs on the second night and seeing every person out of five thousand people singing every single word – it was so gratifying and vindicating. The only time I imagined that kind of response was before Pinkerton came out and then I got a cold dose of reality when it came out. At that point I couldn’t have imagined that this would happen. But it’s incredible: such a feeling of family with these fans, and chills all over my body.
Rivers blinks, genuinely moved by the memories. We talk about his third solo album, due this year: like the first two, it’s a collection of his demos, this time centered on 1995’s Pinkerton (and the abandoned rock opera that preceded it, Songs from the Black Hole). He tells me that Alone III: The Pinkerton Years will be accompanied by a book called The Pinkerton Diaries, which will include various original documents by Rivers, including the two articles he wrote for Details. He’s delayed its release because the band’s former manager, Pat Magnarella, found some original documents that Rivers wants to include, including a letter Rivers wrote to a federal court in 1996 when the Pinkerton detective agency sued to stop the album’s release; Rivers explained that the name came from the opera Madame Butterfly. I tell him that I’d be happy to check my files to see if I have any documents from him that he may want to include. “If it’s not too much trouble,” he says skeptically. “I just don’t think that I would have faxed you directly.”
Weezer is the cockroach of the music world. (12 October 2009)
There’s one music-industry apocalypse after another and it doesn’t feel like it affects us. We’re loathsome vermin crawling around underneath all the rubble. We’ll be here forever.
How can I make myself more attractive to young, Hispanic females? (16 November 2009)
Weezer was trying to figure out how to branch out into different formats and reach different audiences, so I went to Kiss-FM, which is the top-40 station in LA. Even in 2005, when ‘Beverly Hills’ was doing really well, it never got added to that station, so I went and talked to those people. They’re really cool, and fans of all kinds of music. And they explained to me, ‘Look, the people who listen to top-40 radio here are young, Hispanic females.’ I noticed a part of my mind was thinking, ‘Is there anything we can do to change that?’ And I was just amused – whenever I catch myself thinking something that’s absurd, I tweet it.
If I say I have a “scientific” approach to songwriting, people get bummed. If I say I have an “experimental” approach to songwriting people get excited. Yet, in my mind, the two words mean exactly the same thing. (24 October 2009)
I love working in an experimental way where you’re trying things out and you’re not attached to the result, but just trying to see what happens, hopefully making some kind of gradual progress. That mode of working is distasteful to some rock fans. You realise that there’s some stuff you just can’t talk about with your audience because they have their own ideas about what an artist is. So I’ve had to learn to choose my words carefully.
I don’t pretend to understand our audience at all. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people; it’s so hard to generalise. Our top ten songs on iTunes are totally different than what you’d see the top ten songs voted on our website. If we’re playing a state fair in Ohio, that’s going to be different from doing an in-store for super-hardcore fans, and that’s going to be different from playing the Reading Festival in the UK, where ‘The Blue Album’ wasn’t that successful. I just try to adapt to each situation and create the most pandemonium.
Sang “west side story” at this morning’s lesson…now munching microwave pizza, sipping green tea, writing hooks…..a good day in the hood. (2 April 2009)
[Smiles] Boy, that does sound good. I love my voice lessons so much. From eighth grade on, I was all about the music department in school. I was there several hours every day: barbershop quartet, madrigal singers, jazz band, chorus, voice lessons, music theory, and then I was in the regional choir and all-state choir. I have so many memories from high school, just sitting by my teacher at the piano as we’re singing mostly Broadway stuff or classical art songs.
So I’ve been working with this voice coach. We try to work on technique, but very quickly it just turns into singing Oklahoma! and West Side Story. I just put up a video of me singing ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ on my YouTube channel. I’ve always delighted in challenging our audience with styles from elsewhere.
We hear drums and guitars leaking through the wall: in the studio next door, the other members of Weezer are working on a one-off new-wave cover, that may appear on a major animated film later this year. This session doesn’t mark the beginning of an album: Rivers has completed lots of demos, but is unlikely to turn them into an album this year. “We’re confused and unsure, as happens to artists,” Rivers says. “We put out a lot of material recently – it may just be time for us to incubate.” Rivers flashes a smile and leans back on the couch.
And now for 45 days of Vipassana meditation. (27 January 2010)
You wake up in the morning and start meditating. You basically meditate until the evening and then you go to sleep. There’s no talking, there’s no reading or writing. They start out with ten-day courses, but I went to twenty or thirty, and now forty-five days once a year. That’s as much as my family can tolerate and that’s as much as I’m capable of doing at this point.
You’re totally pampered when you’re there. They cook and clean for you. When I say ‘they’ I mean the people who have volunteered to serve for that course. And sometimes I’ve done that – that’s very rewarding, to watch people go into the deepest, darkest parts of their mind and really struggle. And then they come out with big smiles on their faces.
Nighttimes reading Sherlock Holmes or knitting by my wife in bed couldn’t be cozier. (22 October 2009)
I got into Sherlock Holmes because my wife’s really into murder mysteries, so I wanted for us to have something in common. I really am a homebody. I like having a wife and a kid and coming home every day for dinner and doing home-ec tasks. Before my spring meditation course of 2010, I was knitting and doing clay sculptures and whittling – and since that course, I haven’t touched any of that stuff. When I came out of that course, my capacity for work was greatly increased and I found that I no longer had any free time because I was working.
I didn’t have any special talent at whittling or knitting, but I did really enjoy the process. Now with clay, I do have an unusual knack for making heads. Because I have an almost-four-year-old daughter who’s always working with Play-Doh, I’m always making human heads. They’re creepy, like a dried human head that would be in a tribe of cannibals.
I would never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever cheat on my wife. Not in a million billion years. (8 October 2009)
I had been posting or tweeting things that were kind of flirtatious or seemed to express sexual attraction for people online. It would be a very unusual man that doesn’t have those fleeting, random sensations of attraction, even when he’s married. Most guys don’t express it in a public forum like that, but as an artist I wanted to experiment with it. But then I realised I had better make it clear that I’m just saying these things for fun.
I felt terrible leaving my daughter in the park with her aunt, wearing my track suit and sunglasses, talking on my blackberry, walking away she screamed and pleaded “Daddy! Daddy!”. I was sure that all the other fathers were thinking “What an awful parent he is.” But I had an Australian phoner to do. (8 October 2009)
I’ve gotten good at avoiding those kinds of situations but there are times when I think I am doing the best thing at the moment but it looks bad. I’m finding out that most parents do understand because they’ve all been there themselves.
I thought I was creative until I had to make up a story for my 3 year old every night. (30 June 2010)
’Make up a story, make up a story!’ – I run out of ideas. Now I ask her for prompts and collaboration – that helps a lot. She’s really into these //Jack and Annie// books, so I usually work with those characters now. Recently, she has a sadistic bent and she’s taking over the story a bit more: ‘No, Jack is sick and his parents aren’t coming to help him.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, but then Grandma comes and she saves him.’ She’ll say, ‘No.’ She doesn’t want it to have a happy ending.
So glad 2 have been in Japan in these first weeks after the earthquake. Much love 2 the Japanese people + 2 my Japanese friends fans + family. (28 March 2011)
The earthquake didn’t affect my family on a physical level in any way. We got there a day or two after it happened, and we were 650 miles from the reactor in Fukushima. I could sense that my wife was shaken up, but it was very hard to get a read on everybody because they’re all Japanese and they’re so stoic. And because I don’t understand Japanese very well I didn’t know what they were talking about all the time, especially when they’re talking about nuclear reactors. I don’t know that vocabulary. But I could tell that they were stressed and sad. I was glad I could be there for my wife and her parents.
I was surprised to see how much the Japanese fans were reaching out to me and how they were asking for help and encouragement in very emotional, almost desperate terms. I also have a Japanese twitter account – my first motivation was just to practise my Japanese, but I got to know the fans there better that way. I would offer just a few words of encouragement – it didn’t feel like I was doing anything, but it seems like it meant a lot to them.
Bicycles must have blown people’s minds when they were first invented. (25 March 2011)
I was appreciating the technology of the bicycle: I can get from place to place so fast with these crazy wheels and chains and pedals. People just must have freaked out when they first got on them. I can’t drive in Japan, and neither can my wife. We ride bicycles everywhere. There’s no hot-rod culture there, though. In America, if teenage boys were all riding bicycles, they’d want to have the coolest or the fastest one. Everyone in Japan, whether you’re a little girl or a teenage boy or an old lady, they all ride the same three-speed bicycle with the basket on the front and a little bell and a little headlight. And they all bicycle around, so civilised. So I’m riding around on one of these bicycles and still I have the instinct of an American boy, which is to try to jump the curb or go really fast, just generally be a jerk.
I will survive because I only show a facsimile of a mimeo of a xerox of a composite sketch of myself. (13 October 2009)
Uh, I’m not sure what that means.
Rivers laughs, maybe because it’s funny not to understand your own thoughts, or maybe because a comment about maintaining one’s privacy shouldn’t be explicated, and his body unstiffens. We’ve been talking for well over our allotted hour, and we can hear the rest of Weezer labour on ‘You Might Think’. I apologise to Rivers for keeping him from the studio, and he shrugs. “Sounds like they’re doing fine without me,” he says, and slips out the door.
Later that day, I look through my files and find a handwritten fax Rivers sent me back in 1994, from a budget hotel in Portland, Oregon, answering a final round of my editorial queries. It begins, “The shit you requested” and ends, “Feel free to fax or call me to see if we can drag this thing out any more. Love, Rivers.” And there’s a final flourish: a smiley face.