Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo: “I Have The Negative Thoughts I Had When I Started”
Rivers Cuomo is thinking about artificial intelligence and death. A lot of the Weezer frontman’s time is currently spent writing code for computer programs, one of which runs every day without him having to do anything to maintain it.
“Every morning it sends an email to my wife,” he begins. “It includes a picture of us, something nice about her picked at random from my journals, my schedule for the day and an explanation of where my head is at. If my plane crashes, it’ll keep going until somebody stops it.”
Other than that sounding like the most Rivers Cuomo combination of romance and nerdiness imaginable – of course he relaxes by programming, and of course he does so to send love letters – it ties in with another thought he has had recently. Rivers has an archive of 1,400 or so demos, some dating back to the early ’90s, that he thinks, after he “keels over”, could find a life of their own.
“Maybe there’ll be a way of using artificial intelligence to synthesise all these ideas into Weezer songs,” he says. “In a way, similar to what I’d do if it were the non-artificial me.”
He’s been reading about developments in AI a lot recently. With everything he’s learned about it he firmly believes that within 10 to 12 years artificial intelligence will be as good as, if not vastly better than, human beings at everything – including art and songwriting.
“It’s probably not going to affect my life that much,” he concedes, “but I have kids – what kind of world will they be living in in 50 years?”
Not that any of that is putting him off programming – something he finds deeply satisfying and suspects his mind aligns with even more than music.
“There’s way less emotional angst involved in writing a computer program,” he argues. “I don’t have thoughts with programming like, ‘Is this any good? Am I any good? Am I a faker?’
“All those things happen when you try to start writing songs,” he continues. “When you’re programming something, it’s complicated, so you have to keep working until it works, and eventually it does. And it’s easy for everyone to see that it works and is doing what it’s supposed to do. With a song it’s all completely subjective. You can point to a chart position, or radio play, or Spotify plays, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great song or satisfies you as a creator. Or you might feel great about it, but find that the data doesn’t come in to support your feeling. And then, who’s right?”
It’s odd to think of Rivers worrying about being considered a faker. At this point he is thousands of shows and hundreds of songs deep into a celebrated, three-decade career. Weezer fill arenas around the world and can boast an enormous, hardcore fan base who consider them bona-fide rock icons.
The band – completed by guitarist Brian Bell, bassist Scott Shriner and drummer Patrick Wilson, a line-up that has remained stable since 2001 – has gone through some unusual phases. They’ve sold Snuggies sleeved blankets, made some very questionable styling choices, experimented with both rap and barbershop-quartet-style a cappella, and are currently going through something of a meme-obsessed period, where everything seems tinged with an unquantifiable layer of irony. Every time they do something strange, it’s impossible to tell if they are being weird for the sake of being weird, or if they are just plain weird. And does it even matter?
Nonetheless, the last decade or so has seen a huge increase in output, making a five-year wait between projects, as happened between 1996 album Pinkerton and the 2001 release of the self-titled ‘Green Album’, seem unthinkable now. While that break was largely fuelled by the commercial and critical failure of the former – opinions of which, as time has gone on, have been revised and revised again, leading to its current status as a recognised classic – Weezer’s occasional missteps don’t seem to do anything to stop their output anymore.
It seems that creative doubts are all still present for their mercurial leader, but now they’re coupled with a workmanlike attitude to getting the job done and getting his ideas out there.
“I still have all the same negative thoughts I had when I was just getting started, but I try to get on with what I’m doing,” he reasons. “I’m like a carpenter or a cabinet maker, just working away in my workshop, as unbothered by my thoughts as I can be.”
Weezer have released two self-titled albums this year alone – January’s all-covers ‘Teal Album’ (of the relatively deep-cut colour choice following previous ‘Blue’, ‘Green’, ‘Red’ and ‘White’ albums, Rivers says he associated it with “everything good and bad about the ’80s”), and March’s ‘Black Album’. The latter was supposed to come out straight after 2016’s summery ‘White Album’, but was “overtaken” by 2017’s Pacific Daydream, and then the viral success of a cover of Toto’s Africa – done at the behest of a Twitter campaign and topping the iTunes chart within 24 hours – meant the covers project took precedence.
Rivers also insists that it isn’t out of the question 2019 could end up being a four-album year. According to him, the band’s next two records are at various stages of completion, although they are at very different ends of the musical spectrum: one referencing Radiohead, the other Van Halen.
“OK Human [a title playing on Radiohead’s 1997 classic OK Computer] is very beautiful and melodic and eclectic, inspired by an album from 1970 called Nilsson Sings Newman, which is all piano songs with lots of orchestration. It’s an angsty meditation – if there is such a thing – on where the world is going, and what place humanity will have left as artificial intelligence takes over more and more of what we’re doing. It’s all my reflections on that, and it’s not super fun! But, just as we were finishing up the strings at Abbey Road, we had offers for tours with some more rock-type bands and thought, ‘Let’s make an album that would really kick ass in that setting, in these stadiums.’ We just started that one – it’s called Van Weezer.”
One of the things that has always made Weezer such a compelling band, and Rivers such a fascinating individual, is the amount of artistic conflict and juxtapositions that shouldn’t make any sense. The lightning bolt strap and Van Halen-homaging logo coupled with heartbreaking melancholy; hip-hop bravado and lyrical boasts about partying on songs appearing in the same set lists as ones referencing Puccini operas. A piano-led album and a shredding-based one somehow make exactly the same amount of sense as Weezer’s next releases.
Yet where is the real Rivers Cuomo in all of this? Somewhere in the middle, he claims, and while he still dreams of one day making the ultimate Weezer record – one that encompasses everything they are and love – it’s a dream he’s happy to put on the back-burner for now.
“It’s hard to get everything we are and everything we need to say on to one album,” he says. “We came close with the ‘Blue Album’, but at the same time there’s so much on Pinkerton that is also essential Weezer. But once you let go of the dream of capturing 100 per cent of your essence, you can fully commit to really getting 50 per cent of yourself in a unique way, untroubled by other aesthetics. We can make a kick-ass Van Weezer album if we’re not too worried about trying to express our pop-dance side, and vice versa.”
All sides should be out in force when Weezer return to the UK to play London’s Brixton Academy on June 29. Fresh from a co-headlining tour with Pixies in the U.S., the band are still busy figuring out their set list, with audience responses to newer material being taken into account.
“The show is for the fans in the room on that particular night,” Rivers insists. “We usually take our best guess at the first show [of the tour], and throw three or four ‘Teal Album’ songs in, and a few ‘Black Album’ songs, and see what people are responding to and adjust accordingly.”
They have several generations of fans to please, from those for whom 2008 single Pork And Beans is considered old-school, to newly-minted aficionados brought in by the semi-ironic ‘Teal Album’ covers, to hard-worn Weezer veterans with decades of support under their belts.
When Rivers Cuomo was in high school, an exercise in his senior psychology class involved students planning out their prospective futures.
“I said, ‘I’ll be a rock star until I’m 30, then I’ll be a classical composer until I’m 40, then I’ll write novels until I’m 50, and then I’m done,’” was how the Weezer frontman remembers his projected future life at the time. He is now 48 years old and very much still a rock star, something he seems comfortable enough with, if not necessarily excited about.
“Here I am, still doing three-minute pop-rock songs in a band!” he shrugs. “I guess this is just what I do. I guess I’m kind of a limited animal.”
There is one thing he is excited about, though. In the lead-up to the Brixton show, Weezer are taking advantage of being in Britain in a way that doesn’t necessarily scream ‘rock band on tour’. Not for Weezer such Mötley Crüe-esque misadventures involving illicit substances and debauched mayhem. No, they’re relaxing by taking in the finest Gloucestershire has to offer, with a trip to the UK’s largest Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
“We’re planning to spend a week in the Cotswolds before the tour,” Rivers reveals. “I’m really excited. We’ve always dreamed about it. My wife is Japanese, and the Japanese have this insane fixation with the Cotswolds. They totally romanticise it. I think it’s great too, and I’m a huge Shakespeare fan, so we’ll take a day trip up to Stratford-Upon-Avon, and of course I want to see Stonehenge, too. We’re pretty bucolic people.”
To back up his Shakespearean credentials – which, given his degree in English from Harvard, are hardly in doubt – Rivers quotes a line from Twelfth Night that he can’t get out of his head: ‘You are now sailed into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard’. “Why a Dutchman?” he muses. “Did the Netherlands seem a lot further away in the 1600s?”
Quoting Shakespeare and questioning potential artificial immortality? All in a day’s work for Rivers Cuomo, apparently – comfortably still rock’s most unusual frontman. Whatever the response to his next projects, and whatever questions posed by the nagging self-doubt that remains inside him, he’ll keep on going.
“It’s fun playing with the guys,” he says. “We’ll continue to experiment and make records that some people think are good and some people might think are bad. Some will be successful and some won’t, and it doesn’t really matter. We’re just going to keep going on being Weezer.”
How comforting and reassuring. And no Weezer fan from any era of the band would have it any other way.
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