Weezer's formerly tortured Rivers Cuomo isn't afraid to sing his own praises
To his credit, Rivers Cuomo is perfectly aware that his reputation precedes him. Any lingering doubts about that were cleared up on "Troublemaker" off this past June's Weezer, which is better known to Weezer's devoted disciples as The Red Album. Although stating the obvious, Cuomo came out and said it anyhow when, during a mid-song burst of six-string metal shrapnel, he announced "I'm such a mystery as anyone can see/There isn't anybody else exactly quite like me." No shit.
Right from the point where he became an overnight star in the post-Nirvana alt-rock gold rush, the Weezer front man has been repeatedly painted as one of rock 'n' roll's true eccentrics. Whether it's been stories of a tortured Cuomo spending hours bouncing a tennis ball against a studio wall while attempting to follow up the commercial failure that was 1996's Pinkerton or his swearing off sex for two years after becoming a hard-core devotee of Vipassan? meditation in the middle of this decade, the perception of the bespectacled singer is that he's out there.
But proving that you can't always believe what's been reported, Cuomo is thoroughly likable and entirely charming in a quiet kind of way when he calls the Georgia Straight from a Chicago tour stop. As an interview subject, he couldn't be more accommodating, answering every question thrown at him, even when talk turns to his personal life and his inner demons, which he suggests he has more or less under control these days.
What quickly becomes evident is that Cuomo is monstrously proud of Weezer, the sixth album in the L.A.-based band's career, and-perversely-the third to get the eponymous treatment. What has him most stoked is the album's second track, "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)", in which the famously self-flagellating singer praises his own genius, both lyrically, and, even more impressively, musically.
"On our sixth album, this song suddenly appears, and some other songs too, that just seem so vital and experimental," Cuomo says slowly. "It's like we're not afraid to risk everything and take chances. And we're really pushing ourselves. "It ["The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived"] is five-and-a-half minutes long, there's no discernible chorus, and very little clear repetition. It's just this ever-expanding and developing odyssey, and it feels like a big step forward for us."
"The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived" is, as advertised, a hook-laden freak-out, as Weezer ricochets from DIY hip-pop to ride-the-lightning metal to coke-soaked classic rock, the tipping point into genius territory being the track's two Gregorian-chant breakdowns. Through it all, Cuomo makes a convincing case that he is his biggest fan, celebrating himself like a rock 'n' roll Muhammad Ali with such lines as "Act 2, I hit the big time and bodies be all up on my behind/And I can't help myself because I was born to shine."
Indeed, when Weezer gets around to assembling its inevitable greatest-hits package, "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived" will be right there alongside "Hash Pipe", "Beverley Hills", "Buddy Holly", and a half-dozen of the other smashes that have turned the band into one of the most enduring hit machines from the alternative nation's glory years. And what makes that funny is that, when Cuomo brought the track to his bandmates and producer Rick Rubin, the reaction wasn't exactly an acknowledgment of his greatness.
"The first time I played the demo for everyone it was a disaster," he says with a laugh. "Rick Rubin said he wanted the remote control within the first minute of the song so that he could fast forward to the next song. Some of the other guys were equally perplexed. It looked like the song wasn't even going to make it into the session, but I felt so strongly about it that I insisted. Once the band started playing it and getting it in their fingers, it started to flow a lot better. Now I think even Rick likes it."
Much has been made of the fact that The Red Album not only marks an unexpected return for Weezer-which Cuomo basically declared dead in 2006-but also finds the band, arguably for the first time ever, functioning like a true band. Long-time guitarist Brian Bell wrote and sings on the soft-country acoustic rambler "Thought I Knew", drummer Patrick Wilson steps up to the plate with his self-penned bass-buzzed rocker "Automatic", and bassist Scott Shriner takes the lead on the synth-fortified post-waver "Cold Dark World".
"When people talk to me, they talk about how we seem to be more collaborative in spirit now," Cuomo acknowledges. "Instead of a one-man show and a backup band, it's more like four guys firing on all cylinders. Everyone is creating, and everyone is very engaged."
Still, it's Cuomo who delivers the knockouts on The Red Album, which starts off with the geek-rock wonder "Troublemaker", where he proclaims "I'm going to be a star and people will crane necks to get a glimpse of me." Call it the sound of an icon having fun, something that hasn't always been easy.
A decade ago, Cuomo was in an entirely different headspace. Weezer's sophomore album, Pinkerton-which would eventually be regarded as a touchstone for sensitive emo types and the Ruby Glooms who love them-stiffed upon release, doubly disappointing considering the band's self-titled debut (aka The Blue Album) had gone stratospheric. At the time, the alt-rock boom was going bust, with the Lollapalooza army in retreat and techno kids seizing control of the pop landscape. None of that proved a consolation.
"In '96 and '97 people started to forget about Weezer and about that early to mid-'90s rock revolution," Cuomo says. "I knew that I was right on the edge of falling over into oblivion, and really not being able to make it back."
Making that even more painful was that Cuomo had been there before. On The Red Album's golden-hued MOR tribute "Heart Songs", he rattles off a laundry list of the acts that made him who he is today, giving shout-outs to Gordon Lightfoot, Eddie Rabbit, Cat Stevens, and-perhaps most life-changingly-the band that, in '91, made a record that "Had a baby on it/He was naked on it."
Rather than rewrite history, Cuomo also confesses in "Heart Songs" that he wouldn't be playing music today if it hadn't been for metal acts like Quiet Riot, Judas Priest, and Slayer, all of whom became instantly reviled when Nirvana hit.
"The time of giant insecurity for me was right around the time that Weezer started," Cuomo relates. "I had grown up on heavy metal, and suddenly, around 1991, metal became the least-cool thing you could possibly be into. Here I had cut my teeth on that music, and learned to play guitar to that music, and suddenly I had to do something completely different."
Today, Cuomo acknowledges that he's in a good place, only partly because of what he's accomplished with Weezer, whose The Red Album debuted in the Billboard Top 5, powered largely by the pure power-pop perfection of "Pork and Beans". Finishing an English degree at Harvard, getting married, starting a family, and escaping periodically to his wife's native Japan to spend time with the in-laws have all kept the demons at bay, as have his Vipassan? meditation sessions.
"I'm just kind of more focused now, and I've managed to let go of bogus worries that aren't really relevant or important to me anymore," he says, sounding genuinely content.
And that's a radical change from the years when he had plenty of reasons to wonder whether he was indeed the greatest man who ever lived.
"That's a big question," he responds when asked whether, during the dark times, his self-doubts used to be personal or career-related in nature. "Basically, I worried about everything a guy could worry about."