Web Exclusive: A conversation with Rivers Cuomo

Posted by Scott Heisel on 30-Oct-07 @ 07:05 PM

As the bespectacled frontman of alt-rock heavyweights Weezer, Rivers Cuomo has made a career out of being both devastatingly honest and incredibly obtuse. This is why it was no surprise when Cuomo quietly revealed on his blog that he would be releasing a compilation this December of solo home recordings, with scant details to be found afterward. Shortly after news on the release broke, we had the distinct pleasure of talking with Cuomo about the album's contents, just what happened with Songs From The Black Hole and most importantly, how to properly balance being a rabid soccer fan and embarking on 30-day meditation retreats.

INTERVIEW: Scott Heisel

Hi, Rivers, how are you doing?
Good; how are you?

I'm doing okay. Where are you today right now?
Los Angeles.

How's the weather out there?
It's kind of overcast. And cold.

[Laughs.] It's about time for that I guess. It's been about 80 degrees everywhere it seems; it's nice it's cooling down. So, you're putting out a solo album in December of all demos...
Yeah, for some reason the phrase solo album doesn't feel right. It's just a collection of demos.

Will it have your name on it? Or will it have the Weezer name on it?
Yeah, I guess it will have my name on it--it's called Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo.

How long has this been in the works?
Well, the earliest recording on there is from the beginning of 1992 and the last one is 2007. So it's 15 years. 15 years in the making.

Is it recently you decided to put this together? Or how long as the actual project been in the works?
Well, I think I really started pushing a few months ago, but in talking to the A&R guy at the record company, he reminded me that 10 years ago I brought this up to him and at the time he discouraged me from doing it 'cause he didn't want to dilute the Weezer name by putting out sub-par material. But now I just pushed a little harder and started showing people some of the stuff and I got enough support to do it.

A lot of people are already wondering what is going to end up on the compilation. So do you have a final track listing yet?
Yeah, it may change a little bit in the next 24 hours but I think it's complete and I think there's going to be a real press release sometime; maybe it would [change at the last minute], but, I pretty much know what is going to be on there.

Would people be likely to expect the more softer songs, for example "Walt Disney" or "Longtime Sunshine," or do you think it's going to be more harder songs like "I Swear It's True"? Where would you say like the songs fall in the scheme of things?
It's kinda all over the place. There's some soft, some hard, some acoustic, some full-rock, but because it's me play all the instruments for the most part it does not have the huge arena-rock sound that Weezer gets with, you know, Pat Wilson on the drums. So it sounds on the small side and intimate--even when I'm playing big rock songs.

Is that something that you wanted to go for? The intimacy vibe?
Well, I mean I can't really help it. It's how it sounds when I make demos on my own. And yeah, that's something I really value about it. It definitely sounds very private and personal and intimate and like it wasn't really meant to be heard, which is something I really like about it, but at the same time that's probably something that will limit its audience.

The majority of these songs are probably unreleased to a mass audience, so is that something that you had to come to grips with, that people will be hearing these intimate songs?
No I didn't have any hesitation about that. Well... [Sighs.] Yeah, I mean it's... There's a lot of mistakes on there--you know, botched lyrics, out-of-tune vocals--and at the same time, it's pretty much my name that's on there so that it's my name that's on the line. So I-- it has taken me a long time to finally get-- I guess, get up the courage to push to get this out.

Longtime Weezer fans are wondering if there's any Songs From The Black Hole tracks on it. Are there?
Yes, there are. At this moment, I have "Blast Off," "Who You Calling Bitch," "Dude We're Finally Landing" and "Superfriend."

That record's been talked about for over a decade at this point, so what was the decision to release those tracks now as opposed to in the past or not releasing the whole thing?
Well, you might--when you hear it you'll probably... [Laughs.] I think the whole Black Hole thing has gotten blown way out of proportion in people's minds. It's really like--it's just, like, a third of an album that was sketched out and most of the songs on it weren't really written specifically for The Black Hole; they were written before I conceived of The Black Hole and then I reshaped them a little bit for The Black Hole and then after I abandoned that idea, I unshaped them and put them on Pinkerton, so besides that, there are a handful or two of scraps of mostly interstitial pieces that aren't really songs, and then there may be just a couple of full songs that were written for The Black Hole. So it's really not that big of a deal. I mean, it's really cool for what it is, and yeah, I wanted to put it up for a long time but it was difficult--I really had to put up a fight to get some support within the record company, and it's not what I'm used to doing. I'm used to having a band and there's all this enthusiasm and energy coming from the group that helps push my creations along, and there's not much of that helping me this time.

Do you understand why people are so obsessed with that lost album, or just with your songs in general? Do you understand why your fanbase has become so rabid over the past decade?
Well, I think they react to the songs the same way I do when I listen to this collection of demos. I love listening to my demo tapes all the time anyway, I always have and I just love them they're so touching and emotionally stirring and intimate, and I guess there are other people out there that react to them the same way. It's not a giant following, but there's a sizable number of people out that that feel the same way that I do.

Do you ever feel like you're-maybe not toying with them, but almost kind of teasing them? I know for awhile you were posting sheet music to certain songs on your blog, and it'd only be there for a day or maybe less than that and you'd take it down. Do you ever feel like it was a little game you were playing with people?
[Big sigh.] Hmm... I... [Sighs.] It's fun to... [Laughs] tease and play games and stuff, but underneath that, I think I genuinely was trying to be helpful and share what I could. I couldn't just post MP3s up anymore. And it was a fun experiment to see, like, "Oh, let's try sheet music and see what people are going to come up with," and they did a great job.

So you listened to some of the things people created?
Yeah, and I suspect in some cases people will prefer their versions to mine. [Laughs.]

So are you still keeping up your song spreadsheet?
No, not so much. Well, for one thing I write way fewer songs and there's just not as much need to keep track of them. I'm not viewing them as experiments so much anymore.

What would you say you left off at? What number?
Well, it... uh, I don't really know. I think the whole numbering thing is misleading because sometimes I would come up with a riff and then that would get a number and it's not really a song, it's just a riff. And so then it'd get up into the several hundreds of these little song experiments but it gives people the impression that I have all these finished songs that aren't there.

You've been married for about 18 months; how has that changed the way you write songs?
I'll just say in general I just feel way more settled and happy and secure, and I don't feel like I have to go out anymore so I can just hang around and write when I want to write and write whatever I want to write without any fear. Yeah, I just feel secure.

Have you ever thought about having children?
[Coyly.] I think I want to save that one.

This release was initially announced with a multimedia project earlier this year including a book--
I didn't mean to announce it, either; it was only because some stories were running about me publishing some memoirs and I wanted to straighten that out. I wasn't working on memoirs, I was working on this multimedia thing.

Could you explain a little bit about what the book side of this is going to entail then?
I'm still in the process of figuring out what it is, but it's looking like an extremely detailed account of everything that happened to me from 1992 to May 10, 1994. That may change--this whole thing has been very complicated and it's evolving a lot, but that's what it looks like right now.

So it's from Weezer's formation till the release of the Blue Album?
Right, it's including photos and journal entries and poems and just an incredible amount of detail.

What made you want to put this project together? I just... I like creating stuff--I like writing songs and telling stories and sharing it with the world and getting it out there, and this is just another way to do that.

I know that you are going on a retreat later this year, is that right?
I'm going on a retreat on Wednesday.

What's the process like for something like that? What do you exactly go through on these retreats?
It's extremely simple. You go there and you meditate and then you leave. [Laughs.] It's a one step process.

How long are you going to be out there?
30 days.

Do you have any contact with the outside world while you're there?
No.

What's your mindset like when you come back from one of these retreats? How do you feel? Well, I just generally feel a little better than before I went in--a little calmer. And because I feel better, I tend to make slightly better decisions and treat people a little better and the whole this is cumulative. So I feel like over the past few years, things are getting better for me.

I'm curious, though, at the timing of this, because I know that the MLS playoffs start in about a week and I know that you are a huge soccer fan. Was it coincidental that you are leaving while it's the playoffs?
They only have these long [retreats] every so often, so I have to go when they come up. I've been wondering how to handle this, and I figure I'm going to have someone just record [all the playoff games] for me and then send them to me [when I return], before I look at any news reports, I'll just watch the games. I'm really interested in following the [Los Angeles] Galaxy right now because they've done an amazing job at coming back, and it'd just be incredible if they could get into the playoffs and David Beckham will be healed in time and it could be a really cool story.

Have you gone to the games in Los Angeles this season?
I haven't gone to any Galaxy games, but I've gone to national team games at the Galaxy stadium. I became friends with Alexi Lalas--he's the president of the team--I was trying to get my little brother on to the Galaxy; he's a soccer player.

Looking back at this collection for a second, what would you say is your favorite song on the collection, that you can't wait for it to get out?
Whoa, that's a tough one. That's really difficult to say...

Well, how about your second favorite?
([Laughs.] I'm gonna... [Sighs.] I'm gonna go with "Wanda." "Wanda"'s my favorite, I think. There's just something so, so emotional and it sneaks up on you--it's just this soft, little, humble song, but man, those melodies just stab at my heart.

Are there any other that in your mind match that kind of same feeling on the record?
Well, see, another thing about a lot of these songs is that they didn't get picked for whatever reason--they feel like neglected songs a lot of them, so that makes me love them even more. Certainly "Wanda," and "Lover In The Snow" is another one that's extremely emotional, but no one picked it. "Crazy One"; "I Was Made For You."

You're saying that no one picked them meaning were they meant to be Weezer songs and just didn't make it through the demo process or...
I don't know if I write so much thinking, "This should end up on a Weezer record or not." I'm just--somewhere in the process of making a Weezer record, somebody listened to these songs and said, "No." And it might have been me. [Laughs.]

Are you at all worried or nervous to let the rest of your bandmates hear this?
Well, they've heard most of the stuff before.

Is there anything on the record that no one besides you has heard?
Umm, I don't think so. I've been tending to play my demo tapes for anyone who would listen. [Laughs.]

Well, I think there's a lot of people out there who would like to hear them; you've got a fair share. I have one more question for you before I let you go: What are you currently listening to right now?
I've just been in Weezer world--we've been working many hours a day on our new songs, so mostly that, but I have a playlist of stuff I've been listening to in iTunes, it's called--let's see here...I've been mixing in some alternative rock with my Top 40 stuff--well, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Rhianna, Maroon 5, Modest Mouse, Lil Mama, Kanye West, a Cream Album, Alan Jackson--country.

Have you heard about the new Radiohead record?
I've just seen fan reports online, and they all seem all very enthusiastic and happy.

Is that a band that you are interested in checking out?
I don't think I'd download the whole album, but if I hear a song on the radio or something and it sounds cool, I'll certainly download it. alt