Cuomo makes peace with past while keeping Weezer prolific
By THOMAS CONNER Pop Music Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org January 5, 2011 5:06PM
Rivers Cuomo and Weezer bring their Memories Tour to Chicago for a pair of sold-out shows, one featuring music from “The Blue Album” and the other with “Pinkerton” in its entirety.
♦ 7:30 p.m. Jan. 7 and 8
♦ Aragon, 1106 W. Lawrence
♦ Sold out
Updated: April 19, 2011 5:31AM
Weezer broke in 1994 by injecting melody and (thank God) a sense of humor into the dour grunge that had taken over rock ’n’ roll three years earlier. But charming as the songs (“Undone — The Sweater Song”) and videos (“Buddy Holly”) were, there was nothing about that self-titled debut, known as “The Blue Album,” that insisted this band had legs, that it would survive the millennium. The follow-up, 1996’s “Pinkerton,” was a radical turn from sunny, cheeky pop-rock into assaulting metal and naked mental anguish. It didn’t connect — at least not immediately — and Weezer disappeared for nearly five years. Singer Rivers Cuomo went into seclusion, leaving behind rumors about his mental state, and bassist Matt Sharp simply walked away.
During the absence, however, the art and bravery of “Pinkerton” began to sink in, and the tunes from the debut stayed on radio, refusing to grow stale. By the time Weezer regrouped and returned in 2001 with another self-titled, full-length, this one unofficially dubbed “The Green Album,” they still had an audience. And this time they would try hard, very hard, not to forsake them again. Weezer plowed ahead, churning out album after album — half a dozen since — of tightly rocking, sometimes clever, occasionally stupid music. But they haven’t taken another creative risk like “Pinkerton.”
Now the band finds itself closing in on two decades and seems to have discovered, after so many years charging forward, that it has a past. In November, two months after releasing a new album, “Hurley,” — featuring the lead single “Memories,” a song all about pining for the band’s early days and wanting to “go back there again” — Weezer delivered two more CDs: “Death to False Metal,” a compilation of cleaned-up castoffs, as well as a deluxe reissue of “Pinkerton,” featuring more than two dozen demos for the album, outtakes, live tracks — a carefully curated validation of the album’s evolved reputation. Also coming: a book, The Pinkerton Diaries, a ream of Cuomo’s journal entries, letters, e-mails and lyrics from ’94 to ’97.
So the Memories Tour — concerts in five cities on either side of the holidays in which the band plays the entirety of “The Blue Album” one night, “Pinkerton” the next — is simply soggy with nostalgia.
“It does feel like, as we get older, we have this growing canon of material, that it’s just part of our lives and it’s part of our shows and there’s no getting away from it,” Cuomo told the Sun-Times during a nationwide teleconference in October. “Naturally, we find that we spend more of our time and energy doing retrospective projects, and luckily I’m a very open-minded artist and I like to go with the flow and really go with what our audience wants to hear. … We find ourselves in this more retrospective mode now. And right now we are going back and relearning the songs and rehearsing them and, yes, being reminded of ways of singing and playing and writing that we’ve strayed away from. I’m thinking that the song ‘Falling for You’ [from ‘Pinkerton’], which we played the other day and it sounded so great to me, and the melody is in the very low part of my range. The chords are very plodding and the structure is very — I don’t know if sophisticated is the right word, but complex, and there’s a lot of development. And those are all things I’ve consciously avoided in recent years as a composer and singer. It’s nice to be reminded. Like, ‘Holy cow! All those things can sound great to me.’”
Critics and fans may have winced at the arrival of “Pinkerton,” but not everyone loved Weezer’s debut. Cuomo, in particular, zeroed in on the bad press about “The Blue Album” and says that’s what made him invert his songwriting formula for “Pinkerton.”
“I was frustrated with the reception that our first album received. You know, what I was hearing was that people thought we were kind of jokey and shallow and a corporate version of the Pixies,” Cuomo said. “I wanted to be taken more seriously, so I wrote the second album, ‘Pinkerton,’ very carefully — trying to avoid anything that would have made it seem like a novelty act, which is what I assumed was happening on the first record. So then we put out ‘Pinkerton,’ and it seemed like what I was hearing at that point was, ‘What happened to our fun band? They’re catchy and poppy and fun and energetic, and now they’re like this bizarre, grotesque, obscene, noisy, not-pop album.’ At the same time, it was such a personal record for me. I felt like I was saying, ‘OK, world! Here’s the truth. Here’s what I’m really like.’
“I guess part of me assumed that it was going to be very successful and I’d become like this superstar, because the record was so focused on me. And I probably entertained some doubts — maybe it will totally fail and sell half as much as ‘The Blue Album’ or something. It came out and sold a tenth of ‘The Blue Album’ … the critics pretty uniformly hated it, and [at the time] it was just the beginning of online feedback, too. So you could go on Amazon and see all the negative feedback from the fans of the first record. Boy, that was just crushing for me — all of that together, it took a while to build up the confidence to even step back in the spotlight again.”
Now, with nothing but confidence, Cuomo can not only look back on Weezer’s history and showcase it, he can polish or even revise it. “Death to False Metal” isn’t just a rarities collection. Cuomo and the current Weezer lineup touched up the old songs, finished the unfinished ones, tucked and tweaked until it resembled a proper record on its own.
“Making ‘Pinkerton Deluxe,’ first of all — all of it was simply looking through old material and picking what sounds good, and there’s really nothing much you can technically do to it,” Cuomo said.
“With ‘Death to False Metal,’ none of those songs had been heard before. It’s not a standard rarities collection, in that these songs were not actually B-sides or released anywhere. They’re just songs that we had started recording at one point, but for one reason or another couldn’t finish up, or we finished them but they just didn’t belong on a record. So in a sense, it was extremely fun and easy because there’s all this material that I love, and it felt like the bulk of the work was already done. I get to go in now, in some cases, years after having started the songs and with a totally fresh perspective and tons of energy. It’s so easy to figure out — oh, obviously there’s supposed to be a solo here, so I’ll just edit that in. Or that lyric was all wrong. Let me fix that. Or let me put a harmony here, and it very quickly came together and it was quite a lot of fun.”
The recent flurry of activity and releases, Cuomo said, is chiefly an attempt to satisfy the hunger of fans. Since 2007, there have been five Weezer releases (“The Red Album,” “Raditude,” “Hurley,” “Pinkerton: Deluxe,” “Death to False Metal”) plus three separate CD collections of Cuomo’s demos (“Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo”).
“Part of that is because a lot of this material is retrospective, so it’s pretty much there, and if our audience wants it, let’s give it to them. … Our fans, as far as we can tell, are never satisfied. They always want more music, and as far as we can tell from seeing what we read on our message board and the comments around online, they’re listening to it deeply and listening to it a lot, and they understand it and they’re satisfied by it for a moment. And then they want more. That suits me perfectly, because my favorite thing in the world is to get in the studio and work on new music.”
Which he’s doing. When “Hurley” hit shelves and iTunes in September, Weezer already was working on the band’s 10th album, which Cuomo said will be more upbeat than “Hurley.”