Interview:The Pretender- Weezer's Rivers Cuomo
By Adam St. James
Who woulda thunk it? The names Weezer and Yngvie sure would seem strange together on a concert bill, right? Yet Weezer frontman and lead guitarist Rivers Cuomo lived a completely different musical life before "Undone (The Sweater Song)," "Buddy Holly," and "Say It Ain't So" made him the hero of musical geeks everywhere.
According to Rivers, he spent most of his time prior to Weezer's 1994 Geffen Records debut shredding, doing his best to imitate his hero, Yngvie Malmsteen. A move to Los Angeles right before the heady days of hair metal came crashing to a grungy death and a day job at Tower Records where he was forced to listen to the Pixies for hour upon agonizing hour changed his tune, however.
In this revealing Guitar.com interview, Weezer leader Rivers Cuomo tells us all about the epiphany brought about by that experience, and what's even better, he actually spells out the formula for writing hit songs! Read on, geek.
Rivers Cuomo: Hi, it's Rivers.
ASJ: Hi Rivers, how are things in Dallas today?
Cuomo: Good. We played Houston and Austin and today in Dallas. It's going well.
ASJ: Are these your own shows?
Cuomo: We're co-headlining with the Foo Fighters.
ASJ: So how long have you been touring on this album?
Cuomo: We've been touring since April. We've been to Japan and Europe a couple of times, and around the States a couple of times.
ASJ: The new album is getting some airplay, congrats on that. Do you mostly come to the band with the songs?
Cuomo: Yeah, that's how it worked out this time. We spent some time in pre-production moving parts around and coming up with background parts. Some of the songs I demo on my own, and in those cases they're pretty much arranged by the time the band gets to them.
ASJ: Do you have a home studio?
Cuomo: No. We rented a room at SIR in Hollywood, and I had a whole band set up in there. So I could just jump from instrument to instrument. And we had a Pro Tools rig. Somebody set that up and did a lot of the work, but sometimes I would ask him to walk out of the room and I would fiddle with it myself. But I'm not very proficient with it myself.
ASJ: There's a big learning curve there.
Cuomo: Yeah, it's brutal.
ASJ: Are you proficient on the drums and other instruments?
Cuomo: Yeah, I'm good enough to make a demo. And actually at these shows I play drums on one song, and our drummer Pat comes out and plays guitar and sings. It's on "Photograph" from the Green album.
ASJ: So do you have any new guitar toys you're playing around with this time?
Cuomo: Yeah, I'm using the talkbox on "Beverly Hills."
ASJ: It sounds real Frampton-like. Is that what you intended, or is it just that a talkbox always sounds Frampton-like?
Cuomo: Well, I'm not even really familiar with Frampton, so that wasn't my intention, but everybody says that. That's fine, whatever. At first it felt very strange to play it, but now I'm really enjoying it. It feels very natural.
ASJ: What brand do you have?
Cuomo: I don't even know. It says Talkbox on it.
ASJ: Are you not really a gear head?
Cuomo: Not really. My role in the band has been to be a foundation. My guitar sound is like a basic canvas on which the other guitar player adds interesting color. He has a lot more in terms of gear.
ASJ: What do you play through live?
Cuomo: I'm using Diesel heads. My guitar tech found them. They sound really good.
ASJ: And what kind of guitar are you playing these days?
Cuomo: A Gibson SG.
ASJ: Is there anything you've done to the guitar?
Cuomo: No, the guitar is standard, but we invented a box called the "De-Bigulator" which is just a little switch that turns down the volume - or the current, I don't even know what it is - going to the amp. So it's like I'm quickly turning down my volume knob, but all I have to do is step on this switch. That's how I go from dirty to clean.
ASJ: Your tech built this, it didn't come with the amp?
Cuomo: No. I told him what I wanted to accomplish. His name is Bobby Schneck, he's been with us for a long time. He's a real integral part of what we do. And actually he plays guitar on stage with us on some songs. He also was teching for Green Day for awhile, and he also played for them.
ASJ: Is he on stage or off stage when he's playing?
Cuomo: He comes out on stage and rock out with us.
ASJ: Cool. Do you use any other effects?
Cuomo: The only other effect pedal I use is the Boss Super Distortion. And we tune down a half-step.
ASJ: What guitar do you play at home?
Cuomo: I have a Gibson J-45 acoustic. I do a lot of writing on that.
ASJ: Do you do a lot of writing year round, or do you wait until the band is gearing up for an album?
Cuomo: I guess I write at home a lot.
ASJ: And when you're working on a tune, do you try to make it happen all in one sitting, or do you sometimes let songs sit for a few weeks, then come back to it?
Cuomo: I've tried all different ways. On the songs that made it to the album, there were substantial revisions to most songs. But generally I manage to write a complete song in one sitting, and if there are revisions, they come later.
ASJ: Did your producer, Rick Rubin, ask for a lot of revisions?
Cuomo: Yeah. I would send him a song, and he would send me a page saying, the verse is great, the chorus isn't so great, try again - that sort of thing.
ASJ: Does Rick play music?
Cuomo: No he doesn't, and it's very strange. He's an incredibly musical person, but he doesn't play.
ASJ: So his advice is really coming from a listener standpoint.
Cuomo: Yeah. There's a lot of innocence about it. There's no player ego involved at all. It's just like average listener advice.
ASJ: Is he demanding when he asks for a change, or is he laid back?
Cuomo: He's massively laid back. But he's always very clear, and open and honest about what he thinks. He'll tell you if something is not great, and he'll leave it up to you about what you want to do about it. It's a really inspiring way to work. He's a great partner for me.
ASJ: And he did pre-production in a studio with the full band, right?
Cuomo: Yeah, that's one of his main priorities. He's getting everybody involved at that stage. And he made it so that it was only the four of us and him at that stage. No one else was allowed in the room. He did whatever he could to make everyone feel safe so that they could all contribute, whatever crazy ideas they had, they felt safe to shout them out, and we'd try it. And then we'd all vote and collaborate. The whole process was very dynamic.
ASJ: Can you explain to our younger readers, when you're working with somebody like Rick Rubin in a pre-production scenario like this, what is pre-production like. What does a pro producer make you do - did he have you running through tunes over and over and over again?
Cuomo: Yes, absolutely. It could be painful. I think especially Pat, our drummer, didn't enjoy the experience. But I think we all feel like it was incredibly valuable, and really it's one of the big differences in the quality of this album compared to the album before, on which we didn't do much pre-production.
ASJ: In a situation like that, you're really analyzing the song down to the second, aren't you? Every beat has to be in the right place. That's kind of what he's pointing out to you, correct?
Cuomo: Yeah, absolutely.
ASJ: That's pretty cool as a learning experience. It's sort of like you write an album, and then this guy takes you to college on it. It's like a whole semester's worth of thought on those songs.
Cuomo: Absolutely. It was a great experience.
ASJ: So when you're working on these tunes on your own at home, are you recording into a cassette recorder, a home studio - what do you do to keep these tunes in your mind?
Cuomo: Nowadays I record directly into my lap top. I've got a $25 microphone from Radio Shack. I plug it into my computer and record into a program called Vegas. It's really easy to use, much easier than Pro Tools.
ASJ: Vegas is Sony's video editing software. Why are you using that instead of their Acid recording program?
Cuomo: I don't know. Somehow, I think our web guy had it because he makes videos of us. So I learned it, and now I'm kind of stuck with it.
ASJ: Who is the girl singing backups on "Beverly Hills"?
Cuomo: Her name is Stephanie Eitel.
ASJ: That part sticks out, was that Rubin's idea?
Cuomo: No, that was actually my idea. At first I was going to sing it myself, but then I thought, 'Let's have some girl do this.'
ASJ: Is she saying, "Can you hear me?"
Cuomo: No, she's saying, "Gimme, Gimme."
ASJ: So what are you doing about that track on the road, is it on a track?
Cuomo: No, the other guys have to sing it. In my opinion it doesn't sound that great.
ASJ: She probably did it better.
Cuomo: I think so.
ASJ: When I listen to your whole albums, there are some songs which are more straight-forward and simple, such as "Beverly Hills," and then songs like "We Are All On Drugs," there's more guitar riffing going on - the track is more intricate. Why are there these differences between songs? What leads you in one direction or the other?
Cuomo: I don't think about it too much. I think one of the differences is that we didn't spend a lot of time working out "Beverly Hills." It was one of the last songs. I wrote it very quickly; we recorded it very quickly. I think if we had time to play with it longer we would have had time to come up with some riffs over it. A lot of times that's the job of the other guitar player. That's him you hear riffing around on "We Are All On Drugs."
ASJ: So how is it you chose "Beverly Hills" to be the lead off track?
Cuomo: I didn't.
ASJ: Was it a label decision?
Cuomo: Label and management. Everyone voted pretty much, and it seemed like the clear consensus was "Beverly Hills." And it's done extremely well at radio.
ASJ: Oh yeah, I'm hearing it all the time.
Cuomo: You can't complain
ASJ: No you can't, not at all. So do you have any tips or suggestions for kids out there with a band, trying to get noticed. How do they get their band from a local club level to being noticed by a major label?
Cuomo: I think moving from the back woods of Connecticut to Los Angeles was extremely helpful (to me) as far as getting a label deal. But, I don't know
ASJ: Did you play a lot of shows before you got signed?
Cuomo: It seemed like it. We played probably 50 or 60 shows before the labels started coming and it was clear that we were going to get a deal. That was over nine months to a year. It seemed like it was taking forever. We were playing the same songs that eventually became hits, and we were wondering 'Why isn't anybody interested in us? These other bands are getting signed, why aren't we?"
ASJ: But it all worked out. A lot of bands - especially if they're in a part of the country where there are not a lot of original music clubs - they play one or two shows a month, and wonder why aren't we getting anywhere. But if you want to be in a really tight band, you need to be playing live a lot more than that. And with a lot of the celebrities who I've interviewed over the years were the people in their community who were playing like three nights a week, as opposed to once a month.
Cuomo: Yeah, it's really crucial. It helps you figure out who you are, and what your style is.
ASJ: Did you start out playing covers?
Cuomo: Yeah, I grew up playing covers. My first band was an all Kiss cover band. And then I did another band that was playing a variety of '80s metal: Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and Metallica, Yngvie.
ASJ: Were you playing those leads?
Cuomo: I was trying. And then ever after putting out my own records I've gotten together with guys to cover bands, and I remember one show I did that was all Nirvana stuff. And another show was all Oasis songs. And I'm always just covering songs by myself, learning them and playing them on acoustic for the fun of it. And I think it influences how I write.
ASJ: By learning some new progression you hadn't thought of before?
Cuomo: Yeah, and the melodic and lyrical patterns. Just to get them in my brain, my sub-conscious so that when I go to write they just start popping out automatically.
ASJ: Was there anything in particular on this album that you allowed to enter your brain and influence you that way?
Cuomo: Yeah. Rick was very particular about what recommended I listen to.
ASJ: Really? What did he say?
Cuomo: Three things: 1) John Lennon, 2) Neil Young, and 3) Trent Reznor. So I listened to those three artists over and over again.
ASJ: And learned some of their songs?
Cuomo: Yeah. I learned songs and listened to them.
ASJ: What tunes did you learn?
Cuomo: I remember learning a song called "Alabama" by Neil Young. I learned so many John Lennon songs.
ASJ: Were you previously a Lennon or Beatles fan?
Cuomo: Yeah. But what I did was put only the John Lennon songs in a playlist in my computer. So it wasn't exactly like listening to the Beatles, it was only the Lennon stuff. And it had a very different effect.
ASJ: Solo and Beatles Lennon tunes?
Cuomo: Some of the solo stuff; mostly Beatles songs. I don't know if I learned any Nine Inch Nails songs, because they're not really guitar songs.
ASJ: When you were doing the '80s metal stuff, were you at that time - or do you now consider yourself - a fairly capable lead guitar player?
Cuomo: Yeah, I spent a lot of time practicing technique - scales and arpeggios and all that stuff, with a metronome. I was definitely on the technically capable side. But shortly after getting to L.A. I started getting into different aspects of music - the songwriting and singing things. And at that time I stopped practicing guitar techniques, so I'm definitely not the shredder I once was. I'm capable enough to play anything I need to play in this band.
ASJ: What was it about moving to Los Angeles that changed your playing?
Cuomo: I moved in '89. I went to L.A. with the intention of becoming a huge rock star who played Yngvie Malmsteen type music (laughs). When I got to L.A. I started to perform in clubs, and I got a job at Tower Records (on Sunset Blvd.) and started meeting other musicians and other music people, and I started to realize that most people don't really care about guitar technique. They're more interested in songwriting and singing. And working at Tower Records, they play music in there 8 hours a day, through my whole shift, every day. And they weren't playing Yngvie, they were playing Sonic Youth and the Pixies, and all these classic rock and pop records. And I just heard that stuff over and over every day - against my will initially. But eventually it really had an influence on me and I got more interested in songwriting and singing.
ASJ: And the rest is history! Well Rivers, thank you so much for your time, and enjoy the road!
Cuomo: Thanks Adam.
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