This Is Beginning To Hurt: A Woefully Incomplete Oral History of Weezer’s “Pinkerton” Years

November 15, 2010 by Scott Heisel

This Is Beginning To Hurt: A Woefully Incomplete Oral History of Weezer’s “Pinkerton” Years

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. With the deluxe reissue of their landmark sophomore album, Pinkerton, hitting stores and the band’s upcoming Memories Tour about to launch (not to mention the two new albums the band have dropped this fall), interest in Weezer has been at quite possibly an all-time high. We at AP are not immune to this excitement, which is why we approached the band earlier this year about sitting down and doing an Oral History on Pinkerton and the surrounding years, to better understand just what these four men went through making what is still one of the most challenging yet thrilling rock records in decades. But as work began on the daunting piece, we received news that frontman Rivers Cuomo decided he no longer wanted to participate in the oral history, deciding instead to focus his efforts on the future of the band. (This, of course, also meant guitarist Brian Bell and drummer Pat Wilson would also not be talking.)

Rather than let that stop us, we turned to other important figures from that era of Weezer’s history—as well as some famous fans—to help tell the story of an album that had everything working against it, yet still triumphed in the end. As you read on, remember that whatever holes still remain in the Pinkerton storyline are there simply because the key players haven’t filled them in. But really, it’s almost fitting that Cuomo chose not to participate. Because what’s a classic album without a bit of mystery behind it?

THE WITNESSES

CHRIS CONLEY: Vocals/guitar, Saves The Day
JOHN DAVIS: Vocals/guitar, Superdrag
ANDY HULL: Vocals/guitar, Manchester Orchestra
KARL KOCH: Band historian and “fifth member” of Weezer, 1992-present
JUSTIN PIERRE: Vocals/guitar, Motion City Soundtrack
SARA QUIN: Vocals/guitar, Tegan And Sara
MATT SHARP: Weezer bassist, 1992-1998
TODD SULLIVAN: A&R representative responsible for signing Weezer to Geffen

1994: HOLY COW, I THINK I’VE GOT ONE HERE
With 1994’s Blue Album delivering two smash singles (“Undone (The Sweater Song)” and “Buddy Holly”) Weezer morphed from studio rats into road dogs, touring virtually nonstop that year. But frontman Rivers Cuomo was already planning out what would be his band’s next move—even though he himself wasn’t too sure of it. The frontman had already written "Tired Of Sex, "Getchoo" and "Why Bother?" before the Blue Album was even released, with "No Other One" being penned shortly thereafter. 

KARL KOCH: Up until the time we started to tour, it felt like we had nothing but time, and Rivers would be demoing a lot or pretty much whenever he felt like it because he really had a lot of time to read and write and go into the garage and record. By summer ’94, it was like, “Oh, we are going out for a week. Oh, we are going out for two weeks. Oh, we are going out for a month. Oh, we are going out for a month-and-a-half.” I believe he went back home for Christmas back east. I think it was his first chance to get songs recorded, and to him, he was already moving on in his head to whatever was next.

MATT SHARP: Yeah, we were all pretty aware [of Cuomo’s demoing]. We were all in tight-knit corridors from touring. So we were all a bunk away from each other at that point. We listened to ideas and thoughts while were going from one place to the next.

TODD SULLIVAN: When I heard [“Getchoo”], I felt great about what the second album was going to be. It felt so tight and compact and spot on. People who hadn’t heard it were just responding to it pretty immediately.

1995: THIS IS BEGINNING TO GET SERIOUS
The band’s nonstop touring schedule was temporarily derailed in February 1995 when a family emergency sent Sharp home in the middle of a European trek. The rest of the band hunkered down in Hamburg, Germany—and Songs From The Black Hole, an ambitious rock opera, was born.

KOCH: No one knew what was going to happen. Everyone told us, “The best thing to do right now is just stay put. It is the cheapest thing to do and since we don’t know if you are all going to come home or stay on this tour, we have to wait and see what happens with Matt’s father.”

I think at that point, Rivers had [already] come up with [the concept of Songs From The Black Hole] but he completely didn’t reveal it to anyone until then. I remember having to go to this German mall near our hotel and kind of finagle this copy shop. Rivers wanted to make this little cassette cover for “The Black Hole” thing and I remember trying to explain to the guy that we have to reverse it from black to white and white to black and I didn’t know any German. At that point he was putting together these sets of songs and he booked studio time in this place in Hamburg. He demoed there. Until that point, I was not aware that he had decided, “All right, this is the concept.” I think it was just starting to crystallize right then.

SHARP: At that time, I was only concerned with family. My father had just had a stroke and it was quite serious. It happened in the middle of a tour and we had to stop because it was a situation where family takes precedence over all and I really didn’t know what the outcome would be. I was very worried.

When I got to the hospital, [my dad] had a Weezer poster on the wall and was like, “What are you doing here?” I was like, “What do you mean, Pops? I’m here to make sure you are all right.” He said, “Listen, I’m going to get back to work and you need to get back to work.” I was only there for a few days and then straight back on the road.

With the band reunited and rocking once more, ideas were shared and energy was high—and Koch quickly found his role in the group evolving from guitar tech to something else entirely.
KOCH: I remember Matt being really excited. I think everyone was intrigued and interested. The idea of performing [Songs From The Black Hole] was, like, a big challenge. In their heads, they were like, “Wow. We are going to have to have guest artists and guest vocalists.” The whole thought of how this was actually going to be done was daunting and exciting.

SHARP: I have a slight memory of us working on the song “Superfriend.” I can remember us working on it for some reason when the bus broke down or something like that. I think the title was “In My Pod,” or something like that. I remember in soundchecks, we were working on “Blast Off!” I think those were all happening.

KOCH: There was no mandate that I was supposed to be documenting everything. I just did what I could with what I had to work with. [The band] were all comfortable with me doing that. My primary role was to make sure there were guitars and they worked. I remember Todd [Sullivan] let me borrow his video camera, which I think was a Super 8 or maybe a Hi8, and that was because my original video camera gave up the ghost. It was one of those giant, huge ones that took videotapes. We had this video camera and it lasted a few months and then broke. I wonder if it would be different if I [had taken] photos and shot video of everything that ever happened—it would probably be cooler. But I don’t know if it would be more enlightening or not, because I don’t think [we’re] missing anything magical.

The Blue Album spawned a third single, “Say It Ain’t So,” which kept the band’s momentum rolling through the summer of 1995. But while the band were well on their way to selling 3 million records, Cuomo was in intense pain due to a medical procedure he underwent to correct a birth defect, lengthening his left leg to that of his right. For months, Cuomo hobbled along in a steel brace, barely getting by on painkillers, and finding himself increasingly disillusioned with the “rock star life” his band’s success had earned him.
KOCH: One of my jobs was helping get Rivers to and from the stage. I remember we were on a European tour which was post-leg operation, and there were venues where there were no elevators. It was this endless stretch of him having to use a crutch or cane to go up the stairs. I had a chair ready so he could sit down between songs. It was hard for him to crack a smile because he was in pain and bummed by how difficult it was. He knew [the recovery process] wasn’t going to be easy, but I believe it was harder than what he thought because when you do the operation he had as an adult, it doesn’t take as easily as it does when you’re a kid. So as the months stretched on, I think he got kind of dark in his head. The other guys were continuing on like, “This is touring; this is fun.” It affected group interactions because I think it kind of isolated Rivers. No one really knew how to relate to him. He kind of withdrew from it. I don’t feel it was dividing the band up, but it was enhancing the personality differences that were already just there.

The band were finally pulled from the road. But instead of taking a well-deserved break, they decided to immediately begin work on their second album (at this point, still called Songs From The Black Hole), which Sharp described as happening “far too soon” in a 2006 AP interview. Compounding matters was Cuomo’s impending departure to begin his freshman year at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in just a few weeks’ time. Thus began an almost year-long recording process, spanning three states and numerous studios.
SULLIVAN: Did I feel worried that they were going into the studio too early? No, I felt really strong that they had great songs. I did feel a little rushed because of school. You know, “How is this going compete? How are we going to get a record done with Rivers in school?” It just felt like there was some momentum here, so let’s get this thing recorded.

KOCH: I agree with [Sharp’s remark]. I don’t know if Rivers would share that [feeling]; I think he wanted to get that going before his school year started. I think he thought, “I’m going to go for my other love, which is education, so before I do that I better get another album started because I just can’t bail out [of the band].” I think Pat [Wilson] was in a poor mood. I know he was in a poor state of mind. I don’t remember what started it, but I don’t think mentally he was really there.

SULLIVAN: The band really wanted to produce [the Blue Album] themselves, but I didn’t really feel like that was the wisest thing. So we talked about working with a producer and we ended up with Ric Ocasek. I said, “Look, if you get this experience under your belt of working with a producer on this first record, the second record can be about you guys, producing and [having] the studio to yourself,” and they were good with that. I think the only thing from me when we went into Pinkerton was that I had some idea of what was going on. So, yes, I had to sign up on all the studio expenses and whatnot, so I had to feel confident that things weren’t going to fall apart if they went into the studio.

SHARP: The first recordings we did for Pinkerton were at Electric Lady [in New York City]. That was pretty short-lived, from what I can remember. Maybe two weeks. Then we recorded at Fort Apache [in Boston]. We worked on “Why Bother?” and a few others.

KOCH: We drove up to Boston and stayed in some goofy temporary apartment while [Cuomo] contacted a real estate agent to find a house to live at in Cambridge while he was going to school. So we had this U-Haul full of stuff parked in this little apartment building in Cambridge as he was waiting for his keys to get into his house. Meanwhile, we were going everyday to Fort Apache and working on music.

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As Cuomo started his fall semester, the other band members were left to their own devices for a number of months, with Sharp taking this opportunity to launch full-force into his retro-synth-rock band the Rentals. It was during this time period that Sharp and Cuomo went through drastically different life experiences, with the former embracing the spotlight as the frontman for a buzzworthy band and the latter turning into just another awkward college student who couldn’t get laid. "Pink Triangle" and "El Scorcho" written during that fall semester.
KOCH: Rivers was persistent that he had to go to school and Matt was eyeing the opportunity to release a [Rentals] record. Even Pat used the chance to do something, too. He had created a Special Goodness record around that point. I don’t think Brian [Bell] was as focused on getting something out. I don’t think you could have convinced Rivers not to go to school at that point. He had to do. If he hadn’t done that, the whole history of the band would have been different.

SULLIVAN: These things, to me, were inevitable. Rivers wanted to go to school. Matt had these songs he wanted to get out. If they had taken two years off and then had come back to it. I don’t think they would have been a band at that point.

SHARP: The majority of [Return Of The Rentals] was recorded quite quickly, before we even started touring off of the Blue Album. I recorded the majority of the album and then shelved it for a while because Weezer started performing. For me, at that point, my engine was pretty relentless. If one thing stopped, I started the next thing the next day. I would go from tour to Rentals rehearsals to another tour…

1996: I’M READY, LET’S DO IT BABY
Cuomo met up with the band again in January 1996 while on break from Harvard, this time at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California, where the first half of what would become Pinkerton was put to tape. But it wasn’t until the band’s final sessions that spring when Songs From The Black Hole fully transformed into Pinkerton, with Cuomo channeling the awkward loneliness of his freshman year into the most emotionally powerful songs he had ever written: "Across The Sea," "The Good Life" and "Falling For You."

KOCH: I think [Cuomo’s] experiences at school did not line up with the Black Hole concept. The things he was experiencing—the things that led to songs like “Pink Triangle” and stuff—did not mesh. It was a different thought, a different feeling. So I think over the course of the school year, it just naturally got away from that because inspiration he was getting for new music did not mesh with the concept he had six months prior.

SULLIVAN: I think Rivers really started to turn things around on the second go of the recording that they [did] with Dave [Fridmann], like “Across The Sea” and “Falling For You.” I remember when they started that stuff, I hadn’t heard any demos of it but I wasn’t really connecting with it at first. I brought that up to Rivers, and he said, “Be patient. You are going to like this stuff.” He said it with much confidence. And sure enough, it wasn’t much longer when those songs started taking shape and I was like, “Wow, they are doing something really special and really unique and it’s not three-minute pop songs. They are really going somewhere.” I think that was what was really special to me. I also love Pat’s drumming. I love that the humor of his playing came out on the record.

KOCH: I think a lot the sound from that record, for me, came from Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California. The initial sessions were from Electric Lady and Fort Apache, but when you hear the record, I hear Sound City and moving into there in January of ’96 was a significant part of that sound. It was in the same room that [Nirvana’s] Nevermind was recorded.

SHARP: Sound City was the best place for us to be. It’s kind of an island. You have to be there. It’s not a big, expansive studio with tons of different places to drift off to. There’s nothing within walking distance, which is exactly what we needed at that point. [We were] focused on the task at hand [and] cut off from the rest of the world. It was probably a very healthy thing for us. Those were the best, most unified times we had during the recording.

KOCH: There was nothing to do around there. The closest thing was a Subway where you could get a sandwich. That was it. It wasn’t like we were on Sunset Boulevard where you were two blocks from the record store, one block from all the bars. No, it’s “You’re literally out here in the valley; you better get to work. Here is the little refrigerator in the corner. Here is the Arkanoid [arcade game] corner.” That was it. That was the entertainment. If you didn’t want to be recording you could play Arkanoid. Matt was obsessed with it. It was hilarious.

SHARP: I think that Arkanoid machine is still there. [Laughs.]

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(Photo: Marina Chavez)

With Cuomo largely taking over the production reins, he became a perfectionist, working endlessly on each song to make sure they were exactly right—even after the band had left the studio, thinking recording was complete. "Butterfly" was born during one of these last-minute sessions.
SHARP:I remember very distinctly being in the studio during the very last part of recording, doing little things like some added vocals and the last little touches on the album. I can remember going, “Okay, so we’re done.” And I remember Rivers looking at me, going, “Yes, we’re done.” And I flew the next day to London to start recording the second Rentals record.

KOCH: We were sneaking in sessions right there in Hollywood through July. But the band…Matt was gone. He had gone to England to work on his next record and Pat had finished his drum stuff long ago. This was like mostly Rivers going into little studios and adding parts, changing things and finishing stuff.

SULLIVAN: At the 11th hour, we were supposed to be on a plane to go master the record in New York, and the plane was leaving in an hour-and-a-half. “Rivers, we really need to get down to the airport.” [imitates Cuomo] “No, we need to fix this. This thing is really not right on this mix. We got time. We got time.” I remember we were walking in [the airport] about five minutes before [the plane] would take off. That was a lengthy period mixing that record with Jack [Joseph Puig]. He was just a guy that took a long time to mix—two or three days per song.

With the recording process finally complete, Sullivan delivered the album to Geffen. Named after a character from Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, Pinkerton was a raw, dark, complex record that didn’t share many attributes with what made the Blue Album so successful.
SULLIVAN: The reaction was generally positive. I had people into my office to [hear] the record, and I felt it was pretty positive. In my head, I felt like, “Wow, this is a pretty abrasive record. You know, it is an abrasive record, but these songs are great. People are going to love these songs.”

As the band shot a video for “El Scorcho” leading up to the album’s release, fractures began to display more prominently within the lineup. It was only a taste of things to come.
SULLIVAN: Rivers, at that point, did not like making videos. He never liked to make videos. The only reason he was doing videos because they liked Spike [Jonze]. I don’t really remember why Mark Romanek was used on [the “El Scorcho” video]. Maybe Spike wasn’t available or maybe it was a time for a switch, but it was a bad scene. The band were going through issues. They weren’t getting along at that point. Mark Romanek’s approach was just completely different than Weezer’s approach to things, and the whole scene felt chaotic. It was just a battle making that video. Ultimately, it was just a performance piece, but Romanek wanted all these lights and the band wanted it really simple. Rivers didn’t want a lot of cuts to the video and that was not how Mark Romanek’s final cut came out. Ultimately, the band were not in a good place when that was done.



SHARP: We did not have great communication, especially at that point. Most people that had dealt with us then probably thought that we were one of the most dysfunctional communicating bands ever. [Laughs.]

SULLIVAN: I think the band were pulling apart at that point and you saw that in the video. I don’t think Rivers thought he could fight that. It was a group. It wasn’t the Rivers Cuomo Show. Pinkerton was all about him, his writing. Matt and Pat, they are part of the band. There were battles there.

KOCH: Pat wasn’t in the greatest of moods at the time. I don’t know if this contributed to it or not but one of the things he was bummed about in those days was that he thought it was going to be a co-writing band and it was turning into the Rivers band. I think that was one of things that made him feel that he wanted to make his own record.

Complicating matters further, the band and Geffen were slapped with a restraining order from Pinkerton’s, Inc., a California-based security company, on Sept. 24, 1996—the same day Pinkerton was released.
KOCH: I think [Pinkerton’s, Inc.] found out about [the album] last minute and they freaked out because they had no idea what the record meant and they probably had some slick lawyer that said, “Hey, you should sue this band.” When we did an in-store show in the parking lot at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, someone at the record label printed up a 45-foot long plastic vinyl [banner] of the album art and on the top corner was a big piece of black tape was put overtop of [the word] “Pinkerton.”

SULLIVAN: I don’t remember how it was exactly how it was resolved, but my reaction was one of shock. You know, Pinkerton, Madama Butterfly. How could Pinkerton Security be suing the band? This is absolutely crazy.

KOCH: Meanwhile, there was this court hearing and I think Rivers went to it. At some point, he was asked what does this have to do with Pinkerton Security and Rivers had to explain how [the title] had to do with Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. The judge took a look at everything and threw it out because he was like, “What the hell, it has nothing to do with Pinkerton Security and you don’t have a trademark on that name.”

While that restraining order ended up being only a minor legal hurdle, it set the stage for a tumultuous next year of the band’s career. While everyone in the band’s camp were hoping for a Top 10 debut, Pinkerton ended up at No. 19 after its first week on the shelves—and it was all downhill from there.
SULLIVAN: I wouldn’t say there was a great concern [after the first-week debut]. We didn’t feel like this was going to die. I think it was the second or third week when we thought, “Uh oh, the single is not connecting at all. Why aren’t people connecting?” It was heartbreaking. But it still kind of blows my mind that [“El Scorcho”] didn’t take off as a single.

KOCH: We worked our asses off on this record and were just coming off a record that is going to be triple platinum and people don’t really seem to like [Pinkerton]. But you have to go out there and tour,  anyway. You have no choice at that point. And then the shows were great, so it was this strange kind of… Everyone was at these shows and they seemed to be stoked and bought the record. I guess what we came to realize is all the people [who shop at] Walmart didn’t buy the record. There was no “Buddy Holly” to listen to; it was “El Scorcho.” This is what we figured out in the course of a few weeks. This is not what we thought was going to happen.

CHRIS CONLEY: My buddy Frank got a hold of Pinkerton the day it came out and we pumped it on the stereo heading from Princeton to New Brunswick to go see a show. Oddly enough, the first time I heard [it], I didn't like it at all. I remember being in the back of the car and feeling totally disappointed with what I was hearing. I was ready for the bouncy energy and pop polish of the Blue Album and what I heard were loose, noisy songs, with loud feedback and almost sloppy performances. Six months later, Pinkerton was our go-to album for long drives in the van up and down the East Coast on Saves The Day's early tours. The songs seemed so emotionally pure and transparently honest, they have been ingrained in my heart ever since.

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