Crippling leg injuries, near-breakups, one summer spent wearing suits and a whole bunch of curiously named songs: Weezer frontman RIVERS CUOMO has experienced it all and then some. Now happily married and a father, the 38-year-old Cuomo seems more comfortable in his own skin than ever before. This week, he releases the second installment of his Alone: The Home Recordings Of Rivers Cuomo odds ’n’ sods collections; AP music editor Scott Heisel was caught up with one of rock’s most enigmatic singer-songwriters to discuss fond memories, buried emotions and just what the story is behind “Harvard Blues.”
Are you in Los Angeles right now?
Yeah. I’m about 60 miles away [from the wildfires], but I’m in the path of the smoke.
Is it pretty crazy out there right now?
Today is much clearer. Yesterday was smoky. I actually played a soccer game [yesterday]. It’s insane that everyone showed up and played. We’re addicted. You can’t keep us away from the game. They do warn against going outside, and especially exercising.
Is any of your stuff in danger?
I don’t have any stuff that I care about. It’s just books and furniture.
Do you have backup hard drives of all of your demos and things like that?
Yeah. I think my assistant has a hard drive at her house. It’s just my computer backed up, so everything should be on there.
Would that be liberating? If, say, the fires were to destroy all of your old demos, would you think of that as a relief?
I’d be really sad for about a couple of days, but then I would forget about it because it would be liberating. I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. You know, having all of these home recordings over the years has been a stress on me–it felt like something’s not right in my life because I have all these recordings that I love and no one’s hearing them. That was the impetus to put out the Alone recordings. It just feels like there’s something not right. I have to make it right. As an artist, my job is only half-done when I finish recording. The other half is sharing it.
It’s interesting that you say that. The liner notes for Alone II are very exhaustive to say the least. What was the hardest story to convey when you were writing those liner notes?
It’s funny because it got deleted from the liner notes. I cut about a third of the liner notes in the final version, so I’m not even sure what’s in there anymore. Let me look at the list of songs here… I think maybe “I Was Scared,” track four on Alone II. I’m talking about a really painful experience in my past when I did something really lame. Me and my brother and my gang of friends were getting severely picked on by the jocks at school, and there was this one occasion when my brother got surrounded and I knew what was going on, but I didn’t go outside in the back school and defend him. Not that I could have actually defended him, but I could have shown up. But I just stayed inside like a coward knowing full well what was going on. That was when I was 16, I think. So that memory just started coming back to me and I wrote the song and then I wanted to describe it again specifically in the liner notes and name names. Whenever you bring others in your life into stories that you’re sharing with the world, then it’s a tricky thing. So I had to talk to my brother a couple times and make sure he was okay with how things were worded. It was a difficult process figuring out how to tell that story, but it was also really rewarding.
A lot of the songs on this compilation seem to be addressed to specific people. Which one was the most difficult to play for that person?
This is kind of a silly one, but maybe “Paper Face” was kind of embarrassing to play for the girl. I wrote it in 1992, and the girl it was about, Amy Moore, she didn’t hear about the song until very recently. She’s my age now; she’s a mature, responsible adult and then she hears this song I wrote about her in 1992 where I’m talking about how she did all these crazy things like stealing a car and shooting a cop. I never really knew how much of that was true, and I probably embellished a few things, but I call out her name in the song. [Laughs.] I was a little nervous about approaching her with that song, but she laughed and it was totally cool. So there was some truth to it, but it wasn’t as crazy as I made it out to be.
Does anyone else have a say when you’re putting together these compilations, or is it pretty much you who picks the tracklist?
Oh, no. I’ve evolved into the kind of artist who really values working with friends and getting other peoples’ input. I just know from experience when I sequester myself off, I can make stupid mistakes especially when the task is to evaluate my own stuff that I’m really close to. So I got five other friends around me and we listened to about eight hours of music. We voted and discussed a little bit and eventually came up with these 19 songs. Of course, I have the final say. So I look at what the democratic process has suggested and if I disagree with it, I’ll have to go my own way. But usually, and this is the case this time, I see that when a bunch of people put their heads together, they come up with something really cool, certainly something that I couldn’t have come up with one my own.
So was it the group who chose “Harvard Blues,” which is just kind of a “found sound” track?
No. See, that was an individual choice. This guy, Todd Sullivan, who’s worked closely with me since 1993–he’s the guy who signed Weezer to Geffen and of course Geffen has just been decimated by the changes in the industry, so he no longer has a job–but I talk to him whenever I can and hire him for these one-off projects. He suggested I stick on “Harvard Blues” in front of “My Brain Is Working Overtime” because it just kind of has that same manic, going-crazy energy to it.
Were you at all trying to maybe pull the wool over people’s eyes with a song called “Harvard Blues?”
I don’t worry about it much because I feel like the album is almost 50 minutes long, there’s a ton of great songs on there. I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed that that one track turns out to be just a short sound-collage. If a person went to iTunes and they saw, “Harvard Blues” and they said, “Oh, I’ll download that and pay 99 cents,” and they only got that one song, then they’d probably be disappointed. [Laughs.] I would not download that track.
It’s interesting that a track like “I’ll Think About You,” which is from 1993 or 1994, sounds very similar to “Keep Fishin’.” When you’re listening to these songs, do you ever notice those connections? Were you aware of those similarities?
Yeah. Sometimes you notice patterns when you’re looking at the big picture of your life like that, things I wouldn’t normally notice. When I go back and listen to my whole career from, like, 1992 until 2008, I notice, “Oh. Here I’m writing another “Keep Fishin’” type of song. Here it comes again, that same type of feel.” It’s interesting. Maybe there’s a finite number of songs in me and I’m just kind of reinventing them.
Last year, you mentioned you were working on that multimedia project of your life from pre-Weezer to when the Blue Album came out. Have you noticed any patterns in your life that would line up with those songs?
Wow. I’m still working on that everyday. I’m buried under this mountain of information and I don’t know if I have enough perspective on it yet to make generalizations like that. I can tell you it’s incredibly fun to be writing this book. It’s not so much multimedia anymore. The music has obviously split off into this Alone series which is coming out on CD. And I’m writing this book, which I imagine will have tons of photographs and journal entries and lyrics and poetry, but mainly it’s this incredibly detailed story of my life from ’92 until ’94 when the Blue Album came out. I’ve just been still in the interviewing process, calling up people from that time period and talking to them about what happened and just collecting an insane amount of information.
Is that strange for you to be interviewing people about something that you did?
A lot of it is questions about what we did together or what their side of the story is, and going through their journals and their photographs.
Do you like being on the other side of that coin since for so long you’ve been the subject of interviews?
I love it. I think if I wasn’t a rock star, maybe I’d be a journalist or a writer or something, because I do love interviewing people. I like listening to people and trying to understand how they see things.
Is there anything you want to ask me, then?
[Laughs.] I’m in the wrong mode right now.
How have the fans been reacting to these compilations? Has it been mainly positive?
Yeah. The first Alone record, worldwide, has maybe sold 50,000 copies or something and that to me is just tremendous to think that there’s 50,000 people out there who want to hear these songs that I love so much and that were inappropriate for the big leagues with Weezer. We’ll see how it goes this time around. I think this album is just as strong. As long as people want these songs, I’ll keep putting them out.
Do you feel obligated to continue to open yourself up like that because fans have reacted so well?
No. I don’t like feeling obligated to do anything. As soon as it feels like an obligation, I won’t do it anymore. It’s pure joy at this point.
I wanted to ask you specifically about “Walt Disney,” which is a song that has been circulating for a number of years on the internet. The liner notes mention that it was the first song you completed after the Blue Album’s success. What emotions were you going through after you initially completed that?
Well, I remember feeling profound relief after I wrote “Walt Disney” because I hadn’t written much [either] songwise or in my journal. I hadn’t had any kind of creative life or emotional life in so long because this was the first year that Weezer had become successful, and we were touring and we were so busy. I was just drained spiritually. So through all of that, somehow I was able to write this song which perfectly expressed the lifeless state I felt I was in. It was a relief to have actually written something, and it was also a relief to have this creation that was expressing my pain, and I could listen back to it and it felt like a friend who understood how I was feeling.
Was it at all awkward to listen to it almost 15 years after the fact?
No. I don’t feel at all awkward listening to songs from difficult periods. They just sound like friends, and they understand what I was going through.
When we spoke last year, you mentioned that being a husband made you feel more settled, happy and secure both in your life and in your songwriting. Does being a father affect that at all?
Yeah. Being a father has multiplied my sense of contentment and peace and joy and confidence and willingness to take risks and have fun about 10 times.
Is it easier or harder to be a rock star and a father?
I find everything is easier and better and deeper and more meaningful as a father.
Being on tour with Weezer for the past few months, has that been a more enjoyable experience?
This last tour, the Troublemaker Tour 2008, was the most enjoyable Weezer tour ever for me. I did have my wife and daughter out with me. It just made hanging out during the day more fun and meaningful instead of, like, “What the heck am I doing here in this locker room?” [Laughs.] alt