Rivers Cuomo Is Still Lonely

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On a cold and rainy Monday morning in midtown Manhattan, I kept thinking I’d seen Rivers Cuomo, but I kept being wrong. In the hotel restaurant where we were supposed to meet, I scanned the clientele and saw an array of slender white guys with dark hair and black, rectangular glasses — all false positives. Turns out there was no way I could have missed Cuomo when he arrived, because his signature glasses were covered by a massive wraparound apparatus like a clear, orange-tinted Oculus Rift. He was wearing a flannel button-down and was modestly hunched, carrying a reused Poland Spring water bottle filled with translucent pink fluid. He seemed blissfully unaware of how much he stuck out.

This wasn’t the first time we had met: That had happened in the fall of 2004, when we were both undergrads at Harvard. It was my freshman year and the first half of Cuomo’s senior one, having taken a break to put out the second-through-fourth albums of his band, Weezer. His presence was surreal for everyone, but he kept a low profile and was going through a period when he was refusing to play or even listen to music. We took a class on premodern Europe together but, after one semester, he took another break to put out a fifth album and tour for a while. After he returned for his final stint in the spring of 2006, he and I reconnected in a long, publicist-free interview at a dining hall for the school paper, one that spoiled me for all future interviews: Cuomo was candid, chatty, and wholly free of rock-star pretense.

Here in midtown, the 47-year-old front man and I reunited yet again to talk about Weezer’s latest album, Pacific Daydream; the unusual reason he got married soon after graduation; his attempt to use automated computer processes to write songs; and how, despite everything, he still feels lonely.

What’s with the orange shades?
This is for jet lag.

Huh?
It blocks blue light. So, right now, my brain thinks I’m in Hawaii, which counteracts the fact that I just came from London, which will help me adjust to L.A. more quickly, which is where I’m going tomorrow.

How did you learn about this trick?
There’s an app called Entrain: You put in where you are, where you’re going, and what time you want to wake up, and it tells you when you should put on your orange glasses, and when you should shine this insane blue light in your face. Some girl at the University of Michigan made it. I use it religiously.

So you’re a big lifehacker?
Yeah.

What other lifehacks are you into right now?
[Points to water bottle filled with light-pink fluid.] These are called Nuun tablets. N-U-U-N. It’s electrolytes and a tiny bit a flavor and a tiny bit of sugar. It just helps me drink an insane amount of water.

Why would you need to drink an insane amount of water?
First of all, I think everyone is supposed to. But if you’re flying a lot or you’re in dry hotel rooms and you’re a singer … doctors and voice doctors always tell me, “Drink a lot of water.” If it’s just plain water, I have a hard time drinking a lot of it. I feel like, “I’m sick of this.” With the electrolytes, it’s just kind of like breathing. You just keep going.

Has this extended to your family as well? Do you encourage them to lifehack?
Yeah. I think. I’m always preaching a lifehack wherever I go and giving my bandmates little electrolyte tablets.

Fair enough. So, it’s been a while since we talked.
Yeah. I follow you online, so —

You do?
Yeah, definitely. So I’m still in touch.

I follow you online, as well. I love your Twitter feed. What role does Twitter play in your life? Are you an addict?
No. Well, I’m potentially an addict, but I don’t let myself go on there. What I do is, I just compose 30 tweets at a time and then just schedule them in SocialPilot. I don’t even actually have to go there — it just takes care of it for me. Another lifehack.

Okay, but why do all the tweets if you’re just scheduling them out like a mundane task? What do you see as the purpose of your tweeting?
There are probably several Twitter purposes. None of them are that great. But it feels like I want to have some kind of presence on social media, even if it’s an insane and fictitious one. It’s part of the job description now, as a musician. But, more importantly, I’ve made the most amazing connections on Twitter. I don’t mean like, business, career-opportunity connections, but more like creative connections. One example is — I mean, this has happened so many times, but recently, I was just loving this song called “Weak,” by the band AJR, and I just followed them on Twitter and said something like, “Oh my God, I love this song.” Then they reached out to me on Twitter and said, “You like this? That’s awesome. Why don’t you help us finish writing this [other] song?” And I helped them finish the song. I wrote a bridge for their song “Sober Up.” It just came out and it’s their next single and it’s on the radio. There I am. That wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Twitter.

Do you feel like your relationship with Twitter is similar to the one that you had with Myspace back in the day? You were a pretty big Myspace presence, if I recall correctly.
[Laughs.] Yeah. That was fun. I guess it’s different. Twitter, for me, is more about connecting to other artists and the media and the wider world. Myspace was, at the time, like this crazy, new opportunity to connect with your audience immediately. That felt new and exciting, so I was writing very heartfelt blogs, and I would record a cover and put it up immediately and get, I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of listeners, right away. It was so exciting. Before that — I’m just going back now, it’s like 2001, 2002 — there was putting up daily recordings on message boards, and that was a little bit more of a very hard-core community, which is fun, too. It’s just a different thing. Myspace kind of blew it up to the next level.

I was never part of the Weezer message-board community, but I know people who were, and they say our interview from 2006 — when we were both still in college — ended up being a big deal there. Do you ever think back on that chat?
I don’t know if there’s ever been a better interview, as far as a deep interview that a real Weezer fan would love and appreciate. I don’t know if there’s ever been a better one.

That’s very kind of you to say. What do you think the biggest change in your life has been between the time of that conversation and this one? Other than the fact that you’re married and have kids.
[Long pause.] Just by nature, I’m not good at these generalizations about these long periods of time. We took that history course together, and it was a struggle for me: “So, how did things change over those 500 years?” [Laughs.] I have the same problem in my life. I could tell you what’s going on right now, but … let me think about it. Let me put myself back … my first, honest, reaction is like, not much has changed. I have two kids and I’m married, but my life is still centered around making music and writing songs and trying to make Weezer big.

Isn’t Weezer already big?
It depends on your metric. If you look on Spotify right now, globally, we’re number 340 or something. That sounds kind of small.

I heard in an interview with you that you think this album will resonate with critics in a way that your last few haven’t. Not to sound confrontational, but what makes you think that?
We’ve never really been a critics’ band. It’s always been hard for critics to like us. There’s something juvenile or not-cool about me. Somehow, finally, I’m slightly maturing. I sound like, maybe, now I’m in my 20s instead of my teens, which probably will strike people as more appropriate and more relatable for an average critic, who is probably also in their 20s or 30s.

That’s a surprising way of putting it, since the album actually seems to have a fair number of adult concerns in it. Like, there’s “Happy Hour,” about having a rough day and going to happy hour at a bar, and there’s “Weekend Woman,” about driving through bad traffic to see your significant other. What roles do love and sex play in your songwriting at this point?
That’s still the go-to, and it’s just what guys have always written about from the birth of pop-rock. I have to actively work against it, because it’s often the very first thing that comes up when I go to write a song. Some of the songs on this album still go there, for sure. In part, that’s because some of these songs are from earlier phases. They weren’t actually written for this album. The way I write now is, I just have so many piles of ideas dating back even to the ’90s. The song you just mentioned, “Weekend Woman” — the verse is from 2000.

Oh, interesting.
Yeah. I’m dealing with all these parts that are coming from different places and different life phases, and trying to make it feel relevant to me now. I think, also, there’s something about my voice that sounds good when I’m singing about a girl. It’s just something that clicks. It’s always a balance. I want to sing about something different and untried, and I want to go to a new place, and, yet, it’s got to work. It’s gotta feel like, Yes. This is good and emotional and it sounds like Rivers. It’s just: Get in there and keep working until it all comes out.

You’re very analytical about other people’s songs, from what I’ve heard. You’ll really analyze stuff on the Spotify top ten. To what extent do you —
I’ll give you an example. As I was debating this very question that you asked, as I was starting to work on this album, I went to Spotify and looked at, say, the rock playlist, the main rock playlist, and I could look at all the lyrics and say, “Okay, how many of these are about romantic relationships?” Or, how much were clearly about something different? How many of them were ambiguous? They could be about relationships, or they could be like you’re singing about your cat or your dad or something. Sometimes, it’s liberating. It can give you ideas. Like, Oh, shit. Only 48 percent of these songs are even necessarily about romantic relationships. There are a lot of other things you can write about.

Like making money? I’m trying to think of other popular musical topics.
No. I looked up money, and there’s hardly any mention of money in alternative music.

What I was gonna say was, to what extent have you analyzed your own early music to see why it works? Do you have a sense of what makes “Buddy Holly” tick, for example?
[Long pause.] No. I mean, I have nothing interesting to say about it. It’s catchy, and it’s high-energy, and it’s fun to play. It’s nothing that anyone else couldn’t notice about it.

Don’t you study the chord progressions in that song?
In other songs.

Are you just not interested in doing that with your own songs?
I don’t know. I just feel like I don’t have anything interesting to say about it. Sorry.

Who are you envisioning as the average listener for a new Weezer album these days? What’s the demographic?
I don’t think so much about demographics — not directly, anyway. I’m thinking more of … I’m just listening to a lot of music. I listen to a lot of Spotify, and it’s a balance between listening to today’s top hits — like the biggest, most exciting pop music in the world — and then some, I guess, more indie-type stuff, but it’s all new and exciting indie stuff. I love Beach House and Tame Impala, Unknown Mortal Orchestra — that’s a band, right? It just keeps coming up, I don’t know why, but I love it. It’s a great name, at least. Yeah. Then intentionally avoiding the super-crazy, creative, new hip-hop stuff — which I love, but when I’m writing I don’t want it to influence me.

Why not?
It immediately changes the way I write in a way that nobody likes. [Laughs.] I have to steer clear of it when I’m writing. It’s a shame. There’s that, and then, when it was time to produce, we went back and we listened to a lot of older music like Phil Spector, Beach Boys, Clash, Cure, and reggae, just looking for different ways to produce a song besides just stepping on the distortion pedal.

Who’s showing up to Weezer concerts these days? What kinds of people?
It depends. It’s very different in different places around the world. We play all different kinds of shows: big festivals with not many Weezer fans, and then we were just playing these clubs with two or three thousand people in Europe, packed with older … not really older, but they’re people who were there to hear the early music. It’s a very different kind of show from playing the Hangout Fest in Alabama.

I’m starting to think of my life in Weezer as having two very different worlds: There’s the collection of worlds that are the shows that I was just mentioning, and then there’s making records. Maybe they have nothing to do with each other. This is just what I’m starting to think. It’s my new theory. The records are really for me. They can be really for me and for the band. We’re going to do whatever we want to do; we don’t have to worry about any audience, pleasing any demographic. We’re just going to make the most exciting record we can make.

When we go to do the show, the show is for the audience. We’re just going to play what people want to hear. What’s going to make them go crazy. The new songs have to earn their place in the set list. I mean, of course we’re going to play probably two new songs at any show, just to give them a chance, but if we’re playing for a small club of people who want to hear The Blue Album or Pinkerton, we’re going to do that, because it’s fucking awesome.

That’s not awkward for you, playing the old hits you’ve been playing for decades?
No. It’s incredible. On the other hand, if we’re playing a big festival where nobody knows Pinkerton, and they want to hear “Beverly Hills,” “Island in the Sun,” and “Feels Like Summer,” let’s do that.

Changing gears a bit: How do you think about your college years nowadays? I’m thinking specifically of the two nonconsecutive semesters when you returned in the aughts.
The last few semesters?

Yeah, 2004 and then 2006.
Just incredible. Such a deeply satisfying time in my life: intellectually, and spiritually, and creatively, and socially. I really miss it. I’ve had nothing like that since then. I’ve been deeply lonely. This is going to sound weird, but it wasn’t until I discovered Sam Harris’s podcast [Waking Up] that I started to feel some of that need for intellectual-hangout, cafeteria, lunch-room conversation to be satisfied. Now, I listen to him every day and it’s like, I’m listening to smart people talk and debate the issues, and I feel a little less lonely.

You feel lonely? I mean, you have a family and a band who know and love you.
It’s the same loneliness I felt touring on The Blue Album, on the bus. It’s like, there’s got to be something more to life than just the grind of touring and performing and doing interviews — and then, of course, having a family is great, and that satisfies me in other ways. Reading stories to kids and doing rough play.

“Rough play” meaning … ?
You know, wrestling with your son. That kind of thing. That’s all satisfying in other ways. None of that touches this other need I have for deep, intellectual conversations and searching, trying to make sense of the world and learn.

Do you fantasize about going to grad school?
I have fantasized about it, but I think it’s kind of … it’s just completely off the table, because of having the family. There are way more things I want and need to do in my life than I possibly have time for. I just can’t even imagine putting graduate school in there, as fun as that would be.

But I heard you’re taking a Harvard computer-science course online.
Yes. That’s another thing that I love. I started with Khan Academy doing algebra, and I really enjoyed that. I sing about it in the song “QB Blitz.” I was trying to get at least my wife — “Let’s do this together. It could be fun. Algebra.” And she’s like, “Uh, no.” [Laughs.] So I did it by myself and then I got into [the Harvard class] and I think I’m about — I’m on problem-set six now out of eight, plus a final project. I’m making good progress, but I keep taking these detours. Right now, we’re on this section on [programming language] Python, so I’m taking a detour and I’m actually going to learn Python. I just love it.

What have you programmed? What are some of your achievements there?
Nothing. The real accomplishments I’ve made in coding have been with hiring other programmers. I go to Fiverr.com — it’s kind of like Uber for programmers. It’s the most amazing thing. Probably no one else would think it’s amazing, but for me, it is. I have a database of over 5,000 lines of lyrics, just isolated lines — ‘cause a lyricist, a songwriter, will have, in their phone, maybe a list of 50 lines to get them started on a song or something, or if they need a line. I did that and, of course, I started back in the ’90s, just on paper. It gradually went to a computer and Excel, and now it’s on Google Sheets. It has added up. It’s so hard to search through, so I started tagging it for syllable-count and rhyme and where the stresses fall — iambic pentameter, whatever. It’s much easier to search through, but it’s a pain to tag it all.

Working with a Russian guy on Fiverr, we created this script where I can just throw in a couple hundred lines at a time, and it spits back all the tags I need, and I can put that in my spreadsheet. Like: It has ten syllables, it rhymes with beer, and this is where the stresses fall. I can see where it’s going, too. With machine-learning, it’ll have tags for whether it has negative or positive, or angry, or sad, or political. If I’ve written an entire song, but I need one line and it’s a very specific thing I’m looking for, I’ll be able to identify ten options, just like that.

Don’t you worry that such a technical approach will take away the soul of songwriting?
No, because I always have the option of writing any way I want, and I usually try to write every possible way into a song, and then the best lines win. Sometimes, it’s from a database like what I’ve described, and sometimes it’s from a random piece of inspiration, or sometimes, it’s from digging really deep. I’m going to have every option at my disposal. That’s something I learned in Music 51 at Harvard. Igor Stravinsky, in Poetics of Music, said the real artist is not just an instinctual being; they’re also using their intellect and their spiritual faculties and their analytical faculties and their training and everything. Every tool at their disposal. They’re putting all that into their art, and they’re not just going to say, “I’m a romantic artist — I will only do what my muse is telling me.”

You’ve said you’re working on something called The Black Album, and that it’ll sound unlike any other Weezer record. What’s the status?
I mean, I keep telling everyone it’s coming in May. If it’s up to me, yeah. It’s pretty much written. It’s about agreeing on the producer, and once you do that, it all goes super fast.

And it’s going to surprise people, you think?
I don’t think at this point we can surprise people, ‘cause we’ve done so many weird, insane things, but it’s going to … I’d say if Pacific Daydream was one big step forward for Weezer … I’m not going to use the word “forward.” If Pacific Daydream was one big step away from Weezer’s history, then The Black Album is ten of those.

Does that mean sonically, or in terms of songwriting?
No, not songwriting. Sonically.

I’ll be curious to hear whatever the hell that means.
One of my favorite songs right now, it’s called “Runner-Up,” and, I mean, when I wrote it on piano and vocal, it sounds — the first thing that comes to minds is Pinkerton-esque, but I hesitate to use that, because that means so much to people. It sounds very like that core, emotional Rivers that an old-school fan would love, but then the way it was produced — my piano is in there, but then there are all these electronic, dark elements that sound like nothing we’ve ever done.

Getting back to college: It was much discussed at the time that you were in a period of total celibacy. Not even masturbating. Do you think that helped you in your life?
It was extreme. I don’t know how much you know about how I ended up in that position. I don’t know how much I’ve said about it.

I mean, we all heard rumors. I had a friend in your longform-essay-writing class who said you did a piece about how you’d been endlessly horny while touring. I guess we all assumed it was a response to the kind of oversexed exhaustion you sang about in “Tired of Sex.”
Celibacy wasn’t like … it actually wasn’t that important to me. It was a means to an end — which was that I wanted to get into the long Vipassana [meditation] courses, of 20 days or more. There’s a prerequisite which is that you have to be in a lifelong committed relationship, or you have to be completely celibate for two years, at least. From the time I took my first Vipassana course, which was ten days, I was like, “I want to get into the long course. I’m going to be celibate starting right now, so two years from now, I can take the long course.” Very quickly, I realized, This really sucks and I’m not going to be able … I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life, therefore, I want to get married. I’m going to go that route. So let’s find somebody and let’s do this. It took a long time. I mean, it took a year and a half to find somebody and propose, and then even after that, it took a long time to get married. It ended up being three years of complete celibacy.

But why stay celibate if you had decided to go the other route and get married?
Oh, because I wanted to keep doing the long courses and I wasn’t married yet. So I had to wait until I was married. It was tough and it was extreme, and I could feel that it was influencing me in ways that were imbalanced. Like that essay: It’s so full of suppressed horniness, and that’s not the most interesting place to write from. If that wasn’t prerequisite for the course, I wouldn’t have … I don’t think I would have been completely celibate for three years. No way.

Do you think you would have gotten married if it hadn’t been a prerequisite?
Maybe not. [Laughs.] It’s crazy.

Clearly you love your wife, so it worked out well, but did you ever worry that that’s not a great reason to get married? So you can get into a course?
I guess it’s more than just getting into a course. It’s … I want to go as far as I can on this spiritual path. This is the first and the deepest commitment of my life — to this spiritual path — and that is for the rest of my life. Maybe that’s an old-fashioned way to structure your life, rather than structuring it on the passion you’re feeling for another human being, but it’s from a rational perspective. It seems kind of sane.

And it’s worked out.
Yeah. It’s worked out great.

Do you evangelize for it at all? Do you tell people who are going through troubles, “Hey, try Vipassana”?
No. I mean, I only would go so far as to describe what I’ve done, and I know this path I’m on is very hard, and it’s a very … I think it’s a rare person that would be called to do it. I guess I would evangelize to the point of saying, “Check it out. You’ll know if it’s something that’s right for you. Go to the website.” That’s all I did. When I saw that, I was like, “Oh, shit. This is it.” And of course I had to try the course. It’s dhamma.org.

Not to make things about me too much, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how I need to get my life together and be more whole and moral and purpose-driven. I’m thinking that I need to engage with Jewish faith. Maybe it’ll be a similar process to what you went through.
How old are you?

I’m just about 32.
Yeah, so that’s right when I did it. It was right before my 33rd birthday. I was kind of at the same place. Like, Things are not going well without some kind of commitment to a practice. And for me, it wasn’t a faith. There’s no faith involved. But it’s a total commitment to a path and practice.

Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo Is Very Lonely, But Big Into Lifehacks