Rivers Cuomo on the Best, Worst, and Most Misunderstood of Weezer

Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

Rivers Cuomo has work to do. Over the past six years, he and Weezer have played festivals, opened for the Foo Fighters, and co-headlined gigs with the Pixies, Fall Out Boy, and Green Day, but what they haven’t done is tour the U.S. as the main attraction. With a slew of dates lined up this summer, Cuomo is fretting over Weezer’s set lists, which he hopes will appeal to both Pinkerton diehards and the fans who just discovered the band via TikTok.

“We haven’t done this in a while. We’ve been stuck with ‘60 minutes, play the hits, and make room for Green Day,’” Cuomo tells Vulture with a laugh. “This is a proper Weezer headline, 90-minute set, and it’s going to be for all Weezer fans. It’s a great opportunity to go deeper and more unusual.”

The tour isn’t exactly pegged to anything, but it comes at a busy time for the band. In 2022, Weezer released SZNZ, a set of four mini-albums that are themed around the different parts of the calendar, while 2024 will mark the 30th anniversary of their self-titled debut, a.k.a. The Blue Album. This mix of new and old has the 52-year-old Cuomo eager to celebrate the band’s early days while coming up with fresh ways to entertain.

In the spirit of looking back at Weezer’s vast catalogue with an eye to the future, Vulture caught up with Cuomo to talk through the best, most underappreciated, and most enduring songs of his career, with detours into his post–Blue Album stint as a Harvard student, the surgery he underwent to make his legs the same length, and his fondest memories of working with Spike Jonze and late Cars front man Ric Ocasek, who produced three Weezer LPs.

Song you wish more people liked

Well, like many artists, I’m usually most excited about the thing I just made. We put out Winter and there’s an incredible song called “Iambic Pentameter” that has this insane guitar-solo instrumental passage where we’re jamming out with an orchestra, and oh my God, it’s so fun. So yeah, that would probably be my first vote.

But as far as a deep, classic cut, there’s “Longtime Sunshine” from the Alone albums. It’s incredible. It’s so simple, so honest, and really, it just says exactly how I was feeling at the time completely. The Blue Album came out, we were on tour for many months, and like so many artists of my generation, as soon as the success came that we’d been working for our entire lives, we got super-depressed and disillusioned and lonely.

That nightly grind of performing and then getting back on the bus was … I just felt so empty. I was fantasizing about giving it all up and moving back to New England, where I’m from, and going to school and getting married and having kids and living a quiet life in rural New England. I made that move, but within, like, two weeks of going back to college, I was like, “You know what? I kind of miss being on tour and being with the band.” So then I wrote “The Good Life,” which is kind of the opposite sentiment.

I was just going to ask, which song reminds you most of your time at Harvard?

Well, most of Pinkerton was written while I was there. “El Scorcho,” “The Good Life.” I can remember working on those songs, just day after day, riding the bus, walking the campus, learning things in class, interacting with other kids there. All of that just feeds into those songs.

Most underappreciated Weezer song

I always loved “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” from The Red Album. That’s a totally unique song. It’s incredibly fun. It’s like what only a cool rock band could do. It has nothing to do with pop music or computers or anything. I don’t know, it’s just one of those songs that’s totally unique, totally Weezer. It would be awesome to see it on Weezer’s top songs on Spotify along with the other hits, which also meet those criteria. Like, there’s really no other song like “Undone – The Sweater Song” or “Hash Pipe” or “Buddy Holly.” I mean, they’re nothing like each other, even.

The best Weezer song you didn’t sing

You mean that one of the other guys sang? You’re gonna make me take sides? Oh, I know! I think it’s pretty obvious because it was recently trending on TikTok. A lot of people had no idea it was Weezer, so when they found out it was, they were frustrated because they like it but they don’t like Weezer. It’s sung by Rachel Haden from a band called That Dog and the song is “I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams.”

The reason she’s singing it instead of me is that it was written to be part of a music drama called Songs From the Black Hole. It was supposed to be inspired by musical theater, which is a medium I’ve always loved. There’s always been this slight feeling of anxiety that there’s something kind of frivolous about it or not quite deeply serious enough, but it was still super-inspiring when I started working on it. Then I went through this surgical procedure that lasted 13 months where there were all these pins and wires and screws going through my leg. I was in a lot of physical pain, and this is also when I was taking time off from the band, and I was so lonely. I got to this very deep, heavy place, and suddenly, it didn’t make sense for me to be writing a musical-theater piece with these different characters, including a robot, singing. I just needed to get super-direct and simple and autobiographical and heavy.

Rachel was to play a character named Laurel who sings the song “I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams.” And it’s such an awesome song. It sounds very much like mid-’90s Weezer with a beautiful melody and big crunchy guitars and cool synths but then there’s this woman singing with this incredibly beautiful, pure voice, so it’s a really fresh take on the Weezer sound. So I changed the whole thing to Pinkerton. It’s arguably better than some of the songs on Pinkerton.

The worst thing about the initial reaction to Pinkerton

There was one person who liked it. I still remember who it was — it was Russell Simins from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. No one else on earth liked it. I was so hurt and embarrassed and I really, really disliked myself for making the record I made and for thinking that that was the right record to make. As often has happened with me and maybe with other artists, you kind of flip-flop. With each album, you try to go in the opposite direction you went on the last album. So if Pinkerton was about articulating the deepest, most complicated emotions with deep and complicated songs, for The Green Album I set out to write the simplest possible songs that are just pure candy, that articulate nothing. Just pure fun and catchiness.

Favorite memory of working with Ric Ocasek

The most valuable thing I learned from him was actually technical. I don’t know if it’s something that would be helpful or interesting to any non-musician but it made a huge difference in my life, and that is just to make the recordings sound bigger and more powerful, more professional than I would have on my own. If you listened to Weezer’s demos before we met and recorded with Rick, it would have been something closer to Pinkerton. So technically speaking, he introduced us to the click track to give the music this very powerful, hypnotic feeling to it. The first time you hear “The Sweater Song” on the radio, it just hypnotizes you, and the click track is part of that. And he had me change guitars. I had a very grungy, bass-y guitar sound, which I loved. It sounded great when I was playing by myself, but in the context of the record, it was too muddy and didn’t have the power. He had me use his Les Paul Jr. and I’ve used it on every record since. It has a much more biting tone to it. So you put all that together and it’s like, “Wow, that’s the sound of Weezer.” My life would be very different without that contribution of his.

He brought this feeling of incredible excitement. We were just these kids playing in the local clubs here in town and when we sent him our demo tape and he got back to us, we could tell he actually got it. Nobody else in the music industry got what we loved about our band. We could tell: He gets us the way we get us. He said, “You’ve got to come out to New York City and we’re going to record at Electric Lady studios.” I knew that studio because that’s where these great Kiss albums were made, so we went and camped out there for the summer, 1993. It was like we were getting this glimpse into the world of success — here’s Ric Ocasek, this icon we grew up with, and we’re in the studio and we’re in New York City. It gave us so much energy.

He was a very gentle character. Very funny and a biting wit. He was always supportive of me. Unlike just about every other producer, he was happy to let me be as in charge as I wanted to be, which was quite in charge. I had already been in bands before and I felt like, many times, well-intended engineers and producers put the wrong reverb on my voice or whatever. By this time, I was determined, like I knew what I wanted to sound like. He would make suggestions but then I always got to make the final call, and I really appreciated that.

Best Spike Jonze–directed Weezer video

Well, the one that was the most fun to make would be “Island in the Sun” because those animals are just so cool. It was such a trip. Yeah, I mean, I’ve never before and ever since been able to hang out with a monkey, so it was a great experience.

You had already done a video for the song with Marcos Siega. Was it the label’s decision to bring in Spike for another try? 

Yeah, it was. And when I say the label, I mean, Jordan Schur, who was the head of the label. He was such a go-getter. He’s just like, “Let’s make a whole ’nother video! Let’s get Spike Jonze on the phone! Let’s make this happen!” And then we did it. I mean, they’re both cool. In the end, I don’t think the second one really helped — the song still didn’t do so well. That song is incredible, though, because it didn’t work on radio and just kind of went away. It was like, “Oh, okay, I guess nobody wants to hear that song.” Fast forward 20 years and it’s by far our biggest song on streaming. It’s closing in on a billion streams. I don’t know if there’s a bigger song from 2001. I mean, you could probably Google and find out, but I think it might be the biggest song from 2001. At that time, no one would have made that bet.

Best Weezer album

When fans ask me this, I always say, “I don’t do favorites.” But yeah, I’m gonna go with what I said before. My favorite is the thing I just made, so it would be … I don’t know, I love Summer, Autumn, and Winter all for different reasons. They all came out last year. It would be very hard to choose, so I’ll just say SZNZ.

Most misunderstood song

The one I was most surprised to hear the public’s reaction to was “Beverly Hills.” I don’t know if this is still the case, but I often heard that people thought I was making fun of Beverly Hills, that I was being sarcastic in the chorus when I say, “That’s where I want to be.” I was 100 percent sincere when I wrote it. I know it doesn’t sound all that virtuous to have a craving to live in Beverly Hills and be a real celebrity, but that is the feeling I was having in the moment I wrote that song. So I was surprised that people took it the other way.

Blue Album track that aged the best

To me, the whole thing really stands the test of time. But I’m not a young person, so I don’t know — maybe it sounds old-fashioned. When I hear it, it still sounds like, Wow, this is so cool and weird and fresh and different. But it’s 30 years old, so how could it be? I think maybe I would go with “The Sweater Song.” There’s something about the feel of it when it kicks in. It’s so weird and different and, therefore, timeless.

Being that it was the song that introduced you to the world, did you ever get tired of playing, hearing, or being associated with it? 

No, because in Weezer’s case, we don’t really have the “one song.” We have a number of songs that are kind of our biggest song in different ways. “Island in the Sun,” as we said, is the biggest streaming song. I guess that’s how a lot of people find out about us. But then you have “Buddy Holly,” which was our biggest video and it’s used in tons of memes and TikTok videos. Then you have “Beverly Hills,” which was by far our biggest radio song. Depending on the audience some nights, that one would get the biggest reaction. Then we have “Africa,” [chuckles] which is like our biggest viral song in recent years. So we have all these different songs that are kind of big in different ways, and it’s hard to be conflicted about or resentful toward any one of them.

The strangest place you’ve ever heard your music

Wow. I don’t know how well I record that stuff in my brain. Recently, we heard our song “Run, Raven, Run” in a Baltimore Ravens game on TV. That was pretty cool. I can tell you the strangest place I’ve seen a picture of us. It was above a urinal that I had stepped up to in a bathroom in a club. I felt like I was being watched by Weezer as I was relieving myself. I guess it means you’ve kind of made it.

Cuomo famously enrolled in Harvard in 1995 to study classical composition. Ocasek produced Wezzer’s Blue Album, Green Album, and Everything Will Be Alright in the End
Rivers Cuomo on the Best and Most Misunderstood of Weezer