Interview: Rivers Cuomo
Tue, 09 Dec 2008 08:36:15
For Rivers Cuomo, being alone isn't a bad thing. In fact, when he's not crushing arenas with Weezer, the prolific frontman spends a lot of time writing songs, and he's got a massive output of catchy rock n' roll gems stored on his hard drive from years and years of writing. Quickly following on the heels of this summer's Red Album with Weezer, Cuomo compiled some of his favorite songs for Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo, a personal and poignant musical look deep inside the enigmatic and elusive frontman's psyche. It's infectious, intriguing and utterly Cuomo. He sat down with ARTISTdirect.com in this exclusive interview to talk about being Alone, writing songs and why rock n' roll is all a façade.
How did the songs for Alone II come about?
The songs were written over a period between 1992 and 2007. I put everything I've ever recorded into iTunes, and there were just hundreds and hundreds of files. Whenever I have a chance, I go through and listen to things. I rate them with the iTunes ratings, one-to-five stars. Then, from there, I came away with about eight hours of music that I thought was at least semi-decent. Then, I got together with five or six friends and we listened to all of that music. We picked the very best songs. There we had Alone II.
Did you take more of an unplugged, stripped-down approach to writing than you do with Weezer?
Oh yeah, as far as recording the songs goes. There are songs on here that I'm just as proud of and satisfied by as anything on a Weezer record like "Pork and Beans" or "The Greatest Man that Ever Lived" from The Red Album. I've been working on and compiling demos in my home studio, and I feel totally uninhibited there. I can experiment and do whatever I want, so there's a really wide range of sounds and styles because I know that it doesn't have to be right for Weezer or any particular audience, I'm just doing things for myself.
Are you more comfortable doing these songs because there's more freedom?
Well, I didn't record any of these songs for Alone. I didn't record any of them to be released. This is just me having fun at home. Years later, I've gone back and decided that I want to share them with the world, so there was absolutely no pressure on me. There were no expectations. I didn't think anyone was going to be hearing it, so I felt completely free.
These songs possess a real immediacy, and it's a tangible record because everything was captured so on-the-spot.
Yeah, it's like the wall between me and the audience is completely broken down. I'm willing to let everyone come in, hear me and watch me in the studio as I'm writing the songs basically. A lot of being in a rock band is telling a lie. You end up projecting this image that everything is fun and perfect the first time you press, "Record." This record is all about being completely honest, letting people inside and seeing the real work in progress. You can open up the liner notes and see the picture of the girl in my high school yearbook or my home photos. The cover of the album is from my senior portrait shoot.
The cover takes you to a warm nostalgic place, removed from today's high gloss.
It's actually the '80s [Laughs]. That's the effect the graphic designer was going for. I don't know how he came up with that.
One song, "Walt Disney," stands out. What's the story behind that one?
I wrote "Walt Disney" at the beginning of 1995. The first Weezer record had come out about eight months before. We were just catapulting to great success for the first time in my life. We were working our butts off, touring, promoting, going to radio stations and doing in-stores. I was just completely exhausted and spiritually and creatively drained. I hadn't written any songs or written in my journal or done anything mentally or creatively in months. I just felt like I was a dead. I went home for a vacation, and I wrote this song "Walt Disney" which is supposed to capture my feeling of being cold and creatively dead and being afraid of going back out on the road again because I was due to go back out on the road in a few weeks. I was dreading that experience.
On these songs, you're truly telling stories.
Most of these songs, throughout my history as a writer, I've pretty much just waited for some really tough experience in my life to come along where I just feel like I have to write a lyric about it and just explain what's going on as precisely as I can, and then I feel a lot better.
This kind of musical exercise has to bring fans closer to you as an artist than ever before.
Yeah, absolutely. I've had a lot of these songs for years, and they've just been sitting here in my room. I just felt so much anxiety about having these songs I loved sitting here. I wanted them to get out and be shared with the world and my audience because that's really an important part of the process for me, not just being able to express it and get it on tape, but having people hear it and see what it is I was feeling.
It's got to be fun to finally see these come to life because you've lived with them for so long.
Yes, it's a total blast to see that people are finally hearing these records. I saw it starting last December when we put out the first Alone record. It was really gratifying to see the positive reaction from the audience, and that's what inspired me to go ahead with number two right away.
“A lot of being in a rock band is telling a lie.”
Did you have a thread in mind for the songs that ended up on number two?
No, primarily, I just wanted to make the most compelling rock record that I could so that a person wouldn't necessarily have to be a Weezer fan or to care about the story of my life. They just want to put on a record and get rocked. I just went for those songs. That's the next step, once I've got the best songs, I'm really careful about putting them in the right order so it does feel like there's some drama there. Also, going back and writing the liner notes, I think it's like a 11,000 word-essay that really fills out the story and lets people into the drama that's the last 15 years of my life.
It allows fans a certain insight into you that a lot of other artists don't offer.
My most compelling songwriting has always been drawn from my life. For whatever reason, I'm the type of artist that likes to actually express what's going on in his life and share that. There are other artists out there who like to make up stories or play characters, and that's cool too, but I'm a reality artist.
People can latch onto that real experience. You explore darker subject matter in a palatable way.
It always seems to be the dark stuff that inspires me to write songs when I'm really sad or frustrated. When I'm just feeling happy and carefree, I usually don't feel like writing a song, but I'm always interested in trying to make it something that has some sense of balance to it or somehow has an uplifting feel to it, even though I'm singing about something dark. There's the song I did with Jermaine Dupri, "Can't Stop Partying," where there is kind of a reverse example. He gave me these lyrics, which were totally fun and all about partying—living the high life, and I had to bring it into balance by bringing in a darker element with the music. So I retained his lyrics, but I wrote some very sad minor-key chords underneath it, played over and over again under these happy lyrics. It gives it a very dark undertone. Another example, "My Brain is Working Overtime," the situation in my life is I was really losing it. I was experiencing tremendous anxiety. This was in 1999, I felt like Weezer was over. Our second record had failed. I couldn't seem to write good songs to come back with a third album, and it just seemed like we were going the Guns N' Roses way at the time. I was just pulling my hair out. Suddenly this song came out. Although, it really does capture that sense of tremendous anxiety, there's still a contrasting element of fun, humor and lightness that gives it some balance.