Rivers Cuomo On Weezer's Latest, 'OK Human,' And The Need To Riff (Or Not)
Weezer's lead singer and songwriter, Rivers Cuomo, works on so much music simultaneously that, during NPR's interview about the band's latest album, he briefly had to check his notes to remind himself what songs are even on it. The story of OK Human dates back to 2017, when the band decided to begin working on album that would back up its rock instrumentation with an orchestra. As it was wrapping up production, Cuomo got a fateful phone call.
The band had been booked on the 2020 Hella Mega Tour, which would have the quartet co-headlining alongside Green Day and Fall Out Boy, shredding guitars for audiences in the hundreds of thousands. Cuomo says it was the right news for the wrong moment. "We're like, 'OK, we just made the worst possible album [for that tour],' " he says.
So they pivoted, dramatically, and made a heavy metal album. "We finish that album," Cuomo recalls, "and our manager calls and says 'Guess what? The whole tour is off! There's a pandemic!' " Off the hook, Weezer turned back to its original, orchestral plan. (The metal album is due later this year.)
OK Human is out today. Cuomo joined NPR's Ailsa Chang to talk about his need to pursue opposing sounds in his music, his data-driven approach to songwriting and the time he briefly went on leave from Weezer to enroll at Harvard. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ailsa Chang: This is your fifth album in about five years. I read that you had said a few years ago that when you finish an album, you want to do the total opposite for the next album. And I was wondering, is that also why you kind of wanted to go orchestral on this one — that this approach was just so different from your previous albums?
Rivers Cuomo: I've always thought of music like a massage. If somebody is massaging your right foot and they're doing a great job, your left foot is just like, "Wait a minute, what about me?" And maybe when you started, your left foot didn't need a massage at all, but now suddenly it just really needs a massage. You just need this balance. That's what music is like for me. If I do the orchestra thing, then I want to shred guitar for a minute.
I have to say, when I listen to this album, I still hear Weezer — like I still hear the same underlying sound. Was that on purpose?
I mean, yeah. At heart, I still have a lot of the same needs as a listener and as a Weezer fan myself. The chorus has got to really lift me up, and I gotta feel those tingles. Even if I started to write a very mellow album, I think I would keep revising the song until it ended up uplifting me in the chorus. It's just something my body needs.
One of the most interesting things I've learned about you is that for a long time you've used data to write some of your songs — that you deconstruct hit songs, you figure out why they worked and then you plot that knowledge into some sort of database. Can you just explain how that process informs your songwriting?
I got really into computer programming, and I've definitely written a lot of scripts that help me, mainly for organizing decades of old ideas and demos and lyric ideas. It's extremely helpful. If you've written most of the song, and you're at the last line or the second verse and you need a new idea from somewhere, you go to your list and you start plugging in ideas, and one of them just works like magic.
I guess it totally contradicts my romanticized image of what songwriting is like. I picture people just sort of sitting there with a guitar and spontaneous inspiration hits them. But you have this very organized, methodical way of bringing inspiration to you.
There's a fair amount of the romantic vision of what an artist is doing, but I'm definitely not shy of using any tool at my disposal. Whatever it takes to get the job done.
It's kind of cool what a geek you are, I have to say.
Yeah, well, it's amazing how much power there is at our disposal now. I'm just a 50-year-old guy who doesn't really know what he's doing, but it's incredible how powerful these programs are.
Well, I do want to talk a little more about your inner geek and go back to the mid-'90s, after Weezer's first album came out. You have all of this success, and then the next thing you do is you decide, "I'm going to go to Harvard." Tell me, what was that about?
Well, of course, growing up in high school [I thought], "School sucks. I hate homework. I just want to play in my band. I just want to be a rock star." And I worked really hard toward that — moved to Hollywood, finally got the record deal. Record comes out, song gets on the radio, lo and behold, we're rock stars — and I realize, this sucks. It's totally boring playing the same songs every night, just driving in a bus, packing, unpacking. I want to use my brain. I want to learn something. I'm just bored.
So we were on tour in Boston, and I went up to the Harvard campus and picked up an application, filled it out. And they let me in. So it's like, "Sorry guys, I'm going to do this thing for a while, not sure when I'm coming back." But I loved it so much — and yet I was there only for a little while. And then I was like, I really miss being in the band.
Maybe it's that whole balance thing, you know?
Yeah, again. I love using my intellect, and I love being out in a crowd, too.
So let me ask you, Rivers: What is next? If every album is supposed to be the opposite of the last, I guess right now we've got this rock and roll orchestral album. You've got this other album, already there in the can, waiting to be released, that's a heavy metal rock album. What's the opposite to the opposite to all that?
We're pretty sure the next idea is going to be called "Seasons," and it's a four-album collection. Each of the four albums comes out on the first day of the relevant season, and each album will have a very different musical and lyrical theme. Spring can be a very breezy, carefree acoustic-type album, whereas fall is going to be dance rock. So I've got the four folders going in Dropbox. I'm having a great time.
I love it. I love how the next opposite is gonna be a collection of elements that are opposite to each other.
Yeah, exactly. I'll be thoroughly massaged.
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