Kings of the world
Everything will be alright in the end, they said. But with their ‘White’ album, Weezer underestimated. Now they’re back on top of the world.
Words: Stephen Ackroyd. Interview: Ali Shutler. Photos: Emma Swann.
The truth is, if you had a pound for every time you were told a band sound like Weezer, you’d be both very rich indeed, and still have only really heard one band that actually sound like Weezer. They’re unique. Not only is their sonic delivery harder to ape than many believe – it’s not just being able to plonk any harmony over a guitar part, y’know – but no other band has to face the same hundred foot wall of extreme opinions.
Face it, everyone has something to say about Weezer, and those thoughts, they’re not subtle. They’re caricatures of an original notion, bloated and grotesque from countless repetitions, dragged forth at every turn. Those still in nappies when ‘Pinkerton’ dropped are quick off the draw to proclaim it the last good thing the band did. More than a few may not have even listened to it; not properly, at any rate. It’s just one of those echo chamber cries that bounce around the internet. It’s also, crucially, a load of old bollocks.
The truth is, every Weezer album between then and now contains at least one great song. Yes, even ‘Raditude’. In fact, they mostly pack a few. ‘Green’, ‘Maladroit’, ‘Everything Will Be Alright In The End’ – they’re genuinely good albums. But hey, never let that get in the way of a snappy tweet.
And in that, the truth comes out. Weezer fans [yep, massively guilty – Ed] are defensive. They’ll fight you for the honour of their heroes, all the time praying that eventually they’ll drop that record that will prove them right; that the glory days aren’t over, that the California Kids are still capable of being the best of the best.
And then, out of seemingly nowhere, came the ‘White’ album…
“We currently have 72 on Metacritic, I think the last album was maybe 74 but,” Rivers Cuomo looks up from his phone. “Oh, 73. 73 based on 23 critics and as far as the user ratings go, which is just fans, not critics… yeah, it has 8.6.”
The rest of the band may claim to not pay that much attention to reviews, but it’s clear their frontman does. Last night, they played a storming show at London’s Brixton Academy. They don’t make it onto UK shores that often (“Reading & Leeds was the last time we were here. I remember thinking ‘wow, these shows went over really well. I’m sure they’ll ask us back next year.”), but when they do the reaction is rarely anything but euphoric.
“It’s cool to see people singing lyrics that aren’t a single,” enthuses drummer Pat Wilson. “I remember that happening on ‘Pinkerton’ and that was my first clue that something unusual was going on, ‘cos people knew the words right away.”
And there it is – the long ball, dropping over the shoulder, waiting to hit the back of the net. The nuances may change depending on who you’re talking to, but Weezer’s latest album is – in some people’s eyes at least – being proclaimed their best since that one. Others still hold a soft spot for its two successors too, but whatever way you approach it, it’s most definitely a turning of the tide.
“I saw a really good debate between these two guys this morning about the ‘White’ album and how it fares compared to older material,” recalls guitarist Brian Bell. “Even the guys’ criticisms of the band over the years, they both really loved Weezer. Not every single album is particularly going to be your cup of tea, but we’re still growing and changing and trying new things and at the same time maintaining what’s great about Weezer right now. I think we’ve got a couple good albums in a row here.”
– Rivers Cuomo
Part of the reason ‘White’ works so well is it feels to have a theme. In fact, according to the band, that’s down to their new management. “We tried something new,” Brian admits, “which was trust somebody. They were the ones that suggested the Bach theme. Thought about it, like really heavy thinkers.”
“It got us to focus and it got us to write a bunch of songs with that in mind and that made it a thematic record. A cohesive record.”
But while the band may have been thinking of classical composers, it’s another of their influences that rings loudest. The ‘White’ album is definitely a West Coast record – Californian sun, sea and surf – and under those conditions there’s only one band that comes to mind.
”I think in our first bio we put words not to describe Weezer,” Brian explains. “One of them was ‘fun’. Of course the press picked them up and used those words for everything. It’s all they used. How do you describe a sound? It’s really hard. We said Beach Boys with Marshall stacks. We always had that sound in mind. Now in 2016, as evolved musicians, we can start to sorta tap into that ‘Pet Sounds’…”
“They were a big influence on me in my most formative years as a songwriter,” Rivers expands. “I remember when I was 21 or 22, right when Weezer got together. I went to the local used record shop in Santa Monica with the intention of buying a classic album that was going to be a huge influence on me and my writing for Weezer. I flipped through all the records and I narrowed it down to two records. One of them was ‘Led Zeppelin’, the other was ‘Pet Sounds’ by The Beach Boys. It was almost a coin toss but I ended up going with ‘Pet Sounds’, and I really came to love the melodies and the chord progression and the emotion on that record. It has to be one of the biggest influences right when Weezer was starting out.”
It’s not as if that influence has ever gone away – those trademark harmonies are still the band’s de facto calling card – but for a while they found themselves sharing a bed with other, more contemporary influences too. Over the last couple of albums, though, they’ve come back to the fore. It’s not that Weezer have rejected modern music, but more that what they had in the first place is timeless.
“On the one hand you don’t want to alienate your audience, who are very much listening to records that were created in the past,” Rivers muses. “They love you, and any kind of change is going to be difficult for them, but at the same time, as an artist, you want to try crazy new things and throw out the rule book. Those are the two different poles, pulling us in different directions when we’re in the studio. It’s an ongoing conversation going back and forth, trying to figure out the best way to move forward and press the most pleasure buttons for everyone.
“I think everyone involved has both of those poles inside them, but if I had to separate us on paper, I think the two strongest proponents of each side were Jake [Sinclair, the album’s producer] on the one side who was very much coming from the position of growing up with Weezer, and then on the other pole is probably me who doesn’t even remember what happened yesterday let alone last album, and is just so excited to be coming up with some crazy weird new thing.”
– Pat Wilson
Weezer songs themselves may sound effortless, but in fact there’s a method to their inception. “Every song is different,” Rivers explains. “I have a pretty big toolbox of different techniques I use for writing. I have stockpiles of ideas, lists of titles, lists of lines – I’ll have lists of ‘this will be a good first line for a verse’, ‘this would be a good line for a pre-chorus’, that sort of thing.
“Everything’s all tagged and categorised and of course, I’ll have topics I want to write about, concepts I make notes of, if I overhear someone overuse a cool phrase. I can go on social media and read people’s descriptions of themselves – sometimes they have catchy little slogans to describe themselves. Maybe I’ll see something on someone’s t-shirt. I’ll go through my journals and highlight cool lines. I have giant stockpiles of ideas so when I go to write a song in the morning, I’m never lacking material. There’s always something to work with.”
“As someone who is writing most of the songs from the beginning, one big change is realising micromanaging is not the way to go,” he continues. “Especially with this record. We made a point, each of the guys would go off with Jake and work on their parts without me around. Even with the best of intentions, if I’m around, I’ll have my own reaction to the idea as they’re coming up with it, even if they haven’t had a chance to work on it yet. It’s better if they can go into their own space and really be creative without any pressure from me.”
“I like that word, legacy,” muses bassist Scott Shriner. “I think about it all the time. We were doing a television show a couple of months ago, and I was playing this keyboard part. I’m not a keyboard player, and I was thinking ‘man, someday my kid can be grown and see this. I can’t shame the family – I’ve got to pull this off’.
“You just never know how long music is going to last for. Or where it’s going to go or who is going to pick it up, but I like the idea of a legacy. Leaving something, doing something historic and making a little bit of a mark in the process. We’re doing something together. The power of the four of us is greater than any individual here. It’s fucking cool.” “We make our own universe,” Pat exclaims, with Rivers agreeing: “We were never part of a scene.” “I’ll never forget this moment, when I entered the ‘Blue’ album recording session, the first thing I saw on the door at Electric Ladyland – it said Weezer World, and I knew that when I opened that door I was stepping into something. Wayne’s World was around at the time, I think it was a play on that, but as soon as I stepped into that room, this is a whole universe. It really is.” It’s a universe that other bands want to join, even if it’s near impossible to keep orbit. This summer, Weezer go on tour with Panic! At The Disco – a pairing that’s both a little strange and makes perfect sense at the same time, Brendon Urie’s slick, chart-friendly rock possibly even opening up Weezer to a new generation of fans. “I’ve known [Brendon] for ten years or so,” Rivers explains. “We go to each others shows, that sort of thing. We interviewed each other and it took us a while to get into a groove because his brain is moving 180bpm and mine is going about 55bpm, so we sorta came together a little bit but man, he’s fast. “I just keep hearing how amazing their crowd is,” he continues. “How open-minded their crowd is and how much they love music. Every band that Panic! has brought on tour with them over the last couple of years has gone on to be really successful” “Yeah, we’re going to be the first to put a stop to that,” interjects Pat. “I think it’s going to be a really interesting mix,” Brian offers, “because Weezer fans are super intense and passionate about music so it’s going to be a good night.”
Few bands reach ten albums. Heck, many don’t even make it past one in the cut-throat world of 2016. Most, by that point, have a template – not just a sound, but a hard and fast expectation that each record will sound like the last. Not Weezer though. They have their identity, sure, but they’re always looking to try new things. Word of a ‘Black’ album has already got out – a follow up to ‘White’ that will drop in a year – though if ‘White’ takes off commercially “we’d continue touring that album and we’d put the black album on hold,“ Rivers says. While there’s every chance that will happen, as it stands the band plan to decamp to the studio at the back end of the year to start work. “It seems like we were on the right track,” Rivers says. “I’ve been furiously working on the next one, writing tons of songs, probably these guys have too. Our audience trust us now and I think we have a little more leeway to be more experimental on the next record.” Yep, there’ll be no sitting back. “There’s always an element of one album being a reaction to the previous one. The reaction to the ‘White’ album has been so positive, it’s really confirmed a lot of where we wanted to go anyway. I think it’s going to be more adventurous, experimental, a little less traditional – but I think the audience is ready to be challenged a little more now. “I think I might mix in some swears,” he cautiously muses. “I might! I might try, we’ll see how it goes. Darker, more adult themes.” That’s Weezer in a nutshell. Their most critically-lauded album in over a decade, and they’re flat-out refusing to just do the same again. They’ve had twenty years of people telling them to ‘just make another ‘Pinkerton’’, so why would they change now? And besides, ‘Pinkerton’ was supposed to be a musical anyway. “That was wild,” Brian recalls. “I remember when Rivers showed me the concept and, oh my god, we were characters, it was unbelievable but then it morphed into something else.” Would the reaction have been as euphoric to Weezer: The Musical? “That’s why you don’t read those things because it doesn’t do you any good at all,” Brian sighs. “There’s nothing to get from it that’s positive.”