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May 2021
Feature

Weezer: "I'm very anxious right now about what it means to be human"

Weezer's surprise new album 'OK Human' sees the band utilise a pretty impressive orchestra to ponder the impact of technology. 
Published: 11:24 am, January 29, 2021Words: Dillon Eastoe.
Weezer: "I'm very anxious right now about what it means to be human"

"Not everyone knows what the La Brea Tar Pits are? OK, yeah, I mean they're quite well known here in LA, but I guess it makes sense that they wouldn't be elsewhere." Rivers Cuomo, the driving force behind rock legends Weezer, is giving Upset a quick California history lesson before talking through the final track on 'OK Human', the band's fully orchestral new album. "There are sabre-tooths and woolly mammoths, and all kinds of animals got trapped in the tar and starved to death. And in some cases, a woolly mammoth would get stuck there, and the sabre-tooth would come along and say, 'Oh great, I'm gonna go eat this guy', and he wades in, and then he gets stuck, and they both die together."

"All those animals ended up extinct," Cuomo continues. "So I think it was a metaphor for me feeling like the world has evolved beyond me and I'm going extinct, and no matter what I try to do, I'm just stuck here in this tar."

Music has changed enormously since Weezer's Happy Days-spoofing video for 'Buddy Holly' reached the masses through its inclusion on Microsoft's Windows '95 CD-ROM, downloading Cuomo's melodic loser-rock into millions of households. Since then, Weezer have both delighted and divided their fanbase with their plentiful and often baffling output, hit singles 'Island in the Sun' and the sarcastic jock-rock of 'Beverly Hills' bothering radio stations and keeping the quartet in demand on the live circuit. So far, rather than sinking into the tar, Weezer have kept their heads above the surface by finding new angles to deliver the catchy melodies and crunching guitars that brought them fame.

In that time, Weezer have survived their industry-changing beyond recognition as improving technology, and increasingly advanced algorithms continue to race away from human control like a runaway train. "When we started it was pre-internet, and you'd get fan mail, and you'd see people screaming out in the crowd every night. Maybe you'd see them outside the hotel or something. But there was like this real separation between us as artists and the audience. There was really very little communication," Cuomo reminisces. "And then as the internet started to become more popular, our second album [1996's 'Pinkerton'] comes out and then, wow, people are commenting on our album on Amazon.com, and they're leaving ratings. A lot of this is not flattering, it's more critical. How do we integrate this? And then within the next few years, there are lots of message boards and forums and, wow, suddenly we're getting tons of unfiltered feedback direct from people's brainstems. How can I even survive as an artist as I'm hearing everyone's thoughts?"

"I'm going extinct, and no matter what I try to do, I'm just stuck here in this tar"
Rivers Cuomo

For their part, Weezer embraced the opportunities of the early internet, with Rivers sharing demo mp3s for their 2002 hard-rock album 'Maladroit' on their website, and getting a telling off from label Geffen for their troubles.

With their love-letter to 80s hair-metal, 'Van Weezer', postponed until spring in the hope of shredding it onstage at the Hella Mega Tour alongside Green Day and Fall Out Boy, Cuomo, guitarist Brian Bell, drummer Pat Wilson and bassist Scott Shriner turned their attention to finishing what could well be their late-career masterpiece. Teased since 2019, then released with just two weeks' notice in January, 'OK Human' is a beguiling album that finds the band putting down their heavy metal guitars and enlisting a 38-piece orchestra as Cuomo explores the meaning of human connection in a social world increasingly dominated by technology.

"I was just going to explore my inner emotions and anxieties and I found that I'm very anxious right now about what it means to be human, or what it means to live a meaningful life in an age where we've all split ourselves off on to our personal devices in-" Having cut an almost zen-like picture of calmness up this point, having recently returned from a ten-day meditation retreat, Cuomo, bespectacled as ever and now sporting a fetching moustache, begins to hit his stride. "Soon we'll be editing our genes, and most music you hear is performed by machines now and no longer by humans. And so, as a human myself and a musician, it's like starting to feel pretty sidelined and unsure if… like, where is the dignity in being alive if all I'm doing all day is sitting in front of the screen like typing this, tapping on these little buttons? Not just me, but I look around me and guarantee you go to any house around here or any of the rooms in my house and you'll see a human sitting down looking at a screen tapping buttons.

"The original seed idea was to make an album of me at the piano with the string section that was recorded at Abbey Road. We started out that way and did the strings and put the other band members on."

With the original idea for a string section to complement Rivers on piano, when Weezer returned to work on 'OK Human' last year, the band realised something was missing. "It was stunning. Amazing," Cuomo says of that original Abbey Road session. "But the more we listened to it, the more we realised we wanted the full orchestra - everything from flutes to trombones, clarinets. So we went back again, and this time it is mid-pandemic. I wasn't invited to this session. You can't have people there unless they're utterly necessary. I don't know how they did it," Rivers admits. "I think it was recorded over several days. The wind instruments, especially the brass - it's like that's a real viral transmission problem there when you're blowing your spittle through these long metal tubes into the back of somebody else's head. I'm really glad we were able to do that. It was a pretty close call."

"I don't know what it's like for Brits, but for American musicians, that's just like Mecca," Rivers says of the opportunity for his band to record at Abbey Road. "That's where all the greatest magic in the history of music happened. To have our record, part of it, recorded there, it's just a real dream come true."

Drawing inspiration from legendary Beach Boys record 'Pet Sounds', where Brian Wilson's legendary band pivoted from jangling surf rock to classical instrumentation, 'OK Human' is the first Weezer album to feature no power chords and not a single guitar solo. Instead fluttering strings, delicate piano and jolly horns adorn one of Cuomo's most solid clutch of songs this decade. "I remember when we played these little clubs here in LA. Before every show, I would put on 'Pet Sounds', and I would just sing along to it," Cuomo remembers of the album that changed his life when he picked it up in a record store in Santa Monica in the early 90s (it was apparently a toss-up with a Led Zeppelin LP). "It warmed up my voice and expanded my range and just got me into this mode of thinking very in terms of very romantic, broad melodies. And that very innocent and pure lyrical persona, exploring inner emotions of how much of a summertime hit it could be."

It's testament to how well 'OK Human' hits the mark that Cuomo could just as well have been describing Weezer's own new album. From opener 'All My Favorite Songs', with its spot-on skewering of living life through the internet ("All my favourite people make me mad / Everything that feels so good is bad"), to the final gorgeous orchestral flourish of 'La Brea Tar Pits', Rivers and co. combine some of their most engaging lyrics in years with memorable tunes as well as a remarkable consistency across the twelve songs that Weezer aren't always renowned for.

The serene orchestration and bright melodies on 'Aloo Gobi' jarring against some of the more anxious lyrics create a dreamlike 'Truman Show' eeriness, while 'Grapes of Wrath' describes the duality of our technology addiction at once a source of stress and an escape from reality, with Rivers losing himself in the Audible version of the classic John Steinbeck novel. On the more sombre 'Numbers', Cuomo laments the different metrics we allow to dominate our lives, from social media likes affecting our self-esteem to test scores defining what arts and subjects children can explore at school, before a soaring chorus that would make Chris Martin weep (then wish he'd written it himself).

"I was reminded of Radiohead's amazing seminal album 'OK Computer', and I'm really no music historian or critic but from my perspective, it kind of felt like they were exploring the human/technology relationship at a time when technology was... It was menacing, but it was still kind of like this futuristic threat," Cuomo explains. "Whereas now it feels more like technology has taken over and it's the medium in which we're trying to exist, and community is becoming this afterthought."

"I'm writing from this perspective where we're kind of looking back on what it was like to be a human when humans really mattered," Cuomo continues, a stately piano visible over his shoulder in his LA home. "There's very little in the way of technology on the record, all the instruments of the orchestra have been around for centuries and obviously no synthesisers or loops or computer-generated sounds, and in fact, there's not even an electric guitar."

How did the band manage to tear out those hardwired metal guitars from the circuit board and reprogram Weezer as the best baroque-pop band since 'Pretty. Odd.'-era Panic at the Disco? Rivers makes it all sound so easy. "Over the years I've really come to love the piano, and it's incredibly gratifying to be able to write an equivalent of a guitar solo, an instrumental section where I can compose this beautiful melody. At the same time, unlike on the guitar, I can also compose a left-hand bass line," Cuomo explains excitedly, documenting the feeling on the song 'Play My Piano', unable to tear himself away from the keys even for another Zoom interview (it's ok Rivers, we understand). "It has a completely different identity, and they can be speaking to each other, and you can have a dialogue and a counterpoint, and to me, that's at least as fulfilling as a guitar solo. And then to hear it performed back by an orchestra of top-notch musicians is just totally mind-blowing to me."

"I'll tell you my idea, but I can't guarantee anyone's gonna like it..."
Rivers Cuomo

Guitar-nerds hankering for more wiggy solos on the signature Gibson SG, despair not, 'Van Weezer' is arriving in May to fulfil all your finger-tapping rock-riffing needs. Conceived to give them the oomph to compete with two of rock's heavyweights on the upcoming tour, 'Van Weezer' finds the band returning once more Back to the Shack, indulging the classic rock dreams of their childhoods in what can best be described as Maximum Weezer. "'OK Human' is a very introverted, introspective, quirky, personal, noncommercial album, and it's basically the worst type of record you could put out for a stadium rock heavy metal tour with Green Day," Rivers jokes. "So we're like, OK, let's put that on hold for a minute and go back and make like a stadium-crushing heavy metal album. And it will be like classic Weezer, but we'll bring out those guitar tricks that we practised when we were kids in the 80s, you know, listening to bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and Metallica. Nothing's off-limits, so we brought out the whammy bars and the two-handed tapping."

As all live music stopped dead in 2020, so too did Weezer push back 'Van Weezer' as the Hella Mega tour, a globe-trotting stadium extravaganza that would have taken Weezer, FOB and Green Day to Europe, Asia and across North America, kicked back to 2021.

"It's tough because this is a short set we have on Hello Mega, it's just 60 minutes. We gotta play the big hits, and we have two new albums out. I think we're at a real disadvantage because we play first of three, so we're going to be playing as the sun is still up. And it's hard to bring that Ultra Rock energy when the sun is shining. This music is really meant for the dark. So they have an unfair advantage. But we're going to be giving everything we have."

With the quite brilliant 'OK Human' already out in the world and 'Van Weezer' out later this year, it might seem churlish to ask 'what next?', but this isn't any normal band we're talking about. This is Weezer, and you just know there's probably got more projects already being cooked up behind the scenes. "Well, I have an idea I emailed to Jake [Sinclair, the band's producer] a few days ago. I haven't heard back. I'll tell you my idea, but I can't guarantee anyone's gonna like it or that we will pursue it," Cuomo pauses before going ahead and spilling the beans. "OK, the next project is a bundle of albums called Seasons, Weezer Seasons. It's obviously spring, summer, fall, winter and each album comes out on the first day of the relevant season. And each album would have a very distinct pallet of instrumentation and production and lyrical themes. And for example, 'Spring' could be like a very breezy, very positive, lighthearted collection of more acoustic songs like 'Island in the Sun'. I was thinking 'Fall' could be a dance-rock album like Franz Ferdinand. That would be tricky for Weezer to pull off, but it could be cool. And then 'Winter' could be like a 90's singer-songwriter like Elliott Smith, songs of loss and despair and more acoustic again. So that's the idea." So just a small undertaking then? "[Jake] might give me a thumbs down," Rivers chuckles in sheepish style.

Whether or not Weezer Seasons materialises next, or a few years down the line, or never at all, the quartet are clearly enjoying being in the studio, picking an idea, running with it, then setting it down and picking up a new thread and repeating the process.

Of their recent output, 'OK Human' is the most startling, affecting music Weezer have released in the 21st Century, showcasing a timeless musicality without losing the quirky lyrical idiosyncrasies that define them. Buoyed by heavenly orchestral arrangements it is a breath of fresh air from a band approaching its third decade. Far from floundering and sinking into the La Brea Tar Pits like some doomed prehistoric beast, Weezer continue to defy the odds to survive and thrive.

Weezer's album 'OK Human' is out now.

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