Revenge of the Weezer Nerds

They're not punk, they're not pop, they're not pretty – but they're huge

weezer 1995
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc
Weezer performs in Las Vegas.
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"This," says Matt sharp, bassist for Weezer, to Pat Wilson, drummer for Weezer, "is my sassiest moment ever."

Matt is speaking with characteristic Weezer irony, which is not just any old irony but the irony born of unexpected rock success and the many hours of forced togetherness in vans, buses, airplanes and hotel rooms that such a success entails. At this, his sassiest moment ever, Matt is lying face down on a drum riser on the set of England's most ridiculous TV show ever, The Word. Weezer's particular acre of the set – a garishly lit stage beneath a single prom-in-your-high-school-gym cardboard arch – is currently deserted, although hordes of beautiful, albeit nonsassy, teens are expected soon.

In the meantime, there is not much to do besides lie on a drum riser, as Matt is doing, sit on the floor next to a drum riser, as Pat is doing, or, as guitarist Brian Bell is doing, silently lounge against the stage in the graceful S-curve posture that has made sculpture baroque and runway models super ever since both came into being. (Brian, who joined the band after the departure of Jason Cropper midway through the recording of Weezer, the band's debut album, is a one-man refutation of Weezer's geek-rock reputation. "The best compliment I ever had," he says, "was when Eddie from Urge Overkill came up to me and said, 'You've got good fashion sense, Brian, and don't think that people don't notice.'")

While being sassy, in Weezer terms, is a state that can be roughly defined as looking as if you're in Blur, it is actually better explained by example than by argument: Anna Waronker, of That Dog, is the sassiest female alive; Veruca Salt have more than adequate sass, they have major sass; and tragically, Courtney Love has so much sass that she has none – she has blown out the sassometer and can't be measured. Polly Harvey, on the other hand, is sass. Good Lord, is she sassy. Chris Acland, the drummer for Lush, is the sassiest male alive; Beck, while sassy, doesn't even come close; and nobody in New Jersey has any sass. If you reside in New Jersey, your sass card has been revoked, and you get it back when you leave.

"You're not gonna put on hair spray, get in your Camaro, listen to Extreme and have sass," says Matt. "There's gotta be nonshowering happening."

"Is that part of being sassy?" asks Pat doubtfully.

"Yeah," says Matt in pained but patient tones.

"You have to not shower and be aloof and not be aware of your own sass."

"But I have all those things," says Pat, "and I'm not sassy. Because I'm married, and that's not sassy. I have no sass. I am sans sass, I am without sass, I am awash in a sea of nonsass."

There is a long pause, during which some British stagehands hoist an enormous fuzzy blue couch into position on a nearby area of the set, Matt rests his head on his arms and closes his eyes, we all sink a little deeper into the dimensionless pit of nonspecific exhaustion, the rain outside swoons softly, softly swooning as it falls on all the living and the dead, and, in a nutshell, seconds pass like hours.

"Peter Jennings has some sass," Pat offers at length.

"And that same person in the Camaro can turn around and have sass," Matt says dolefully. "You know, you may think that Arlington, Va., is the capital of style. You may think it, but you'd be wrong."

Although they met and became a band in Los Angeles, the members of Weezer are distinctly Eastern suburban in outlook and background, because they are, in fact, from the suburban East. Matt, coincidentally enough, is from Arlington, Va., Pat from Buffalo, N.Y. ("which is like Chicago, only worse"), Brian from Knoxville, Tenn., and lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Rivers Cuomo (who looks sassy in the video for "Undone – The Sweater Song" but does not aspire to sassiness in real life) is from Connecticut. They are all in their mid-20s and members of the silent, nonwhining majority of their generation. What this means in practice is a common belief in the coolness of Ace Frehley ("It has to be Ace. He had the best of the four Kiss solo records," says Matt), a groupwide inability to tuck in a shirt and an intuitive feeling for the totemic force of Star Wars action figures (when Brian got the call from Rivers inviting him to join the band, Brian was asked to name his favorite. Hammerhead, if you care).

Like millions of their peers, they were raised on their parents' classic rock and lowered on their friends' bad metal cover bands. "And you want to know why I wasn't in Whitesnake cover bands?" asks Pat. "Because I couldn't grow my hair. I just never grew it right. I didn't have boomin' hair like everybody else did." "Everybody in Virginia listened to Black Sabbath all the time," adds Matt with anguished glee.

After drifting to L.A. via various aimless routes and a couple of pre-Weezer mutual associations (in one of which Matt and Pat recorded "this ultrafoofy Euromix with violins descending in weird scales and the words to 'Paranoid'" and composed an ode to their experiences selling dog shampoo entitled "Get People to Buy What They Don't Need"), Weezer achieved their final form in early '92 – except that Jason Cropper was in the Brian Bell slot – and everything was in place for the next step. This turned out, as it so often does, to be immediately provoking absolutely no interest on the part of anyone.

"We would just play, and if we got a following, we did, and if we didn't, we didn't" says Matt. "And we didn't. It was pretty much no expectations for anything; we just basically didn't have anything better to do. And we all sucked, me especially."

It is perhaps because of this early training that Weezer, having gone on to sign with Geffen and make a very fine record produced by Ric Ocasek, are the most becomingly modest successful new band you could hope to meet. If you push them hard, they will admit that they no longer suck, but further than that, they're not willing to go. "It's so amazing that suddenly we're, like, No. 16 on Billboard," says Brian, in whom even immodesty would be pretty becoming. "None of this was even imaginable, ever." "We looked at it as a fatalist type of thing from the get-go," says Pat. "It was like 'I'm gonna fail because 99 percent of all records do, and what makes me so special?'"

In short, Weezer's success really was unexpected (by them, anyway; Geffen, presumably, was no entirely without hope) and, you may think, sudden. You may think it, but you would be wrong. The guys in Weezer (which was Rivers' nickname as a little boy) have worked hard for their sudden success. They have been on tour, except for a six-week break, for almost eight months and recently arrived in London to kick off three months of European gigs, followed by two more months on the road in the States, followed by another break, followed by another couple of months in Europe and some more American shows in the late summer. After that, Rivers is going to return to college, and everyone else is going to get some rest, drink plenty of fluids and work on his side projects. (Matt records with the Rentals, Brian records with Space Twins, and the multi-instrumental Pat will record probably by himself as an artist to be named later.) After that they might make a second album.

Weezer are an anomalous little outfit, and in many ways, theirs is an anomalous little success. For one thing, Weezer is unabashedly major-label pop but has a guitar-based depth that otherwise has pretty much packed up and moved to the indie-alternative genre, where it has grown cranky and cynical. For another, although the record is not a singles album in the traditional sense of hits-plus-filler, the individual songs the band is pushing ("Undone – The Sweater Song," "Buddy Holly" and the upcoming "Say It Ain't So") can function as singles in the old-fashioned, musical microcosm sense of the term. For still another, in a medium dominated by throat-grabbing, intrusive lament, these are modest songs, hooky and buoyant, that ask merely to be taken as they're found: no cover, no minimum – experience of love, loss and alcoholism a plus. And although Weezer have made two great videos, both with Spike Jonze ("I'm gonna go out on a limb here," says Pat. "Spike Jonze doesn't know what he's doing better than anyone else in the world"), they are not video artists. They have too much damn sound.

That sound is, as with all really good pop, at once both familiar and sui generis. There are punk elements in the driver's seat, but the radio is tuned to Beach Boys/Beatles melodicism, and, to stretch the metaphor beyond all limits of help or hope, from the look of the clouds, it's time to get the top up because the weather is threatening arena rock.

Weezer have often been criticized for lacking originality – "We're not trying to do anything unique or bizarre," says Brian – but while it may sound as if I'm damning them with faint praise, I really mean it when I say that when it comes to the equally liberal application of power chords and sincerity, Weezer are in a class all their own. The production is dry to the point of penitential because, as Matt points out, "reverb is not good for the kids."

And the kids love Weezer, by which I mean not only those figurative kids, who are all right, but real kids, 8- to 12-year-old kids. "We could have our own TV show," jokes Pat. "Until the kids met Rivers – then he'd make them really depressed."

As lead singer, Guitarist, songwriter and all-around auteur of the Weezer narrative, Rivers would, of course, be the man to explain how the above-named anomalies became an amalgam that is greater than the sum of its parts. But don't hold your breath, because while I think that I have already mentioned that Rivers is from Connecticut, I believe that I neglected to add that for all I know he was raised by wolves. I think it is fair to say that Rivers does not want to be the girl with the most cake. He is shy beyond shyness and so withdrawn that his reputed admiration for the reclusive Brian Wilson is vaguely troubling. His disinclination to be interviewed, as a result of which I didn't interview him, is, was and forever-more shall be totally his prerogative. I am grateful for his attempt to compromise by answering questions via fax and sorry that I can't compromise enough to quote any of his guarded responses. That there is a private Rivers, unknown to me, who is intelligent, kind and funny, I infer from his music and my optimism. That there is a public Rivers, known to me only through observation, who is fussy, critical and suspicious, I can only regret. Lacking any solid evidence, I assume his reasons are righteous.

Anyway, that's show business, where the road to mutual mistrust is often paved with equally mutual good intentions. "Basically, this is just Rivers' band," says Pat. "It used to be different. It used to be more of a band band, but Rivers just isn't down with that idea. He says he's not interested in playing anybody else's music. And the idea that he would say, 'This is all about me' – it hurts me. Sometimes I'm so sympathetic to Rivers, and sometimes I'm so antagonistic. It's the most amazing thing, and I just can't figure it out."

About that last part, same goes double for me, with these words from Ric Ocasek: "You know, socially, Rivers would stand in a corner, but I don't know if that's a weakness. Andy Warhol did that, too. And having to have too much, control can be a weakness, but looked at a different way, it can also be a strength. And America should be proud that they have a Rivers in the pool of records coming out. He's writing intelligent lyrics, he's writing melody. I feel pretty certain that Rivers is a real force. He's writing songs, and whatever happened to songs? Please, let's have some more."

On my last night with Weezer and their last night in London, they actually play a live show, which, as Rivers has accurately observed elsewhere, is an astonishingly small part of a touring musician's life. The venue, a club called Splash, is a jewel box of a room, swagged and fringed with faded red velvet, dimly lit with fake gaslight chandeliers. It is altogether the ideal place for Mr. Hyde to debut if he ever decides to give up being a fictional character for a career in indie rock.

In fact, the opening act, Powder, is vaguely Edwardian in style, although they have haircuts that are not only sassy but also Sassoon. Weezer, on the other hand, are in their usual timeless guys-in-the-basement-rec-room look. Rivers is wearing a parka, but the hood is down, and he has not covered the lenses of his glasses with black gaffer's tape, as he did when playing The Word. These encouraging signs are not exactly Billie Joe naked except for shoes, socks and guitar, but in Rivers' terms, they are a brave step forward. The place is packed and ready to rock, and after opening with a version of "My Name Is Jonas" that doesn't quite achieve liftoff, Weezer oblige. By the time they hit the jam in "Only in Dreams" late in the set, they are locked into the zone and into each other, playing, as far as the eye can see and the ear can hear, like a "band band."

And then something happens. Rivers, who has not yet spoken to the audience, steps to the mike. "Mim," he says, "I know you're out there somewhere, and this song is definitely off the record." He has put a song (which, in addition to being off the record, is not on the record) off the record. On this, the eve of Weezer's European debut, at the culminating moment of the event that is the bottomline reason for the band's presence in the United Kingdom, he has put a song off the record. I am touched. Even now, I like to think that in all the echoing years of the past and the future, there will always be that one moment when, despite our absolute inability to communicate with each other in any other way, I was thinking of nothing but Rivers, and he was thinking of nothing but me. Ironically, it seems more likely than in most of the encounters I've had with people who actually talked to me. And in any event, while it may not have been my sassiest moment ever, it was, when all was not said and undone, the only moment I got.

This story is from the March 23, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 704: March 23, 1995
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