Rivers Cuomo Looks Back at 'Pinkerton'

Weezer frontman opens up about his newly reissued, most personal album

Rivers Cumo
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Rivers Cumo
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Today Weezer release a two-CD deluxe version of their 1996 album Pinkerton, and launch a short tour where they play it in sequence. Cuomo used to hate to discuss the intensely personal album, calling it "sick in a diseased sort of way." But he called into Rolling Stone to explain his change of heart and the rough period of his life in the mid-1990s that inspired Weezer's masterpiece.

The second Weezer album was originally going to be a rock opera called Songs From The Black Hole. Can you tell me why you abandoned that in favor of Pinkerton?

Um... [Twenty-second pause] Wow. We are going back 15 years here. [Fifteen-second pause] Oh, I would have to go back and look at my notes but... [Twenty-second pause] I think I was planning to make the second Weezer album a sort of space-travel-themed rock opera with lots of synthesizers and new wave flavor over the Weezer rock sound. [Fifteen-second pause.] And then our bass player, Matt, put out his first solo record and I felt like it had a lot of the same musical and lyrical themes that I was planning to explore on the second record. So that would be one contributing factor, my change of heart. Also, I had this really painful surgical procedure on my leg, which lasted 13 months in all and it took me to a place, emotionally, where the whole idea of this whole rock opera started to feel too whimsical for where I was emotionally, going through the pain of the procedure. And so I scrapped the whole idea and went to a more serious and dark place.

You started going to Harvard in this time period. It has been described as a very bleak time in your life. Is that how you recall your first semester there?

[Fifteen-second pause] Well, I was overjoyed to be at Harvard. I was craving mental stimulation for about a year and a half leading up to that point, being on the road. Touring in a van and just feeling like I was wasting my life. To go back to college was so exciting to me. And on top of that, to be Harvard! Just the greatest place in the world for me to be. I was quite excited. I was pretty isolated living on my own. And I couldn't drive, because my leg was all jacked up. Socially, I was kind of retreating into a shell after the shock of being in the spotlight in '94 when our film was released.

What did you mean by you were "wasting your life" before going to Harvard? You had just become a huge rock star.

What I meant by that was that I felt like I had so much musical potential, artistic potential, to get into really sophisticated art music, classical music—and I just felt like I needed some intense training in the fundamentals. The way my life had worked out to that point, the way I was raised I felt like I didn't have the opportunity to get schooled.

Now I'm not a kid anymore. I'm in my mid-twenties and the years are going by and most of my peers have already graduated from college. And all I'm doing is driving around in a van or tour bus and playing the same 10 songs every night. And giving the same interview over and over. You know, after a year of that I just felt like extremely frustrated and like I was not going to reach my potential as an artist.

 

The songs of Pinkerton have been described as being autobiographical, so how true is that. For example, is "Pink Triangle" a true story?

Yeah. On Weezer's first album some of the songs are stream of consciousness, like "My Name Is Jonas." There's a little bit of detail in there from my life, but mostly I'm just rambling whatever comes into my mind—or I'm using such metaphoric language that you get the totally wrong idea of what I'm actually singing about, like the song "Only In Dreams." I think most of our audience always thought it was a song about a girl when I'm really singing about my artistic process, or the song "Buddy Holly." The language is so bizarre and metaphoric it's really hard for people to understand the life situation that inspired the song and the critical reaction to that record was that these people are goofy. They said there was no depth of emotion there. That really bummed me out in a big way, so I was determined to head in the other direction with the second record and in the simplest, most direct language possible talk about what was happening in my life and how I felt about it.

So, yeah. I would say 99 percent of what I'm about on Pinkerton is what was actually happening in my life.

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So you asked a girl to a Green Day concert and she said she hadn't heard of them. Even down to details like that?

Yeah I mean, why would somebody make that up? Like where would they even get that from if that hadn't happened?

Did most of these things happen during at your time at Harvard?

Yeah. It's an absolutely wonderful time for an artist to have all that time to myself to think, to reflect, and have all my feelings and be able to sort them out and put them into songs.

How was the group functioning in this time period?

I think everyone was very happy to get the heck away from each other. There was no active rancor at that time, but there was hardly any interaction at all. I remember Matt came through Boston with the Rentals two times, and I went to see him both times and it was cool.

When you guys reformed to begin recording Pinkerton did you guys function well as a unit?

Um... [24 second pause] Well, I mean you be the judge. Listen to the record and you can decide if we were functioning well or not.

I get the sense it was a less collaborative effort than the Blue album. Is that true?

No. I don't feel that way. Because on Pinkerton I hear a lot of—I hear the sound of Brian. That's a new element for us. And there's no click track, so you can hear the fluctuations in Pat's steel. The other thing is, about half of those songs on Pinkerton I didn't demo first. I wrote them on acoustic guitar and as a song composition, they were finished completely just me and my acoustic guitar, but then I didn't orchestrate what everyone was playing. I didn't make a full demo, I just strummed the chords and sang it and then everyone joined in, and then from there, Brian and I added overdubs. On the Blue Album, listen to a song like "Buddy Holly" and compare it to my demo, which is on Alone [Cuomo's 2007 album of previously unreleased material]. It's hardly any different apart from the tempo. Pinkerton sounds more collaborative to me.

 

What gave you the idea to partially base it around Madame Butterfly?

Um... [Five-second pause] Um... [Five-second pause] It's the coolest and weirdest thing how artistic allusions or references-I'm not sure how they originate, but I know I was listening to a lot of Puccini from the end of 1994, and I got more and more into it. I really felt like this is a guy who shared the same musical values as me and maybe some of the same abilities, although he's on a whole other level. I felt like he maybe I could have been him in a previous life.

So I was listening to more and more of his operas, then I think in the beginning, in 1995, I started to get into Madame Butterfly, and I became so fascinated with that character, Madame Butterfly and... At the same time, I... I started becoming infatuated with that kind of girl that's singing in that opera I just saw how the events of my life were unfolding and how they paralleled some of what was happening in that opera. I was like this Pinkerton character. He's this American sailor that tours around the world and stops in a port in some exotic foreign country... and tries to find a temporary girlfriend and then gets back on his ship and heads to the next town, and it just occurred to me, like, "Wow, isn't that the rockstar dream right there?" By tying my work to Puccini's work, it just enriched the whole thing and tied it to tradition.

I would like to read you a quote you said about Pinkerton in 2001. "The most painful thing in my life these days is the cult around Pinkerton. It's just a sick album, sick in a diseased sort of way. It's such a source of anxiety because all the fans we have right now have stuck around because of that album. But, honestly, I never want to play those songs again; I never want to hear them again."

Well, um... well I was really, really hurt around that time when the Green Album came out, because um, [10-second pause] because, it seemed like a lot of the critics were saying the Green Album was a disappointing follow-up to Pinkerton. I had just worked so freaking hard [laughs], and put so much into it, the Green Album it just was so crushing. I said a few unwise things in my, in my moment of my most extreme moments of pain.

Can you explain to me what Matt Sharp's role was in the making of Pinkerton?

It's hard because 99 percent of the making of Pinkerton was me in that house in Cambridge all by myself. And then, the recording was done very quickly. [14-second pause] He did go to London, uh, to work on his second record and at that point [15-second pause] Brian and I took it from there. I remember just being in there by myself for, hour after hour, until two in the morning, and then walking home by myself and feeling pretty on my own for extended periods of time.

Are you looking forward to playing it straight through next month?

I've heard from other artists that have played their albums in sequence in concert that it's not as exciting as you might think. We're gonna be doing a lot of rehearsing and doing everything we can to make it an exciting event. Our first two records feel like classic rock records now, especially for this generation. I think these show are going to be very powerful.

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