On the way to making his band's new album, the frontman gave away his possessions, took a vow of celibacy and began disappearing for weeks at a time to meditate. He hasn't had sex in two years. Boy, is he ready to rock
A couple of days ago, Rivers Cuomo was helping his parents out with an epic spring cleaning at their house in suburban Connecticut – "I was the motivational coach," he says. "My role was to ask, 'Do you really need this third can of hair spray?'" – when it was decided that it would be better not to do the European promotional tour for Weezer's new album, Make Believe, the band's first record in three years. That meant two weeks free before they started rehearsals for the Make Believe tour. That meant Cuomo could do some more vipassana, a strict style of meditation developed by the Buddha and passed down by Burmese monks.
"There was nothing else for me to do," explains Cuomo.
Nothing is exactly what one does on a vipassana retreat: ten days of twelve hours of silent meditation beginning at 4 a.m., with small breaks for food but none for conversing. Most people wouldn't enjoy this, but Cuomo, 34, is not most people. Life to him seems to be a gigantic behavorial experiment, a large part of why Weezer have put out only five albums in thirteen years, despite their Prince-like vault of hundreds of songs. Cuomo had been to ten retreats in less than two years – following precepts like sleeping on the floor and fasting after noon – and he was ready for another. In fact, he completed one in northern Massachusetts a couple of weeks ago. That one was twenty days long, and he spent it in a closet. "It was great!" he says.
So instead of asking the band to head to the East Coast for the Rolling Stone photo shoot and interview before leaving for Europe, Cuomo decided to fly to California for a retreat in Yosemite, and if it was possible to accommodate the magazine in Los Angeles, great, but if not, he wasn't missing his retreat. "How many people would love to be on the cover, and then you've got Rivers saying, 'I can only do it on this one day, and if you can't fit it in, it won't work?" says Weezer guitarist Brian Bell, 36. "On one hand, I'm like, 'Jesus, how could you do that to us? We've worked hard for twelve years and we finally make the cover, and you screw it up with one sentence.' Then there's another part of me that's like, 'That guy has balls!' Even if it is really selfish."
These are the kinds of things that happen, though, when you're living the moment, which is Cuomo's new mantra – untethered from miserable thoughts about the past and future and free at last from the greedy ego, Cuomo is currently in communion with his deep, true self. This self needs to be free, and, accordingly, Cuomo has been careful not to make any pacts about future Weezer recordings; he has also only agreed to support this album until the end of this year. "We were going to call this record Either Way I'm Fine," says drummer Pat Wilson, 36." 'Cause Rivers kept saying that when we had to decide about things." Serenity is important to Cuomo. The shoot at the Playboy Mansion for the video for their first single, "Beverly Hills," posed a threat. "There were 150 fans around, and when we played we heard that sound, that deafening sound that you get onstage," says Wilson. "I could see Dude telling himself, 'Hold on, hold on, don't get too excited!'"
Dude, as in the chill stoner hero played by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, is the band nickname for Cuomo, though Cuomo and the Dude could not be more different. Cuomo is not chill. He has budgeted one hour for our initial interview, and when we sit down at a cocktail table in the plum-colored foyer of a Hollywood recording studio, he pushes the alarm on his tan-and-black digital watch. It is eighty-five degrees out, and he is wearing a sweater and has set a black parka on the couch. "I don't really notice where I am," he says. "I don't differentiate all that much. I don't look around much." Talking to Cuomo is like talking to a newscaster. He's altogether pleasant but stiff as a board. No emotion registers on his face, at least not until he hears something that interests him, at which point he curls his lips into something resembling a smile, widens his brown eyes from saucers to soup bowls and exclaims, "Wow!" "Great!" or "Holy cow!" The most interesting topic, of course, is meditation.
"At first I was vehemently opposed," says Cuomo. Rick Rubin, who produced Make Believe in off-and-on sessions that lasted more than a year, suggested meditation. "I sent him a very anxious page, saying, 'Rick, no. I cannot get into meditation because it will rob me of the angst that's necessary to being an artist.' And he said, 'OK, don't worry about it, forget it.' I think because he put no pressure on me, I began to get intrigued. Then I did a Tibetan-Buddhist meditation retreat. That wasn't intense enough for me. I knew I wanted something extreme."
Says Rubin, "I'm often associated, or in some cases blamed, for Rivers' meditation practice. It's worked for him – you might see him smile or laugh now, and before you would never see that. I never suggested the particular style of meditation he's doing. Whatever Rivers is interested in, he dives in a thousand percent. He takes thing to radical extremes."
Radical extremes are what Cuomo has made his life from, and in the context of his history, the Either Way I'm Fine era isn't all that outrageous. It even makes some sense given his childhood, which was spent on ashrams – first at the Zen Center in upstate New York and, after his father left the family when he was five (he eventually settled in Germany for a while as a suffragan bishop in a Pentecostal church), at "Woodstock guru" Swami Satchidananda's Yogaville commune in Connecticut. Everyone was a vegetarian, and no one raised his voice or cursed. Cuomo didn't like it much. He declared himself a metalhead at eleven and started playing Kiss covers with the neighborhood kids. "I was only interested in Slayer and Metallica then," says Cuomo. "I still love that music, but now I have so much appreciation for what my parents' generation did for opening up our country to Eastern philosophy and raising me like that. I feel so lucky."
Some of Cuomo's phases make a little less sense, though. Like when he followed the blockbuster success of Weezer's first album, Weezer, also known as the Blue Album, which went platinum in 1995, by getting his right leg broken: The leg was forty-four millimeters shorter than his left, and in order to make them equal, a metal cage was affixed to his right thigh; every day he'd tighten some screws on it to pull the leg a little longer. Or when, shortly thereafter, he shelved rock stardom to pursue an undergraduate degree at Harvard, studying there from 1995 to 1997, when Weezer's second album, Pinkerton, was released (he resumed his studies last fall and now has one semester left). When that record proved less critically and commercially successful than the Blue Album, Cuomo went back into his shell. Living in a Culver City apartment building under a Los Angeles freeway, he put fiberglass insulation over the windows and hung black sheets over the insulation. Then he painted all the walls black, disconnected his phone and spent a lot of time with his pet gecko.
Punishing himself has always seemed like a good bet to Cuomo, and you only have to look at his perpetually hunched shoulders and balled-up palms to realize that the assignations he keeps with himself are brutal. He gets off on deprivation. Cuomo doesn't own a car, even though he lives mostly in L.A. ("I don't have a parking space," he says, by way of explanation). He rarely listens to music. But one song he cued up recently was Kiss' "Goin' Blind": "Little lady, can't you see/You're so young and so much different than I/I'm ninety-three, you're sixteen/Can't you see I'm goin' blind?"
"I'm so moved by those lyrics," says Cuomo. "I can't believe they came up with that."
As far as his lyrics are concerned, Cuomo has long protested that Weezer's songs are not funny or ironic or anything other than a reflection of his own anguished state. Most of the songs on the current album are about things that happened to him. "Pardon Me" was written after he attended a meditation course in which the teacher told him to repeat over in his mind "I seek pardon from all those who have harmed me in action, speech or thought." "Freak Me Out" is about a spider, says Bell. "Beverly Hills" is about, well, how Cuomo feels about Beverly Hills. "I could live in Beverly Hills, sure," he says, meaning he could afford it easily. "But I couldn't belong there."
Cuomo doesn't seem to belong anywhere, really. The only thing more uncomfortable than Cuomo alone is Cuomo around people, even his own band. Everyone walks on eggshells, and conversation takes on a stilted tone, like there's a dignitary in the room. Some dialogue: "Whassup, Dude!" says Weezer's bassist, Scott Shriner, 39. "Nice haircut!"
"I didn't get a haircut," says Cuomo.
"You didn't, Dude?" says Shriner. "It's looking good, Dude!"
Weezer were formed in L.A. in 1992; after Cuomo's high school hair-metal band, Avant Garde, the one he moved West with, broke up. The original members (Shriner is the third bassist; the first sued the band for royalties, and the second ended up institutionalized before chucking music for art) were introduced by a co-worker of Cuomo's at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip. No one had a car. For a while, they lived in a house in Hollywood together, with lawn furniture inside and no refrigerator. "Rivers' look back then was 'sporty metal guy,'" says Wilson. "He'd eat a piece of pizza and then stick the crust in his fanny pack. Every once in a while he'd pull it out, take a bite and put it back in."
It wasn't long after the success of their second single, "Buddy Holly," that relations between Cuomo and the band went sour. Cuomo refused to let anyone else write music for the second album. From 2001 to late 2002, he operated as the band manager and publicist himself, and he released their fourth album, Maladroit, on the Web and to the press and radio without the record company's knowledge. He reserves a veto on band matters, as when he pulled out of the Shrek 2 soundtrack last year, leaving the Counting Crows to take Weezer's place at the last minute.
Over the years, various members of Weezer have not talked to each other, talked only through a manager, threatened to quit, been fined by Cuomo for playing out of key, apologized to one another and then pissed one another off again. Before they began recording Make Believe, Rubin suggested that Weezer, which he calls one of the most dysfunctional groups he's ever worked with, submit to sessions with a "communications coach." "I thought it was really touching to see everyone get so vulnerable," says Cuomo.
"I've been in years of therapy about just this problem," says Bell. "I didn't need someone telling me how to communicate. The coach kept siding with Rivers anyway."
At this point, the band members don't even call one another friends, except for Wilson and Shriner – acquaintances is the preferred term. "It's just a fucked-up band," says Wilson.
"I've been in bands where even if you're in the middle of nowhere with a broken-down van, you laugh your guts out and puke all over each other," says Shriner. "That's not Weezer."
Cuomo doesn't see the problem. When I ask him who he feels closest to, he takes a minute to ponder, then responds; "My mom, my brother and my band," he says.
The second time I meet Cuomo – several hours before he will take off in a chauffeured car with tinted windows for the Yosemite vipassana retreat – he is not carrying his parka, and he's changed into a much more weather-appropriate purple T-shirt. He presses the alarm on his watch again, and we go over the past two years of his life.
As 2003 began, Cuomo was steeped in what he calls a "life of ego and vice." He was living in the Hollywood Hills, in a tastefully decorated house full of Thirties Spanish colonial furniture. He had assistants to cater to his every need and went on lots of dates with different Asian girls (Cuomo is pretty much interested only in Asian girls). He was even looking for a place in Beverly Hills, thinking he'd trade up. But he hated the music he was making. "He didn't believe in the music, because he didn't believe in himself," says Wilson. "Didn't matter how many times we said, 'That's rad, Dude.' There were times he was physically ill coming out of the studio."
Rubin wanted to help Cuomo. He gave him a copy of The Gift, a volume of love poems by Hafiz, a fourteenth-century Sufi mystic. Cuomo read them carefully. Lightning struck. "If the feeling mystics get in union with their God is analogous to the feeling I used to get in union with my music, then their teachings for how to achieve their union should likewise serve to instruct me how to achieve my union," he wrote in an essay that his dean at Harvard asked him for last summer to explain what he had been up to since he was last in school. "For example, when Hafiz says, 'Self-effacement is the emerald dagger you need to plunge deep into yourself upon this path to . . . God,' I read it as, 'Self-effacement is the emerald dagger you need to plunge deep into yourself upon this path to Musical Creativity.'"
Self-effacement. What did that mean? By reading the works of other mystics like Eckhart Tolle and the Tao Te Ching, Cuomo came to the conclusion that it meant being nothing, feeling nothing, having nothing. So he sold his house and everything in it. "I don't know what happened to a lot of things, like my bed," he says. "That time is blurry." He dropped off CDs of demos for Rubin, and he once noticed a small apartment for lease next door, in the Hollywood Hills. He moved in with a sleeping mat, a microwave, a towel, sheets and a sleeping bag. The only lights he had were in the hall and bathroom.
He started to volunteer six days a week at Project Angel Food, a meal-distribution service for people who are HIV-positive. He made apologies, either in letters, in person or over the phone, to about thirty people he felt he had wronged. He fasted. He was sickened by his previous sexual behavior, the meaningless relationships, the visits to massage parlors, the casual sex with groupies, thirty or forty of them, and sometimes more than one at a time. He had been in love only twice, the last time at age twenty-what had he been doing for the past fifteen years? One day he knelt on the floor, put his hands together at his chest and said three times, "I will not engage in sexual activity for the next two years." He had some nighttime accidents, but he got used to it. Fantasies occurred less frequently and "that part of my mind and body was shriveling from lack of use," he wrote.
These days, he lives in a converted one-car garage in Hollywood with some furniture, like a couch and desk, though he doesn't have a television or stereo. He is still celibate. "The teacher recommends that serious students who really want to progress either become celibate or commit to one person for life," says Cuomo, who now plans to remain celibate until marriage. "Commitment like that, either to celibacy or to one person, helps your mind calm down and get over the excitement that constantly comes with finding someone new and then breaking up. I was actually really obsessing about it until I did that last twenty-day course. I want to find someone. But it's not a subject of stress anymore."
More stressful, recently, is the question of whether or not Cuomo should continue with music at all. At Harvard last fall, he didn't pick up the guitar and wrote an essay for his writing class about abandoning it altogether – why look for peace in creating music if he could get the same calm from meditation? The answer isn't clear. "Last week when I asked Rivers if he was excited about the tour," says Matt Herman, a friend whom Cuomo met at his retreats, "he seemed detached from it and said, 'I don't know, I haven't really been thinking about it.' I think if Rivers wasn't in a band and in school, his whole life might be dedicated to vipassana."
Cuomo grabs a yogurt and a bag of SunChips at a dingy deli before he heads to a practice room to meet Bell to run through the set list for Weezer's upcoming tour. A full-length mirror spanning the room has been rolled in front of the stage. "I had them bring it in here," says Cuomo. "It's much more fun to play in front of a mirror!"
But when Bell shows up a little late for their 11 a.m. session, Cuomo hunches over his guitar, his back to the mirror. He stares at the set list. "When you can't decide what to play, rely on a random-number generator," he says, turning to me to call out numbers one to twenty. This is different than how he used to operate: Since 1999, Cuomo has kept an "Encyclopedia of Pop," a three-ring binder of Nirvana, Oasis and Green Day song elements, in hopes of breaking songwriting's ultimate code. He also made charts of Weezer songs, to analyze what made one song a hit and another a flop. "Rivers definitely calculates all the 'fractals and factors in the formula,'" says Bell. "At least he used to, until Rick Rubin came along and taught him like a Jedi master to use the force – 'Trust your instincts, young Skywalker.'"
Still, selecting the songs for Make Believe was painful – there were more than seventy to pick from, since, when he's in the swing of things, Cuomo writes at the stunning clip of one or two songs a day. Cuomo kept ditching songs the band and Rubin had previously agreed were going on the album. "Sometimes, when I'm most cynical, I feel like this is all Rivers' big experiment. Like Dude is using us as a focus group to get the best songs, pushing us to go 'I don't care, we're fucking doing that!' Like it's all an elaborate ruse – Dude goes home, drinks beer, and he's all, like, watching TV."
More and more these days, there's a little part of Cuomo that wants to do that: relax a little, find a girl. When he sees Wilson and his wife with their four-month-old baby boy, his eyes light up, though when they offer to let him hold the baby, he looks a bit terrified. "When my wife was around at the beginning, she wasn't even acknowledged," says Wilson. "But when she was pregnant, Rivers went right up and put his hand on her belly. That's different. That's not him being like 'I studied the Buddhist teachings and I'm applying them right now.'"
"I signed up for eHarmony once, and it took three hours to fill out that online form – so many personal questions," says Cuomo. "Then I clicked on SUBMIT, and instantaneously they responded and said, "We are sorry, but there is no one any where in the world that is appropriate for you.' So that was it, I gave up." He still goes on Friendster and MySpace, though halfheartedly. "I don't think that's the way it's going to happen for me." He is quiet for a bit. "I don't seem to be able to find some body. All my friends are married or living with someone. I'm still like I was in my early twenties."
There is a girl he likes, someone he met at Harvard last semester. He was living at Cabot House, a campus dormitory – "I got quadded," he says, "and I was disappointed, like everyone else, but I grew to love it" – and had made new friends, mostly econ and biochemistry majors. Cuomo kept to a daily schedule of meditating for an hour at six, followed by forty-five minutes of yoga and the elliptical machine, breakfast in the basement cafeteria, classes, another hour of meditation and then studying. He was taking an Introduction to Shakespeare class, and he found a lot of solace in that. "I wrote a paper about Angelo in Measure for Measure," he says cheerily. "I argued that although he seems like the epitome of a hyperconfident male sexual aggressor, all his actions are motivated by an intense fear of sexual inadequacy."
As far as his crush is concerned, "I did all the normal things guys do when they like a girl," he says. "It didn't work."
What was she like? I ask.
"Jeez! I have to go back there in the spring!" he says, shifting in his seat.
Can you tell me –
Beep, beep, beep!
"But our hour is up," says Cuomo. As he prepares to walk off alone, he breaks into a smile.