Rivers Cuomo is ambling through the shadows and light near the Hot Dog on a Stick stand close by the Santa Monica Pier, hands shoved into black skinny-type jeans, dark hoody covering a dark T-shirt, baseball cap worn brim forward, slender, on the very shortish side, and, unless you are an avid fan, hardly recognizable as the frontman for Weezer, Nineties nerd-rock giants, emo legends and purveyors of hook-filled whimsicalities such as “Undone — The Sweater Song,” “Buddy Holly” and “The Good Life” on the group’s first two records, the Blue Album and 1996’s more confessional Pinkerton. Thereafter, for the past two decades, the band has alternately hoped against hope to recapture that early magic and not given a hoot, all depending on the vagaries of the man in charge. He’s 45 now, married, has two kids, a daughter, 9, and a son, 3, who sleep on mats in the same room with him and his wife, because why should they not?
Today, he woke up around seven, tried and failed to remember the night’s dreams, checked his e-mail to see if his manager had responded to a new song he’d sent him (featuring lines like “We’re all bisexual!”), and he had (“It’s crazy, maybe too crazy”), swung his pale, skinny legs out of bed, took a leak, went to the kitchen, sprinkled Starbucks’ Via instant coffee into a thermos, repaired to his humid, plant-filled garage studio, journaled stream-of-consciously for 25 minutes, meditated for an hour, ate his usual breakfast of nonfat Greek yogurt, a hard-boiled egg and some trail mix, after which he sat down to a small wooden box with a hole-filled maze on top of it. He dropped a small steel ball into the maze and used knobs to rotate the surface so that the ball traveled the course, trying not to let the ball drop into any of the 60 holes. The game, called Labyrinth, was a Christmas gift for his daughter. She played it twice, he’s played it every day ever since. His record is 43 holes before failure. “I’m calm up until the point where if it’s a pretty high number and it looks like I’m going to break my record, but then if it drops in a hole, I’ll scream,” he reports. And you best believe that he will one day make it to the finish line, if only because that’s the kind of deeply dogged, slightly addlepated and easily obsessed guy he has always been.
And so here he is at the boardwalk among pretty blondes on bikes and handsomely tanned panhandlers. He starts walking and says, “We got a new manager a year ago, and he said to us, ‘You guys should make a beach album.’ It was inspiring and so obvious, given we love the Beach Boys and live right here. It’s so close to us, yet we’d missed it.”
The result is Weezer’s 10th LP, out now, with a cover displaying Cuomo, bassist Scott Shriner, drummer Pat Wilson and guitarist Brian Bell standing in white sand in front of a lifeguard stand, enabling Cuomo to call it the White Album. Musically, it looks back to early-Weezer power pop, largely thanks to producer Jake Sinclair, who wanted to bring those days back. But for lyrics, Cuomo had to find inspiration elsewhere. For one, while out on tour, he’d meet people on Tinder — not in order to hook up, but just to find interesting people to hang around with and experience.
He also came to the boardwalk where he’s standing today, to check out various seaside subcults and scenes — all of which, him being Cuomo, he did at some remove. Taking a seat out of the sun, he says, “I’d look at people and fail to engage with them. I’ve long since given up on that. I’m passive.”
And yet while this may be true, he’s also spent almost his entire career veering from one extreme to another. After the initial success of the Blue Album, he enrolled at Harvard, where he hobbled around on crutches after getting an operation to correct a birth defect that involved legs mismatched in length by nearly two inches. Several years later, he let it be known that he had taken a vow of celibacy in order to get into a meditation program. (He is big on meditation.) He once went a year without talking to another soul, basically, save for his pet gecko. He maintains a curious relationship with his fans. On the one hand, he’s invited bunches of them to go to Shakespeare plays with him. Then again, he’s sick unto death of how many of them are stuck in the past.
“People always want to tell me their Weezer story,” he says, “about how they were in homeroom every morning in seventh grade and listening to Pinkerton with their best friend. I try to respond as graciously as I can, which is usually not graciously. I’m praying for a way to steer those interactions into something that’s more enjoyable. I think I’m going to try just immediately cutting in with ‘Tell me a different story.’ ”
His own story, of course, is about as different as it gets, with him being born to wicky-wacky parents who raised him on an ashram in Connecticut, a cloistered existence that didn’t end until he was 11 and went to public school, where he was a much-bullied outcast who nonetheless did not lack for girlfriends (and lost his virginity at the age of 17, which he maintains was “pretty late”). At first, he wanted to become a pro football player, but when his mismatched legs and diminutive stature began to interfere, he switched dreams, to rock star, which he set about making a reality shortly after graduating from high school, by moving to L.A. He was nothing if not determined, and when his brand of “the most sophisticated speed metal that existed” didn’t land a deal, he ditched the approach, studied photos of himself at a much younger age and returned entirely transformed.
“This is what no one gets,” he says, shedding new light on the band’s roots. “Weezer was an intentional paring down of guitar technique, song structure and lyrical persona so that it would be so innocent and unintentional and seem like we had just picked up our instruments 12 months before. I stopped using hair gel, Aqua Net and hair spray. I looked at those pictures of me when I was four or five, and I had the glasses and a bowl cut, a T-shirt and a blue windbreaker. It was just like, ‘This is how I am in my natural state!'”
So, far from being some kind of nerd-happy, quasi-poseur put-on, which many people have suspected, Weezer is simply an authentic reflection of Cuomo’s younger self, with lyrical content derived from bouts of post-adolescent, self-conscious angst, compounded by awkward, frustrating encounters with girls who, for instance, turned out to be lesbians or otherwise were unavailable, apparently making him the only rock star in the history of rock stars not able to get laid upon the slightest twitch of a sacral nerve, which, God bless him, had to happen to somebody.
“Yeah, well, in the Eighties, the fantasy, including mine, was you’d become a rock star and be rolling in girls,” he says, “but it didn’t turn out that way.”
He settles birdlike upon a bench across from a fried-clams joint and goes on: “For one thing, by 1994, our fan base was girls 10 and under. Then, girls went to other guys in the band first. Then, there was something about the alternative revolution that Weezer was very much a part of that said, ‘We’re above exploiting our female fans,’ and maybe the female fans were above it too. I was so frustrated by the reality compared to what I was dreaming it would be as a teenager in bed at night — so much so that on Pinkerton I [was] determined to share everything. This is who I am. I’m a pig, I’m a dog, and I want girls.”
And how did that work out?
He scowls. “You know how the album was received. It didn’t work out so well. I mean, it’s happened, but if I go out, nobody is going to come on to me. They never have. Whether I’m recognized or not, it doesn’t make a difference. Our female fans just want to take a selfie with me and then usually they’ll walk off.”
In the shade, it’s crazy how baby-faced Cuomo is — he could easily pass for one of the skateboarders making a racket nearby and so interfering with his thoughts that he gets up and moves to a different location, up a flight of stairs at the pier to a landing not far from the aquarium. Speaking of girls, what about his past penchant for massage parlors and the quest for happy endings? Did going to such places not make him super-duper-uncomfortable?
“Um,” he says, “not in an unpleasant way. I liked some awkwardness and weirdness. ‘Is this one of those places or not one of those places, and who is going to broach the subject?'”
He liked that?
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess I did.” He pauses. He continues, “I still go to massage parlors.”
Which, offered without further qualification, seems very strange, given that he is married. A few seconds tick by.
Just to get massages, right?
“Yeah. Do I get offered? One place I did. I just point at my ring.”
Whew. But this does bring up his marriage, in itself a circumstance that has gone relatively unexamined. Introduced to meditation by producer Rick Rubin in 2003, Cuomo immediately decided that he had to go on this one particular 45-day meditation retreat, but to be accepted into the program, he either had to be married or have gone without sex for two years. At first, celibacy, which also forbade masturbation, seemed like the only viable option. “I stopped looking at any kind of pornography, because that’d be self-torture,” he says, and shortly thereafter, for the first time in his life, he began to experience nocturnal emissions. Suddenly, he changed his mind about abstinence. “A few days into it, ‘All right, I have to get married,'” he says. But finding a suitable mate wasn’t so easy. He tried to join eHarmony but was rejected. “I filled out an incredible amount of stuff online and got a response that said, ‘We’re sorry, there’s no one on eHarmony that is a suitable match for you.'” Months went by, years went by, while he both tried to purge his mind of impure thoughts and get himself a spouse. Eventually, he looked to the past, to a Japanese woman named Kyoko who he’d hung out with in 1997.
“This would be two years into celibacy, in 2005, and I was suffering immeasurably from a crush on a girl at Harvard who had a boyfriend. I was on day eight of this apostate meditation course. It was almost like a switch got flipped in my mind. I let go of the Harvard girl, and Kyoko popped into my mind. I called her. We started talking again and then started talking rationally about what a future together might be like.” A year later, they got married and began a life together that has both endured and seemingly relieved Cuomo of many of his past anxieties and burdens.
“I don’t worry so much about being lonely at night or going out and finding somebody or all the drama that comes with that,” he says. “Stability is great for me.”
But Satan never sleeps, so one must wonder, when Satan does hop onto his shoulder, what does Satan whisper into his ear?
“Sadly, my Satan is not intimidating to me,” he says. “It’s shrunk to this tiny voice. All the usual stuff — ‘Isn’t she hot? Wouldn’t you like to?’ — I’m such a tame animal at this point. I mean, it might be fun to perform sin X, but if I indulged every whim like that, I would destroy my life in 24 hours. And I love my life.”
Is he able to remember his dreams? “Normally, I don’t,” he says. “But once I started going through psychoanalysis, I’ve made an effort to remember.”
He nods. “I started a few weeks ago. I’ve worked with a life coach before and been in couples therapy for about five years, and everybody these days thinks everything Freud said was wrong. Girls don’t wish they had penises, and guys don’t want to kill their fathers. But then I read something that said new research is showing that Freudian analysis can do as much good as, or more than, cognitive-based therapy. I found this real old-school master who is, like, 84 and from Austria, and I lie back on a couch and talk about my dreams. It’s like talking into a black hole. It is terrifying. He says that I have generalized anxiety. But who doesn’t?”
For a moment, he looks disappointed by the diagnosis, but soon enough he’s talking about why he started going to a shrink now in the first place.
“I’m always looking for something to help me penetrate a different inside, deeper, darker — and I’m working on a new album, the Black Album, which is going to require new psychological techniques, new writing techniques, new places to hang out, like Echo Park and Silver Lake. Psychoanalysis is going to play a big role. It’s going to be more R-rated, with maybe swear words for the first time on a Weezer album.”
He pauses, takes a quick breath. “I don’t care about mental health. All I care about is creative inspiration, and psychotherapy just seems like a cool, weird thing to try.”
And so there it is. On the one hand, the thought that he’s going to see a shrink just for the sake of his music is kind of a letdown — on the other, he is who he is.
But it doesn’t matter, not at all, because tomorrow morning, shortly after rising, he will once again be able to sit and play the game of Labyrinth, dropping the small steel ball into the maze and guiding it along the path to the 60th and final hole, first having to break his previous record of 43 holes, and should he come close and fail, he will scream. But there’s no doubt he will go on with dogged determination and the occasional scream, for as long as it takes to get where he wants to go.