Weezer’s Weird World
Rivers Cuomo hasn’t had sex in two years, and boy, is he ready to rock
By VANESSA GRIGORIADIS
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.”
(Excerpted from RS 973, May 5, 2005)
The new CD is due on May 10th, and they are (finally) on the cover of the Rolling Stone!!
Weezer’s Weird World