DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

Our next guest, Rivers Cuomo, is the lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter of the band Weezer. The group has a new album out called Raditude. Heres the opening track.

(Soundbite of song, If Youre Wondering If I Want You To)

Mr. RIVERS CUOMO (Lead Singer, Weezer): (Singing) The moon was shining on the lake at night. The Slayer T-shirt fit the scene just right. Your smeared mascara, I looked into your eyes and saw a light. You told me stories about your chickadees. They didnt like BB guns or stupid archery. And Shaun the lifeguard, he let them use the pool all day for free. Then the conversation stopped. And I looked down at my feet. I was next to you, and you were right there next to me.

Then I said, girl, if youre wondering if I want you to, if I want you to. So make a move, because I aint got all night. The rest of the summer was the best we ever had. We watched Titanic and it didn't make us sad. I took you to Best Buy, you took me home to meet your mom and dad. Your mom cooked meat loaf, even though I dont eat meat. I dug you

BIANCULLI: Weezer first got attentions in the mid 90s when the videos for their songs Undone-The Sweater Song, and Buddy Holly got a lot of air play on MTV. The band has continued to record and perform, sometimes with long breaks in between. During that time, Rivers Cuomo has written many songs that never made it onto Weezer albums, but which he released as solo albums of home recordings. The stories behind those songs reveal a lot about his life and musical influences.

He spent part of his childhood on an ashram, and went back to Harvard to study music and literature after becoming a rock star. Terry spoke with Rivers Cuomo earlier this year and started by asking about one song in particular - not one of Weezers earliest hits, but a track from the groups follow-up album.

TERRY GROSS: Weezers first CD was a real success. The second CD, not so much. It was called Pinkerton, and it got slammed by some of the critics and didnt sell nearly as well as the first. But it has some great songs on it, and I want to play one of the songs from it, which I find really interesting. And youve spoken in the past how this album was inspired in part by your love of Puccini and, you know, great, romantic operas. And this is like a comic romantic song. Its called Pink Triangle, and its about falling in love with a woman who turns out to be a lesbian.

And its like you find that incredibly - you know, the character who is singing in the song finds this, like, incredibly upsetting because he was sure theyd be able to get married.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And theres a great line in it, like, everyones a little queer. Why cant she be a little straight?

Mr. CUOMO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So is this song based at all on a relationship that you had, or is it just a character?

Mr. CUOMO: Most of the songs I write are just very directly from my life. I dont have a big imagination. Whenever I tried to write from fantasy, it comes out sounding really fake. So I just pretty much write exactly whats happening to me, most of the time, and so thats what the song is. I got to Harvard in 96, really happy to be there. And I saw a girl in class, and she was so beautiful and so cool. And I watched her over the weeks and, you know, all kinds fantasies started to happening about getting married. And then one day she came to school with a button on her - it was actually on her backpack, not her sleeve, like in the lyrics. Sometimes I change a detail here and there, but thats not important.

So it was on her backpack, and it was a button of a pick triangle. And I took that to mean that she was a lesbian, and I was crushed. And at the same time, it seemed like a really novel experience for me and confusing and interesting, and I went home and wrote a song about it. And then I found out after the album came out a year and a half later that she wasnt a lesbian at all. She just

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUOMO: was showing support for gay rights or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was it too late for you?

Mr. CUOMO: I was on to something else at that point, Im sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thats really funny. Well, Im glad you got a really terrific song out of it. So - this is Pink Triangle, from Weezers second album, Pinkerton.

(Soundbite of song, Pink Triangle)

Mr. CUOMO: (Singing) When Im stable long enough, I start to look around for love. See a sweet in floral print. My mind begins the arrangements. But when I start to feel that pull, turns out I just pulled myself. She would never go with me, were I the last girl on earth. Im dumb, shes a lesbian. I thought I had found the one. We were good as married in my mind. But married in my minds no good. A pink triangle on her sleeve. Let me know the truth. Let me know the truth.

GROSS: There was a period - and maybe you still feel like youre in this period - when you were struggling to figure out what kind of songs you wanted to write and what your best song writing process was to come up with a decent song. So you started to keeping a journal and experimenting with different approaches to writing songs. It sounds like a very analytical approach to something that, for some songwriters, is really very intuitive. Can you describe a little bit a couple of the different processes that you tried in song writing?

Mr. CUOMO: Yeah, for a couple of years there well, Ive always been an analytical person, but for a couple of years, I just got really analytical in keeping track of every detail of the process of writing a song and intentionally varying individual elements to see what the result would be. But sometimes these experiments were indistinguishable from how any other rock person would write a song. For example, in mid-2000, I - somehow my experiments evolved to a point where step one was take a pill of Ritalin. Step two was take three shots of tequila.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUOMO: Step three was go out in the backyard, sit down on a chair. Step four was close your eyes and imagine the song. And thats how I wrote Hash Pipe.

GROSS: So, shall we hear the song that was the outcome of this experiment?

Mr. CUOMO: Yeah, sure. I think youll hear it.

GROSS: Okay. Here it comes.

(Soundbite of song, Hash Pipe)

Mr. CUOMO: (Singing) I cant help my feelings, Ill go out of my mind. These players come to get me because theyd like my behind. I cant love my business if I cant get a trick down on Santa Monica, where tricks are for kids. Oh, come on and kick me. Oh, come on and kick me. Oh, come on and kick me. Oh, youve got your problems. Oh, Ive got my ass wide. Oh, youve got your big Gs. Ive got my hash pipe.

BIANCULLI: Rivers Cuomo spoke with Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Our guest is Rivers Cuomo of the rock band, Weezer. Terry spoke to him earlier this year, not long after the release of Weezers sixth record The Red Album, and Cuomos second solo collection, Alone II.

GROSS: Now, one of my favorite songs on Alone II is a song called I Was Scared, which is about an event when you were a junior in high school and you were being bullied by jocks.

Mr. CUOMO: Yeah.

GROSS: So, tell us the story of what happened that led to this song.

Mr. CUOMO: Well, junior year of high school is when I figured out how to do my hair, and I was really

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUOMO: I was into heavy metal at the time, and Id been experimenting with different kinds of mousse and gel and blow-drying and scrunching and all these different techniques. And then one day I figured it out, and my hair just popped up. And it looked - I thought it looked amazing. But boy, the jocks didnt like it. And me and all my friends, of course, were wearing heavy-metal-type clothing to school. And we werent the necessarily the biggest guys, so wed get pushed around all the time.

And on one occasion, they made us an offer, that if my brother would fight this one guy, David, they would - you know, that would be the one final fight and then they would leave us alone after that. And so we put it all on him, and he said, yes, he would do it. And the understanding was that the rest of us had to stay inside. Now, I knew very well that all of the other guys - all our other enemies were going out there to surround him, and they did. But I stayed inside like a total coward. And I felt so guilty about that, like Id betrayed my brother. And, of course, I had. And I pretty much buried that in my unconscious mind for years.

And then in 2003 - whats that, 16 years later? I was doing some intensive meditation, and suddenly this tremendous feeling of guilt came up. And as soon as I got out of that meditation course, I ran to my guitar and wrote the song I Was Scared.

GROSS: And its a great song. Lets hear it. And heres Rivers Cuomo from his new CD, Alone II, and hes doing all the parts on this.

(Soundbite of song I Was Scared)

Mr. CUOMO: (Singing) Listen to me. Ive got to clear the air. Theres something Ive held way down deep inside all these years. You always were a friend. You always trusted me. But now I must admit that I was not trustworthy. I let you down. I sold you out. I turned away as you fell onto the ground. I was scared, and I was terrified. And I was lost, and so I shied away.

GROSS: Thats I Was Scared from Rivers Cuomos new solo CD, Alone II. Theres a version of I Was Scared thats on the Internet now, where you had basically held these open auditions through the Internet to find a pianist and an a cappella group to accompany you performing I Was Scared. And it really -it sounds terrific. I want you to talk about why you heard piano in your mind for this, because on the recording that we just heard from your album Alone II, its guitar based. So why did you also hear piano as an option for this?

Mr. CUOMO: Hmm.

GROSS: And along with that, why did you want to hold auditions on the Internet? I guess thats kind of the larger question.

Mr. CUOMO: Hmm. Well, I know growing up in middle school and high school, I was very into classical music and classical singing, and then later even opera. And so I have this other side to me thats very into art music and Schubert and Schumann songs, and a lot of these are just piano, vocal arrangements. Ive never really gotten the chance to do that with Weezer. And now with YouTube, I can pretty much - the world is available to me. I can just - I can put up a call for musicians, and Ive gotten hundreds of replies. And I can just pick whichever one feels right to me.

And in this case with I Was Scared, I heard it being something like a really aggressive Schumann song or something - not just a piano strumming chords, like, along to a pop song like My Day Is Coming, or something, but somebody who could really shred. And because the chord progressions so simple, somebody could come up with very intense variations to make it interesting over the course of three and a half minutes. So, this one girl replied, who is a Juilliard student, and shes just a fantastic musician with all the technique and power, and I knew it was going to be great. And it was one of the most fun things Ive ever done.

GROSS: Well, I really like it. So, heres a version of the song we just heard, I Was Scared. And Rivers Cuomo is singing lead and tell me the name of the pianist who you found through the Internet?

Mr. CUOMO: Her name is Sonia.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well keep it to that.

Mr. CUOMO: Thats all I know.

GROSS: And the name of the a cappella group accompanying you, who you also found through the Internet?

Mr. CUOMO: These guys are part of the Dartmouth Aires, which is the male a cappella group at Dartmouth, from New Hampshire.

GROSS: Well, here they are, with Rivers Cuomo, and this is just from the Internet.

(Soundbite of song, I Was Scared)

Mr. CUOMO and DARTMOUTH AIRES: (Singing) Oh, whoa. Listen to me, Ive got to clear the air. Theres something Ive held way down deep inside all these years. You always were a friend. You always trusted me. But now I must admit that I was not trustworthy. I let you down. I sold you out. I turned away as you fell onto the ground. I was scared, and I was terrified. I was lost, and so I shied away.

GROSS: Thats Rivers Cuomo with a pianist and an a cappella group that he found through Internet auditions. Now, you mentioned that youre, you know, not only interested in, you know, pop and rock, youre interested in classical music and art song and opera. And you studied classical composition at Harvard for a while before dropping out and then coming back as an English major and completing your degree. But youve said that you didnt really like the atonal music that was emphasized at Harvard. Give us a sense of the kind of music that you just werent warming up to.

Mr. CUOMO: Well, at the time - this is 96 - I was in my hardcore romantic phase. I was so in love with Puccini and Tchaikovsky and stuff like that. And I got to Harvard, wanting to learn how to do that, and, of course, that music is not only 100 years old but it was just completely out of style after the 20th century and everything that happened. But several years later I got another music teacher and I was in a different frame of mind, and I really came to love some of that 20th century music, Stravinsky and Bartok and even Schoenberg, stuff like that.

I got this great composition teacher who taught me private lessons from UCLA. And he actually - some of the homework assignments he gave me at that time, 2004, I integrated into a song on Weezers latest album, The Red Album, called The Greatest Man That Ever Lived. At the end of that song - its a six-minute song, very epic - and at the end theres all this vocal counterpoint. He taught me how to do all that, and actually, a lot of it is from a homework assignment he gave me.

GROSS: What was the assignment?

Mr. CUOMO: It was - I was learning how to write three-part vocal counterpoint in the style of 16th century. And as soon as the album was finished, I sent it to him. I was - I knew he would be overjoyed to hear his influence on a modern rock record. You know, as a college professor, in a somewhat obscure field, you might start to think, like, you know, how relevant is this anymore? And he probably would have been overjoyed to hear that on the Weezer record. He was such an enthusiastic guy. And I was sad to learn that he passed away before he had a chance to hear that album.

GROSS: Im sorry to hear that.

Mr. CUOMO: Yeah.

GROSS: But we should listen to the track that you just mentioned. So, well hear the end of it, where the choral music influence comes in.

Mr. CUOMO: Yes. This is my favorite Weezer song ever.

(Soundbite of song, The Greatest Man That Ever Lived)

WEEZER: (Singing in round) Im the greatest man that ever lived. Im the greatest man that ever lived. Im the greatest man that ever lived. Im the greatest man that ever lived. Im the greatest man that ever lived. Im the greatest man that ever lived. Im the greatest man that ever lived. Im the greatest man that ever lived

GROSS: Thats The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived from Weezers latest, The Red Album.

Mr. CUOMO: The Greatest Man That Ever Lived. Its intentionally incorrect.

GROSS: Sorry, that - okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why?

Mr. CUOMO: It just sings better.

GROSS: Well, I really want to thank you a lot for talking with us. Its been great to talk with you. Thank you and I wish you continued good luck with your explorations in music.

Mr. CUOMO: Thank you very much and Im so excited to talk to you. This is great.

GROSS: Oh, that means a lot to me. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Rivers Cuomo speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His band Weezer has a new album out called Raditude. This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.