In the studio: Weezer talks lyrics, the new album title, Ric Ocasek
We’re still a few months away from the arrival of Weezer’s new album Everything Will Be Alright in the End, but you can get a good sense of what to expect by reading about EW‘s exclusive visit to the studio. I spent two days with the men of Weezer, and we had a ton of conversations both about the new album and about the stuff bands talk about between takes.
But of course there was not enough room to get all of the gems into the piece. If you’re hungry for more, here are a handful of awesome bits that were left on the cutting room floor.
Title of Record
When I showed up at the Village Studio in Los Angeles, the band had just announced the title of the album. Everything Will Be Alright in the End is by far the band’s longest title, besting previous record-holder Make Believe by five whole words (everything else in the catalog has been one word long). When I talked to Rivers Cuomo, he hoped people will pick up on the double-edged nature of the sentiment. “I told a friend of mine the title yesterday, and he hasn’t heard any music or seen any art work, and he said, ‘Well that’s really optimistic!'” Cuomo said. “I think once the title is digested along with the art work and the music, I think it won’t seem as purely optimistic as someone who is just seeing the title alone. You’ll see some melancholy in there too.” According to guitarist Brian Bell, there were many other title options, and Everything was initially even longer. And yes, they did consider returning to the well. “The colors, that’s always a consideration in any record we do,” Bell said, referencing the Blue, Green, and Red albums already in the band’s catalog. “But we still have Yellow to make, and Purple is still available.”
Words, Words, Words
As of about a month ago when I was with the band, Cuomo was still working out a lot of the lyrics. “In a lot of cases, the bulk of the lyrics come early on,” he explained. “There’s something I want to say, and that in a lot of ways writes the song for me or steers the course of the song for me, so it’s not any kind of problem finishing the lyrics.” But even though he’s been doing this for over two decades, there are still roadblocks, and it’s entirely possible that there will be songs the band loves that will get left behind. “Sometimes there’s just songs that are really difficult for me to finish a lyric. The one we may start today, ‘The Rules of Life,’ that’s another one. The chorus is great, but I can’t tell you how many verses I’ve written trying to figure out what my perspective is on that chorus. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there’s just a massive amount of uncertainty sometimes. And sometimes I just don’t get it! Sometimes I have to set a song aside. I know it’s out there somewhere, but it hasn’t come yet, and we can’t do the song now. Sometimes it comes ten years later when I finally figure it out. I have a lot of pride about the records, and I don’t want to put it out if I know it could be better. Somebody else may be more practical and say, ‘This is fine, it’s good enough, it achieves our goal.’ I’m not like that. If I know it can be better, I’d rather put it on hold.”
One of the songs in limbo was a track called “The British Are Coming” (which their engineer, Sam Bell, kept referring to as “Here Come the British”). “That’s one of the ones where it’s going to go down to the wire when it comes to the verses, trying to figure out what my take is on it,” Cuomo said. “I have one extreme where the verses have apparently nothing to do with the chorus ‘The British are coming.’ I’m just talking about my own life and my own problems, and you’d really have to think hard to make a connection between the two. Or, is it possible to just do a historical narrative and just tell the story of Paul Revere? That would be kind of unprecedented for Weezer and maybe for all of alt-rock. Though They Might Be Giants have a song called ‘James K. Polk’ that is pure historical narrative, so I was going to check that out.”
Still, sometimes the songs that arrive at the eleventh hour end up bearing incredible fruit. “On the first record, the Blue Album, ‘Buddy Holly’ was one of the last songs tracked,” Bell noted.
Producer Ric Ocasek, frontman for the Cars and architect of Weezer’s first and third albums, was relatively quiet during the two days I was with the band. As I noted in the piece, Cuomo really ran the show, but the band frequently turned to Ocasek for approval. He’s been pretty active on Everything Will Be Alright in the End, though. “I’m a little more relaxed around him, though I’m still a little starstruck,” Bell told me. “I was a huge Cars fan growing up. Not only that, the most exciting time of my life was joining Weezer and coming in to record the Blue Album, and Ric Ocasek was the guy who was like, ‘Let’s see if this guy can play.’ I hate to use the term rock star, but he’s a rock star. He’s a proper rock star. And he’s a great musical mind too. Stylistically, when we’re doing a track, sometimes we just try things, and that’s what we should do. We tried this little whistling idea, and he was like, ‘That’s the corniest of the corn. That is so lame.’ When Ric Ocasek says something is lame, you trust it. Then he’ll throw out a story about Andy Warhol, and I’m just like, ‘This is so cool.’ The one time I was at his house in New York City, he was standing there next to a portrait of himself done by Andy Warhol, and I was like, ‘Is this f—ing happening to me right now?’ It was blowing my mind. It was pretty cool. The whole thing, all of it, I still pinch myself that this is happening.”
This was the first time working with Ocasek for bassist Scott Shriner (he joined the band after the recording of the Green Album). “I had thought that he was going to be very stern, like a serious taskmaster. That’s what I was prepared for,” Shriner said. “Ric is a legend. The Cars is one of those bands who changed my whole scope of music. The I meet him, and he’s funny and goofing around and clever and supportive. He’ll pat me on the back. He’s not afraid to say something is terrible. Just by him being in the room, stuff is different. I don’t know what it is. Whenever you observed something you change it a little bit. It’s the same with Ric. Even just the idea of him being on his way to the studio changes it. We’ve done stuff on our own with a couple of different producers, and he’s just got his own thing. He’ll say, ‘That is the single worst idea I’ve ever heard,’ so then when he says ‘That’s fantastic!’ we really believe him. I believe him because he also told me that I suck.”
Cuomo is extremely sensitive to Weezer’s place not only in the current music scene but also in the pantheon of rock. In fact, one of the songs in contention for Everything Will Be Alright in the End addresses that idea directly. “The song ‘Eulogy for a Rock Band’ is a song about our place relative to the great rock bands that came before us, as they are retiring, moving on into oblivion,” Cuomo said. “We’re kind of in that spot now as one of the big rock bands.” By extension, he wants Weezer to operate the way those classic bands did as well. “I’ve always been a very traditional artist and in love with the golden age of rock music and the music business and the way the music business worked back then,” he said. “I just have a very strong instinct to want to be that kind of artist and that kind of band and make those kind of records and have those kind of singles and connect to that audience through those kinds of channels. That means first and foremost [getting on] radio. That’s kind of how I’m designed to work. Hopefully people still listen.”
Bell is also on that wavelength. “I still want it to be like Led Zeppelin,” he said. “I still think of Led Zeppelin as extremely popular with teenagers. Every generation latched onto Led Zeppelin, and I’m hoping that will happen with us. It seems to be starting to happen. I see the same age group mixed in with older age groups that we kept throughout the years, which is fantastic.”
One of the stories Bell told involved Weezer’s encounter with a music icon under somewhat unfortunate circumstances. “We were learning Poison’s ‘Talk Dirty To Me’ for this Sunset Strip music thing, and we wanted to pay homage to the Sunset Strip scen,” Bell said. “We were learning it at this studio owned by Jimmy Iovine, and we were just having a hard time with the intricacies of ‘Talk Dirty to Me,’ and in walks Dr. Dre while we were rehearsing it. We’re just butchering it, and he walks in and takes a look and kind of shakes his head and walks out. That was our one moment with Dr. Dre: We’re butchering ‘Talk Dirty to Me,’ and he was not impressed. There was no reason he should be impressed, because it was not impressive.”
The Six String Revolution
Though the band’s two previous albums, Hurley and Raditude, dabbled in modern pop production and songwriting techniques, all the guys in Weezer are glad to get back to rocking out. “Raditude was a different time,” Shriner said. “I love that record, some songs more than others. At that time, it seemed like we needed to get all of it right with a computer. I thought people would get tired of hearing music like that. There’s a charm to that too, from a dance perspective or something. But I like stuff that feels like it could almost fall apart, but it doesn’t. I need that human element to it.”
Bell also likes the idea of the band’s newly rediscovered warts-and-all approach. “Technology can be bad,” he said. “It can make for a lifeless recording when you start stacking things. You lose the human element. Hitting not right on time is not necessarily bad. Sometimes things shouldn’t be fixed.”