Rivers Cuomo on Weezer's Black Album and struggling with the success of covering 'Africa'
It’s been a busy year for Rivers Cuomo, the 48-year-old frontman of Weezer. Building off the surprise success of the band’s rendition of Toto’s “Africa,” they released The Teal Album, a covers collection. And March 1 brings their latest (and long promised) self-titled record, known as The Black Album.
“My main goal for any album at this point is for it to have at least one song that the audience at our shows every night want to hear,” Cuomo tells EW. “I don’t know if [The Black Album] will succeed at the goal. But I think, at least, we will fail in a different way, which is exciting to me.”
Ahead, Cuomo chats about writing the new unconventional LP, who he would want to play him in a Weezer biopic, and his complicated reaction to the success of “Africa.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is your sixth chromatic album, after Blue, Green, Red, White, and Teal. What makes this album “black”?
RIVERS CUOMO: Some fans have heard it, and they’ve said, “I thought it was gonna be some superheavy, dark metal album.” Actually, no. There’s very little guitar. I wrote all the songs on piano. We’ve been trying to make this record for several years. We’ve ended up putting out more normal records, just ’cause we weren’t able to figure this one out. We finally found the right partner in [producer] Dave Sitek and really committed to the idea of throwing out the rule book. Without the big guitar, there’s more room for reverb and different kinds of psychedelic effects.
Are there any tracks, in particular, that you’ve been working on for a long time?
The way I write now, I have a folder of about 1,400 demos. And I look at it through a program called Mp3tag. I’ll be writing a song, and I’ll know: “All right, I need a bridge that’s at 132 bpm, in the Key of A-flat major, and the bridge needs to start on the two chord, and the melody needs to be on the fourth degree of the scale.” I press “Go,” and Mp3tag returns the ten matching demos I have.
Some of them extend back to my very beginnings in the early ’90s. I’ll give you one example: The bridge of the song “Byzantine” is from 1991, a very early-’90s grunge Soundgarden-type of song. But we reimagined it as this French-pop ’60s thing with a drum machine.
Something I’ve enjoyed about your last few albums is that the lyrics are so unusual, both the rhymes and the basic vocabulary. Has your process of writing lyrics evolved in the last few years?
If you think of a particular line or passage that sounded cool to you, then maybe I can tell you how I did it.
On “Byzantine,” there’s a line about “Tennessee Williams in Stuart Weitzman boots.”
That’s easy, I didn’t write that. [Laughs] That song I wrote with Laura Jane Grace, from Against Me!. She did most of the lyrics, and she sent them to me as text messages, and I turned it into a song.
On the track “The Prince Who Wanted Everything,” you have phrases like “funk-rock riffs” and “paisley bones.” Is that song about Prince?
It didn’t start out to be about Prince. But as I was working on the song and listening to it every day, I just couldn’t help but be reminded of him and his story. I was such a big Prince fan from probably about age 20, even before Weezer started. I just started tweaking the lyrics to make some Prince references.
There’s almost a bit of an “Ozymandias” vibe to that song…
Yeah. [Laughs] That’s funny, I was definitely thinking of that poem. I probably read that in ninth grade. I think it’s been a recurring theme in Weezer, from album one: the pointlessness and vanity of creative effort, in my case. Everything will be forgotten.
One more lyric question. You’ve got a line in “Zombie Bastards” about getting “cast out of Egypt,” a line in “Too Many Thoughts in My Head” about Moses in the Promised Land, and then a line in “California Snow” referencing a Judas kiss. Is this your religious album?
When I came up with the line about “being cast out of Egypt,” I remember telling Dave, “Any time you can make a pop song with an Old Testament reference, you have to do it.” I think that’s a very good rule of thumb for any artist.
Your 2017 album, Pacific Daydream, was nominated for a Grammy, but its singles failed to chart as high as your 2018 cover of Toto’s “Africa,” which made the Hot 100. Was it frustrating to see that song perform better than your original material?
I’ve always thought of myself as an incredibly resilient songwriter. I’ve taken so many hits and had so many failures. And still, I wake up the next morning, and I’m super excited to get back to work. I have complete faith that the next song I write is gonna be a huge song, and the next album is gonna be a huge album, and Weezer is gonna be a big stadium band. In spite of the fact that that never comes true, I still have always believed it. The one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the pain of success, and by that I mean the pain of having huge success with a song [laughs] I didn’t write. So, yeah, that really has thrown me. And it’s taken me awhile to regain my faith.
Are you working on new songs?
What I’ve been working on the last two weeks is back to big guitars. Blue Album-ish, but a little more riffy. The working title is Van Weezer. The inspiration came from our live shows, where, in the middle of “Beverly Hills,” unlike on the album, everything stops and I just break out with this crazy guitar solo. We noticed that, recently, the crowd just goes crazy when I do that. So it feels like maybe the audience is ready for some shredding again.
Van Weezer is in mortal combat with Okay Human, a record that’s mostly done. That one’s totally different. It’s inspired by an album from 1970 called Nilsson Sings Newman. It’s all piano-based, but it has a ton of orchestration. We just did the strings at Abbey Road. It’s just gorgeous melodies and extremely eccentric lyrics.
In the “Africa” music video, “Weird Al” Yankovic played you. In the “Can’t Knock the Hustle” video, Pete Wentz played “Rivers Wentz.” Who’d be your dream to play you in a Weezer biopic?
You guys were just at the Grammys, nominated for Pacific Daydream. What was that experience like?
I went in pretty jaded, thinking that I’d be sitting around like at most awards ceremonies, where you have to keep applauding, and your hands get sore, and there’s tons of commercial breaks, and everything just feels really fake and boring. But it was incredible. The performances were so exciting and interesting and stimulating, from the opening number with Camila Cabello and Ricky Martin. They were so good, and so charismatic. Ricky Martin completely mesmerized me. I had the thought: “I get why Weezer’s not up there. This is on another level.”
How do you mean?
We’ve never been that successful that we’re playing at the Grammys. We haven’t been on a stage that big. But most of the time I’m thinking, “We’ll get there someday. We just gotta keep working. Someday we’ll play the halftime show at the Super Bowl. We just gotta get the songs right. We just gotta keep pushing. We’ll get there.” But here we are, 25 years in, watching the Grammys, and I just felt, like, I get it. These people are super entertainers. And I’m cool with that.
After the “Africa” cover, Saturday Night Live did a whole sketch dedicated to your fans, and you also just put out the all-covers Teal Album. How do you feel about this exposure?
I think if you went to Google Trends and typed “Weezer,” you’d see the graph start to shoot up over the last year. I don’t quite understand why. I don’t know how much I can take credit for it. But it’s fantastic. I can’t help but think of that line, If you give a chimpanzee a typewriter and eternity, he could end up typing at random the complete works of Shakespeare. I think that if you give Weezer enough time, we’ll just keep making albums, and almost at random, it seems like, they become more successful.