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Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo turned 40 this past June, and his band’s new record, Hurley, shows it. Not musically—Hurley finds Cuomo and his bandmates sounding bigger and more vital than on any record they’ve put out since 2002’s metal-edged Maladroit—but thematically. Weezer is plumbing a darker, rawer sound here, frequently matched by lyrics about looking back on the past and boldly facing the uncertainties of the future. Of course, it’s still a Weezer record, so Cuomo, guitarist Brian Bell, bassist Scott Shriner, and drummer Patrick Wilson treat the material in the tightest, most studio-honed fashion imaginable.
Before 2008’s self-titled “red album,” these apparent connections to Weezer’s beloved 1996 LP, Pinkerton, would be enough to inspire excited chatter in comment sections and forums across the Internet. But the red album, led by the Internet-meme-stuffed video for the outsiders’ anthem “Pork And Beans,” marked a turning point in Weezer’s career, one where public perception of the band was shaped by extra-musical decisions like the Weezer-branded Snuggie made available with copies of 2009’s Raditude. (Or the decision to call the record Raditude.) As such, much of the discussion surrounding Hurley has hinged on the label that’s releasing it (West Coast punk stalwart Epitaph Records), its cover photo (a shot of a smiling Jorge “Hurley from Lost” Garcia) and the record’s purported connections to the Nike-owned Hurley International clothing company. Speaking on the phone with The A.V. Club, Cuomo discussed Hurley’s anxious lyrics, its throat-shredding vocal performances, and its immediate successor: Death To False Metal, a collection of reworked Weezer rarities that’s set for release in conjunction with a deluxe, two-disc version of Pinkerton.
The A.V. Club: Hurley had a wild pre-album promotional cycle—almost every detail released about the record has turned into a big news story. How do you feel about that?
Rivers Cuomo: Well, let’s just do a quick review: We released the album cover online, and that caused a big shitstorm. Some people loved it, some people were outraged—it got a surprisingly strong reaction, considering it’s just a picture of a nice-looking man smiling. What else was there?
AVC: There was the rumor that you named the record Hurley because the Hurley clothing company paid you to.
RC: Yeah, Brian did an interview where he said Hurley funded the record and we said we would name it after them. And that became a huge story, too. A lot of websites, for some reason, loved that story. [Laughs.] And no one seemed to notice when Brian made the retraction and said that it was his mistake.
AVC: It was a misunderstanding, right?
RC: We’re doing a clothing line with Hurley, we did a show that was sponsored by Hurley, and earlier in the year, the other three guys in the band went to the Hurley recording studio and were doing some recording there. There’s just so much going on right now, I think he got confused and made an honest mistake.
AVC: Do you worry that all this talk about Hurley’s superficial aspects is going to distract from the actual record?
RC: It seems like Weezer has gotten better and better at getting attention for everything besides our music. Part of that is just the nature of our culture now—you really have to scream to get some attention, so people even know you have a record out that they might want to listen to. We’ve gotten a lot of attention over the last few years—I personally wish it was more for how compelling and attractive the music was on its own merit. [Laughs.] I think a lot of what we’ve done that’s gotten us so much attention was not intentional. When we thought of putting Hurley on the album cover, it seemed like the last thing in the world that would cause such an uproar. I thought it was just a beautiful picture, and it’d be a cool album cover for a rock band. We were all surprised to find Weezer was a trending topic on Twitter because of the album cover.
AVC: Intentional or not, the band is definitely good enough at getting listeners’ attention that you could’ve put Hurley out without a label’s assistance. So why go with Epitaph?
RC: They’re mainly doing the parts of the job that we don’t want to do, like pressing it and distributing it. I don’t want to pack boxes of CDs all day long. [Laughs.] In addition to that, even these bands that put out records on their own, they hire a publicist and a radio promo team, and that’s what Epitaph is doing for us. Obviously, it’s going to be a big step down in terms of marketing dollars from being on the biggest record company in the world [Universal Music Group]. But I seriously question the value of traditional marketing now—I feel like more and more, it’s just going to be up to our fans to spread the word for us. But it’s a time of total flux, uncertainty, and excitement, and it’s time to do something totally different.
AVC: Did any of those uncertain feelings carry over into Hurley? Your lyrics on the record frequently mention change, aging, and growing older.
RC: I can’t say I was consciously thinking of the big changes in the music business when I was writing the lyrics, but change, uncertainty, flux, impermanence—these are things I’m acutely aware of. And I enjoy facing it all. That being said, we just started working on our 10th record. I was talking to the producer and he was saying “These songs sound totally different from Hurley.” [Laughs.] “Hurley was kind of dark, and the new songs sound like you’re 16, riding your bicycle to get a Slurpee.” As a writer, I had no idea—I wasn’t shooting for anything different. That’s just what happened to come up.
AVC: So the process of making the 10th record is already underway?
RC: Oh yeah.
AVC: What is your songwriting regimen like these days? Counting Death To False Metal, if the 10th record comes out in 2011, that’ll make five records in four years.
RC: I don’t know if I have a regimen—actually, that’s not true. I work my butt off five days a week. When we’re on tour, performance and preparation for performance pretty much preclude writing. But any other time I’m not on the road, I’m in the studio, working on music. It hardly feels like a regimen, because it’s the greatest joy in the world for me. I’m constantly fighting with my manager to reduce the amount of time I have to spend on promotional activities, so I can get back in the studio and work on new music.
AVC: Raditude featured collaborations with the likes of mega-producer Dr. Luke and Lil Wayne; Ryan Adams and ’70s country star Mac Davis pitched in on Hurley’s “Runaway” and “Time Flies,” respectively. How do the other members of the band feel about those outside contributions?
RC: I don’t know. That would be a great question for them. [Laughs.] They’ve seen me go through all sorts of crazy phases over the last 17 years—I’d have to do something really crazy for them to get too bummed-out or upset. The thing they like least is when I go into hibernation for years at a time. [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the lyrics that really sticks out from “Time Flies” is the line “Even when I’m gone, this stupid damn song will be in your head.” Is that you getting the last laugh at people complaining that your new records aren’t as good as Pinkerton or 1994’s “Blue Album?”
RC: I honestly wasn’t thinking of that at all. I was attempting to get the last laugh at my own mortality and inevitable obsolescence. I know that all this effort and all this creativity and productivity is going to be erased and forgotten, and it will be as if it had never existed at all. But I’m trying to get a little wink and laugh as I’m facing all of that.
AVC: Your vocals on the record sound so snarling and galvanized. They, along with the drum parts on a lot of the songs, make Hurley the biggest-sounding Weezer record in years. Is that something you were trying to capture—a really “big” sound?
RC: The word “big” wasn’t on my mind, but definitely the energy and the drum performance was key. I played a good deal of the drums on the record, and Pat played a good deal of the guitar. The biggest thing for me was the vocals. For so many years, I figured “I’m pretty good at this one voice, so I should just stick to that.” And this time, there’s some songs when I’m singing pretty crazy, and there’s some songs where I’m singing pretty gently. Just looking to experiment with my vocal cords.
AVC: How did your throat and vocal cords feel after the sessions were over? On some songs, like “Ruling Me,” it sounds like your voice is near the breaking point.
RC: For years, I’d try some of that here and there—and it’s physically unpleasant. But making this record, I feel like I kind of broke through, finally. I whipped my vocal apparatus into submission. Now I can do more and more crazy stuff with my voice, and I’m doing it at the live shows, too. It doesn’t feel bad anymore—it just feels like I have some new colors on my palette.
AVC: Will we hear some Ronnie James Dio-style screaming on the next record?
RC: There’s two songs on Death To False Metal that come immediately to my mind. “Everyone” from 1998—it was just too hardcore, heavy-metal to be on a Weezer record at the time. That’s why we set it aside. So I worked on that some more recently in the studio, and put some crazy vocal moments on it. Another song called from 2003, called “Blowin’ My Stack,” I went back and did some blood-curdling screaming.
AVC: A post about Death To False Metal on the band’s website referred to 1998 as the “Weezer mystery year,” which is promising and intriguing.
RC: Yeah, there’s two songs from that year: “Everyone” and “Trampoline.” “Trampoline” is a very good pop song, in the style of mid- to late-’90s alt-rock, but I just got stuck and had a verse and a chorus where I couldn’t figure out where to go. And just recently I was able to put in a new section, and some new chords and a guitar solo and a breakdown, and I just love it now.