...claudine ko

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Rivers Cuomo
Nylon, November 2009

After years of emo introspection and existential unrest, the Weezer frontman has finally figured out how to have fun.

It’s a Monday afternoon in West Hollywood, and Rivers Cuomo is midway through a “secret” show promoting the latest Weezer album, the upbeat, power-popping Raditude. Inside the cool darkness of the intimate Roxy Theatre, the band is uniformly dressed in snow-white Nike track suits, playing to an almost equally uniform adult-male crowd (atypical, according to Cuomo). But the frontman, who has recently relinquished his cumbersome responsibility of playing guitar during live shows, exploits the newfound freedom with other accoutrements: a mini trampoline, used to bounce maniacally up-and-down on; a football, passed into the far reaches of the audience; and a ukulele, violently smashed into pieces during the self-empowering “Pork and Beans.” Coupled with his spastic dance stylings, the overall effect is more geek tantrum than Guitar Hero (a sponsor of today’s performance), and represents a new, uninhibited Cuomo that fans have rarely seen before.    

“‘Raditude’ to me is the spirit of being so focused and into whatever you’re doing—your heart gets going, your blood gets going, you’re suddenly so concentrated that you’re able to do things you never thought you could do in your normal state,” he says, post-show in the upstairs bar, lit by blue neon lights. (The word raditude, incidentally, was created by Cuomo’s friend, The Office actor Rainn Wilson.) “I feel that way every night on stage.”   

 “It’s pretty scary,” he continues. “I have to be very impulsive, because that’s where the real creative expressiveness comes from. You can’t be thinking, 'Maybe I shouldn’t break this guitar because I might get a splinter or it cost $100.' As a result, I’ve broken a lot of instruments this tour and gotten a lot of splinters.”     On first glance, the track listing for Raditude, the band’s seventh album evokes questionable emotional maturity (i.e. “In the Mall”, “The Girl Got Hot,”  “Can’t Stop Partying”), but Cuomo has come a long way from his days of writing about unrequited crushes on half-Asian chicks (“El Scorcho,” Pinkerton, 1997).

First, there was his Ivy League degree in English Literature, which he finally completed after 11 years of on-and-off studies in 2006. “I was very anti-rock star when I went to Harvard in ’95,” he says. Weezer had just finished touring for their eponymous debut record (a.k.a. The Blue Album), which remains their best-seller, and Cuomo was rebelling against the success and the “mindless” routine of soundchecks, interviews, performing, passing out, and touring. “I said, ‘Screw this—I’m going to school. I don’t know if I’m ever going to see you guys again.’”     

By his ninth undergraduate year, he was still single, on leave from school, living alone in a one-room apartment in Los Angeles, and beginning work on the band’s fifth album, Make Believe. “I had been flipping through a program at the Hollywood Bowl and saw this picture of Wilson Phillps,” he recalls. “They looked beautiful, and they were connected to this lineage of Los Angeles music celebrities. It was so frustrating because I had become a rock star myself, but I was still on the outside.... And so I wrote “Beverly Hills,” completely sincerely. Most Weezer fans thought I was being ironic.”     And now?

“A lot of my cravings have been assuaged,” he says. “I have a wife and child, and [am on] a real productive streak with my band.” And while songs on Raditude—such as “I’m Your Daddy,” where he sings about wooing a girl with cheese fondue—signal a man not quite out of his adolescent phase, it may just be a creative ruse. “I’m Your Daddy” was inspired by his actual daughter, who had been hospitalized for a serious illness. “I’m an artist, so I don’t necessarily translate everything from my life literally into a song,” he points out. “I work with what’s given to me by my own conscious mind and shape it into a pop song that people can relate to.”    

However much he’s changed, Cuomo remains enamored by East Asian culture, which he attributes to spending his first five years growing up Buddhist in the Rochester Zen Center, and he devotes six weeks each year to visiting his wife’s family in Japan. So does he have a mantra these days? “No,” he says, before changing his mind. “My mantra would be, ‘This will also change.’”