‘Tis The SZNZ for Weezer

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For Rivers Cuomo, frontman and principal songwriter for the acclaimed rock band Weezer, it all started with Dropbox. Lately, the artist had been writing songs freely and abundantly, not for any particular album, or for any release or promotion. Cuomo was just doing it because that’s who he is. He made whatever he wanted on any given day. Some were “easy-breezy” Weezer tracks, others had more of a dance feel, and still others were more rock or alternative rock. Either way, as the tracks began to amass, Cuomo had to eventually decide what to do with them. He hadn’t restricted himself to the output. But now, with myriad songs in tow, the question remained, “What to do?” As he made them, he was putting them into different Dropbox folders, he says. And as it turned out, they landed in four subdivisions. The result now is Weezer’s unique cadre of releases for 2022, four season-themed EPs, which the band started to release in the spring (in March) and has continued through summer, into fall, and will follow in later winter. 

“I was sitting around thinking, ‘What am I going to do with these four folders?’” Cuomo says. “I could try to cram them all into one album. Then it struck me: why not make four albums?”

With the spark of inspiration, Cuomo began to wonder how to tie these four potential works together. That’s when he remembered the landmark music by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi and his four violin concertos, each of which offers a sense of the quartet of seasons per year. Cuomo now had a plan. And to pay tribute to Vivaldi, each of Weezer’s four seasonal-themed EPs contains a nod to his music. “Opening Night” on the Spring EP, for example. Or “Lawn Chair” on the Summer offering. Both of those are the first tracks on their respective EPs. Then Cuomo had another decision to make. While he was comfortable breaking up the four Dropbox folders into seasonal-themed—or, perhaps better said, seasonal-named—EPs, to break them up by weather-based distinctions, seemed “a little too obvious,” he says. 

“The seasonal thing is a bit of a red herring,” Cuomo says. “The albums have a different kind of focus. Each album has a primary emotion: Spring is optimistic sorrow. Summer is youthful indignation. Autumn is anxiety. And Winter is sadness.”

Additionally, Cuomo says, each album “has a primary genre.” Remember the Dropbox folders and their given styles? Well, he decided, Spring would be that “easy-breezy” Weezer sound. Summer offers a ’90s alternative rock sound. Autumn is dance rock. And Winter is going to be singer/songwriter music in the vein of artists like Elliott Smith. Boom. Done. The results, therefore, are many. Not only did Cuomo’s creative decision-making portend a year of releases, but it also provided a window into his diverse musical tastes and his general appreciation of education and musical history.

“From probably ninth grade on,” Cuomo says, “I was very interested in the academic or intellectual side of music. I was drawn to learn music theory and I love classical music. I was drawn to music history and to understanding the last few centuries of music history, not just the last few decades.” 

At the time, even though he pushed himself to study and learn, Cuomo, as a young person, felt bad about his penchant for intellectualism. At times, he felt “uncool” to know so much. There was a pervading sense that to be an artist, especially a rock ’n’ roll star, the work had to be “instinctual” and not studied. That to have reference and context was, in a way, cheating. Eventually, though, he got over this hang-up and dove further into the materials. Does he think today this was worthwhile in the long run?

“Well,” Cuomo says, “it’s just who I am. There’s no sense in fighting who you are. Obviously, there [are] all kinds of artists. Some are more intellectual than others, some are more interested in different genres than others.” 

When speaking with Cuomo, one is met often with silence. He’s pensive and thoughtful. Cuomo considers the questions and conversation and his answers in response. He’s measured. But what that brings, at times, is the absence of answers. He doesn’t fake it. Doesn’t make something up just because the moment might ask him to. For example, Cuomo pauses when asked about songwriting, and how he does it. There isn’t one way, he notes, of course. But with that entails more ways than even he may be able to count. 

“I’ve been doing it so many decades,” Cuomo says, “so many thousands of songs. It’s hard to say that there was one way [to write]. I think people underestimate the importance of chord progressions, though. If you get the right three or four chords and just play those over and over again and they have the right emotion, you’ve won half the battle there. Don’t lose sight of that.”

Weezer’s new EPs are quite good. And they arrive at a time of great creative prosperity for Cuomo and his band. The group released two albums in 2019—Weezer (Teal Album) and Weezer (Black Album). Then the band released two more albums in 2021, OK Human and Van Weezer. Now, with four EPs earmarked for 2022, the past few years gave the biggest output for the group ever. This reality is not lost on the band’s lead singer. And how that output will affect the band moving forward is both unknown and yet not. Weezer fans are, essentially, insatiable, Cuomo says. But that doesn’t mean things should continue at this breakneck pace. Something likely has to give. 

“Last year, we put out two records,” he says. “This year, we’re putting out four EPs. It feels like a massive amount of music. Even for our fan base—our fans, they’re great because they’re just this bottomless pit that can take anything we give them. They never say, ‘That’s enough, no more.’ But I feel like, after this year, it might be time to take a lot more time with the next record. I’m not sure what that means. But it feels like something is going to change. It’s going to be the end of an era after SZNZ, for sure.” 

Cuomo’s father, Frank, was a drummer. In fact, he played drums on the 1971 Wayne Shorter album, Odyssey of Iska. That record was recorded when Cuomo was just two months old. Papa Cuomo, therefore, was playing music throughout his son’s life, in their home. Music has always been around. When he was about 11 years old, Cuomo remembers lying in bed at night, dreaming of being a rock star. The image in his head, he says, closely resembled the inside cover of the 1977 live album from KISS, Alive II. At 16, Cuomo decided there was nothing else he wanted to do than be a professional (and famous) musician. He didn’t want to go to college (despite his propensity for studying), so he thought he might as well give his desired career a shot. As a young adult, he loved playing in his (glam metal) band, and so he thought a move to the eye of the storm of entertainment—Los Angeles—was in order. He departed the East Coast (Cuomo was born in New York and raised, in part, in Connecticut on an ashram) for the West and La-La Land. 

“My band in high school was called Avant Garde,” Cuomo says. “I moved to L.A. when I was 18 and we hooked up with this music attorney who said that it was a terrible name, and we should come up with something more fun.”

The band changed its name to Zoom but broke up by 1990. Around this time, he was attending Santa Monica College, working on music, dabbling as a roadie for the band King Size, and working at Tower Records, which provided him more of a vast musical education. Earlier, when he was a teenager, Cuomo says he was exclusively focused on guitar and guitar techniques. He says, he was working on how fast he could play scales and pick arpeggios. He thought that was the “road to global success.” But when he and his band moved to L.A., they realized no one cared about those things. Instead, fans wanted good songs, melodies, and lyrics. 

“The band broke up,” Cuomo says, “and a friend of mine at Tower Records—we took a long walk at Griffith Park and he said, ‘You should try to be a singer and sing your own songs, write your own songs.’”

Cuomo remembers thinking then that he wasn’t a lead singer. That he was “just” a guitar player. That he couldn’t sing. But his friend guffawed, saying that didn’t matter. Instead, the friend explained, “Focus on what you really want to say and just sing that.” Armed with that advice, Cuomo got a hold of an 8-track Tascam 688 recorder and started to make demos. Simultaneously working at Tower Records offered supplemental study as to what was the best music from past decades. Cuomo had previously been deep into metal bands. But now, at Tower, he was privy to songs from groups from the ’60s and ’70s. 

Photo by Ashley Osborn

“Then Weezer got together,” he says, “and the next phase of education was playing shows. We played show after show, competing with other bands. There were a lot of great bands at that time. It was always like we had to win over some of their fans [and] let’s see what these other bands are doing. We’d revise our style until we’d get bigger applause at clubs.” 

Today, of course, Weezer is hugely famous, making a name for itself in the early 1990s and releasing its first album, Weezer (Blue Album), in 1994, followed by more acclaimed records like Pinkerton in 1996 and Weezer (Green Album) in 2001. More records followed, more hit songs, from “Undone—The Sweater Song” to “Beverly Hills.” Cuomo was in his early 20s when his name became synonymous with the burgeoning alternative rock scene. He jokes that no amount of fame is ever “enough,” saying, “you always want more, I think.” He laughs, saying, “Hmm, Green Day—looks like their audience is bigger than our audience. So, we have to work harder.” In hindsight, Weezer (and Green Day, for that matter) are two of the few bands that have survived the ’90s, with other major groups like Alice in Chains and Nirvana losing members to drug overdoses and suicide. 

“You want to make it so bad,” Cuomo says, “you want a record deal. You want a big audience. You want to be famous. And then as soon as it happens, you become totally miserable and feel like you don’t want it.”

The experience then was so jarring for Cuomo that he walked away from it in the ’90s. After a year of touring on the band’s first album, coupled with several big songs and videos, he left the scene. That’s when he went back to college, enrolling at Harvard in 1995, saying he didn’t know if he was ever going to come back to the public eye. People called him crazy. To be in the spotlight is tough. When asked if he thinks so, Cuomo offers a near-silent, “Yeah.” At Harvard, he wrote songs, both for a still-unreleased space-themed concept album and also for what would become Weezer’s second LP, Pinkerton, which was released in 1996. That album was not so well-received initially but has since gone on to be known as one of the great records of its era. Such may end up being the fate for the SZNZ EPs, too, which include earworm tracks like the percussive “A Little Bit of Love” and hypnotic “Records.”

Looking ahead, Cuomo says the dynamic of his band is “pretty much the same” as it’s always been. Though, he adds, “I think we’re a lot chiller as human beings now. And more secure in what we do. Nothing’s really going to change the trajectory of our career that much at this point, so I think we’re a lot easier to work with than when we were young guys.” But musically, he says, “the chemistry feels very similar to how it did before.”

Perhaps that’s why the band is putting out such strong songs, yet again. Cuomo even calls to mind one of the band’s biggest hits, “Say It Ain’t So,” when contemplating and explicating what he loves most about his profession, the art form to which he’s dedicated each and every season of his life and continues to do so today, including an upcoming five-gig September residency in New York City at the Broadway Theatre. 

“That moment in ‘Say It Ain’t So,’” Cuomo says. “When I say the word ‘Say.’ It’s a G-sharp over an A-major chord. It’s so gut-wrenching and cathartic—that feeling is what I love most about music.”

Photo of Weezer by Ashley Osborn

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