Rivers Cuomo is a man of many talents, but clairvoyance is not one of them. The moustachioed 50-year-old Weezer frontman is at home in Santa Monica, sitting between his computer and his piano, explaining the sequence of unforeseen circumstances that led his band to delay the release of heavy metal record ‘Van Weezer’ by a full year and in the intervening time put out a whole new orchestral pop album, ‘OK Human’.
It all started in 2017, when Cuomo sat down in that same spot at his piano, beneath his hanging garden of creeping vines, to begin work on what he calls a “quirky, personal, non-commercial album with no big guitars”.
It was just as that record was nearing completion that the band – Cuomo plus drummer Patrick Wilson, rhythm guitarist Brian Bell and bassist Scott Shriner – learned that they’d been booked to play the Hella Mega Tour, a huge jaunt around the world’s stadiums alongside fellow rockers-of-a-certain-age Green Day and Fall Out Boy, from March to August last year.
Cuomo says their excitement at hitting the road to play in front of such vast crowds was tempered by an immediate and troubling realisation: “We were like, ‘Okay, we just made the worst possible type of album you could make before a stadium rock tour.’”
Sensibly, or so it seemed at the time, the band shelved their introspective album-to-be in favour of writing and recording ‘Van Weezer’, a collection of stadium-ready air guitar anthems inspired by their shared teenage love of Kiss, Black Sabbath, Metallica and, of course, Van Halen. Then came the pandemic. “So we were like: Well, now we’ve just made the worst possible album for a time when you can’t actually tour or perform or rock out,” says Cuomo, choking back an exasperated laugh. “When nobody is going to concerts, how can you possibly promote a stadium rock album?”
The release of ‘Van Weezer’, originally planned for last spring, was thus put back to 7 May this year, in line with the rescheduled dates for the Hella Mega Tour, which at the time of going to press is still apparently set to open in Vienna on June 9. Given that many big summer events – such as Glastonbury – have already been forced to cancel, that perhaps looks unlikely, but Cuomo says that as far as he’s been told, the tour is still on.
“My manager just told me yesterday that the US promoter is still saying it’s gonna happen,” he says, before giving an exaggerated shrug that suggests he’s given up trying to predict the future. “That could change, but I’m not making any other plans for the summer.”
With ‘Van Weezer’ in limbo, Cuomo leapt at the opportunity to go back and finish the album that the band had originally been working on, a record that now strangely seems even more in tune with the times than it had when it was first conceived. “This is probably the best possible time for this album,” says Cuomo. “It’s about feeling isolated and alienated and secluded, so it’s the perfect album for now.”
The title of the band’s 14th studio album, ‘OK Human’ is a nod to Radiohead’s presciently technophobic 1997 classic ‘OK Computer’. Cuomo says that when he first started writing the record, he realised he had a great deal of anxiety about the pace of technological advancement, worrying about everything from the unchecked power dynamics of the internet to gene-editing and biotechnology. “It just seems like it’s all really calling into question what it means to be a human,” he says.
Cuomo had similar feelings of existential angst when he started thinking about how musicians will do their jobs in the future, and it was this that anxiety that influenced the album’s uncharacteristic musical direction.
“Over the years physical performers on physical instruments, strumming metal strings and beating wooden drums, has gotten to be a smaller and smaller part of what people actually listen to and care about,” he says. “It seemed like Radiohead in the mid-‘90s were exploring what they could do with technology. They’re coming from pretty much the same place that we were, being this alternative rock band, but they started to experiment with all kinds of loops and effects to create this futuristic tech landscape which was utterly mindblowing at the time.
“There’s no electric guitar on the album, which is an astonishing first for Weezer” – Rivers Cuomo
“Now, decades later, I don’t feel like I’m in the position to have those kind of tech fantasies. That has become the norm.”
Instead, Cuomo decided to take the luddite approach: ditch the computers and bring in a 38-piece orchestra (recorded, like the strings used on ‘OK Computer’, at Abbey Road Studios in London). “In fact, the electronics are so restricted that there’s not even any electric guitar on the album, which is an astonishing first for Weezer,” points out Cuomo. “We’re now in a world where technology has taken over not just our daily lives but also the role of musicians, so a little twist on the Radiohead title seemed perfectly appropriate.”
The lack of electric guitar on the record – the first time we could say this in the band’s near-30-year career – obviously puts it in stark contrast to Weezer’s other promised 2021 record, ‘Van Weezer’. When Eddie Van Halen died in October, the band announced that they would be dedicating the album to the guitarist, thanking him for the “incredible music that soundtracked our youth and inspired the record.”
Cuomo, who grew up “really out in the wilderness”, he puts it, in upstate Connecticut, remembers Van Halen’s music being a lifeline to the world outside. “There were no concerts, and of course there was no internet,” he remembers. “It was so hard to get any information about the music you love.”
Imagine then, the overwhelming excitement that 12 year-old Rivers Cuomo – just a month short of becoming a teenager– felt when he set up his boombox to record the live broadcast of California’s 1983 Us Festival, featuring a sickeningly impressive top bill of The Clash, David Bowie and Van Halen. Pre-teen Cuomo was particularly excited by the Van Halen-headlined metal day, which also featured the likes of Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne.
“I would just listen to it over and over,” he says, adding that the tape forms his earliest and strongest memory of Van Halen. “One of the highlights of that cassette tape recording was that they went around with a mic and followed them backstage, before and after the show. You got to hear them talking and warming up and all of that. It was just a glimpse into what the life of a rock star is, and it really was exciting to me.”
Cuomo isn’t necessarily a man you immediately imagine growing up on a steady diet of Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth and Ozzy Osbourne. He famously put Weezer on hold following the success of their self-titled debut blue-cover album in 1994 to go off and study English literature at Harvard, and the band recorded 1996 follow-up ‘Pinkerton’ between his terms there.
More recently, Cuomo took CS50, Harvard’s popular introductory online computer-science course, for which he built Drivetimes, an app that automates touring bands’ schedules, and a website on which he sold bundles of his home recordings and demos. (Both were a success, and he completed the cause, although he says that he’s had to recruit “eagle ears” listeners to go through all his home recordings because he accidentally sold off clips of his daughter’s doctor giving him medical advice and his wife discussing her family.)
Given that his main pastimes are songwriting and computer programming, it doesn’t sound as if – missing the Hella Mega Tour aside – the last year’s long lockdowns have actually changed Cuomo’s life all that much.
“People who aren’t normally introverts will relate to this album; they’ve been forced into this lifestyle by the pandemic” – Rivers Cuomo
“I’m a real introvert and I’m perfectly happy to be at home all the time working on music and computer programming,” he says. “I got my family here, my parents live next door, so this is actually an ideal lifestyle for me. I think people who aren’t normally introverts are going to be able to relate to this album because now they’ve been forced into this lifestyle by the pandemic.”
There are some social rituals he does miss, however. The second track on the album, ‘Aloo Gobi’, was written in 2017 and describes a typical date for Cuomo and his wife Kyoko, which would always involve ordering the titular cauliflower dish and checking out whatever movie was showing at their local Aero Theatre. In the lyrics, Cuomo moans about this “dumb” and “dull” “routine”. How times change.
“The irony in that song is unbelievable to me!” he says, shaking his head. “When I wrote it I was just so bored with my social life, but I really took it for granted. That’s all been obliterated now and I sure do miss it! The joke was on me.”
A song about a perfectly normal evening just a few years ago now feels like nostalgia for a lost world, but Cuomo says that in writing it he was perhaps hoping to will a record like ‘OK Human’ into existence, pre-empting the desire to learn the lessons of community and gratitude many of us are learning in the pandemic.
“The heart of that song is a wish, a real wish, to have an important mission in life and to have a team of inspiring people around me,” he says. “I think those are very noble desires to have. In creating the world of this album, I think I achieved those goals. It feels like we’re exploring something that needs to be explored.”
– ‘OK Human’ is released this Friday (January 29)