Listen to an audio version of this story below:
In the spring of 1990, Rivers Cuomo was 19 years old, and all of his plans were coming undone. The year before, he and his high school metal band, Avant Garde, moved from suburban Connecticut to L.A., all five members crammed into the same filthy studio apartment, sleeping on the floor. Cuomo was the lead guitarist, with an arsenal of squeal-y virtuoso licks and hair so long and majestically poufed-up that it essentially served as the band’s sixth member. Flamboyance aside, Cuomo left frontman duties to an operatically inclined friend. “I could have seen myself in the NBA as easily as being a lead singer in a metal band,” Cuomo says now. “That’s just, like, unthinkable.”
More from Rolling Stone
Avant Garde gave themselves a slightly less embarrassing new name, Zoom, and streamlined their music, though they still sounded like a more proggy, less-fun Dokken. Cuomo tried easing up on the hair spray. None of it helped them find favor in a metal scene so overcrowded with dreamers that Sunset Strip sidewalks were lined with discarded band fliers at night. Even worse, it was all about to fade away, in tandem with the decade that spawned it.
Thirty years later, Cuomo sits in his Santa Monica home studio, which is filled with sunlight and plants, and overlooks a Zen garden outside. His wife and two kids are upstairs; his mom lives in a house he bought for her next door. He’s wearing a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, gray jeans, and no glasses, which makes him almost hard to recognize. We’re listening to his heavy chugging on Zoom’s “Street Life,” with piercing vocals from his school friend Kevin Ridel. Cuomo grins, picks up an acoustic guitar (a compact Ed Sheeran signature model, for some reason), and riffs along, chuckling when the song shifts into an oddball funk feel in the verses.
Around the time Zoom began to fizzle out, Cuomo got some bad news from the Guitar Institute of Technology, the trade school for shredders he was supposed to be attending. Cuomo was educated in an ashram before the culture shock of public school at age 11, and had always been a gifted and disciplined student. But he was overwhelmed by the excitement of playing gigs and skateboarding around Hollywood, which he saw as “the center of the universe.”
“I couldn’t bring myself to get into diligent-student mode,” he says. When G.I.T. administrators told him he was “basically expelled,” he was crushed, begging them to take him back, mostly because he felt terrible about wasting his parents’ money. He still seems to regret it, though he’s amused at the notion that he may be the only person on Earth to flunk out of the Guitar Institute of Technology and later graduate from Harvard.
Faced with all these failures, “my system of values was crumbling,” as he later wrote in a college application. “I was thinking of myself as a lead guitar player, thinking that faster harmonic minor scales equals better,” he explains. “Thinking that I could move out to L.A. with Avant Garde and we were just going to be huge rock stars. Then seeing one band member after another leave, abandon me, and not being able to hold it together or put it back together.” There were nasty breakups, too, “heartbreak with two girlfriends, back to back.”
When Weezer eventually emerged with a major-label debut in 1994, a shorn and oft-bespectacled Cuomo at their helm, it seemed like they had emerged “out of nowhere,” as a then-suspicious Stephen Malkmus of Pavement puts it; he recalls raising his eyebrows at the “Pixies/Pavement-y sound” of a band with zero indie releases to its name. (He says he’s now a fan.) The guys from the Chicago alt-band Urge Overkill wondered aloud to one band member, in all seriousness, if Weezer’s record label put them together, Monkees-style. Weezer’s young fans, unconcerned with indie cred (or unaware it existed), were entirely unbothered, but many critics shared the skepticism, in an era when subtle distinctions between different brands of guitar rock seemed all-consuming and identity-defining.
“People see us now as this credible band, and they assume we always were credible,” says Cuomo. “But, man, we could not have been more hated on when we came out.” He’s never forgotten a local newspaper referring to the band as “Stone Temple Pixies,” the idea being “Stone Temple Pilots were a corporate copy of all of the cool grunge bands, and we were a corporate copy of the Pixies.”
In a way, Weezer did come out of nowhere. They exist only because of the small miracle of Rivers Cuomo’s impossibly fast reinvention, abetted by meeting just the right collaborators at just the right time. If Weezer’s detractors had seen a picture of Cuomo circa 1989, they would have considered their worst suspicions confirmed, but Weezer would far outlast their initial critics, surviving long enough to win a whole new wave of them. They inspired countless emo bands, made two classic albums in a row, and became one of their era’s most indefatigable acts, tunneling through styles and decades with output of varying quality in a manner more akin to the Isley Brothers or Jefferson Airplane/Starship than any of their own alt-peers. (Their lineup has been admirably stable, too – current bassist Scott Shriner is still the new guy after 18 years.)
Weezer’s self-titled debut, a.k.a. the Blue Album, is one of the most enduring artifacts of the alt-rock age, winning teenage hearts in generation after generation, not unlike Green Day’s Dookie, released a few months earlier. It’s the geeky, equally angsty little brother of Ten and Nevermind, somehow both more sincere and more ironic than its predecessors, and in some ways bolder in its disregard for the old rules of rock; Kurt Cobain liked Marvel Comics too, but he never sang about Kitty Pryde and Nightcrawler, as Cuomo does in “In the Garage.”
By 1991, not much more than a year after Zoom’s demise, Cuomo was writing what would become the first Weezer songs; he still had his metal hair when the band played its first shows. In the space of 16 months or so, Cuomo would utterly transform his musical value system, learn to write hit songs, start singing lead vocals, and find a whole new set of bandmates. And by 1995, he would already be sick of it all. “As I get older,” says drummer Pat Wilson, “everything seems weirder, and more strange and unlikely. And that’s kind of how I look at Weezer.”
It all started at Tower Records, where Cuomo got a job while taking classes at Los Angeles City College. At Tower, he met a punk-rock dude named Pat Finn who would hook him up with his future bandmates, and introduce him to a new world of music. Cuomo knew metal, and had a quiet soft spot for pop – Madonna, Tiffany. Practically everything else was alien to him. “At first I just could not get into it at all,” he says. “It sounded like garbage to me. Velvet Underground; Pet Sounds was reissued around that time. 13th Floor Elevators, Pixies, Sonic Youth, it all sounded like noise. I thought, ‘None of this is catchy.’ But I came to love it all. Now I don’t understand how I missed it.”
He would become a serious Beatles and Beach Boys fan; on his bookshelf is a copy of Brian Wilson’s 1991 autobiography overflowing with Cuomo’s notations. But a much newer band was his greatest influence: Nirvana’s Bleach, and the 1990 single “Sliver,” with its sugary melody combined with uncharacteristic-for-rock lyrics (“Grandma, take me home”), were transformative.
Cuomo first heard “Sliver” at Tower, shelving CDs as he took it in. “It’s like, ‘Oh, my God. This is so beautiful to me. And I identify with it so much.’ Hearing him sing about Mom and Dad and Grandpa Joe, these personal family issues, in a really heartbreaking kind of innocent, childlike way, over these straightforward chords in a major key. But then the distortion kicks in, and he starts screaming. Shit! That’s what I want to do.” Cuomo took continual influence from Nirvana; the “In Bloom” video, where Kurt Cobain wears thick glasses, helped Cuomo feel comfortable in his own, according to founding guitarist Jason Cropper.
Pat Finn connected Cuomo with Pat Wilson, an endearingly goofy, cherubic They Might Be Giants and Van Halen fan with serious drum skills, albeit in a stripped-down style that initially baffled Cuomo. Their first jam session went nowhere. They took another stab at it after Cuomo moved in with Wilson and his friend Matt Sharp, an arty, brainy dude with gothy, Anglophile tastes, and a weird dyed rat tail left over from his own longhaired days. He had his own musical projects, and was, at that point, just a roommate, with a remarkably lucrative day job telemarketing upscale dog shampoo.
Cuomo and Wilson started a band called Fuzz, enlisting a young woman named Scottie Chapman on bass. Cuomo’s first songwriting efforts included “The Answer Man,” which sounds like a grungier Jane’s Addiction – Cuomo is obviously trying to sing like Perry Farrell, pushing his range, adding some grit to his voice, even cursing in the lyrics. It’s solid, though; you could imagine this band getting signed. “It was maybe eight months into the band that I started singing much more simply,” Cuomo says, “as I had sung in choir in high school. It was the strangest thing. I was like, ‘Wait, you can just sing, like, with your normal voice? Over a rock band, and it will work?’ ”
After one or two Fuzz shows, Chapman quit, apparently going on to star on the show Mythbusters. She now works as a dental hygienist. “She realized we were idiots,” says Wilson, laughing. “Rivers and I had a lot of facility on our instruments. She was like, ‘These guys are nerds.’ We were totally nerds. Rivers was smart enough to realize, ‘I need to not look like a nerd.’ I never gave a shit. I just wanted to play.”
Wilson was such a geek in his own right, or Cuomo’s camouflage was so effective, that the drummer initially mistook Cuomo for a “Valley metal jock, like Dan Cortese on MTV’s Rock N’ Jock” – he loved playing basketball and rode his bike everywhere. There’s at least one picture of Cuomo wearing bicycle shorts onstage, looking quite Axl-ish. In truth, Cuomo was much like he is now: blazingly intense but quiet and internal, prone to unsettlingly long conversational pauses; he conveys the impression that social interaction is work for him, but also that he can enjoy the effort, workaholic that he is. (When I visit him in June, he’s spent the morning writing computer code for fun.)
After Fuzz came Sixty Wrong Sausages, with Cuomo, Wilson, and Finn on bass, along with a second guitarist, a guy named Jason Cropper. Cropper was, unlike everyone else, a California native, and a chill, cheerful guy – qualities that would ultimately spell trouble amid the odder personalities. “He was this more unbridled, Northern California punk hippie spirit,” Cuomo says now. “Which is so different from my careful, controlled artistry.” Cuomo wasn’t the focus of Sixty Wrong Sausages; it was more of a collective, and it didn’t last long.
Cuomo decided he would write 50 songs in a row before allowing himself to form another band or play live again. He moved to Santa Monica, started attending college there, and recorded demo after demo on an eight-track cassette recorder. He wrote only 30 or so songs, but among them were “Undone – The Sweater Song” and other eventual Weezer tracks. Cropper says that around this time, Cuomo also made an entire, never-released rap album under the name Vegeterrorists – songs about his lifelong vegetarianism in styles akin to Public Enemy and Run-DMC. “Rivers can drop mad beats and spit mad rhymes with the best,” says Cropper. “And if I stayed in the band, we would’ve done records like that years ago.” (The only released evidence of this period is a striking demo of Cuomo covering Ice Cube’s “The Bomb” like a one-man Rage Against the Machine.)
Matt Sharp had moved to the Bay Area, and was embarking on weeks-long, aimless Amtrak rides. On one of those trips, he listened to a tape of Cuomo’s new songs that Wilson had slipped him. When he heard “Sweater Song” and the breakup lament “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” everything changed. “Rivers was able to articulate something that up to that point had been elusive for me,” says Sharp, who immediately decided to put all of his energy in service of Cuomo’s songs, making plans to move back to L.A. “I thought, ‘I’m doing this, no matter what has to be done to make it happen,’ ” Sharp says. “ ’We’re on this journey together.’ ”
Cuomo was profoundly affected by Sharp’s enthusiasm. “I think Matt called me and said, ‘You’re a genius. I’m going to be your bass player. We’re going to be a band.’ It confirmed all my greatest hopes for myself. Knowing he felt so strongly about the songs was all the confidence I needed.”
Cuomo also got a boost from Jennifer Chiba, his “quasi-girlfriend” at the time. After getting dumped twice, Cuomo was protective of his feelings — and, less sympathetically, “had every hope I was going to be this huge rock star, and have all these other options for girlfriend/wife. Still, she was the coolest thing. She was three years older, the first half-Japanese girl I met. She turned me on to Flaming Lips and Sebadoh, and did wonders for my confidence, saying, ‘All the hipsters are going to think you’re the coolest.’ She’s like, ‘You’re going to be cuter if you cut your hair.’ That was the first time any girl had said that. Until then it was always, ‘No, don’t cut your hair.’ ”
Sharp became the band’s de facto manager. “Rivers had put his trust in me to act as the band’s consigliere,” says Sharp. “As Tom Hagen to Cuomo’s Corleone, it was my obligation to try to create an environment that allowed him to tune out extraneous noise so he could keep the focus squarely on his writing.” Though he would go on to become a hit songwriter, Sharp wasn’t really a co-writer in Weezer, but still helped shape their aesthetic, in part just by spending hours talking with Cuomo. Initially, the as-yet-unnamed Weezer had some leftover Fuzz songs in their set list – Cuomo saw them as key to the group’s sound — but Sharp’s lack of enthusiasm for them helped push them out. “And I think that’s where Matt’s head was at, at the time,” recalls Wilson. “ ’Yeah, let’s not be grunge. Let’s be more like the Beach Boys. But loud.’ ”
Cuomo, who had reverted back to his studiousness post-G.I.T., got an offer for a generous scholarship at UC-Berkeley, with a stipend, an apartment, even a parking space. He gave Sharp a year to get them a record deal; otherwise he would take Berkeley’s offer. Weezer played their first show on March 19th, 1992, a month after forming, on Valentine’s Day. Cuomo persuaded a club, Raji’s, to let them play — they ended up on a bill with Keanu Reeves’ then-band, Dogstar, as a late-night closer.
Weezer got their name during Cuomo’s phone call with the booker that day, from a nickname Cuomo’s biological father gave him. His dad wasn’t in his life much after his parents’ divorce, when he was four years old or so, and he had strong, unresolved feelings about it all. He had already used the name “Weezer” as a label from one of his cassettes of new songs. “I remember getting letters from my dad and it would always be, ‘To Weezer.’ He didn’t use an ‘h,’ ” says Cuomo. “It was definitely a very emotional name for me — and I don’t think for anyone else. For the other guys in the band, it’s just a weird word. I guess it even ties back to what I was saying about ‘Sliver.’ Just this feeling of being this helpless little kid that’s abandoned, or neglected. It was definitely the right name.”
That night, they played a club that had been filled with beautiful young women who had lined up to see Reeves, a heartthrob then and now. “Dogstar played and played and played,” Cropper says. “They finished, and all the pretty girls went away. Five or so people who were our friends stayed. But we left it all on the stage.”
Weezer spent a good chunk of 1992 playing shows to mostly empty clubs with the same group of five or so friends cheering them on. Sharp started asking them not to come, on the grounds that they were bumming him out. The increasingly hive-minded Sharp and Cuomo were sharing an apartment, and Wilson and Cropper were not invited to join them. Wilson was, by his own description, “a slob” and “annoying.” He ended up living in a garage with no running water. “I shit in a bag,” he reveals, with a hint of pride. “Because I had to go! And there was nowhere to go. And I’m convinced the gods of rock said, ‘That kid’s a true believer. We’ve got to put the thumb on the scale for the old Weeze.’ ”
In November, they recorded a demo that included a version of the confessional “Say It Ain’t So” that made its John Frusciante influence a lot more obvious than the one they’d lay down in the studio. The demo made it to Todd Sullivan, an A&R guy at Geffen, which became the one major label to show interest in Weezer (an indie, Slash Records, also chased them) – though he had some trouble grokking them down at first, comparing their demo to the Ramones and the Descendents, as well as the Pixies, and coming away from a live show wondering if they were British.
Weezer signed to Geffen for a modest deal, and Sharp and Cuomo had every intention of producing an album themselves. Sullivan convinced them otherwise. He recalls that Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade, who produced Dinosaur Jr. and Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, were interested, but Cuomo had been listening to the Cars’ Greatest Hits, and became excited at the idea of Ric Ocasek, who liked what he heard. “Their demo was just a thick slab of mud with some music mixed in,” says Ocasek, who was fully won over after sitting through a band rehearsal. “It was so fucking great.”
Ocasek persuaded the band to travel to his home base in Manhattan and record at Electric Lady Studios. Sharp and Cuomo had come up with all sorts of rules, banning the use of reverb and insisting on all downstrokes on guitar. “There was one overriding concept,” says the album’s engineer, Chris Shaw. “The idea that the guitars and the bass were one huge 10-string instrument. There’s very few songs on the record to actually have a bass line that drifts away from what the guitar is doing.” When they mixed the album, they insisted that all of the guitars be as loud as or louder than the ones on Radiohead’s “Creep,” which is why some of the vocals are almost buried.
Cuomo had written a song called “Buddy Holly,” using a friend’s Korg keyboard to add Eighties-ish synth parts. In his mind, it was intended for the band’s second album, which would be more keyboard-oriented and New Wave-influenced. (Weezer, of course, never made such an album; Matt Sharp, destined to part ways with the group circa 1997, did instead, with his band the Rentals.) Sharp and Cuomo were also concerned that “Buddy Holly” could become the kind of Nineties hit that could kill a band. “There was a worry that it could become the ‘Detachable Penis’ of this album,” says Sharp. “We had the sense that it could be taken as a novelty song, and people aren’t going to take the album seriously.” Ocasek lobbied hard for them to record it, even making a sign to request it during preproduction. It certainly was an obvious hit; during mixing, Shaw remembers stepping out of the control room to hear a receptionist humming it to herself.
Just before they finished recording, Weezer fired Cropper, and Cuomo replaced all of his guitar parts. Cropper is still convinced that he was canned mostly because of his relationship with his then-girlfriend, now his former wife, who was unpopular with the bandmates. She was pregnant with a first child, and, defying Cuomo’s no-girlfriends-while-we’re-recording diktat, flew to New York to visit Cropper. He also thinks Sharp had it out for him, and perhaps was jealous that he’d written the guitar intro to “My Name Is Jonas.” Sharp gently says none of that is true. “There was no single event that triggered us letting Jason go,” he says. Instead, a series of “tiny infractions” led Sharp to believe that the band’s overall chemistry was at risk. “Since it was my obligation to try and ensure our basic survival,” Sharp says, “I shared these concerns with Rivers, and with our limited life experience, we did what we thought was right. Next thing you know, Luca Brasi was swimming with the fishes.” Cuomo felt that if they were going to make a change, it had to be before they finished the first album and shot the album cover.
For Cropper, it was a tough road at times, though he eventually reconciled with Cuomo and told him he was grateful for all the years he got to spend with his family. People on the L.A. music scene could be shockingly callous; one booker casually said, “Gosh, I’m surprised you haven’t killed yourself.” Cropper, whose kids have grown up, is working on a solo project that will include songs about his Weezer experience – he also performed with Cuomo in 2018. “I’m not just an ex-member of the band,” he says. “I’m a huge fan.”
Weezer needed a replacement, fast, and settled on a great-looking guy they’d seen around L.A.; Sharp was pretty sure that Brian Bell could play, but he wasn’t entirely positive. “All I had was a foggy image in my head,” says Sharp, “that he had one of those slight frames that kind of resembled the long lineage of wafer-thin, anorexic, archetypal guitar gods that we all grew up on.” They had him overdub some parts on their demo as a test, and a quick phone interview that included a quiz on his favorite Star Wars action figure (Hammerhead) went well. Bell was in.
Bell flew to New York just in time to squeeze in some background vocals on Weezer’s debut. When he arrived at their hotel, he knocked on Cuomo’s door and discovered that the frontman had grown a robust “cop mustache.” “First thing is, you have to grow a mustache,” Cuomo told him. “Because we’re all going to have mustaches on the front cover.”
“Are you sure?” Bell asked him. (Fortunately, Cuomo wasn’t sure.)
Bell got word that he would be sharing a room with Wilson. “So I go to Pat’s room,” Bell recalls, “and Pat goes, ‘Welcome to Weezer!’ And he just pulls his pants down and moons me. And I’m like, ‘What the hell have I stepped into?’ ”
In classic Nineties fashion, Cuomo almost immediately realized he hated being a rock star. Weezer were hesitant to do music videos, but got along with the young director Spike Jonze, the only guy to pitch a “Sweater Song” video without any images of a sweater. When they teamed up with him again for a “Buddy Holly” video, he came up with the “Happy Days” idea, and the inevitable happened.
“I seriously thought we were the next Nirvana,” Cuomo admits. “And I thought the world was going to perceive us that way, like a superimportant, superpowerful, heartbreaking heavy rock band, and as serious artists. That’s how I saw us.” The first clue that the world would see it slightly differently came in a lunch with Sullivan, who praised the humor of some of Cuomo’s lyrics, even using the words “comical band.” “It was just like a gut punch,” Cuomo says. “And that’s when I started to realize the world wasn’t going to see Weezer like I did and the world wasn’t going to see the Blue Album like I did.” “Sweater Song,” in particular, was about Cuomo’s “darkest thoughts, and it became clear everyone else who hears this song is going to think it’s hilarious.”
He didn’t enjoy touring, in part because of an entirely self-imposed mandate to play the same set list in the same order nearly every night. During a tour break, he wrote a lovely ballad called “Long Time Sunshine” that strongly suggested he wanted to quit rock, enroll in college on the East Coast, and get married. He became obsessed with classical music, and began sending out applications to elite universities. “He told me, ‘I think I want to go to school and be a classical musician,’ ” says Bell. “I’m like, ‘Hey, dude, are you OK?’ ” Cuomo started asking for a piano in every hotel room and sought out opera performances on the band’s European tour.
Cuomo picked Harvard after he realized he didn’t have enough formal music training for Juilliard, his first choice. No one in the band will admit to worrying that it was all over when Cuomo matriculated, but it was definitely unnerving. “He was disillusioned,” says Wilson. “And we were like, ‘What the fuck? Can we please keep doing this?’ ” (Ocasek, for one, wasn’t surprised: “That sounds about right,” he thought when he heard the news.)
In the end, Cuomo’s bandmates were correct; Weezer’s weird story was just beginning, school or not. In the fall of 1995, Cuomo enrolled at Harvard, strolling through the leafy campus, just as he had dreamed. No one bugged him; it was as if Weezer never happened. There were papers to write, piles of reading to do. Sitting in his studio, Cuomo grins and recalls the thought that came to mind no more than two or three weeks into his first semester: “I kind of want to go back,” he told himself, “to being in a band.”
See where your favorite artists and songs rank on the Rolling Stone Charts.