Back in the early Nineties when Rivers Cuomo formed the band Weezer, new artists often started out on independent record labels and signed contracts with major labels only after they became established acts with a track record for success. However, today in the era of digital distribution and social networking websites many new and established artists no longer consider a major label record deal the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In fact, many established acts have chosen to abandon the few remaining big record companies when their contracts expire to sign deals with independent labels instead.
Although Weezer had always put out its records through a major label since the band's beginning, when the band satisfied its seven-album contract with Geffen with the release of the 2009 album Raditude they decided it was time to move on. Instead of shopping for a deal with another major record company, Weezer decided to sign with Epitaph Records, an independent label owned by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz. Cuomo discussed the band's new independence, his thoughts about the current state of the music industry, and the ups and downs of Weezer's career during an exclusive taping of Guitar Center Sessions on DIRECTV with host and renowned tastemaker Nic Harcourt of (KCRW and The Live Buzz) in the vintage room at Guitar Center's Hollywood store.
"The people at Epitaph are really big Weezer fans," Cuomo told the audience about the band's decision to choose an indie label. "They're definitely more of an alternative rock type of community, and they offered us a really great deal. We own our masters now-we just license our masters to Epitaph for five years. It's a whole new ball game. We're basically an independent band now. We can do whatever we want."
Apparently what Cuomo wants to do is put out an abundance of music, as Weezer quickly followed up Raditude with their Epitaph debut album, Hurley, which was released in September, 2010, only about a month after the deal with Epitaph was made public. In between those albums, Weezer released the song "Represent," which was the unofficial anthem of the US Men's National Soccer Team during last summer's World Cup. In November Geffen released two Weezer albums-Death to False Metal, a collection of previously unreleased songs with newly updated treatments and performances, and a deluxe edition reissue of Weezer's second album, Pinkerton, featuring remastered original tracks plus a variety of alternate versions, b-sides, live performances, and previously unreleased songs from that era.
Although Weezer fans have long known that Cuomo is a prolific songwriter who has penned thousands of songs, this bounty of new releases shows the breadth and depth of Cuomo's talent like never before. Over the years Cuomo only mildly whetted his fans' appetites with concise 30-40 minute albums featuring only 10 to 13 songs, most clocking in at the under three-minute mark. While Weezer is best known for its breezy, heavy guitar-driven power pop singles like "Say It Ain't So," "Island in the Sun," and "Beverly Hills," much of the new material reveals that there is more to Cuomo's craft than polished pop hooks and soft verse/loud chorus song structures.
"Through most of the last 10 years we tried a lot of different things," Cuomo explains. "I just kind of blindly followed my muse and explored some pretty interesting terrain. On Maladroit I wanted to get back into exploring heavy metal guitar playing. Make Believe, which we recorded with producer Rick Rubin, was a totally different, fun, and educational experience. The Red Album was much more of a collaborative effort between the four of us where everyone was involved in every little decision. It was a 100% democratic experiment, but on a creative level we're definitely not a democracy now. I have editorial power over everything, and I pick and choose and get the final say on which way the band should steer."
Although Weezer was one of dozens of alternative rock bands that signed major label deals during the aftermath of Nirvana's success in the early Nineties, they are one of the few surviving acts from that era who are still together and still relevant. Part of the reason for the band's longevity is that they never truly fit into any specific category or genre, which at times has been both a blessing and a curse.
Unlike many other alternative artists of the early Nineties, Cuomo not only had an impressive musical background-he had studied at Boston's Berklee College of Music-but he also wasn't afraid to hide that fact. Cuomo initially moved to Los Angeles in 1988 with a metal band he formed in Connecticut, hoping to sign a record deal.
"I was a shredding lead guitar player," says Cuomo. "I wrote a lot of the band's music but the songs were really about technical prowess on the instrument. We hit the Sunset Strip, played clubs, and passed our demo tapes around. We assumed that since we were the most technically proficient musicians, we should therefore be the most popular musicians, but in most people's minds that equation doesn't make any sense at all. We heard stuff like, 'You need to write songs with hooks and choruses.' To me it was like, what's a hook? What's a chorus? That sounds really intriguing. I've got to figure this out."
When Cuomo got a job at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip a few years later, the experience changed his life and his outlook about music. "I went in there as this long-haired guy with a fanny pack who listened to Yngwie Malmsteen and came out as the guy in Weezer," he explains. "That's because every day the other employees there would spin new things by Sonic Youth, the Pixies, or Nirvana-this was before Nevermind came out-or older things like the 13th Floor Elevators or Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. At first I was like, 'This is terrible. There are no shredding solos. They're not proficient enough.' But over a year and a half working there my musical values evolved and I came to see the value in melody, song structure, and composition. I cut the hair and never looked back."
Cuomo formed Weezer in 1992 only about six months after he left his job at Tower Records to study at Santa Monica College. During those few months in between he wrote songs and worked on his singing. "I didn't want to form the band right away," he recalls. "I just wanted to hone my craft. I wanted to have 50 songs in my catalog before I even had one rehearsal with a band. By the time we had our first rehearsal our direction was somewhat set. When I wrote the song 'No One Else,' I remember thinking it was the band's model song. It had really strong melodies, a major key chord progression, super chunky guitars, confessional lyrics, driving rhythm, no flashy ornamentation or figuration, and a very pop feel to it. To me it was the sound of Sonic Youth meets the Beach Boys."
Of course, as an accomplished guitar player Cuomo couldn't hide the fact that he could play really well. Several solos on Weezer's debut album (known as The Blue Album) revealed that Cuomo wasn't the typical unschooled hack, and this led to some backlash and skepticism amongst the alternative rock community at the time.
"There was criticism that Geffen had somehow fabricated an alternative band to cash in on the explosion of that style of music," says Cuomo. "I don't know how a label would go about doing that, but I remember reading reviews of our record, and one still sticks out in my mind. The reviewer called us the Stone Temple Pixies."
The success of Weezer's debut album, which had sold over two million copies in the US within a year of its release in 1994, should have proven to Cuomo that the opinions of a few naysayers didn't matter, but instead of trying to replicate the concise pop of that album he dug into deep personal matters and emotions for Weezer's follow- up effort, Pinkerton. Today Pinkerton is considered a modern masterpiece and one of the most influential albums released during the Nineties, but when it was released it was both a commercial and critical failure. The album sold only 200,000 copies during its first year out, and Rolling Stone magazine named it the second worst record of 1996.
"It was a huge shock and a big embarrass- ment to me," says Cuomo. "On Pinkerton I had exposed so much of myself. I decided to put all pretense out the window and go, 'This is me. This is who I am. I'm going to tell you in the most simple terms what is going on in my life.' And then the album bombed. It felt like we were done. I thought that I had made an extremely self-centered, self-indulgent record and wrecked the whole thing for everyone."
However the few fans that initially accepted the album considered Pinkerton a genuine tour de force and today many feel it is the band's finest moment. That sentiment grew as dozens of bands drew inspiration from the album's honest emotions and credited Pinkerton as a primary influence. The album was eventually certified Gold five years after its release and it is currently approaching Platinum status. Although Cuomo described Pinkerton as being "hideous" and "a mistake" in interviews conducted over the years, recently he's warmed up to it again.
"Enough time has passed now that I look back fondly on all of it," he says. "The groundswell of enthusiasm for that record is tremendous now. I suppose relative to how I felt in '96 I feel validated, but I still feel humbled as well."
To accompany the expanded deluxe edition reissue of Pinkerton, Cuomo is also releasing the book The Pinkerton Diaries, which consists of journal entries, email messages, letters, school papers, and photos from the period between 1994 when the album was conceived until 1997 about a year after its release. Weezer is also performing the entire album live at a few select shows during the band's current tour.
Now that Weezer is releasing albums on an independent label, many fans hope the band may eventually be inspired to record another album as ambitious as Pinkerton. However, Cuomo isn't certain whether he's ready to attempt such a feat, and he's not even certain today's music fans are willing to take the time to let an album grow on them.
"People consume and digest music so much more quickly now," says Cuomo. "Their appetite is always up again for something new, unless you're one of the handful of artists that release records that really become something huge, which seem to have a much longer life. But even those artists now seem to put out a record every year or so. People discover an album and get turned on to it all at the same time. These days it's bad for your career if you stay out of the spotlight for too long and wait two or more years to release your next album. The whole previous model has collapsed. I'm not even sure we're going to make full-length albums anymore. Does anyone want a physical product anymore? Should we just email songs every two weeks? Every week? Every month? Who knows? There are a lot of questions. This feels like an opportunity for artists to explore another new outlet for creativity."
Check out Weezer's new album Hurley, now available on iTunes, and don't miss an all new episode of Guitar Center Sessions featuring Weezer, Feb. 12th on DirecTV. Go to www.guitarcenter.com/sessions for more information.