“Once you get out on the road, nothing matters except the joy of the audience”: Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo
We caught up with Rivers Cuomo and Brian Bell to discuss their roles in the band, and the equally individual gear that they choose to use.
All images: Eleanor Jane
For over two decades now, Weezer have been troubling airwaves and arenas all over the world with their unique brand of guitar-driven pop. But while the basic Weezer recipe is a beautifully simple blend of classic chord progressions and singalong choruses, the band have endured when dozens of imitators have fallen by the wayside, chalking off 11 studio albums in the process. But none of those wannabes had Rivers Cuomo.
The embodiment of an awkward musical genius, Weezer’s bespectacled frontman isn’t just a wonderful songwriter with a knack for a catchy pop hook – he’s also a guitarist who grew up worshipping at the altar of 80s heavy metal, and he rarely wastes an opportunity to demonstrate that he can shred a neoclassical solo with the best of them. The flipside of the Weezer guitar coin is Brian Bell – Weezer’s second guitarist is a perfect foil to his band leader, holding the whole thing together with sensitive guitar parts and perfectly judged vocal harmonies.
The complimentary differences between the pair’s guitar styles are clearly in evidence on Weezer’s latest album, Pacific Daydream. The record, which was released at the tail end of last year, has some of the most unusual guitar work seen during the band’s 24-year existence, with layered acoustic guitars, lo-fi blues-rock licks and retro slapback all in evidence in hitherto unseen quantities. It’s quite a departure from a sound that fans would associate with the band, but it speaks to the way the pair’s guitar relationship has developed over time.
When we caught up with the pair before their gig at Manchester’s O2 Apollo at the end of 2017, we were keen to pick the pair’s brains about the way they work together as guitar players, and also about the unique and iconic guitars they were strapping on for that evening’s show.
Wind in our sail
Despite Weezer having been active and touring for most of the last 20-odd years, they haven’t spent a lot of time in Europe in the last decade or so – aside from a quick two-date jaunt in 2016, before this tour they hadn’t done a significant string of dates in the British Isles since 2005’s Make Believe. But having done a proper run this time, the pair are clearly energised by the experience.
“I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself so much in Europe,” exclaims Bell as we sit down to chat. “I feel so comfortable here – I wish we didn’t have to go, really!”
“We’re doing interviews and people tell us how long it’s been since we’ve been here and we’re surprised,” Rivers chimes in. “Time has flown by and we feel like we’ve been negligent in our duties as a touring rock band! We want to do more now.”
Despite having a new album under their belts, we’re surprised to hear that they’ve resisted the temptation to play too many new tracks in the ever-evolving setlist.
“We don’t do too many new songs – right now we’re just doing Happy Hour and Feels Like Summer,” Rivers explains. “Our last album [2016’s The White Album] is pretty new, too, so we’re doing California Kids, King Of The World and Thank God For Girls. There are some kids that know the words already, and that’s fun – but for the most part I think people are still trying to catch up!”
“Before the tour you think, ‘Oh yeah, this’ll be great! We’ve got all these new songs and we’ll do five new ones every night…’ but once you get out on the road it’s just like nothing matters except the joy of the audience – that’s all that matters to you. So everything changes to adapt to your audience – you just want them to have the best possible time.”
Watching the pair perform their fan-pleasing set, it’s clear that Brian and Weezer have clearly defined roles when it comes to the guitar side, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily agree on what that is all the time…
“We’re very complimentary,” Rivers explains. “I’m kinda like the backbone of the guitar sound – lots of downstroke powerchords, and I play very consistently through the song. Then Brian is like a total loose cannon – much more jagged and sloppy, playing from the hip-style.”
“A loose cannon? Interesting…” Brian chuckles. “Alright I’ll take that.”
“His part generally don’t repeat much,” Rivers clarifies. “His second verse is different to the first and so on. It makes for a fun listen for me as we’re performing. Then when it comes time for the guitar solo, I take over and go full-on alpha-male guitar guy!”
“On the record I actually think I’m quite the opposite – I’m coming in with very defined parts,” Brian notes. “I’m a piano player first and foremost, so I could always read music, ever since I could read English – I learned to read music around the same age. A lot of musicians don’t read music, or they don’t want to learn to read music, but I never had that – so I decided that I’m proud of that and I’m going to use that knowledge. I love notating – I enjoy it, it’s almost like solving a puzzle.
If I come up with a part or hear a melody I use that process to help me come up with the idea – putting the notes to paper, I see the patterns. Whatever it is, you can look at it on the stave and maybe try to physically invert it and see what happens – that kind of thing can really work sometimes.”
My best friend
In addition to being one of the most interesting guitar players of his era, Rivers has spent most of his career playing some truly unique instruments. Go back to the band’s first video – the Spike Jonze-directed Undone (The Sweater Song) promo – in 1994 and you’ll see him playing a pale blue S-type guitar that’s most certainly not a faithful version of Leo’s classic design. “They never seem to work for me,” says Rivers of his aversion to stock Fender Strats. “They don’t have the power that I need.”
Instead, Rivers got his guitar tech at the time to create an S-type for him that would suit his hair metal-worshipping guitar style. The original guitar pulled together a Sonic Blue Warmoth hardtail S-type body, 22-fret Warmoth neck with rosewood ’board, Sperzel locking tuners and a potent combo of a Seymour Duncan TB59 in the bridge and a DiMarzio Super 2 in the neck, and a Black Ice onboard overdrive unit taking the place of the tone control.
The resulting guitar would be Rivers’ ever-present companion on stage (gaining some crudely taped Van Halen stripes along the way) until it suffered a nasty blow on stage in 1997, leaving the body with a 10-inch crack. Blue had to be retired, and in its place several replacement Warmoth S-types were ordered, including a black one he used on their second self-titled long-player (The Green Album), and a blonde one that legend has it now contains the innards of the original Blue…
In recent years, however, Rivers has leaned heavily on two of the original Warmoth replacement guitars – a Sonic Blue model that’s primarily a backup, and his go-to weapon of choice, the sticker-covered Seafoam Green guitar he refers to in Back To The Shack as ‘The Strat with the lightning Strap’.
“Up in the studio I usually use a Les Paul Junior,” Rivers explains – indeed it was a Junior providing most of the sounds on the band’s superlative debut, The Blue Album, in 1994. “That’s the sound of Weezer in the studio, but for years now it’s mainly been the green one live. My green one is named Mei, and the blue one is named Satsuki – those are the two girls in [Hayao Miyazaki’s legendary animated classic] My Neighbour Totoro. As I got more guitars, I had to give them names!”
Both guitars have identical basic spec – with the same neck, body wood, tuners, and his tried and tested combo of TB59 and Super 2 humbuckers – but the green guitar, Mei, that always wins out for him.
“There’s not a big difference but there is reliably a difference that I can hear,” Rivers explains. “Occasionally I’ll do a blind test. I’ll turn my back and have somebody else play all my guitars while I sit in a room my amplifier, so I can’t see which guitar they’re playing. I rate all the guitars, and every time, the same guitar wins for me – I have no allegiance to it at all, but it always wins!
“There’s so much I love about it – definitely the sustain and the crunchy rhythm sound… and the size of it – it looks cool on me! And I like the gentle colours.”
Speaking of colours, it’s getting hard pushed to tell quite what colour either of the guitars are underneath the myriad stickers that Rivers ends up covering all his instruments. “The stickers are all given to me by fans,” Rivers chuckles. “So they dictate what goes on there!”
Despite his association with S-types, however, Rivers takes to the stage that evening playing a striking white Gibson SG that he’s had in his rack for the best part of 13 years.
“I just switched back to my SG a few shows ago!” Rivers exclaims. “I first started using SGs in 2005 for the Make Believe tour, because I had a dream about it! I had a dream that I was playing a white SG, and in the dream it felt incredible, so I started using it!
“I’d been playing my Strats for years again, but then just the other night one of them went terribly out of tune, I don’t know why. So I went to the side of the stage and swapped it out with my backup SG, which I hadn’t played in years, and it felt great! What I mainly love about it is that it’s much lighter weight, and it’s much easier to be a frontman with that guitar – to run around and do rock poses with – so I’ve been using it ever since!”
Like his Strats, he’s got his favoured TremBucker 59 installed in the guitar’s bridge, but despite the custom nature of many of his instruments, Rivers isn’t obsessing about gear minutiae when he’s off stage.
“I’m not technically very knowledgeable,” he admits. “I just know what the sound is and how I want it to feel, and then I let the techs take care of it from there!”
Unlike his other guitars, however, Rivers’ SG isn’t covered in stickers, though it does have one or two prominent adornments – including some Thai script behind the bridge.
“That is a word in the Thai language the word, which is farang,” Rivers explains. It means ‘creepy white foreigner’ [it’s a slang term for Western tourists/foreigners in Thailand – Ed]. That one’s actually named Courtney, and when you flip it over, there’s a big picture of Courtney Love on there!”
No other one
While Rivers’ gear is all deeply personal and tailored for his needs, Brian takes more of a utilitarian approach to his touring gear, bringing out a pair of tried and tested Gibson Explorers.
“The Explorers aren’t even mine!” Bell exclaims. “So I care about them, but then I don’t care about them – they’re like battleaxes. They’re so sturdy that if they fall they’ll probably hurt whatever they hit! Whereas my vintage SG… if that thing falls it snaps immediately! Or my vintage Telecaster – it’s a great guitar but just for the studio. But these guitars are workhorses, y’know? They can deal with travel and extreme weather conditions.”
His primary guitar for this tour is certainly an interesting choice – a champagne sparkle-finished guitar with a mirrored pickguard that came to be Brian’s main stage axe in a roundabout way.
“During The Green Album period I just found this in Rivers’ basement,” Brian recalls. “I was like, ‘What are you even doing with this?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know, you can use it if you want’. ‘Okay, cool!’ Then a few years ago he wanted it back so I ended up getting a Les Paul Junior, and it was great but it was still for the studio – it wasn’t reliable enough for the road.
Then he ended up switching back to the SG and then back to his Strat, so I just sort of took it back, and he never said anything, so I’ve kept it ever since!
“I don’t actually ever take it home – it’s in the band’s tour stash, and whoever wants to use it can, but I just happen to use it whenever we’re on stage. I’ve used it in the studio a few times, but it’s usually my vintage Gibson SG – I have a 1964 that’s just so versatile, it has every sound I could ever want in one guitar.
“The Explorer is an extremely flamboyant guitar – it has a mirrored pickguard, it’s sort of ironic in a way… like, are they serious with this thing? And so the strap is a gold snakeskin thing, too, made by my friends at Coppperpeace. So it’s kinda become my guitar – when you’re on stage you want people to see your guitar!”
As a backup, Brian has another Explorer – a sticker-covered black one that again isn’t one of his own, “I wouldn’t normally cover my guitars with stickers, but we happened to have these in our collection of touring gear, and I needed a backup guitar,” he notes. “It turns out this black Explorer is perfect for the songs that I’m using an Acoustic Simulator on. Which is surprisingly amazingly good for being a little stompbox that changes your electric guitar to an acoustic and does it somewhat convincingly – it’s certainly easier than switching to an acoustic guitar!”
When it comes to amplification in a live setting, the two couldn’t be more different – Rivers opts for a digital approach while Brian keeps things all-analogue with a Matchless Independence combo.
“That thing is awesome – it was James from Maroon 5 who told me about them,” Brian remembers. “He hooked me up with one of their artist reps back during the making of Make Believe. They’re such a great amp – when we have to rent gear it’s hard because it’s a rare amp to find. But I’m not much of a gear head any more, I care more about the notes, the purpose behind the notes. I think that definitely comes from my piano training and my theory training – I think it gives me something of a unique approach to guitar.”
Interestingly, that love of theory and notation is evident on the Matchless, where Brian has taped some hand-written staves to the top of the Independence.
“Sometimes we’d do Only In Dreams and the part I’d play was always this kind of nebulous thing,” Brian explains of the staves. “I wanted it to be a little more defined and I had that there for a cheat sheet. I love the way that the end of Only In Dreams sounds like its free but also composed, and to do that you have to rely on everyone else doing that same thing as you… and that doesn’t always happen!
There was something so hard to memorise about that secondary part, I just needed to have it there as a reminder. Rivers is the same – he has notes all over the stage for lyrics, he’ll make cue cards… even though your eyes can’t really focus on it under the lights on stage!”
Far from the boutique valve-powered sound that Brian uses live, Rivers has recently swapped his well-travelled Diezel heads for a pair of Kemper Profiler heads – and the Weezer frontman has found that digital modeling has come a long way since he used Line 6 POD racks for his amp sounds in the early 2000s.
“We started about a year ago,” Rivers explains. “It was a factor that it’s much easier to ship gear around, but there are more important factors. One is that I was finding it hard to keep all the elements of my sound consistent from show to show, playing different venues. I like to eliminate as many variables as possible so that I can keep fine-tuning my sound and make improvements. With the Kemper you’re starting with the exact same sound every day, which is very appealing to me.
“Also, our sound guy prefers the Kemper – and that’s the most important thing. When you play it side by side with my regular gear, which sounds better out in the audience? And he preferred the Kemper!”
Convenience and consistency aside, it also gives Rivers the freedom to use modelled versions of his studio amp sounds on the road, and has enabled him to dispense with a pedalboard, too.
“I use the Kemper’s octo-verb and the distorted chorus sound, and a chorus-y clean sound – I’ve got probably 10 different sounds on my footswitch,” he explains. “It’s fun to get into it, too – I can go real deep on it! Our new album has some very different guitar sounds than I’ve ever had before. There’s a song Weekend Woman that we’ve been playing, and the guitar sounds nothing like anything I’ve ever had before – but with the Kemper I can model that sound and have it right there on my footswitch.”
Weezer’s new album, Pacific Daydream, is out now on Atlantic Records.