Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo on How He Reconfigured ‘Winter,’ a ‘Sad Christmas Album,’ to Fully Incorporate ‘That Weezer Crunch’

The subtitle of Weezer’s new EP is “Winter,” but given the band’s enduring vitality, it feels like anything but the winter of their years — even if Weezer has been a band for three decades now, releasing 15 studio albums and over a dozen hit singles since forming in 1992. At the age of 52, frontman Rivers Cuomo is rocking as hard as ever… and that applies to records that include symphonic enhancement, like “SZNZ: Winter,” which arrives today, the first day of the titular season.

After kicking off 2021 with the critically acclaimed orchestral-chamber-pop album “OK Human” and then the ‘80s-metal-inspired “Van Weezer,” he and his bandmates Brian Bell, Patrick Wilson and Scott Schriner embarked on the Hella Mega Tour alongside fellow alt-rock stars Green Day and Fall Out Boy. But 2022 proved to be an even more productive year, with the release of “SZNZ,” a tetralogy of EPs thematically tied to each of the four seasons and inspired by baroque-era composer Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concertos.

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Variety spoke to Cuomo ahead of the Dec. 21 release of the new EP, an excellent, seven-track grand finale that returns to grungier melodies with the signature power-pop crunch established on “Blue” and “Pinkerton,” now enhanced by the symphonic strings and orchestral arrangements the band embraced for “OK Human.”

Fans who appreciate the grandiose arrangements of past Weezer songs like “Only in Dreams” and “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” should fall for an EP that delicately balances pop appeal, classic alt-rock sensibility and more operatic compositions, like Cuomo’s personal favorite “Iambic Pentameter” and the closing track “The Deep and Dreamless Sleep.”

“Winter” jingles with a sad sort of holiday spirit without feeling like a Christmas special, delivering on Cuomo’s intention to invoke familiar feelings from this beloved, but sometimes lonely, time of year. Ghosts of Weezer’s sonic past haunt every track, which simultaneously feel totally present with Cuomo’s expanding ambitions as an orchestral composer, suggesting an even bigger, brighter future for one of the most recognizable names in rock.

It seems like you’ve evolved so well with a music industry that is constantly evolving and shifting.

It’s madness. Things are so different now.

Is the current state of the music industry a factor in why you’re releasing so much music, like four EPs in one year? 

Well, the changes in technology have made it possible, because there’s just no way we could have worked this quickly in the analog era. I mean, simply to record some vocals, every time you do a vocal take, you’d have to rewind the tape, and that would take a couple of minutes. Now, of course, you just press record again and start right up. So those kinds of improvements in the process are throughout everything we do. Everything moves faster. When you’re done with an album, you can just upload it and there it is for everyone. You don’t have to send it to a vinyl printing plant and wait six months. So, yeah, the changes have definitely opened up a lot of room for creativity for us.

And so considering that, are these the best of times or the worst of times to be in the music business? 

It’s definitely the most confusing of times. And as an artist, it’s really liberating, because it feels like there’s no playbook anymore. At the height of the classic music industry, your manager and your record company kind of knew what you had to do to break a record. It wasn’t easy; it cost money and it was a lot of hard work, but they knew what to do. And nowadays, talk to your manager, your record company and they’re like, “We don’t know what to do anymore. Just keep making music you love and keep playing shows, and hopefully something will happen.”

Do you still try to write hit songs or are you just doing whatever you want at this point? 

On most records, I’ll try to write a hit on, like, one song, and the rest of them, I don’t think about that at all. Sometimes there is some other specific goal for the song. Like, “OK, this is going to be the last song of the album, it’s gotta be utterly climactic.” Or, you know, “This song is the first song for side 2, it’s gotta give us a little break and then reintroduce where we’re going.” But yeah, usually, for one song (per project), I’m like, “All right, let’s try to figure out how to make a hit here.”

This project feels like a blend of your entire career — operatic and huge, with the incorporation of the strings gives it that connection to “OK Human,” with also that classic Weezer crunch, harmonies, and virtuoso guitar playing. It has this classical, operatic, but power-pop rock vibe.

You got it. One hundred percent. And that was the trick, finding the balance between all those elements that we love. You can go online and find find the bootlegs from our Troubadour show we played a few months ago, and you can hear at that point we were still leaning more towards like the orchestral and there was wasn’t as much of that Weezer crunch. And I’m glad we played that show, because we learned a lot from it. And we went back in and rebalanced it, and we’re really happy with how it came out. It really hits a lot of buttons for me.

What exactly did you learn from that Troubadour show?

Well, if you you write a song and you quickly record it, you can convince yourself that it’s great and you’ve taken it as far as you can. But but once you get in front of an audience, doesn’t matter how small— in that case it was just 500 people — you really feel what’s working, what’s not working, where you gotta turn it up. I mean, that’s how we developed our first album. Every week we played a show. There must have been like 60 shows by the time we went to make [the “Blue Album”]. So, there’s something about getting in front of an audience as a four-piece. That’s part of part of the process of making a really great Weezer record.

So are you saying you haven’t been able to do that for previous records, since the early days of the band? 

We’ve done it from time to time; not on every record, but we go (play a show) under the name Goat Punishment. And we’ve been doing it since the late ‘90s. Most people don’t know who Goat Punishment is, but there’s some fans in town who do and they’re sure to show up and they know they’re not going to be hearing “Beverly Hills” or “Island in the Sun”; they’re going to be hearing some new stuff or some very experimental stuff that’s not going to be polished. And they’re happy to be along for the ride.

Is there a possible Goat Punishment album coming out one day as you cycle through these album concepts you’ve been doing? 

We don’t want the name to get too well-known, so I doubt that.

Let’s talk about some of these songs, like “I Want a Dog.” Have you gotten a dog yet?

No, still no dog. We’ve got a couple cats, though.

“I Want a Dog” is reminiscent of “Butterfly” from “Pinkerton” in the way it kicks off, and then it veers into this operatic vibe that the rest of the record follows. It’s kind of a cute, innocent song, and then it gets to the line, “We’re keeping score / we all are rational agents / we make our deals to try to get more famous / I made my bed, now I am going to lie in it / I just wish I had a dog.” It’s a jarring juxtaposition.

Yeah, I don’t I don’t know if it’s a strength or a weakness, but for some reason, as I’m writing, wherever you start me, it can be from from the most innocent theme, I end up veering off into something dark and weird.

I really noticed that after we mastered the album. This new chat A.I. was was released online that everyone’s talking about, and it’s really remarkable. I heard it’s great at writing song lyrics, so I asked it to write a song called “I Want a Dog.” And then I asked the people who follow me on Twitter to compare the two versions to see if they could tell which was me and which was the A.I. The two songs start out very similar, but they stay on theme and it’s a very lighthearted song about dogs and puppies. And then mine gets super weird and dark. And that’s when it really hit me, like, I don’t know what’s going on up there.

Your lyrical style is very heartfelt and straightforward, but kind of vague. And you’re also throwing in whimsical elements in the songs that kind of keep everyone guessing what exactly you’re trying to say. Is that intentional?

No, it’s not intentional. And I’m trying to be really straightforward and and just say what I’m feeling as I’m writing. It’s only in retrospect that I realized there’s a lot of weird turns or a lot of things that confuse or titillate or surprise people, but that wasn’t my intention.

Do you feel that this is your grand finale to the series of EPs? That you delivered on a satisfying conclusion?

Yeah, it was very tricky, because it’s more acoustic-based and sad, and that’s kind of a weird note to go out on. Especially with the last song, “Deep and Dreamless Sleep,” it’s exploring the feeling of getting old and your five senses fading as you near the end of your life. And that’s not a way to end a Weezer project. So, I had to mix those themes with our natural instinct to have it be ultra climactic, so hopefully we found a good balance on that song.

In “Dark Enough to See the Stars,” you sing: “Why was I ever born and why did God make me? / He must have been high when he dropped me down here.” What a line — curious what was going on in your mind as you were writing it. 

I was just feeling very alone, very disconnected from everyone. I know that’s kind of a common complaint in modern life. We’re just so isolated in our homes on our electronic devices, and we don’t have that feeling of community or connection to our neighbors anymore. So that’s what that song is about. And that line, yeah, I was just wondering, like, why would a creator make a creature, a being like me that’s in such a sad, lonely, disconnected state?

What was on your mind when bringing the holiday theme into it?

The album is “Winter,” and we wanted to have a lot of the sounds we associate with winter. So there’s a lot of the instrumentation from Christmas songs, and at the same time, we wanted it to be sad. So it’s kind of like a sad Christmas album.

It seemed like there were a lot of references to classical compositions and a connection to Vivaldi, so what drew you to that vibe? 

Well, it was a pretty superficial connection in the beginning, but sometimes that inspires me. I had four different dropbox folders of songs and each had their own musical style, and I wasn’t sure which one to proceed with for the next Weezer album. And then I just thought, well, why don’t we make all four at once?  And then one day it just struck me, like, what can I connect it to? What is there four of? Oh, there’s four seasons. Oh, so we could make four seasons. And then I remembered Vivaldi has a very famous suite called “The Four Seasons.” So I thought on each each of these albums we can kind of interpolate some of Vivaldi’s music.

Some of the melodies may sound familiar; you may recognize it from like an old commercial that used a Vivaldi song or a movie or something, but I don’t know how well-known they are. They seem pretty obvious to me.

You reference nirvana in several songs on the “SZNZ” EPs. Given your spiritual practice, which you have talked about in other interviews, have you ever experienced that state of mind? And how does your practice help you navigate the craziness and confusion of this ever-changing music industry? 

I have not experienced nirvana or anything close to it, but I meditate two hours a day. And I’ve been doing that for 20 years now, so it’s hard for me to know, like, what it has given me, because I don’t know what life would be like without it. But my guess is that it really helps me stay calm and roll with the changes. As you said, there’s just been incredible changes in the music industry and many parts of modern life. Just got to stay calm.

You’re very active on social media to stay connected to your fans, but it almost seems like social media itself is kind of counter intuitive to the whole Eastern spiritual view, because it’s so busy and conflict-ridden. Do you have any struggles with social media as an artist? 

I actually restrict my access to social media as a consumer. So, it may look like I’m very active on there, but I’m actually not looking at it myself very much at all.

I do struggle. I have to set limits on my phone and my computer so it shuts it off for me, because I don’t want to expend my self-control on managing all of these apps, because there’s so many of them and they’re so aggressive in getting my attention. I have very strict limits, like one minute a day for Twitter on my phone, you know, that sort of thing. So, I get on there, I very quickly see, “Oh, is there something I should pay attention to and follow up on? Nope. OK. I’m done.”

We live in an age full of so many distractions and you’re getting so much done, while meditating for two hours each day and touring. Any other secrets to managing your career as well as you are? 

I don’t think I really have any secrets. I’m just naturally a very simple person and very introverted. And you know, I’m married with kids, so I don’t really go anywhere or do anything. I’m just kind of here and I love working on stuff.

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