Weezer has brushed aside critics' barbs, parlaying its mix of harmonies 'n' humor into a gold and heavy MTV airplay. Imagine the well-groomed, middle-class neighborhood's surprise. Here were those rumbling, fuzzy guitars again. The earthshaking pop melodies. The deadpan tales of love, fleeting happiness and endless boredom, roaring once more out of this miniature garage. It was Weezer, with no warning.
The quartet has returned to its former home and rehearsal garage in West L.A., not just to alarm the neighbors, but to re-enact the recent past. This time the band is crunching endlessly through the same tune from morning to midnight, all on camera for the video of "Say It Ain't So," the third single from Weezer's self-titled debut album.
Just a year ago, singer-guitarist Rivers Cuomo and bassist Matt Sharp still lived here, sharing the small space with a dozen other desperate musicians. Meals often amounted to noodles and toast.
"It definitely has a very homey vibe for me," Cuomo says fondly. But too much has already changed for Weezer to ever turn this into anything more than a brief visit.
Since Geffen Records' release of "Weezer" 12 months ago, the band has logged endless hours of radio and MTV airplay for the singles "Buddy Holly" and "Undone--The Sweater Song." It's spent months on the road and has earned a gold record award, signifying album sales of 500,000.
And just the night before, Weezer played to a packed Hollywood Palladium crowd, rocking through pure pop tunes that were part Beach Boys, part Ramones. "We've never had this ridiculous dream of being on MTV and taking over the universe," says Sharp, who had never even been in a band before Weezer. "Everything has been a surprise--and kind of weird."
Sharp still remembers that when the band formed three years ago, the mighty Weezer played to near-empty houses for the first nine months. "It was the same five to 10 friends who would show up because they felt guilty; they didn't want the club to be completely empty," he says. "Eventually, even those people started to drop off."
Explains drummer Pat Wilson: "We were terrible live. We were constantly out of tune, the tempos weren't solid, the singing was naff at best. We've tightened up a lot." One key development was songwriter Cuomo's arrival at a pop style that made sense to him: raw, quick tunes, with lyrics that were emotionally honest yet sometimes ridiculous. Former Carnival Art guitarist Brian Bell didn't join Weezer until the late-1993 recording sessions, but he'd already heard those songs in the local clubs.
Most memorable to him was "Say It Ain't So," he says. "I would go home after shows and sing it. And I'd think, 'God, that's a timeless song. I can't believe a modern band wrote that song.' "
One obvious influence on Cuomo is Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson, with whom he shares a love of smooth vocal harmonies. Beneath those layers of heavy guitar chords on "Buddy Holly" are clear melodic echoes of Wilson. "I've sat down and transcribed all those harmonies," Cuomo says of the Beach Boys catalogue. "The later stuff, even the stranger stuff--I like all of that, even when the lyrics were totally wacked out."
Cuomo and the band have already worked up half a dozen new songs, with tentative plans to begin recording another album by December after several more months of touring. The songwriter is confident that the band's unexpected good fortune and new distractions won't affect his work. "When I write I'm in a space that has nothing to do with how much money I have or what's going on with the people around me," Cuomo says. Playing live, however, is another matter.
"I'm not much of a performer at all. It's something you're born with or not, and I'm not," he says. "Put me in front of a camera and I just turn off and try to hide. Some people turn on and it's really entertaining. But that's not me."
Nobody in the band expected Weezer to take off. Cuomo, who arrived in Los Angeles from Connecticut with his hometown band right after high school in March, 1989, planned to continue riding his bike to Santa Monica College every day until the band completely failed. Then he would transfer to Berkeley as an English major.
But the band began to generate a buzz in club circles in 1993. Record company scouts flirted with them, talked of signing them, then mostly disappeared, muttering something about a band called Green Day. "Every label was flipping out over them," Sharp says. "We kept hearing their name over and over and over again." Even Geffen Records at first passed on Weezer but eventually found itself the only major label still interested in the group. Negotiations also suddenly turned strange when the cleanshaven Cuomo showed up at the label's offices one day wearing a thick, Marlboro Man mustache.
"I like to disturb people with my image," Cuomo says. "That was really strange. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror. "When I went in to meet with Geffen about the album cover, I told the art director all four of us were going to have these mustaches. She was really upset and disturbed. From then on we had to work with another art director."
Things went much more smoothly while the band recorded the album in New York with producer Ric Ocasek, former leader of the Cars. The soft-spoken producer placed lava lamps throughout the studio and offered advice that Cuomo says was invaluable in smoothing out some rough edges. Now he regrets that he didn't take more of that advice before the record was finished. "Rivers was cautious but definitely tried things," Ocasek says. "He certainly knew what he wanted to do and had it all together."
Says drummer Wilson: "Ric's biggest contribution was that he put us in a position to do well. He gave us a good studio, a good engineer. He let us make the record we wanted to make."
Weezer has still suffered some slings and arrows. The British press has suggested that the group was created in the labs of Geffen as a kind of Monkees for the '90s. American critics have sometimes been harsh, dismissing Weezer as a band of nerds in thrift-shop threads. The music, the complaints go, is much too derivative of the Pixies and Nirvana.
"I've heard backlash against us since our first show," Cuomo insists. "When people talk bad about us now, it doesn't strike me as this new trend." Besides, Weezer has supple mented its traditional pop music fans with an otherwise untapped audience: comedians. Some of its biggest fans are comics, which seems to suggest something, though no one in the band is quite sure what. "Our demographic basically breaks down to 12-year-old kids freaking out on Snickers bars--and comedians," Sharp says. "At that point we were sort of worried that everyone was thinking we were a joke. Is it comedy music?"
The band has met several comics, mostly younger ones like Ben Stiller and Jon Stewart. But perhaps the greatest honor came when Weezer discovered that David Letterman spins the record for his guests as they wait in his studio's green room. Says Wilson: "That, to me, is success."