"Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man."
The above proverb from ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou inspired the state of mind Weezer maestro Rivers Cuomo wanted to conjure in people listening to the band’s latest album Pacific Daydream. The album’s ten songs are laced with woozy, dream-like textures, as if clouded by the fog of somebody’s daydream (the album’s original title, before drummer Pat Wilson suggested the change to the more specific Pacific). ‘I’m trying to create this uncertainty of what is fantasy and what is reality’ Cuomo explains ‘and combine those elements to create a fantasy world that feels more vivid than reality.’
Weezer have been many things over the course of eleven albums and 25 years but breezy dream-pop is not the first thing that comes to mind when talk turns to the Californian quartet. Pacific Daydream is one of the most radical departures from the classic grunge-guitars-meets-Beach-Boys-harmonies template that served the band so consistently well at the dawn of their career. But speaking to Cuomo in a beautifully lavish hotel in London’s West End just a couple of days before Weezer play their largest headline show in the capital at Wembley Arena, the plan is for the band to take even bolder steps into the unknown on future releases.
Originally however, Pacific Daydream wasn’t envisaged as a part of the plan at all; mere weeks after the release of 2016’s ‘The White Album’, the band’s 10th full-length (and their fourth colour-co-ordinated effort after Blue, Green and Red) Cuomo was waxing lyrical about his plans to release a much darker follow-up called ‘The Black Album’. Logic and pleasing thematic synergy dictated that it would be a darker offering than the bright, breezy, summertime beach vibes prevalent on its predecessor.
Cuomo provided multiple tantalising descriptors of the record, that it would cover more mature topics, sound ‘less like a summer day and more like a winter night’. He even proclaimed that the songs might feature swearing, a revelation only because cuss words barely ever pass betwixt Cuomo’s lips when he’s on the mic (there’s only one f-bomb uttered across Weezer’s entire back-catalogue but that come from the potty mouth of special guest Lil Wayne).
Upon Weezer’s return from a 40-date North American tour alongside baroque pop oddities Panic! At The Disco in the summer of 2016, Cuomo retired to his studio (in his garage … natch) and began working on The Black Album, but the songs that came didn’t fit the criteria he had already established for this dark, experimental record. ‘I would write every day and put the MP3s in a folder called The Black Album in my dropbox’ he explains ‘and I began to write some songs that didn’t fit in that folder but they were still good. So I made a new folder and put them in there and that was the one that got filled first. It seemed like a very strong, unified cohesive statement. In some ways, Pacific Daydream is kind of a step towards The Black Album but it's still in a more familiar Weezer territory.’
Cuomo describes Pacific Daydream as a stepping stone between the sound of white and black. Given that line of reasoning, one could conclude that Weezer have just made The Grey Album but that would suggest a bleak, dreary sombre record, which Pacific Daydream is anything but. Instead, the album sheds the band’s trademark 90s grunge guitar sound almost entirely, in favour of a shiny polished production closer to the contemporary electro-pop of Imagine Dragons than the heady 50-50 split of Nirvana and The Beach Boys that endeared them to a large worldwide geek contingent (years before geek-chic was considered fashionable). It’s not as if Weezer have ever been shy of a pop hook; their entire back catalogue is positively chock-full of them but they’ve more often than not been immersed in an all-consuming fuzzy guitar tone.
If Pacific Daydream were Weezer’s debut album, no-one would be calling them a rock band; this is pop music through and through although Cuomo counters that the process whilst creating these songs is pretty much the same. ‘To be honest, the writing is kind of the same as when I started in the early 90s. It most often starts on an acoustic guitar or a piano, it's just the way you play it with the band afterwards that’s changed; you can step on the distortion pedal or you can say 'no we're not going to do that' and then you have to figure out something else to make it feel exciting. Our producer, Butch Walker, is very familiar with the history of rock music and he has lots of great guitars, amplifiers and pedals so he was valuable at helping me figure out what to do when we didn’t want to fall back on distortion. It's a big step forward into unfamiliar territory for Weezer but it's not big enough for me; I want to take ten of those steps with the next record.’
Walker and Cuomo listened to a lot of music in the studio, taking influence from the Wall of Sound style of production pioneered by Phil Spector and used on tracks by The Righteous Brothers, Modern Folk Quartet, The Ronettes and of course, The Beach Boys (who have a song named after them on the record) as well as lots of contemporary pop playlists on Spotify. Cuomo’s approach to song writing has been the recent subject of scrutiny on Song Exploder, the podcast that seeks to take a deep, analytical look at the process behind individual songs. Focusing on ‘The White Album’ cut Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori, it brought Cuomo’s almost clinical approach to writing into sharp focus. ‘I have lists of titles, chord progressions and beats which are all independent of each other’ Cuomo explains. ‘Sometimes I'll go on Spotify to browse pop playlists and look for chord progressions that I think I could write good melodies for and sing over.’
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‘I first started making spread sheets around the Maladroit era,’ he continues, referring to the band’s fourth record released in 2002. ‘There are analogue versions of this dating back to the very early days, whether it be keeping a list of song titles in a notebook or staves of melodies in a three-ring binder or cassette tapes of demos; it was just much harder to keep track of them all. But the lists have grown since then and my skill at manipulating them and writing custom formulas has also grown. I think my tastes have become more cut and paste as well; there have been times in my life where I felt a moral imperative to write from the beginning of a song to the end. I’d allow myself to tweak a little bit, but there was some underlying logic there that had to be respected. But in recent years, I've just figured f**k it, let’s just take the very best bits, cram them together and call it a song.’
We take the final track of Pacific Daydream as an example of this approach, the jaunty, handclap-laden acoustic pop of ‘Any Friend of Diane’s’. It was written during a period of time when Cuomo would write a hook first and then build the song around it. This song began with Cuomo tinkling around on piano but he was still searching for the hook, so he picked up his list of song titles and immediately honed in on ‘Any Friend of Diane’s’ originally cribbed from an episode of long-running sitcom Cheers. ‘From the moment I saw the words, I started singing that melody exactly as it sounds on the record’ he says, ‘the first thing that came out of my mouth was basically the finished hook. A lot of times, I'll sing maybe ten, fifteen, even twenty minutes on one lyric, until I come up with something that seems really catchy but this one just happened right away. Home is where the heart is was just another line on my list, I sang that and I started cutting and paste, I just put them together and they seemed to work together. There were probably three or four other hooks I sang over the same chord progression that didn't work as well. I would write one or two of those hooks every day and then at the end of the week, I have five to ten hooks. Then we’ll all listen together, pick one or maybe two or maybe zero and say, 'Ok that's a cool hook, let's focus on that!' Then the next week, I'll go back, listen to it and start thinking about what else I could say in that particular song.’
From that process, a subject forms which Cuomo bases the rest of the lyrics around. ‘I started thinking about the women in our early career that helped us or supported us in one way or another before we got a record deal. I was thinking about the woman who was my boss at Domino's pizza, she painted my band's logo on the back of my jean jacket and that meant the world to me. Or my girlfriend in the early days of Weezer buying me food, cooking me meals and giving me a place to stay. There's so many people like that; you’re not signed to them contractually, they don't have a piece of your business as an investment but I don't know if I would have ever got off the ground without them. It's a very emotional relationship which is kind of doomed to end from the start.’
Some fans have undoubtedly found the lack of distorted guitar on Pacific Daydream about as welcome as a fly in their soup but then old-school Weezer fans have always been surprisingly militant when it comes to changes being made to the band’s formula. Cuomo has an appetite for change however and the fact that four of Pacific Daydream’s ten tracks are sitting pretty in Spotify’s ten most popular Weezer tracks is a fact that is unlikely to go un-noticed by the studious frontman. Few would defend every creative step Weezer have made over the past 25 years, but it’s undeniably exciting when a creative mind as fertile as Cuomo’s warns us to expect the unexpected. Surely, it’s preferable to a mid-career Weezer, who were often caught flailing around in the dark, frantically throwing ideas at the wall in a bid to see if any would stick. If all goes according to plan, The Black Album will be released in 2018 but despite Cuomo's claims that it will push the band into increasingly modern and experimental furrows, he's learnt not to take criticism to heart. ‘In a perfect world, everyone would love everything that we put out' Cuomo says with a wry chuckle. 'But we've learned from experience to be a little concerned if we put out a song and the old-school fans get excited by it, it's often not a good sign that the song will perform well.’
I ask him to clarify. ‘Well, the greatest example is Pinkerton, which completely lost everyone when it came out and it's only over the succeeding years that people came to love it. It was utterly heart-breaking when it was universally reviled upon its release. By the time ‘The Green Album’ came out, I was headed in the opposite direction creatively, thinking 'Well, if they hate that, then they ought to love this.' But by that time, it seemed like everyone was saying 'Well actually, we want you to go back and do that again!' That was frustrating but you know we've seen so many ups and downs over the years, it doesn't get to us that much anymore cause none of that is really relevant to the task at hand of writing a song. It can't really help you, it's such a struggle to write and come up with something great, you've just got to keep working and keep focused and keep mixing elements and waiting for magic. You hope you recognise it when you've got it. How the world is going to react to it really that doesn't come into play.’
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