On ‘SZNZ,’ Weezer Thrives By Looking Ahead

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Just before we spoke, Rivers Cuomo had been at a mediation retreat for the past several days — not the kind of place one would typically expect a rock band’s lead singer to be spending his time. But Cuomo has a storied history with the practice of meditation, one he references on occasion when answering questions about how Weezer has managed to stay together as a band for three decades.

For Cuomo, who grew up surrounded by the practice in an East Coast ashram, meditation keeps him grounded. “It really helps me stay calm and roll with the changes,” he told Variety. But changes are never something Cuomo shies away from. In fact, he welcomes it in his music. “Very often I’ll finish an album and want to do something totally opposite for the next one,” he said to the LA Times. And with Weezer’s latest project SZNZ, the band couldn’t have made more changes to the way they approached their music.

The album is composed of four separate-but-related EPs: SZNZ: Spring, SZNZ: Summer, SZNZ: Autumn, and SZNZ: Winter. “Each album has its own primary emotion and each album has its own primary musical genre,” Cuomo explains to Uproxx over the phone. On SZNZ, those emotions are optimism, anger, anxiety, and sadness, respectively. Using an emotion to guide each project was inspired by the feelings evoked by Antonio Vivaldi’s four-part composition The Four Seasons. But the band brought the concept into the modern age by trying out specific genres for each project, pulling inspiration everywhere from early Weezer — yes, the breezy sounds on SZNZ: Spring call back to the Green Album era (specifically “Island In The Sun,” listen to “A Little Bit Of Love” and I guarantee you’ll hear it) — to early aughts dance-y alt-rock like Franz Ferdinand.

“Each album also had its primary historical period,” Cuomo continues. “So I tried to focus on a particular historical period in my lyrics on any given season.” SZNZ: Winter, the project that aptly dropped on the winter solstice, is of course the most languid effort of the four EPs. There are a ton of references to the Northeast and Revolutionary War period, which Cuomo confirms during our conversation by pulling up a spreadsheet he would reference when songwriting. Its plucky chords on tracks like the opener “I Want A Dog” and existential prose on “Dark Enough To See The Stars” capture the turmoil and quiet misery of ‘90s singer/songwriters like Elliott Smith.

By dipping into the past, both with their historical references and genres popularized by earlier songwriters, Weezer were able to create something both timeless yet inventive with SZNZ. No other band has written an album in this kind of way — by meditating on a specific emotion, time period, and genre to build separate worlds for each EP to live in — and neither has Weezer. But that’s the point. For a band that’s been around for three decades, they know there’s no use in writing the same kind of album over-and-over again. Instead, they’re looking ahead. As Rivers Cuomo says in our conversation below, he’s always writing with half his heart in the future.

There were a lot of homages to early Weezer and also nineties songwriters like Elliott Smith on your EP Winter. And there are a few songs reinterpret some early Weezer demos, like the bridge to “Iambic Pentameter” takes from an early demo, and same with “I Want A Dog.” Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Well, the “Iambic Pentameter” was an accident. I remember, because I have this folder of ideas, MP3s, and it has 1500 MP3s in there. And usually once I use an idea, I take the idea out of the folder so I won’t reuse it. Now, in this case, years ago I used it in a song called “Prom Night,” and then I forgot to take the idea out. Now this “Prom Night” song, it’s a real rarity. It’s just a Japanese bonus track from the White Album. And then when I was writing “Iambic Pentameter,” I needed a bridge. I heard the idea in the folder and I was like, “This is amazing. I can’t believe I’ve never used this before. It sounds so familiar.” But I was flipping through all the Weezer songs and I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ll use it. Maybe I should ask the fans and play it for them and see what they say.” But I didn’t, if I played it for them, they would’ve said, “Yeah, you used that on a Japanese B-side.” But I went ahead and used it, and they caught me. But it was too late to do anything about it.

You said you have 1500 MP3s on your computer?

Yeah, it sounds like a lot, but when you think about it, I’ve been making demos since 1987 probably. So if you divide, how many years is that? 35? I don’t know, but 1500 divided by 35. It’s not a lot. I mean, I’m not very productive, but they add up.

I wonder if you ever are looking through your folder and listening to things and you’re like, wow, this is amazing. Who wrote that? And then remember that you, in fact, wrote that.

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s such a cool thing. I was like, ‘Oh man, this is so good. I love this, but I don’t remember where it came from or how I did it.’ It’s like collaborating with myself. Here’s a past version of myself suggesting an idea.

On Twitter, you shared how you used an AI chatbot and put the lyrics to “I Want A Dog” and the result ended up being something a little similar, but overall a little bit happier and a little bit peppier than the song that you originally wrote. And AI is a topic that’s pretty hot right now — between people using those AI face apps and the chatbot — so I was wondering what your stance is on AI and if you’ve ever considered using it as a songwriting tool?

Well, I love ChatGPT, and it actually, I’ve been using it ever since that post. If you look at my Twitter replies, so you can see I’m replying to about 30 people a day. And that’s all fueled by ChatGPT. Now, as a songwriter, I was excited to try it out, and it’s definitely on my list of tools I can use. So far, I haven’t actually used anything it’s generated. I guess it has inspired a few things, but I don’t love the results. It may just be the kind of writer I am, because I’ve never even really gotten into a rhyming dictionary. I remember back in the nineties, first discovering a rhyming dictionary. “Well, this is incredible, look at all these cool words. Oh, this is going to be great.” But then I was never felt emotionally satisfied by the lyrics that would generate. And I realized: I think, part of why I write songs is the feeling that I kept digging into myself until I realized what it was that I’m feeling, and what I really need to say to the world. And it’s not easy, but the fact that I’ve dug deep and discovered something and then articulated it in my own words, that’s really rewarding. I don’t know if that has anything to do with how successful a song is but that has everything to do with how much I end up loving it.

In terms of touring, Weezer has done a lot of creative things that aren’t just a classic tour. Of course, you guys have done a classic tour, but you’ve also did the Weezer Cruise and planned a Broadway show. This project in general is inspired by the idea of a symphony. Are there any “out there” ideas that you’ve been wanting to try in relation to your music, akin to a Weezer Cruise or something?

Well, I have something I’m really excited to try. It doesn’t have to do with a venue or anything, but I’m excited. I think our audience is ready for me and the band composing new music. Not songs, but interludes and transitional passages and epic instrumental pieces that happen in between songs, or from time to time throughout the set. And then playing a longer set, like 90 minutes, and having it be a real journey instead of just a cool three-minute song after another. Because that’s something rock bands can do really well. Not necessarily alt rock bands, but I think Weezer can do it. And you’re not going to get that at a pop show, country show, or a hip-hop show. And I think, it’ll be a uniquely fulfilling ride for the audience.

In listening to this album and thinking about the historical references, like Shakespeare and Vivaldi, it really got me thinking a lot about how art exists in the future. For Antonio Vivaldi, his symphony was discovered long after his death. And same with Shakespeare. You can argue that Shakespeare didn’t really reach his (or her, possibly) height of fame until hundreds of years in the future. So thinking about Weezer’s legacy, with your music in the future, how would you say you would want to be remembered?

I’ve always had half of my heart in the future and have been writing for a future audience. And I don’t know about a hundred years from now, but 50 years from now, I’d love for people to be discovering some of the great things that are kind of buried in the dark recesses of the Weezer catalog. And I know that they don’t necessarily have a chance in today’s music environment where so much is about the virality of what you’re making; 15-second clips that are extremely catchy for one reason or the other. But it’s okay, I wouldn’t want to switch my focus exclusively to that and forego the exploration of the deep stuff that may only be appreciated years from now, if ever.

Bring back the deep dive in the future!

I think it’s going to happen. Where society’s going, we’re having to deal with these innovations in technology that have fragmented our attention so much. But I think at some point we’re all going to miss the deep stuff enough that we’ll figure out new ways to circumvent that and get back to some real deep thinking, deep work.

Before this call, I saw that you were involved in Fall Out Boy’s latest music video. You were standing on the street, a car pulls up, and you get into a fake attempted kidnapping situation. Can you tell me what it was like filming that?

It was super fun. Normally, I don’t like making videos. It’s rare that Weezer will make a video now. It’s just such a boring process standing around all day, and then lip syncing or whatever. But I love the Fall Out Boy guys. We have the same manager and just seemed like a cool thing to help them out with this. And in part paying them back, because Pete Wentz did a whole Weezer video for us once. So I went there and it was super fun, and I don’t know why. Just the whole thing was fun for me, and maybe because I don’t feel any pressure, because it’s not my thing, so I can just goof off and it’s fun hanging out and talking to those guys. I liked the character I was playing.

Well, I’m glad you didn’t get actually kidnapped so that we can be here and have this conversation.

Yeah, and you know what, I like physical acting. If it’s just lip syncing or walking down the street or something, it’s a little dull. But this is serious wrestling and fighting off the Fall Out Boy guys, and fans scrambling to try to rescue me. It was very intense and physical, so it got my blood flowing.

SZNZ is out now via Crush Music/Atlantic. Get it here.

Weezer is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.