“Undone”: The Story Behind Weezer’s Debut Album Cover

05.08.14 4 years ago 12 Comments


Weezer, at the beginning of 1994, was signed but stranded in the hinterlands of the early-’90s Los Angeles music scene, some weird outlying four-piece outside the groovy jam bands, Jane’s Addiction posers and last remaining metal acts of the era.

The band, formed from the remnants of lead singer Rivers Cuomo and drummer Patrick Wilson’s old group, Sixty Wrong Sausages, had songs but almost no fanfare. Even if they were playing vaunted Hollywood haunts like the Whiskey A Go Go or Coconut Teaszer, no audience member gave a f*ck. The band was tragically uncool and rehearsed in a compact suburban West L.A. garage, whose walls were plastered with posters of bands like Quiet Riot. They were so far afield from what was going on at the time that a 1994 show in Berkeley, in which they opened up for the band Chainsaw Kittens, attracted negative fans, as less people showed up for their free gig than were on the band’s guest-list.

But they were signed to Geffen. And they had a bullet in the barrel in their debut album, which wrapped recording in October 1993 and was sitting in Geffen’s coffers to be released the following May. Eventually, the group and its tight, ten-track, self-titled debut album, known affectionately as The Blue Album, blew up, thanks in part to big-time radio co-signs and opening gigs for Lush and Live. Its metal-influenced, poppy harmonies blew even the minds of bands like The Deftones and The Offspring, who supposedly played Weezer’s tunes at their live shows.

While fans can read an indefinite amount of articles about the album’s actual importance–its breaking of grunge’s vice-grip; the foundation it laid for the “emo” bands of the early-2000s–there isn’t much that speaks to how the album became known as The Blue Album in the first place–i.e., how the album’s iconic artwork came to be.

Wikipedia (obviously, not a source any person should rely on for anything) incorrectly credits the artwork to the band’s then-A&R rep, Todd Sullivan. In fact, the artwork was the brainchild of several people, which included Cuomo, Geffen art director Michael Golob and the late photographer Peter Gowland. Good friend and all-around assistant/historian of the band Karl Koch also was instrumental in helping the band realize their vision of the cover, including the creation of the “weezer” wordmark logo.

The Smoking Section got a hold of Sullivan, Golob and Koch to discuss how, exactly, all of these pieces came together to create one of the lasting album covers of the 1990s and how they perceive it now, in honor of the album’s 20-year anniversary.

This is their story.

Karl Koch Weezer Blue Album Mock-Up

Karl Koch

1. The Band Chooses An Idea

Karl Koch, friend of Weezer; Blue Album design contributor: At that point, they had been signed since June and they had been recording in August, September and part of October. So they turned in the tapes and the record was done, but they didn’t know when Geffen would put it out. As it turned out, Geffen didn’t put it out until the following May. It was torture. But that’s just the way it was back then. They sat on it until they wanted to release it.

In the meantime, it was like, “Get your artwork figured out, here’s your budget and talk with our art director and figure out what you want to do.”

Todd Sullivan, former Geffen A&R for Weezer: The cover for the album was the band’s idea. I remember that I had been shown the cover of some Beach Boys album and what caught my eye was they were all in striped shirts and the blue background. It looked like some ’60s Sears family photo.

It was a shock, like, “oh, ok.” Because this was not a band that you normally associate with putting themselves on a cover–not to mention they didn’t look like guys you’d actually see in a band in the first place.

KK: [Lead singer] Rivers [Cuomo] already had this notion in mind. Somewhere, we’ll say in late-1992, Rivers got into a big Beach Boys and Beatles thing. That’s all he was listening to–Pet Sounds, Beatles. He was like 22 years old or something, and everyone grows up knowing Beatles songs, but all of a sudden it’s like he’s studying their songs and why they’re great.

Rivers was very much into the look of this, like, super-cheap truck-stop Greatest Hits of the Beach Boys. It wasn’t a proper Greatest Hits. It was called Do It Again.

It’s like the Beach Boys packaged for America. And he had this on cassette, and he constantly listened to it on his Walkman. Eventually he said, “We have to do this cover, this is what we should do.”

Michael Golob, former Geffen art director: Rivers was like, “I want to do something like this for the cover where we’re just standing there in normal clothes.” And at that time Sonic Youth and a lot of these bands were using Michael Lavine to shoot this photography with a technique called cross-processing, which you would shoot slide film and then process it as a print film. It gave a super-contrasted, hyper-colored look to it.

And Rivers was like, “I don’t want that indie look. I want to have this.” And I was like, “cool!”

I think that came out of Rivers’ desire to have no style. A lot of times there were acts that would come in and you would have to talk them out of their ideas. Some had these ideas like Satan’s in a pool hall, shooting pool and, like, all the balls say “666.”

But that’s just so uncool [Laughs]. Sometimes you have to, as the designer, be a medium and call up the spirit of the band and bring it forth in a visual way. And sometimes it would be good and others would be difficult. With Weezer I was lucky because it was a very good experience.

2. And Then A Photographer

TS: So Michael knew this one older photographer named Peter Gowland whose photos had this good, rich element to them. He was a former Playboy photographer who would eventually shoot the picture on the cover.

MG: I knew about this guy. I had this book called Gowland’s Guide to Glamour Photography, and Peter was a guy in the ‘50s and ‘60s who shot calendars. And in his books he would always show these pictures of glamour girls.

I thought I always wanted to work with him. So I contacted him and then pitched it to Rivers and he was like, “yeah, let’s do it!”

KK: Even though he was known for glamor girls, his photography screams ‘60s. The colors… He pretty much invented that look. Everything had a technicolor look to it and everyone is wearing all these colors and everything is posed just so in his photos. So when it came time to decide who’s going to take it, it always came back to him. And everyone was like, “well is he still alive?” And he was, so that’s how it came back to him.

3. The Photo Shoot, Part One

KK: Peter had a big photography studio in his house, so we scheduled it for a few days before Christmas. On the day of the shoot, we headed over there and I remember that it was a kind of foggy day, and he lived on this big, sprawling lot. It seemed like this magical place tucked away in the forest where he had his house. It was like a giant version of The Brady Bunch house.

MG: It was exactly like The Brady Bunch. You came in and there was a sunken living room and a tiny bar off to the side. I remember there was a 3-D slides viewer where you could look at his glamor photography. And we just shot it off the main room in a sunny room that was open to where the pool was. And it wasn’t a lot of room. It was a big house—bigger than my house now—but as far as a photo studio and getting people lined up, I was nervous. Usually you use a little more space than that, but it was fine.

But he was a trippy guy. His dad [Ed. note: Gibson Gowland] was in a silent film called Greed that Eric von Stroheim directed in the 1920s in Germany. He had like Henry Miller prints that were signed to him personally from the Big Sur days. He wasn’t really an ex-hippie or beatnik, but he was kind of an old dude–like your grandpa–who was living the California lifestyle and doing his photography.

KK: [Drummer] Pat [Wilson] also showed up with his head shaved. Everybody was mortified.

MG: It was like, “why did you do that?” And he was just like, “because I did it!” [Laughs] In the end it was a total non-issue. I mean, no one was like, “oh fuck, Pat has a shaved head.”

4. The Photo Shoot, Part Two

MG: The whole thing was pretty much one shot.

KK: And you know how it was like The Brady Bunch‘s house? Well Peter even had a wife who looked and acted just like Alice! She was trying to fix us cookies the entire time we were there.

MG: We didn’t have a stylist or a make-up artist or anything there. I think it was just Peter’s wife who just put a little bit of powder on the guys’ faces to reduce the glare of the lights.

KK: We explained to Peter what we wanted with the blue background, and he had this giant wall and curtain things that you could drag across the whole thing for background. And it’s, like, the blue background, that’s it, that’s the color. So that’s what you’re looking at. He gets the camera all set up and he’s just standing there, and I think they changed shirts a few times until they settled on what they had in the cover.

MG: My initial reaction [to the shot] was, that’s cool, but do you really want to be that retro? That was my first reaction because the shot was so Dave Clark Five. But Rivers was like, “no, no. We’ll just be wearing whatever we’re wearing that day.” That was the “no style” thing he was going for.

KK: And Peter was, like, literally directing them like a Sears portrait gallery.

“Brian, I need you to move your chin over to the left a little bit.” They were statues with the exception of these little moves that Peter was getting them to do. And they shot that for, like, an hour or two until Peter got it. After, they moved onto another set-up–the fireplace in the other building–and the other, you might have seen this years ago, but if you’ve ever seen a photo of them all clustered together and they’re wearing sweaters, there’s this trellis in the background with blue ivy all over it and clouds. I mean, it couldn’t be more “here’s our Christian choir.”

MG: We figured since Peter was a technical shooter, we’d do some shots like they’re Sears photos. Those ended up being used as publicity photos.

Weezer Blue Album Inside Cover Artwork

5. The Inside Cover

KK: That was shot earlier.

MG: On the inside, Rivers wanted their band’s practice room in the area where they lived off of, like, Bundy Drive in the West L.A./Santa Monica area. I sent a friend of mine, Peter Orth, over there to take it.

KK: It was the back room of this house Rivers and Matt had moved into when the band was first starting, off Bundee and Olympic, called Amherst–2226 Amherst Avenue. They claimed they were UCLA film students and they didn’t tell anyone that they were going to set up a rehearsal room inside the garage. Weezer did all of their rehearsing there for about a year and a half once they were established. The “Say It Ain’t So” video was shot there as well.

MG: He got the photo in color and black and white, but we used the black and white because that was the standard at Geffen. The indie band package was four-color outside and two-color inside, two-color label, four-color back. But anything else beyond that the band would have to pay for out of their royalties, unless it was, like, Aerosmith.

KK: Now, the drum head had a little mascot on it named Bokkus whom Pat had invented. And Bokkus, Pat drew him.

Basically, Pat and I were screwing around one day a year earlier and we were making a comic book, which was all messed up, silly and perverted, but there was a thing that Marvel had put out called the “Try Out” book where it was this over-sized comic book that you finished for them and you would send in the pages. If you were good enough, they would let you work for them. It was a gimmick, I’m sure, but I had it–I don’t know why I had it–and I wanted to do it.

But we didn’t follow the directions, the lines were off, it was really gross, and then we kind of ended the story of Spiderman in this awful way. And we had about four pages leftover where we were like, Let’s make our own feature. And I think I started in my head this UFO landing in a farm’s field somewhere on a plot. But then Pat draws this guy getting off the UFO and it’s that guy you see in the garage shot within the album. He had a little stick-figure body.

Basically this guy comes off and he wreaks havoc on the farm and does this terrible stuff to the daughter. And it was really funny, but it was terrible–really sophomoric humor.

But that figure called Bokkus ended up enduring and we ended up putting him on the drum head when we were working on the album in New York. I can’t remember who drew him on the drum head–I’m pretty sure Pat did. The funny thing is, years later Pat admitted what he was actually trying to draw: Popeye.

An early mock-up of the “Buddy Holly” single artwork

6. Adding The Finishing Touches

MG: Matt’s head was swiped in for the cover photo. Everybody approved the shot as it was in one shot, but Matt said, “I don’t want my expression. Put in a different head.”

KK: [At the end], Rivers said, “Karl, get in there and make sure it looks right.” And of course they cut off the legs too low–I was always mad about where they cut off the legs at the ankle, like we should have cut it off at the knee.

MG: There was talk of cropping and positioning and whether we keep the feet on and then we shot it with the feet off. So we cropped it off like that. I think that gives it a slightly off-kilter vibe to it, even though the band is all evenly spaced. It gives it a kind of formal dynamic that’s just slightly off-kilter, as opposed to it all just being lined-up, centered and being totally no style.

TS: Originally, there was supposed to be a big Weezer logo that Karl had drawn to be on the cover, but they wanted it shrunk in the end to keep it simple. And they also needed to get approval from Quiet Riot for the use of the Kevin DuBrow poster on the inside cover, which they eventually got.

KK: I know Michael went in and enhanced the blue background to get rid of shadows. In the original shot you can you tell that they’re in front of a backdrop because there’s a little bit of variation. And then he kind of pumped it up. I remember at the time not being sold on it because I liked it being a little more natural. It was just kind of neat to see that it was an old-school background behind them.

MG: I think what helped it to become The Blue Album was the match-y thing that was going on between the cover and the disc. The label [on the disc] was just going to be a simple color and I pitched two different things: the blue of the background of the cover and kind of this maroon-ish, rust complimentary that was the opposite of the blue.

They just came into my office—and it was near the end of the day—and I had the mock-ups of both and Rivers sat with it for a long period of time, and it was getting to be the point where I was getting ready to go and other people were antsy. And I think I was like, “we don’t need to decide today. You can think about it.” He was very deliberate in a certain way. So he took them home and then he called me the next day and he said we should definitely go with the blue. I don’t know what it was, but it I think was the right choice, too.

Weezer Blue Album Artwork

7. The Label And Press (Sort Of) React

TS: The whole cover was a bold move on the band’s part. They were very much naked and out there. At the time, the low threshold for an album’s expectations was 15,000 units shipped, which was nothing. Geffen decided to only ship 13,000 initially. I was kind of scared.

And I remember that the initial reaction was, “oh, this looks just like The Feelies first album cover.” And the guys had no idea who The Feelies were.

KK: When we got back responses that we were ripping off The Feelies record, that caused us to go look up who they were. So I [searched] the record store until I found that album with the same kind of cover. So I bought it for, like, $3–which I’m sure is a bargain today–and I showed them and was like, “So this is what they’re talking about.” And, uh, you know it was like, “oh, sorry, well we weren’t ripping off The Feelies. We were ripping off The Beach Boys.”

8. The Album Catches On

TS: Part of our plan going into the debut album was not to parade the band around. Our strategy was to let the audience discover Weezer organically, which was rare for bands at this point.

KK: I remember early reviews at the time that said, “could this be anymore dull? They really think we want to look at them?” No one put themselves on the cover at that time. The early-‘90s was very artistic. A perfect example was Nirvana’s In Utero. Contrast that with The Blue Album and it’s like, what the fuck?

TS: The whole thing really took off when [then-Seattle promotion rep for Geffen] Susie Tenant played “Undone (The Sweater Song)” for Marco Collins at Seattle’s KNDD*. She convinced him to throw it on air. The positive feedback was immediate.

KK: The kids who were 14 to 18 years old were all sold instantly. We’d get tons of cards–hand-drawn fan art–hundreds and hundreds of kids redrawing the cover and sending it to the band. [The cover] clearly made an impact once the album took off.

* — Collins is considered to be the first person ever to play “Undone (The Sweater Song)”, Weezer’s first single, on the radio.

9. The Legacy

MG: I think the record cover has a lasting impression because it’s the thing people see and relate to. The understated quality of it really resonated–the zigging while other people were zagging kind of thing–and gave it a distinctive look.

KK: [But] the lesson there is as soon as you try to make the image about something, you’re starting to limit its possible appeal.

There was a lot of suburbia [in that cover photo]. I remember that’s what they all had in common, growing up in the ‘burbs in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and we wanted to evoke this somehow. We’re just regular guys. That Blue Album cover became an iconic thing because it’s not that specific, you know? It’s very specific in a visual sense but not in an iconography sense.

MG: Designing album covers speaks to a whole designing a legend, designing a vibe that people can look at and go, “wow! I remember where I was when I saw that record.”

If someone were to say, “this is the ‘Sweater Song’” I’d be like, “oh, the one with the blue album cover!” And I have heard people say, “oh, that song’s from the one with the baby on the cover,” in talking about a Nirvana song. I don’t know, but I don’t think that happens as much with a Rihanna song.

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