If Rivers Cuomo had his way, the new album from his beloved ’90s band, Weezer, might have taken an unexpected turn. “I had to ban myself from listening to Spotify’s Most Necessary playlist, the one with XXXTentacion and all the mumble rap,” says the singer-guitarist, 47, letting his latte go cold in an airy, upscale cafe near his Santa Monica, Calif., home. “It felt so creative and mind-boggling. I was listening to it all the time, and then I’d go to write a song and I’m doing mumble rap. And I’m like, ‘This is awesome!’ But I’d send it around to everybody and they’re like, ‘This is horrible!’”
Next to Cuomo sits Weezer guitarist-keyboardist Brian Bell, 48, who grins and hangs his head, shaking it like an older brother who knows better. Their sartorial choices reinforce the image. Cuomo looks ready for the first day of school: clean-cut, thick black glasses, plaid button-up over blue chinos. Bell is the stubbled, seasoned rocker, long hair brushing the top of a chic, loosely draped suit. But even he admits that as Weezer prepares to drop its 11th album in 25 years as a band, “the secret to our longevity is the ability and desire to keep reinventing ourselves as best we can.”
That’s certainly the case with Pacific Daydream, out Oct. 27 on Atlantic and heralded by “Feels Like Summer” (No. 2 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart and No. 4 on Rock Airplay), which feels like the crisply beat-powered spawn of Maroon 5 and Twenty One Pilots. With a few power chords in the mix, it’s a solid retort to those wondering what “rock” means in 2017. That song predated the Pacific Daydream sessions, but album producer Butch Walker (Fall Out Boy, Taylor Swift) extended the contemporary vibe by recording the songs in modular bits.
“I would literally get a different guy from the band every day, never all of them at the same time,” says Walker. “We’d sit down, listen to the songs and go, ‘OK, where do you fit in as the bass player, guitar player or drummer in this band?’ It was an interesting science project.”
“We’re not trying to re-create the 20th-century recording experience,” adds Cuomo, referring to the band-in-a-room studio approach the group took on 2016’s Weezer (colloquially known as the “White Album”) at producer Jake Sinclair’s behest. While that LP was nominated for a best rock album Grammy in February, Cuomo wasn’t satisfied with the music itself, which he thinks “sounded like 1994 all over again.” Considering that, what did he want out of Pacific Daydream?
“The same thing I always want, which is to –” he pauses, sweeps the café with his eyes, then whispers the next word through his teeth, “– fucking break away from who we are and what we have always done and try to figure out something that’s totally different but incredibly amazing.”
Weezer formed in 1992 during a time of grunge, the power-pop nerd answer to flannel and angst. The band loved a classic melody and treated distortion as a precision tool, not a mode. Its 1994 self-titled debut (the “Blue Album”) had songs about sweaters (“Undone-The Sweater Song”) and Buddy Holly (“Buddy Holly”) and was a massive success. Except, says Cuomo, “I remember feeling like, ‘Man, I think we’re the next Nirvana. We’re a serious, important artist, but everyone thinks we’re just this quirky, fun pop band. What do I do to change people’s impression?’”
Famously, he wrote 1996’s Pinkerton, a darkly introspective follow-up that initially flopped commercially and critically, but is now — along with its predecessor — considered one of the greatest albums of the ’90s. Maybe that’s why these days, says Cuomo, “when we hear fans of the early music getting upset by what we’re doing, we know we’re on the right track.”
Today’s Weezer is better suited to courting new, younger fans. In addition to obsessing over playlists (Spotify’s New Music Friday is also in heavy rotation) and adopting modern recording methods, Bell says touring with Panic! at the Disco in 2016 opened his mind to using samples. The sum of all that is heard on Pacific Daydream, from the neatly cut arena guitars of “Mexican Fender,” to the Justin Bieber-evoking dolphin cries echoing in “Happy Hour” and disco-kissed trop-pop of “Get Right,” on through the downcast hip-hop swing of closer “Any Friend of Diane’s.” Walker says the only influences he openly discussed with the band were vintage: the clanging urgency of The Clash, The Police’s genre-muddling, the ambitious pop of ELO and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound (“Sweet Mary”). But those pulls blend well with today’s top 40.
Even “Beach Boys,” a song about loving the music of its namesake, sounds contemporary and revelatory, like Cuomo hanging out with a bunch of teens and hipping them to their new favorite band: “I’m a remarkable guy/I’ll keep you trying new things/I’ll keep ya young,” he sings. As it turns out, the line came from a winter night when he and Bell went door-to-door in Los Angeles’ Echo Park caroling “with a bunch of 20-something girls.” It was one of Cuomo’s lyric-generating experiments, like the time he joined Tinder looking for platonic dates.
?“It’s just this idea of, keep trying crazy new things,” says Cuomo. “Stay alive, stay young, do the stuff that’s terrifying.” He actually sees loneliness as Pacific Daydream’s most consistent theme, though aging also seems to be a concern: On “Sweet Mary” he has “one foot in the grave”; for “La Mancha Screwjob,” the “clock keeps ticking on like it’s [his] own private time bomb.” Bell aside, the men of Weezer are all married with children. Cuomo has two: a girl, 10, and a boy, 5. He submits that as a lifelong outsider, “getting older is just another way in which I don’t fit in.”
“I think a lot of people can identify with that,” says Bell. “Everyone’s middle-school experience was pretty awful. If it was great, that means you probably peaked at seventh grade.”
So is middle age the new middle school? “In a way, it’s worse,” says Cuomo grumpily. But when pressed, he relents. He’s known for possessing an eternal boyishness — in his looks, social media acumen and certain lyrics that reflect an adolescent naïveté — and Cuomo has no need to be seen as an elder statesman. “I guess I’m happy to be who I am,” he says. “I’m grateful I’m a weird, unique character in the history of rock. I’ll take that.”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 28 issue of Billboard.