On the first day of July, American pop rock stalwarts Weezer graced Utrecht with their first live show in the country since 2017. With their latest record The Black Album almost eclipsed by the hysteria of their covers record (The Teal Album) – whose origin story involved a petition for one song and ended up becoming a full LP – the band’s cover of Africa by Toto has reintroduced them yet again to a new generation of fans. While some cannot look beyond their first two albums, Weezer have gone on to release eleven more as they reimagine Weezer’s core elements in a variety of styles. They’ve never been unafraid of controversy and seem to relish in lightweight online trolling where the lines between reality and self-parody are often blurred and unclear. Steven Morgan sat down with guitarist Brian Bell for a chat ahead of the band’s show at the TivoliVredenburg on a hot summer’s day.
Hello Brian, good to meet you.
I hope you have gifts, I got these t-shirts from the last journalist.
Well it’s funny you should say that, because now I’m going to have to think about something in my backpack that I can give you. So these are your gifts?
These are my gifts. KINK, heard of it?
The logo looks familiar?
It’s a radio station.
Aaah, OK. You see this is the problem when you’re not a Dutch person living in a country where people speak Dutch.
Where do you live?
I live in Nijmegen, which is in the south-east of the country, but this has got to be one of the easiest countries to live in if you don’t speak the first language.
Why’s that, because everyone speaks English?
That’s it, and when you attempt to speak Dutch badly, someone will respond to you in English.
People here are really nice, and it’s such a beautiful country.
I know, right!?
Our drummer (Patrick Wilson) loves it here. Any time off that we have in Europe, he’ll spend in The Netherlands.
Specifically? OK, and not just for getting stoned?
Well no, we can do that now in California.
Very good point, you all live in California, right?
Yeah, and also we don’t smoke weed anymore.
Fair enough, it is bad of me to assume. Whenever you say to someone that you live in the Netherlands or are visiting, that’s their first assumption.
I’ve noticed that the youth in the Netherlands couldn’t care less because it was legal. The only thing that was really cool about it was the fact that it wasn’t legal and then you’re getting away with something.
Yeah, such a blasé attitude, like it’s no bigger deal than eating a sandwich.
Well, I don’t want to speak on behalf of all Dutch youth.
Of course, of course.
I mean, some great things have come out of that stuff…
Ok. You guys are here in The Netherlands on a European tour off the back of the Black Album.
Well yes, there’s a Black Album, but I don’t think we’re playing one song off it on this set.
Not even High As A Kite?
Not even, though it might be in the algorithm that chooses our setlist.
There’s an algorithm that chooses your setlist!?
Yeah, one that Rivers wrote.
Oh of course, because he does programming.
He does, yeah.
What is that based on?
He would have to tell you the situation, but I know there’s parameters and things like no two songs that are in the same key or tempo, and no two songs next to each other from the same record, that kind of stuff.
Oh my god!
Supporting the Black Album there should be a Black Album song written in there, maybe a few, but I don’t know.
So you’re not privy to the choices. Is your opinion part of the algorithm’s parameters?
I’m sure if I really stated a strong opinion, I’d be able to choose certain things.
It all sounds very Black Mirror.
It is kind of Black Mirror.
(Robot voice) You guys are playing this set tonight. Good luck.
It keeps things interesting; you can’t get too comfortable. There’s always going to be some new song where you think “I haven’t played that song in three years, I’ve got to remember how it goes!”. After this interview, I need to reacquaint myself with Holiday from The Blue Album.
You guys have got three albums in the pipeline whose releases are imminent, right?
There’s two. There is a third thing, but I can’t talk about it. One is more finished than the other. They’re both very interesting and I’m very excited for one of them.
Are these more high-concept albums?
Yeah, one of them is called OK Human which seems to be about technology and how it’s running our life.
Not just lyrically, but on the last few albums it feels as though you’re exploring specific musical themes, almost like an exploration into new genres.
Yeah. OK Human is unlike anything I’ve ever heard, unlike any other type of music and unlike any Weezer music. In the bass, if you really broke it down to its common denominator, it still goes one, four, five in a major key for the most part. That’s very Weezer, that’s very Sweater Song, but it does it in more sophisticated ways.
It’s funny you mention that, because I do find that even though you do all of these explorations in style, there’s still a distinct core that’s so identifiably Weezer.
I think the strongest element would be the sense of a catchy melody. It absolutely has that, especially since I was working on it, you’re just walking around going “Oh my god, I can’t get that out of my head”. But this is so much like ear candy, or earworms as we call them, that I don’t think I could ever get sick of it.
Is it true that Rivers has this backlog of a huge number of ideas and that you almost build the songs like Lego, sticking them together?
Yeah, that’s definitely happening. There are new ideas, but it’s also like, “Wait I remember that, that was the bridge of this song from 2001 that never made it”. We’ve always said that if it’s a good musical idea, then it’ll be needed for something.
What do you think has been the key to your longevity?
One of the key things is being semi-straight edge, not being burnouts. Not even being interested in partying.
Despite the lyrical content suggesting otherwise.
Despite the lyrical content suggesting otherwise, yes. It’s kind of weird but that’s not the only reason. We definitely have smart musicians in the band. We’re very different people that treat this more like a business than anything else. When we come together, we work hard, but when we’re not doing this we never hung out. We always had our separate lives and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all moved to LA from different places with the sole purpose of somehow joining or starting a band and making it in music. We didn’t come there with the band we grew up with and do that whole thing. People will grow apart. You have to find like-minded people with the same drive.
It’s interesting that you have such bold personality traits, like for example Rivers’s overt online presence while you’re-
Well, I don’t know how much of it is really him.
I was wondering about that.
For all I know it’s another computer program. A persona of Rivers that he wrote. It’s not like he’s hired someone to figure this out for him. He does it and he writes it and loves doing that. It’s really wild.
It’s so funny to hear how detached you guys are from each other, the fact that even as a bandmate you have to speculate as to what he’s doing.
“Hey Rivers, I need to review your code!”
So right down to navigation!
Navigation too, yeah. I mean, it’s not always been fruitful. Sometimes we’ll get to the airport 45 minutes early because the algorithm misjudged the traffic.
Right, but that’s still better than not being there at all.
We do take it seriously, we’re punctual, everything’s very punctual. I’ve done my own band and with those guys it’s like herding cats. We’re like herding cats too, but with other bands everything’s loosey-goosey, and it’s all on Spanish time and that drives me nuts.
I can imagine, I’ll bet it really makes you appreciate what you’ve got.
You really do when you have to do it on your own.
Rivers comes across as a strong personality in that way. Is one of the ways you guys make it work that the rest of you are so easy-going or malleable?
I learned a while ago that the way to really cope with some of the things that go on not just in this band, but in the music industry in general, is to not get emotionally attached to things. Especially musically. I remember getting really emotionally attached to something and Rivers was like “Don’t worry, it’s a great idea, we’ll just use it for something else”. That’s why with every album since the White Album I’ve been coming in with at least three ideas a piece for almost every section of the song so the producer can decide which part to choose. If part 8A gets replaced by part 9C then they’re making a puzzle piece of my ideas within the larger song. That’s one way I can cope with it. A common thread with a lot of it is work ethic, at least with myself. Pat has always just been a gifted, reactionary musician where he doesn’t work ahead of time. He doesn’t even listen ahead of time sometimes; he just plays in the moment and it works for him. That kind of thing would just give me so much anxiety because I treat a studio situation almost like a surgeon treats an operation. I also read and write music so I come in and I’m like “I have these ideas” and to get through them we end up doing four days of work in eight hours.
I guess you’ve been doing this long enough to streamline the whole thing and know how to get the best out of each other.
We do, yeah. I still think about the sound of Weezer the whole time, like “What is Weezer?”. Let’s go back to the tenets of the first record and when it used to be all downstrokes and we played a five chord, always in second position which means the fifth is in the bass and we would play. We’d play inversions and first inversions and there was a certain type of fingering instead of more full chord stuff. That’s sort of fallen by the wayside, but we still think about it in the back of our heads. We like distorted guitars, we all love the sound and we’re all about vocal harmonies and always about the melody. That’s been the common thread, especially the melody.
I’ve noticed that the algorithm seems to be picking very few songs from Pinkerton so far this tour, do you think that is an additional factor in the algorithm, specific to that album?
I like to think that it’s thinking what worked last time and what people want to hear. We played Pink Triangle, The Good Life and El Scorcho recently, so that’s a pretty big chunk of Pinkerton but we haven’t played songs like Falling For You and No Other One for a while and my favourite, which we haven’t done for years, Getchoo. I really wish we would.
But not enough to disturb the algorithm.
I guess we could push for it, I can absolutely keep pushing and be annoying or I’m not going to be happy, but that’s once again attaching an emotion to something and that’s been the key for my happiness, to not get emotionally attached.
It makes a lot of sense. What was your reaction to the SNL sketch made about you guys?
I watched it going down the night it aired because we were told we were going to be on SNL, and the first thing I asked was “Should we be scared?”. I thought it was just going to be some little blurb on the weekend update, but when that didn’t happen I thought “Oh shit, I think it’s going to be a skit”. When it came on it was so surreal, it seemed like time stopped. They were talking about Weezer and I literally felt sick. I felt ill and I was like “this is weird” but I thought that even if it comes off negative and I hate that they talked about Matt Sharp and all that stuff, I knew it was good for us no matter what the connotation. It gets people talking, that old adage that there’s no such thing as bad press and this is SNL.
It sounds like you weren’t too thrilled with the content.
Well it wasn’t so much that I was unhappy with the content, but more that being talked about on SNL as part of a skit. The whole thing going down was such a shock that it made me feel strange. I thought “this is a bizarre thing” and afterwards we talked to the writers and they said they wanted to do it months before with Jonah Hill but it just didn’t work out. The way Lorne Michaels works is that they have a surplus of skits and they just go with what’s working with the show, and somehow that finally happened. We’ve always had comedic fans like Fred Armisen and stuff. It’s just one of those things, and then things start snowballing and the more things you do, it leads to the next thing. We’re now in our blender or centrifuge machine, to use our own lyric.
I still don’t know what a centrifuge machine is but every time I hear it in the lyrics for Thank God For Girls I make this sign [mimes turning a crank] like yeah, you turn a crank.
Yeah, it’s like that, but a lot faster.
Oh, they spin around super fast right? Like in that ride at the fair with centrifugal forces.
Yes! Back to SNL, it’s a cultural cornerstone of so much American culture including massive parts that probably barely know who Weezer are. The level of detail they broke that sketch down to was mind-blowing, spanning your whole career. As flattering as it is, you must be a little tired with these seemingly endless repeated observations about the band from people who probably aren’t even listening.
When I stepped back from it, I saw what they were doing and it was that they were just reading our message boards. They were verbatim writing what they were reading on these message boards which I thought was great because the people writing on these message boards, particularly the ones writing negative things, need to see how ridiculous they sound and how obnoxious it all is! If you hate us that much, then why are you putting any effort into typing about us? I certainly wouldn’t do that to anything that I disliked. I was able to not become emotionally attached, take a step back and say, “this is about those people”. It’s not even about us, that’s the joke.
Do you ever get surprised and how many comments about how much your sound has changed? I mean fundamentally you’ve always crafted these short, catchy pop songs. It’s not like you had a baroque phase. Sure you’ll have barbershop moments and-
But we always did that, that’s always been our sound. That’s Weezer.