“I know some people think I'm a weirdo. I'm working on it.” How Weezer's Rivers Cuomo learned how to embrace life following a near-death experience

Rivers Cuomo
(Image credit: Simone Joyner/Getty Images)

Next week, Weezer will embark on a UK arena tour supporting Smashing Pumpkins. In summer 2010, their frontman sat down with Louder's Paul Brannigan to discuss how he and his band had rediscovered their mojo and learned to embrace life anew following a horrific coach crash. This interview has never been published online.

Louder line break

December 6, 2009 will forever be imprinted upon River Cuomo's brain, because, for a time, Weezer's frontman thought that might be his last day on earth. At 7:18am on that winter's day, the tour bus on which Rivers was travelling with his wife Kyoko, his daughter Mia, his assistant Sarah and Mia's nanny hit a patch of black ice on the I-90 freeway outside Albany, New York, ploughed through a guardrail and plunged down 10 feet into a muddy ravine at the side of the road. Remarkably, the driver managed to keep the bus upright, but sleeping in the back lounge - "the deluxe VIP sleeping area for the lead singer", as he wryly describes it today - Rivers was thrown from his bed, ending up on the floor of the bus, unable to move, unable to speak and barely able to breathe.

"I was frozen on the floor and I couldn't even lift my head," the 40 year-old singer recalls. "At that point I thought, Maybe I'm on the way out here, maybe I'm going to die. I had limited sensory information and I was utterly powerless. And it actually felt kinda peaceful. A little sad, but not scary."

As he lay surrounded by broken glass, staring at the ceiling, Rivers was aware of the commotion around him. He was relieved to hear Kyoko's voice, and overjoyed when he heard that two year-old Mia was unharmed. He was still conscious as local firemen cut through the metal bars covering the bus' rear window, still conscious as the emergency team lifted him into the back of an ambulance bound for a hospital in Amsterdam, New York. And then everything went black.

The crash left Rivers with three cracked ribs and internal injuries. He knows it could have been a lot worse.

"I think I'm the kind of person that doesn't have many illusions about the permanence of life," he says, "but it definitely underscored for me the fact that any moment could be your last. Any song I write might be my last, any vocal I record could be my last. So it's extra important now that I should give everything I have and say everything I want to say."

You can hear Rivers' new-found lust for life in his band's exuberant, effervescent new album Hurley, their eighth studio collection. Today, on the eve of Weezer's first UK gig in five years, their frontman is in London's Metropolitan Hotel on promotional duty for said album. As I step into a hotel suite ahead of our interview, he's having his photograph taken, and the photographer's assistant asks if he might fancy hearing some music while he poses.

"Something upbeat," is his suggestion. "Weezer maybe?"

It's hard to know if the singer is joking or not. Erring on the side of caution, no-one laughs. That’s because Rivers Cuomo comes with a reputation, one which has him labeled as a temperamental, ‘eccentric’ character. Today there is little evidence of that guy. Polite, charming and courteous, and looking barely a day older than when he first burst into public consciousness in Spike Jonze’s video for Weezer’s debut single Undone – The Sweater Song back in 1994, the singer might look every inch the all-American geek uber-lord of old in his black-framed glasses, button-down shirt and yes, tight-fitting sweater, but as he speaks, it’s very clear that in 2010, Rivers Cuomo is a man reborn.

I thought, Maybe I'm on the way out here, maybe I'm going to die

Hurley is the third Weezer album in three years yet it took your band 10 years to make its three albums to come out: what’s going on?
"We’re just enjoying making music. And happily, we still have a fan-base that enjoys hearing our music. So you’ll be hearing a lot more from Weezer in the years ahead. "

Does your record deal with Epitaph allow you to release as much music as you want?
"Actually, it's even less restrictive than that. We don't have a real record deal with them, it's just a licensing deal: we own the record Hurley and we've licensed it to them for five years. They have no other rights over Weezer. We'll just be doing whatever we please."

Do you like how the music business works in 2010?
"For someone of my generation who came up when the music business had a very clear rulebook, and where everyone knew what you had to do to succeed – and you knew what the metrics were to tell you if you were succeeding or not - for someone like that, the current state of the industry can be very unsettling and confusing and disheartening. But personally I actually find it really exciting. Because all the rules have been thrown out. It's really hard to even know if you're successful or not now, because no-one sells records anymore. It just feels like everything is in complete flux and it's a time for crazy experiments. Weezer has survived so long and our fans are so supportive and interested in us and interested in sticking with us no matter what crazy things we do, that it gives us a feeling of security. If we screw up, we're still gonna be alive the next day."

That seems like something of a theme on Hurley.
"Well, on one hand we're very proud that we've survived so long, but Weezer exists only because of the fans and the day they decide they're not interested in us anymore we'll cease to exist. And that could happen any day."

But you'd still write songs, right?
"If no-one wants to hear them? [Long pause] I don't know. For me, it's so much about connecting to the audience and telling them what I think and seeing how they react and if no-one was interested... I don't know if I'd keep going."

But bands always say, 'Even if the album sold one copy we'd still do this...'
"Hmmm, I know that some musicians say that, but... really? If there was only one person listening I'd be so discouraged I'd quit. "

Do you still have nerves about what you do, or are you confident enough in your own abilities now that you feel like you’ll always deliver?
"I'm kinda obsessive by nature and a worrier by nature but after all these years, and still feeling all that support from the audience - I feel like my obsessiveness and worry is greatly diminishing and I can just have more fun now."

Things like this didn't always seem like the most comfortable experience for you...
"That's true. That's very true. Interviews used to be very difficult."

So what changed?
"Hmmm... I hadn't really thought about it. Sometimes I might not connect with a journalist or he might have some kind of vendetta against me and it turns out terrible and the interview ends up causing more harm than good for Weezer. But if you keep giving your best every day over time it'll end up being positive and you'll be able to connect to your fans better and nurture that relationship through the media."

A few years ago, you contacted a UK music journalist with an out-of-the-blue apology for an interview that had gone badly: what prompted that?
"Well, when I started doing really long meditation sessions I'd be trying to meditate and then all these incidents from my past started coming to my mind and they wouldn't let me be, they wouldn't let me concentrate. So that was just one of the incidents that kept coming to my mind, like ,Wow, I was really going through a hard time and I took it out on him and other people at that time, and if I just apologised I might feel better and I could probably move on with my life. So I did, and er, that's exactly what happened. I don't obsess about bad behaviour in my past now."

Why did you get into meditation?
"I felt like my creativity was drying up and my spontanaiety and love of life was drying up: the flexibility and looseness of my thoughts was getting hard and I was thinking formulaically. It was [producer] Rick Rubin who suggested I try meditation to loosen things up. And I thought it wouldn't work because I need my angst to make music so I said, No at first. But then a few months later I felt like I'd tried everything else and I might as well give it a shot and see how it went. So I snooped around online and tried a few different techniques and ended up finding a serious 10 day course in a technique called Vipassana. And after 10 days of that I felt like this was really going to help me. And I've been doing it ever since."

Do you have a guru or is this something you can do at home alone?
"I practise two hours a day at home. And then once a year I go to a 45 day retreat... "

45 days?
"Yeah. And I just practise all day long.”

What sort of resources had you been drawing upon before this? Were you in therapy?
"Well, the number one source of inspiration for me was always romantic conflict. I just found myself in one crazy destructive relationship after another and after a while it just started to feel... repetitive. It was like, I keep hurting myself and somebody else in the exact same way, there's gotta be a better way here. That was one of my means of stimulating my creativity. And then there was illicit substances, self-deprivation, fasting..."

Did you have eating disorders?
"No, I never felt like it was an eating disorder, it was more like just punishing myself physically and mentally to the point where I'd consider writing a song about it. "

Not necessarily the healthiest way to find inspiration...
"No, not at all."

Did you have a low point during this time?
"There was a turning point. The end of 2002 was a period of just massive self-indulgence, and I was out at a Hollywood club one night doing who knows what with who knows whom, and when the club closed down I knew some people there so I was allowed to stay inside with a few friends as everyone else was ushered out onto the street. So I was just inside the door when suddenly there was all this commotion outside, and some people got dragged back into the club. They'd just been shot and they were bleeding and in obvious agony. So I was standing there in the midst of these downed people and I was thinking, This isn't where I want to be, there's got to be a better lifestyle to support my creativity."

Do you think marriage and fatherhood has changed you?
"Yeah. I feel like these basic needs that I always had - physical needs and emotional needs and relationship needs - all that is so satisfied now, that I end up having so much more time and energy to focus on making music. And also just being around a toddler all the time is just so inspiring, to see how spontaneous and fun they are. And also having to be a father I have to get into this mindset where it's not all about me: I have to be supportive and entertaining, even if I've had a tough day. A toddler doesn't care, they just want you to love and entertain them."

Your family were on the coach last year when it crashed: that must have been such a horrible  experience.
"Actually at the moment of the crash it wasn't as scary as you might think. Many times I've been on the bus when it's swerved and it's felt like we were gonna die but nothing happened, and so that's what I figured was happpening this time. But over the succeeding weeks and months then I started to look back on it and feel more scared, like, Wow, that was actually pretty traumatic. It's made me much more wary about bringing them out with me."

The UK hasn’t felt much Weezer love in recent years: are you deliberately avoiding us?
"No, it’s just comes down to cost benefit: we have to weigh up how much demand there is for us in Europe relative to how much it’s going to cost us to be out there, then factoring in all the risks. And often it just seems like it’s a better ratio in the States. I’d love to play everywhere, but unfortunately there are realities to this life."

It seems like I'm not really as skilled at managing my reputation as some other artists are.

Do you care at all how you're perceived?
"Yeah, like some people might think I'm a weirdo?"

Well, yeah, not to be rude, but people view you as a bit difficult and, let's be honest, weird.
"Yeah, it seems like I'm not really as skilled at managing my reputation as some other artists are. I know some people think I'm a weirdo. But I think once people get to know me most people like me and find it easy to relate to me. But being a high profile musician people don't really get to know you, they just get first impressions or distant impressions and a lot of times that's been pretty negative about me. It does matter to me. I wish I was better at it and I'm working on it."

Reading your interviews from 10 years ago, you didn’t come across as a person many people would want to get to know…
"Yeah, you know it's amazing how much of what I said in 2001 and 2002 still comes back to haunt me to this day. Boy, you realise that there are consequences to what you do and say. Now I have to tell myself, Don't be a jerk. It was a tough time. That was when I was first really faced with the internet: up to that point musicians like myself couldn't see into the minds of every single person in our audience like you can now - there was some buffer between ourselves and all the criticism out there - but in 2001 and 2002 I was confronted with that for the first time, just firestorms of negativity and criticism and I didn't know how to deal with that yet."

If you look back at yourself 10 years ago, could you have a drink with that Rivers Cuomo?
"Hmmm, I’d feel like that guy is my little brother and I'd see that he has the right intentions but he's going about it all the wrong ways. I'd definitely want to bro down with him and see if I could help him at all."

Famously you’re considered the King of the Geeks: do you recognise that person as you?
"I think it must be true that I am an representative for outcasts, because its something I never set out to do: I never thought of myself that way, so it can't be an act. When we made our first record, the Blue album, I saw myself in a completely different light: I thought we were going to be the next Nirvana, that we were going to be taken very seriously as an angst-filled rock band. And I was completely shocked and surprised and disappointed when we put the record out to find that the press story was 'This is a band of geeks. Revenge of the nerds!' That story had never occurred to me. But it was universal around the world, that's what everyone said about us. So I guess it must be true. I just don't fit in and I don't even realise it. Put me in the wider society and I stand out as a misfit."

And are you happy with that, if that's to be your epitaph?
"Yeah, I think I am. I'd probably have rather been the next Kurt Cobain, but it's so great to get onstage and see 10,000 other misfits and see how much they appreciate what we're doing. The idea that we can provide people with this feeling of catharsis and community and revenge is the greatest thing."

Kurt Cobain met an untimely end: given your own self-destructive nature what stopped you taking a similar way out?
"Well, I always felt like, as crazy and unbalanced as my life has gotten at times, there was at least a tiny little place inside my mind that was balanced and rational and calm, almost cold, and it would protect me and keep me from going completely over the edge. I think that's what saved me."

This article originally appeared in print in an extended form in Kerrang! magazine, issue 1330, in September 2010.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.