Weezer in ’97-’98: Indecision and Abandoning the Past

I originally wrote the following in 2010 for a Weezer-related blog that doesn’t exist anymore. This was written before Death to False Metal, Mikey’s Facebook posts and the release of the Pinkerton Diaries. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

“…and tomorrow we go to LA to make our new record”

Rivers Cuomo spoke these words to a Boston audience on January 14, 1998. With Pat Wilson manning the drums, Weezer’s fans, both those in attendance and those who would later hear the show through tapes and MP3s had reason to be optimistic. Sure, Pinkerton wasn’t a commercial success, but for the band’s fanbase, it was the perfect album. There was some discord among the band during the post-release promotion and tour schedule, but here, in Boston, half of the band was on the same stage, playing together once again. And while Rivers slowly began to distance himself from the Pinkerton material, fans were pleased with these new songs.

Indeed, Weezer was off to Los Angeles to make a new record. But Weezer’s third record wouldn’t hit stores for another three years, during which time the band lost and gained a bassist, the fanbase would swell thanks to filesharing and Rivers Cuomo and his music would each undergo dramatic changes.

This is not the story of the third album, 2001’s Weezer (The Green Album). Rather, this is the story of Rivers’ final months in Boston through the time the band ceased recording in the fall of 1998. Just as information from this time period is sparse, so is the musical output. As Karl Koch put it, the band “refused to let their management even hear what they were doing for the most part, and shared only a small fraction of the music then or since.” Pat calls the time period “one of indecision and abandoning the past.” This is an attempt to explore the time period using the little available news from the era, along with the words of the band and their friends, and to shed some light on one of the most fascinating (if only because little is known about it) periods in Weezer history.

In August 1997, Weezer returned to the United States after supporting No Doubt and headlining their own shows overseas. The band had been through a heavy period of emotional turmoil; dealing with the reaction to Pinkerton, members wanting to focus on their side bands and the deaths of fanclub founders (and some of the band’s earliest supporters), sisters Mykel and Carli Allan and their sister Trysta.

Rivers in Boston, 1997Even though Rivers would write in his diary that at this time, Weezer was “more of a team now,” the band was ready to take a much-needed break from touring, recording and each other. Karl suggests that one of the main holdouts was bassist Matt Sharp, who wanted to focus on continuing production of the second Rentals album in England. With some time to himself, Rivers returned to Boston, intending to resume classes at Harvard. However, instead of going back to school, Rivers focused on his music. Faced with the realization that he needed to rework his songwriting style, Rivers chose to focus on structure.

“”Good structure” was what, I concluded, the music of the trance bands and Oasis and Nirvana had and Pinkerton didn’t have,” Rivers wrote. “Whereas Pinkerton was all wildly expressive , with non-repetitive and highly developed lyrics, chords and melodies, “well-structured” songs exhibited an economy of ideas-just two or three ideas, contrasting perfectly, and positioned perfectly in relation to each other. The perfect verse, the perfect chorus, the perfect bridge. ” That’s all one needed. Repeat three times. Done. So easy. That’s what the listener wants. How could I have been so stupid? Of course Pinkerton had to fail.”

According to the Catalog of Riffs, Rivers’ first batch of songs written in Boston included Fun Time, American Girls, 1,000 Years, Autumn in Jayne, Stay There and Never You Mind. This was soon followed by a group of 12 more, including The Prettiest Girl in the Whole Wide World, Rosemary, Baby, Ol’ Backwater and Little Sister.

Good structure wasn’t Rivers’ only goal. Lyric-wise, he took a more minimalistic, less personal path. In describing Lover in the Snow in the liner notes to Alone, Rivers said he tried to write fantasy-based songs, which ended up being just as powerful as his emotional songs. Another composition, The Prettiest Girl in the Whole Wide World, also benefited from this treatment. While he had written the chorus (based from a personal experience) months earlier, he still needed verses. He used this idea of a fantasy setting once again and it paid off.

“I wanted a perfect (and minimalistic) structure-restrained, simplistic, and repetitive,” Rivers wrote. “As I wrote the verse, I strummed only one chord, a B chord, over and over, and limited my playing to just that. What could be more different from Pinkerton?”

As he described it in a 2006 fan interview, much of this material was “drone-y Romantic.”

Future Weezer bassist Mikey WelshFans had a chance to hear the material for themselves in October 1997, when Rivers played some of these new songs for the first two of his Boston shows, joined by a backing band including future Weezer bassist Mikey Welsh. However, a month later for his third and fourth shows, he switched up not only the band’s lineup, but material. Rivers dug up some of his older songs, “goofy” material that had never been considered for Weezer, including Hey M’Darlin, Sheila Can Do It, Think About You, Wanda, Sunshine O and Hot Tub. While it was clear that these songs were not in the running for Weezer’s future albums, Rivers recorded a professional demo of these songs with his backing band before abandoning the “Homie” project.

For one final Boston show on January 14, 1998 Rivers went back to the new songs used in his first two Boston shows. Prior to the show, Rivers and Pat had been talking and both expressed interest in trying new material. With Pat on the drums, Rivers played Rosemary, The Prettiest Girl In The Whole Wide World and Baby, along with Weezer favorites Getchoo, No One Else, Say it Ain’t So, Undone and Only in Dreams.

After that show, Rivers and Pat headed to Los Angeles and the story gets murkier. The classic Weezer lineup got together one final time in an LA studio to record American Girls, with Matt Sharp serving as producer, and Rivers, Pat and Brian Bell performing vocals and instruments with some other musicians, including members of Cake and Soul Coughing.

As 1998 started, Weezer was ready to get back to business. Rivers Cuomo and Pat Wilson had managed to find some musical common ground. But the remaining members of Weezer would need to find something else: a new bassist.

During the winter of 1998, there were rumors persisting that Matt Sharp had left the band, to concentrate on the second Rentals album. To replace Matt, the band initially brought in Pat Finn, a friend of Rivers, Pat and Karl Koch from their pre-Weezer days. Finn was with the band for a few weeks, and Pat Wilson says he contributed to a jam session or two. “It was ostensibly a try out that lasted quite a while,” Karl says. “Although actual music playing was rare in that period, and he thought it was going well, but then Rivers apparently changed (or finally spoke) his mind and somehow finally indicated Pat wouldn’t be a good fit.”

Karl, who stayed on the East coast for much of the year, heard some of the material later and says that the success of these sessions varied, depending on who you talked to. “Finn thought it was pretty great sounding, Wilson seems to think it didn’t work sonically, but he liked having Pat around as a buddy,” Karl says. “Rivers liked Pat personally (always has), but was being cryptic and eventually seemed to decree that Pat Finn was not the way to go. He is eventually sent back to Portland, probably pretty confused and disappointed.”

At the time, Pat Finn was one of the few sources of actual news for fans, posting several times to the alt.music.weezer newsgroup. In some of his first postings, Pat hinted that unlike Pinkerton, Pat Wilson and Brian Bell were involved with writing the new material:

i went out to l.a. to play bass. things went well and the music sounded great but for vague reasons rivers decided i was not the man. all the while everyone is saying how matt is too involved with his own project to be in weezer, like i could be the new bassist for weezer.

-Pat Finn, alt.music.weezer 2/5/98

i think the idea for the new record is to be more like the blue record. it seems it will be less operatic than pinkerton, which i mean as it will have a steadier groove and less dramatic parts than pinkerton. also pat is much more in the songwriting process, like the first record.

-Pat Finn, alt.music.weezer 2/20/98

Karl’s recording history only mentions the band working on two new Rivers compositions during the winter of 1998, Baby and The Prettiest Girl in the Whole Wide World, both songs familiar to fans from the Boston shows. However, these songs were abandoned shortly after. With Pat Finn not working out on the bass, the band brought in a few other musicians to play, but the eventual bassist was a friend of Rivers’ from Boston.

“At some point Mikey [Welsh] calls and says I want to try,” Karl remembered. “Rivers challenges, says just because we had fun in Boston doesn’t mean you’ll get preferential treatment. But Mikey is in fact picked after a trial period in LA.”

Mikey contributed immediately to the band. According to Karl, Mikey was “partly responsible for the ultra heavy “Everyone”” and other “Fu Manchu-like” songs of this period.”

With Mikey as part of the team, things seemed to get moving, but official news from the spring onward was sparse at best. Aside from a few items appearing in music media at the time, fans got their Weezer information from an irregularly-updated page maintained by Pat Wilson at the Rebel Weezer Alliance and Pat Finn’s postings on alt.music.weezer.

With each update, Pat’s page shared a few sentences on what the band was up to. Pat shared two song titles, Damn that Wine (written by Rivers in February of ‘98) and ‘Ol Backwater (written by Rivers in Boston the previous fall). Pat also hinted that the band was changing up traditional Weezer instrumentation, with one picture of Rivers at a piano. Additionally, Pat posted snapshots of him and Mikey riding around in Pat’s cars and the band just hanging out.

Rivers, Mikey and Pat lived together, and according to an infamous video interview with Rolling Stone recorded two years later, Mikey and Pat admitted to getting stoned (with Rivers) many nights that summer. The influence of illegal substances may have even carried over into Rivers’ songwriting. In the Catalog of Riffs, Rivers denoted several songs written in July of 1998 as “TKX” demos. In the Recording History, Karl notes the TK stands for TK Production Studios in West Hollywood, with the “X” standing for another influence. According to Karl, “I dont know if this is actually true, but i do remember at one point Rivers said it meant “ecstacy”, as in under the influence of. He may have been messing with me though.”

Regardless of what they did in their own time, the men of Weezer wanted to give the impression that they were serious about recording their third album. In an interview with VH1, Pat gave the impression the band was approaching the recording process more responsibly than they had on Pinkerton. One major change was the band was looking for a producer.

“We’re working hard and getting along well,” Wilson said. “Each day is a happy event for us. We’re like water; we flow around obstacles and problems. Note to producers: We’re not dickheads anymore, we’re earnest, happy young gentlemen.”

According to Pat Finn, studio time was booked for June and expected to last through September. Instrumentation and a final tracklist still remained to be worked out.

weezer is still in l.a. practicing with mike. pat wilson is practicing singing while playing drums, which should be pretty cool if they do it live. apparently there is not a full album’s worth of songs written yet so i’m a little concerned about the recording that is supposed to start next month, but i’m sure they’ll get it together. jen wilson said she really likes the new songs, i liked them too so we are all eager to see what the record is going to sound like.

-Pat Finn, alt.music.weezer 5/9/98

so i got to go out with rivers a few times and sort of find out what is going on down in l.a. from a perseptive other than pat. the main word is that”we’re ending up doing what we always do” which can be interpreted a lot of ways, but mostly it means rivers got his marshall back out, but he is still using the fender vibro-king in a stereo chorus set up. rivers said it sounds huge and

seemed real happy about it. other than that pat, rivers and mike are living together in a three bedroom apartment just working away. pat has said they are committed to staying in l.a. till the record is finished, which the early guesses are for september. pat is happy with his new songs which he says are very different from the special goodness songs.

-Pat Finn, alt.music.weezer 5/27/98

After taking a trip to France to catch some live World Cup action, Rivers returned to Los Angeles and Weezer continued working through June and July, with Weezerfanclub.com providing a peek into the daily life of the Weez:

a typical day for them includes many hours at their studio, playing together as a group practicing new and old material, or whoever is needed for the given times. rivers goes back to the studio alone, later at night [usually] to practice and write music. he plays a lot of piano and keyboards. speaking of which, they are including some new sounds in this album, with a few keyboard-type instruments that he picked up.

-weezerfanclub.com 7/98

And seemingly, in July, the tracklist issues worked themselves out. As Pat teased on his page:

Rivers had a big freakout and wrote like 25 songs. This should guarantee the completion of a record this year.

Pat Wilson, Weezer.net 7/16/98

Many of these songs that Rivers brought to the band were in the form of rough demos. According to Karl, the rest of the band ”played and to some extent developed them. The part that got frustrating is that Rivers kept bringing in more songs and the rehearsals piled up and it never turned into “ok were ready, lets make the 3rd album”. I don’t think Rivers was ready, he was still searching or not sure or whatever at that time.”

Regardless of the pace of Rivers’ output, he would later regard these songs as “experiments.” As he wrote in his Harvard re-admission essay six years later; ”Throughout 1998 and 1999 I engaged in hundreds of song-experiments. I filled notebooks and cassette tapes. I drew graphs, tables, and charts. I studied other writers’ methods. I took hundreds of pages of notes on the creative process, mostly from Nietzsche, but also from Goethe and Stravinsky.”

Not only did he draw on philosophers for inspiration, but his musical influences included the likes of The Beatles, Oasis and Nirvana, bands which Rivers felt had perfected the pop formula. In the wake of Pinkerton, he was simply looking to do the same. However, in addition to this new approach, Rivers also opened up the band to performing songs penned by Pat and Brian.

In August, the band headed into LA’s Mouse House Studios, with the goal of recording a cover of the Pixies’ Velouria. Not only did they record this gem, but they also attempted three other songs, new Rivers compositions, Everyone, Trampoline (which got two takes, both a “sped up” and “normal” version) and Disco Queen. Another notable song from this time period was Cherry Berry (or Cherri Berri), a song the band would revisit during sessions for the Green Album. According to Karl’s Recording History, ”apparently, the “non-Velourias” didn’t come out too good. This is apparently due to the songs being somewhat unfinished at the time of recording.”

A great deal of these songs would be described by Karl as “rather aggressive. Riff oriented rock, things you would later see developed into some of those SS2K aggro songs like Dope Nose. “Everyone” was an example of that. as was “Cherry Berry“. But then there were the more slow tempo “big huge Oasis rock” style songs, like “Trampoline” I think. But a lot of it was not developed well and thus does not hold up today.”

Even with Rivers’ prodigious output of new songs since the August before, in late summer of 1998, the band still seemed unable to settle. Rivers cataloged more than 50 songs in his COR between February and November of 1998, with a large number written during what Pat described as the July “freakout.” Yet whether it was a choice of songs, instrumentation or something altogether different, Weezer never officially moved out of the demo-making process.

Rivers would later say in 2004 he considered the songs he developed during this time to be “song-experiments.” In a fan interview conducted in 2006, he would say that the songs took a turn from “quasi-Oasis in early 98 to abrasive dissonance in mid-98 to riffy pop-rock.”

Still, Rivers’ growing output was not necessarily a good thing for Weezer. While they spent many months learning and rehearsing new songs, there was still no apparent goal. Karl says “communication was limited, confusion grew and frustrations built up.”

Even Pat Finn’s earlier rosy outlook on the sessions had changed by the end of the summer:

i thought i’d convey the not very much info i got from pat wilson’s call to me the other night, which was mostly talk about recording music on computers, which pat is doing on his laptop with cubase audio, doing mostly loop based stuff. this week they should start demoing songs. there has been abundant creativity that has necessitated some editing. apparently there has been some serious (aggressive) rocking going on.

-Pat Finn, alt.music.weezer 9/3/98

they are making demo recordings of the songs they think might be on the new album. the band has been swinging to and fro with different ideas, as usual. the demo process will start locking things down and give them something to play prospective producers.

-Pat Finn, alt.music.weezer 9/11/98

they aren’t in the studio yet, if you mean are they recording music that you will hear. they haven’t even got a producer yet. still much flux. things need to be hashed out.

-Pat Finn, alt.music.weezer 9/15/98

In July of 1998, Pat Wilson reported on his Web page that Rivers Cuomo had written more than 20 songs for Weezer’s third album, which the band had been working on since that spring. Pat optimistically added that this slew of songs would guarantee the completion of the record by the end of the year. However, just a few short months later, the band found itself spinning its wheels in the studio and rather than developing these new potential Weezer songs, Rivers wanted to devote the band’s time to learning old Oasis and Nirvana songs.

Karl Koch suggests that Pat got fed up with the lack of progress. “But then there’s a lot of nothing going on, a few rehearsals and Wilson gets frustrated when it turns into learning Nirvana and Oasis songs. He goes back up to Portland, says call me when you are ready to get serious.”

For the next few months, Pat would focus on his band, The Special Goodness. As he wrote on alt.music.weezer in March of 1999, despite it looking like the band was on the same page earlier that year, when it came time to make music, the band was getting nowhere:

first, when we got off the road with no doubt, rivers wanted to keep touring but the rest of us needed a break cuz we needed to do something a little more rewarding on the creative side. i can see how this can be interpreted as whining about our success but after a while you just want to do what makes you happy. so, matt kind of melted into the rentals and i went home to write songs and rivers started playing with people in boston. right after that xmas, i went to boston to play with rivers and see if this was going to work anymore.

we seemed to find some common ground and we played a show that went well. so we decided to move back to la and find someone to play with if it wasn’t going to be matt. we found mikey and started to jam all the time but after a while it became apparent that (at the risk of speaking for mikey and bree van bri) we didn’t have much in common creatively or personally so i went home to concentrate on the sg.

and that’s pretty much where this is at right now.

i used to wonder why bands couldn’t just shut up and play they’re damn music. it seems so simple! what’s the big deal?! you’ve got a sound now will you please just rock?! well, i wish it was that simple. so, when rivers is ready to make his record i will go down and play until it doesn’t make much sense to do so. in the interim i am fully committed to the sg because it’s fun.

Pat Wilson, alt.music.weezer 3/17/99

To keep the creative spark alive, or perhaps to just keep working, Rivers, Brian and Mikey teamed up with drummer Todd Phillips, an acquaintance of Mikey’s and played two shows that November as Goat Punishment. The first show, played in Hollywood, was made up of a number of cover songs from Nirvana’s early catalog.

Later that month, Goat Punishment played a second show in Santa Barbara, this time, covering a number of Oasis songs from Definitely Maybe, the English band’s first album. Not only is this show not as well documented as the first Goat Punishment show, but most of the fans that showed up to see the band were kicked out of the venue by police. While Mikey and Brian stayed in LA, Pat was productive back home in Portland.

“Mikey rides out the storm, not wanting to lose his new found place. waits around at the apartment he shared with Rivers for a long time,” Karl says. “Wilson meanwhile in Portland gets The Special Goodness underway, starting with the 17 Nautical Miles show that summer (Pat Finn on bass at first, perhaps in part to make up for it not working out with weez in LA the prior summer, but by the fall tour, Mikey on bass, after Mikey was off writing with Juliana Hatfield and playing with/nearly marrying and/or getting killed by the lead girl in the band Verbena).”

In the midst of the band’s changing identity, Rivers also changed around his living arrangements. As Pat Finn posted on alt.music.weezer:

rivers apartment now contains a bed, some c.d.’s , a c.d. player and a tank with a chameleon in it. no computer. so i can say whatever i want because he can’t check up on me. plus he painted his room black

Pat Finn, alt.music.weezer 11/19/98

Rivers also immersed himself in LA’s adult soccer leagues. His new pastime, along with eccentric lifestyle later gave rise to rumors posted on Spin’s Web site that the Weezer lead singer was homeless and/or having a mental breakdown. However, Rivers was still focused on making music. In Crazy One, later released as part of 2007’s Alone, Rivers actually used inspiration from a personal event (a relationship gone bad) as the basis for a song written in a traditional pop form.

It would later be clear that Rivers was not finding fulfillment creatively and was about to take some serious steps to find focus. Or as Rivers would put it in the Alone II liner notes, “by the beginning of 1999, I had not managed to write any songs in which I felt any confidence, despite having devoted all of my time and energy to the effort since August, 1997. My band-mates each were pursuing other projects. Weezer’s manager and record company rep stopped calling me regularly. Friends and family grew distant. I encouraged the space so that I could be alone. I determined that with enough concentration and effort, I could analyze my way out of the predicament I imagined myself to be in, the predicament of “poor songwriting.””

Another factor that may have added to Weezer’s uncertainty at the time was something that was completely out of their hands: a business merger which would shake up the music industry. In December 1998, Seagrams acquired Polygram, which consolidated the two companies’ music holdings. In the wake of the merger, a number of bands lost their record deals. Weezer was not one of them, but there was still a lot of nervousness about the issue. ”As far as i knew there was anxiety,” Karl says. “Brian has commented specifically that he was worried. I know Pat was nervous about the future. No one knew what the label would do for a while there. Rivers has never spoken much about it, but its safe to say he was concerned, while probably simultaneously a bit “bring it on, ill survive and figure something out”.

At the end of 1998, Rivers cut himself off from the world to do what was necessary in his eyes. To come up with the perfect formula for songs, Rivers ignored all mass media and confined himself to his apartment for nearly a year, thinking he could analyze his way back into writing songs he felt would be hits.

Eventually, however, I became more and more isolated. I unplugged my phone. I painted the walls and ceiling of my bedroom black and covered the windows with fiberglass insulation. I disciplined myself to an extreme extent. My goal was to purge myself of all weakness so that I could write “perfect” songs as reliably as a machine.

Rivers Cuomo, Harvard Readmission Essay, 2004

Rivers cataloged not only the music and lyrics to his new songs, but also transcribed the situation under which each song was developed. Rivers would later say in his Harvard readmission essay that this scientific approach, combined with his seclusion was necessary to “cure myself of the Romanticism which I believed was to blame for my failure.”

Karl agreed with Rivers, saying his solitude and experimentation was instrumental to get him to move on. “In 1999 Rivers is now at the “blacked out apartment” on Sepulveda, mostly working alone on the multitude of demos and rambling tapes at TK productions in West LA. In a way this is Rivers’ low point, but he as always works through his ideas and comes out the other side with

something new, and a desire to get things moving again,” Karl said. “Rivers eventually emerges from the sludge and by early 2000 has written a lot of great stuff. This plus the big offer from Japan spurs new sessions in May that lead to SS2K, warped tour, and finally the Green Album.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the songs that Rivers wrote and the band developed during 1998 were forgotten. One song, Cherry Berry, which Karl would classify as a “rocker” that “deserved fresh attention” was revived during sessions for 2001’s Weezer. Another, The Prettiest Girl in the Whole Wide World was re-worked and released as part of 2010’s Raditude. But the rest were left behind, something Karl says is no big loss. “There are clear standouts, but I’d say many of the standouts have been either tackled by Weezer already, or put on an Alone CD. But there’s a few more good ones left for more excavations. The “heavy”/riff stuff gets repetitive and unfocused in my opinion. I feel the SS2K stuff was the proper refinement of that era, better attempts at the same thing, with much better melodies and vibes.”

As Rivers was cooped up in his apartment perfecting his brand of pop, Pinkerton and the band had gained thousands of new fans through filesharing and word-of-mouth. Soon, after Rivers would share the results of his year-long effort with his associates in early 2000, the band would be back together, touring and developing Weezer’s long-awaited third album. Unfortunately, the music made by the band in those in-between years would be left behind.

Thanks to Karl for answering my questions and to Pat Wilson for a well-timed walk-in. Also thanks to Rivers, Brian and Mikey for sticking together despite everything that happened (or didn’t happen) back in ‘98.

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