The Quasi-Religious Roots of Weezer 

Notes on the spiritual and religious background of one of the biggest acts in American rock.

Last week, Marc Maron’s popular WTF podcast featured his interview with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. Over the course of his 500+ interviews, Maron has quietly become an exceptional religion journalist — seriously, he hardly ever lets a guest go by without digging into the person’s spirituality — and his conversation was Cuomo was no exception. And since Weezer’s new album drops today, and since it is reportedly just as personal and meta as their best work has been, it’s worth quickly noting a few quasi-religious features of this legendary American rock band and their enigmatic lead singer.

The cult following

The label “cult” describes fan bases that are especially avid and obsessive, but One Direction doesn’t count — we tend to reserve the term for bands not in the mainstream. Weezer’s self-titled 1994 debut, known as “The Blue Album,” was the perfect alternative to rock’s big grunge moment. Supported by a couple of unforgettable Spike Jonze videos (especially “Buddy Holly”), it sold nearly seven million copies worldwide. But the followup two years later, “Pinkerton,” became a notorious flop. Not long after, Cuomo went into a funk of near-Brian Wilson proportions, painting his walls black and fitting his windows with black fiberglass as he locked himself away in the pursuit of the perfect pop song.

In 2000, the band got back together to play some shows, and they discovered thatPinkerton” had become an underground hit. While Cuomo has continued to experiment with various musical forms and lifestyles to mixed results, Weezer has long taken care of their cult in a variety of ways, including inviting fans to bring instruments to shows and recording the results, asking fans to download song demos and offer feedback, and, on The Weezer Cruise, setting to sea.

The ashram upbringing

Rivers Cuomo’s parents were part of the first Zen center in the United States, based in Rochester, New York. When his parents divorced, Cuomo and his mother moved to Connecticut and joined an ashram led by Swami Satchidananda — the guru who was the first person to take the stage at the Woodstock festival in 1969. Cuomo lived there for seven years beginning at the age of four.

Cuomo told Maron he “believed as much as a kid could believe” in the guru’s teaching, and he spent those formative years doing daily mediation in school and “karma yoga, which was basically chores.” Eventually, young Cuomo went the way of 1980s metalhead, but he’s since rediscovered his spiritual practice anew.

The Pentecostal bishop father

Here’s a familiar Weezer bridge:

Dear Daddy, I write you

In spite of years of silence

You’ve cleaned up, found Jesus 

Things are good, or so I hear . . . 

That’s from “Say It Ain’t So,” and is one of many Weezer songs about fathers and sons (the new album has a whole suite of songs about fatherhood). More specifically, this one is about Cuomo’s dad, from whom Cuomo was separated for many years.

Cuomo and his father reconnected since “Say It Ain’t So,” and as Cuomo explains to Maron, his father is still very much “born again.” In fact, he’s a bishop in a Pentecostal church in Marina del Rey. Cuomo says that while he and his father have different beliefs, “I love going to see him preach. . . . It’s so passionate and musical.” His father’s sermons are high on Pentecostal showmanship, with a band playing underneath the entire sermon. Cuomo says he’s picked up notes about state performance from watching his dad preach.

The celibacy and abstinence

As has been widely noted with considerable shock and awe, Cuomo practiced celibacy for three years, from 2003 until his wedding night in 2006. These years coincided with a great deal of touring and success for the band, but the vow was a pretty consistent move for a guy who wrote a song called “Tired of Sex” (the opening track on “Pinkterton”) at the height of his fame:

Cuomo also does not drink alcohol or do drugs.

It’s easy to read Cuomo’s asceticism into many moments of the Weezer catalogue. Take the sound of “The Blue Album”: Cuomo’s favorite music was heavy metal — Kiss, Quiet Riot — and he could shred guitar along with the best of them. But Cuomo says that for their first album, Weezer wanted to create a “very, very intentional” sound. So, as Cuomo tells Maron, the band decided to “restrain ourselves as much as possible.” No wa-wa bars; no palming or picking. The band adhered closely to the construction of this style: “We would beat each other up if one of us accidentally played something a little shreddy,” says Cuomo.

The meditation

Every year, Cuomo spends 30 days at a silent meditation retreat center, where he devotes all day every day to vipassana meditation, a mindfulness practice of focusing on the body’s sensations. Cuomo told ABC’s Dan Harris that he also meditates for two hours each day and that the practice has helped him come alive for his stage performances by helping him to face his fear.

Vipassana has been Cuomo’s practice since 2003, when he first tried it at the behest of music producer Rick Rubin. He credits vipassana with restoring order and balance to his life. As Cuomo writes on his website:

The benefits come on two levels: First, I see the fear, as it arises in my body, as a physical sensation and when I recognize fear as just a physical sensation, I am less likely to let it run my life. I can say, okay there is the fear, and here is what I am going to do. And at the same time, the more I practice this detached observation, I find that the initial physical sensation of fear subsides and goes away, and then I’m just left feeling very pure, and I can do whatever I want. It’s very cool. It’s benefiting those around me too, I think. The band’s having more fun and the crowd is definitely having a lot more fun and yeah, I enjoy what I do now.

Patton Dodd
Written by