Weezer’s Brian Bell on geek-rock stigmas and Spike Jonze’s scary giraffe

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 25, 2002

By Steve Newton

Weezer is one band that really knows how to turn a simple riff into a monster hit. The American power-pop quartet pulled that trick off to career-making effect in ’94 with its hooky single “Buddy Holly”, then did it again last year with the whimsical three-minute ditty “Island in the Sun”. But that smash hit from its second self-titled CD, aka The Green Album, almost wasn’t. As guitarist Brian Bell explains from the group’s L.A. home base, Weezer songwriter Rivers Cuomo nearly left the song hanging on a wall.

“He had a bunch of songs written on a piece of paper and taped to his wall,” recalls Bell, “like a number and the title, basically. They seemed to mean nothing to him other than a catalogue number. So when he was finally showing me some of these things, I was like, ‘Play me this one, “Island in the Sun”,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, well, it’s not a Weezer song.’ And whenever he says that I know it’s one of his better songs. So I made sure that he played it, and sure enough it wasn’t a Weezer song, but it’s one that [producer] Rick Ocasek really fought to get on the record.”

Not only did “Island in the Sun” help make The Green Album a huge success, it spawned not one, but two music videos. The first one, picturing the group performing on a front lawn at a Mexican wedding, didn’t impress the programmers at all-powerful MTV, so the band got Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze to shoot another one, showing the members cavorting in fields with a bunch of wild animals. Strangely enough, it wasn’t the brown bear or black panther that gave Bell the most cause for concern.

“The giraffe was actually the wildest and the scariest,” he reveals. “They’re extremely strong, and the legs of a giraffe can kick at 90-degree angles, so if you got hit by his leg you’d die. It just started taking off, and it seemed like it was running right at me. It looked like it was floating in the air when it ran.

“Spike had done a Coke commercial, or Levi’s or something like that, where he used a giraffe,” Bell continues, “and I was a little bit psyched out because I overheard the PAs [production assistants] who did that commercial go, ‘I can’t believe he’s using a giraffe again after the last incident!’ Supposedly they had a giraffe running through the street, and it just ran wild and pulled the trainer, like, three city blocks and broke both of his legs.”

Bell survived his own cinematic brush with the high-headed beastie, and the resulting video joined forces with the one for “Hash Pipe” to help push sales of The Green Album to nearly two-million units worldwide. That was a lot more than the previous CD, 1996’s self-produced Pinkerton, which moved just over 900,000 copies. That album was viewed by segments of the music press—including the influential Entertainment Weekly—as a failure the band might never overcome, although Bell doesn’t quite see it that way.

“I don’t even know why they [critics] have a say in these things,” he states, “unless they actually made a record themselves. I think any time you get to record a record, it’s a success for a musician. Your songs got recorded and will be heard by somebody. That’s success.”

While “Island in the Sun” is still garnering heavy airplay in Europe, the band is starting to see North American radio take interest in “Dope Nose”, the first single from its upcoming fourth album, Maladroit. In advance of that disc’s scheduled release next month, the group plays the Pacific Coliseum on Friday (April 26), with exceptional singer-guitarist Pete Yorn opening. Local fans can expect to hear powerful new tunes like “Take Control”, “Slob”, and “Slave”, which—while credited to singer-guitarist Cuomo alone, like all Weezer songs—benefited from Bell’s creative input.

“I came up with a lot of background melody hooks and guitar hooks and things like that,” he points out, “so I was definitely a big part of it.” While Cuomo is prone to hoard all the credit for Weezer’s material, it’s not as if he forbids his fellow guitarist from taking any solos. “I let him play the solos, actually,” asserts Bell. “I like to listen to him solo; he’s a shredder. My soloing would be like a Cure solo or something. I just come up with parts that are kinda defined.”

One thing Cuomo doesn’t mind sharing with Bell is interview duties. The Weezer frontman has made it clear that he’s not big on conversing with the press, and Bell’s not thrilled about it either. “I can’t do more than two [interviews] in a day,” he says. “I mean, I’ve done more, but by the third one I’m very irritable. How long can you talk about yourself before you explode?” On that note, a chirpy publicist cuts in on the line and asks if I’ll wrap things up with one last question. Caught off guard—it’s not often that some clock-watching third party decides when to wind things down—I can only come up with: “So what’s your favourite colour?”

It’s no surprise at all when, without hesitation, Bell picks green.

Brian Bell sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.

On the band’s reluctance to deal with the press: “I don’t even know why we do interviews, because all that information’s on the Web site [www.weezer.com/]. If I was at the record company I’d just tell ’em, ‘Look on their Web site and write about that.’ ”

On the success of the band’s KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) approach to music: “I always appreciate simple riffs. They’re definitely harder to make interesting than complicated ones.”

On the significance of the title of the band’s upcoming CD, Maladroit: “I had to look it up in the dictionary myself. It means ‘inept’ or ‘awkward’. It’s another one of our geek-rock stigmas.”

On how he handles the rigours of the road: “Naps are great. And espresso. And I love going to cafés and walking around, going to bookstores. I plan on doing that in Vancouver.”

 

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