A 90’s Los Angeles Exception: Brian Bell of Weezer

Lee Phillips interviews Brian Bell of Weezer on obsession, music, making it Los Angeles and everything in between.

Story by Lee Phillips
Illustration by Megan Schaller

When Brian Bell was 18, he did what most young artists did: he flew the coop. Leaving his beginnings in Tennessee, the Weezer guitarist landed in a city where he was just another face in the crowd of thousands of people ready to scratch their names into history. Los Angeles in the 90’s: a mix of clashing cultures topped with a sense of urgency and sprinkled with the feeling that anyone could make it. But not everyone did. Brian Bell was one of the exceptions. 

Despite this, the first thing I noticed about the musician as we chatted was his laid back air and humble attitude. 13 albums in with Weezer (the “Black Album” being the latest among them) and Brian still has “never stopped studying music and trying to get better at it.” It seems that despite his decades spent in LA, Bell has not succumb to the infamous depravity of fame (which Bell might probably laugh at, claiming that he’s not even all that famous).

Yes, he’s got stories. Like running from fans on Weezer’s first ever tour, or Hugh Hefner’s 80th birthday party at the Playboy Mansion, but he’s also got a lot of perspective. Specifically, on the ways that the 90’s LA he threw himself into, starry eyed and hopeful, has morphed more into a culture of “celebrity worship.” What Bell has done in his career, but also in his presence as an artistic individual, is chip away at the facade of obsession that crowds so much of what we call art to get to something very real. It materializes in his music, in the way he spoke to me and in the way he moves. 

As I admitted to him (more emotionally than I would like to say or than shows up on paper) it’s hard to see that movement when it’s all around you, and when it’s covered by “image obsession,” in Bell’s words. It can feel like that environment of artistic urgency and collective meaning making exists in the romantic past, or that it never existed at all. It seems to me, that it’s wherever you work hard enough to find it, or put it into the world yourself. Now going into his 33rd year of making music in LA, Brian Bell is showing us what that commitment looks like. It’s more than obsession, or at least it’s all the good parts. 

Can we start by talking about your new album, “The Black Album?” The title is so funny, I thought it was going to be like some dark evil music but the songs are actually very uplifting. What’s your favorite song? 

That’s what everyone thought, including the band. “The Black Album” goes back a few years to when we were making “The White Album,” it’s basically songs that didn’t make “The White Album.” For whatever reason, we wanted that album to have a beachy feel. Because the opposite of white is black, there was a folder called “The Black Album” with all the songs that didn’t make it. “The Black Album” is more Los Angeles City themed, not dark, but more of a city vibe not a beachy vibe. 

Why did you choose to put it out on vinyl as well as digital? 

Well, there’s a resurgence with collectors, but also I think the sound can be better. There’s so many factors. There’s also a beauty in a record collection and holding a record and taking it out of the sleeve. You have 12 square inches of album art to look at instead of a little icon on a screen. It’s so easy to press play on a Spotify playlist, but I honestly do hear a difference, something about analog can, without being too esoteric, move the cells in your body more. 

It’s a vibration you can feel with your whole body, not just your ears.

It’s scientifically proven. Analog sound waves are continuous, digital soundwaves are snapshots. The better the digital, the more snapshots, but it’s still snapshots. So even though our ears can’t perceive it, our bodies can feel it. It can feel the difference. Digital might be crisper, but you will miss that warmth. For the most part, it’s a combination of nostalgia, the artwork, and wanting to hold it. When I have a good record I want to just bring it into my chest.

As artists we have a drive to be able to hold what we’ve created from inside of us. We want it to be something we can hold, because it comes from something intangible. 

And don’t underestimate the act of searching for music––going to a record store and looking through bins. You can discover music in a way that’s so rewarding. 

Yea, it’s more of a physical process that way. In a conversation with Beats Magazine you said that people tend to care about old Weezer more than what you’re into now. Why do you think that is? Why are people so obsessed with the past? 

My dad is a geographer and is doing research with an English professor on the music they grew up with during their years. They’ve coined a term they call “The Bump.” It has to do with your memory between the ages of 15-22. It’s the music that you like the rest of your life, that you can remember 100 song lyrics to 50 years later. I think Weezer was that for a lot of people. I also think what you’re listening to now is just as important. Weezer’s music has changed because we’re constantly listening to new stuff, we don’t want to just repeat ourselves. Some people are seeing that now and seeing that it’s a good thing. 

It’s not fair when audiences expect the same sound from musicians—artists are allowed to evolve. Is that ability to adapt what has allowed Weezer to keep making music?

I think so, we’re constantly writing. Rivers [Cuomo] writes every day and always has more to say. Also, I never stopped studying music and trying to get better at it. New Weezer records are an accumulation of years of work.  

In one of the songs, “Living in LA,” a lines reads “you sacrificed your life for rock n roll.” Did you do that when you moved to LA—you were 18 right? I can imagine you were struggling. 

Sometimes the lines in our songs go in one ear and out the other, but now that you’re saying it, absolutely. That’s what “The Black Album” is, the struggle of being 18 and on your own. You’re dirt poor but it doesn’t matter because you’re so full of life and possibilities that failure is not an option. You have to be so naïve to think, “Oh! Of course I’m going to make it.” I had so much stupid belief in myself, thank god I did. 

You can’t have a Plan B.

It’s not that I wasn’t scared, I just knew that I couldn’t not try. I said to myself, “if I don’t make it by the time I’m 25, I’m definitely going into the academia world.”

You would have given up at 25? 

Maybe. I mean, I was in a band. I was touring London with my band Carnival Art and all over Europe in the 90’s. We had put out records with a label called Beggars Banquet. It was the shoe gaze era of music and I got to see so much and so many amazing artists. I mean, we weren’t all that great but we opened up for many amazing artists. 

You opened up for The Pixies right? 

Swerve Driver, and all these dope English bands. I mean I toured more of Europe with that band than I ever did with Weezer. You grow up fast in that. I remember some guy telling me that the whole paying your dues thing is a croc of shit, you’re either going to make it soon or you won’t. I felt like I had paid my dues. So when my band got dropped and everyone went on to other projects I was like, “Well am I going to stay in LA? Am I going to back to school?”  I was in another band called Space Twins with my girlfriend at the time and Weezer knew about us, so when I came to a Weezer show, I think even Rivers was a little starstruck about us. I said to Rivers, “why are you playing this awful place on Sunset Strip? Why aren’t you playing the cooler places?” And he just said, “well, we don’t know anybody.” So that’s how we first met. I was thinking that Space Twins would play with Weezer and get some of their audience, and he was thinking he could use me to break into the underground LA scene. That same week Weezer called me, and Rivers takes the phone out of Matt [Sharp]’s hand ‘cause he was stalling and goes, “Hey dude, wanna join our band? We’re recording in New York.” I played hard to get for a little bit, but I knew they had a great song called “Say It Ain’t So.” The next thing I know, I’m on a plane to New York. I remember walking into their hotel room, they told me I had to grow a moustache for the first album cover. When I walked into Pat [Wilson]’s room, where I was gonna sleep on the floor, he said “Welcome to Weezer” and then he turns around and moons me. The next day we went to Electric Ladyland, Jimi’s studio. They were recording “Wayne’s World” at the time, and someone had gotten control of something and had changed it to read, “Weezer World.” As soon as I walked into those doors, I knew that my life was going to change. 

I’m thinking of all the little moments that had to happen to lead to that one phone call from Rivers—do you believe in destiny? And what would you say to someone who was waiting for a moment like that, a big break, and is thinking that it may never come?

I’m not so sure I believe in destiny so much as I believe in energy and that you’re not going to find something you’re meant for if you’re not looking for it every day. To that 18 year old kid, the paying your dues is a croc of shit, but what isn’t bullshit is hard work. That destiny came from the hard work. If I hadn’t put in all that energy into music school and then getting into my first band and all those tours, Weezer never would have heard of me. 

One thing you mention a lot in interviews is Al’s Bar, what about that place was so special?

Funny you say that, one of the songs on “The Black Album” is called “Al’s Bar.” That’s where I played my first show with Weezer. It was Al’s Bar and Rodgies. Rodgies is where you see all those pictures of Nirvana hanging out. They were the two underground spots where all the hair metal that was going on at Sunset Strip was happening, where the counterculture scene was happening. When I came out to LA when I was 18, one of my first friends was Larry Mullens who ended up playing drums for Iggy Pop. It was my first introduction to the underground scene, and cause I was underage those two bars were the only bars I could sneak in. I never had a fake. I didn’t care about drinking but I went to see live music every night. [Weezer] played a historic show at Al’s Bar before I was even in the band.  Al’s Bar was a pretty hip crowd and Weezer came on stage in full beach boy outfits, striped shirts. Knowing them they probably didn’t even fit. People were just like, “what the fuck is this Weezer thing?” I remember standing in line at Jabberjaw, and some guy was like ragging on Weezer and Radiohead and I was like, ”First of all Radiohead is great.” But I defended them before I was even in the band. But that shits still going on, if you read the forums, that SNL skit. But it’s always rubbed people the wrong way. 

The best things do. What was the energy like in the underground LA scene? I feel like there was a sense of urgency that is lost.

Yea, there was a sense of urgency. I saw so many first shows at Jabberjaw: Nirvana, I think Rage Against the Machine had their first show at Jabberjaw. But I don’t know if I felt that way because I was so young. I was wide eyed, in wonderment of everything. Everything was cool. Or was it actually all really cool?

I think it was, because I’m trying to find that around me now. And I don’t know if I’m inside of it but I can’t see it because I’m inside of the fish bowl. But I feel this need to be connected to this sense of artistic urgency. I’m always asking myself what our generation is creating for. 

One of the problems is that when I was in high school, people weren’t taking photos of every moment, you were living it. Now we have cameras on us all the time, people are capturing everything but only to promote some sort of lifestyle. It seems like it takes the soul out of things. It’s a problem of timing maybe, and how it’s all about instant gratification. Because of all of that, there’s more of a gatekeeper to getting our stuff out there.

Curating an “image” is a prerequisite for having any kind of influence now. You have to have it or you’re not valid. 

But then again, when I go see younger bands, clubs here and there, I’m pleased with what I’m hearing. Sometimes I’m asking, “are they better than we used to be?” So yea, you might be in the fish bowl and not able to see all the exciting stuff that’s happening, but it’s also over saturated for sure. 

How did you transition from “just moved to LA, starry eyed, underground,” to, I don’t want to say fame, the selling millions of records and a more Hollywood, commercial setting? Was it hard? How did you navigate that? 

I remember the moment that it happened. I was standing with Rivers, it was our first tour. We were in Rhode Island at some state fair. Our videos had just come out so we were newly recognizable. We were standing there watching people run towards us just absolutely terrified. It was like the calvary coming at us from across the hill. We were like, “Run! RUN!” Rivers goes “fame kind of sucks.” And that was the first time any of us had even said that word. It was a bizarre phenomenon and I didn’t like it at all. I had a moment of identity crisis where I was like, “is this what I’ve been working towards my whole life? Is this what I want?” I tried to change my appearance because I didn’t want to be recognized. I had this moment of depression where I thought people only wanted to be around me because of who I was or my lifestyle. It was really hard, I thought that the only people who really cared were people I had met before this all happened. That’s not true either. I use to never tell people I played for Weezer, but now I’m just like “yea, that’s my band.” I’m proud of our accomplishments. I’m proud that we’re still making music even. I like to think that we’re still relevant. I don’t think we would be asked to play Coachella 2019 if we weren’t. There was a time when I was worried about that though. We’re not just a legacy act. 

You and Weezer have been putting out music consistently since the 90’s. You’ve seen so many cultural phenomena come and go, especially living in LA where everything is so image saturated like we talked about. In your eyes how has the concept of pop culture and celebrity changed? 

Everyone has their “15 minutes” now. We kind of hit on that in the “Pork and Beans” video. People are making millions on YouTube. It’s all so distracting. Some of my happiest moments are when I’m inside a book. It’s all so depleting. I feel like my vocabulary has weakened my imagination. 

But in the early 2000’s, were you aware that all that was happening? Or was it the fishbowl effect? 

Celebrity worship is a new thing, that started in the early 2000’s and has grown more and more. It’s a little sickening. If Kim Kardashian is spotted at Erewhon, it’s becomes a madhouse. Erewhon is this health food store where all the Instagram models hang out. It’s the strangest place, it’s like a sociological experiment. 

It’s interesting that you use the word worship because that’s really what it is. There have always been “famous” people that we look up to in culture and revered or respected for their craft. But worship is different, and some people beg the question: “What are we even worshipping?”

As Pat says, “they’re famous for being famous.” And I never got why people acted so different around famous people. Except that I did see Al Pacino in a restaurant once and I was like, “fuck that guy has starpower.” I remember seeing David Bowie at an MTV Awards or something, I mean that guy was a star, he was something different. Fame is a whole nother level of trouble. Getting recognized by strangers is bizarre. That’s just not my personality. Thankfully, I’m not that recognizable and the only people who care are like hard core fans.

One thing I love about being a writer is that it’s a name, not a face.

That’s the best case scenario. 

Craziest LA music scene story? 

After Weezer did the Beverly Hills video at the Playboy Mansion, like six months later we went to Hugh Hefner’s 80th birthday party at the Playboy Mansion.

I bet that was fucking insane. 

It was a pajama party. All the girls were in lingerie. People [were there] like Owen Wilson and Bill Maher. I remember I was in the bathroom, and Lindsey Lohan was there, and I had brought some guys from The Relationship, and we were all in the bathroom and Mark Hamill was there, the guy that plays Luke Skywalker. And we got in the weirdest conversation. Mark was like “wanna know the secret to keeping a relationship together?” and we were all like “yea, yea, tell us.” And all he said was “Don’t cheat.” That was the sage advice from Luke Skywalker.