Music

Meet the Twentysomething Behind Weezer’s New Classic Rock Record

Weezer’s 15th record is all hair metal and Van Halen riffs, thanks to this millennial.

A woman with dyed purple hair wearing a white T-shirt faces the camera. She has a brown and white dog with a red collar on her lap, and she sits on a yellow chair. The background behind her is purple with lots of thin blue lightning bolts across it.
Suzy Shinn already has a diverse range of credits at just 26. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jessica Lehrman; art by Crush Music and Geffen Records.

I’m no music industry expert, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being more fun to hang out with in a recording session than Suzy Shinn. The two-time Grammy-nominated producer, composer, and engineer’s vibrant personality immediately draws you in (even via Zoom), and her dynamic storytelling qualities clearly aren’t contained only within the songs she creates.

Given her diverse range of credits—from Dua Lipa to Fall Out Boy—Shinn has already made a mark on the alternative, pop, and rock music scenes, despite being a relative newcomer to the industry. But the 26-year-old multihyphenate’s latest gig was a little intimidating: her first venture as a solo producer of a full LP would be with a band that’s been around longer than she’s been alive.

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Despite maintaining Weezer’s distinct sense of humor, Van Weezer, the band’s long-delayed 15th (!!!) album, is chockfull of bombastic anthems in the style of Poison, Slayer, and (naturally) Van Halen. It’s the kind of album I want to blast with my friends on a summer road trip, the kind that makes me want to queue up every tune ever produced by Shinn. But before I compiled that playlist, I gave Shinn a ring at her home in Los Angeles to hear her thoughts on working with Rivers Cuomo, the pure joy of making music, and how she inadvertently helped create the “Mayor Pete” dance.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Madeline Ducharme: To kick things off, how did you initially connect with Rivers Cuomo and the rest of Weezer?

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Suzy Shinn: It’s a funny story. I met Jake Sinclair, the phenomenal producer, writer, and engineer, at a Halloween party. I knew he was working by himself, and then one day he calls me and he’s like, “I broke my arm on my motorcycle.” His arm was in a sling. “Can you come in and help me run Pro Tools?” And it was just two days that first week: One day was with 5 Seconds of Summer, and one of those days was production for the White Album with Rivers and Weezer [released in 2016].

And that’s what kicked off a long relationship with the guys and Rivers. Over the years, they’ll say, “Hey, we wanna record something. Hey, can you help us out with this? Can you do this?” and it’s always a “Yes!”

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When you first began working on Van Weezer, did the band approach you with the sound they wanted to capture? What was that conversation like?

We were all at the [2019] Grammys. And nobody won from our group. But we were still there after: It was Weezer, I think Panic! at the Disco, and Fall Out Boy. There was also this band Ghost, who is more like a metal band, and I co-wrote a song on their album. And Rivers was like, “What? You don’t listen to pop music?” And we were talking and he didn’t recognize me for the first 20 minutes because I had makeup on, which I never do! I usually show up [to the studio] in leggings and a hoodie. Even Brian [Bell] texted me a week or two after and was like, “Wait, was that you at the Grammys?” But Rivers kept turning to me like, “So do you like guitars?” And I’m like, “Yeah?” And he’s like, “Do you like distortion?” And I’m like, “Yeah?” And he’s like, “Do you like metal music?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And he’s like, “… Cool.”

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So he just noted that for himself?

Yeah! Yeah. And then he was like, “What about Weezer?” And I was like [laughs], “Yeah!” And later I was working in the studio in the basement of Crush [Music] one day, and Jonathan Daniel, who runs Crush, came down and asked me if I wanted to produce an album by Weezer called Van Weezer, a very guitar-driven, Van Halen, ’80s metal album for this tour they’re gonna go on. I was like, “Of course!” while very calmly freaking out.

As soon as we got started, Rivers, who has so many demos, was sending me maybe 200 songs at a time, and then if I liked certain songs, he’d send me more like that or write new songs.

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Did you say 200, like 2-0-0?

It might’ve been more like 100, but it was a lot. I don’t want to misquote it, but he has hundreds, if not thousands of demos.

So you’re listening to all these songs and pulling out the bits and pieces that you like most?

Yeah, sometimes I’m like, oh my God, I love that verse, or that chorus is sick, but maybe the verses need to be different. Or like, this breakdown you have in the bridge of this demo can be put in a different song. Like, “The End of the Game” is a verse and a chorus from the same song, but the bridge is from an old demo.

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So many of the hard rock references on the album are very obvious homages to that hair metal sound and era. When you hear the “Crazy Train” riff at the top of “Blue Dream,” you know immediately that that’s the “Crazy Train” riff. Are there any more subtle references on the album that you think listeners might’ve missed?

There’s this one part in “One More Hit” in the pre-chorus that you kind of overlook, but it’s like a three-part guitar harmony that we did. You know, usually in the background vocal, you’d be like “Ahhhh ahh ahh” and what not, but we did it instead with these really cool guitar parts that the vocal’s then sitting over. It made a really interesting sound that I think is very ’80s. But for most of the album, it seems like you hear it, and you know the references. And we did that on purpose.

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One thing I love so much about Weezer’s music is how cheeky and self-deprecating a lot of their songwriting is. Even when they’re making music that sounds like Van Halen, it’s still pretty silly. How do you go about bringing that sense of humor in your work as the album’s producer?

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Oh yeah, that’s what I love about Weezer. They’re so smart and so funny. And the lyrics are—simple is not the right word—but you hear it, and you immediately understand what [Rivers is] talking about. And that [sense of humor] is just him.

When I’m in the studio, I’m trying to laugh, I’m trying to have a good time, because I think when you do, it shows up on the record. I swear to God, you can hear it on the record when someone’s not having fun or taking themselves way too seriously. Weezer knows how to have fun, and I just want to have fun with them. That comes out in the drum sound, and I think that comes out in the way Scott [Shriner]’s playing bass. I always say that I don’t want to laugh at you, but if you’re saying a line that makes me laugh in a good way, that’s awesome.

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Beyond Van Weezer, you’ve worked on some other big songs with artists like Katy Perry, Dua Lipa, Fall Out Boy, and Panic! at the Disco. I have to ask you about what it was like to watch a song that you worked on—“High Hopes” by Panic! at the Disco—become the Mayor Pete campaign anthem.

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It was crazy! I love that song so much, and I love Brendon [Urie] so much. I just remember one day that I was on Twitter scrolling through, clicking on a Mayor Pete thing, and I just saw everyone dancing, and I was like, “Huh. That’s ‘High Hopes.’ ” And someone was like “Yeah! That’s his song now!” It was so cool to see how one song can mean so much to people. If it makes you happy, makes you laugh, makes you cry, or saves your life, or becomes your dance song for your campaign, it’s what it’s here for. It makes people feel. It makes people human. So, it just makes me stoked. I laughed. I thought, “That’s sick!”

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Did you ever learn the dance and film yourself doing it?

No, I’m so bad at dancing! The last dance I learned was from Austin Powers in Goldmember. I was trying to get the Quincy Jones intro down and I was like, what am I doing? I can’t dance.

I’m curious to hear what you think of this renaissance of pop-punk that we’re in right now.

I am super here for it because, even if it’s a band or a version of pop-punk that I don’t love, or music I wouldn’t put on, I’m so happy, because it means people are playing instruments. They’re playing the guitar, they’re playing bass, they’re playing drums, and they’re probably sitting with an acoustic guitar, writing songs. It gets me so fucking excited for the future because I grew up on ’90s and 2000s rock and pop punk. I grew up on Warped Tour. And people will make fun of that music here in L.A.

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But now I feel so much more confident playing the guitar, because I can play power chords really good. If you asked me in 2005 or 2011 to play guitar, I would have been like, “You play the guitar. All I know are power chords, and power chords aren’t cool.”

But I’m really excited. I think it’s going to spawn a lot of great artists and a lot of really cool music, and I’m here for the ’90s alternative that I’m hearing more and more on records.

Who are some of your dream collaborators?

I would love to work with Jack Antonoff or Rostam. I love Lana Del Rey. I have this thing where, like, I want to work with everyone! I made a vision board, but it’s like, so embarrassing, so I’m not going to show it to you. But it’s like a bunch of bands. Courtney Love is on there, the 1975 is on there, Taylor Swift is on there.

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Right now, I feel like so many of our big pop stars or alternative stars all work with the same revolving door of producers, and I’m curious what it’s like looking at that door and seeing they all look the same: They’re all dudes, they’re all white.

I look at it, and I’m like “Yo, I look up to you. I love the music you make.” They’re all really good at what they do and I would just love to learn from them. If anybody called me up and asked if I wanted to help them out with something, I’d be like, “Hell yeah, of course I would!”

The impression I get from you is that you seem down for anything, everything, as long as it’s fun!

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With everyone that I work with, I really love the music and I really believe in them. And I want to be their biggest fan in a sense and just really push for great songs. So if it’s good people, if it’s really good music, and if it’s a good time, that usually leads to a great record.

What way are you most looking forward to experiencing music in the not-so-distant post-pandemic future?

I am just excited to be in a studio where it’s not like, “You stand over here, 15 feet away!” and we both have our masks on, and the windows are open. I’m excited to just be in the same room as an artist or a handful of people and have it not be weird, where I can kind of be at ease instead of this invisible wall that’s up.

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