The American musical icon discusses his new album, his Beach Boys legacy, his favorite Beatles records, the upcoming biopic about his life—and what it was like to sit in that sandbox back in the day.
BY MARCUS BLAKE
I’m not going to lie, like many people across the span of years and generations, Brian Wilson’s music means so much to me. I place him among my favorite songwriters of all time and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that. Wilson built a sonic landscape of California, fast cars, endless summers and girls all embellished with incredible production and breathtaking harmonies.
Along with millions of others, when I listened to Brian’s songs, I was instantly transported to the Sunshine State. I felt the “Warmth Of the Sun” on my face; I DID wish they all could be “California Girls” and I learned what a “409” was thanks to the Beach Boys.
It wasn’t all fast cars, surfing and the sand with the Beach Boys, though. As Brian, the person matured, the subjects and feel of his music changed and became more complex.
While the majority of bands and singers of the day were using outside songwriters and producers, Brian was THE songwriter and producer of the group, who put out eleven studio albums from 1962’s Surfin’ Safari to 1966’s landmark album, Pet Sounds. You could argue that 1963’s “In My Room” or the aforementioned, “The Warmth Of the Sun” were indeed some of the first glimpses of maturity in Brian’s songwriting in the what was light years (in 1960s album release time) before Pet Sounds. “The Warmth Of the Sun” perfectly embodied the feeling of loss and no wonder, it was written the same day as President Kennedy’s assassination.
Famously, the stress of producing, writing, performing on the records and doing live shows became too much for Brian and as the Beach Boys left Los Angeles for a concert tour in December 1964, Brian broke down. Shortly after, Brian decided if he wanted to make the sort of records that he had in his mind, he needed to retire from the road and focus on what he loved best- making records in the studio.
From 1964-1967 Brian was utilizing the finest musicians, later known as The Wrecking Crew, to help create perfect pop masterpieces like “California Girls,” “When I Grow Up To Be A Man,” “Let Him Run Wild” and “The Little Girl I Once Knew.” It seemed like his imagination could be set free without any outside interruption to make the kind of “mini symphonies” he heard in his head.
1965’s severely underrated Today album was the beginning of Brian steadily taking his sound to new, uncharted heights. If you don’t own it, get it. Really. “Please Let Me Wonder” is worth the price of admission alone.
And then there was Pet Sounds. Brian had created a masterpiece. There were no limits to his palette, both, in the choices of instruments he used and in the many styles of music that he created using those instruments. The accordion, the theremin, bicycle wheels, kazoo, banjo, glockenspiel, and even barking dogs…no instruments, played by some of the top musicians in the world I might add, were off limits.
Written in a competitive response to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, Brian, with the help of lyricist Tony Asher, bared his heart and soul on Pet Sounds. There was no turning back. There were still further musical heights to climb.
Is it wrong to assume that you know that the album forever changed the landscape of pop music? Is it wrong to assume that you have a vague idea of Brian wanting to make the greatest pop single ever with “Good Vibrations”? Is it wrong to assume that you know the rich history of the SMiLE album? Was Brian Wilson the first rock ‘n’ roll Icarus? Did he fly too close to the sun?
There are countless books, web pages and interviews with Brian Wilson on the subjects of Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations” and SMiLE. Each one of these subjects could fill their own books.
Contrary to what some people believe, Brian’s genius didn’t disappear when he supposedly retreated into a Howard Hughes-like existence towards the late 60s into the 1970’s. Although Smiley Smile was called “a bunt instead of a grand slam” by Carl Wilson himself when being compared to what could have been SMiLE, Smiley Smile is an incredible record regardless. The Beach Boys have never been so soulful on Wild Honey’s title track. 1968’s Friends has been referred as Brian’s favorite Beach Boys album and with good reason. There are hidden gems like “Wake the World” and “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” that deserve more attention than they receive. “Our Sweet Love” from Sunflower and “Til I Die” from Surf’s Up rank right up there with Brian’s greatest work for me.
Ah, “Surf’s Up.” The song was originally written with lyricist Van Dyke Parks for the aborted SMiLE album in 1967 but was eventually released on the 1971 album named after the song. Go to YouTube and look for Brian’s solo version of “Surf’s Up” from Leonard Bernstein’s landmark 1966 CBS-TV documentary special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. If this doesn’t give you goose bumps, I don’t know what will.
I could go on and on naming diamonds from Brian’s catalog of music… “Sail On, Sailor” from 1973’s Holland…the whole Love You album from 1977…most, if not nearly all of Brian’s 1988 eponymous solo album…all gems.
So, when I heard that Brian Wilson had a new album coming out called No Pier Pressure, I was curious. [It’s released April 7 on Capitol Records.] Then I heard some of the names of people who contributed to the album. I was happy to see that Brian’s old Beach Boys bandmates, Al Jardine, David Marks and Blondie Chaplin contributed to the album. But then I started to worry when I saw that rising country star, Kacey Musgraves, fun.’s Nate Ruess, She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, Peter Hollens, and Capital Cities’ Sebu Simonian also contributed. Was this going to turn into one of those cheesy, play-it-safe, yet super-successful albums like Santana’s Supernatural?
The answer is…no. Brian’s eleventh studio solo album is pretty good. Actually, it’s really good. The fact that Brian Wilson is making new music in 2015 is cool. Brian Wilson making a really, really good album in 2015? Yeah, I’ll take that, thank you very much.
In 2004 (has it been that long ago already?), Brian did what many never imagined by finally recording and doing shows of the SMiLE material eventually leading to him to piece together the original master tapes to release the universally acclaimed SMiLE Sessions box set. It seemed like he needed to get SMiLE out of his system to move on to other things. No Pier Pressure isn’t meant to be another SMiLE. If anything, it’s closer in spirit to Friends.
For the No Pier Pressure sessions, Brian reunited with longtime collaborator Joe Thomas, with whom he co-produced The Beach Boys’ reunion album That’s Why God Made The Radio. Following the band’s 50th anniversary reunion tour in 2012, Brian and Thomas took their time making the album. This was no rush job. Wilson worked to hone the arrangements, often assembling pieces from various takes, a signature style of recording he has enjoyed since his earliest sessions with The Beach Boys.
While the album’s opener, “This Beautiful Day” may be familiar sonic territory for fans of the man: a piano based introduction type song with lots of harmonies, the album quickly goes into unchartered territory with the following song, “Runaway Dancer” (featuring Sebu Simonian). It’s a modern sounding dance song mixed with classic Brian Wilson, if that makes any sense. It might not sound like the best marriage on paper but it’s actually really good. I’m sorry, I like it when the music of Brian Wilson challenges the listener.
No worries if you’re looking for the classic Beach Boys sound on No Pier Pressure. “Summer Nights,” featuring Al Jardine and David Marks wouldn’t be out of place at all on, say, 1964’s All Summer Long.
“On the Island” (featuring She and Him) is a nice, tropical ditty that makes think about me laying under a hut somewhere in the Pacific and sipping on a fruity drink. “Our Special Love” (featuring Peter Hollens) basically blankets you with the warmth of vocal harmonies the two men are known for. My personal favorite, “Don’t Worry” immediately sounds like I got transported in time to 1970, turned on my transistor radio and listened to top forty radio on my AM dial. “Tell Me Why” featuring Al Jardine has some pretty authentic Pet Sounds type of sounds on it, as does “Sail On,” which features not only another ex-Beach Boy, Blondie Chaplin, but the intro is a tip of the hat to “Sloop John B.”
I found myself listening to this album several times already. It’s not one of those “listen once and file away” type of albums.
Out of the blue, I get this email from a friend asking if I would like to interview Brian at the iconic Capitol Records building. I was given only 15 minutes to talk Brian. With only hours to prepare, I immediately delved into listening to No Pier Pressure while simultaneously trying to think of a mix of questions about his latest album, the upcoming biopic film, Love and Mercy, songwriting and producing and of course, all things Beach Boys.
Brian Wilson isn’t the easiest guy to talk to, given his past struggles. A lot of his answers are one-word responses and we blew through my first page of questions in just a few minutes. As you’ll read, Brian is fond of answering questions with a solitary, “Right” but, it didn’t matter; I just wanted to make Brian feel at ease just like he’s made me feel at ease by listening to his music for most of my life. Yes, like I said, the man who once sang that “he wasn’t made for these times” and his music mean a great deal to me and I was doing my best to avoid being like Chris Farley when he interviewed Paul McCartney in that famous Saturday Night Live sketch.
Two things happened during the interview that I thought would never happen: (1) Brian sang part of “God Only Knows” to only myself in the room at the Capitol Records tower; and (2) I got to take a selfie with the guy who came up with Pet Sounds. Fun Fun Fun!
There’s a line of Indian wisdom printed on the back cover of the Smiley Smile album: “The smile that you send out, returns to you.” Brian, I send that smile back to you.
BLURT: Congratulations on your upcoming release…
WILSON: The movie (Love and Mercy)?
Your album, No Pier Pressure but, yeah, the movie too. We’re here in the iconic Capitol Records building here in Hollywood. How does it feel to be back at Capitol Records, where it all started?
It’s kind of like a sentimentality thing for me. You know, because we made our first couple of records here.
You must have so many memories every time you come back here. You’ve done Beach Boys recording sessions in the studios here.
Yeah, there are a lot of memories involved, yeah.
Let’s talk about the present first. No Pier Pressure is a great new album. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at its diversity. Can we talk about each of the songs?
Sure, ah, like the song, “This Beautiful Day”?
It’s an experiment with harmony and I think we did very well.
It’s a nice way to start off the album.
The harmonies are tight and good.
It’s got a positive message.
Right, it’s got a positive message. “Sail Away” I thought was really well done… with (ex-1970’s Beach Boy) Blondie Chaplin, (ex-Beach Boy) Al Jardine and me. There’s a song called “Saturday Night” with Nate Ruess.
Yeah, he’s a new friend of yours…
Yeah and a song called… with Zooey Deschanel…what was her song?
“On the Island.”
Right, “On the Island.” Beautiful.
It kind of reminds me of the island sounds of “Diamond Head” of the Friends album.
Even the lyrics kind of remind me of “Busy Doing Nothing” also off of Friends.
Because the lyrics say: “We’ll be wasting our time”…
Were the lyrics to “Busy Doing Nothing” really directions to your home in Bel Air back in 1968?
Somewhat, yeah. A little bit of that, yeah.
“Runaway Dancer” featuring Sebu Simonian of the band Capital Cities is a big surprise to the listener to hear these modern kind of dance sounds.
But, at the same time, you mix the classic Brian Wilson sound with it. How did you put that track together?
We put that together very carefully with handpicked, good musicians.
As you mentioned Nate from the band fun participated to your song, “Saturday Night”. How did you become friends with these new collaborators? How did you run into them?
We heard them on the radio and then we called them up and had them come down to the studio.
That’s great that you are interested in new sounds rather than just keeping your inspiration in the past.
Do you believe that music is God’s voice as you once said?
My doctor, Dr. Landy told me that. Yeah.
I think music has the power to heal and make you feel better.
It has healing power. Music is catharsis [sic] and therapeutic. Whatever that means!
Do you ever go back to your old records and listen to them? If so, do they make you feel good overall?
On the flip side of the coin to “Runaway Dancer,” you’ve got the classic Beach Boys sound of the 1960s on “What Ever Happened” with Al Jardine and David Marks.
It’s even got that classic guitar sound that you got on Pet Sounds. How is it to work with Al and David after all of these years?
Oh! It’s a pleasure!
Do they instinctively know what you want?
Yeah! They instinctively knew exactly what I wanted and they sang perfectly. They were great singers.
They still are.
Speaking of singing, let’s go back to a Beach Boys recording vocal session; when you were recording vocals. Were all of you: Carl, Al and Dennis all grouped around one single mic? How did you record the vocals on a typical Beach Boys session?
Me, Dennis, Carl, Al and Bruce (Johnston) (were) on one mic and Mike (Love) on the lead on a separate mic.
Would you do it all live? Would you sing the song in its entirety?
No, we would do it in sections. I would teach them, like, four bars at a time. I would teach them four and then another four until we had the whole song recorded.
Interesting. On the other end of the scale, you have an instrumental called “Half Moon Bay” featuring Mark Isham. It kind of has the “Let’s Go Away For A While” off Pet Sounds sound to it.
Right! It’s a very well executed…good one.
It’s a prime example of a song being beautiful without any lyrics.
That was kind of unheard of in 1966.
Yeah, I know.
How do you approach writing an instrumental versus writing a song with lots of vocals? Is there any difference?
No, you just do the music. You don’t have to do any of the lyrics or the melody.
“Our Special Love,” on the other hand has TONS of vocals. It features Peter Hollens who is known for his a capella work.
What makes you attracted to luscious, big harmonies?
Well, the 1960s…you know the Beach Boys? I tried to take some of that and put it into my new album. To me, those voices sound beautiful.
Were you influenced by the Four Freshmen?
It’s great that you continue on with that tradition. I mean, there’s nobody better at doing vocal harmony work than Brian Wilson, right?
Oh, I don’t know about that!
Another song on your album, “The Right Time” once again features your two old pals, Al Jardine and David Marks. Were the lyrics, “Whatever happened to me and you and everything we’ve been through” kind of a statement on the current affairs of The Beach Boys and your relationship with Mike Love?
Yeah, a little. A little bit of that is influenced by that.
How do you feel about what happened to The Beach Boys after the last tour and Mike Love…
Ah, I miss the guy. I miss him. That last anniversary tour? The Beach Boys anniversary tour?
I miss that. I had a good time on that one.
Well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Let’s talk about the track, “Don’t Worry” with the huge horn and string arrangement. You could have given that to Three Dog Night back in 1970 and they could have had a hit with that!
Right. Yeah! (Laughs)
It kind of also reminds me of (the 1967 Beach Boys hit) “Darlin’.” Were you going to give “Darlin’” to Danny Hutton for his pre-Three Dog Night band, Redwood?
They recorded it with me at a studio named The Wally Heider recording studio…
Ah! It was right down the street from here!
Yeah, and, uh, they decided not to do it. They said, “No, we’re going to try something different.” So, I recorded it with Carl, yeah.
Let’s talk about Carl’s vocals. How did you decide that he was the man to sing “God Only Knows”?
I just knew. I just knew he could do it. I just told him, “Will you please sing this song?” He goes, “Of course!” You know?
[Just then, Brian starts to sing the first verse. “I may not always love you…”]
The way he sang it just made me feel good.
He sang it like an angel.
Is that your favorite Beach Boys song? It might be mine! Or do you have a favorite?
One of my favorites, yeah. My favorite Beach Boys song is “California Girls.” I can’t help it, I just think it’s great.
There are so many great ones… “Good Vibrations”…
I can’t even name a favorite Beach Boys album because there are so many good ones!
I know! (Chuckles)
Do you ever get tired of talking about The Beach Boys and the past?
Let’s talk about a track on the new album called, “Somewhere Quiet.” Again, it has a classic Beach Boys sound to it and you co-wrote it with your longtime friend and member of your current band, Scott Bennett.
Right. Well, that was originally called…um, it had a different title. It was an instrumental on one of our albums. (The music is “Summer Means New Love” from the Beach Boys 1965 album, Summer Days (and Summer Nights.) So, my wife, Melinda said, “Why do we use that song and put lyrics to it?” So, Bennett wrote the lyrics, we (recorded) it all together and…beautiful.
You haven’t written many lyrics over your career.
Why do you think that is? It just doesn’t interest you or do you prefer to just focus on the music?
I wrote lyrics to a lot of songs. I wrote “Help Me, Rhonda.” I wrote the lyrics to “California Girls” with Mike. So, I’ve written songs.
Do you plan on playing this new music with Scott and other band members Darian Sahanaja and Probyn Gregory on your upcoming tour?
What still attracts you to playing shows and touring after all of these years?
Well, to make money and to make people happy!
Simple as that, huh?
Well, you’ve made me happy over the years. Thank you so much for all of the great music.
Speaking of someone that has made people happy for generations, Paul McCartney once called your current touring band, “the best touring band on the road.”
Let’s talk about your kinship with McCartney.
Well, I don’t really have a personal relationship. It’s kind of like a professional relationship. We both like each other’s music, you know.
What’s your favorite Beatles record?
Ah… “She’s Leaving Home”… “Across the Universe”…”With A Little Help From My Friends”…a bunch of them.
Okay, what is your favorite song you wish you would have written?
“Be My Baby” by The Ronnettes. I just think it’s the greatest.
And you used a lot of the same musicians, the “Wrecking Crew” people on your records in the mid-sixties.
Would you ever consider using, say, Carol Kaye on a session again in the future?
I can’t answer that question. I don’t know.
Does the idea interest you?
Yeah, yeah. I think if we do a rock ‘n’ roll album, I would have her come down and play.
Now, with No Pier Pressure, you were talking to the press about working simultaneously working on a rock ‘n’ roll record and something with Jeff Beck, who you toured with a few years ago. Do you still have plans to put out a record with Jeff Beck?
So, that’s done with, I guess. Do you always constantly think of new songs on the horizon in your head?
Not lately, no.
So, you’re just focusing on this album right now?
Have you seen the upcoming film about you, Love and Mercy yet?
What do you think of it?
I think it’s very, very well done. The actors portray me very well…
Was it emotional for you to watch it?
Yeah, it was an emotional experience.
Would you consider it pretty accurate to your real life story?
Yeah, the guy who played Dr. Landy was very well done. He was unbelievable.
He was pretty authentic to how you lived your life?
Speaking of old friends coming back from the past, you have Blondie Chaplin on your new record, who sings on “Sail Away.” The intro of that song kind of reminds me of “Sloop John B.”
A little bit, yeah! It sort of, yeah!
Was that intentional?
And of course, he sang on “Sail On Sailor” from the 1973 Beach Boys album, Holland. How did it come about that he sang lead on that?
Well, I wrote that song at a friend of mine’s house with another guy named Ray Kennedy. He did the lyrics, I did the music. And, um, I don’t know how Blondie Chaplin got involved but he sang it on our record.
Correct me if I’m wrong but he was a member of The Flame, which were signed to your record label, Brother Records?
You were among the first bands to have your own record label. A full year before The Beatles and a few years before The Rolling Stones, weren’t you?
How did that happen?
I can’t remember. I don’t know.
(Laughs) It was so long ago, eh?
I love that label with the Native on it…
Do you collect your own records?
(not quite understanding) Do I collect my own records?
Yeah, do you have, like, a mint copy of Stack-O-Tracks in your personal archives?
So, you are always looking towards the future?
Can I ask you about how you come up with a song? Do you sit at the piano in the morning? Do you have a favorite time of day to compose?
The evening. I haven’t been at the piano for a few months but when I do, I usually do (songwriting) in the evening.
Are those myths true that you had the sandbox at your feet at the piano?
Yeah, I had a sandbox. Yeah, me and Van Dyke Parks sat at it. My piano was put IN the sandbox and we would take our shoes off and our socks off and our bare feet would be in the sand while we were writing songs. So, it was a very, very special moment in my life.
Do you still have the sandbox?
What current music are you listening to?
Current music? I listen to, um…actually, I just listen to Paul McCartney and Oldies But Goodies (radio) stations, you know, in L.A.
I listen to the same thing. You can’t beat classic music with REAL musicians playing on well-written songs like you have written…
…which you continue to do. You use real musicians in the recording studio and on stage to this day.
We’ve talked about your relationship at the moment with Mike Love. Tell me about your relationship with Al Jardine.
Um…we don’t talk very much. I know him mostly in the studio. Outside of the studio, we don’t really have an ongoing relationship.
Are you closer with your current band?
How did you come to pick them to be your band? You all have brought Pet Sounds and SMiLE so incredibly to life on stage!
I don’t know. Um (thinks)… we got together about 15 years ago. They were playing at a club in Hollywood. We were there watching and they played a lot of my songs; like, three or fours songs. I said, “Would you guys like to be my backup band?” They said, “Yeah!” And the rest is what is was!
What is the most difficult song for you to perform live…the one you have to think about the most?
Probably, “Sloop John B.”
Why is that?
I don’t know.
Is it kind of like this? (I pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time)
It’s good exercise for the brain, I suppose. Speaking of exercise, you were one of the first celebrities to open a health food store in the late 1960s. The Radiant Radish is what it was called?
What was the decision behind that? Was it just to be in better health and to promote better health?
And, like we mentioned before, music has the power to make you feel better…
Music can be very healing. It can be uplifting and healing and therapeutic, yep.
Is that what the song, “Love and Mercy” is about?
Thank you so much, Brian.
Ok, man. You’re very welcome.
After a handshake and a selfie, Brian rapidly darted out of the room that we conducted on the 9th floor of the Capitol Records building on to another waiting interview. Love and mercy, Brian. Love and mercy.
Brian photos: Brian Bowen-Smith