You know the old showbiz axiom about luminaries needing no introduction? Okay, so here’s one of those.
There is no need for anyone to wax poetic about Brian Wilson, musician, composer, arranger, producer, hit-maker, icon. For over half a century there has been Brian Wilson. In one way or the other he has influenced the cultural and artistic landscape of the American experience. He was the heart, soul and musical and philosophical engine of The Beach Boys. His songs created the great California myth of what I once called “the sun-drenched hymn to hedonism.” Pretty good resume. He has survived well-documented traumatic hardships from childhood to his years of fame and fortune and the inevitable 1960s cliché fallout of drugs and madness and breakdowns, both mentally and physically.
Much of this is covered in the new biopic about Wilson, Love & Mercy. The film features two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, portraying Wilson as a young man at the height of his musical powers while unraveling from mental illness, and the middle-aged overly-medicated period when he was being manipulated and exploited by the tyrannical Dr. Eugene Landy, played sinisterly by Paul Giamatti. While Wilson did add his expertise and memories to the filming, which he commented was “very factual, accurate, stimulating,” he ultimately found it hard to watch. I saw it weeks after speaking to Wilson and was very moved. The studio sequences recording his two masterpieces, Pet Sounds and Smile, truly capture the mood and the significance of the times and add to Wilson’s already legendary status, while his ascent from the abyss is truly inspiration.
Seeing Love & Mercy and reading about Wilson’s harrowing but prolific journey, which takes another step with his recently released album, No Pier Pressure, it would be easy to say that Brian Wilson is the shell of the man who broke molds and conquered the zeitgeist, but that would be shortsighted. What you get from speaking with Brian Wilson today is the real guy, the guy who would never let it all crack his resolve or bend his personality into something he couldn’t recognize. He is by any credible definition of the word, a genius. He is cloaked in it like armor. It precedes him. It defines him.
He speaks in certifiable tones, but with a sweet disposition that is at first alarming and then as comforting as one of his spectacularly arranged five-part harmonies. There is no hesitation in his expression, therefore he doesn’t self-edit for effect. This is a raw psyche; the echoes of a man who brought some important stuff back from the darkness and the light and placed some high stakes in all those strikingly beautiful songs.
What follows here is about 15 minutes over the phone from Los Angeles of the musings of a living legend, and I don’t think I’m being maudlin or coy or ironic when stating this. In the pantheon of rock and roll, especially during its most experimental, influential and lucrative period, there is Dylan, Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson. This is a person you hope to get two minutes with. I got 15. And so I asked him things I always wanted to ask Brian Wilson. It was rapid fire and it was thrilling. His answers, although appearing in print as curt and often dismissive of detail, in person—hearing his cracked, sing-song voice coming over the phone line—are surprisingly effusive and to the point.
This is a man who has answered countless questions. How could you even begin to put a number on it? People want to know how the genius works, where it comes from, how it goes from the head and the heart to the canvas or the page or the recording. These are the things you think about when gaining access to the artist who has provided the world indisputable greatness. And this is what I think about when Brian Wilson is uttered in my presence. I put it to him and waited breathlessly for the key to the kingdom, so to speak. And I think this discussion, of which I send to press virtually word-for-word, is my few minutes getting to the bottom of genius. I hope I asked the questions you would ask of Brian Wilson. And I hope his answers are enough. They have to be.
Brian Wilson: Hi, James!
James Campion: Mr. Wilson, how are you, sir?
Excellent. I know we have a short amount of time, so I’ll get right to it. I know you’ve probably been asked this a billion times, but I have to do it. I’m a huge fan and you are one of the great composers of the latter half of the 20th century, so everyone always wants to know where do the songs come from? What is your process? Take me through the Brian Wilson method of writing a song.
Well, I go to a studio…there’s a studio I go to and there’s a piano there. I play chords on the piano, and then after a while a melody starts to come. And after the melody is done, the lyrics start happening.
And that’s basically it.
Yeah. Basically, yes.
When you first started writing songs, which I assume was when you were a teenager or even before that…
Well, I started playing piano when I was like…I don’t know…12 or 14? And when I was 19 I wrote “Surfer Girl,” the first song I ever wrote, and then from there I was a self-taught musician.
And do you write basically the same as you did when you were 19? Have you changed the process at all through the years?
Oh, no, I changed a lot. I’ve changed the process a lot.
Well, I used to write more rock and roll type songs, thanks to Chuck Berry.
(Laughs) Right. You’ve often spoken in the past about capturing sounds on tape that you hear in your head; harmonies, various instrumentation, is there any song that you wrote and recorded that you think came out perfectly, that was exactly how you heard it in your head?
Yeah, “California Girls”; some of it I heard in my head and some of it I heard in the studio.
So when you listen to that record, even today, you say to yourself, “That is exactly how I pictured it.”
Yeah, when it was done I said, “Hey, guys, that sounds exactly how I wanted it to sound like!”
And that never happened again?
It happened again with “Good Vibrations.”
Those are the two, huh?
Some pretty good songs, there. I know you’re a big fan of Phil Spector’s sound, and I know you were a Beatles fan, did you ever listen to a song and say, “Wow, not only do I wish I wrote that, but that is really a perfect record?”
Yeah, “Let It Be” by Paul McCartney and The Beatles. That’s something where I said, “Boy, I wish I could have written something like that!’
(Laughs) Well you certainly did in many, many ways. Here’s something I was always interested in asking you. I think it was in your 1990 autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice; you had revealed in that book that you had discovered at some point that placing certain bass lines and notes under a specific chord or specific melodies over other chord progressions would evoke an emotion in listeners; get them to feel melancholy or feel joy or spark memories in them…
Well, Pet Sounds was my ballad album; “Caroline No” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” were, I think, a very sweet, feminine theme to get across. Those songs were the feminine side of me.
I remember as a kid listening to Pet Sounds and getting very emotional, and not because of the lyrics or any particular connection to the themes. I was a kid, yet, I could not escape feeling something mature when listening to that record. It was as if you got across with music these mature themes of love, loss, anxiety, nostalgia. Still, to this day it moves me. Was that something you planned or did it come together in the writing?
It actually came together in the writing. Very fast.
That is generally considered your greatest work. Do you think it is?
It has to be one of the best albums I ever produced, yeah.
When you heard the Smile stuff that Capitol put out a couple of years ago from the original Beach Boys sessions, much of it unfinished, do you think it captures what you were trying to do with Smile or was it your version that came out about 10 years ago? [Note: Smile was the great and mysterious unfinished opus for Wilson that eventually caused mental exhaustion and his eventual retreat from the mainstream that would cause his reduced role in The Beach Boys.]
Which version do I prefer?
The 2004 version.
Did you have anything to do with Capitol’s choice of material or were you surprised that they released it?
I was surprised they put it out, yeah.
Were you disappointed in how it sounded?
A little bit, yeah.
Is it because it was unfinished business, it took you back to that time and you said, “Damn it, I wish I had the chance to finish that album the way I originally planned it!”
Right! Right on!
(Laughs) I figured. Just from reading about you and your work on that record and how much it meant to you, the first time I saw it out, I thought, “I wonder what Brian thinks of all this?” You have a new record out, correct?
Can you tell me about the process of working with this new material and what you may have discovered when writing and recording it?
Well, I wrote a couple of the songs back in 1998 that I use on the album and the rest I wrote in 2014.
So it’s been a couple of years in the making?
How do you find performing now? I know that it was something you didn’t really enjoy during The Beach Boys years, but over the past two decades you seem to be playing more and more. Do you enjoy it more now?
Some of it. I enjoy some of it, but some of it is a lot of hard work and some of it is an easy-going kind of thing, you know?
I sure do. You’re known for so many great songs. My favorite is “God Only Knows.” You mentioned that you agree that Pet Sounds is one of if not your finest collected work; do you have any fond memories of writing and recording “God Only Knows?” Do you think that’s something truly special that you nailed there?
I worked with my friend, Tony Asher. I started writing a melody and he immediately came up with (sings), “I may not always love you…” and it was a very spontaneous writing session.
I bet it’s one of those incidents when you think, “Where the hell does this come from?”
Right. I said, “What the fuck?”
That song has been used in so many films and it never fails to move people. Did you ever see it used with visuals, in whatever capacity, and agree that it works on that level?
Most of it works, although I’m not really sure where it ended up, whether television programs or movies or whatever, but I do know that whenever they do use it I hear, “Good job.”
(Laughs) What part of your legacy do you enjoy the most? What is the talent you are most proud of—the songwriting, the producing, arranging, your building The Beach Boys into this iconic piece of Americana? How do you want to be remembered?
Well, to tell you the truth my singing means more to me than anything.
Sure. I’m sorry I didn’t even bring that one up. Of course, the singing. Would you say that’s also the most fun you had working with The Beach Boys in the studio, getting all those wonderful vocal harmonies together?
Yeah, that was the fun part! The hard part was producing. That was the hardest part of it for me. Producing was rough, but singing always came very naturally, effortlessly. You know…an artist expresses.
And that is your most cherished expression as an artist, your singing.
There’s a film out right now about the famed Wrecking Crew, a working studio session band that played on so many hits of the 1960s, including a lot of The Beach Boys stuff. Can you talk about working with those kind of top musicians in the field and producing the incredible records you did with them?
I worked with some of the more well-known musicians in Los Angeles like Hal Blaine [drummer], Carol Kaye [bassist], John Randy [keyboardist], Steve Douglas [saxophonist], and so many others. They worked with other producers around L.A., but we did some great work together.
Is there a song you heard when you were a kid that turned you on, influenced you more than the others?
Well, “Rhapsody In Blue” comes to mind. I think “Rhapsody In Blue.” That was the song that got to my heart the most.
Do you listen to any music of today that moves you, influences you? Who are the great songwriters today?
Well, I listen to a lot of ’80s music. There’s so many artists from the ’80s, Rod Stewart, Billy Idol, Blondie, just a lot of groups I like. I listen to ’80s music all the time.
In all the years you’ve collaborated with quite a few lyricists and songwriters, is there anybody that you wish you could work with that you haven’t?
I can’t believe you two guys haven’t written a song together; after all the years. You guys respected each other’s talents so much, influenced each other to greater works, The Beatles pushing The Beach Boys and vice versa. It’s hard to believe there is no Wilson/McCartney composition?
Are you kidding? I haven’t had the chance!
Somebody has to get that going.
Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson that would be something.
That would be a trip.
(Laughs) Sure would. What is the one thing, you would say, a songwriter today needs to focus on? What is your advice for the kid now cobbling songs together and starting a band?
I would have to say…okay…okay…I would say don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.
Don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.
Brian Wilson will be playing June 30 at Nikon At Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, NY, and July 1 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ. His newest album, No Pier Pressure, is available now through Capitol Records. For more information, go to brianwilson.com.