I recently sat down to speak with legendary musician and composer Brian Wilson about a wide-ranging list of topics.
The interview was conducted in the midst of his “Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour”, a grueling sojourn around the world that began in 2016, was extended through October of this year, and is slated to continue on in 2018 due to popular demand. To add to Wilson’s already hectic schedule, he released his first ever solo anthology Playback, a retrospective that covers more than thirty years of solo efforts, and includes both live and studio tracks, and two brand new tracks.
One of the songs, “Run James Run” was written specifically for this album, and according to Brian “It was written in about two hours”.
It’s almost shocking to hear him casually state that he can still conjure up a song like this in such a short time, but there is of course his history in performing such astounding musical feats. The song has a definite “Cars, Sun and Fun” sound that’s immediately familiar, as is a photo on the inside cover of the album of Brian standing next to a muscle car, which spurred me to ask him if he himself had a favorite ride. After all, he’s written so many car songs, I have often wondered what his ultimate choice of cars would be. “My Corvette, I still had it until around 1988”, he told me, but declined to elaborate further.
The other previously unheard track, “Some Sweet Day” is a collaboration with Andy Paley that was written back in the early 1990s and has sat in the can ever since. There’s quite a bit of history behind the legendary Wilson-Paley sessions, and the sessions are not without their share of interest and irony. The project started the day after Brian severed all his ties with Dr. Eugene Landy. Wilson phoned Paley and told him “we’re free to work on whatever we want now”, and the result was purportedly over forty finished tracks, a dozen of which have been officially released since then on various Brian Wilson projects. As to why all of these previously unreleased tracks were never made into an album, Brian simply stated, “I don’t know, I really don’t know”. Fans had been passing bootleg recordings of these sessions around for years and I wondered, if the circulation of these recordings prompted Wilson to include any of the songs on Playback, much like Bob Dylan had done with The Basement Tapes. “Not really”, explains Brian. “Andy and I wrote a song called “Chain Reaction Of Love”, which we haven’t released yet. It’s a great song”. I asked if we’d be hearing it soon, to which Brian responded, “I don’t know, I haven’t talked to Andy about it yet”.
The track Some Sweet Day saw its official debut on Playback and sounds like it could have been written in the 60’s by The Supremes and has a real Phil Spector sound to it.
When I asked if it was supposed to be a tribute to someone or something in particular, he advised that he “didn’t write the lyrics to that song, Andy Paley wrote them, so I can’t really answer about the lyrics”. As to the remainder of unreleased songs, Brian stated, “I think there are still about 35 of them.” As to when we will hear them, “I’m not sure when, but you will hear them.” Officially, the word is that most of these songs were never made into an album because his brother Carl disliked the material, particularly the track “Soul Searchin”, a song that he sang lead on, and the record labels weren’t all that interested. Wilson’s soon-to-be wife and manager Melinda had been quoted as saying “Carl didn’t think the material was commercial enough”. All of this negativity surround the sessions prompted me to ask how he reacts when he gets a negative reaction to a piece of music he’s worked on; “Well, it doesn’t hurt my feelings, that’s for sure. Capitol Records didn’t like Pet Sounds, and then about two weeks later, they released it.”
On his current tour and the rigors of touring, and why he decided to release a solo anthology after more than thirty years, Brian stated that he “wanted people to hear our rhythm and blues kind of music that we did. The tour saw Wilson visiting over 150 cities in some 40 countries, a schedule that could easily wear out a man 20 years his junior. I asked him how he is able to maintain such a rigorous touring schedule and still maintain his enthusiasm. He responded with “Well, it’s certainly interesting because I get to do all these concerts. I don’t do too much sightseeing, we just hang out at the hotels and do a lot of TV watching”. The rush that he gets from performing live is a very strong motivating factor as he exclaims, “for each show, the highlight for me is doing God Only Knows. The song is like a big experience for me, the audiences give me about a two minute standing ovation. It happens at every single concert!”
I was in attendance at The Hollywood Bowl in 2016 to witness the show first-hand.
I asked if the venue or that particular show had any special relevance to him, and he responded with “I remember that show, and yes, the Bowl is one of my favorites, it’s a good place. I love that place!” At 75, there are no indications that Brian will be slowing down his touring and recording schedules. Still, I insisted, the rigors of touring at 75 have to be quite taxing, but he insisted, “It’s just a number to me, I’m young at heart and I have a young brain. I’ve been doing concerts for years; I’ve had a lot of practice. My voice stays young! I actually prefer performing live to recording in the studio, I get to get the reaction of the audiences. Prior to the actual show I have about half an hour of the jitters, then I get over it, and then it’s one fantastic rock concert.” When asked what his secret to living life on the road was, he only had this bit of advice to offer; “Well, I always say in all of my interviews, don’t take heavy drugs. Don’t take things like LSD or morphine. Don’t take heavy drugs!”
There aren’t too many of his contemporaries out there still performing into their 70’s, but there are a few. One that comes immediately to mind is The Rolling Stones, a band that has been out on tour essentially for over fifty-five years. When I asked him how he compares himself to The Rolling Stones, he didn’t compare himself to them, but simply replied, “You know, I’ve never seen The Rolling Stones, I’ve never been to one of their concerts.” As for other plans outside of touring, Brian confirmed that there would be a new album coming out some time in the near future. “I haven’t started recording the new album yet, but I’m going to doing an album of rock and roll songs, some of them covers and some of them originals. I’m going to cover Paul McCartney and Chuck Berry’s music. I still have many things left that I want to accomplish; I want to record a really great Rock and Roll album. I’ve released a lot of good pop songs, but not real rock songs.”
Brian’s extensive career has been heavily documented, and his list of accolades is pretty lengthy.
This is the man who has been credited with being the writer and producer of songs that influenced everyone from The Beatles to his own brothers in The Beach Boys, and too many other acts to name. As to his favorite collaborator during all this time, he stated without hesitation, “Van Dyke Parks was my favorite collaborator.” I asked, “How do all the constant accolades make you feel? Do you think you have a good bullshit detector in place?” and he responded as frankly with “I think all the accolades are correct. I’ve been told that our harmonies are our best attribute.” Wondering if perhaps he had a person or two around him that would just tell him everything was great, he told me “I don’t have that problem. Most people tell me how it is.”
In the past few years, there have been a slew of revealing insights into Brian Wilson’s creative genius in the public consciousness, from his recent autobiography “i Am Brian Wilson” to the biopic “Love And Mercy”, a made-for-TV movie that so closely portrayed Dr. Eugene Landy so accurately it “scared the shit out of him.” The book and the movie also documented what can only be described as a meticulous and tenacious recording process. Nonetheless, I wanted to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, so I asked how he translates all the musical ideas he has in his head and manages to communicate his vision to other musicians he’s in the room with. “I still do it the same way I did in the 1960s, I write music charts out for everyone in my band, and they just read the music and play it. Beautifully! I still use the same process I used when I recorded Pet Sounds; I haven’t changed my process at all. I have a very clear picture in my mind of how the harmonies, the melodies, the lyrics, and the orchestration should sound, and how it’s all put together for one big sound.” When asked how he keeps all of these thoughts together, he replied, “Well, it’s not that hard. I write a lot of it down. A lot of it is written on the piano.”
I’ve spoken with a number of musicians and recording engineers over the years, and one thing I’m always interested in is whether they prefer the old analogue methods of recording, or if they’ve completely adopted digital.
According to Brian, “I prefer to record digitally, it makes it sound clearer and more exact. It’s also made the process easier to record, now I do the scratch first, and then I do the vocals. Before we do the vocals we have to do the orchestration, the background tracks, and then we do the vocals.”
With our time running short, I wanted to ask him about one of his most ethereal and cryptic songs, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”. According to Brian, ” It was a social statement. It was meant to say that I was out of sync with life in the time that it was written in. I wasn’t right for the time in which it was written, but now, I’m just right for these times!”