A Q&A with Brian Wilson

As anyone who has heard “Pet Sounds” can tell you, Brian Wilson is an extraordinarily gifted musician with a pithy list of peers. And that particular album is arguably his masterstroke.

So it makes sense that “Love & Mercy,” the new movie based on his life, chose to focus on that period, peering into that pinnacle moment of his prowess. Unsurprisingly, the segments of him in the studio carefully creating the album are the most captivating.

The other era the film deals with is the middle years of Wilson’s life, when he was led along by the maniacal, misguided heavy hand of Eugene Landy, a therapist whose license was later revoked and who, without the intervention of Wilson’s family, would have continued lacerating Wilson’s legacy until there was nothing left. (Look up “Smart Girls” on YouTube — Landy is responsible for that hot mess.)

The film’s director says the reason the story is told in two parts with two actors portraying Wilson is because he set out to paint a portrait of Wilson rather than a traditional biopic. While this vignette style obviously lends itself to leaving a lot of life out, it succinctly captures Wilson’s essence, the arresting artistry — the audacious arrangements, the intricate instrumentation, the sumptuous, swelling falsetto harmonies — but also the harrowing humanity.

In depicting that side, we see that despite having such a superior musical intellect, Wilson is fallible like everybody else, so his massive accomplishments become even more of a marvel — that this magnificent music was created by a human being. Granted, not everything Wilson has touched has been brilliant, but the monumental moments are simply magical.

We caught up with Wilson a few days ago for a quick chat in advance of his show tonight at the Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan. He talked about “Love & Mercy,” the influence of Bach and the Four Freshman, his singing range and how he’s lost a few notes, “Sweet Insanity,” and a whole lot more.

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Dave Herrera): I understand you’ve been traveling. How’s the trip so far?

Brian Wilson: The trip so far’s been a little hectic. The concerts have been going over very good, very well. I’ve had a good time. We’ve had good meals — good catering and meals — good sound checks, good meet-and-greets, where people come to get autographs and take pictures. We’ve had a hectic schedule, but it’s been fun.

Let me ask you first of all about the movie. I saw a couple interviews that you gave where you said the portrayal of you was pretty spot-on. Is there anything about the movie that you wished would’ve been portrayed that wasn’t?

No. They covered most of the important parts of my life. (They didn’t portray) my actual childhood, when I was a kid, you mean, like a baby and all that stuff?

No, I just mean are there other parts of your life story — because it really only covers two segments of your lifetime — were there other parts of your story …

Yeah, no, that was the right part of my life to capture. They had it right. The producer knew how to do it.

In terms of your songwriting, I understand you rented some instruments in Hawthorne, California, when you first started, how did you first start playing music, and what were the first songs you wrote?

Well, I was 12 when my uncle Charlie taught me how to play the boogie woogie on the piano, and then from there, I learned from the Four Freshmen how to play chords on my piano. So what happened was I kept playing. I was self-taught. No one taught me how to play anything. I taught myself.

How did the musicality come into play? How were you able to envision melody and harmony and that sort of thing?

Well, harmony and melody were mostly inspired by the Four Freshman, and from there, I learned — you know, Mike on bass, Dennis and Carl in the midrange and me on top on the falsetto, and we all sang together and we blended together like a family.

Was it something that was inherent, or was it something that you had to make a concerted effort to orchestrate?

No, no, no. Those guys learned their parts in 20 minutes. They were so fast with learning, no problem teaching them.

So it was completely natural?

Yeah.

In terms of the first song that you wrote, do you remember it?

Yeah, the first song I wrote was “Surfer Girl” when I was 19, and then I wrote “In My Room” and “409,” and after that, I can’t remember. It’s been a long time ago.

Now they say as a songwriter, you have to write a lot of mediocre songs to get to your best work. Are there any songs in your vast catalog that you feel weren’t your best?

No. I don’t think I wrote one bad song in my life. Not one bad song.

In terms of the songs you wrote, I saw that you had mentioned a classical influence. You talked about Bach a little bit. Was there a classical influence in your writing?

Yeah, do you know the song “Ode to Joy” by Bach? The that goes (hums melody) deh-un-duh-deh-un-duh-doo-doo? You know that song? OK, so it’s duh-deh-duh-de-duh, right? (sings melody for “California Girls”) Well East Coast girls are hip/I really dig those st … you know what I mean? We got “California Girls” from Bach. Bach is responsible for “California Girls.”

So have you listened to a lot of classical?

Not really. The only thing that comes to my mind is Tchaikovsky and Bach. I never really got into Beethoven or Mozart.

Who were the piano players that inspired you?

Piano players? Fats Domino. Yeah.

What did you take away from Fats, from his playing?

I learned how to play deh-deh-deh-deh — you know, like a fast beat. Like, deh-deh-deh — blue Monday, how I hate blue Monday — deh-deh-deh, you know?

With “Pet Sounds” was there an appreciable difference to your ears between the mono version and the stereo version?

Well, I’m deaf in my right ear, so I couldn’t be able to give you an answer.

That’s really interesting. So when you wrote it, you wrote it specifically with mono in mind?

Right.

So you’ve never heard the stereo version at all then?

No, I haven’t.

Interesting. So, working with Van Dyke Parks: How did that come about, and what was your experience with that?

Well, I met Van Dyke in 1965 at Terry Melcher’s house. He was having a party there, and I was talking to Van Dyke, and he had a very interesting way of talking, you know. He was very poetic, a very ahead of his time kind of guy. And I was so impressed with him, I said, “Would you consider writing some lyrics with me?” And he said, “Yeah. Sure.” So he came over to my house, he sat down, and we wrote a song called “Heroes and Villains.” And then we wrote “Surf’s Up,” I guess we wrote, yeah. He was great.

How did his lyrical ability compare to Joe Thomas?

He far surpassed him. His lyrical ability has never been touched by anyone I have ever known, except for Mike Love.

How would you compare him to Mike Love?

Well, Mike Love is probably the greatest lyric writer in the world. I think he’s my favorite lyric writer. He just wrote a lot of good songs.

What did you admire about Mike’s lyrical aptitude?

Well, his lyrics were very spiritual and very factual, and he captured the mood of America and surf and California and Los Angeles; he captured the whole genre.

What’s the Beach Boys song that resonates the most with you, lyrically?

I’d have to say “California Girls.”

And why’s that?

Well, why’s that? Because I think it has a good melody and I think the lyrics — well East Coast girls are hip/I really dig those styles they wear — it just has the right feeling.

In terms of your singing ability, over the years, have you noticed that your range has changed a little bit?

Yeah, my range has come down about five notes. I used to be able to sing way higher than I can now. Like, I wish they all could be … (voice cracks) I can go up, you know, I can’t sing that part anymore.

What do you attribute that to, just getting older?

Well, I’m 73 now, so I’m not able to sing like I used to.

What do you experience when you’re playing live?

Well, I have a little bit of scaredness, like being a little scared to play for a lot of people. I have a very proud feeling when people applaud for me and my singing, especially “God Only Knows” gets a very good reception. “God Only Knows” gets a standing ovation.

What can you tell me about making the new record, “No Pier Pressure”?

We wanted to make the harmonies sound a little bit like the mid-’60s Beach Boys kind of harmonies. And we wanted to have some guest artists on it, so we called up Nate Ruess and Zooey Deschanel and Kacey Musgraves and Sebu and Blondie Chaplin, and they all just learned those songs in a half-hour at the most. They were fantastic. They learned real quick, and they made my album very interesting.

What did you make of “Runaway Dancer” when it was finished?

“Runaway Dancer,” I like “Runaway Dancer,” but I don’t know. I can’t answer that question.

It kind of feels like the odd man out, especially bookended by “This Beautiful Day” and “Whatever Happened.”

Please again?

It kind of feels like the odd man out, especially bookended by “This Beautiful Day” and “Whatever Happened,” which sound more like your classic songwriting.

Are you familiar with the song “Sail Away” on my album? Yeah, that was Blondie Chaplin. He nailed it. He’s something else. He’s real good. Very, very good singer.

Aside from your most masterful work, you’ve made some really interesting forays into exploring different sounds. Can you talk to me a little about “Sweet Insanity”?

“Sweet Insanity” was never really released. You’ve got bootlegs, but it was never released. And I thought some of the stuff was pretty good. It wasn’t the best album I ever wrote. We just didn’t think it was good enough.

Were you intending it for release, or were those pretty much just demos?

They were just like demos. We recorded about 10-12 songs, and we decided not to put it because we thought that maybe people wouldn’t like it, so we junked it.

Part of the record ended up on “Getting In Over My Head.” Did you just take what you thought were the best tracks — what you felt were the best tracks — from that session and kind of rework them?

Yeah, we took “Let It Shine.” I think I wrote that with Jeff Lynne from ELO; he and I wrote “Let It Shine.” And, you know, I can’t remember those songs, you know?

There was song in particular that I thought was kind of the anomaly in your entire catalog called “Smart Girls.” Was that just you fooling around and having a good time?

Yeah, we were just having a good time. Yeah, it was fun. We were just kidding.

There were a bunch of samples. How did you feel about your music being sampled?

I felt like I was going in the right direction. I thought if I added a little bit more harmony, that people would like the feeling of the harmony, which would make them feel the emotion love. Harmony is something that people love.

You’ve influenced countless artists over the years, everybody from the Shins to the Apples In Stereo. Have you listened to any of the music that folks kind of attribute to your influence?

No, I haven’t. I have not listened to that music at all. I listen to Paul McCartney and oldies but goodies.

What kind of stuff do you like from McCartney? Do you like the Wings era, or do you like the Beatles?

All of his stuff I like.

Is it safe to say that you’re more of a McCartney guy than Lennon guy, when it comes to the Beatles?

Yeah, McCartney is number one. He’s really a very, very talented guy.

How much would you say that the Beatles influenced you?

Well, they influenced me … well, I don’t believe I was influenced.

Was it kind of a mutual, kind of iron sharpens iron type thing, where you influenced them — or inspired, I guess, not necessarily influenced?

Yeah, inspirational, not influential. We were inspirational to each other, yeah. “Rubber Soul” blew my mind, and I went and wrote “God Only Knows” and started writing “Pet Sounds.” And then the Beatles heard “Pet Sounds,” and they recorded “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Have you and Paul ever had a conversation of how you inspired each other?

No, we’ve never had that kind of conversation. It’s just, “Hey, how are you?” I went to a concert once, and I said, “Are you going to do ‘She’s Leaving Home’? And he goes, ‘No, baby, we’re not going to do that tonight. (laughs)

Talk to me a little bit more about the movie: I know that you said they portrayed you well, but what was your overall take in the way that the pacing went and the storyline?

I thought they paced it well. I thought the part with Wrecking Crew and me during the “Pet Sounds” sessions was captured very well. John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks, I thought those two were in love in the movie.

The sessions looked incredibly interesting. How true were those?

The sessions were verbatim, exactly how they were.

So you literally did spend that much time getting the cello lines right?

Right, the cellos. They had two cellos in the movie, but “Good Vibrations” only had one cello, not two.

Were you also putting paper clips on the piano strings and doing things like that?

Yeah, we did. It gave it the plunk-plunk-plunk kind of effect — a plunky kind of effect.

How did you come up with ideas like that?

You know, I don’t know. I was young and creative.

Is that where the source of your inspiration came from, the way you heard it in your head?

I can’t hear music in my head, but I can hear it over the speakers in the studio. But I can’t hear it … like some guys can hear it all in their head before they get to the studio. I can’t do that.

So how does the process usually go for your?

It goes: chord pattern, hands on the keys. Boom-boom. Next, the melody comes for the chorus. Then the words come from the melody. And then you have a song.

What’s the most captivating part of that process for you, is it the music, the melody?

I think writing the melodies.

Read more from Dave Herrera at bestoflasvegas.com. Contact him at dherrera@reviewjournal.com.

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