I try not to get personal, but there’s no getting around it here. The knowledge that I’d soon be getting a call from Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was absolutely unfathomable, right up until the phone rang. No other musician has been part of my life for so long. Pile on the 55 years my dad has spent loving, studying, and collecting every scrap of his music, and you’ve got a serious superfan situation. Smile was the first album I ever owned. I knew all about Brian before I even knew who The Beatles were. By the time the interview came, I was so focused, I swear I could have bent spoons with my mind. When I realized it was really him, though, the nerves drifted away like gentle waves. “Hi Olivia,” he said, somehow making everything seem simple. I was in my room. He was in California. And though I’m sure he was wearing clean, white Nike sneaks, as he was when I saw him perform in Florida in March – I preferred to imagine he was lounging in flip-flops, kicking off bits of fresh sand as we spoke. “There are 20s people, 30s people, 40s people, 50s people, 60s people, and 70s people,” he told me, listing each group with care. “People of all ages come to see my concerts.” He wasn’t bragging (though he certainly could). In fact, he seemed almost surprised by it.
For an introverted musical genius who was once overwhelmed by his own success, it wouldn’t be a leap to assume that the renewed public attention on his life and work has added some pressure to the songwriting process. But Wilson seemed far from intimidated, speaking contentedly and matter-of-factly about the whole exchange. “No, actually, it keeps me going,” he said, “[when] the music inspires people to go buy our records. That’s what will keep you writing music. It feels good; it feels very rewarding. Because we just try to write the best music.” Beyond that, though, he was quick to avoid taking too much credit. The next release on the horizon, Playback: The Brian Wilson Anthology, due out next month, is a collection covering 30 years of his solo music, plus two previously unreleased tracks – one that he wrote just for this record. Ask him much about it, though, and he’ll downplay his involvement completely. “Well I didn’t oversee it. I approved it,” he insisted, sounding somewhat amused by the project. “They put it together, and I said ‘Yeah, that’s okay!’”
He revealed a bit more participation, though, when we dug into the details; namely, whether the new track he penned, entitled “Run James Run,” has any connection to “Pet Sounds” from the Beach Boys album of the same name – which was originally called “Run James Run.” Wilson wrote that swanky instrumental track in the early 60s as a proposed theme for the upcoming James Bond movie (though it was never submitted), and there’s been no coverage yet about whether the new song is related. “No, actually, it’s not. It’s very different than the one we did back in Pet Sounds. It’s not the same melody,” Brian confirmed, though he wouldn’t reveal more. It seemed he was somewhere between mystified and bored by the whole concept of an anthology record, so I asked him what project he’s most excited about right now. “Well, my rock and roll album I’m going to write later on this year. I’m going to write a rrrock and rrroll album!” he repeated with boyish enthusiasm, drawing out the Rs like a radio DJ from his era. “I think it’s going to come out early next year. It’s going to be new material – mostly new material.”
When I mentioned my affinity for his last solo album, 2015’s No Pier Pressure, I witnessed a rare moment of self-assurance. “Yeah, that Pier Pressure album came out very well,” he agreed. “It had a few guest artists like Zooey Deschanel. They all sang really good.” For his upcoming rock record, however, any possible collaborations are still up in the air. “I haven’t decided who to work with. I don’t know! I might work with…” he teased. “I have no idea.” Knowing he’s performed with fellow icons like Paul McCartney and Elton John, I was curious if there were any others he’s always wanted to work with. “No, that covers it!” Brian said, almost on the edge of a chuckle. “Paul and Elton cover it.” While on the topic of releases, I had to find out what he thought about much of The Beach Boys’ discography being remastered from mono to stereo – given that, due to deafness in one ear since childhood, he has adamantly preferred writing and recording music in mono. My dad and I had often pondered whether he liked the way the 2012 stereo mixes came out. “Oh yeah,” Brian said with a lot of enthusiasm, adding, to my relief, that the quality “sounds the same” to him. Then with two rapid “No”s, he denied having had any qualms about his songs being reworked. “I can only hear with one ear, but my one ear hears a good sound.”
Thanks to the immersive 2015 biopic detailing the darkest periods of Wilson’s life, Love & Mercy, the general public and I now have a remote understanding of the chaos inside his head. But Brian divulged that even the wildest scenes were mild. “Yeah, the actors and the actresses portrayed me so well, that it took me back to that time when I was producing records,” he said, affirming that seeing the film made him inspired to write more. I wondered if it was weird having so many personal moments exposed to the world. “It was weird, but only the part when I took the psychedelic drugs. That’s the part I didn’t like. But otherwise, it was very well portrayed.” I cautiously pressed for a reason; drugs had not been a part of the questions I’d carefully prepared over the past week. God only knows how many times he’s been asked about that. Brian paused. “Well, I had a lot of mental troubles from the drugs I took.” He stopped in his tracks. It genuinely sounded like he wanted to say more, so I tentatively asked if he felt the drug scenes portrayed in the film weren’t as severe as what he experienced in real life. “Yeah,” he said definitively. “I try to give people advice. ‘Don’t take drugs,’ you know?” We both left it at that, for the time being. Switching gears, we talked about his wife Melinda’s crucial role in the film, and in his real life. “She oversaw the script,” said Brian, rather proudly. “I did too, but it was mostly her who oversaw the script writing.” And though he said he misses her on tour, she supports him with frequent contact. “Well, she just calls every day,” he told me. “Checks in on how we’re doing, how the concert’s going, you know? Stuff like that.”
By any measure, his concerts have been going extremely well. Since taking off on the 50th anniversary Pet Sounds tour last year, the 75-year-old singer has been on a rigorous run, playing over 165 shows in 54 countries. For any artist, it’d be impressive. For the Beach Boy who once had a jarring panic attack on an airplane (as depicted in Love & Mercy), embarking on a 1964 tour that he subsequently sat out, it’s somewhat miraculous – and feels like a tremendous gift to his fans. I wondered how international dates at age 75 differed from the anxious ones of his youth. “It’s coming more easily,” he said with confidence. “The difference now is, me and my band members have had a lot of practice, and we know our show from the top to the bottom.” That’s quite a feat, considering it includes not only a full run-through of Pet Sounds – with perfectly-timed dog barks, bike whistles, and all – but a jam-packed intro of surf hits, performed with original Beach Boys Blondie Chaplin and Al Jardine, as well as Jardine’s talented 51-year-old son. “Matt Jardine sings most of the high parts that I used to sing,” said Brian, referring to the elegant, precise interplay that blew me away when I saw him in Orlando. “He’s great! He’s really something,” said Brian of the younger Jardine. Remembering how they gracefully exchanged parts on many tricky passages that a younger Brian took on solo, I was dying to know if the quick transitions were challenging. “Well, yeah!” he said. “We rehearsed together for two months before we started our world tour.”
The next thing he said, immediately after I asked about the challenges of their live performance, was unexpectedly deep. “Well, the inspiration comes from God,” he explained, as if he was recapping something obvious that everyone knew. “It comes to me, and we give it to each other. Me and my lyricist give it to each other.” I don’t know what stunned me more: that he said it so suddenly and with such surety; or that, for him, feeling inspired is so closely intertwined with the day-to-day hurdles of putting on a good show. I managed to catch my breath. There was something else I wanted to know. “Well, I would say, make sure you don’t take psychedelic drugs.” That was his advice, without hesitation, for anyone battling depression or going through a difficult period in life. It didn’t totally take me off guard; last year, he said that even though his experiences on hallucinogenic drugs inspired some of his greatest, most critically-acclaimed songs – including “Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” and “Help Me Rhonda,” according to Brian – it wasn’t even worth it.
“Like, aspirin, Tylenol, or medication…you know?” he told me in a nurturing tone. “But no psychedelic drugs.” I asked if there was anything else he’d suggest, and got a firm “No!” but I could sense a knowing smile in its timbre. I’m not sure what kind of advice I was expecting, but the simplicity of his answer – the notion that any darkness could be overcome, merely by abstaining from things that are bad for you – was more comforting than anything else he could have said. And I loved him even more for it.
You can follow Brian Wilson on Twitter and sign up for email updates on his website. Don’t miss his NYC show at Radio City Music Hall – one of the final Pet Sounds performances – on September 23rd! Tickets are available here.
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Cover Image: Alx Bear