Brian Wilson on Songwriting: "I'm Always Anxious to Make Each One Better"
Brian Wilson is arguably the most creatively influential musical mind of our time. With the Beach Boys, he crafted soaring harmonies and immaculate arrangements. And on bizarro opus Smile — which it's been said he dubbed "a teenage symphony to God" — Wilson turned pop-music sounds upside down and even made vegetables fun.
In more recent years, his well-publicized struggles with substance abuse and his mental health have taken a back seat to news of his revival. Wilson appears to be in full creative mode. There was last year's reunion tour with the original Beach Boys, and there's an upcoming album and current tour, featuring appearances from bandmate Al Jardine and ace guitarist Jeff Beck.
The prospect of actually interviewing Wilson would make anyone's hands damp and voice shaky. He may be brilliant, but he's also known for unusual behavior. During our conversation, we faced some perfunctory answers and a few awkward moments but still enjoyed every minute of it.
New Times: Let's start out by talking about your new album. How far along are you at this point?
Brian Wilson: We're about three quarters of the way through. We still have a little more to do.
Are you producing the album?
I'm producing with my friend Joe, Joe Thomas.
As one of the greatest producers of all time, what's it like working with someone else?
We bounce ideas off each other. It's really fun. It's interesting how it works. We bounce ideas off each other. It's a good chemistry.
So the songs that you're including in this album, are they songs that you wrote recently or songs that have been around a while?
The songs have been around for quite a while, yeah.
Will you be performing any of the songs in the upcoming tour?
Probably so, maybe one or two of them, yeah.
You have such an amazingly huge catalog to choose from. How do you decide which songs to include in your live set?
Well, we haven't gotten to that point yet, but I'm sure we'll think of something.
No doubt you will. Do you plan to offer some songs that audiences haven't heard from you before?
Yeah, you will be hearing some of those. Yeah.
How did you happen to hook up with Jeff Beck for this tour?
Back a couple of years ago, he played and sang "Surf's Up" at MusiCares. Do you know MusiCares?
Yes, I've heard of it. It's a major music fundraiser.
Yeah, and so I called him a few months ago and asked him to play on my album.
So how did that work out?
Wonderful. He's a really great guitar player.
The combination seems like it should be really dynamic.
It's going to be. It really is.
Is it ever intimidating when you go to write a new piece of music, thinking that you've already set such a high bar? Is there pressure to compete with yourself?
No, actually not. How could you think that?
Because of that high bar you've set. Your reputation for genius.
Well, yeah. I'm always anxious to make each one better, ya know? We want to make each cut as well-done as we can get it.
Do you write with the idea that it will have that patented sound?
I hear the harmonies when I write. Usually, I try to create good harmonies to match the song, to go with it.
The song comes first, and then you try to envision how the harmonies will fit in?
Yeah, then the harmonies come in. Yeah.
Your competition with the Beatles in the '60s was the stuff of legend.
Are you still in touch with Paul McCartney. Do you still communicate and comment on one another's work?
No, actually we haven't gotten to that point yet. We're just casual friends. We're not really close. We haven't gotten to the point where we talk to each other about that, ya know?
How do you enjoy touring these days? Again, back in the old days, you didn't really seem to enjoy it very much...
It's a pleasure to play for people. Hopefully they enjoy our music, and it's my pleasure to do these concerts for people.
It must be very gratifying to see a younger generation getting into your songs. Last year, when you played Bonnaroo, the crowds went crazy for you guys.
Oh, yeah, definitely. Didn't you sense that reaction from the stage?
Yeah, I did.
So it must be very gratifying.
The young generation is just now becoming aware of the Beach Boys' music. It's good to have youngsters, young people, in the audience, ya know?
Of all the artists you've influenced over the years, are there those that you're particularly fond of?
You know, I follow Paul McCartney, and I follow the older generation music, the '60s-generation music. I listen to a lot of '60s-generation music during the day and at night.
Like who, for instance? Please give us some examples.
Paul McCartney, Phil Spector, the Rolling Stones, the Doors. Yeah.
Are there any newer bands that you enjoy, any you feel you may have influenced?
No, I wouldn't know that. No. I don't know who's influenced by us at all. I don't know.
Everybody's been influenced by you. Along with the Beatles, the Beach Boys are among the most influential band of all time.
Well, yeah, actually me and the Beach Boys are very proud of ourselves, ya know? Al Jardine, great singer. We're all very proud.
How did you decide which Beach Boys would sing which particular songs, especially when you had so many good singers in the group?
OK, here's how it goes. I write the song, and then after I write the song, then I decide who I will have sing it. I don't think about who's going to sing it while I write the song. Thank you very much for the interview.
OK, take care, bud.
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