How did you come to work with lyricist Tony Asher?
Brian Wilson: Tony Asher worked for an advertising agency in Beverly Hills and someone told me he was real good with words. I love to create music but two people are better than one. With two people there can be heart and soul between them. A collaborator opens your heart up. A collaborator allows you to bring out of you something that you couldn’t being out yourself. That’s why a collaboration is a marriage and lyrics and melody are a marriage. I think “Here Today” was the first song Tony and I wrote together. I wanted to present the idea of a bass guitar playing about an octave higher showcased as the principal instrument in the track.
In light of Pet Sounds’ status today as one of rock greatest albums, upon its release the album was not a major success.
Brian Wilson: No, it wasn’t. Pet Sounds didn’t sell very well on the market. I received a lot of acclaim from the recording industry but the public didn’t buy it. That was disappointing.
You know what you can do as a writer, have there been any songs that came our so good that it even surprised you, like “I can’t believe I wrote that!”
Brian Wilson (quickly): Yeah, yeah… “God Only Knows” was one of those songs. That song was a gift from God. It took us forty five minutes to write that song, me and my collaborator Tony Asher. I’m telling you it took forty five minute to an hour to write that song! And every time I hear it on the radio or we do it in concert I go, “I cannot believe this song, it’s such a great song, I can’t believe I wrote it!”
How do you know when a song is done?
Brian Wilson: That’s a good question but a hard one to answer. You just know. There’s nowhere else for you to do. You have a feeling of accomplishment and an artistically satisfied feeling.
Who’s the first person you play a new song for?
Brian Wilson: My wife Melinda. She’s a pretty good judge of what’s good and bad. She knows music backwards and forwards. I’m not sure if any of my songs ever brought her to tears but I think maybe something on That Lucky Old Sun album brought her to tears.
Before playing a song for your wife or the band, do you hold off for some time until you’re convinced it’s good enough?
Brian Wilson: No, no, no, not at all. I won’t wait. As soon as I make up my mind that it’s good enough I’ll play it for my wife or the band. I never play anything for anybody unless it’s done and in the bag.
How about back in the Beach Boys days?
Brian Wilson: I’d first play the song to the session players and after we cut the background track I’d teach the boys the parts and Mike the lead or Carl, whoever did the lead.
Is it the same thrill hearing your music on the radio today as back in the ‘60s?
Brian Wilson: Oh yeah! I heard “California Girls” yesterday on the radio and I was thrilled to death. Are you kidding me? I still love to hear my music on the radio.
When you hear the old songs do you listen with a critical ear thinking “I wish I would have sung it this way or I should have had the guitar play this part?”
Brian Wilson: Yeah, sometimes I do that. When I hear some of those old songs I would have lowered the pitch on some of my vocals where I sang a little sharp or if my singing was a little flat I would have raised it.
Were there any songs that you wrote which had a simpler demo and once it was finished it far exceeded your initial vision?
Brian Wilson: Yeah, that happened with “Good Vibrations.” We recorded the song at four studios over a period of six weeks. We wanted to try different sounding studios to see what would work. “Good Vibrations” evolved over time.
We edited elements of the song together from all those different studios to create the finished version. It started out to be sort of a rhythm and blues track. Then it turned into a real sophisticated pop record with a cello in kind of a Phil Spector sort of style. It’s a symphony in itself. Derek Taylor who was the Beatles and Beach Boys press agent called it a pocket symphony. I knew it was gonna be a hit.
You were very unselfish in terms of passing on the lead vocal to Mike or Carl and to a lesser extent Al and Dennis. How would you know who should sing a lead vocal?
Brian Wilson: It’s simple; I had a sixth sense for knowing who to give what vocal to. Like for instance, I gave Al Jardine the lead vocal on “Help Me Rhonda”. I’d heard Al sing a lot and liked his voice and wanted to write a song for him that showed off the quality of his voice and sure enough I did. I really had a sixth sense as to who should sing what.
What were the type of songs that would work best for Carl’s voice?
Brian Wilson: Wow, well “Darlin’” of course, Carl did an amazing vocal on that song. He did a beautiful vocal on “God Only Knows.” He did a version of “I Can Hear Music,” believe it or not that was good. I always knew what would work well for each of the guys.
And when you sang lead vocals on a Beach Boys song, how was that decided?
Brian Wilson: Like I said, I instantly know. As soon as I complete a song I say, “Alright, that songs’ for me or for mike or for Carl or for Al or for Dennis. I just know when I’m done writing who it’s ready to go for.
Are you a religious person, can you define your spirituality?
Brian Wilson: Yeah. I believe in God. I believe that God will help me through my hell and some of my difficulties. Music comes from a spiritual place. There’s spiritualness in “Love and Mercy”. “Love and Mercy” is all about a feeling of spiritual love. I think Phil Spector’s records also come from a spiritual place. Anyone who records music is a messenger of God but especially me because I’ve been at it for so long. We all depend on God to pull us through but once God gets us moving we can move on our own.
“In My Room” is a special song for you, where was your special room in your house?
Brian Wilson: We had a music room that used to be a garage. My dad turned it into a music room. It didn’t turn into a music room until I was about 14. We had a jukebox in there and there was a piano and a Hammond B-3 organ in there too. Gary (Usher) and I worked in that music room. He was on guitar and I was on piano and we wrote “409” and “In My Room.”
You share a mutual admiration with Paul McCartney. He’s spoken about “Here, There and Everywhere” being influenced by Pet Sounds. What do you think of the song and do you hear that influence?
Brian Wilson: Wow, this is the first I’ve ever heard about this. I really like “Here, There and Everywhere” (sings “Here, There and Everywhere…”) I’m a big fan of that song but thinking about it I can’t really hear how I could have influenced Paul to write it. But if I did, well that’s great.
Pick a goosebump song.
Brian Wilson: Besides “Be My Baby”?
Brian Wilson: (slight pause) Well…., okay, how about “Too Much Heaven” by the Bee Gees. I was really loved and impressed with the harmonies they achieved on that record. I’m very very proud of those guys; they’re exceptionally good at harmony. They’re a very heavy duty harmony group.
Finally, describe a perfect day for Brian Wilson.
Brian Wilson: A perfect day for Brian Wilson would be to get a two and half mile walk in, which I do. And then at least to try to listen to the music that I love so I can stay happy. I have a television program that I really like called Sixties Revolution. It’s an oldies but goodie station that plays ‘60s music. I love that. It’s on right now as we speak. Also what would make it a perfect day is a hug and kiss from my wife (Melinda), a few words with my daughters, seeing this new miracle baby girl named Dakota. And of course food, I love food! I really love a rib eye steak. That’ll cap the day and do it every time for me.
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