Best Individual Artist: Brian Wilson

Voted runner-up as Goldmine's Readers' Choice poll for Best Individual Artists, Beach Boy leader Brian Wilson reveals the many secrets behind his great songwriting.
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BRIAN WILSON: RHAPSODY OF BRIAN

Brian Wilson hard at work at his piano. Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

Brian Wilson hard at work at his piano. Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

By Ken Sharp

Talk about a dream team. Never would one imagine that you’d ever see a songwriting credit pairing Gershwin and Brian Wilson. But the improbable becomes reality on the new CD, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, an extraordinary collection that finds the erstwhile Beach Boys genius delightfully reinterpreting with his signature flair a raft of Gershwin classics like “Summertime”, “I Love You, Porgy”, “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Wilson’s long-time personal favorite “Rhapsody in Blue.” What’s even more exciting and improbable are the two “new” songs featured on the CD, “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing But Love.” Culled from over 100 existing original Gershwin piano fragments, these two songs were lovingly completed by Wilson and what a delight they are. Tin Pan Alley meets West Coast surf on Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin as exquisite melodies, sweeping harmonies and sophisticated arrangements intersect to create yet another wondrous sonic achievement and worthy addition to the lofty canon of Wilson classics.

Unlike the Beach Boy auteur’s ‘60s musical contemporaries (Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Mick Jagger et al) Wilson is notoriously press shy and is a man of few words. But don’t let the economy of some of his answers fool you, he remains passionate and proud of his latest musical project, it’s just that he feels much more comfortable “in his room” writing music than playing the media game.

You’re acclaimed as one of music’s greatest songwriters. With Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, how did you come to do an album of songs by Ira and George Gershwin?
Brian Wilson:
Well, the Disney people came to us with the idea. They said would you like to do an album called Wilson Sings Gershwin. And a couple of days later we called them back and I said, “Yeah, we’ll bite, we’ll bite, I’ll do it.”

You were a fan of both Ira and George Gershwin since childhood.
Brian Wilson:
Yeah. When I was two years old, I was over at my grandmother’s house. I remember that my grandmother and my mother used to play a nice beautiful version of “Rhapsody in Blue.” At that age I wasn’t able to think and articulate that, “Oh, I like this!” but I remember hearing it and liking it. But I just don’t think I was able to communicate what I thought of it at the time in words because I was too young, I juts knew that I really liked it.

You’ve gone on record stating that “Rhapsody in Blue” is one of your favorite melodies and clearly it’s a song that’s touched you on deep level since you first heard it. Can you explain what it is specifically about that song that moves you so much?
Brian Wilson:
Yeah. “Rhapsody in Blue” became one of the main songs in my life. It’s just so beautiful. The melody is like a single note octave (Sings “doo doo doo doo”). It’s a very unique and simple melody of one note climbing above another note climbing above another note.

Sitting down to write songs at the piano, that song still inspires you.
Brian Wilson:
Yeah, that’s true. Sometimes I sit down and first starting playing a little bit of “Rhapsody in Blue” to get me into the mood to write a song. That song still inspires me to this day.

At what point did you first learn how to properly play “Rhapsody in Blue” on the piano?
Brian Wilson:
I think I first learned how to play it when I was 28 years old. I’d go from the record and play two bars and then go to my piano and figure out how to play those two bars. Then I’d go back to the record and play another two bars and then to my piano for two bars until I learned how to play the whole song. It took some time but it was worth it.

Were your parents Gershwin fans, what was the kind of music you heard in your household growing up?
Brian Wilson:
By Gershwin the only song I remember hearing as a kid was “Rhapsody in Blue.”
See, all the songs that the Disney people gave us—they gave us 25 Ira and George Gershwin songs –and they asked us to narrow my choices down to 12 songs and we did that. The next move was they gave us 104 unfinished Gershwin piano songs. So we listened to all of those songs and wound up rounding it down to just two songs and those two songs turned out to be “two original songs that I helped finish writing. One of those songs was called “The Like in I Love You” and the other’s called “Nothing But Love.”

What was it about those two Gershwin fragments that caught your ear and made you decide that “Yeah, I can work on these, I want to finish writing them”?
Brian Wilson:
Those two really caught my ear and I thought I’d be able to finish them off. I think what struck me the most was the chords. A lot of Gershwin’s songs influenced me and inspired me so it was a thrill to finish these two. It took me only about a week and a half to finish them off. It was pretty quick.

What was the reaction you received from the Gershwin estate after playing them the finished songs?
Brian Wilson:
They received a really positive reaction, they liked it. I was nervous and didn’t know what to think. I thought, “Oh, my God, what’s gonna happen? What’s gonna happen if they don’t like them? But then I stopped worrying and thankfully that didn’t happen.

Doing a record like Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, did you feel less pressure than doing a record comprised of all of your original songs?
Brian Wilson:
Not really, I still felt pressure to live up to someone as great as Gershwin. I couldn’t relax at all. I had to treat each song differently. For instance, “I Love You, Porgy”, (sings “I love you, Porgy” It calls for a sweeter lead vocal because on the original well known version it’s a girl singing. In fact only girls have sung that song, not boys. But I was the first boy to actually do a version of that. And the Disney people said, “Brian, ‘I Love You, Porgy’ is sung by a girl, are you sure you wanna sing it?’ And I said, “I don’t care.” And they said, “If you don’t care we don’t care.” It took us two and a half months to finish the record. We’d go in and chip away at it.

What’s the first music besides “Rhapsody in Blue” that you recall hearing as a child?
Brian Wilson:
I can’t really remember much. My mom and dad would play their favorite songs and I’d listen to them and some of them I liked a lot. They’d play songs by Rosemary Clooney, I really liked her. They’d also play songs by Les Paul and Mary Ford. Then I got into rhythm and blues music like “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and The Comets and stuff like that. Four Freshmen.

How would the family listen to music, all together in living room, radio shows, etc?
Brian Wilson:
My mom and dad had a Wurlitzer jukebox that they played records on. I’d pick songs that they had and listen to them. I had nothing to say about what I wanted to hear at that time. But I really liked a lot of the music they listened to.

When did you get your own transistor radio?
Brian Wilson:
Let me think…Have you ever heard of a radio called a crystal set? It’s a semi-radio. It’s got a one channel radio show. I got one of those in 1953 or 1954 when I was 11 or 12 year’s old. I used to listen in bed on this crystal set. Boy, that was exciting. I’d listen to people like Andy Williams, you know that song (sings “once I was alone…”). It’s a song called “Canadian Sunset”. So I remember hearing that and I also remember hearing (sings “ I never felt more like singing the blues because I never thought that I would ever lose your love dear, you got me singing the blues…”) I remember those two songs. That wasn’t shared by my mom or dad or even my brothers, it was all mine. I remember sitting in my little room all by myself listening to that crystal set.

You’ve also been a big champion of radio and understood its importance at an early age. In the Beach Boys you’d often bring acetates to local stations personally and have them premiere a song.
Brian Wilson:
I’ve always loved AM radio. There was radio station in Los Angeles that I listened to a lot called KFWB, there’s another one called KRLA and KBLA. They had some great dee jays on those stations that used to turn me on to all kinds of good music, people like Gene Weed and Wink Martindale. Those are two important radio dee jays that come to mind. I still remember the first time I heard Phil Spector’s record “Be My Baby”. Man, that song took me on a real trip! I remember I was in my car listening to the radio and Wink Martindale came on and said, “Here we go with The Ronettes and “Be My Baby”.” And I turned up the volume and bam, there was the record and I was blown away! That was the very first time I heard “be My Baby.” I love everything about “Be My Baby.” It’s juts a total record, it’s not just Ronnie’s great voice or the production or the background vocal arrangements or even the musical backing, it’s just everything that went into that record is mind blowing and still to this day, every time I play “Be My Baby” or hear it on the radio my mind still gets blown. (laughs)

When you first had enough money to buy your own albums and singles, what was the first record you ever bought?
Brian Wilson:
I’d get my records from a record store called Lishon’s Music. I bought a Four Freshmen album called The Four Freshmen and the Five Trombones. There was a song on it called “You Stepped Out of a Dream” that I really liked so I bought that album. There was a demonstration both where you could play records and if you like ‘em you could buy ‘em and if you didn’t like ‘em you didn’t have to buy ‘em. So I bought The Four Freshmen and The Five Trombones. And man, did it ever turn me onto harmony; I’d never heard harmonies like that! I first saw the original Four Freshmen perform in 1958 at a place called the Coconut Grove. And then I saw The Four Freshmen later in their career, none of the original guys were in the band at that point, it was all new guys. I saw them play live twice. It was just a thrill. Of course I also had all of Phil Spector’s music and loved “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. I loved all of Spector’s stuff, there’s nothing that I don’t like. I also loved the single “Rock and Roll Music” by Chuck Berry. (Sings “just let me hear some of that rock and roll music…”) Also, I loved “Johnny B. Goode” too. (Sings” Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans. What a great song. Another great one was “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.”

Brian-Studio credit Clay Patrick McBride

Going back to Ira and George Gershwin, understandably they’re viewed as among the most extraordinary songwriters of all time. In one of the new songs on the album, "The Like in I Love You", a song you finished from an existing Gershwin song fragment, the lyrics state "you reached into my heart and found the music of my soul, the melodies unfold for you..." For people that are a lot younger and don’t know much if anything about them, explain what makes them so special.
Brian Wilson:
There’s nobody in the century that could get near as being as great as they are. It’s really hard to explain what makes them so great, they just are. It’s kind of humbling for me to talk about Gershwin because he’s like one of the prime movers in music. (George) Gershwin’s orchestrations were very innovative. His melodies blow me away. Ira was a very sensitive writer too. They were just great.

Can you give any examples of songs you wrote for The Beach Boys that carries the influence of George Gershwin?
Brian Wilson:
Well, do you remember The Beach Boys song “Heroes and Villains”? It goes, (sings “…of the Heroes and Villains” and the trombone goes, (imitates trombone part). That’s Gershwin right there. To me that’s very Gershwin, it’s definitely a Gershwin influenced part that comes from “Rhapsody in Blue”, a very sweeping melody. But in terms of other songs, they inspired and influenced me but right now I can’t pick out one specific song besides “Heroes and Villains” where you can hear their influence.

Can you pick a few songs from Brian Wilson Reimages Gershwin that stand out for you?
Brian Wilson:
Well, my favorite song is probably “Love is Here To Stay.” There’s a lot of love on that song. My other favorite is “You Can’t Take That Away From Me.” I also loved “I Love You, Porgy” because of its beautiful melody. I like all of them but those I especially like. Before I started work on this record I was familiar with all the songs I eventually recorded but I didn’t know to play any of them. I had to be taught by my band leader and orchestrator Paul Mertens how to play them. I didn’t know how to play them, I didn’t know the exact melodies and I didn’t know the lyrics so Paul taught me everything. He taught me it all.

Seeing a credit that reads “Gershwin-Wilson”, did you ever imagine that?
Brian Wilson:
Yeah, isn’t that a mindblower? How could I have ever imagined that? Are you kidding? I was also saying to myself, me sing Gershwin” Who would like that? I don’t think it’s going to sell very much but I do think that the people who do hear it are gonna like it.

But judging by the extraordinary reviews I think you’re going to be proven wrong.
Brian Wilson:
Maybe you’re right. Okay, my mind’s changed. Now that I’ve gotten some positive feedback from reviewers and the internet, I now believe that the album is gonna be a success.

The album certainly has cross-generational appeal.
Brian Wilson:
That’s right. It makes me feel good to know that people of all age will like it. If you take the ‘20s generation, the ‘30s, the ‘40s, the ‘50’s, the ‘60’s and the ‘70s, of those generations the ones that challenged me the most are the ‘20s and 30s people.

Why?
Brian Wilson:
Why? It’s a challenge to see if I can get them to appreciate George and Ira Gershwin’s music done by me in a different way and a different way of interpretation.

The new CD is garnering rave reviews. How much attention do you pay to reviews now and throughout your career?
Brian Wilson:
I know, I’ve noticed that, wow! I’m very proud of the reviews the album’s received thus far, it’s very rewarding. I’ve never really paid that much attention to reviews, I just really appreciate the positive feedback.

What’s the measure of success for a project, do you judge its success by sales or whether you’ve satisfied yourself artistically?
Brian Wilson:
First of all, if I don’t like it then my gauge is that other people won’t like it either. Like when we recorded “Good Vibrations”, the guys in the band said, “Yeah, this is great, this is gonna be a number one record!” And it turned out that it went to number one. Same with Gershwin. We had to do the record in such a way that Gershwin would have loved it if he were alive and I think we succeeded.

You've said that undertaking this Gershwin project was both exciting and scary, why?
Brian Wilson:
First off, I loved the music and was really excited to do an album like this. But the scary part was trying to do it justice, to do justice to the greatest writer of the 20th century so I was a bit nervous about it.

When did you realize that it was gonna work?
Brian Wilson:
I realized that it was gonna work pretty quickly. I felt that way as soon as we got the first song done, which I think was “Summertime”. Then I knew we were gonna be alright. Once “Summertime” was done I felt a little more relaxed and told everyone, “That’s good, now I think we can do justice to the other songs.”

You've spoken about "Brian-izing" the Gershwin songs, what does that mean?
Brian Wilson:
Right, we “Brian-ized” and “Beach-inized” the songs on the record. We wanted to honor the Gershwin songs but also I wanted to be able to put my own stamp on it too. We tried to make this an album that people would enjoy and come to appreciate what wonderful songwriters George and Ira Gershwin were. But like I said it was important to add a little bit of me to the record too, putting my own stamp on it.

Your lead vocal work on the new CD is garnering raves as well. Did you work harder on the vocals on this album than in recent memory?
Brian Wilson:
You’re right, I did work hard on the vocals. But one of the reasons was I didn’t know the songs by heart. I had to be taught each song separately by Paul Mertens. He really guided me through it and taught me the melodies. Another reason I pout in more time is it’s such a special project for me and I wanted to make it great.

How many hours would it take to get a great lead vocal?
Brian Wilson:
I would say anywhere from two hours to a whole day, 12 hours. A lot of work was put into the vocals. “I Love You, Porgy” was probably the most difficult song to do vocally because I was singing from a female perspective and I was a bit self-conscious about it. But I didn’t really let it bother me and I think it turned out well in the end.

How about in the '60s, how long would it take for you to nail a vocal?
Brian Wilson:
Back in the ‘60s…it would take me about an hour and half to two hours to get a real good vocal. I didn’t just go in and sing once or twice and then it was done. I’d work and work at it until I felt satisfied.

What’s your greatest vocal performance with The Beach Boys and as a solo artist?
Brian Wilson:
“Don’t Worry, Baby” for the Beach Boys. I think I sang it sweetly enough that you could feel the love in my voice. And as a solo artist I’d have to say “I Love You, Porgy.” The challenge for me on that song was to try and make myself feel what that girl was feeling when she was talking to Porgy. She was telling Porgy this guy wants to drive her mad and handle her in his hot hands. I tried to sing it in a way that people could appreciate.

Learning how to play piano and organ, did your parents give you any pointers?
Brian Wilson:
My dad taught me how to play the boogie woogie but that’s about it. I play boogie woogie in C. Growing up I really wanted to learn how to play boogie woogie my Freddie Slack. He was the most famous boogie woogie artist in the early ‘50s. (Author’s note, in 1942, the Freddie Slack Orchestra scored their biggest hit with the number one, “Cow Cow Boogie”). I thought I’d never be able to play like him but through a lot of practice I was able to play the boogie woogie like Freddie Slack. Learning how to play that rhythm was really important. Then along came Chuck Berry who taught me how to play a boogie left hand against a rock and roll melody. So by that time I was off and running. I was totally educated and I came up with an original Beach Boys kind of music. Other than that I’m basically a self taught musician. I learned a lot from listening to records by The Four Freshmen. I collected all their albums and learned all of their arrangements. They gave me an education in harmony. I taught itself with my piano and my hi-fi set. I’d play a little bit of the music and figure out the chords and just keep working on it until I learned how to do it like them. After school I’d come home every day and spend a couple hours every single day learning The Four Freshmen harmonies. I don’t know what I would have ever done without them. They taught me so much. And by the time The Beach Boys were formed I had a whole grip on harmony and I’ve used that throughout my career. To this day my favorite chord is a major seventh chord (sings “I love you, Porgy”), there’s a major seventh chord in that and it’s beautiful and my favorite piano key is E.

From a chordal perspective, who did you glean the greatest influence?
Brian Wilson:
Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector and Chuck Berry, those are the three people who really inspired me. Bacharach inspired my approach with chords, Motown inspired the bass notes, Phil Spector inspired the harmony and echo on the drums. He taught me a lot about how to make use of instruments. I knew about guitars and pianos and organs and bass and drums and he taught me to blend things together so you could have leakage. Chuck Berry inspired the rhythm and the lyrical thoughts.

Where did your unique approach to using a different bass note against a chord, which you employ on songs like “Caroline No” and “Surf’s Up” come from?
Brian Wilson: That came from listening to Burt Bacharach. On songs like “Walk On By” and “This Guy’s in Love with You” he inspired me chordally and taught me how to use different bass notes against chords to come up with a different color of sound. He inspired me to go in that direction. He was into going from a minor seventh to another minor seventh.

Was “Surfer Girl” really the first song you written, nothing came before it?
Brian Wilson:
No kidding, it’s true, “Surfer Girl” was really the first one I wrote. I got really lucky with that one. The day I wrote “Surfer Girl I was in my car and heard a record on the radio by a guy named Dore Alpert called “Tell it to the Birds.” (Author’s note: This 1962 single on Dot Records was in actuality Herb Alpert who also sang lead vocals). Once that song was over I started humming a melody to myself (hums melody of “Surfer Girl”). Then I drove home and quickly went to the piano and finished off the melody where I wrote the bridge and the introduction and the fade. So part of it was written in my head and part of it was written on the piano. It took me a while but I got it. I knew that was a special one when it was done. It’s still one of my favorites. I wasn’t one of those kinds of writers who’d just bang out song after song. I never wrote songs when I was not inspired.

How much of songwriting for you is tapping into the muse, unconscious and how much is using your knowledge of song construction?
Brian Wilson:
I used to tell people that you write from your subconscious. Songs are written but not really consciously. There’s a process that goes on called the creative process. I don’t think there’s anybody that can really describe that actual process. All I know is after I wrote a song I always say to myself, “How the hell did I write that?” (laughs) Then I think, Oh well. I guess I just did.” That still happens today. I never knew I could do all those Gershwin songs until I did ‘em.

John Lennon spoke about his productivity in the early 60's, seemingly having this ability to create songs at will. Was there a similar stage in your writing career where it was effortless in terms of your ability to churn our songs and hits?
Brian Wilson:
Yeah. What I would do is if I heard Chuck Berry on the radio, I’d listen to it and go, “Now, wait a minute, what did he play there?” and I’d analyze what he played. And I took it from there and write a song called “Surfin’ Safari.” So I’d be inspired by someone like Chuck Berry and do my own slant on it.

Your chord changes are often really beautiful and sophisticated. What Beach Boys and solo songs feature your best chord progressions?
Brian Wilson:
Well, “Don’t Worry, Baby,” The Little Girl I Once Knew,” “Good Vibrations”, and “God Only Knows.” Those feature my best chord progressions.

"This Whole World" from Sunflower is an extraordinary song that goes through a breathtaking cycle of changes and keys.
Brian Wilson: (Sings “I’m thinking’ bout this whole world…) That was Carl. Yeah, that was real good one. I remember “This Whole World” took a couple of days to record. It took a lot of hard work to get that one but I’m real happy with it. That was an inspired song and the guys in my band really love it too.
How do you break out of a songwriting slump? What's the longest time that's passed where you didn't write a song?
Brian Wilson: Well recently except for the Gershwin thing it’s been about four years that I’ve been in a slump. You can’t force yourself to get out a slump. The only thing you can do is if you don’t’ feel it, you don’t go to the piano. You shouldn’t try and force yourself to try and write a song. You have to feel it in your own heart and then you write the song. I want to feel inspired, like when I wrote the songs on That Lucky Old Sun album. At that time I was inspired to the hilt. I was very inspired on that album and wrote 18 songs in one month.

How do you keep the songwriting channels open and pure?
Brian Wilson:
Well, first off, I don’t smoke and I don’t take drugs. I try and keep it pure by sitting there and playing my Yamaha synthesizer keyboard. I have a favorite setting called “Full Grand.” It’s a mellow sound; it’s like a thousand pianos mixed together. It’s a very special sound that inspires music and melody for me.

Billy Joel has spoken about how some songs grow up it become lawyers and doctors and others turns out to be bums, can you give an example of a song that means more to you today than when you first wrote it?
Brian Wilson:
Well I didn’t think much of “I Get Around” until God, maybe eight, nine, ten, eleven years ago when we started to tour and played it. Then for some reason I started really liking the song a lot more. I’m not sure why but I didn’t originally like it that much. I never really cared for it back then but now I listen to it a little more carefully and really like it. It stands up.

When did you first realize your life’s ambition was to be a songwriter?
Brian Wilson:
I guess that hit me when I was eighteen or nineteen when I wrote “Surfer Girl.” That’s when I realized I wanted to be a songwriter and do this for the rest of my life. When I wrote that song I knew it was good and I was on to something; it made me feel like I was gonna be a good songwriter someday. See, my dad taught me how to play the boogie woogie and my dad’s friend, Dean Brownell, taught me how to write music out for orchestras. He taught me how to write out music notation, how to write out melodies and chords. That made me think symphonically when writing and recording. It gave me a lot of confidence to know that I could do that. I wasn’t afraid to experiment and make good arrangements.

The manner in which you’d have two instruments playing the same part like organ and guitar gave your music a beautiful texture.
Brian Wilson:
That’s right. I already knew in my head before we recorded what those combinations of instruments was gonna sound like. I cannot hear sound in my head but I can hear an arrangement in my head. Like when I wrote the introduction to “California Girls” I could tell right then that it was gonna be a special introduction. It has a classical feel. Not one classical writer or rock and roll writer inspired me to come up with that. I was just feeling good one day and I wrote it.

Does the tag of being labeled a "genius" add extra pressure when you are trying to create or record?
Brian Wilson: Because of people calling me a genius, I feel pressured to write original melodies. Trying to get a song up to the standard that’s expected of me is a tough job. Today songs don’t come as fast for me like they did in the Sixties. Inspiration for songs don’t come as quick either but now and then I’ll hit on something big. It’s like you’re going along on the sea shore and you’re picking up all these shells and all of a sudden you find a great big beautiful shell. That’s like songwriting. You just tap into a great big song and go “Woah!”

Share an example of a song that took a long time to write.
Brian Wilson: “Caroline No” is one. That took about a week for me and Tony (Asher) to write, which quite a long time. There was no Caroline.

What was the inspiration behind that one?
Brian Wilson: Marijuana.

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”?

Yeah.
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.

EXTRA: Brian's brief summary of his classic hits

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