Brian Wilson

Archive interview from 2008

From issue 30, Clash Magazine interviewed Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson as he released his ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ album in Sept 2008

His first long-player since the long awaited ‘SMiLE’ release, it harks back to a long-lost era in Southern California’s history, a time of Hollywood starlets and dreams of glamour, and celebrates the unique culture and landmarks of his native Los Angeles. Its nostalgia is no doubt as comforting as it is joyful for those listening as it was for its author.

With a checkered past as infamous as his illustrious creations, it’s little surprise his latest work would look back to before (while hinting at) the beginning of his oft reported mental problems.

The man who spread so much colour in so many people’s lives and whose music defined a whole generation (and continues to delight) spoke to Clash about the forthcoming release…in his usual succinct manner…

The album’s main theme is life in Southern California. What is it about California that you like best, that keeps you returning to it as in influence?

I like the girls, I like the restaurants, the movie theatres, stuff like that, the street plan, everything.

Yeah, you’ve liked the girls for a long time; you sang about them a long time ago!

Right.

You premiered the suite in London last year. [The album was played in its entirety at the Royal Festival Hall in September 2007.] How did it feel playing songs about the Californian sunshine during the British winter?

Well, it was a pleasure, I’m glad to even have experienced it.

Yeah, it was a fantastic show. It sold out didn’t it? It was a big show.

Yes.

You wrote the album with friend and band-member Scott Bennett, but you also got together with ‘SMiLE’ collaborator Van Dyke Parks…

Van Dyke did one of the songs and all the narratives.

What was it like working with those guys on the album?

It was a creative experience; they’re all geniuses though. It was a very good creative experience for me.

Is it easy to express your creative ideas with these people?

Yeah, very much so, because I’ve worked with them before and they’re very receptive to good ideas.

When you are working with other songwriters how many of your lyrical contributions will make it on to the album? Is there a pecking order of whose songs make it into the songs?

Well, the lyrics make the song, but first comes the melody. First the chord pattern, then the melody, then the lyrics. And then the production, but first you have to do those three ingredients.

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How autobiographical have you made the album? It seems quite a personal album that is based on your experience. Is it mostly autobiographical or fictional?

Most of it’s about me but I try to make it about my friends too.

Is that easy to do? To make it autobiographical when you’re working with other people?

Yeah, songs like ‘Forever My Surfer Girl’ are autobiographical. [The song, which nods to its Beach Boys cousin, features bittersweet lines such as “First love is the moment / You can’t repeat but you’ll always own it”.]

The album feels quite nostalgic. Was this because you’re at all disillusioned with 2008 and prefer to live in the past, or are you just reflecting on past times?

I like to look back on the past and reminisce and then write songs about the past.

But you wouldn’t want to go back? You’re quite happy living in the here and now?

No.

You would rather go back?

Yes. Yes I would. (Laughs)

If you went back in time would you do anything different?

Well if I did it over again I wouldn’t have taken some of the drugs I took that weren’t very good for me. [Brian’s experiments with LSD may have resulted in ‘California Girls’ and countless other songs, but also left threatening voices resounding in his head, which have debilitated him for years.]

You had well reported trouble with your father. [Murray Wilson beat and berated Brian and his brothers, scarring them indelibly.] You must have found growing up quite hard, but it appears now that you’re very free and happy. Do you feel like you’ve had another chance to relive your childhood?

Yeah, actually I have. I’ve had a chance to relive my childhood, without being afraid of my dad or anything, you know.

Does having you own young children keep you busy, keep you young?

Yeah, well I seem them a lot you know.

Does being in their company keep you feeling young?

Yes.

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Your eldest children of course formed their own group. [Carnie and Wendy Wilson, his daughters from his first marriage, joined with Chynna Philips (herself a celebrity child) to form Wilson Philips, who found success in the early Nineties.] Would you encourage your other children to follow them into the music industry?

Later on when they’re around fifteen or sixteen I might try that, yeah. They’re too young now to do it.

There’s a line in the song ‘California Role’ from ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ that says, “If you miss your shot, it doesn’t mean you’ll miss your goal”. It sounds like quite good advice; what kind of advice would you give to someone with ambitions of…

Well I didn’t write those lyrics so you’re going to have to ask Scott Bennett that.

OK, well the question was going to be what kind of advice would you give to somebody with ambitions of getting into music?

My advice to them would be to try to follow through and write. When you write a song, finish the song, you know?

New songs like ‘Goin’ Home’ sound very much like the classic Beach Boys songs, and the band that you play with have done very well in playing music that’s redolent of your style. Was it your intention to keep it sounding in the same vein as your ’60s output.

Well, we tried to get the electrics to sound good but the arrangement was adapted to like ‘Sloop John B’ or, what other song can I liken it to? A song called ‘Do You Remember?’ All kinds of different songs, ingredients that I borrowed from to put into this new song.

There’s a fantastic line in that song, ‘Goin’ Home’, which says, “At twenty-five I turned out the lights, because I couldn’t handle the glaring in my tired eyes”. Is that one of your lines?

No, that was Scott Bennett’s line.

Oh right. It sounds like a very personal line that reflects your own life. Is that easy for him to write, something that’s personal to you?

Well yeah, he took to it right away.

It could be taken as an admission that you are feeling as awake now as you were when you first started out. He goes on: “Now I’m back drawing shades of kind blue skies”, like you’re saying that you’re just as creative again as you were when you were twenty-five.

Well I’m awake and as free as I was when I was twenty-five. I have more responsibilities, but I’m just as free as I used to be.

When he said in that line about not handling the glaring, he’s apparently referring to your own troubles…

That was written by Scott Bennett. I cannot tell you what he means by that.

But I was going to ask, it sounds like the troubles that you faced when you were about twenty-five. I know that you had your first nervous breakdown in the Sixties; what were the main reasons attributed to that?

Well, I was taking drugs, and the drugs goofed my mind up in 1966.

Is that the pressure of the times, the culture of the times, or was it the pressure that you faced as the sole songwriter of the group?

It was the pressure of the producer [Brian produced all of The Beach Boys’ Sixties output]. I lost the sight of producing for about four months, because I was too stoned on drugs to understand what I was doing. But eventually I got back in the knack of producing.

Your favourite group was The Beatles. Did you envy the fact that they could all write together and individually and therefore share those pressures?

Yeah I used be envious of that. I still am. I still think they’re the greatest too.

They were of course your major competition in the Sixties; you’re still good friends with Paul McCartney. Do you still see him as a quality level as an artist you have to match?

No, actually I think he’s sunk a little bit. I think his music is not nearly as good as it used to be.

You think he needs to step up a little bit?

Yes, I do.

Ironically your new album is going to face competition in the charts from your brother Dennis’ album. Are you happy that that album’s now back out and getting a second chance?

What, ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ you mean? Yeah I’m very happy for him that they’re bringing back his album.

It’s doing very well; I think a lot of people are loving it and it’s going to do very well over the course of the year.

Great.

Do you still miss the presence of your brothers when you’re performing and singing? [Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983, while Carl Wilson succumbed to cancer in 1998.]

Oh yes. When I sing ‘God Only Knows’ I miss Carl, and when I sing ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ I miss Dennis.

Do you think any of their characters have infiltrated the memories on this album?

Not really, no. Actually not on this particular album.

You famously declined from touring with The Beach Boys to stay at home and concentrate on writing and producing. You’ve been around the world a couple of times in the past few years; have you come to enjoy touring again and travelling the world?

Yeah, actually it’s a lot of fun to tour now because we’re so good at it, each show gets a little better.

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Do you still prefer creating the songs to actually reproducing them or is performing live becoming a favourite aspect?

No, my favourite aspect is the live performance, but recording is just as important to me.

You mentioned earlier about the drugs, they obviously had an adverse effect on you in the ’60s. A lot of people were trying to open the doors of perception but you had an adverse reaction. Are you disappointed that young artists these days haven’t learned from your own mistakes or do you think that kids are always going to experiment with drugs?

I don’t think kids these days are very much into The Beach Boys, I really don’t.

I think you’re wrong; young people really do like The Beach Boys, and you are an icon. So are you dismayed they haven’t learned from your mistakes of taking drugs? Are you disappointed that the message of the Sixties didn’t survive?

Yeah, I’m a little disappointed in that. I think the message did not survive. I think kids nowadays are taking more and more drugs, and getting more stoned all the time.

So are you looking forward to performing the album more around the world, once it’s out and people know the songs and can sing along?

Yes, I’m looking forward to that, I think it should be fun.

When do you plan to return to the UK?

We’re not sure when. It’ll be in a few months; four or five months.

Which of the older songs do you most enjoy performing still?

‘California Girls’ and ‘God Only Knows’ are among some of my favourites.

Do you like the ones that people can sing along to?

Yeah, people sing along to ‘Good Vibrations’.

Most of the songs you play are from the Sixties, from The Beach Boys. You play very few from the Seventies. Do you think this era of your career is under appreciated?

I don’t think people really need the Seventies. The Sixties is what I think people need.

It was quite a dark time musically. Is that why you decided not to play them, to keep the gigs quite happy and fun?

Yeah.

As such a vocal advocate for Southern California, if our readers were going there on vacation, what kind of places would you recommend they visit?

I would say to go to Laguna Beach or, er…that’s it, Laguna Beach. It has this motel called The Montage, and you get plenty of sun and a pool and everything.

And that’s what California is all about?

Right.

Words By Simon Harper

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