Sailing An Unsettled Ocean: Brian Wilson

The troubled genius on the Beach Boys, 'Pet Sounds', and more...

There’s a line reverberating around my head from ‘Pet Sounds’, the classic Beach Boys album that turned 50 this May. “I know there’s an answer,” goes the chorus of the song of that name, “but I have to find it by myself.”

I’m sitting opposite the group’s chief composer and that album’s visionary, Brian Wilson, at the end of a long press day he’s endured while here in London ahead of this weekend’s 50th anniversary performances of ‘Pet Sounds’, and the 73-year-old is noticeably tired and weary of his string of interrogations. I’m second-to-last, so he’s aware this drudgery is almost over, and seems keen for it to be over as quickly as possible – why waste time with thoughtful, considered answers when one word will suffice?

Eight years ago I attempted to hold a conversation with Brian over the telephone, and while his answers had a little more meat on the bones than the scraps he’s throwing me this afternoon, I do remember rattling through my list of questions at a startling pace. Therefore I had come prepared today: my notebook pages were brimming with far too many scrawled questions than I could possibly fit into our allotted 15 minutes together. Or so I thought.

I had deliberately devised a set of questions that were, a) pertaining to subject matter that I thought he would be most interested in, e.g. production values and sonic adventuring, rather than enquiring into his prodigious drug use at that time, or the controversies surrounding bandmate Mike Love’s songwriting credits and the actual extent of his contributions, and b) not leading to a yes/no answer. However, coming face-to-face with this genius – a genuine hero of mine – is unnerving enough, but when his answers begin to shoot like bullets from the off, I find myself disarmed, scouring my pages for another line of questioning that may prove more fruitful. But his defenses were raised, and as I tried to infiltrate his wall, brick by brick, I’d fluster, and in desperation my next question would tail off with a throwaway ‘Did you…?’ or ‘Was that because…?’ that ultimately left me with a blustery “Yeah” or gruff “no.”

It’s all highly frustrating and heartbreaking. This is my opportunity (perhaps my last – this tour is being announced as the last performance of ‘Pet Sounds’; might his global travels be coming to an end for good?) to quiz one of the all-time greats, to gleam precious nuggets of nostalgia from the man whom Paul McCartney considers the greatest songwriter ever; the man who wrote ‘God Only Knows’. I’m trying so hard to squeeze information out, but it’s proving futile. Maybe the tiredness is consuming him, maybe I haven’t been successful in attempting to connect with him, or maybe he just doesn’t like my questions, but, after 10 minutes, as I enquire into the inspiration behind album closer, ‘Caroline, No’, he cuts our interview short with an outstretched hand and a definitive “Okay.”

What follows is, I feel, a conversation that undermines Brian’s stature as a genius. It’s not the finest hour of either of us, and fails to deliver any enlightening data, but it is what it is. I can’t comment on whether it’s an insight into a frail and damaged character, whose lifelong struggle with mental health has long been documented, or whether I just caught him on a bad day – we all have them – but my joy of finally meeting a hero was definitely countered by a lingering sense of despondency for the situation we both found ourselves in.

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After 50 years of playing these songs, what does ‘Pet Sounds’ mean to you now?
Well, it’s a thrill to play them. I think they’re good tunes.

These are apparently your final performances of ‘Pet Sounds’…

Why did you decide to make this the final tour?
I don’t know.

Is this possibly the last tour you’ll do, or just the last tour of ‘Pet Sounds’.
The last tour of ‘Pet Sounds’. Well, we might keep doing it. I don’t know yet. We’ll probably do more.

Do you still suffer from stage fright?
Oh yeah.

How does that manifest?
Well, I have to sit down in a chair and meditate for a few minutes.

Does it soon go away, or does it last the whole event?
No, it goes away.

So it gets easier as you go on?

‘Pet Sounds’ itself was a result of you quitting touring [Brian refused to tour after a panic attack while flying in December 1964, intending to instead focus on writing new material while the others continued]. Was that the right decision for you to make at the time?
Yeah. I needed to try something different, you know?

Was it too much work, too much stress?

What were the benefits of being able to stay at home?
The benefits were that I had the time to write songs.

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At the time that ‘Pet Sounds’ was made, music and culture was changing very fast. Did you feel like you had to always catch up with what was going on, or were you not very aware because you were so focused on your own thing?
I wasn’t aware because I was doing my own thing.

But you obviously listened to The Beatles?

They were reportedly an influence on the songs that became ‘Pet Sounds’.

What was the impact that their album, ‘Rubber Soul’, had on you?
Oh, I loved it. I thought it was a beautiful album. I loved it.

Do you remember hearing it for the first time?
Uh, yeah. A long time ago.

Did it instantly want to make you go out and better it, or at least equal it?
I tried to equal it, yeah.

– – –

I thought it was going to be easy.

– – –

Did you think that was going to be a challenge, or would it be easy?
I thought it was going to be easy.

And as it turned out?
It was.

Compared to now, the limitations of the studio meant that you were in the studio for a very long time making ‘Pet Sounds’.

How did all those months in the studio affect and influence the songs you were working on, since you were so immersed within their creation?
It just made me want to make them a little faster.

Can you imagine doing all of that now with today’s technology?

Why did you choose to use the team of session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew to record the album?
Because I knew they were great musicians, so I had them play on my sessions.

Was it easier to work with session musicians that would do as instructed rather than using the more democratic confines of your band?

– – –

I just met him one day with a friend…

– – –

You weren’t able to use the band anyway as they were out on tour at that point.

Would you have used them if they had been available?
No. When they got back, I used them to sing on ‘Pet Sounds’.

What led to you working with the lyricist Tony Asher (who co-wrote eight of the album’s 13 tracks)?
It was great working with Tony. He’s a great lyricist. I just met him one day with a friend, and he told me if I ever wanted him to write lyrics for me, he would do it. I said yeah, so we wrote ‘Pet Sounds’.

Were you aware of his previous work as an advertising copywriter? What was it about him that you liked?
I didn’t know about his work, I just knew that he wrote good lyrics.

He once said in an interview that he considered himself an “interpreter” of your ideas while working on this album.
Oh, okay.

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How did these songs come into being? Did you sit and discuss ideas or themes? 
You know, I don’t know.

I think he said something about you suggesting initial seeds of an idea that you’d both develop either individually or together. Were there any preconceived ideas to what you wanted the album to be about?

There’s a beautiful narrative that runs through the album, wherein songs of love tinged with sadness build up a conceptual theme. Was there a particular reason why you wanted the songs to be like that?

A personal reason?

‘Sloop John B’ was one of the first songs slated for the album, but I believe ‘God Only Knows’ was the first one specifically written in these sessions. Is that right?
Right. ‘God Only Knows’ was the first one written, yeah.

Did that then influence what followed?
Not really, no.

Regarding the song ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’, Tony once told an interviewer that you had asked him to write a song about not fitting into the times in which you’re living. Was that a feeling you had at that time?
No, that was Tony’s lyric. That’s how Tony felt.

So it didn’t come from you?

Was working on these songs that are so radiantly positive an escape from the negativity that was surrounding the infighting within the band at that time? [Brian’s bandmates were afraid that disrupting their signature surf-rock sound and themes with these complex and symphonic new songs would alienate audiences, applying great pressure on him, and ostensibly leading him to create ‘Pet Sounds’ as a solo project.]

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It does feel like an album of escapism, one that you can lose yourself in.
Right. Get lost in it, you mean?

Yes. It’s a 35-minute world in which you can lose yourself.

Can you tell me a little about the sonic experiments undertaken in the studio, and what your plans were for building this wall of sound?
I didn’t have plans for a wall of sound.

But using different instruments and sounds – harpsichord, a bicycle horn, dogs barking – was a way to paint a different picture, right?

Is that because you just enjoyed the experimentation, or did you have something particular that you wanted to achieve with them?
I can’t answer that question.

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I wouldn’t have done it differently…

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It was suggested that the work you were doing and what became ‘Pet Sounds’ could have been a solo album, as opposed to a Beach Boys album.

What might the differences have been if it was just a solo album?
I wouldn’t have done it differently, and I kept the same harmonies going the whole time.

Talking of the harmonies, I think Mike Love said that there were over 30 takes taken on the vocal sessions for ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. Do you consider yourself a perfectionist in finding the right take?
Yeah. I try to get it the right way the best I can.

How do you know when it’s right?
I can hear it.

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It’s a good ballad, good music.

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You do the most lead vocals on the album, and yet you gave ‘God Only Knows’ to your brother, Carl. Why did you choose to give it away?
Because I wanted Carl to have a chance to sing.

Did you think that he could do it better than you?

‘Caroline, No’ is apparently one of your favourites off the album. What does that song mean to you?
Oh, it’s a beautiful ballad. It’s a good ballad, good music.

Where does it come from?
From inside of me.

Was it about anybody in particular?
No. [Reaches out hand] Okay.

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And with that, we were done. The final unsuspecting journalist was waiting by the door, watching as our photographer managed a total of four portrait shots (before he too was halted by an exasperated “Okay”), unaware of the verbal minefield he was about to negotiate. I left him to it, heading to the door clutching my signed vinyl and counting my blessings.

Clearly not a comfortable conversationalist, Brian Wilson is most truly alive in his music. The following night, the ‘Pet Sounds’ show hits the Palladium, and although he’s similarly impermeable on stage as he is in person, his music speaks for itself. It is wonderful; the album, in addition to the Beach Boys’ greatest hits we’re also treated to, is exquisite in their execution, perfectly recreating that beatific California sunshine.

The glorious experience of witnessing these songs brought to life with their originator at the heart of it all washes away my festering disappointment like a Redondo Beach rogue wave and I realise, to paraphrase one of his own creations: Brian, I still believe in you.

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Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Rob Meyers

The Deluxe Special extended edition of ‘Pet Sounds – 50th Anniversary’ is out now via Universal. Brian’s memoir, I Am Brian Wilson, is out now through Hodder.

Catch Brian Wilson at the Royal Albert Hall, London on October 28th.

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