He sings his answers over successive bowls of strawberries at his favorite L.A. deli. The fullness of his thoughts is purely musical. Yet it’s that singular focus from which many of the world’s most miraculous melodies and ingenious albums have emerged. He’s silent when asked about his life. But when the subject turns to music, Brian Wilson opens up.
Last time we spoke you were having trouble writing new songs. How did you get through that?
Slowly. Very slowly. I wait until I get inspired. If your energy is up and your strength is up, then it’s a good idea to try to write. I won’t touch the piano unless I’ve very inspired.
Your songs are timeless.
Depending on who you talk to. I think my music is all-time music. If you listen to any of the Beach Boys records ten years from now, you’ll like them just as much.
What’s the most important thing about a song?
The melody and the lyrics. And I like to make people happy with harmony.
Do you have favorite songs of your own?
“God Only Knows” and “California Girls.” I like “Good Vibrations” but it’s too arty, it’s not rock and roll. It’s pop.
“Good Vibrations” exploded the pop song structure.
Yeah. “Good Vibrations” has six, seven sections, right.
You spent a long time in the studio working on it.
Six weeks. Guys didn’t like it. They’d say, “Brian, what’s goin’ on here? Why do you want to go to another studio and another studio?” Because I want to get different sounds for different parts of this record. “But Brian, we want to get this done! We want to get this done.” Guys, take it easy, I got to do it my way and we’re not gonna do it. Look – I’m gonna do this in as many studios as I want. That’s what it took. It was my brother Carl’s idea to use Theremin. He said, “Why don’t we use a cello and a Theremin?” I’d never thought of that. We called Local 47, the Musician’s Union, and got a cello player and a Theremin player. I came up with the part, but it was Carl’s idea.
It showed us songs can do more.
Pop songs can do much, if not more, than people think, depending on who writes it, what the content is, the range of the melody, the intimacy of the lyric, and the delivery of the vocal – they all matter [laughs]. Back then music was changing in psychedelic terms. Sgt. Pepper was a psychedelic, drug-inspired album. Just like Pet Sounds. Marijuana inspired Pet Sounds. Music reached its peak in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. After that it started to descend a little bit.
Any idea why?
You want to know the truth? I think songwriters went out of business. It’s hard to write a song. An original song. I think that’s the reason that the business went down the tubes.
Almost all your songs are in major keys.
Yeah. I like major chords. Each key is a different color. My favorites are D, B, F and F#. A is a good key, too, sometimes. A has a strong vibe, a very powerful vibe.
No. A happy vibe to me would be E and B.
What color is A?
Are all the minor keys black?
Is “God Only Knows” in F#m?
It’s not really in any one key. It’s a strange song. It’s the only song I’ve ever written that’s not in a definite key, and I’ve written hundreds of songs. Tony Asher wrote the words. He expressed it beautifully. With that one, I wrote some of the melody and then he’d write some of the lyric, and then I’d write more. We kind of wrote it together at the same time.
Do you have any sense of how much joy your music has brought to the world?
I don’t know if it brings joy or not, I don’t know. When people say, “Brian, you brought a lot of joy to me with your music,” I don’t know if they’re telling truth or not.