Our most recent conversations, in honor of Brian’s 78th birthday
Sleigh bells in the summer. Darkness in the sun. These dichotomies have been at the heart of Brian Wilson’s music since the start of the sixties when he, his brothers, a cousin and a neighbor started a band that would become an American institution: the Beach Boys.
Born on June 20, 1942 in Inglewood, California, he was the Beach Boy who preferred to fill his living room with sand rather than go to the beach. Though he was the architect of the “California Sound” and introduced surfing into the vocabulary of the popular song, he never surfed himself. He was a musical innovator who could never hear stereo due to deafness in one ear. As a kid, he was so terrorized by his father that he retreated to the only haven of safety in their suburban home — the piano. He was the one member of the Beach Boys who elected not to perform with them during their heyday, preferring instead to be at home writing songs of sea and sun while staying in the darkness of his own room, away from the ocean
He sings his answers a lot. First over a tuna wrap, then over successive bowls of strawberries at his favorite L.A. deli. Also a Diet Coke. 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.
Do you remember writing your first song?
Yeah. “Surfer Girl.” I was about 19 when I wrote that.
Do you remember what it was that started you writing songs?
Yeah, my dad was a songwriter and I wanted to be like him.
You’re famous for writing happy, sunny songs. Is that something that naturally happened?
No, it’s just that I got jazzed on the renaissance of the ‘60s, you know. And I latched onto that spirit, and it’s very contagious to creativity. It’s like a bug that gets into you, like a flu bug.
You’ve been regarded as a musical genius throughout your career. Has that put too much pressure on you?
No, it doesn’t put pressure on me. The only thing that puts the pressure on me is having to live up to my name, you know. As who I think I might be or should be or am. According to people, what they think I should be. You know, everybody goes through it. I’m not the only one who goes through that. Everybody goes through it.
But not everybody is the driving force of the Beach Boys. You had the pressure to produce sunny, happy songs, even if you didn’t feel that way. What was that like?
I was on the spot. You know what it was, though, that’s when I was younger. Right? When I was in my twenties I was on the go all the time, producing, writing, you know, just creating all the time. It was such that it was a big burden on my shoulders. I took on a lot of karma and burdens on my shoulders. For some unknown reason, I just found myself involved in a name dilemma. After my twenties, when I was in my thirties and forties, I had age dilemma problems.
I say to myself, “I miss the feeling of being young.” I say, “OK, so I do. That’s established.” Then I go through that, I get back on the track, and I say, “Yeah, but I got a great brain. Maybe I don’t feel like taking a sprint every ten seconds down the street, but I have a great brain.” Know what I mean?
Yeah. And we see that being a songwriter is not like being an athlete. It’s not something you can do well only when you’re young.
Yeah. First of all, I want people to understand that I’m here to create for them. To create music for people so they’ll know that I’m a source of love. And they can depend on my name.
When you say the name Burt Bacharach, right away, [snaps fingers] it triggers off love melodies, harmonies, beautiful records, incredible songs that he wrote with Hal David. Know what I mean? That’s a source of love, right there, Burt Bacharach is. His name is. He might not be in that frame of mind today but his name is always in that frame of mind. Know what I mean?
That’s why when you’re sitting in a hotel room and somebody from another city around the world is getting-off on your music, you know, while you’re bumming it somewhere, it’s a well-taken thing. It’s taken very well by me and I appreciate the very thought of being able to entertain and write songs for people; it turns me on, personally. I feel turned on by it, I can’t help it. I can’t help myself.
Almost all your songs are in major keys.
Yeah. I like major chords.
Do you have favorite keys?
Yes. 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.
Do you see each key as a different color?
What color is A?
How about minor keys, such as E minor?
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.
Okay, I believe you.