Brian Wilson: The (Third) TVD Interview

When Brian Wilson answered the phone, he was shushing what sounded like a pack of attack dogs barking in the background. In that instant, my mind and our interview skipped to the very last track of Pet Sounds, “Caroline, No,” which closes the album not with a note, but with a cacophony of dogs barking. You can’t make this stuff up.

Pet Sounds literally the finest achievement in popular American music of the last 50 years (yeah, it’s even better than warm heartbreak of Blood on the Tracks or the ‘60s swan song of Bridge over Troubled Water). Brian Wilson’s own place in the pantheon of songwriters is long since assured—any song on Pet Sounds makes an ironclad case for his inclusion among the world’s greats—but while its songs have been cited, imitated, and generally pored over countless times since 1967, “Caroline, No” always stuck with me not because of any ambitions of being a pop standard, but because of its charming and unhinging smallness. It’s such an anticlimactic closer to a record that opens with the sparkly optimism of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” It, like life itself, is bookended by absurdity in the relatable, and beauty in yearning and dissatisfaction.

“‘Caroline, No’ is all about a girl who lost her charm and loveliness,” says Brian, “And the guy goes, [singing] ‘Can we ever bring them back once they’ve gone?’ And he goes, ‘Caroline, no.’ It’s a very sad song, but I like performing it because it’s a very beautiful tune and it’s a lot of fun to sing.”

We all know this. He doesn’t have to say these things about his work, but sometimes it’s worth articulating thoughts because we need to be reminded of basic truths. Then again, to talk to Brian Wilson is to talk to someone to whom every form of imaginable and deserved praise has long since been rendered predictable cliches.

I’m luckier than most—this is my second time speaking with him. (TVD also spoke with Brian in April, 2015. —Ed.) I’d like to think there isn’t a music lover alive today who doesn’t know that Brian Wilson is probably a genius, and suitably revered by other musicians they may know better and love more; Pet Sounds paved the way for everything from Sgt. Pepper’s to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—imagine how empty and incomplete and flat popular music would feel without Brian Wilson’s genre-defying and -defining influence.

Presumably at a volume louder than the dogs that leaked in on the phone when we began our chat, Brian had been in the studio, practicing the songs from Pet Sounds just before our call, meticulously fine-tuning his every note for the Pet Sounds 2017 World Tour.

“We’re performing more shows than ever before and the fans keep asking for more,” he says. “It’s been a real trip so far and I’m happy that we’ll have the chance to reach so many people who weren’t able to catch our shows last year… I’m very proud of the album, and we always make it sound just like the record when we do our concerts. My band members play it exactly like when we first recorded it.”

It’s bonkers to think that “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or “God Only Knows” or “Caroline, No” weren’t smash hits in their day. At the time, America—as is typical with all cultural revolutions in the making—didn’t quite get it. Even the Beach Boys themselves didn’t quite get it; the album title, Pet Sounds, was inspired by band member Mike Love’s bemusement at Brian’s desire to stop manufacturing surf- and car-themed Top 40 hits in favor of his “pet sounds.” Or, the old American refrain of telling an artist to get a haircut and get a real job—to just keep cranking out songs like they were on the same assembly line as the cars Wilson sang about.

History proved Brian Wilson the victor. A true auteur, the timeless American music he created is on the level of Copland or Gershwin and he continues to perform his masterwork to this day, more than five decades after its release.

“My voice has changed a little bit, so my friend Matt Jardine, Al Jardine’s son, he sings the real high notes for me,” Wilson says. “I sing the mid-range, a little bit of the high notes, but mostly the mid-range. But when we’re performing Pet Sounds, it takes me back to when I first heard Carl sing ‘God Only Knows,’” the song, incidentally, that Paul McCartney called “the most beautiful song ever written.”

“He actually did say that,” Brian tells me.

Brian and original Beach Boy Al Jardine—along with a crack and reverent backing band that includes long-time Beach Boys band member, Blondie Chaplin—continue to tour Pet Sounds, ostensibly to say goodbye, and obviously to enthrall a public that can’t get enough of it.

Pet Sounds is a master class in composition and production for all its pop elegance, ambition, and pretension. It was the Beach Boys’ answer to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul—“a complete statement” album with production values that rivaled Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” (due in no small part to his enlisting “The Wrecking Crew,” a collection of studio musicians first assembled by Spector.)

“I think that a lot of people learned bass lines and vocal characteristics and stuff like that from Pet Sounds,” he says. “When they hear the harmonies, they like to play it again to make sure they heard it right—they keep playing it over and over.”

But repetition has a way of killing originality. Although constraints can be great for any working and aspiring artist, adhering to a template is boring. When you have lived and worked as an artist as long as Brian has, you tend to pick up on patterns, rehashes, and watered down imitations of things that have been tried or worked before. As such, Brian laments that there’s no real impetus to put a full album out anymore. “So many of the songs have already been written. There’s hardly any more songs to write. And the record industry is not like it used to be. Not very many good records are being made these days.”

Although he released No Pier Pressure in 2015, his first album of new songs in seven years, when asked what he’s always wanted to do that he hasn’t done yet, responding: “A tribute album to rock and roll greats,” he says. “I’m going to do an album, later this year, dedicated to the great artists, you know, those great rock and roll guys. Chuck Berry is probably the greatest rock and roll singer of all time. I learned how to write rock and roll melodies from him. He taught me how—he was a great songwriter.”

For now, Brian’s focus is on the Pet Sounds 2017 World Tour. And for a wink, it seemed as though the rest of the surviving Beach Boys would join in on the fun of Pet Sounds in perpetuity. Just five years ago, all surviving original Beach Boys—Mike Love, David Marks, and Al Jardine—were in the fold, but even then the reunion felt tenuous. Old acrimony is too persistent. Today Brian Wilson does what he does on his own terms, with his chosen band and collaborators.

“Well, what keeps me going is my band. There’s ten great musicians and they always get me singing good and I’m always happy to sing with them.”

Brian Wilson: Official | Facebook | TwitterTour

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