BRIAN WILSON 1999
Brian Wilson Interview
There’s nothing one could write about Brian Wilson that hasn’t been written a million times before so, to encapsulate: brilliant songwriter, soulful arranger, emotional producer, outstanding performer. It must be true that all great artists must suffer for their art. Here’s a guy raised and later managed by a controlling and abusive father — one day sixteen year old Brian didn’t mow the lawn on time, so Dad beat him with a “2 by 4”, one blow to the head leaving him with nerve damage in one ear. He still has only 6 percent hearing in that ear. He’s fought an uphill battle with unhip record companies that only want formula hits – not imaginative brilliance, and risen through a hellish drug and weight problem. Ownership of his entire Beach Boy catalog of songs was taken from him and sold without his consent. And he’s lost his only siblings, Dennis and Carl, losing his mother shortly thereafter. So, after putting his life back on track in the mid 80s and releasing two great albums – “Brian Wilson” and “Imagination” – you can’t imagine how happy and honored I was to hear that Brian wanted to do an interview with me for The Manifesto. Brian called from his Southern California home and, as nervous as I was to hear “the icon” on the other end of the phone, after a few minutes I started to feel like I was talking to someone I’d known all my life.
SE: Congratulations on the new album. It’s the best solo album yet.
BW: Thank you.
SE: “Imagination” is such a nice piece. It makes you feel right at home once you put the CD on. What was your inspiration for that track?
BW: Oh, not much specifically. We just wanted to write a song about
imagination you know?
SE: The vibe I get when I hear it, is that it just takes you to another place
and time. It’s great.
BW: Well, thank you very much.
SE: Have you been to the Bay Area to just relax and visit?
BW: Not the Bay Area. We haven’t, no.
SE: Now in your earlier recordings you’ve used jewelry, keychains, and
stuff like that for…percussion instruments..Are there any other things
you’ve used that sounded really good on tape?
BW: We used the bottom of a plastic orange juice cup.
BW: We banged on the bottom of that for a sound.
BW: Yeah. It sounded great.
SE: Which track did you use that on?
BW: On “God Only Knows”.
SE: Do you do that stuff anymore..pick up stuff and just use it?
BW: Yeah. Now and then we do in the studio, yeah. We look through a
percussionist’s box of tools and percussive instruments. We choose
the ones that work to our satisfaction.
SE: Are there any unfinished tunes or ones you’d like to do or re-do for any
future albums..that were kind of ahead of their time in the 60s and
BW: No. We’re moving on to greener pastures. We’re just gonna rock n’
SE: I know you had some problems getting “Sweet Insanity” out. Is there
any chance of that seeing the light of day?
BW: I don’t know. The tapes were stolen, so we don’t know if we can get it
BW: Yeah. Someone stole our master tapes.
SE: I never knew that.
BW: Yeah. They’ve been swiped.
SE: How do you feel about bootleggers?
BW: Well, bootleggers….I don’t like the idea of bootlegging. I think it’s very
unfair for people to do that, you know?
SE: I mean there’s so much stuff out there now.. of everybody.
BW: Yeah, right.
SE: And it’s even for sale on the Internet, which is ridiculous. You’d think
they’d be afraid of getting popped.
SE: But I’ve always seen and heard copies of “Sweet Insanity” out there
and the quality’s always pretty bad. It’s like a fifth generation tape.
SE: But it is good material.
BW: Yeah, I know. It is good material.
SE: At the time was it that the record company wasn’t hip to what you were
trying to do?
BW: I don’t’ know if they were into what I was doing, you know? I’m not sure
if they were.
SE: Do you get frustrated today with these 20 something year old record
company people who simply don’t know their legends, or anything
about music in general for that matter, just as you were frustrated in
the 60s with those old timers who couldn’t understand what you were
trying to do?
BW: Yeah. Very much so, yeah.
SE: What was your opinion of Dennis’ ability as a songwriter, player and
BW: Well, he came into his own, you know…in the 70s…and boy, he made
some good music didn’t he?
SE: He made some great stuff and it always sounded to me like he was
really trying to follow in his brothers footsteps.
BW: In a way….but he did a departure so that he could do his own kind of
SE: Did you ever help him out on the production of his records?
BW: No. He did his own producing on all his stuff.
SE: Is there any chance of the Brother Records stuff coming back out?
BW: I don’t think so.
SE: That’s a drag…Would you help out on a project to put together a
“Smile” package or box set?
BW: No. I’m not into “Smile” at all. I don’t want that to come out. No, it’s
SE: There’s so many people passing those tapes around nowadays. It’s
SE: Do you know if the TV special you guys made back in the 70s to
promote “15 Big Ones” will ever come out on video?
BW: No. I don’t know about that.
SE: What do you listen to nowadays?
BW: Phil Spector’s records.
SE: Do you think what might have kinda pushed him over the edge a bit
was the fact that you came along and surpassed him as far as being a
more creative songwriter and producer?
BW: Not really. I didn’t surpass him at all. People say that, but it isn’t true.
Nobody surpassed him.
SE: What’s the story behind the song “Guess I’m Dumb”.
BW: “Guess I’m Dumb”? Oh my God, that was years ago. I don’t
know…Glen Campbell right?
BW: Yeah, yeah. That was a good one. I liked that one a lot.
SE: You used the word dumb a lot and nobody else ever used that
word in a song before, or since, as far as I know.
BW: (Laughing) I know.
SE: Guess I’m dumb…dumb angel…
BW: Yeah, somethin’ like that.
SE: Did that song “Guess I’m Dumb” ever come out?
BW: Yeah, but it didn’t sell.
SE: It didn’t sell? It’s such a great record.
BW: It was different…yeah.
SE: It’s kinda like that song “She Knows Me Too Well”…
SE: It’s musically too deep for the average listener. Glen Campbell was a
session guy of yours, right?
BW: Yes he was.
SE: He played on “Good Vibrations”?
BW: Yeah…I think so….Uh no, no he didn’t play on that one.
SE: He didn’t?
SE: “Caroline No” came out on a single with just your name on it. How did
that come about?
BW: I wanted to put it out. I just wanted to put it out under my name. I just
felt like doing it, so I argued with them. They said, “No.” They said. “We
can’t do that Brian. It’s not a good enough record. It’s not commercial.”
I said, “Give it a chance.. give it a chance.” Then they go, “OK. We’ll
give it a chance.” So they released it and it bombed….
SE: Oh, man.
BW: Yeah, it bombed….shit.
SE: They really didn’t push it as much as they should’ve.
BW: You’re right.
SE: I mean, that song fifty years from now will be regarded as a classical
BW: (Laughing) I hope so.
SE: On AMC they run that movie “The Girls On The Beach” every so often.
BW: Yeah, right.
SE: Including that black and white live show of you guys in 64’. Now during
that show I notice that when the guys are singing, you every so often
look over…when I hear a clinker note anyway….and you look at Carl
and Al. I just wondered if you notice that when you watch it today.
BW: Yeah. My ears were very keen to the singers.
SE: Who was the toughest to teach harmony to?
BW: Dennis, at first.
SE: How was Mike Love at harmony?
BW: Very good. Mike was very quick.
SE: He usually sang most of the bass stuff..
BW: Yeah, right. The low notes.
SE: There was something you were going to do with Van Dyke Parks a few
years back…some kind of Gershwin project?
BW: Yeah. We did a part of “Rhapsody in Blue”.
BW: But he never did anything with it.
SE: Would there ever be a possibility of you doing an album with the old
Wrecking Crew studio guys that you worked so closely with in the 60s?
You know, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye?
BW: I don’t know. You know, that’s a good question. I really don’t know. It
sounds like a good project, but I’m not sure I want to.
SE: I was wondering about that because they all seem to know how you
work and know where you’re coming from as a musician and producer.
SE: I read in an article that you said that vocals are on the way out. You
said that people aren’t singing much anymore….
SE: Do you think that sometime you might want to put together and
produce a group of your own that does that type of vocal stuff?
BW: That’s a prospect. Yeah, that’s a possibility.
SE: Does it surprise you that the songwriters of the past…Burt Bacharach,
Carole King, Carol Bayer Sager for instance…are coming back into vogue,
and people are buying all of the artists that they wrote for to collect their
BW: There’s gotta be some leaders to lead the way.
SE: Exactly….Again, in the movie “Girls On The Beach” when you filmed
the scene for “The Lonely Sea”..how was that? Did it feel weird doing a
solo bit in the movie.
BW: Yeah. I was a little self conscious about my voice back then.
SE: Oh, man. That’s a great track. It’s gotta be my favorite track on the
“Surfin’ USA” album.
BW: Thank you.
SE: One cool thing about you is, you never broke the band up.
SE: You never felt like…I’m the star. I’m the producer. I’m the writer. I can
do it on my own. I don’t need anybody.
BW: I never did that.
SE: Even though you’d tell the band to go on and tour while you did your
own thing…but did you ever feel deep down that you were a solo act at
heart, but you brought the guys along because they started with you?
BW: No. No, I always thought of us as a group.
SE: How do you deal with the fact that you are more popular than The
BW: Well, not really. We’re all about the same.
SE: But if you asked the average kid on the street…What is the Beach
Boys?..They’d say, “Brian Wilson.”
BW: Oh yeah. But, in some ways and in some ways not, you know?
SE: In 1965, during the Beach Boys “Summer Days” sessions, you
recorded an argument between you and your dad…
SE: And at one point he kept telling you to sing from your heart, sing from
SE: And he kept asking you…”Have you made too much money, buddy?
You can’t sing from your heart anymore?”..And you said, “Go tell
Johnny Rivers that.”
BW: (Laughing) Oh, I don’t remember that.
SE: But were you once again trying to explain to someone who’s kinda out
of touch the difference between what you were doing and what the
formula hit makers were doing?
BW: You mean compare?
SE: Yeah. It sounded to me like he was trying to control the session in sort
of an old school way…
SE: When you were trying to be a little more inventive.
SE: And it didn’t sound like he could really see that.
SE: “The Beach Boys Today” album is a great album. It’s kinda like the
stepping stone on the way to “Pet Sounds”.
BW: Yeah. It’s a really nice album. I liked it a lot.
SE: On “God Only Knows” , which is one of the greatest songs ever
BW: What song?
SE: “God Only Knows”.
BW: Oh, yeah..yeah.
SE: You and Tony Asher wrote it together. Were you the music man and
he was the word man?
BW: Yeah. Yeah, I did most of the music and he did most of the lyrics.
Yeah, we collaborated on that one together.
SE: So, you’re touring now?
BW: Right. I have a tour starting in October (1999).
SE: And how long is the tour?
BW: Well, it’s about ten days.
SE: And you’re doin’ the west coast?
SE: San Francisco, L.A…
BW: Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas….yeah.
SE: So you’re not really into those three or six month tours?
BW: No, no, no. I can’t do that.
SE: Yeah. Who wants to be away from home that long?
SE: What was Paul McCartney’s involvement with the song “Vegetables”?
BW: Not much. He just came by when we were eating our vegetables.
SE: He just hung out?
SE: You know I keep reading in all these books that he co-produced it, or
co-wrote it, or he was at the session.
BW: No, no, no.
SE: You are such a heavy influence on most musicians. Do you enjoy
hearing the sound alike records by other artists?….The people who try
to capture your sound?
BW: It’s a nice feeling. I call it a pump up. I don’t know what it’s really called,
but it’s an honor to have people emulate me. It really is.
SE: I have some Wayne Newton record that sounds like “Don’t Worry
Baby” and I think that McCartney’s “Getting Better” has a heavy
influence from you and the “God Only Knows” song.
SE: Yeah. I’d say the rhythmic thing he does with the guitar sounds a lot
like “God Only Knows”.
BW: A little bit. There’s a hint of it, but now much, you know.
SE: Are you gonna be doing a live album from this tour?
BW: We’re not doing a live album. I don’t think so.
SE: That song “Still I Dream Of It”..whenever I hear it somewhere it’s
always a home demo they play. Did you ever record it in the studio with
BW: No. We never did. I never took it to the studio. I just did a little piano
demo of it.
SE: I really like that song.
BW: Yeah, it’s a pretty tune. It really is.
SE: It’s a lot like “Imagination”. It really brings you home…
SE: It just makes you feel right at home.
BW: Yeah. That’s a good way to put it.
SE: When did you start writing the real personal songs?….Like at that time
in the 60s, everyone else was writing about society’s problems, and
the war in Vietnam n’ all that, and you wrote about what was going on
then in your life.
SE: As well as what goes on in most people’s lives.
SE: When did you make the conscious effort to write about what came
from within you? And what you were feeling at the time?
BW: Well, just gradually into “Pet Sounds”…and then graduated to other
things, you know?
SE: Yeah, you have a knack for just letting flow onto the tape what’s going
on inside your mind.
SE: And that’s what your fans want to hear…
SE: Speaking on behalf of everyone I know who loves your music, I think
the last thing people want to hear is a cookie cutter pop record from
Brian Wilson. Just let the tape roll ‘cause we just want to hear what
spills out of your mind, you know?
SE: You said you listen to Phil Spector’s records. Do you still listen to much
BW: No, I don’t. I stopped listening to classical music…stopped listening.
SE: What’s your earliest memory of music?
BW: Oh, uh…my mother used to play “Rhapsody In Blue” for me when I
was a little baby.
SE: Do you still feel any competition with other artists on the scene today,
as you did in the 60s?
BW: No. I’ve lost sight of competition. I’m not in competition with anybody.
SE: Why are there two versions of “Caroline No” floating around, a lower
pitch one and a more sped up one?
BW: Well, my dad had the idea of speeding it up a half step, and so we had
two versions. I don’t know how they got a hold of the other version.
SE: It must be a bootleg I have. They both sound great.
SE: How did you feel about Capitol wanting to finally release a stereo
version of “Pet Sounds” after all these years?
BW: I thought it was a great move…a really good move.
SE: Of all the songs you’ve written, which one are you the most proud of?
BW: “California Girls”.
SE: Great song.
BW: It’s a good record, yeah.
SE: And which production job are you most proud of?
BW: Um..”California Girls”.
SE: Who makes you laugh?
BW: My little daughter, Dari. She makes me laugh. She’s so funny.
SE: Now this is just a guess on my part, but is the record by the Laughing
Gravy on the White label you and Dean Torrence doing “Vegetables”?
SE: Are you glad now that you had the foresight to just let the tape roll
during the sessions to record all of your direction in the studio?
BW: Yeah, yeah. We did that for memories sake.
SE: I spent hours listening to your “Pet Sounds” sessions and it felt like I
was right there with you.
BW: Hmm. I’ll be darned.
SE: You know, a while back, the Robert Johnson box set became a
textbook at Cal-Berkeley. I’d guess that those tapes of your sessions
may be used the same way in a recording engineering class…
SE: To teach how to make a real record.
BW: Yeah. (laughing)
SE: In the 60s, who gave you the most support in the studio?
BW: My brother Carl.
SE: I was listening to a tape of you working on “California Girls” in the
studio and you’d say, “’You’re Grass and I’m A Power Mower’..take 8”
SE: Did you always give your songs funny working titles like that?
BW: Oh, I was just kiddin’ around.
SE: I was also listening to the Sharon Marie records that you produced.
She had a great girl group voice.
BW: Yeah. She sure did.
SE: And you provided her with the perfect material and production. Those
were great records. Did she ever go on to do something else?
BW: No. I don’t think so.. No.
SE: In 1966, you visited a Rolling Stones session for the “Between The
Buttons” album in L.A. What did you think of the band at the time?
BW: I thought they were remarkable.
SE: The time you met up with Elvis, was it just a friendly get together or
was he thinking of recording one of your songs?
BW: No. I just saw him in a studio one time. He was in one studio and I was
in another studio, and they said that Elvis Presley was over in the other
side of the studio recording, so I said, “Hold on a minute” and I went
over and I said, “Hi. I’m Brian Wilson” and he goes, “Hi Duke.”
BW: He called me Duke. (laughing)
SE: Was it kind of weird meeting the guy?
BW: Yeah. (laughing) It was a little bit weird…a little scary.
SE: Did you ever get a chance to hang out with John Lennon during those
two years he lived in L.A.?
BW: No. No I didn’t. I never met him.
BW: No, I never met John.
SE: Last night I was listening to a bunch of your stuff for three hours, and I
came across The Redwoods, who later became Three Dog Night,
doing a song that you produced called “Time To Get Alone”. Did the
Beach Boys use the same backing track for their version that you put
together for The Redwoods?
BW: Uh, yeah…it was.
SE: I tell you what…I have some song titles that I’d like to throw at you and
get what pops into your mind about them. Is that okay?
SE: “Sail On Sailor”.
BW: That was for my brother Carl.
SE: “Rio Grande”. What was your inspiration for that one?
BW: There was no inspiration for that one. It came naturally.
SE: “Surf’s Up”.
BW: Gosh, I can’t even remember. It was just something that came very
SE: How about the song “Cry” on your new album?
BW: I don’t like that one. I don’t like the way that one turned out.
SE: “Miracle” from the album you did with your two daughters. Did all three
of you write that one?
BW: Carney and I wrote it.
SE: Of those two girls, which one is a words person and which one music?
BW: They’re both the same. They’re both music people.
SE: How about “Don’t Worry Baby”?
BW: That was a sweet, sweet solo lead. Sweet, sweet sound.
SE: “Warmth of the Sun”.
BW: That was another sweet song also that had a lot of love in it. A lot of
love went into that song.
SE: It really reminds you of just sitting there watching the sun set.
BW: I know.
SE: “Lay Down Burden” off the new album.
BW: I don’t care for that….It’s not my favorite.
SE: “Let The Wind Blow”.
BW: That’s an oldie from way back a long time ago. Mike and I wrote
it..(singing) “let the wind blow…” I remember that, yeah. Nice song.
SE: I love the production on that one…Very hypnotic.
BW: Thank you.
SE: “Can’t Wait Too Long”?
BW: “Can’t Wait Too Long”, yeah, yeah. Whatever happened….I don’t know
about that one. I don’t know…
SE: It sounds like a song you may not have finished.
BW: Oh, yeah. We finished it.
BW: Oh, yeah. That song was inspired by my dad. Yeah… I wanted to write
a song for my dad, so I wrote “Friends”.
BW: Boy, you’re throwin’ these titles at me. (laughing)…God, “Break Away”
was a song my dad and I wrote.
SE: Was he a good melody guy or word guy?
BW: He was melody and words both. Yeah, he was good.
SE: “Happy Days”?
BW: That’s my favorite on the new album.
SE: I think between the first song, “Imagination”,and “Happy Days”, the last
song, they are my two favorites on the album.
SE: It’s a great way to open the album and a good way to end it on a
BW: Great. Thank you.
SE: “A Day In The Life Of A Tree”?
BW: Oh, yeah. That was a very beautiful record.
SE: And nobody in the Beach Boys sang it.
BW: Yeah, I know. We had a friend of ours sing it, but it turned out great.
That was a wonderful song.
BW: “Airplane”…Yeah, I remember that. Yeah, Al wrote part of that with me.
BW: “Good Vibrations”. What’s behind that one?
BW: Well, the whole group, we wanted to make a great record. You know, a
really great record?
BW: So, we made a great record…we all…We said, “Let’s make a record
about vibrations.” So, we called it “Good Vibrations”.
SE: OK. Here’s an obscure one, “Things Are Changing”?
BW: “Things Are Changing For The Better”?
SE: Yeah, it’s one that you co-wrote with Phil Spector?
SE: How did you guys wind up writing a tune together?
BW: He called me up and asked me to come to his hotel. And I went there
and we started writing, and he said, “Play in the key of A. Play ‘Don’t
Hurt My Sister’”, and he wrote a new lyric to it.
SE: Wow. I didn’t connect those two songs. I’ll have to go back and listen
to them again.
SE: Now I’d like to throw some artists’ names at you and get your opinion
or your thoughts about them.
SE: How about Buddy Holly.
BW: Never cared for him.
SE: Ray Charles?
BW: Love him.
SE: Joni Mitchell?
BW: I think she’s got a great voice.
SE: How about Lennon and McCartney?
BW: The greatest of my favorite songwriters.
SE: OK Duke, how about Elvis?
BW: He’s probably one of my favorite singers in the whole world.
SE: How about Three Dog Night?
BW: Oh, they’re the greatest….the greatest. They’re the greatest I’ve ever
SE: Harry Nilsson?
BW: Great songwriter. Really good.
SE: Bob Dylan?
BW: Great, great, great writer. Great writer and great singer.
SE: Frankie Lymon?
BW: Great singer. Really, really good singer.
SE: Stevie Wonder?
BW: Oh, Stevie Wonder has to be one of the greatest singers in the whole
world. He’s one of my very favorites.
SE: Do you ever listen to any of the new R&B singers today?
BW: Not really, no. No I don’t.
SE: One thing I notice is that they all try to do his style of singing.
SE: Roy Orbison?
BW: Roy Orbison, yeah. He’s a wonderful artist. Really great artist.
SE: Elton John?
BW: He’s one of my very, very favorites.
SE: One more question. Do you still have that white Fender bass you used
to play in the early Beach Boys?
BW: No, I don’t. I don’t know where it is. It’s in storage somewhere.
SE: That’s something that should be in the Rock n’ Roll hall of fame.
SE: Well, thank you so much for your time.
BW: You’re very welcome.
SE: And have a great time when you hit San Francisco.
BW: Thank you so much.
Check out the second interview of Brian on this website. And don’t forget to visit Brian’s website @ www.brianwilson.com.