Brian Wilson on Songwriting: "I'm Always Anxious to Make Each One Better"

Categories: Interviews

Sayre Berman
Brian Wilson is arguably the most creatively influential musical mind of our time. With the Beach Boys, he crafted soaring harmonies and immaculate arrangements. And on bizarro opus Smile -- which it's been said he dubbed as "a teenage symphony to God" -- Wilson turned pop-music sounds upside down and even made vegetables fun.

In recent years, his well-publicized struggles with substance abuse and his mental health have taken a back seat to news of his revival. Wilson appears to be in full creative mode. There was last year's reunion tour with the original Beach Boys, and there's an upcoming album and current tour, featuring appearances from bandmate Al Jardine and ace guitarist Jeff Beck.

The prospect of actually interviewing Wilson would make anyone's hands damp and voice shaky. He may be brilliant, but he's also known for unusual behavior. During our conversation with the musician, we faced some perfunctory answers and a few awkward moments but still enjoyed every minute of it.

See also: Beach Boys' Al Jardine on Touring With Brian Wilson: "We're Not Done Yet"

New Times: Let's start out by talking about your new album. How far along are you at this point?
Brian Wilson: We're about three quarters of the way through. We still have a little more to do.

Are you producing the album?
I'm producing with my friend Joe, Joe Thomas.

As one of the greatest producers of all time, what's it like working with someone else?
We bounce ideas off each other. It's really fun. It's interesting how it works. We bounce ideas off each other. It's a good chemistry.

So the songs that you're including in this album, are they songs that you wrote recently or songs that have been around awhile?

The songs have been around for quite awhile, yeah.

Will you be performing any of the songs in the upcoming tour?
Probably so, maybe one or two of them, yeah.

You have such an amazingly huge catalog to choose from. How do you decide which songs to include in your live set?
Well, we haven't gotten to that point yet, but I'm sure we'll think of something.

No doubt you will. Do you plan to offer some songs that audiences haven't heard from you before?
Yeah, you will be hearing some of those. Yeah.

How did you happen to hook up with Jeff Beck for this tour?
Back a couple of years ago, he played and sang "Surf's Up" at MusiCares. Do you know Musicares?

Yes, I've heard of it. It's a major music fundraiser.
Yeah, and so I called him a few months ago and asked him to play on my album.

So how did that work out?
Wonderful. He's a really great guitar player.

The combination seems like it should be really dynamic.
It's going to be. It really is.

Is it ever intimidating when you go to write a new piece of music, thinking that you've already set such a high bar? Is there pressure to compete with yourself?
No, actually not. How could you think that?

Because of that high bar you've set. Your reputation for genius.
Well, yeah. I'm always anxious to make each one better, ya know? We want to make each cut as well-done as we can get it.

Do you write with the idea that it will have that patented sound?
I hear the harmonies when I write. Usually I try to create good harmonies to match the song, to go with it.

The song comes first, and then you try to envision how the harmonies will fit in?
Yeah, then the harmonies come in. Yeah.

Your competition with the Beatles in the '60s was the stuff of legend.

Are you still in touch with Paul McCartney. Do you still communicate and comment on one another's work?
No, actually we haven't gotten to that point yet. We're just casual friends. We're not really close. We haven't gotten to the point where we talk to each other about that, ya know?

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Brian has mentioned the Doors as one of the groups he listens to and admires, and I'm really curious why. Although I love the Doors, their music is so dark I would think Brian would find it scary and not for his taste. I know that Jim Morrison once said the Beach Boys were a favorite group of his, but I always thought he was just messing around with the interviewer. I wish just once an interviewer would really be able to probe Brian on some deeper questions and pick up on some hints he seems to be dropping.


Yeah actually Jim really was a big fan of The Beach Boys, especially Brian. Supposedly, his favorite album of all time was Pet Sounds. In the bio for Elektra in '67, he listed The Beach Boys as his favorite group, along with Love and The Kinks.

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