Short Answers with Brian Wilson

brianSmile! (Jonathan Alcorn FTWP)

You don't turn down a chance to talk to Brian Wilson, even if you're pretty sure that it's going to leave you feeling a bit uneasy. So a couple of weeks ago I spent a few minutes on the phone with the pop music genius, who plays at the Warner Theatre on Tuesday night. Interviewing Wilson is no easy task. He's not exactly the most talkative person and he rarely lets his guard down. He seemed to be plenty engaged during our brief chat, but there were only a couple of occasions when I felt like he was really telling me something. And then, suddenly, it was over. In a way, this conversation pretty much says it all.

Hi Brian.
Hi David, where are you?

I'm in Washington, D.C.
I was just there.

You were just here? When was that?
Four days ago I played a private corporation show.

Why wasn't I invited?
I don't know!

Was it a good time?

You were also in D.C. fairly recently for the Kennedy Center Honors. Did you enjoy yourself there?
Yes, very much so. It was one of the two happiest nights of my whole life.

What was the other one?
Oh, I can't tell you that!

OK. Was it weird being the center of attention like that?
I always do get a little bit paranoid when I get a lot of attention. But I get used to it. When you're a celebrity you have to do that kind of thing, you know?

Did you chat it up with Steve Martin, Diana Ross and Martin Scorcese?
I sure did, yeah.

Is Martin going to put your songs on any of his soundtracks? He puts the Rolling Stones on all the time.
I don't know if he's going to or not.

You've had a very non-traditional career, but now you're taking a pretty normal path where you have a new album, you're doing press, touring in support of the album. Is it weird to be doing something so standard?
Well yeah, I'm very proud. I'm happy, I'm a happy person.

Do you still like playing shows?
Yeah, I do.

You're known for being one of the first real studio geniuses, what do you get out of playing shows that you don't get from recording?
Well it's just the satisfaction of knowing that we're bringing love and joy to people, you know?

As a car buff, what do you think of hybrid cars?
Hybrids? What's a hybrid?

New cars that electricity and gas instead of the old-fashioned big engines.
I'm not really familiar with that.

There's another album that came out this year called "Lucky Old Sun," by a guy named Kenny Chesney, did you know that?

I mentioned to a couple people that I'd be talking to you and their immediate response was, "Wow, 'God Only Knows' is like my favorite song ever!" What do you think it is about that song that still resonates so strongly with so many people?
Well I think it just shows people how much a guy loves a girl, you know?

That song's a well-established classic, but do you have any that you've written that you feel are just as good but not as renowned?
Well that's my masterpiece ballad right there.

Do you have favorite instrument to play besides piano?

I love the slide whistle on "Smile," it brings me a certain joy every time I hear it.

But besides piano you like bass?
Yeah. I try to play bass on "Barbara Ann" and "Surfin' USA."

Do you still play piano everyday?

And what do you play?
I play songs.

What songs?
All songs. Different songs.

When you write songs, do you specifically sit down to write or is it that you're just sitting at the piano and it'll come to you?
That's how it usually works for me. I'll be sitting there. And an idea will come to me. And I'll do it.

So you don't have writing sessions, really? It just happens naturally.

(More after the jump.)

What about lyrics? Do you think that writing music and writing lyrics are two separate things that are best kept apart?
Well what happens is when I write a lyric, I have Scott Bennett write the lyric for me.

Do you try to impart something that you want to get across?
No, I let him do it on his own. I always trust the lyrical content.

The new album was commissioned by a group in the U.K. Do you sense any difference between U.K. fans and American fans?
Well the audiences in the U.K. like me more than in America.

And it seems like it's been that way going back to the beginning of your career, would you agree?
That's right, yes.

What do you attribute that to? Do you think it's maybe because your music offers some sort of romantic vision of America that isn't present in other music?
I can't answer that question. I don't know.

Speaking of British fans, perhaps your most famous British fan is Sir Paul McCartney.

You have a very mutual admiration for each other.
That's right, yes.

Do you like to play his songs ever when you're just sitting there at the piano?
No. I don't really play his songs a lot. I play Phil Spector songs a lot.

We'll get to him in a moment, but it seems like you and Paul, that's a collaboration made in heaven. Think it will ever happen?
No. If it happens, it does. I don't think it's going to happen.

Back to Phil Spector, I know he's long been a hero of yours. You've said before that you continuously strive to make records as good as his. Still working towards that goal?
Well I'm always trying to emulate him or surpass him, which I sadly say I will never surpass him. But I keep trying.

You two changed the way people thought about how and what they could do on a record. What in particular was so inspiring about his work?
"You've Lost That Loving Feeling" and "River Deep Mountain High."

Those are your landmarks?

What do you do when you're not writing or playing? How do you relax?
What I do is I go to a park. And I walk in a park for like five miles a day.

Good exercise.
Yes, it's good for you.

It must be nice to do that in the California sun.

Do you go by yourself?
I go by myself, yes.

Is it theraputic at all?
Very theraputic.

Do you ever get uncomfortable knowing that so many details of your personal life are so widely known to so many people? Or is it like what you said earlier, just a part of being a celebrity.
That's right. Yes, that's right.

On this current tour, you're playing the new album in its entirety, right?
Yes, we are.

And what else can people expect to hear?
Some Beach Boy classics.

There's a lot to choose from in there, of course.
I know!

It must be fulfilling to play the new songs that you've just written. Does it ever get old to play the old ones? Like you're going through the motions or does it still feel fresh?
It still feels fresh to me. I love the old stuff. "California Girls," you know?

The songs you wrote, the style shifted so dramatically in such a short timespan back in the '60s. How did that happen?
I can't answer that question, I'm sorry. Thanks for the interview, goodbye.

By David Malitz |  November 17, 2008; 8:25 AM ET Brian Wilson , Interviews
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Possibly the most painful interview i've ever read. On the one hand, i love him and he can do no wrong. On the other hand, you must've replayed the conversation (or lack-there-of) over in your mind many times before you wrote this.

Posted by: bweisholtz | November 17, 2008 9:09 AM

I like the abrupt ending. I'm amazed you kept the interviewing going as long as you did. I can't imagine you had that many questions prepared before the call.

Posted by: DanCorbin | November 17, 2008 10:25 AM

Every time I hear a Brian Wilson song or hear him talk, I'm filled with a combination of tremendous sadness and joy. He's a musical genius trapped in a mind filled with despair and confusion. While it hurts to hear him talk or read transcripts like this, I'm glad he's still out there making music and peforming.

Posted by: rlocker | November 17, 2008 1:20 PM

its a good thing the man communicates through amazing music.

this made me awkward just reading it, god knows how professional you must be to have gotten through that whole thing and not started to laugh or just give up!

Posted by: NewB45 | November 17, 2008 2:05 PM

He has always expressed himself through his music so no surprise he's uncomfortable doing interviews ... he hears what he needs to hear in his head. Check out the Beach Boys boxed set with the extra CD featuring outtakes and behind the scenes sound from their early sessions ... he was like 22 or 23 clearly explaining to all these older session musicians the exact sounds he was looking for, even humming some tunes to them that turned out to be famous riffs now, like the string riff in California Girls and some of the famous sounds in Good Vibrations. Very cool to hear.

Posted by: jokeka | November 17, 2008 2:12 PM

I didn;t even blink twice when I read that interview.

Brian Wilson is a genius who, like many geniuses, is also mentally-ill. He is taking several medicines now to restore the Serotonin and Norepinephrine in his brain. He is not as crippled with fear worry, and terror as he was in the sixties, but one is never completely "cured" of mental illness.

The harmonies in his Smile song "The Child is the Father of The Man", just that one song, MORE than cancels out his neuropsychiatric problem.

Brian Wilson's mental illness doesn't make me loose respect for him, it makes me GAIN respect for mentally-ill people.

-- faye kane, homeless brain
See more of my smartmouth opinions at

Posted by: FayeKane_HomelessSmartypants | November 17, 2008 4:27 PM

I saw Brian Saturday night in Minneapolis. It was a great show. Brian's voice was the best I've heard him since he's been touring on his own and of course the band was fantastic. In my Room blew me away. The new album is better live than on CD, and the audience seemed to really appreciate it. For those of you going tomorrow night, you're in for a real treat.

Posted by: raheaberlin | November 17, 2008 4:50 PM

I saw him live a few years ago.

It was as painful as reading this interview.

There was no way I'd have missed the opportunity to see him at least once, but man, I felt dirty afterward.


Posted by: goaway4 | November 17, 2008 5:59 PM


Posted by: Hoodrat | November 18, 2008 10:35 AM

I went to the show last night. This was the second time I've seen Brian Wilson play an entire album. The first was the Pet Sounds anniversary show, which was absolutely fantastic. I hadn't heard any of Lucky Old Sun before last night, but it was a great show. It's such a treat to watch an incredible musician play his masterpieces as he imagined them.

Also, the video projection for Lucky Old Sun was incredible. I wish they would sell it on dvd as an animated short.

Posted by: aesully | November 19, 2008 4:15 PM

If I was Brian, I'd be careful of what I said too! People like him, Dylan, everyone else that's famous like that has everything they say blown up to a thousand times it's original size. It's certainly a threat to one's mental health just to be that famous. Even knowing that, I read what he said in response to the question about a possible collaboration with Sir Paul... and I thought "Wow... what people could make of that...", when actually what he said was... nothing. But when Brian speaks, even nothing is something. It must be great in many ways to be Brian, but I don't envy that particular feature about the life he leads.

Posted by: fistofate | November 19, 2008 4:37 PM

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