If Brian Wilson knows, he isn’t saying, he’s showing. Wilson’s on tour, performing what many in the rocanrol industry say will be the last live iteration of performances of Pet Sounds to ever grace the planet Earth. He’s pulled former Beach Boys front men Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin into his awesomely ornate orbit. Along with a touring band that’s been following him like a ensemble of faithful and gravitationally bound comets for the past decade, Wilson intends to demonstrate through performance where the essence of rocanrol music is permanently housed (and it ain’t in Old Blighty or Duluth, Minn.)
In a conversation that ranged from terse and opaque to impeccably humble and informative, Weekly Alibi chatted with Wilson about the past and the present, as the man himself took a break in Texas before resuming the quest to bring his magnum opus into permanent and profound alignment with the other planets in the rock universe.
Weekly Alibi: How’s it going, Brian?
Brian Wilson: Very good. We’re getting in a lot of practice on stage. We’re getting pretty good at doing Pet Sounds.
I understand you’re performing the album in its entirety, but I also noticed you’ve got Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin on board. Is that going to allow you to do some other songs that you haven’t performed regularly?
Well, me and Al and Blondie have a great working relationship, in fact Blondie’s one of the best singers I’ve ever heard.
Can concert-goers expect a live rendition of “Sail On, Sailor” (a song Chaplin made famous on the Beach Boy’s legendary 1973 return to form, Holland)?
Oh yes. We do that at every concert.
You’re considered one of the brains behind the whole entity called rocanrol music. Do you ever think about that, or are you just going about your business in a workaday fashion?
I appreciate everything good anyone ever said about me. Regarding Pet Sounds, that’s a very emotional experience for me. Very emotional.
It brings back my memories of Carl [Wilson] and Dennis[Wilson], Mike Love and Bruce [Johnston].
What was it like recording Pet Sounds, and why do you think it became such an important piece of American music?
I didn’t know what we were in for until we were done. Me and the boys, back in the studio began thinking, man this is a piece of art, it’s a great work of art.
How did that art shape what happened next in the history of popular music?
It meant a lot of great bass lines, resurgence in harmonies, interesting melodies and lyrics. It became meaningful, it meant a lot, to be harmonically, melodically and lyrically sound.
Pet Sounds marked a huge sea change in the way American music sounded, in the way rock and roll sounded in general. My parents grew up listening to you all sing about girls and cars, and suddenly there was this album, an intricate and intimate American portrait made of sounds and songwriting. How did that come about?
I had had it with the car songs and the surf songs. I thought, “I’m going to make an album that people will love.”
Why do people love Pet Sounds?
It’s honest music, but, well, the guys weren’t really into, they didn’t like the direction I was going. They wanted to do more car songs. I said, “Guys, we’ve got to grow musically.” They said okay, and we decided to go with it.
What’s your favorite song on Pet Sounds?
“God Only Knows” is the song I’m most proud of. It’s the best song I ever wrote, and I really enjoy doing it on stage. Me and Tony Asher wrote the lyrics. Well, he wrote most of the lyrics and I wrote the music. Seriously, when we got done, we were both crying, it was such a beautiful trip. I think people listened to the song and thought, “Wow, I’ve never heard anything like that before.”
How did audiences react to the enchanting but emotionally intense content of the album? Did audiences at the time understand that intimacy and intensity?
Wonder, a sense of wonder … Yeah, I think they understood. They understood the music, they understood the lyrics. The vocals, the harmonies, the instrumentation, it was a whole trip.
What influenced you to take that intense, in-studio approach to music-making?
I wanted people to realize that there was a lot of music besides surf songs. I wanted people to appreciate the new direction we were going in, especially harmonically and melodically.
From what direction did that direction emanate?
I had a lot of knowledge about harmony. I learned to bring that harmony into the studio, through the speakers, so everyone could hear it too.
Some of the compositions you’ve written for The Beach Boys were so intense that they required session musicians from the Wrecking Crew to see fruition. How did that play out?
They were pretty good about coming into the studio, ready to read my charts.
So, in effect, the studio became your instrument, right?
After we got done recording, I took the tape to my engineer and we made sure the vocals were loud, were out front, so yeah it’s like manipulating an instrument, many instruments at once.
How would you compare studio and performance practices then and now?
First of all, I think people had 50 years to hear it and make up their minds about it. Most people who come to the concerts heard the album long ago, so there’s a familiarity, for them, for us.
Do you get people, like young people who have limited experience with Pet Sounds, coming to your gigs? How does the next generation view the work?
Oh yeah. They like the vocals. They like the vocals a lot.
And with Al Jardine sitting in, you can manifest all those awesome harmonies, right?
We did practice a lot before we went on tour [this year], so yeah.
Does the work sound as fresh and beautiful now as it did then?
Oh yeah, it sounds even better. The on-stage live version sounds better than the album itself. That’s how good the band is, that’s how lucky I am.