Different Kinds of Trips: Brian Wilson Reflects on 'Pet Sounds' 50 Years Later
Wilson revisits his masterpiece on its 50th anniversary and gives some insight into his recent biopic and long-awaited autobiography.
Illustration by Dessie Jackson
The summer of 2001 was an interesting time to live and listen to music in New York City. In the pre-9/11 NYC music scene, excitement surrounding local bands like Interpol and The Strokes was reaching a fevered international pitch, while Jay Z's The Blueprint would come to command the conversation in a matter of months. I dug through it all, a wide-eyed rising college junior embarking on a newspaper internship, navigating both my first summer in the city and the requisite existential free fall of wanting to know my place in the world, but not knowing how to find it. While I was looking inwards and elsewhere, a certain Beach Boy was embarking on a powerful second act in his career.
Up to that point, my familiarity with The Beach Boys was limited to a synch in Look Who’s Talking; I'd never been to California, and thought they were some hokey, uncool oldies band that people’s parents liked. Then, minutes before boarding a flight to Chicago to work out my displaced angst with a college pal, I discovered Pet Sounds.
I popped the CD—purchased on a whim at HMV—in my Discman to hear what the fuss was about. Instantly, I was mesmerized. The harmonies, the melodies, the songs about love, all hit me unlike any album up to that point. Amidst my early 20s crisis of confidence, I felt a kinship to Wilson, who wrote the Beach Boys' defining album—his tenth—when he was 23.
Songs like “That’s Not Me,” "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," and "I Know There's an Answer" were the devastating answers to singles “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” and “God Only Knows,” a song Wilson proudly says is the “First to include God in the title.”
Six weeks later, I found myself standing in a blocks-long line with my then-girlfriend for a shot at meeting the man himself, who was then touring with Paul Simon, at a Tower Records (RIP) appearance on the Upper West Side. Needless to say, I was beyond excited. My girl, meanwhile, thought I was a little nuts for wanting to wait an hour to have .03 seconds with the man who was speaking to me through his music at that time. We made our way up town to Lincoln Center, our passive-aggressive arguments gradually shifting into active aggression. Fed up with my overzealous commitment to the task at hand (and to be fair, likely other things), she presented me with a mid-queue ultimatum: We either leave, or I could go fuck myself. I stayed in line, albeit devastated.
This suddenly-single schmuck waited another 15 minutes for my miliseconds face-to-face with the Beach Boys maestro. With a live version of Pet Sounds blaring through my half-eaten headphones, I thanked him for making an album that was showing me the way through this tumultuous period of my life. I got a polite, confused nod from the man, a signature, and that was that.
Fifty years after Pet Sounds’ release, its power hasn’t changed. The beauty of that record remains as poignant and impactful as it was in 1966. An album that was initially dismissed by fans and critics alike is now considered one of the best and most influential records of all time, turning the Beach Boys from happy-go-lucky dudes who embodied the rah-rah cheesy spirit of the early 1960s into an archetype of the psychedelic, experimental capital-S Sixties.
Listen closely and Pet Sounds is everywhere: It's still getting people through the depths of their specific heartache and existential turmoil; it's still inspiring kids to pick up instruments and turn out a new generation of great new albums.
Today, Brian Wilson remains as famously tightlipped and soft-spoken as he was back during our 2001 encounter. Speaking by phone from his LA home on the eve of the album’s 50th anniversary—whose remastered collector's edition is out today—Wilson reflects on his masterpiece, gives some insight into his recent biopic Love & Mercy, and offers some details about his long awaited autobiography.
NOISEY: How are the shows going so far with Pet Sounds?
Brian Wilson: Great! The audience like us and that album very much.
What’s the biggest difference going abroad and playing the album at this point in your career?
My band are experts. They’re the greatest band I’ve ever worked with. They’re fantastic on stage. When we do Pet Sounds, it sounds exactly like the record! It’s not that easy, and it’s not that difficult either. I’ve been playing with them for 18 years.
What are these shows like set-wise? Is it just Pet Sounds or an assorted collection of songs from over the years with that album spliced in?
We’re doing the Pet Sounds album and 25 to 30 Beach Boys classics. It’s always fun playing those songs, and feels great. Fans don’t go crazy, but they’re applauding a lot. “God Only Knows” gets a standing ovation. The audience just loves Pet Sounds. The set is about 90 minutes to two hours.
With the 50th anniversary edition of Pet Sounds coming out, there’s a lot of material that hasn’t been unearthed before. Did you have any part in revisiting those sessions and cultivating the collection?
I didn’t have a part in the boxed set. I listened to it after and I approved it though.
What was it like listening to those outtakes and sessions all these years later?
It brought back a lot of memories. “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and “Sloop John B”—I love those songs, and they’re my favorite songs. Doing those songs again is great.
When hearing the extra material, did the thought ever pop in your head that maybe you should have included one of those takes on the original song?
Not at all.
Looking back at 50 years of Pet Sounds, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Love and harmony. Those are both very important. It’s a record that made me very proud. Even the outtakes were very, very good. I always get excited when something new gets uncovered from that time. I can’t explain, but hearing that again is always so cool.
You have another solo Hollywood Bowl coming up in July on this tour. What’s the biggest difference between performing these songs with your solo band versus with the Beach Boys, as you did at the Bowl back in 2012?
I don’t want to talk about that. But the Hollywood Bowl, I love that place. It’s a great place to play.
On your last record, you collaborated with a slew of musicians of a much younger generation. What was it like working with them and knowing that you and this album in particular influenced so many musicians?
It was quite an event. They’re all great singers. Zooey Deschanel and Matt [M. Ward], there’s nothing else to say except they’re just great! They’ve got that youth and beauty.
Last year, Brian Fest at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood paid tribute to all of your work with the Beach Boys and beyond. What was it like performing with the likes of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Brandon Flowers and Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast, almost all who weren’t alive when you wrote your classic songs?
It was quite an event. I was very proud of them and the songs. I’m so glad that my songs still mean something to the kids. I love it!
Are you working on any new material right now, or a follow up to No Pier Pressure?
I haven’t been working for a couple of years now, but I’m ready to start writing again. We’re going to do another album in October or November sometime. Definitely before the end of the year. I think a lot about music, but I haven’t written songs yet. I do a lot of thinking though, and I listen to a lot of music on the radio.
What are you listening to these days?
I have no favorites, but I like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and I think they’re great. I need to look into the new Stones outtakes too.
So basically the classics.
With 88 shows this year, and you turning 74 in a month, doesn’t keeping such a rigorous schedule become tiring?
It becomes an event. But I love playing and hearing the audience’s reaction to our music. The reactions to our stuff and Pet Sounds is always getting better. I prefer these days playing concerts with no opening act.
Well, we’re getting better at playing it, and the audience are getting better at clapping.
You also have a book coming out later this year.
Yep, we just got it finished. It’s very factual, and you’ll like it very much. There’s a bunch of new stories in there.
Was it hard writing the book and revisiting some of those memories from the past, good and bad?
Some of it was difficult and brought back some really bad memories, but it also brought back good memories. For the bad memories, I got through it and got it together. But the bad times were hard.
Did you play a big part in assisting with the recent Love & Mercy biopic?
Not really, but I watched it a bunch of times and I loved it.
How different is the upcoming book from the movie?
Much different. They’re different kinds of trips.
Daniel Kohn has surfed one more time than Brian Wilson. Follow him on Twitter.