The musical great discusses his new biopic and new album (in a rather brief interview)
You know you’re having a strange day when you’re tasked with helping to jump-start a black Cadillac Escalade limo that’s ferrying a living legend.
I’m standing outside the stage entrance of World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, waiting for the emergence of Brian Wilson – the musical mastermind of the Beach Boys and the creator of some of the most enduring songs of all time, including “God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls.” Wilson just finished a rousing performance at the 15th annual NON-COMMvention, receiving a standing ovation from more than 1,000 music industry professionals and fans attending the show.
Surrounded by a group of burly looking men holding stacks of Beach Boys records for autographs, I’m actually on a mission to track down Wilson’s road manager and confirm my face-to-face interview with the singer at the Philadelphia International Airport two days from now. Instead, I move towards the SUV that’s sitting completely dead on 31st Street, helping the limo driver to open the hood and examine the battery.
A passing driver stops his Honda Accord, popping his own hood and grabbing his jumper cables. “I’m not touching those cables,” the Honda driver tells me. “The last time I tried to jump a car, I set myself on fire.” Having jumped far too many batteries in my life, I grab the cables, attach them to the terminals and the Escalade springs to life.
Less than a minute later, a frail-looking Wilson comes out the door, members of his current backing band holding his arm as he gingerly walks to and climbs in the car. I jump to find Wilson’s manager before the caravan drives off, securing his phone number and confirming our interview.
For the next two days, I immerse myself in the history of Wilson and the Beach Boys. I watch as many documentaries I can. I read as many interviews as possible (leaving me slightly disheartened as almost every writer universally discusses how difficult Wilson is to interview). And I listen to one of my favorite albums of all time – Pet Sounds – on repeat.
I’m also interested to learn more about the film Love & Mercy – a biopic of the life and times of Wilson and the Beach Boys – debuting nationally this month. Featuring an all-star cast, Love & Mercy includes Paul Dano playing the young Wilson in 1965 as he works on his musical masterpiece, Pet Sounds, then flashing forward to the ’80s incarnation of Wilson (played by John Cusack) as he deals with a host of mental issues and drug addiction. The later scenes also include Paul Giamatti portraying Eugene Landy (better known as “Dr. Feelgood”) – the man who kept Wilson as a virtual prisoner for nearly a decade through a boatload of psychotropic medication and brainwashing.
Besides the movie, I’m also curious to learn more about Wilson’s brand-new album – the April release, No Pier Pressure. The release marks his 11th solo album and features up-and-coming musicians like country star Kacey Musgraves, along with current and former Beach Boy members Al Jardine, David Marks and Blondie Chaplin.
I come up with a list of more than three-dozen questions I’m prepared to ask. Is he still plagued by the voices he’s heard inside his head since he was 25? Who’s his favorite musician he’s ever worked with in the studio? With so many love songs to his name, what’s the most romantic thing he’s ever done for someone?
On Sunday, I catch the early-morning Amtrak train from the Lancaster Train Station, a little nervous to speak to one of my musical idols. I decide to send a message to Wilson’s manager as I approach Philadelphia to coordinate our meeting, only to receive a text telling me they switched flights to Newark, NJ, and the interview would have to be over the phone. (Ironically, I receive the message just as the train passes The Mann Center – the same venue Wilson performs at this month – and as an older woman in front of me discusses how she’s looking to buy a new Speedo for her vacation at the New Jersey beaches.)
Unable to catch a train back to Lancaster in time to do the interview, I decide to look for the next best place to have a quiet phone conversation with Wilson. Next thing you know, I’m in the dusty basement of Repo Records on South Street, surrounded by thousands of $1 vinyl albums (including a few Beach Boys classics I later discover). I take a seat on some milk crates, pull out my note pad, hold my recorder up to my cell phone and wait for the call.
Michael Yoder: Brian, how are you?
Brian Wilson: Hi, Michael. I’m good.
MY: You getting ready to get on the plane to head back to California?
BW: Well, we’re going to Chicago first. We’re going to fly to Chicago, and then we’re going to go home.
MY: Are you doing a show in Chicago?
BW: No. We’re going to be doing some screenings of the movie.
MY: Oh, really? Nice. Are any of the actors from the movie going to be there?
BW: Yeah, John Cusack is going to be there.
MY: When production for the movie was first starting, did John ever approach you to talk and get your opinions on how he should portray you?
BW: Yeah, he hung out with me for a week, and he picked up on my mannerisms. And he did a really good job with them in the movie.
MY: What kind of advice did you give him?
BW: I didn’t. He just picked up on it.
MY: Do you think a good actor is able to pick up on things without asking questions?
“[John Cusack] hung out with me for a week, and he picked up on my mannerisms.
And he did a really good job with them in the movie.”
MY: Did John stay at your house for that week?
MY: Did you happen to take him to any of your old stomping grounds in Los Angeles in the ’60s and ’70s to give him a sense of what the city means to you?
BW: Yeah, I did. I drove him around L.A. Yeah.
MY: Do you have a favorite place in L.A. or a place that brings back the most memories from that era?
BW: Well, the beach.
MY: Any beach in particular?
BW: No, just the beach.
MY: I saw an interview you did that you still remember the first time your parents took you to the beach and you put your feet in the ocean.
BW: It was quite a thrill to see the beach, yeah.
MY: But you weren’t allowed to swim that day?
MY: Do you swim in the ocean now?
BW: No, I haven’t been in the ocean for 10 years – 10 or 12 years.
MY: Any reason for that?
BW: I just got tired of it, you know?
MY: Is it because you were at the ocean so often and saw it enough over the years that you didn’t need to see it again?
BW: Right, exactly.
MY: Are you the type of person that prefers to live in the moment instead of looking into the past?
BW: No, I live for the moment.
MY: You’ve seen Love & Mercy a couple times. How accurate would you say your portrayal is depicted and the events that were happening around you at that time?
BW: Very accurate. Very, very accurate.
MY: Was there a moment in the movie that was so accurate that it was difficult for you to watch or that you couldn’t believe you were seeing it on the screen?
BW: Well, the part where Dr. Landy was in my life – that part depressed me very much. That was the roughest part.
MY: What were you thinking when you saw some of those scenes between John Cusack and Paul Giamatti?
BW: I was thinking about how rough it was to be with the guy.
MY: What was it about Dr. Landy’s personality that he was able to be around you for so long?
BW: Well, he had control, and he had me overmedicated. And he wouldn’t let me talk to my family.
MY: At that time, did you ask him why he wouldn’t let you talk to your family?
BW: No, I didn’t.
MY: Was that from the medication?
BW: Uh, I don’t know. I don’t know.
MY: I wanted to ask you about your new album, No Pier Pressure. With the allusion to the ocean in the word “pier,” but also “peer pressure” in general, how much has peer pressure influenced your life?
BW: Well, it took us a year to make it, and we used a lot of guest artists on it. And they all did fantastic.
MY: But the title No Pier Pressure – is that an reference to your own peer pressure you’ve experienced in your life with the people you’ve been around?
BW: I can’t answer that question. I’m sorry.
MY: Were you familiar before with the artists you collaborated with on the album – people like Nate Reuss of fun. and Kacey Musgraves?
BW: That’s right, yeah.
MY: What was it like going into the studio with some of the younger musicians like Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward?
BW: It was quite a trip. They learn real fast, you know? They’re real fast learners and learned the songs really fast.
MY: The song you worked on with them – “On the Island” – how long were you in the studio?
BW: A couple days. Each one got a couple of days.
MY: Originally when you came up for the concept for No Pier Pressure, did you intend it to be a project to record with the members of the Beach Boys, or did you want to go in a different direction and work with other musicians?
BW: Yeah, exactly.
MY: What was it like to be able to bring in some of the old members of the Beach Boys for the album – people like Blondie Chaplin and Al Jardine?
BW: Al Jardine and Blondie are both great singers, and it was a pleasure to work with them.
MY: What is it about Blondie that makes him so special for you?
BW: Well, I like his voice, you know? I think he has a cool voice.
MY: The last song on the album is called “The Last Song,” and it includes the lyric, “There’s never enough time for the ones that you know.” What was the concept behind that song?
BW: Well, we wanted to make a song about the end of a relationship. So we ended up the album with the end of a relationship and the end of the album.
MY: If “The Last Song” happened to be the last song you were ever to record, would you be happy with the result?
BW: Yeah, I would. Hey, listen. I’ve got to go. Thanks a lot for the interview.
Love & Mercy debuts nationwide on June 5. And Wilson performs at The Mann Center in Philadelphia, along with opener, Rodriguez, on June 29. 6 p.m. doors/7:30 p.m. show. $49.50-$79.50. All ages. More info here.