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Another Day: Peering into the Creative Genius of Brian Wilson

November 1, 2008
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How does one of the most highly regarded pop musicians in the history of the recorded song still manage a successful career some 46 years after his first single scaled the charts?

“By being inspired to want to make someone happy,” Brian Wilson responds in a matter-of-fact tone.

Wilson is a rejuvenated, roadready musician with energy to burn when EQ interviews him on a sunny L.A. day. Clearly, this wasn’t always the case. The legendary figure— best known for his contributions to the Beach Boys during their peak years, writing, producing, singing, and playing bass on masterpieces such as “Good Vibrations,” “I Get Around,” “Surfin’ Safari,” and “California Girls”— was near mad and a total recluse for two decades. From approximately 1968 until 1988, Wilson was entrenched in a battle with drugs and a variety of mental illnesses. An infamous ’70s Rolling Stone cover story depicted an overweight Wilson wrapped in a multicolored terrycloth robe, wandering the halls of a local allnight pharmacy, and rumors of Wilson being diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated for a drug-induced stroke saturated the media. It appeared Wilson was destined to become just another casualty of the rock-and-roll lifestyle—not at all unlike Pink Floyd’s founder, the late Syd Barrett.

With the help of family, friends, and more than a few therapists, Wilson eventually reclaimed his mind and his music, re-entering the world as a solo artist with 1988’s BrianWilson. A series of albums of varying quality and commercial success appeared between 1990 and 2004, culminating in Wilson’s full embrace of the album that almost never was—SMiLE. Assisted by pop provocateurs the Wondermints, wife Melinda, and longtime engineer Mark Linett, Wilson tackled the unfinished SMiLE project—an album that was conceived 37 years earlier, and was considered a catalyst in Wilson’s ensuing mental breakdown. The resulting release was a tremendous success, hitting the Billboard charts at #13, garnering Wilson his first Grammy, and proving to the world that he still had the goods to create the glistening pop music found therein.

It’s four years later and Wilson has returned with That Lucky Old Sun, a full-length homage to all things Los Angeles. Back in the Wilson camp is long-time collaborator Van Dyke Parks (the man responsible for the entirety of SMiLE’s lyrics), engineer Linett, and Wilson’s faithful 11-piece backing band, including multi-instrumentalist/coproducer Scott Bennett and the Wondermints’ Darian Sahanaja. Emboldened by SMiLE’s rapturous universal welcome and several successful tours—and surrounded by what amounts to a loving family of familiar musicians, orchestral arrangers, producers and engineers— the 65-year-old Wilson has created what is arguably his best album since Pet Sounds. With songs such as “Oxygen” and “Midnight’s Another Day,” Wilson recaptures the magic of Surf’s Up and Pet Sounds with ambitious sonic experimentation. And tracks like “Good Kind of Love” and “Going Home” find Wilson singing with a confidence and clarity not evident since his youth, turning out the kind of sun ’n’ fun-loving ditties that made him a household name in the first place. That Lucky Old Sun even references the gorgeous lost Beach Boy’s track, “Can’t Wait Too Long”—a classic example of Wilson’s musical prowess and vocal genius.

After the premier of That Lucky Old Sun at London’s Royal Festival Hall over a year ago, EQ decided to paint an explicit picture of how one of the world’s first and foremost musician/producers tackles the album-making process. This story isn’t about Wilson and his crew’s miking techniques, or tracing signal paths on a track-by-track basis—it’s about exploring the creative process of one of the most mysterious, misunderstood, and unmistakable artists alive.

PART I: BRIAN WILSON ON BRIAN WILSON

Known to be elusive even after his recovery, securing an interview with the former Beach Boy was challenging. But we caught up with him at Capitol Records HQ in Los Angeles for a very brief interview. It immediately became obvious that there would be no lengthy explanations. Instead, what we got was a candid look at the self-perceived simplicity of Wilson’s creative process.

What inspired you to write a concept album about L.A.?

I didn’t write the concept; I came up with “That Lucky Old Sun” theme song. The concept came from Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the lyrics for the narration about L.A.

Why did you want to cover “That Lucky Old Sun”?

I liked it. I thought it was a good African-American spiritual song to do.

The record is very upbeat. Did you feel emboldened coming off the success of SMiLE?

We were riding the crest of the SMiLE album, but we weren’t sure if it was going to be better or worse than SMiLE. Now, I think it is better.

I can see why. It is a rock and roll album that is also very orchestral. Scott Bennett said you worked out the songs at his home studio. Did you arrive with the songs fully fleshed out, or did you work them out at his studio?

I wrote the songs. Then, when I got to Scott’s studio, he and I played around with the arrangements.

Did you enjoy working in Pro Tools?

I don’t know much about working in Pro Tools, but it seems to work pretty good.

You didn’t find the process faster or slower than how you used to work?

A little slower, but it was more efficient.

What sparks a song like “Good Kind of Love” or “Oxygen”?

The chord pattern comes first, then the melody, and then the lyrics.

I’ve read that you would hear the entire production of a song in your head before you entered the studio. Did it work the same way with That Lucky Old Sun?

No. I hear it as we go.

Do you prefer the digital way of recording to the old days of analog?

Yes, because you can make pitch correction a lot better.

Are you tough on vocalists when you arrange their parts?

Yes, because I want them to be right. I want them to be good.

Is it difficult for the background vocalists to grasp your concepts?

No, not really. I go to the piano and sing and play each part for each person. Then, they record as a group. It usually takes from two to 20 takes for them to get it. It varies from song to song. I can’t remember which song took the most takes. I sing some of the bass parts on the album, too.

Scott Bennett mentioned that one of your trademarks is that the bass vocal part is very atypical.

Well, the singers get it very quickly.

There are no breaks between songs. What determined that?

My wife and Scott Bennett and Darian Sahanaja all teamed up to sequence the album. They are responsible for that.

What inspired “Oxygen”? It seems very autobiographical. . . .

It is the story of my life. I laid around and didn’t do anything and was lazy. One day, I started exercising and I started eating right, and getting better sleep at night—stuff like that.

What inspired the melody for “Oxygen”?

What inspired the melody? Nothing. I just came up with it. I usually try out ideas on a synthesizer— a Yamaha.

That and “Midnight’s Another Day” are both very frank and honest. Where did you find the strength to put those feelings in song?

I needed to express myself so I just did it.

What inspired your original stacked vocal harmonies in the Beach Boys?

Ah, a bunch of different influences. I couldn’t even mention them all to you. Bach, for sure.

What music are you listening to now?

I listen to my own stuff, the Beatles, and a station called KTRH-FM 101 in Los Angeles. I listen to “oldies but goodies” all day.

Do you have a favorite song on the album??

I think “Oxygen” is my favorite song on the album, because it is about myself. They are all about me, but that was more about me than any of the others.

PART II: SCOTT BENNETT ON THE DEMO SESSIONS FOR THAT LUCKY OLD SUN

Multi-instrumentalist/co-producer Scott Bennett played a large role in the creation of That Lucky Old Sun, sharing songwriting and production credits for recording Wilson’s initial Pro Tools sessions in a small home studio in Los Angeles. Throughout the summer of 2006, he and Wilson spent countless hours building and refining songs, as well as laying down scratch vocal tracks—many of which appear on the final version of the album.

Tell us about the genesis of That Lucky Old Sun.

This record began as a bunch of demos recorded in the bedroom of my house. Brian would call me and want to come over and record. I have a small setup based around Pro Tools LE running on an Apple G4. Besides a Kurzweil K2000, a Yamaha Motif, a PreSonus Digimax FS, a Røde NTK, a Gibson acoustic guitar, and the Yamaha HS50Ms, I pretty much have nothing. But because of my background doing commercial sessions, I could work fast, and that’s why Brian wanted to work with me. It wasn’t about gear, it was about getting stuff down fast, because Brian is real impatient. Back in the day, he could get all the guys in a room and hear the songs as they were happening, rather than using a click and some guide tracks. That’s what he was used to. Early on, he became very frustrated with recording into Pro Tools. He said, “Scott, you’ve got to be kidding me with the tediousness of this process.” But Brian was also knocked out that the tracks could sound so good in such a small space. He said, “This studio is better than Ocean Way!” For him, there was ultimately less pressure. It was just us experimenting.

Brian mentioned that he likes Antares Auto-Tune. Did you use the program a lot in the demo sessions?

There was no auto-tuning of Brian’s vocals—we only fixed a few words here and there. He was impressed that we could change things like that. Brian would typically say, “Gimme a click.” Then, he would start pounding on the Kurzweil. He would invariably dial up the Honky Tonk preset, because he likes that fat key sound. We would pound out a tune, and then add a guide vocal. Nine times out of ten, he did great vocal parts. There are a lot of final vocals on the album that came from my home studio, including “Good Kind of Love,” “Midnight’s Another Day,” and “Morning Beat.” A bunch of tracks were built out of composite vocal tracks, but that’s because Brian doesn’t have any consistency to his mic technique when he is singing. He is usually reading a lyric page, or looking away from the mic, so it can be tricky to get his vocals balanced.

One would think his technique would be better. After all, he is Brian Wilson, the vocal genius.

But in the ’60s, Brian was not a close-mic singer. They used to just gather around a mic and sing. If the bass vocal part wasn’t loud enough, they got that singer right up on the mic. Brian sang some beautiful lead vocals back in the day, but he was also an incredible vocal arranger. If he thought somebody was the right voice, he would have him sing it. Brian is like Dylan now—he won’t take ten days to get a vocal track.

Tell me more about how you two wrote songs in your studio?

I never knew what the day would bring. Brian might show up and say, “Let’s do ‘Proud Mary’ today.” We did 19 songs at my house—ten of which appear on the record. We also did “Something Tells Me I’m Into Something Good,” which didn’t make it. There were quite a few guest performers who ended up coming by. Brian would say, “This song reminds me of Carole King. I’ll call her to see if she will come over.” And the next day, Carole King would be at my door. I actually had Carole King in my apartment duetting with Brian on a song that may end up being a bonus track. Tommy Morgan—who played harmonica on Pet Sounds—came over to play on “Going Home.” Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night also sang on a couple of tracks. It was just this magical summer of us cranking stuff out. Brian was really on fire with lots of specific ideas. On “California Role,” he dictated that exact drum beat. He is a very underrated rhythmic brain. He hears drums orchestrally, so you get a lot of interesting patterns—like those rhythms in “Good Vibrations.” Because of Phil Spector’s influence Brian is way into the “big boom.”

Did he leave all the engineering to you?

Yes—though he would dictate his wishes. He would ask for more bottom out of a tom, for example. I must say that he is very aware of the vocals. These were just demos, so I would mess around with the songs later, because when Brian was here it was all about working fast. On “Mexican Girl” Brian laid down the keyboard and the vocal, and then he left. He let me stack percussion and trumpet and handclaps and guitar. He really liked it.

A snippet of an old Beach Boys’ song, “Can’t Wait Too Long,” appears on That Lucky Old Sun. That is some really beautiful, classic Brian Wilson vocal arranging.

It’s a C chord moving from a low to a high octave. The main uppermidrange part begins on the seventh, then it’s about those C chords. It’s a classic Brian sensibility of where to place the vocals. The basic harmony is a I-III-V progression, and we all move together—though Brian will experiment with people moving at different times. He tends to really be into sevenths and sixes—things that “rub” in a nice way.

What is it about Brian’s approach to creating music in the studio that you find most strange?

I think it’s the fact that cymbals annoy him. If you want that kind of highend percussive information, Brian tends to want to hear it from a tambourine or a shaker. That, and he always wants the drums to be more thuddy.

PART III: MARK LINETT ON THE MUSICAL SOUL OF BRIAN WILSON

As Brian Wilson’s right hand man, Mark Linett began working with Brian on his first solo album, Brian Wilson, which was released in 1988. He has been involved in various Beach Boys reissues, such as The Pet Sounds Sessions box set, which earned him a Grammy nomination in 1998, as well as Wilson's Smile album, for which Linett received a Grammy nomination for best engineered recording.

After working so closely with Brian Wilson on so many albums over the years, what would you say is his current perspective on the recording process?

Brian stopped worrying about the technical process when serious multitrack recording came in. Like a lot of people from that era, when it went from three to four tracks cut live in the studio to bigger track counts and layering and overdubbing, Brian stayed with the arranging and producing mode, and he left the engineering side to other people. Brian always knows what he wants to hear, but he still talks about recording in terms of tracks. He has no need or interest in knowing the intricacies of Pro Tools, and why should he? He doesn’t like looking at a computer screen all day.

So at this point, he leaves it up to you?

Brian knows about flying vocals in, and how easy that is to do. That would never have been conceived of ten years ago, much less 40. He just approaches it from the artistic standpoint. It’s more about the convenience now. We don’t have to tell him we just ran out of tracks so we have to stop and make a slave or do a punch again.

Did Brian discuss with you the overall sonic sense he wanted for That Lucky Old Sun?

Not on this one. He did that pretty extensively when we recorded SMiLE.

What exactly did Brian want to hear on SMiLE?

We conceptualized doing it the way it was recorded in the ’60s. We did multitrack, but we put everybody in the same room [Studio One] at Sunset Sound, where Brian recorded some of the original SMiLE and Pet Sounds sessions. Brian felt like that room was an integral part of that piece, and that it would be better to cut it that way, rather than try to make it sound like that after the fact with extra reverb and the like. We even cut the strings and horns live, though they were in an isolation booth.

What does Brian listen for while his band is tracking?

A good take—and any obvious blunders. Some arrangement changes were made on the floor. This is something they had already played live as a 36-minute suite of songs at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Although this music had been performed, and we actually already recorded a live version at that point, once you get in the studio, things tend to change. SMiLE and That Lucky Old Sun were both put on their legs before we went in the studio. That is why we could cut this so quick. Everyone knew their parts.

There are moments on That Lucky Old Sun that recall Pet Sounds and other classic Beach Boys’ records. Did Brian want a similar production sound?

The concept was to make the album slightly drier-sounding and more modern. Less reverb seems to be equated with a more-modern sound than the traditional Brian Wilson sound, but the finished mix sounds good.

The new album is arranged like a suite with no breaks between tracks. How did you record with that in mind?

The songs are distinct, and there aren’t any segues, per se, except for the narration. But you can split it all up pretty easily. In a couple of cases, the band played the first couple of bars of the next section. The arrangement of the pieces we already knew—how these things connected timing-wise and arrangement-wise. The whole thing was arranged in demo form close to what was ultimately recorded. Then, the players learned to record it as one piece of music. By the time it got to the studio, all the pre-work was done—which is why it only took us two days to record the basic tracks.

I spoke with [drummer] Todd Sucherman, who mentioned that Brian would offer ideas that wouldn’t seem to work in theory, but worked great in application.

That is something Brian is renowned for. One story has it that Brian was doing a session in the ’60s with 15 guys, and he dictated a chord to the players, and somebody said, “Brian, that doesn’t fit with the root.” Brian said, “When I add the vocals it will.” If you want a wonderful example of that, go to disc five of the Good Vibrations box, and listen to the backing track of “I Get Around.” Understand that when that basic track was cut nobody was singing, and Brian had the whole conception of the record with the vocals in his head. On the second “Round, round, get around, I get around” before the vamp, you’ll hear a chord you won’t expect, and no one plays that chord live. It is a very odd chord, but it works perfectly with the vocals. It blew my mind that he had a bunch of musicians play that track knowing in his head what it would sound like with the vocals, but without hearing it. That’s an amazing piece of work.

Is that reflected at all in the way Brian works now?

Yes, you get that sense. If Brian is doing his own backgrounds—as on the demos—he will build up a vocal stack equivalent to what he would do with his current band, or like he did with the Beach Boys. It’s like he’s a tape recorder, and you are just playing it back. Brian will lay down the first part, double and triple it, and then do the second part the same way. He will have the harmony structure in his head, and he will simply nail the parts. If others are doing the backgrounds, he directs each person—he has it all figured it out.

How does Brian like to record his vocals?

It’s usually just him and me. We’ll do a couple of takes, and once we get a take we think is pretty much there, we might do a little comping, and then go back and check different lines in different verses. I don’t really get too many comments from him about the sound of his voice. We’ve used a variety of mics over the years. For this, it was pretty much a Neumann M49—though I’ve used a U67 a lot. He doesn’t seem to mind which mic we use. One of the things that Chuck Britz—who did most of the recordings from the ’60s—used to talk about was that he would record Brian’s lead vocal on the equivalent of a Shure SM57. I can tell listening to the old recordings when that is happening, or when he is using an old Neumann U47, because you can hear a lot of wind blast. That didn’t concern them in those days, because anything below 50Hz was chopped off the record in mastering.

What would you say is Brian’s basic vocal tonality?

As he has aged, his voice has gotten a bit lower. When he was younger, he could hit ridiculous notes with his falsetto. He tailors his voice now toward a more mature sound. I record his vocals pretty much flat—usually through a custom Universal Audio 610 preamp. There is very limited EQ on that, so I will sometimes add low end—although I don’t like to add EQ when I record. One of the advantages of high-resolution digital recording is that you don’t have to worry so much about signal-to-noise. Back in the day, you had to be more conscious of putting something to tape because you weren’t going to be able to process it much in the end. Now, we have a lot more flexibility in terms of EQ and compression. I tend to record Brian more with compression than with EQ. I don’t want to over-EQ his vocals, because I know it will be a different sound by the time we add everything else.

How many background vocalists did Brian have you record for That Lucky Old Sun?

We set up a quad pattern—four sets of baffles together so the seven vocalists could sing facing each other on their own mic. Almost everything is doubled.

What personal changes have you seen in Brian, as far as being a recording musician, over the course of the years?

Brian has had a troubled life. But I have to say he has become so much happier and grounded and independent since I first met him. One of the biggest things was when he finished SMiLE. Everyone has been talking about this album for 40 years, obsessing about the album that never was. But Brian had also been carrying that around with him all this time, and it was a major turning point for him when he was finally able to finish that piece of music.

We mixed SMiLE in three sections. Brian is not somebody to sit around and watch digital paint dry. Darian Sahanaja was involved, and when we got each section together we would have Brian come down, play him the whole thing to get his changes, and then he would take a CD home. When we had done that the third time, I said, “Brian, that’s it. That’s SMiLE completed.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that when he realized SMiLE was finally finished, Darian and I literally saw something change in him.

It’s interesting to think of somebody like Brian who isn’t like most of us. Most of us are programmed to follow the mantra of “This too shall pass.” Most of us can get over death or a disability, and it makes sense, because it’s what we have to do to survive. But Brian isn’t able to put things aside. A disappointment like SMiLE wasn’t something of which he could say, “Okay, it didn’t work, I will go on to something else.” Brian did great work after that, but SMiLE haunted him for all those years.

So the change I’ve seen is in his level of confidence and happiness that he finally completed something that was so important to him. That was the peak of his art at that point of time. Up to that point in 1967, making and recording music was the joy of Brian’s life. SMiLE began that way, but by the end it was a horribly painful experience for him to work on, and that is why he dumped it rather than allow it to completely destroy him. And he suffered for it. It took Brian a long time to come back from that. Finishing SMiLE was a big deal for him personally. He realized this thing that had been hanging there for 40 years was now finished. He completed what he started in 1967, and now he’s moving on.

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