“Rubber Soul inspired Pet Sounds, which inspired Sgt. Pepper’s and that inspired me to make Smile,” Brian Wilson tells me, recalling his 1960s game of one-upmanship with the Beach Boys’ so-called rivals The Beatles.
“It wasn’t really a rivalry, though. I was jealous!” Wilson says with a hearty laugh. “It was really just mutual inspiration, I think. I would get to hear their records before they came out and I was totally blown away by Rubber Soul. And Sgt. Pepper’s? I was totally blown away by that. But it was inspirational, too. Then I did “Good Vibrations” and Smile and it was exciting. I got into it and really produced my head off.”
Wilson, 72, is still going strong, and his eleventh solo studio album, No Pier Pressure, featuring former Beach Boys bandmates Al Jardine, David Marks, and Blondie Chaplin, as well as a host of younger artists, including Kacey Musgraves, Fun.’s Nate Ruess, She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, Peter Hollens, and Capital Cities’ Sebu Simonian, will be released Tuesday. While he originally intended it to be a follow up to the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary release That’s Why God Made Radio from 2012, he changed course.
“I was going to do one with the Beach Boys, but I changed my mind and decided to do a solo album,” Wilson says. “Besides, Al and David and Blondie and all the younger artists really did it for me in the studio, so I didn’t miss the guys. And the band we used—Jim Keltner on drums and Don Was on bass, and about twelve really great musicians—were really good.”
“They don’t remind me of the old days with the Wrecking Crew,” Wilson says, referring to the fabled group of Los Angeles session musicians that he and many of his contemporaries used, who were recently the subject of the excellent documentary bearing their name. “But we recorded in the same studio we used to use back then, Ocean Way. It’s not really comfortable for me, but it’s a very productive place. We take our time.”
Despite the familiar surroundings, Wilson’s advanced age has naturally affected his recording process. “We sure don't go as fast as we did in the '60s,” Wilson elaborates with a chuckle. But the man that NME named the 8th greatest music producer of all-time is also enamored with the tools that are at his disposal in the studio nowadays.
“We had like 72 tracks to work with, plus computers and Pro Tools,” Wilson explains of the production methods used in the making of No Pier Pressure. “We can cut and paste things and go in and pitch correct something with the computer if the note is flat. I wish we had that in the 60s! It was awesome.”
Even amongst legendary contemporaries like Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan who continue to aggressively tour and turn out new albums, Wilson remains one of popular music’s most revered figures. As a songwriter, producer, arranger, and performer of some of the most cherished tunes in pop music history, who began his career as a teenaged founding member of The Beach Boys, Wilson remains active. He challenged himself with completing the Beach Boys’ “lost” 1966 album Smile as a solo artist in 2004 and then again with the band in 2011 to breathless reviews.
It’s the stuff of legend, and fittingly his storied—and often troubled—life is now the subject of a film biopic, Love & Mercy, that hits theaters in June. The film stars Paul Dano and John Cusack, each portraying Wilson at different stages of his life.
So what did the painfully shy Wilson, who attended the SXSW premiere of Love & Mercy, think of the film?
“It was a thrill for me,” Wilson says, clearly proud to be associated with the movie. “They covered my whole life and I think it portrayed it very well. The parts of my life when I was young and producing records with the Beach Boys brought back a lot of good memories. Paul Dano was really good. And John Cusack portrayed my sense of humor really well. But the later parts, where I took drugs, were hard to watch. It brought back a lot of scary memories. That was kind of rough for me. That was a very scary experience. But it was very factual, actually. Very factual.”
For now, though, Wilson is excited to take his venerable catalog and No Pier Pressure on the road. Working with a raft of young artists was fun and invigorating for Wilson, who freely admits he doesn’t follow the current pop landscape.
“I don’t really listen to today’s music, I listen to oldies,” Wilson says. “But we'd heard everyone we asked to be on the album on the radio and we called them up and had them come to the studio one by one. Kacey Musgraves sang a song called ‘Guess You Had to Be There’ and Nate Ruess sang on ‘Saturday Night.’ We wanted a bit more of a modern sound and Nate Ruess especially was great to work with. But I really like ‘On the Island’ by Zooey Deschanel and ‘Sail Away,’ sung by Blondie Chaplin. Those two are my favorites.”
As for Wilson’s legendarily demanding nature in the studio, it doesn’t sound as though he cut any of the young artists on No Pier Pressure any slack.
“We had to work at it really a lot, because I'm a perfectionist,” Wilson admits, flatly. “I don't know if I'm tough. I just make sure that they get their vocals cool. I hand them off chord sheets to sing to, and then we start doing practice takes. As soon as it's all done in practice, then we start going for blood!”